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Miller: A thousand tiny cuts

Alex Miller

Last week while renting a car, I chanced to look at the statement of charges. The car itself was $43 for three days – not a bad price, I thought. But once all the taxes, fees and surcharges were tacked on, the figure raced up to $90.

Somewhere, somehow, I could probably have tracked down the source of that additional $47, each of which would no doubt have some explanation that made sense to someone at some time. But there was no explanation on the statement itself, which made it an excellent example of the “thousand tiny cuts” world in which we live.

The Xcel Energy bill is a good example, as is the property tax bill (if you’re lucky enough to own a home). What is all this stuff? And then there are credit cards and the banks that manage them. I’m not entirely sure what the Credit Card Reform Act is supposed to do, but leading up to its implementation we sure saw the banks hustle to tack on charges, raise the rates on interest and fees and otherwise make themselves as despicable as we always suspected them to be.

When someone tells us some factory is dumping stuff into the river we drink from, it makes sense to create something like the EPA to regulate the situation. And when it becomes clear that the free market checks-and-balances system for our financial markets is no longer working – that it is, in fact, harming people tremendously all across the country – then I’m all for another tier of protection. True, it’s another level of government bureaucrats, but a seemingly necessary one at that.

One doesn’t set a whole pizza down on the floor in a roomful of dogs expecting each to take only one slice, but that’s exactly what Congress in 1999 did when it dismantled the Depression-era protections of the Glass-Steagall Act (the resulting bill was signed by Clinton). The dizzying indiscretions of Wall Street after this and other protections were removed should serve to make passage of the new financial reform act a breeze.

But, of course, not so fast. Nowadays, we can always count on many members of Congress to side with Wall Street, but others are pushing ahead with the financial reform bill championed by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). The bill would establish more protections to end “too big too fail” bailouts, insist on more transparency – especially on “exotic instruments” such as those wacky derivatives that helped sink the market a few years ago – and get stockholder boards more involved in regulating executive compensation. In other words, it addresses all the sleazy doings of Wall Street that put us where we are today – and which are universally decried by everyone from Tea Party flag wavers to liberal latte sippers.

Of most importance to the little guy suffering those thousand tiny cuts, the bill includes creation of a new consumer watchdog agency to protect us from predatory lending practices, outrageous usury (payday loans at 400% interest, anyone?) and other “instruments” big banks devised to prey upon lower- and middle-class paychecks. I only hope they can get Elizabeth Warren to run it. An American hero if ever there was one, this is the woman who stumps constantly, speaking out for the little guy and blasting banks and other financial institutions that would screw us every chance from behind cleverly constructed clouds of financial smoke.

Times are tough enough without the fear that every mortgage, credit card or loan contract is larded up with “getchas” aimed at exploiting our ignorance (or carelessness in not reading the fine print). It’s our pizza, after all, and though we want the dogs to have some, we really need some trainers in here to shepherd the process. As to those members of Congress who only say “no, no, no” to reform, it becomes more and more clear whose side they’re on.

And it ain’t ours.

Summit Daily editor Alex Miller can be reached at amiller@summitdaily.com or (970) 668-4618.


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