Fri11282014

Last updateMon, 27 Nov 2017 12am

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Interest rates only a mobster could love

   I have two credit card accounts and for the most part I pay them off whenever they’re due.  I would like to think I am a good risk.  I pay my bills, have very little in terms of debt, make a decent salary, and oh yes, always put some money in the bank.  
It’s the model of middle class responsibility.  
So, I was surprised when I got a letter from the Bank of America.  They decided that based on my credit history, my Visa credit limit needed to be lowered.  Since I can’t think of when I have ever charged near the amount of the new limit, let alone the old one, I wasn’t that distressed.
  But, I was annoyed.  
I am a good customer, have been for years, and while they didn’t begin the letter with “Dear Deadbeat” I can’t say I appreciated it.   
   At that point, in something of petulant huff, I decided to study my bill in more depth.     That’s when I got the big surprise.  I know credit interest rates are high. That’s one of the reasons I try to never keep a balance.  However, I had no idea how high the interest rate had gone.  
   The new rate, for any outstanding balance, which fortunately I didn’t have, was a staggering 33.89%.  I don’t think that even the Mafia charges that much for a loan, but not having any contacts in the Mob, I can only guess.  
   Apparently my experience with a credit card company isn’t all that different from what other people in our area are experiencing.  The banks are facing a sea of bad loans and this has prompted them to take a new look at their credit card accounts.  They want to limit their exposure and at the same time get as much out of their paying accounts as they possibly can.  This means lowering credit limits and upping interest rates.   However, once again, in yet another public relations disaster for the financial industry, they carried it too far.  
   When it comes to credit limits the banks want to make sure that customers don’t carry more debt than they can service.  This, after years of easy credit and letting almost anyone open an account, represents a new approach for these guys, but at least it makes sense.  
   One mechanism for determining a credit limit is past usage.  If you are always borrowing to the limit, this is a cause for concern.  Also, so are customers who pay off their accounts and don’t keep a balance.
   The credit card companies figure that extending a big limit to these customers it represents an unnecessary exposure.  To some extent, that all makes sense. However, other practices leave a bit to be desired. For instance, if you shop at stores where the customers have a high default rate, then that too is a prompt to lower your credit limit.  
   Since I make it a practice, being a good Scotsman, to shop at discount stores whenever I can, Big Lots being one of my favorites, this probably has had an effect on my account.  
   At the same time, the banks and credit card companies need cash.  They’re losing money hand over fist so they’ve turned to credit card borrowers for an additional source of revenue.  The rules on this are lax and all they have to do is increase the rates.  It’s all legal, but responsible borrowers don’t like the idea of suddenly being told that their interest rates have doubled or worse.  
   What’s more, in most cases, no one ever told them their rates were going up in the first place.
   For many, this sudden increase in interest rates is nothing more than an organized effort to gouge the consumer.  This would be bad enough, but many of these banks are still receiving billions of dollars in federal aid and it just doesn’t sit well.  
   The President even had the CEO’s of the major credit card companies in for a chat at the White House.  He made it clear, and this has strong Republican support, that he was supporting legislation to require them to notify customers before they change the terms of their credit card account.  
   If they raise interest rates or change a limit, they have to notify you ahead of time.  That’s encouraging, but unfortunately, it’s unlikely that there are going to be any caps on interest rates.  So, perhaps the best advice is to do your best to make your payments on time, and if you can, pay off the debt as much as possible.  There is no need giving these guys any more business than they already have.

You may reach David Kerr This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The GOP’s quest for new ideas

   Losing an election is always tough on a political party.  There is the sudden stab of defeat at the polls, followed by watching your opponents take on the trappings of power, and finally the recognition that you no longer are the ones making policy.  
   However, what follows that can seem even worse.  And that’s the realization that at least for the time being no one even wants to listen to your opinion.  This, rather sadly, is the state of the Republican Party at the moment.  They are still a prominent national party, still have a sizable number of congressmen, senators and governors and could very well come riding back in full force in 2012.  
   But for the moment, with the Democrats grabbing all the headlines, and setting the agenda, they’re left, mostly talking to themselves.
   This is proving to be a hard transition for the GOP to make. With the exception of a short two-year period after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 and when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the Republicans, have, since 1980 controlled either the White House or the Congress or both.  
   Now, they’re in the unfamiliar position of being on the outside looking in.  However, while that’s difficult enough, what’s worse is figuring out a way to get the public to pay attention to you.  The Democrats have President Obama.  He is in the limelight all the time.  As for the Democrats in Congress, since they have the majority they get a lot of attention as well.  As for GOP, with no national campaign to rally around, their only rallying points are their leaders in Congress, some out-of-office former legislators, and the prospective nominees for 2012.  None of this makes for compelling reading.  
   However, perhaps their biggest challenge is on the idea front.  True, with the exception of Fox television, it may be hard to get much attention at the moment, but, it’s more than that.  
   The real problem is that the party is having a tough time coming up with anything new to say.  This is going to matter more than they realize.  The GOP will have a shot at taking control of Congress in 2010.  But, at the moment, the only thing they have to offer is that they have opposed, rather uniformly, just about all of the President’s programs.  
   They may be making some good points, particularly about spending, but with the country facing some deep problems, they need to do more than crow about how they managed to cast almost all no votes on the stimulus package.  
   To someone who just lost their job, is afraid of losing their house, or worried about the state of the nation’s healthcare, that just doesn’t do it.
   Interestingly enough, at one time, it was the GOP that was claiming to have the new ideas.  The entire Republican revolution, starting with Ronald Reagan, and carrying on through the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, was based on an entirely new political agenda.  They were running against something, yes, but they were also offering up their own set of ideas.  
   These included reducing the role of government, deregulation, and greater reliance on free market solutions to national issues.  For almost three decades it was the Republicans who successfully made the argument that they were the party of ideas.    
   Now, things have shifted.  The Democrats, offering an entirely new approach to government, one that’s activist in character, are the ones claiming the high ground when it comes to new ideas.  Some people may not like their ideas, but at the moment, the other side isn’t offering much when it comes to alternatives.
    But that doesn’t mean the Republicans aren’t trying.  
There is some movement, gradual at the moment, towards reenergizing the Republican Party’s idea machine.  Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, the House Whip who engineered the GOP’s unanimous “no” vote against the stimulus, started his own idea website.  It’s not that original, it doesn’t address many of the larger issues, but at least it’s a start.  Trying to focus the Republican minority in Congress, he proposes tax relief for working families and small businesses, opposes any long term increase in spending, and supports a home buyer’s tax credit.    
    Cantor, however, isn’t alone in this endeavor.  Newt Gingrich, one of the party’s most compelling personalities, is also trying to develop a new Republican agenda.  American Solutions for Winning the Future, Gingrich’s “think tank” has written “The Platform for the American People” and it’s surprisingly comprehensive.  This is particularly true when it comes to the environment, technology, and social security.  It’s a little weak on detail, but it is a step in the right direction.
   The GOP wants to regroup, and wants to start winning elections again. And while it may be hard for them to get much coverage during what are the opening years of the Obama era, they’ll find getting it a lot easier if they have something new and creative to offer.
   You  may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Can a primary be bought?

    It’s a question that gets asked from time to time.  Is it really possible to “buy” an election?  
    There is plenty of evidence that money, whether it’s the result of good fundraising, or tapping a personal fortune, can do wonders for a candidate’s political prospects.  But can it really change the outcome of an election?  Right now, in Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, that question is being put to the test.  Terry McAuliffe, until just a few months ago, was a complete outsider to Virginia politics.  But starting just after the 2008 election he has unleashed a daunting national fundraising effort and has launched an ambitious campaign for the Democratic nomination for Governor.  Its scale, in a primary campaign, is almost unprecedented in Virginia politics.  According to the most recent financial disclosures, his fundraising prowess leaves his opponents in the dust.  During the first three months of this year McAuliffe raised a staggering $5.2 million while former Delegate Brian Moran raised $800,000 and State Senator Creigh Deeds (Deeds wasn’t allowed to raise money while the legislature was in session) $600,000.   That’s better than a five-to-one advantage over his nearest opponent.  This primary looks like it will be the ultimate test of whether or not an election can be bought.
     McAuliffe was, at least until recently, an outsider when it comes to Virginia politics.  He took almost no interest in the goings on of the Commonwealth.  He has never held elective office in Virginia, and for that matter, has never been actively involved in Virginia politics.  He has lived in Virginia for years, but his focus, with his residence in McLean, was always on the goings on of political Washington, not Richmond.  McAuliffe served as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and most notably, was a longtime friend and fundraiser for President and Mrs. Clinton.  He is also a highly successful businessman with a considerable fortune of his own.  He may not have ties in Virginia, and he has been an easy target for the label of carpetbagger, but he is also no slouch.  Even with his liabilities he is a formidable contender.
     Just what propelled McAuliffe to run for Governor still isn’t entirely clear, but it almost doesn’t matter.  He is clearly giving it everything he’s got.  However, for all the money he can bring to bear, and this includes 10 campaign offices statewide, and nearly 100 staffers, the question remains.  At this late stage in the campaign can he pull together enough Democratic support to win the primary?  Both of McAuliffe’s opponents have been traveling Virginia for years now.  They have gone to coffees, have helped local candidates for everything from Sheriff to Delegate and have gotten to know the rank and file.  In the process they have piled up lots of IOU’s.  Moran and Deeds both have been just a phone call away for Democratic chairs and campaign managers who wanted a statewide figure at an event.  And until recently, if they knew him at all, to most Democrats McAuliffe was a distant national figure.
     But it would be a mistake to consider McAuliffe as having been completely disinterested in Virginia politics.  In 2005 he played a decisive role in making sure that Tim Kaine, then in a tight race with Mark Early, got an extra $5 million from the National Party.  Make no mistake it made a big difference.  Kaine is staying neutral, but a lot of people, no matter what they think of this race, or McAuliffe, are still grateful for the help.
     The Primary is just a little over two months away and according to the most recent poll it’s still an extremely fluid election.  Brian Moran, for most of the campaign viewed as the frontrunner, has 22% of the vote.  McAuliffe has 18% and Deeds 15%.  The rest of the voters, a staggering 45% haven’t made up their minds yet.  This means it’s wide open and for McAuliffe offers some possibilities.  Because he has the ability through paid phone banking, TV ads, and sophisticated internet (borrowing on President Obama’s efforts) to reach the parties liberal base (the ones most likely to turn out in a primary) his fundraising advantage might make a big difference.
     There is also a school of thought that whoever wins will face the well funded Republican nominee former Attorney General Bob McDonnell in the fall.  McAuliffe’s almost unlimited treasury would be an advantage.  However, there are some sobering points to make in countering this argument.  McAuliffe, though personally likeable and energetic, has absolutely no experience in elective office or large scale government management.  Bob McDonnell will almost certainly make this a major campaign theme.
    However, at the moment, the contest isn’t about November.  It’s about who can motivate the Democratic Primary voters in June.  Right now, McAuliffe’s money is a definite advantage, and though it might not buy him an election, it might be enough for a primary.
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Redistricting: Nothing democratic about it!

   I’ve got news for you.  Elections for the House of Delegates, State Senate, and yes, even our members of Congress, aren’t as democratic or representative as you might think. 
   A good example is the 2007 elections for the House of Delegates and State Senate.  In the House of Delegates only 20 of the 100 seats up for election were considered truly competitive.  That meant, for all practical purposes, that when it came to the other 80 seats it didn’t matter whether the voters showed up or not.  In the State Senate, out of 40 seats, only 8 were deemed competitive.  The rest were sure things.
   While this arrangement, made possible by districts carefully drawn to guarantee a specific outcome, suits incumbents and the parties, it’s not representative politics.  The fault, sadly, lies in a time worn system that leaves drawing the district lines, both for the General Assembly and the Congress to the Legislature.
It’s been this way for years and the results haven’t been impressive.  Depending on who was in power one party or the other, most recently the Republicans, have used this tool with all the finesse of a club to reduce voter participation and guarantee that incumbents face as little opposition as possible.
   A good example was back in 1990.  The Democrats, the dominant party for years, were losing ground in the General Assembly and redistricting offered the chance to do something about it.  With control of the Assembly and a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion, that was all they needed to redraw the districts to their liking.  With a meticulous attention to detail they siphoned off friendly voters from several Republican held seats, redistricted some members out of their seats altogether, and in one case put two Republicans in the same district. 
It may sound crass, but this is standard practice in the business of gerrymandering.  Most importantly it had the desired effect.  The Republicans lost several seats in the next election.
   However, that setback was overcome by the GOP’s rise during the 1990’s and by 2001 the Republicans had a narrow margin in the General Assembly.  Now it was their turn to use redistricting to bolster their majorities.  However, this time, they had a tool the Democrats didn’t have ten years earlier:  sophisticated redistricting software.  Using precise demographic and voting data, thanks to this application, districts could be shuffled and aligned right down to the street and neighborhood level.  In other words, for the most part, the outcome of an election could be guaranteed.
   The redistricting also included Congressional districts.  Once again, the goal was to keep the number of swing districts to a minimum.  In our case, in the First, the district has been drawn with such meticulous care that a Democrat simply has no chance.  This is also the case with the seventh and the tenth districts, which are drawn to so solidly Republican that it could argued that there really isn’t any value to voting.  The same can be said for the two guaranteed Democratic seats the third and the eighth.  Only three seats could be said to be marginal or competitive. 
   However, while this brand of winner-take-all district alignment has been the norm for decades not everyone thinks the status quo is a good idea.  For the past seven years Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) has introduced a bill to create a bipartisan redistricting commission.  The structure would be simple.  A bipartisan commission with an equal number of members from each party and one independent would draw the districts.  The goal would be to keep them contiguous, representative and competitive.  Unfortunately, the bill has always gone down to defeat.  But this year, while the bill failed, it did pick up more momentum than usual. 
   The idea of bipartisan redistricting has support from each of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor.  Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran, and Terry McAuliffe, all say they’re for it.  As for the Republican candidate, Attorney General Bob McDonnell, he hasn’t said one way or the other what his position is on a bipartisan commission.
   Depending on the results of this year’s election, redistricting in 2011 could be extremely difficult.  The Senate is held by the Democrats and the House of Delegates by the Republicans.  Neither body is likely to change hands.  This sets up a potentially protracted disagreement between the two chambers that could put the new Governor in a tough position trying to sort it out.  Before it’s through it could be a painful and embarrassing mess.  At which point, those who voted against a bi-partisan commission might well wish they hadn’t.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Will the Democratic Primary be “too” civil?

Virginia Democrats haven’t had a contested nomination for Governor since 1985.  That year Jerry Baliles and Dick Davis fought it out in a convention.  Baliles went on to win the election.  The last time they had a contested primary was in 1977 when Henry Howell beat Andy Miller.  Howell was defeated by Republican John Dalton in the fall.  
This year, riding a crest of success, Virginia Democrats will be choosing between three candidates who want the Democratic nod to run for Governor.  While primaries are sometimes considered good party building tools, often giving prospective nominees a chance to organize, raise money, and test their skills on the campaign trail, they have a downside as well.  Primaries can get ugly, they are expensive, and most of all, if the campaign becomes particularly intense, there can be hurt feelings and bad blood.  Given that the primary is in June, and the election in November, that’s not a lot of time to bind up the wounds and pull the party back together.
The Republicans, though not saying so publicly, are pinning some of their hopes on a divisive Democratic primary campaign.  However, the Democratic leadership and in particular Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, and Jim Webb are actively committed to keeping the tone of the campaign civil.  “Civil” seems to be the operative word at the moment.  
Governor Kaine, in particular, now the Chairman of the National Democratic Party, wants to see a Democrat elected governor of Virginia and he doesn’t want to see this prospect dashed in a bitter intra-party contest.
Until recently the presumption was that the Democratic nomination was between two candidates, Senator Creigh Deeds of Bath and former Delegate Brian Moran.  Moran, it was generally presumed, had the edge, but Deeds, having just barely lost the race for Attorney General in 2007, was nonetheless considered a strong candidate.  He is a likable, moderate, down home Democrat.  
However, late in 2008 there was a surprise entrant.  Terry McAuliffe, a former Chairman of the Democratic Party and a close political ally of the Clintons, threw his hat into the ring.  At first, no one knew quite what to make of his decision to run for Governor.  McAuliffe’s ties to the state aren’t that strong.  He has lived in McLean for years, but for the most part is identified with political Washington.  However, he has put together an impressive campaign.  With his personal fortune and his national connections, he is by far the best funded.  His ads have already started running and he is aggressively touting ideas for economic growth and job creation.  
While generalizations are always difficult to make it appears that McAuliffe and Moran are the leading contenders and are also fighting for the same voters.  Deeds with his ties to Southwest Virginia, is strongly favored in rural Virginia, while his opponents on the other hand are focusing their efforts on the Commonwealth’s two largest urban and suburban regions, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.  
These days that’s where most of the Democratic voters live.  Moran has a long list of endorsements, from party chairs, to members of the House of Delegates and the State Senate.  This gives him a powerful edge.  McAuliffe, on the other hand, is trying to reach out directly to the party’s liberal base.  To some degree, if activity in the blogosphere, and his campaign’s energy level, the “buzz” if you will, is any measure, he is making some inroads.
Deeds, something of the odd man out in this contest is hoping that as “everyone’s second choice,” he might, just maybe, benefit from that fact in a three way contest.  With three candidates he no longer has to win a majority, he just needs to win a fraction more than the other guys.  
So far the race has been surprisingly civil.  The candidates shake hands when they at events, nod their heads when the other is speaking, and have kept their attacks surprisingly tame.  Some of this is enlightened self interest.  They all see themselves as prospective nominees and they know that a slash and burn approach could make pulling together a winning campaign in November nearly impossible.
The Democrats are working hard to have a civil campaign.  However, there is a worry in a campaign that’s so peaceful. Namely, is all this civility because of good manners or is it because none the candidates is generating all that much passion?  
 Democrats have their preferences, but the intensity of the fight isn’t like, say, the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.  The divisions just aren’t that deep.  That may be an important ingredient for a peaceful primary, but come November the party is going to need a candidate who generates a little energy.  Perhaps the Democrats would be better off if their primary isn’t too civil.  

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



 

The Possum on the Porch and other tales

   Even though I live in the suburbs I am always surprised by just how many wild creatures manage to make their lives in the scant bits of habitat that still remain.  Somehow they manage to forge an existence in between the tract housing, the asphalt driveways, and the manicured lawns of modern day suburbia.  
   Some people may consider them a nuisance, but my reaction is entirely different.  I enjoy them immensely, whether it’s their occasional, at least in our eyes, quirky behavior, or whether it’s just watching them be themselves.
   It was just before Christmas when I had my first ever interaction, up close that is, with an opossum.  Opossums, as a rule, aren’t that sociable and I can’t deny that I find them a little scary looking.  With their long snout and skinny tail they have a have something of a primeval appearance to them.  At the very least they look like they would be more at home in Australia than they are in the Northern Neck.  
   But this was an experience that changed my view of possums.  I came home from a Christmas party one evening and found an opossum sitting in the rocking chair on my front porch.  I assumed he would run off as soon as I approached, but he didn’t.  He just wouldn’t move.  This wasn’t normal animal behavior and I wondered if he might have rabies.  I called the police, who along with a remarkably cheerful animal control warden became the core of a late night possum watch.  
   It was an unusual sight – three grown men, debating at length, what this possum, sitting in a rocking chair on my front porch, was up to. The animal control warden doubted it was rabies since opossums have a body temperature which makes it hard for the virus to take hold.  He figured the opossum had been frightened, perhaps by a car, or maybe by a dog and was just scared.  
We all seemed to empathize with him and we agreed that the best thing to do was to let him spend the night in the rocking chair.  He apparently left sometime during the night.
   Then there is the rabbit.  Rabbits, as a rule, like to go out during the day.  They want to be able to easily spot predators and get away from them as quickly as possible.  At night they prefer to be tucked up safe and sound in their hutches.  
   But, not Clyde.  
   Yes, we’ve named this particular suburban critter and he is our local brown rabbit.  Clyde, unlike most rabbits prefers to roam during the night.  I guess he likes to live dangerously.  I have seen him several times around midnight and on occasion, when I have had to leave for work especially early, just before sunrise.  He is the first night owl bunny I have ever met.
   Some of the other animals in the neighborhood aren’t all that unusual.  We have a fox who like most foxes prefers as little human contact as possible. To his human neighbors he is a passing reddish brown blur.  
   However, not all foxes are quite so standoffish.  A friend of mine was a part of the elite detail that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  He recalled that during his tour there was a fox that took up residence in the ground just beyond the tomb.  The fox usually showed up around three in the morning and with rapt attention would sit and watch the men do their slow and solemn back and forth march.  The fox, which the soldiers in their straight ahead gaze could only catch out of the corner of their eyes, became a special nighttime visitor.
   Unfortunately, some of the animals that used to visit my house don’t anymore.  New development, the clear cutting of some nearby forested land, and the resulting loss of habitat have taken their toll.  Many, I think simply weren’t intended to be suburban critters.  The owl that used to drop by from time to time is a good example.  I have always heard that an owl “hoots,” but not mine.  This owl reminded me of the way my grandfather used to cough.  But, for whatever reason, he has moved on and no other owl has come to take his place.  He may have had an annoying hoot, but I still miss him.
   Animals and the suburbs don’t always mix and from time to time, whether it’s a flower bed that was there one night and gone the next morning or a tree that gets gnawed on by a beaver, they can be trying.  But I also get a lot of enjoyment out of them, whether it’s the rabbit that doesn’t know when to go to bed or the slightly demented opossum.  It’s a feeling that as homogenized as life can be in the suburbs that there is still some room for the animals that make their homes alongside ours.
 

 

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