The Biggest Problem

Quick! What’s the biggest problem in American politics today?

Answer: Money.

Now you might find it odd, with all of America’s problems, I can come up with one single word that stands out above all other problems. But my reasoning is simple: all the other problems spring from this one.

The NRA’s money has blocked expanded background checks before people can buy guns. Big money watered down banking reform in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and has hindered any and all legislation that could potentially help the majority of Americans, if it might in any way harm the finances of the super-rich.

Both parties put campaign contributors at the top of their “listen-to” lists, paying donors back with tax breaks, subsidies, and other ear-marks. Congress reps and senators spend more time wooing money than they do pass laws to help the country. No one wants to lose the lavish perks that come with lush campaigning, let alone lose an election.

I’m not naïve. I know there’s been money in politics for as long as there’s been politics, and it’s been a problem for every system. The Romans may have had a Republic, but only “citizens” were allowed to vote. Denying a voice to the slaves and former slaves (and of course women) tilted the playing field heavily towards those with money. Aristocratic, monarchical systems naturally restricted political power to those with economic power as well. The early 19th-century U.S. government had its inherently-corrupt spoils system, and the late-19th-century Grant Administration was legendary for the influence that Big Money wielded.how a bill is passed

As corporations have grown in size and sway in the 20th century, so too has the clout they’ve had in Washington. Half-hearted efforts have been made here and there to curtail the influence of the affluent, but it’s been nothing more than symbolic and has barely slowed the march of monetary power in politics.

The Citizens United case, though, raised the influence of money to an entirely new level. Campaign finance laws, however weak, mean nothing when there are no limits to corporate spending on “issues”. Equating “money” with “free speech” gives the rich Constitutional protection.

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The problem is that Congress is never going to vote to give themselves a massive pay cut, which is what meaningful campaign finance reform would amount to.

Never, that is, unless we force them to.

The only way we’re going to reduce the influence of money in American politics – and the only way we’re going to be able to solve the myriad other problems we face – is by screaming our heads off at our State and Federal representatives, and letting them know beyond any shadow of doubt that we’re not going to take it any more.

Tell them in no uncertain terms that getting Big Money out of the political system is Priority Number One. That’s it’s one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote. That we’re not going to stand still while they reap millions in legal kickbacks in return for sponsoring special interest legislation.

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Specifics? For starters, ban Congress members from taking cushy “consultant” jobs as influence-peddler – excuse me, “lobbyists” – for 10 years after leaving office. That’s one of the chief ways wealth special interests reward lawmakers who do their bidding, and it’s one of the easiest reforms to put in place.

Overturning Citizens United is something that we’ll have to leave up to the Supreme Court. Let’s hope that the existing members will either come to their senses, or else future Presidents and Congressional members will have the sense to appoint sane Justices in the future.

Down the road, government funding of all campaigning is the only answer. Have the federal government provide the same amount of campaign money to all qualified candidates. That not only will level the political playing field between rich and poor, but it will cut down on the number of annoying and counter-productive political ads and robocalls.

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The last national election saw literally billions in campaign spending, much of it on misleading, distorted, negative campaign ads. Did all that additional money get a better government? No. All it did was divide Americans even more, and make our political representatives all the more beholden to special interests.

The time is long past for meaningful campaign finance reform. Start screaming now.

Tenement Immigrants

“If one attitude can be said to characterize America’s regard for immigration over the past two-hundred years it is the belief that while immigration was a wise and prescient thing in the case of one’s parents or grandparents, it really ought to stop now.”

– Bill Bryson, Made in America

Meandering about in SoHo, we happened across a place I’d never heard of before. I knew that New York has a lot of museums, but I didn’t know a Tenement Museum was one of them.

My familiarity with the word “tenement” has been limited to what I’ve heard in MoTown songs, so we decided to stop in. I was expecting a place devoted to the history of low-income African-American housing.

The word “tenement” actually has an official definition. It’s a single home housing more than three different families, each doing their own cooking. Not that an official definition matters that much to families and children living in sub-standard, overcrowded, poverty-stricken environs.

The museum actually is devoted to the history of immigrants. Since America’s earliest days, many newcomers to the country came through New York City. Many stayed in the City as they got accustomed to their new country, made some money, and got their bearings. Many stayed for a long time. Some are still here.

In the mid-1800s, it was mostly Germans, crowding in where ever they could find room, usually in neighborhoods of other Germans, sometimes with several families living on a single floor of what once was a single-family home.

Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, different waves of immigrants from different countries followed, usually as economic prospects in other countries rose and fell. Irish, Italians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, each group taking turns supplying workers to America’s factories, throngs of foreigners flocking to their own ethnic neighborhoods, all looking for opportunity. Somewhere in there my own grandparents came over from Europe, checking in at Ellis Island before moving on.

And as long as there’s been immigration, there’s been opposition. Those already here have tried to prevent others from having the same opportunities they had. I got mine. Why should I let someone else do the same?

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And so it continues. The countries they come from and the languages they speak change, as do the places they settle and their living accommodations. But the conflict – and the selfishness – continue to plague the political discussions.

People forget that we’re all aboriginals. Every single one of us – even Native Americans – is the descendent of someone who came from somewhere else, looking for something better. Our ancestors all caused trouble for someone else who was already here.

And yet they all also brought something with them. A hope for a better life, and something to contribute towards building a better country.

It’s important to remember that as we debate and decide how to treat people coming to America today.

I Don’t Want a Big Government

I’m sometimes accused of wanting a big government. That really pisses me off.

True is, I don’t care how big the federal government is. In fact, I want it to be as small as practically possible.

I just want certain things done.

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I want the most vulnerable people in America protected and cared for. I don’t want the richest individuals and corporations to be able to take advantage of others and impose their arbitrary wills on them.

I want our children and people kept safe.

I don’t want America to fall behind in developing new ideas that can help our people and our economy. I want research that will benefit all of us.

I want America to do whatever we reasonably can to help the poor, starving, and oppressed in other countries. I want good relations with other countries as much as possible, and I want us to stand up for other countries that are our friends and need help.

I want the environment protected for future generations.

I want laws that protect our rights and privacy, and I want those laws fairly and justly enforced.

I want to know that the food that I eat and the medication that I take is safe and effective.

I want world-class highways and infrastructure that are worthy of the richest country on the planet.

I want everyone to have access to good, basic health care.

I want people who lose their jobs for no fault of their own to be supported until they can find another one.

I want our children – all of our children – to receive a good education, regardless of where they live or how much money they have.

I want people treated fairly regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, or anything else that should be irrelevant. Yes, I want people judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

I want safe workplaces, free from discrimination, where they can organize just like managers and owners can.

I want people to be able to speak freely, and worship as they please.

I want the homeless sheltered and the hungry fed.

I want our economy to run smoothly and productively for the benefit of everyone, not just the richest few.

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Yeah, I guess I want a lot. But it’s not an unreasonable list, and I don’t think it’s asking too much that the richest country on earth provide these things for its people. Other countries manage to.

If these things can be most efficiently and effectively accomplished with a bathtub-drownable-sized government, then bring it on.

The problem is, they can’t.

 

Breaking the Cycle of Criminal Minds

I have a confession to make. I’ve gotten hooked on the TV series, Criminal Minds.

I’m normally not much for crime dramas, and I wince at the thought – let alone sight – of horrific torture. And I’m under no illusions about the crime shows being realistic. FBI profilers aren’t all genius heroic-yet-subtly-flawed models, and they can’t reflexively sum up a criminal’s entire life history based on a ransom note and the shape of their r’s when they write in blood on the wall. Still, there’s a certain morbid fascination in people who delve into psychotic minds for a living. Or maybe we’re all just sickos.

But one thing that I find particularly positive about the show is that they always touch on what made the sociopathic serial murderers what they are. The sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their fathers and brothers as children. The anguish they endured as five-year-olds seeing their mothers prostituting themselves for money to buy food and drugs. The emotional damage they experienced moving from foster home to foster home as teenagers abandoned by their parents.

That part, unfortunately, is all too realistic. And those things leave scars that have very real long-term effects.

Human beings aren’t born evil. Thousands of pages have been written about the “true nature” of humans, but I remain convinced that every person has the inherent potential to do good or to do evil. One’s genetic endowment of abilities, talents, and preferences may predispose one in various directions, but environment and upbringing have huge impacts. They either reinforce the evil or nurture the good. Which wolf wins? The one you feed. And extreme abuse and neglect cause extreme mental illness.

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Children who live in and endure pain and evil every day learn evil, and grow up to continue the cycle. We as a society reap what we sow. If we allow the least and most vulnerable among us to be abused and neglected, they in turn will abuse and neglect others.

That’s why it’s so important for us to do whatever we reasonably can to help those most in need. If we don’t, we simply setting the stage for a never-ending and increasing cycle of evil.

Study after study after study supports the idea that preventative measures are much more cost-effective than remedial. Saving a couple hundred million by cutting Head Start funding today might seem like free money, but you’re going to pay 20 times that a few years down the road.

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With multitudes of serial rapists and murders among us, with children being abused and neglected at increasing rates, what has been the response from Republicans? What is their solution to the problem of the vicious circle of abuse and re-abuse? How do they propose to break the cycle?

Cut spending on the very programs that try to address the problem. It’s as if they see the problems as something that cannot be solved, cannot even be improved upon. They seem to say, “Some people are just evil. Why bother? It’s their own damn fault.”

Instead, they blame the victims and the victims of the victims. Rather than try and make things better for those in need, they just throw up their hands and build fortresses for the rich to hide behind. Gated communities that keep out the unfortunate. Sort a reverse Escape from New York. Set up islands of wealth and safety, and let anyone on the outside fend for themselves. “I got mine; to hell with everyone else.”

It’s a short-sighted, selfish, destructive response. But it saves them money in the short run.

Republicans preach “self-sufficiency” and despair of creating a culture of dependency. In the meantime, the poor simply despair.

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As if to underscore the U.S.’ abysmal attitude to the needy, the latest UNICEF report on child well-being just came out. The U.S. ranks 26th out of the 29 developed countries included.

Actually, the U.S. does pretty well, except for child material well-being, health & safety, education, behavior & risks, and housing & environment.

That leaves … well … nothing. But we beat Latvia. Whoo whoo!

It’s this very sort of neglect that leads to children growing up to have mental issues that result in criminal behavior.

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It’s time we faced up to the fact that ignoring problems or hiding from them doesn’t make them go away. The more evil we force our children – and they’re all our children, whether they grow up in our own homes or in the homes of other Americans on the other side of town – to endure, the more evil we ourselves will experience. We reap what we sow, even if that harvest doesn’t come in for a decade or more.

We need to increase our spending to help those in need, particularly children. Establish and expand programs that care for the most vulnerable. Build bridges, not walls. Let’s break the cycle of criminal minds.

Drowning in the Sequester’s Rising Waters

The sequester’s raging waters are rising.

In the weeks leading up to the sequester deadline, President Obama and others spoke ominously about the tragic effects the sequester – $85 billion worth of automatic cuts in federal government spending – would have. Eventually Obama toned down the rhetoric, realizing that the political gamesmanship was misleading.

No. The sequester hasn’t created instant devastation. It’s much worse than that.

Instead, the sequester has set in motion a cascading death-by-a-thousand-cuts waterfall that will wash through the economy for many years. And more and more Americans are beginning to feel its floodwaters rising around them.

Huffington Post writers were able to compile a list of a hundred painful sequestration stories in a matter of hours. And more stories of individuals and communities feeling the pain of the sequester are coming to light every day. Thousands of chemotherapy patients being turned away, left to die of cancer. Critical research programs being delayed or shelved. Parks and environmental programs being closed or cancelled.

The rising tide starts out slowly but is unforgiving.flood

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The worst part is that the sequester is hitting those most in need the hardest. Despite more than three years of tepid recovery, poverty in the U.S. continues to worsen. Tens of millions of Americans – many of them children – remain in the grips of economic desolation, unable to afford the bare necessities of life. Millions of workers still are unable to find jobs, or are left with no alternative but to work minimal hours at whatever menial jobs are available.

And just when these people most need help, at the very time they have no option but to turn to aid organizations for critical, life-sustaining services, those services are being eliminated.

And it’s not going to end there. Because of the way economies work, cuts in government spending have domino effects.

The wages that Hot Springs National Park employees would have received would have bought groceries at the Food City on Malvern Avenue. The money that would have gone to funding health care in Hampton Roads, Virginia, would have been spent at Jordan Fashions on King Street. The laid-off teachers in Sioux City, Iowa, would have spent most of their paychecks right there in Sioux City, maybe at the Southern Hills Mall.

The sequester washes all of that away. And the owners and employees of those less-frequented stores have less income and spend less. And they spend less. And they spend less. It goes on and on. Multiplied effects, coursing through every community, state, and region of the country. The river gathers force as more streams flow into it.

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More insidious are the long-term impacts of cutting critical programs such as Head Start, health care, and similar services for the neediest among us. The toddler in Cincinnati who would otherwise be in state-funded child care is left home while his multiple-job-working mother struggles to earn enough to feed him. Instead of learning and being cared for by professionals, he’s left without role models, supervision, or attention. Years later he joins a gang and embarks on a life of crime. At-risk babies don’t receive preventative health care when it would do the most good, and grow up to have costly, debilitating health conditions that prevent them from contributing positively to society. Meanwhile, the cost-effective treatment for those heath conditions that would have been developed never is, because funding for those research programs was eliminated.

The long-term water damage is even worse than the short-term.

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What needs to happen?

Extremist Republicans in Congress need to recognize the destructive effects of their absolute unwillingness to compromise. They need to stop catering to the demands of their ideology-obsessed billionaire keepers and compromise for the greater good. Democrats need to stand up for their values. Millions of Americans – the people who are being irreversibly harmed by the sequester – must scream loudly, rising up as a wave to beat against Republican obstructionism.

As the economy struggles to find its footing and produce a sustainable recovery, we can’t afford to yank critical support out from under society’s most vulnerable. The time to address deficits is when an economy is strong, not when it’s most fragile

No, the sequester hasn’t created an instant tsunami of devastation, and it’s not going to. But the longer we allow these cuts to remain in place, the more the rushing waters will eat away at our economy and erode our society.

It’s up to us to roll back the tide.

Prescription Filled: Getting What We Want from Big Pharma

Not long ago, I went down to my neighborhood chain drugstore to get my prescription filled.  The medicine was a common, ordinary prescription medication, but I was scared. You see, I’m one of the “uninsured”. Or, as Randites like to call it, “self-insured.” Or, as I like to call it, “screwed.”

Might as well have been standing in line with Mr. Jimmy.

The pharm tech typed into her computer, trying to divine from their system how much the prescription would set me back.

“A hundred and seventeen dollars”, she finally told me.

I blanched. “How about generic?” I asked.

“That is generic”, she answered. “And I gave you credit for our store discount, since you’re uninsured.” She almost whispered the last word, as if it were somehow dirty.

I needed the meds quickly and didn’t have time to shop around. Not that I was likely to find a better deal, even assuming I could coax other pharm techs to check prices for me. I steeled myself and ponied up, trying not to think of the fact that this was more than half of what I brought home in a typical week. I didn’t have much choice.

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When I got home I looked up the same drug on the website of an off-shore pharmacy I’d used several times in the past. They’d always been reliable and provided quality prescriptions. The only problem was that it took three to four weeks to receive it, and I simply couldn’t afford to wait. Plus, ordering from them probably was illegal, given the bedmate relationship U.S. drug makers have with U.S. lawmakers.

The price there: $22.20, including shipping. Same drug, from a dependable company that legally obtains it from legitimate sources.

I had paid more than 5 times as much for my medication than I had to. Because I had to.

Maybe I should’ve just gotten a soda instead.

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It’s no secret that the U.S. spends far more than any other developed country on health care, and yet our health outcomes are generally worse than most of these countries.

The fact that this doesn’t cause Americans apoplexy continues to amaze me. Worse, Republicans in Congress not only aren’t flinching about U.S. health care‘s failures, they’re trying to roll back what little reform we’ve managed to pass.

Why? It’s obvious. Most Republicans in Congress are owned by the companies and people getting rich off our existing, dysfunctional system.

The reasons that U.S. health care fails so miserably is complex. Capitalism really can do many things very well, but with health care, the stars line up to produce the worst results possible. Health care is an industry with a perfect storm of market failures. Way too much gets spent on the wrong things, and far too little on the right ones. Health care is the poster child for an industry that could be vastly improved with the right kind of government involvement.

The big pharmaceutical companies are a textbook example of what’s wrong with the system. These companies develop many wonderful medications that can – and do – improve the lives of millions. The problem is, there’s a lot more money in keeping people sick but alive than there is in curing them. Chronically-ill consumers who require continuous treatment mean a long-term, steady stream of profits. A cure is just a one-shot deal.

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Look at the Big Six pharmaceutical companies – Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Merck, Abbott, Bristo-Myers Squib, and Eli Lilly. Between them, they raked in more than $2 trillion in revenues in the last ten years. That’s “trillion” with a “tr”, not “billion” with a “b”. What’s more, they netted – after tax – nearly $400 billion in profits in that time. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a 17.7% profit margin.

Why do drug makers net almost 4 times what other Fortune 500 companies do? Are they just that pillsmuch better?

Far from it. The main reason is that we as a society grant them legal monopolies (called “patents”) on the drugs they develop.

Patent systems are intended to ensure that people who spend time and money developing new products can recoup their investments and earn enough profit to reward their innovation. Unfortunately, Big Pharma is abusing patent laws – with at least tacit political approval – in order to milk every penny they can out of anyone silly enough to require their drugs for their lives and well-being.

There’s a movie called Ultraviolet where an evil drug company tries to infect everyone with a deadly disease, just so they can sell them the drug that treats it. Big Pharma doesn’t have to infect everyone. It just has to convince us with massive marketing campaigns that we have diseases that only their drugs can treat.

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Last year, J&J’s total sales were $67 billion, with a net income of almost $11 billion – a tidy 16% profit margin. But J&J’s total R&D spending was less than $8 billion. They spend $20 billion on sales, marketing, and admin.

It’s a similar story with Pfizer. Eight billion spent on R&D, with more than twice that spent on sales and admin. And almost $15 billion in net income.

Why are we paying five times as much as we should for our prescriptions again?

You can’t really blame companies for making “too much profit”, at least as long as they’re doing that legally and ethically. Setting aside the “legal” and “ethical” parts, the blame rests on us – and our political leaders – for allowing these companies to make such stratospheric margins year after year after year.

Over the past ten years, Wal-Mart had total sales of $3.5 trillion – 68% more than the Big Six combined. But Wal-Mart only netted $122 billion in profits off that, compared with Big Pharma’s $371 billion.

Sure, completely different industry and business model. And yet. What if Big Pharma’s profit margin were just half-way between its 17.7% and Wal-Mart’s 3.5%? What would that mean to us?

Even without decreasing the Drug Lords’ R&D spending a dime, you could take that 7.1% out of their massive advertising spending. Pfizer spends hundreds of millions of dollars on direct-to-consumer advertising for each of its blockbuster drugs. Are those annoying, misleading TV commercials really doing anything to improve the health of Americans?

If Big Pharma’s profit margins had been 10.6% instead of 17.7%, it would’ve saved consumers $150 billion over the last ten years.

That would buy a lot of cherry sodas.

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Obviously, unregulated “free” markets aren’t doing a very good job of providing Americans with good health care outcomes at reasonable costs. In fact, they’re doing the opposite:  Ensuring that as many Americans as possible have as many ailments as possible so that drug companies can sell them as many drugs as possible at the highest prices possible.

The profit motive isn’t working here.

So what to do about all this?

First, ban advertising of prescription drugs. Any “information benefits” are far outweighed by the cost and negative side-effects. No one hears the litanies of problems the drugs cause, only the “Ask your doctor about Prozium(tm) today!”

Second, ban any and all drug company reimbursements to physicians. No more junkets for doctors to “present papers” at pharm-sponsored “conferences” at Hawaii resorts. No more “honoraria” for physician “cooperation” in “research programs”. No more drug sales reps wining and dining every Tom, Dick, and doctor.

Finally, regulate the hell out of Big Pharma. Yes, we already do that, but not enough, and not the right way. Eliminate patent abuse and “pay for delay” schemes. Federally subsidize research into cures, not just treatments. Provide incentives for preventing disease, rather than closing the barn door after the virus has escaped. Enact laws that force drug companies to do what’s best for patients, not stockholders, and then enforce those laws vigorously.

Longer-term, single payer’s the only real answer, of course. If a Medicare-esque government agency were the only buyer of pharmaceutical products, it could dictate the prices we have to pay for the chemicals we need to live. Those prices can provide sufficient margins to fund necessary research and development, but limit the extra money thrown into drug executive bonuses and lobbying efforts to promote counter-productive profit-enhancing laws.

It’s time we stop Big Pharma from taking us to the cleaners every time we go to the drugstore.

It’s the only way we’re going to get what we need.

Banking Reform and St. Elmo’s Fire

There’s a scene from St. Elmo’s Fire where Billy (a long-haired, earring-wearing, drug-dealing Rob Lowe) looks up at a friend dangling from a balcony and says calmly, “Looks pretty out of hand.”

It reminds me of the U.S. banking industry today.

Six years after playing a pivotal role in causing the worst recession the U.S. has had since the Great Depression, our banking system continues to leave us all dangling. Yes, Congress passed the milquetoast Dodd-Frank Act in 2009 as a pro-forma hat-tilt towards reform, but that entire set of regulations was more a symbolic measure aimed at ensuring re-election rather than real reform.

As Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher pointed out Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, things are still out of hand. The largest U.S. banks are “practitioners of crony capitalism,” need to be broken up so they’re no longer too big to fail, and still threaten financial stability.

The problem isn’t just their size. U.S. banks remain too weakly regulated, and have too many incentives to act against the best interests of consumers and the country as a whole, and it’s past time we changed that.

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Fixing the U.S. banking industry, making it safe for the future, and protecting consumers isn’t difficult or complicated, and it needn’t cost us a lot in terms of efficiency. It just requires some common-sense regulation, and a modicum of political backbone.

Here’s how:

1. Re-instate Glass-Steagall in all its force and glory. We don’t want banks taking excessive risks with federally-insured deposits. Separate consumer banking from commercial banking with a depleted-uranium wall.

2.  Tie all bonuses to bank stock performance and require employees to hold for at least five years before cashing. This will prevent bank employees from using high-risk get-rich-quick schemes and then bailing when things go sour. Bonuses will still encourage good performance, but requiring employees to hold onto them will eliminate incentives to cheat. Any fraud or deception could be detected within five years.

3. Impose a progressive tax on bank scale. Tax bank assets at an increasing rate as they exceed in a way that won’t cost “smaller” banks anything, but would cost megabanks’ $5 or 10 billion a year. This will force the megabanks to downsize in the most efficient ways possible, eliminating “too big to fail” and increasing competition. The government will never have to bail out banks again, banks will be forced to take responsibility for their own risks, the playing field will be leveled, and consumers will benefit from real competition.

4. Strengthen consumer banking regulation. End the deceptive come-on tactics banks use to dupe consumers into getting in over their heads with high-rate debt. Require disclosure statements to be in 14-point Times New Roman, limited to one letter-sized page. Ban “low introductory rates”. Forbid “pre-approved subject to approval”. Set hard-and-fast limits on late fees and other devices banks use to steal from unwary consumers.

I got a personal letter from a bank the other day, informing me that I’m “pre-approved for a home equity line of credit”. Really? That’s odd, given that I don’t own a home.

5. Jail any bank officer who violates banking laws in letter or in spirit.

It’s time we demand our legislators stand up to Big Finance and enact laws to protect us from the big money power that banks wield.

Otherwise, you’re not gonna believe how out of hand it’s gonna be.