Why is Big Money (The Wall Street Journal) so interested in smearing little people?

November 9, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

Whenever we take the time, we are better able to see that all issues are anchored by deep issues.   That’s the kind of day it was for me today. 

I’m in Washington D.C., attending the Consumer Rights Litigation Conference sponsored by the National Consumer Law Center.   NCLC is an invaluable resource for those of us who advocate and litigate for consumer rights.  At one of the afternoon sessions today, I had a chance to hear a panel of consumer advocates discuss recent developments in federal law regarding consumer rights. 

It’s quite depressing, for the most part.  You see, well-monied corporate financial interests own Congress.   Consumer rights are on the ropes.   Many industries are free to lie, cheat, steal and to impose onerous terms on consumers, thanks to the best federal laws money can buy.  They do this through corporate immunity, preemption and the imposition of mandatory binding arbitration before biased arbitrators.  All of these were gifts from Congress in return for huge amounts of money contributed by lobbyists.

I’ve been to Washington D.C. several times before, and I’ve always reveled in the history and the architecture.  

 washington monument.jpg

Now, I can’t help but feel ambivalent.  It’s a city awash in immense amounts of corrupt money. 

 U.S. Capitol.jpg

We are a country that preaches that the People are the government, but that is less true than ever.  If you don’t believe me, just try to call your Congressional representative, mentioning that you are a concerned citizen.  See if you can get five minutes with him or her.  Then offer to contribute $100,000 to his or her next campaign and see what happens. Here’s more proof that our lawmakers have little or no conscience when it comes to bribes:  note last week’s revelation that the head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission sees no problems taking $60,000 in gifts and trips from businesses she is charged with regulating.

Back to NCLC.  Here’s what kind of work NCLC does.  NCLC members represent the interests of un-powerful people (which includes many middle class folks these days).  It provides consumer lawyers like me with information that we need to litigate cases against powerful corporate interests.  I’ve sued predatory lenders that include payday lenders, title lenders and sub-prime mortgage companies; for each of these suits, I’ve drawn upon the guidance of NCLC.  When big corporate interests break state laws, many of them are allowed to hide behind mandatory arbitration clauses that they unilaterally impose upon their customers.  The ability to do this was yet another gift from Congress. 

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear.  Many consumers plunge themselves into debt irresponsibly and get exactly what they deserve when the debt collector comes calling.  When a people can’t afford medicine for their children, they should never go out and put a big-screen TV on the credit card.  Again, there are many (many) irresponsible consumers.  But not all consumers who struggle financially are irresponsible.  That is why consumer lawyers feel compelled to do the work they do.

NCLC helps me (and other consumer lawyers) by providing an excellent set of legal reference books, updated by practitioners.   They offer advice to those who are new to the consumer law field.   This information is invaluable. 

NCLC also advocates for consumers, by presenting information to members of Congress.   Here are some of the positions NCLC is advocating:

NCLC opposes binding mandatory arbitration, class-action bans and other devices that deny consumers access to the justice system.

Automobile fraud.  NCLC is fighting to prohibit fraud, deception and unfair conduct in automobile sales at automobile financing.  Consumers are often defrauded when buying cars by dealers that did not disclose in automobiles prior damage, salvage history or finance terms.

Automobile title lending.  NCLC opposes title lending, in which the consumer hands over the original automobile title and a set of keys in order to take out a loan for as much as 900% interest per year.

Bankruptcy reform.  There is little doubt that previous bankruptcy “reform” strips consumers of valuable rights.  NCLC supports the right to file bankruptcy for qualified individuals who are entitled to a new beginning.  Statistics show that numerous individuals filing bankruptcy are not irresponsible, but have been driven deeply in debt by the loss of a job, medical expenses or fraudulent mortgages.

Credit card reform.  Credit card companies should fully disclose the fees and penalties that come with use of their cards.  Credit cards should be useful tools, not predatory loans.  NCLC fights to make these disclosures clear.

Mortgage fraud.  The securitization of mortgages has led to rampant fraud throughout the industry. Financial institutions have engaged in numerous tactics to push dangerous and unaffordable loans on low income and middle class families, including interest-only, negative amortization, exploding adjustable rates, and other loans made without regard to the ability to pay.  In fact, things are gotten so bad that the sub-prime corruption threatens to pull down the entire finance system.

Payday loans.  NCLC opposes payday lending, which can impose interest fees of more than 1000% on consumers for long-term loans (which were supposed to be, according to original enabling legislation, short-term loans).  Even mainstream banks are now developing these dangerous payday loan type products.

Keeping Social Security and other benefits exempt.  These benefits were meant to provide a minimum level of subsistence.  However, many banks are now seeking to freeze these funds or garner them.  NCLC opposes these efforts.

General State consumer protections.  NCLC recognizes the importance of State consumer laws, and seeks to keep them enforceable.  Yet, in recent years these protections have been preempted by weak (or nonexistent) federal laws.

As you can see, these are not radical positions to take in a fair and free society.

I was distressed, though, as I listened to the affable Ira Rheingold discussing yesterday’s editorial from the Wall Street Journal (you can’t read that editorial online unless you’re a paid subscriber).  Rheingold read much of the editorial out loud to a conference room filled with several hundred consumer attorneys.  The Wall Street Journal warned that NCLC was making an unholy alliance with America’s trial lawyers and that they dared to go visit members of Congress to advocate their pro-consumer positions.

It is true that NCLC members have volunteered to visit members of Congress this week to remind members of Congress of issues being faced by consumers.   It is sad that the Wall Street Journal would see a need to attack NCLC for doing this, however.  Much of the damage inflicted on America’s consumers (again, this includes lower-class and middle class individuals) is because powerful corporate interests have bought Congress and stripped consumer protection out of the federal statutory system in the first place.  It gets worse year after year, as more and more conservative judges are giving conservative spin to the federal consumer laws that remain.

The Wall Street Journal is apparently afraid that people who approach members of Congress without any money in their hands (NCLC), are somehow bona fide competition for the banks and financial institutions that deliver barrels and barrels of money to members of Congress. 

After the NCLC session, I spoke to one of the attorneys who visited a congressional office today.  Her small group was required to wait out in the waiting room of the representative.  The federal representative would not even come out and shake their hands or recognize that they came for a visit.  While they were waiting to talk to a lowly assistant (they were told that the representative was too busy), a professional lobbyist strolled into the office wearing a fancy suit.  The receptionist greeted him by his first name (she knew him) and invited him to come in to see the representative in person.  He perfunctorily apologized for being late for his appointment.  “No problem, come on in,” she said.  He walked in bearing some sort of a package in hand.  How often does a sort of behavior repeat itself?  We’ll never know, until we pass a law making every member of Congress strap a web cam onto his or her head.  If only . . .

Yes, we’re a nation of addicts.  We’re addicted to consuming and spending.  Our government even encourages it.  The irony is that the corporations that work the hardest to fuel this consumer addiction to conspicuous consumption (that sadly defines so much of America) are the same ones that now own Congress.

Rheingold ended his talk by asking what it was that The Wall Street Journal feared.  He suggested that they’re afraid of the truth.  This truth is not getting through very well, thanks to the fact that most of the mainstream media is also owned by a few corporations.  But things are starting to slip in, because you can’t hide them all anymore.  The credit market is under tremendous strain, for instance.  This is not an esoteric concern.  Lack of credit means that people will not be able to buy things they need, even if they are otherwise entitled to those loans they seek.  It’s gotten so bad that huge financial interests now own substantial interests in major non-financial corporations, and they are driving those businesses to do business irresponsibly because of the obsession to make short-term profits.  The seriousness of these problems has been recognized in many quarters (for instance, see this Bill Moyers’ interview with Robert Kuttner on the debt crisis).

Perhaps some day, members of Congress will feel pain when they refuse to listen closely to honest hard-working people from lower-class and middle-class America.  Or maybe, someday, they’ll realize that if they don’t invite people to work out their legitimate gripes in courtrooms and in the halls of Congress, they we will all have to deal with these problems on the streets.  Or maybe we’ll all just go complacently, as George Carlin opined. 

These thoughts and images were enough to cause me to take a walk in the crisp night air of Washington DC tonight.  

 U.S. Capitol at night.jpg

As I walked past the Washington Monument I wondered what the Founding Fathers would think about most of our current leaders.  What if we could transport the Founding Fathers to the present?  What would they think about the ability of big powerful businesses to buy-off our elected leaders (just think of that scene from Sicko where Michael Moore labeled dozens of legislators with the amounts of money they accepted from health care corporations)?  Would they have the patience to “work with” the current batch of corrupt elected leaders to reform the country?  Or would they refer us to the strategy they embodied in the Declaration of Independence”

capitol - flags.jpg 

See these related posts:  The Arbitration Fairness Act, payday lending, this post on the issue that we are drowning in material goods, yet we crave ever more stuff and the posts listed at the bottom of this post.

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Category: American Culture, Campaign Finance Reform, Consumerism, Corruption, Economy, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    A few years ago, I attempted to contact my representative and senators offices concerning fraudulent activities that had directly affected my father-in-laws medical benefits. I was unable to contact my representative, althoug I left the info on his answering machine. The senior senator did not speak directly to me, but his staff were helpful and took down the complaint and sent out forms for details about the problem. The junior senator actually answered the phone. I explained the situation, he got my contact information and told me he would "Check into it". Two days later I was called to the manager's office where I was told in no uncertain terms that if I ever bothered the junior senator again, I would be suspended without pay for three months after which time I would be fired, for political activism in the workplace.

  2. Ben says:

    If you (or anyone else who is a regular DI) would like a *free* tour of the city, or if you need anything (directions, suggestions on historic sites, emergency medical attention) while you are in town, just holler. Also I have a spare car you can borrow, and even a bike if you prefer (provided that you don't wear headphones).

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    When I wrote about money's corrupting influence over politicians, I failed to link to this recent episode involving the telecoms. http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1643

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    See this related post on campaign finance reform: http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=419

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