The Limits and Pitfalls of Google’s Search Engine

Protest-outside-Google-HQ_07.11New Orleans      It’s true that none of us seem to be able to live without Google.  There are other search engines, and for one reason or another many of us dip our toe in and still find later, despite our misgivings, that we are still using Google mail even knowing they keep everything forever and share with the NSA. We depend on Google’s calendar, we keep buying phones with Android, and generally we’re chained to their engine.  For all of the publicity about Google being a kinder and gentler conglomerate with its motto of “don’t be evil,” when you think about it, that’s really a very low bar.  There really aren’t many people or corporations who go out in the world determined to “just be evil.”

My worry is that we all depend on Google, and Google is not doing enough “to be good.” We are seduced into believing by them and our own self-delusion and perhaps laziness that our simple searches are bringing us real knowledge and truth, rather than a mish-mash of illusion. We depend on Google and the internet, we just can’t trust them to deliver for us.

I stumbled onto a case where a locksmith, Mark Baldino, in northern Virginia had sued Google for racketeering.  I reached him and interviewed him on “Wade’s World” on KABF.  His beef, shared by many businesses, is that Google doesn’t screen out the scammers from their listings, which encourages companies to create false listings so that when you scroll you might pick a fly-by-night operation claiming to be near you that is actually just a number connected to a call center dispatch on the hustle.  The other side of the Google scam is that for a legitimate business, like Baldino’s, he has to pay Google for key words and listings to “move up” on the list of searches ahead of the scammer.  They have lost $8 million in business over the last 7 years by their count, while also having to spend thousands in on-line advertisements with Google and others to try to recapture the traffic.  Google has essentially tried to make Baldino police the scammers, rather than deciding not to do “evil” itself, so if he sends them a spreadsheet with scammers, they’ll vet the sheet and block the bad boys.  Is that lame or what?  No wonder Baldino sued.

Someone the other day in conversation asked if people ever Google searched themselves.  I used to do so once a year during my Christmas vacation as a hoot just to have a sort of crazy out-of-body experience, though now I largely don’t bother because the searches and alerts are so spotty.  A free service called Newsle relies on Google and others and does a lot of it for me, equally poorly. With all of its money Google and its imitators don’t pay to get past the increasing number of pay walls.  For example this week I was quoted in a New York Times front page political story by Michael Barbaro on Iowa  from a 2008 Chief Organizer Blog, but no Google alerts found my name, ACORN, or anything else, while they and Newsle did find some random rightwing blog arguing that ACORN and I were effectively subverting the Affordable Care Act in the USA for our own nefarious and revolutionary purposes.  Same for the long 30th anniversary story on KABF…nada!  I can only believe that’s because the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is also behind the paywall.

All of which means the whack rises to the top and ends up as pig fodder disguised as facts for those so inclined, and in the ways of the internet might be a source for a Wikipedia entry later down the line.  Yet, Google, Wikipedia, and others are now our “go to” for so much of our information, research, and, heaven forbid, knowledge.

It may or may not be racketeering, as Baldino Locksmiths’ claim, the courts will figure that out soon enough, but whatever it is, it’s bad business and a dangerous perversion of the public interest whether for commercial purposes or the general search for truth for all of us as regular people out in the wide world of work and life.

More Healthcare Hustles as Companies Try to Scam Workers and Government

medicaid-expansionNew Orleans   We are on a countdown to the open window for enrollment and renewals under the Affordable Care Act, so now the employer hustles and scams are getting more and more scary and sketchy.   The Wall Street Journal dryly reported the other day in an article about companies scrambling to avoid penalties that “The companies worried about penalties are largely in industries with significant low-wage workforces, such as restaurants, nursing homes and hospitality.  Previously, many of these companies didn’t offer coverage to hourly workers or had mini-med plans.”  Oh, you mean exactly the companies whose workers MOST need coverage and are paid the least are once again on the sidelines as their bosses try to figure out how to game the system and keep from giving them their due?  Right, got ya!

            So, mini-med plans are now outlawed.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that bosses and their codependent insurers are coming up with something called a “skinny” plan, I guess like a “skinny” latte or something.  These so-called “skinny” plans are sufficient to get a worker in the hospital’s parking lot so she can wave at the doctors and nurses going to work, but not good enough that they would actually provide any coverage for her if she had to go IN the hospital herself.  These plans only cover preventive care, while excluding hospital coverage.  That’s not skinny, that’s starvation!  It certainly isn’t health care insurance under any stretch of the imagination.

            But, here’s the catch-22 for the workers.  A sucky-skinny plan allows company to claim that it is covering 70% of the workers and avoid paying a penalty for not doing so, and the worker, if she swallows the bait and goes for the plan, will also escape a fine for not having insurance, even though she really doesn’t have anything worth a darn.  The only bite, and it’s a big one, is that if the worker gets smart and opts out of the scam-skinny plan and buys a federally subsidized plan in the marketplace, the boss will pay a $3000 fine.  But, you can already see this double-hustle coming.  The employer will be working overtime convincing the worker that she’s good, so she doesn’t go looking, and unless a lot of us are beating the bushes to let people know that these scam-skinny plans don’t qualify, she’ll be hanging out in the hospital parking lot, shocked that she can’t get in the emergency room door with her so-called insurance when she needs it.

            One hustle has better mixed blessings though and that’s the Medicaid scam.  When lower wage employers find that a worker qualifies for expanded Medicaid, then they are off the hook, and they pay no penalty, and obviously don’t carry the insurance weight either.  I said this was a mixed blessing, because on the good side, it means some scumbag bosses will be helping us sign people up for expanded Medicaid benefits, and that’s a great thing!  At least in my view, because it gives workers better benies, but, oh, yeah, the conservatives are also right that this just transfers the cost to the federal government and the taxpayers.  It must be tough to be a conservative and have to embrace the paradox of backing these businesses as Ayn Rand free enterprise models while also opposing Medicaid and federal expenditures and taxes.  The other side of the blessing is that this scam only works in the half of the states that have actually expanded Medicaid benefits.  Maybe these companies will finally get on board and lobby these conservative Republican governors in the rest of our states to let lower income working families have better health care coverage now that it saves them some money, doing the right thing for the wrong reason?

            As for the rest of the companies they are going for the cruelest hoax to avoid providing real coverage by offering the less-than-catastrophic option in the high deductible plan where workers will be paying $5000 and more before they see any benefits at all.

            We need real health care coverage in the USA, rather than all of these hustles and scams.

Insurers are Running from Climate Change

Stormy Futures MapNew Orleans      Fair enough, I call New Orleans home and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, I still pay way more attention to climate change than the average Joe, partially because I’ve been there, done that, and think it’s coming again someday both here and to an area near you.  So, when Ceres, a heavily established and institutionally backed nonprofit, did a report on how big insurance companies were preparing for climate change, I knew it was worth a hard look.  Here’s a spoiler alert:  it’s almost all bad news!

            Ceres surveyed most of the insurance companies in the USA and more than 300 replied, giving them very good response.  Importantly, several states, including California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and Washington, are now requiring insurance companies writing more than $100 million in policies to disclose their climate related risks, so part of the response may have been part of their own “get up to speed” drill in some of these larger markets.   The results on the Ceres grading system were pathetic.  Of the companies replying only nine ranked in the “leading” category while 83% or 249 companies were minimal or only beginning.  Only Hartford and Prudential were US-based companies in the top nine.

            Living in the swamp with receding coastline all around us in Louisiana and levees hardly reinforced up to a Category 3 storm, those grades were confirming what we already knew in our hearts.  We’ve essentially been left not high-and-dry, but in the soup to swim.  Even though I didn’t flood, sitting high and dry on the alluvial flood plain only three blocks from the Mississippi River, our home was forced into Citizens, the high-priced, high-risk last resort insurer.  Ceres essentially confirmed that’s the “new normal” everywhere.  The main response from most “property and casualty” insurers after Katrina and Sandy, has not been to prepare for climate-change risks but to abandon the markets and the risks entirely leaving it to whoever and whatever is left behind to fend for themselves.  This abandonment is especially pronounced along coastal areas in Long Island, Virginia, Delaware, and of course Florida.

            Ceres makes an interesting point, that the insurers and major businesses can run but they can’t hide, especially given the supply chain inherent in globalization.  Flooding in Thailand disrupted deliveries and production adding up to $15 billion in business losses.  With droughts in California and elsewhere in the west and everyone and their cousin from the National Geographic on down writing about the impact of climate on agriculture and food supply, this is also an area where insurers seem asleep at the switch from the board level and the executive suites down to the agents on the block.  According to the Ceres report most companies are simply behind the eight-ball in taking climate change seriously.  I’m not sure whether ideology is clouding their own self-interest and creating a weird sense of denial or whether we’re just talking about high level, major corporate incompetence.  Warren Buffet, I thought this insurance thing was your baby, what’s happening here, dude?

            The recommendations from Ceres were predictable.  They want, and we should all agree, all fifty states to require the same insurance disclosures that the first five have mandated.  Not surprisingly they also want a grading system, similar to their own report, to be adopted nationally so that consumers and regulators are on the same page, and, heck, why not?

            This climate change thing is already real, and it’s past time for insurers and everyone else to catch up before we get caught up in it any deeper.


Philanthropy’s Desertion: You Just Can’t Count on the Rich

moneyNew Orleans      As Lilliputians living in the land of the giant rich 1%, it is hard to avoid the heavy helpings of bad news coming in daily about how their habits and highly selective generosity imperils us everywhere, especially because we also live in a world dominated by neo-liberalism that has too often ceded the responsibilities of the state to private and personal interests. Here’s the emerging lesson, as you might have already guessed: when we come knocking, no one is hearing us, and no one is home.

Recently, there was yet another report establishing that with the increasing concentration of wealth, even more of the burden of giving is falling towards those with lower incomes. The percentage of giving by the rich has decreased almost 1%, while the percentage of total income donated by lower income families has increased by more than 1%.

A professor at Stanford noted that inequities of wealth are showing up in local philanthropic fundraising, which is of course unregulated and tax-deductible for donors, mirroring the growth of the 1% with money raised for schools attended by their own children at the expense of efforts on a broader basis to get public dollars to be enough for all kids. In other words they are giving, but only to the public schools where their own children are going, self-interest being what it is and has always been. This translates into a new gym for them, and broken glass in the playgrounds across the street from the school for us, pottery and dance classes for them, and police in the hallways for us, and so on. Others argue that we should shut out mouths, at least they are donating to public schools, since the rich, unlike the rest of us, retain the threat of exit and can move their money and children over to private or parochial schools, if they hadn’t already.

Even the desperate Ebola crisis in lower income countries in West Africa like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone where groups like Doctors without Borders have been heroes, leading the way for even governmental responses, has revealed the gaps in philanthropic response compared to other global crises. At one level groups are not asking, claiming no boots on the ground in some cases, but that was also true in Katrina and other disasters. One worries that part of the issue is race and a disinterest in Africa. One or two of the big boys have stepped up, Mark Zuckerman and his wife for example, who I have to admit have funded public institutions in need before like the Newark school system, though wrongheadedly perhaps in that case, but for the most part, Ebola and West Africa doesn’t interest the rich, so thank goodness the military still knows how to pitch tents for field hospitals.

I read an interesting piece the other day on something called philanthropy-capitalism in connection with the political scene in Vancouver, British Columbia. The argument was strained, but the phrase was interesting, largely because the proof seems clear that in reality, despite what many might have hoped, it just doesn’t exist.

And, that spells trouble for all of us living in the shadow of the rich and under the rule of neoliberalism, because the shrinking and privatization of the state at every level, means there’s no safety net anywhere and no calvary will be coming over the mountain to save us. A report from Ceres, a new sustainability research outfit, finds that in weather-related disasters the level of insurance coverage is plummeting. Where 45% of the losses from Hurricane Katrina were covered, only a bit over a 30% of Hurricane Sandy were covered. Future disasters couldn’t depend on insurance or massive donations to help, leaving more and more communities stuck with only beleaguered public and private resources.

Despite some of the conservative, libertarian, and Republican rhetoric, the facts are rolling in again everywhere we look that we simply can’t count on the rich to save us. They’ve concentrated the wealth, and have different plans and interests than the rest of us or in the rest of us.

Neoliberalism crashes and burns at the point we all realize there is no Plan B, and once again the only justice is just us.

New and Better Mortgage Lending Standards Maybe

rs-2New Orleans               The press is making a big deal of Mel Watt’s comments as the chief housing regulator at the Federal Housing Finance Agency to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s convention in Vegas.  He claims he has a new plan to loosen up the rules so that banks finally lend some money to first-time buyers and lower-and-middle income borrowers.  There’s a problem though.  The bankers are applauding, but there are no real details to the plan available, so what’s the story here?  Frankly, I don’t trust this.

Too much of this seems like a suck-up to the bankers and the equivalent of a “get out of jail” quickly ticket for them to blame their fast and loose behavior on the borrowers, which has been part of their narrative since the meltdown of the Great Recession.  Under the so-called “plan,” the housing finance agency would ease up on the rules that require the banks to buyback mortgages “that show evidence of fraud or other flaws in the underwriting process.”  Supposedly the buyback now would be based on the ability of the feds and the prosecutors to prove a “pattern of misrepresentations and inaccuracies.”  Furthermore the bank rip-offs would have to be “significant” enough to have disqualified the borrower from a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac guarantee on the loan.

There’s a rumor of approving loans with as little as 3% down payments, and maybe that’s a good thing, but who really knows without the details.

To me this looks like a bank stickup with the bankers holding the gun against the government’s head and refusing to make loans until they get enough promises that they are not going to have to pay billions in fines and buybacks if they rip-off their borrowers yet again.  My argument would once again focus on one of the least corrected causes of the meltdown:  brokers.

As long as lenders refuse to supervise their broker networks even while all of the incentives are left in place for brokers to act independently and to be paid at the point of production regardless of affordability of the loan to the borrower, the conditions remain in place for fraud and predatory behavior.  Allowing this much finger pointing away from themselves, lets the bankers juice up the market without any accountability.  Even better, but only for them, they’ll get to still blame the victims, rather than take responsibility for their own thievery.

We need a subprime market.  We need for low-and-moderate income families to have the choice of buying a home, if it makes sense for them financially.  But, do we really want to make it easier for bankers to look the other way and claim their hands are clean when they are financing the fraudsters?

Many of the advocates are applauding this so-called plan.  I’m hoping they know a lot more of the down-low than has been made public, because at this point it looks like a deal made on our knees with the bankers where we’re once again begging for money for our people and they, once again, are dictating the terms and setting the table for more mischief and mayhem.

Bosses Intimidating Their Workers at the Ballot Box

2008_BIPACNew Orleans      A lot of this is an old story, but there are enough new twists and turns that it settles disturbingly, especially if you care about democracy and understand the subtle things that can become significant in razor close elections with huge consequences. I know the freelance reporter and investigator, Spencer Woodman, who often is published by The Nation, largely as a phone pal. He calls every six months or so when he’s working on a story or to talk about what’s going on in case I might know something or say something that sheds a small light on some big story he’s following.

Months ago when he called he said he was working on a story about something called BIPAC, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a political outfit with a huge footprint but a small public profile, funded not surprisingly by business and industries including of course the Koch Brothers. I wasn’t very helpful other than to contribute the information that the name was surprisingly close to the Louisiana-based LABI, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which had led one fight after another over the last 40 years in Louisiana against unions, most notoriously in their signature victory at forcing through the right-to-work law in the mid-1970’s. Turned out, as Spencer and I talked and searched the web simultaneously, that LABI in fact was directly affiliated with BIPAC, so one could just imagine the mischief and mayhem that such a ruthless outfit could create.

Woodman’s story is now out and that turns out to have been the tip of the iceberg. It’s available now on and elsewhere and worth a look, if you worry, like I do about what happens when a company’s so-called “freedom of speech” crosses the line and becomes coercive in these difficult and dangerous economic times for workers.

Speaking of the “tip of the iceberg,” Woodman’s story on BIPAC starts in Alaska and the gang up of three BIPAC affiliated big energy companies Conoco Phillips, British Petroleum, and Exxon Mobil on their workers during a recent initiative vote, which is especially worrisome given the importance of the Alaska Senate in determining who and how the Senate is run for the next two years. Of course BIPAC is everywhere given its base that it claims reaches 25 million workers in the USA. Past any specific contest, Woodman points out that the ambitions of BIPAC are more disturbing, because it’s…

“…primary aim isn’t to help individual candidates win office; rather BIPAC’s goal is to turn as many private employers as possible into “employee political education” machines for business interests. BIPAC urges major companies to transform their workforces into a voting bloc and provides sophisticated tools that show employers how to do it.”

BIPAC, unlike Americans for Prosperity, and other business fronts, specializes more in hiding its hand as it throws the rock, but the directions of the toss aren’t hard to follow. Woodman got to be a fly on the wall in a training session they ran in North Carolina and the message was clear as their representative…

“…reminded the business crowd of the uniquely advantageous position bosses have in influencing their employees’ votes. “Employers are the most credible source of information for employees about this type of material as it affects their jobs, their own prosperity. They’re susceptible to the information. They’re a willing audience.” He advised that political messaging should appeal to employees’ sense of economic insecurity, or as he put it, their “kitchen-table economics.”

You get the drift. It’s worth following this story more closely.

Employers have always tried to sway their workers, who often have very different self-interests, to vote their way, since their own votes are few, and their workers are many. Nothing new there. But the level of bombardment, coercion both direct and implied, and increasingly intrusive pitches meant to capture their votes for the bosses interests are crossing more and more lines and moving towards the point where they are violating the protections workers need to feel for their votes.

This BIPAC business is scary stuff and worth closer attention as its messages come pouring out of the mouths of big businesses over the coming weeks for this election and coming years for many more to come.