Saturday, February 25, 2012

Customers Can Lose Electricity for Being Just $75 Past Due

FLINT, Michigan -- John Morgan was less than $300 past due on his Consumers Energy bill when the utility company shut off his electricity three days before he was discovered dead inside his pick-up truck.

But a spokeswoman for Consumers Energy said today that the company's policy provides for disconnections for past-due accounts of as little as $75.

Consumers Energy representative Debra Dodd confirmed that the electricity to Morgan's home at 730 E. Parkway Ave. on the city's north side was turned off Friday but said she cannot comment on police statements that Morgan, 86, was just $291 past due on his utility bill.

Of the shutoff notices issued today by Consumers, overdue bills average just over $400, Dodd said.
Police believe Morgan, 86, was trying to stay warm in the truck outside his home because his electricity had been shut off.
A cause of death has not yet been determined.
Consumers officials have said Morgan could have avoided a winter shutoff regardless of his debt if he had notified the company that he was a senior citizen.

When customers don't qualify for a program to keep their heat on, Consumers follows the same process it followed before turning off Morgan's electricity, Dodd said.

Seven days after bill is due, customers are sent a shut-off notice. Four days later, a second notice or phone call is issued.

Seven days after the second notice, Consumers calls the customer in an attempt to talk about payment options and programs, Dodd said.

One day later, an intent to discontinue service notice is mailed, and six days after that, a disconnect order is created.

The actual disconnection occurs from six to 30 days after the intent to disconnect notice, Dodd said.

Dodd has said Consumers representatives went to Morgan's home prior to shutting off the electricity but were unable to make contact with anybody.

[Via M Live]

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Words Don't Mean What They Mean

In the Movie Tootsie, The character played by Dustin Hoffman is disguised as a woman and is speaking to a beautiful young actress played by Jessica Lange. During a session of late-night girl talk, Lange's character says, "You know what I wish? That a guy could be honest enough to walk up to me and say, 'I could lay a big line on you, but the simple truth is I find you very interesting, and I'd really like to make love to you.' Wouldn't that be a relief?"

Later in the movie, a twist of fate throws them together at a cocktail party, this time with Hoffman's character dressed as a man. The actress doesn't recognize him, and he tries out the speech on her. Before he can even finish, she throws a glass of wine in his face and storms away.

When people talk, they lay lines on each other, do a lot of role playing, sidestep, shilly-shally and engage in all manner of vagueness and innuendo. We do this and expect others to do it, yet at the same time we profess to long for the plain truth, for people to say what they mean, simple as that. Such hypocrisy is a human universal.

Sexual come-ons are a classic example. "Would you like to come up and see my etchings?" has been recognized as a double entendre for so long that by 1939, James Thurber could draw a cartoon of a hapless man in an apartment lobby saying to his date, "You wait here, and I'll bring the etchings down."

The veiled threat also has a stereotype: the Mafia wiseguy offering protection with the soft sell, "Nice store you got there. Would be a real shame if something happened to it." Traffic cops sometimes face not-so-innocent questions like, "Gee, Officer, is there some way I could pay the fine right here?" And anyone who has sat through a fund-raising dinner is familiar with euphemistic schnorring like, "We're counting on you to show leadership."

Why don't people just say what they mean? The reason is that conversational partners are not modems downloading information into each other's brains. People are very, very touchy about their relationships. Whenever you speak to someone, you are presuming the two of you have a certain degree of familiarity--which your words might alter. So every sentence has to do two things at once: convey a message and continue to negotiate that relationship.

The clearest example is ordinary politeness. When you are at a dinner party and want the salt, you don't blurt out, "Gimme the salt." Rather, you use what linguists call a whimperative, as in "Do you think you could pass the salt?" or "If you could pass the salt, that would be awesome."

Taken literally, these sentences are inane. The second is an overstatement, and the answer to the first is obvious. Fortunately, the hearer assumes that the speaker is rational and listens between the lines. Yes, your point is to request the salt, but you're doing it in such a way that first takes care to establish what linguists call "felicity conditions," or the prerequisites to making a sensible request. The underlying rationale is that the hearer not be given a command but simply be asked or advised about one of the necessary conditions for passing the salt. Your goal is to have your need satisfied without treating the listener as a flunky who can be bossed around at will.

Warm acquaintances go out of their way not to look as if they are presuming a dominant-subordinate relationship but rather one of equals. It works the other way too. When people are in a subordinate relationship (like a driver with police), they can't sound as if they are presuming anything more than that, so any bribe must be veiled. Fund raisers, simulating an atmosphere of warm friendship with their donors, also can't break the spell with a bald businesslike proposition.

It is in the arena of sexual relationships, however, that the linguistic dance can be its most elaborate. In an episode of Seinfeld, George is asked by his date if he would like to come up for coffee. He declines, explaining that caffeine keeps him up at night. Later he slaps his forehead: "'Coffee' doesn't mean coffee! 'Coffee' means sex!" The moment is funny, but it's also a reminder of just how carefully romantic partners must always tread. Make too blatant a request, as in Tootsie, and the hearer is offended; too subtle, as in Seinfeld, and it can go over the hearer's head.

In the political arena, miscalibrated speech can lead to more serious consequences than wine in the face or a slap on the forehead. In 1980, Wanda Brandstetter, a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women (NOW), tried to get an Illinois state representative to vote for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) by handing him a business card on which she had written, "Mr. Swanstrom, the offer for help in your election, plus $1,000 for your campaign for the pro-ERA vote." A prosecutor called the note a "contract for bribery," and the jury agreed.

So how do lobbyists in Gucci Gulch bribe legislators today? They do it with innuendo. If Brandstetter had said, "As you know, Mr. Swanstrom, NOW has a history of contributing to political campaigns. And it has contributed more to candidates with a voting record that is compatible with our goals. These days one of our goals is the ratification of the ERA," she would have avoided a fine, probation and community service.

Indirect speech has a long history in diplomacy too. In the wake of the Six-Day War in 1967, the U.N. Security Council passed its famous Resolution 242, which called for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." The wording is ambiguous. Does it mean "some of the territories" or "all of the territories"? In some ways it was best not to ask, since the phrasing was palatable to Israel and its allies only under the former interpretation and to concerned Arab states and their allies only under the latter. Unfortunately, for 40 years partisans have been debating the semantics of Resolution 242, and the Israeli-Arab conflict remains unresolved, to put it mildly.

That's not to say such calculated ambiguity never works for diplomats. After all, the language of an agreement has to be acceptable not just to leaders but to their citizens. Reasonable leaders might thus come to an understanding between themselves, while each exploits the ambiguities of the deal to sell it to their country's more bellicose factions. What's more, diplomats can gamble that times will change and circumstances will bring the two sides together, at which point they can resolve the vagueness amicably.

When all else fails, as it often does, nations can sort out their problems without any words at all--and often without fighting either. In these cases, they may fall back on communicating through what's known as authority ranking, also known as power, status, autonomy and dominance. The logic of authority ranking is "Don't mess with me." Its biological roots are in the dominance hierarchies that are widespread in the animal kingdom. One animal claims the right to a contested resource based on size, strength, seniority or allies, and the other animal cedes it when the outcome of the battle can be predicted and both sides have a stake in not getting bloodied in a fight whose winner is a forgone conclusion. Such sword-rattling gestures as a larger military power's conducting "naval exercises" in the waters off the coast of a weaker foe are based on just this kind of pre-emptive reminder of strength.

People often speak of indirect speech as a means of saving face. What we're referring to is not just a matter of hurt feelings but a social currency with real value. The expressive power of words helps us guard this prized asset, but only as long as we're careful. Words let us say the things we want to say and also things we would be better off not having said. They let us know the things we need to know, and also things we wish we didn't. Language is a window into human nature, but it is also a fistula, an open wound through which we're exposed to an infectious world. It's not surprising that we sheathe our words in politeness and innuendo and other forms of doublespeak.

[Via Time]

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It

LINDSTROM, Minn. — Ki Gulbranson owns a logo apparel shop, deals in jewelry on the side and referees youth soccer games. He makes about $39,000 a year and wants you to know that he does not need any help from the federal government.

He says that too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means. He supports politicians who promise to cut government spending. In 2010, he printed T-shirts for the Tea Party campaign of a neighbor, Chip Cravaack, who ousted this region’s long-serving Democratic congressman.

Yet this year, as in each of the past three years, Mr. Gulbranson, 57, is counting on a payment of several thousand dollars from the federal government, a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has signed up his three school-age children to eat free breakfast and lunch at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.

There is little poverty here in Chisago County, northeast of Minneapolis, where cheap housing for commuters is gradually replacing farmland. But Mr. Gulbranson and many other residents who describe themselves as self-sufficient members of the American middle class and as opponents of government largess are drawing more deeply on that government with each passing year.

Dozens of benefits programs provided an average of $6,583 for each man, woman and child in the county in 2009, a 69 percent increase from 2000 after adjusting for inflation. In Chisago, and across the nation, the government now provides almost $1 in benefits for every $4 in other income.

Older people get most of the benefits, primarily through Social Security and Medicare, but aid for the rest of the population has increased about as quickly through programs for the disabled, the unemployed, veterans and children.

The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.

And as more middle-class families like the Gulbransons land in the safety net in Chisago and similar communities, anger at the government has increased alongside. Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.

The expansion of government benefits has become an issue in the presidential campaign. Rick Santorum, who won 57 percent of the vote in Chisago County in the Republican presidential caucuses last week, has warned of “the narcotic of government dependency.” Newt Gingrich has compared the safety net to a spider web. Mitt Romney has said the nation must choose between an “entitlement society” and an “opportunity society.” All the candidates, including Ron Paul, have promised to cut spending and further reduce taxes.

The problem by now is familiar to most. Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.

The recent recession increased dependence on government, and stronger economic growth would reduce demand for programs like unemployment benefits. But the long-term trend is clear. Over the next 25 years, as the population ages and medical costs climb, the budget office projects that benefits programs will grow faster than any other part of government, driving the federal debt to dangerous heights.

Americans are divided about the way forward. Seventy percent of respondents to a recent New York Times poll said the government should raise taxes. Fifty-six percent supported cuts in Medicare and Social Security. Forty-four percent favored both.

Support for spending cuts runs strong in Chisago, where anger at the government helped fuel Mr. Cravaack’s upset victory in 2010 over James L. Oberstar, the Democrat who had represented northeast Minnesota for 36 years.

“Spending like this is simply unsustainable, and it’s time to cut up Washington, D.C.’s credit card,” Mr. Cravaack said in a February speech to the Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce. “It may hurt now, but it will be absolutely deadly for the next generation — that’s our children and our grandchildren.”

But the reality of life here is that Mr. Gulbranson and many of his neighbors continue to take as much help from the government as they can get. When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less, many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears. It is much easier to promise future restraint than to deny present needs.

“How do you tell someone that you deserve to have heart surgery and you can’t?” Mr. Gulbranson said.

He paused.

“You have to help and have compassion as a people, because otherwise you have no society, but financially you can’t destroy yourself. And that is what we’re doing.”

He paused again, unable to resolve the dilemma.

“I feel bad for my children.”

Middle-Class Blues

Mr. Gulbranson has tried several ways to make a living in the storefront he bought from his father in 1979. He ran a gift shop, then shifted to selling jewelry. Nine years ago, he moved the gold scales to the back and bought equipment for screen-printing clothing. Through it all, he has never made more than about $46,000 in a year.

Meanwhile, the cost of life — and of raising five children — has climbed inexorably.

“I used to go out and try to have a meal at Perkins, which is a restaurant here, and get out of the store with $5,” Mr. Gulbranson said. “And now it’s probably up to $10.”

In recent years he has earned so little that he did not pay federal income taxes, although he still paid thousands of dollars toward Medicare and Social Security. The earned-income tax credit is intended to offset those payroll taxes, to encourage people with lower-paying jobs to remain in the work force.

Mr. Gulbranson said the money covered the fees for his children’s sports leagues and the cost of keeping the older ones on the family’s car insurance.

“If we didn’t get these government things, then probably my kids could not participate in some of the sports they do,” he said.

Almost half of all Americans lived in households that received government benefits in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. The share climbed from 37.7 percent in 1998 to 44.5 percent in 2006, before the recession, to 48.5 percent in 2010.

The trend reflects the expansion of the safety net. When the earned-income credit was introduced in 1975, eligibility was limited to households making the current equivalent of up to $26,997. In 2010, it was available to families making up to $49,317. The maximum payout, meanwhile, quadrupled on an inflation-adjusted basis.

It also reflects the deterioration of the middle class. Chisago boomed and prospered for decades as working families packed new subdivisions along Interstate 35, which runs up the western edge of the county like a flagpole with its base set firmly in Minneapolis. But recent years have been leaner. Per capita income in Chisago excluding government aid fell 6 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis between 2000 and 2007. Over the next two years, it fell an additional 7 percent. Nationally, per capita income excluding government benefits fell by 3 percent over the same 10 years.

Mr. Gulbranson’s business struggled as other companies, particularly construction firms, stopped ordering logo-emblazoned shirts. In 2009, the family claimed the earned-income credit for the first time on the advice of their accountant, who was claiming it for herself. The share of local families claiming the credit climbed 33 percent between 2000 and 2008, the most recent year for which data are available.

To make extra money, Mr. Gulbranson refereed 40 soccer games on Tuesday and Thursday nights last fall. His wife sold clothes at equestrian events and air-brushed novelties at craft fairs, driving around the country with a one-ton trailer hitched to a 20-foot van.

Their difficulties, Mr. Gulbranson said, have made it hard to imagine asking anyone to pay higher taxes.

“I don’t think most people could bear to pay more,” he said.

Instead, he said he would rather give up the earned-income credit the family now receives and start paying for school lunches for his children.

“I don’t demand that the government does this for me,” he said. “I don’t feel like I need the government.”

How about Social Security? And Medicare? Can he imagine retiring without government help?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “No. I don’t know. Not the way we expect to live as Americans.”

A Starring Role

Bob Kopka and his wife often drive to the American Legion hall in North Branch on Thursday nights, joining the crowd gathered in the basement bar for the weekly meat raffle. Almost everyone present relies on the government to pay for their medical care.

Mr. Kopka, 74, has had three heart procedures in recent years. His wife recently had surgery to remove cataracts from both eyes.

Without Medicare, Mr. Kopka said, the couple could not have paid for the treatments.

“Hell, no,” he said. “No. Never. She would have to go blind.”

And him?

“I’d die.”

Few federal programs are more popular than Medicare, which along with Social Security assures a minimum quality of life for older Americans.

None are more central to the nation’s financial problems. The Congressional Budget Office projects that government spending on medical benefits, even taking into account the cost containment measures in the 2010 health care law, will rise 60 percent over the next decade. Then it will start rising even more quickly. The cost of caring for each beneficiary continues to increase, and the government projects that Medicare enrollment will grow by roughly one-third as baby boomers enter old age.

Spending on medical benefits will account for a larger share of the projected increase in the federal budget over the next decade than any other kind of spending except interest payments on the federal debt.

Medicare’s starring role in the nation’s financial problems is not well understood. Only 22 percent of respondents to the New York Times poll correctly identified Medicare as the fastest-growing benefits program. A greater number of respondents, 27 percent, chose programs for the poor. That category, which includes Medicaid, is slightly larger than Medicare today but is projected to add only half as much to federal spending over the next decade.

Medicare’s financial problems are much worse than Social Security’s. A worker earning average wages still pays enough in Social Security taxes to cover the benefits the worker is likely to receive in retirement, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute. Social Security is still running out of money because the program must also support spouses who do not work and workers who earn lower wages. But Medicare’s situation is even more dire because a worker earning average wages still contributes only $1 in Medicare taxes for every $3 in benefits likely to be received in retirement.

A woman who was 45 in 2010, earning $43,500 a year, will pay taxes that will reach a value of $87,000 by the time she retires, assuming the money is invested at an annual interest rate 2 percentage points above inflation, according to the Urban Institute analysis. But on average, the government will then spend $275,000 on her medical care. The average is somewhat lower for men, because women live longer.

Medicare is often described as an insurance program, but its premiums are not nearly high enough. In simple terms, Americans are getting more than they pay for.

But many older residents in Chisago say this problem belongs to younger generations. They paid what they were told; they want to collect what they were promised.

Some, like the Kopkas, have savings they can tap. Mr. Kopka still owns the landscaping business he started after leaving the Navy in the early 1960s. He and his wife own a three-bedroom home on three acres, valued by the county at $153,700. The mortgage is paid. They hope to pass the house to their children.

Others have nothing else. Barbara Sullivan, 71, moved last year to the apartments above the Chisago County Senior Center in North Branch. Waiting on a recent Friday for the hot lunch, which costs $3.50, she watched roughly 20 people play bingo for prizes including canned soup and Chef Boyardee pasta.

“Most of the seniors around here are struggling to make it,” she said.

She counts herself among them. She lives on $1,220 a month in Social Security benefits and relied on Medicare to pay for an operation in November.

She believes that she is taking more from the government than she paid in taxes. She worries about the consequences for her grandchildren. She said she would like politicians to propose solutions.

“We’re reasonable people,” she said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Give it to me and let my grandchildren suffer.’ I think they underestimate seniors when they think that way.”

But she cannot imagine asking people to pay higher taxes. And as she considered making do with less, she started to cry.

“Without it, I’m not sure how I would live,” she said. “With the check I’m getting from Social Security, it’s a constant struggle on making sure that I pay my rent and have enough left for groceries.

“I haven’t bought a Christmas present, I haven’t bought clothing in the last five years, simply because I can’t afford it.”

Keeping a Promise

Representative Cravaack often says he entered politics to lift the burden of debt from the shoulders of his two sons.

“I vision that I open up their backpacks and I put in a 50-pound rock and zip it back up again,” Mr. Cravaack told the Minnesota Freedom Council in October 2010. “And I say, ‘Sorry, son, you’re going to have to hump this the rest of your life.’ Because that’s exactly what we’re doing to our national debt right now to our children.”

Mr. Cravaack, a 53-year-old Navy veteran and a retired pilot for Northwest Airlines, was grounded by sleep apnea in 2007. He and his wife, an executive at the drug company Novo Nordisk, decided he would stay home with their sons. He soon became the first man to serve as president of the Chisago Lakes Parent Teacher Organization.

In August 2009, while driving the children to North Branch, he heard a talk radio host urging people to protest President Obama’s health care legislation. Mr. Cravaack and about two dozen others spent more than two hours the next day in Mr. Oberstar’s North Branch office before a staff member told them the congressman would not meet them. The rejection convinced Mr. Cravaack that Mr. Oberstar should be replaced. One of the other protesters, a woman who had taken her six children to the office, became Mr. Cravaack’s campaign scheduler.

Two weeks after speaking to the Freedom Council, he beat Mr. Oberstar by 1.6 percentage points, or 4,407 votes. Voters in Chisago, the southern tip of an expansive district, provided the margin of victory.

“We have to break away,” Mr. Cravaack told supporters, “from relying on government to provide all the answers.”

Mr. Cravaack has said he drew unemployment benefits during a furlough from Northwest in the early 1990s. He did not respond to several requests for an interview, nor to an e-mail with questions about his views and about whether his family has drawn on other benefits programs. This account is based on a review of his public statements.

Shortly after arriving in Congress, Mr. Cravaack voted with a vast majority of House Republicans for a plan to remake Medicare by providing money to its beneficiaries to buy private insurance. Senate Democrats have rejected that plan.

But Mr. Cravaack has also consistently said the government should not reduce its largest category of spending — benefits for the current generation of retirees. He also says he does not support cuts for people who will turn 65 over the next decade.

“If you’re 55 years and older, you don’t have to listen to this conversation because we have to keep those promises,” Mr. Cravaack told The Daily Caller last April. “People like myself, 52, if you’re 54 or younger, we’re going to have a conversation.”

Tomorrow, Tomorrow

The government helps Matt Falk and his wife care for their disabled 14-year-old daughter. It pays for extra assistance at school and for trained attendants to stay with her at home while they work. It pays much of the cost of her regular visits to the hospital.

Mr. Falk, 42, would like the government to do less.

“She doesn’t need some of the stuff that we’re doing for her,” said Mr. Falk, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business in North Branch. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing if society can afford it, but given the situation that our society is facing, we just have to say that we can’t offer as much resources at school or that we need to pay a higher premium” for her medical care.

Mr. Falk, who voted for Mr. Cravaack, said he did not want to pay higher taxes and did not want the government to impose higher taxes on anyone else. He said that his family appreciated the government’s help and that living with less would be painful for them and many other families. But he said the government could not continue to operate on borrowed money.

“They’re going to have to reduce benefits,” he said. “We’re going to have to accept it, and we’re going to have to suffer.”

One of the oldest criticisms of democracy is that the people will inevitably drain the treasury by demanding more spending than taxes. The theory is that citizens who get more than they pay for will vote for politicians who promise to increase spending.

But Dean P. Lacy, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College, has identified a twist on that theme in American politics over the last generation. Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.

Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates. And Professor Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues.

Chisago has shifted over 30 years from dependably Democratic to reliably Republican. Support for the Republican presidential candidate has increased relative to the national vote in each election since 1984. Senator John McCain won 55 percent of the vote here in 2008.

Residents say social issues play a role, but in recent years concerns about spending and taxes have predominated.

Voters in the North Branch school district have rejected increased financing for local schools in each of the past three years. In 2010, the district switched to a four-day school week, striking Monday from the calendar to save money.

Some of the fiercest advocates for spending cuts have drawn public benefits. Many, like Mr. Falk, have family members who rely on the government. They often cite that personal experience as the reason they want to cut government spending.

Brian Qualley, 49, has a sister who survived a brain tumor but was disabled by its removal. The government pays for her care at an assisted-living facility. Their mother scrapes by on Social Security.

Mr. Qualley said that the government should provide for those who need help, but that too much money was being wasted. Mr. Qualley, who owns a tattoo parlor in Harris, north of North Branch, said some of his customers paid with money from government disability checks.

“They’re getting $300 or $400 tattoos, and they’re wearing nice new Nike shoes that I can’t afford,” he said, looking up from working a complicated design into the left leg of a middle-aged woman. “I guess I shouldn’t say it because it’s my business, but I think a tattoo is a little too extravagant.”

But Mr. Qualley said he did not want to reduce benefits for the current generation of retirees. Rather, he said his own generation should get less, because they have time to prepare. This is a common position among the young and healthy in Chisago.

Mr. Qualley said he was saving some money for retirement, although, he added, “I don’t have a 401(k) or anything like that.”

“I also have a job that I don’t necessarily ever want to — or have to — retire from,” he said.

What if his hands start to shake as he gets older?

“Actually,” he said, the electric needle falling silent in his hand, “it’s my shoulders and neck that bother me most.”

Safety in Numbers

Barbara Nelson has little patience for people who say they will not need government help. She considers herself lucky she has not, and obligated to provide for those who do.

“Catastrophes happen in life,” she said, sitting in a coffee shop in Taylors Falls. “To be so arrogant that you think it won’t happen to you, that somehow you’re going to be one of the special ones, I disagree with that.”

Ms. Nelson, 61, who describes herself as a centrist Democrat, also dismisses the claim that people cannot afford to pay more taxes.

“Anyone who can come into a coffee shop and buy coffee is capable of paying more,” she said. “If someone’s life can be granted, in terms of adequate health care, if that means I give up five cups of coffee a month, that is a small price to pay.”

Gordy Peterson, 62, who has used a wheelchair for 30 years since a construction accident, has reluctantly reached a similar conclusion.

“I’m a conservative,” he said by way of introducing himself. He built his own house before his injury and paid for it in cash. He still thinks the government should operate that way. He never intended to depend on federal aid and said he sometimes felt guilty about it.

But for the last three decades, he has received a regular check from the Social Security disability insurance program, and Medicare has helped to pay his medical bills.

“Here I’m getting money, and everybody is struggling,” he said. “Even though it ain’t no cakewalk for me.”

Mr. Peterson used a workers’ compensation settlement to buy a farm that he managed with his brother-in-law, who is mentally handicapped and also on government disability.

“He was my legs, and we worked it,” Mr. Peterson said.

They grew corn, soybeans and rye, and even kept steers for a while. In good years they earned enough to live on. In bad years they lived on the government’s checks. Life would have been very difficult without them, he said.

Mr. Peterson, an easygoing man who looks down when he thinks and smiles sheepishly when he offers an opinion, looked down after completing the story of his own dependence on the safety net.

“It’s hard to beat up on the government when they’ve been so good to you,” he finally said. “I’ve never really thought about it, I guess.”

Lately, the government has been very good, indeed. The county, with federal financing, bought a corner of Mr. Peterson’s farm to build a new interchange for Interstate 35. He used the money to open a gas station at the edge of the farm in 2008 to serve the traffic that rolls off the new ramp. The business is prospering, and he no longer worries that he will need to depend on Social Security.

“But you can’t take that away,” he said. “My own sister has only Social Security. That’s all. That’s all she’s going to have. And if you take that away from her, Christ, she’d be a street person. I don’t think we can cut them off on that.”

How about higher taxes?

Maybe a little higher, he said. Maybe.

“I’m glad I’m not a politician,” he said. “We’re all going to complain no matter what they do. Nobody wants to put a noose around their own neck.”

[Via NY Times]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Detroit Citizens No Longer Rely on Police as Self-defense Killings Skyrocket

The people of Detroit are taking no prisoners.

Justifiable homicide in the city shot up 79 percent in 2011 from the previous year, as citizens in the long-suffering city armed themselves and took matters into their own hands. The local rate of self-defense killings now stands 2,200 percent above the national average. Residents, unable to rely on a dwindling police force to keep them safe, are fighting back against the criminal scourge on their own. And they’re offering no apologies.

“We got to have a little Old West up here in Detroit. That’s what it’s gonna take,” Detroit resident Julia Brown told The Daily.

The last time Brown, 73, called the Detroit police, they didn’t show up until the next day. So she applied for a permit to carry a handgun and says she’s prepared to use it against the young thugs who have taken over her neighborhood, burglarizing entire blocks, opening fire at will and terrorizing the elderly with impunity.

“I don’t intend to be one of their victims,” said Brown, who has lived in Detroit since the late 1950s. “I’m planning on taking one out.”

How it got this bad in Detroit has become a point of national discussion. Violent crime settled into the city’s bones decades ago, but recently, as the numbers of police officers have plummeted and police response times have remained distressingly high, citizens have taken to dealing with things themselves.

In this city of about 700,000 people, the number of cops has steadily fallen, from about 5,000 a decade ago to fewer than 3,000 today. Detroit homicides — the second-highest per capita in the country last year, according to the FBI — rose by 10 percent in 2011 to 344 people.

On a bleak day in January, a group of funeral directors wearied by the violence drove a motorcade of hearses through the city streets in protest.

Average police response time for priority calls in the city, according to the latest data available, is 24 minutes. In comparable cities across the country, it is well under 10 minutes.

Citizens like Brown feel they have been left with little choice but to take the law into their own hands.

The number of justifiable homicides, in which residents use deadly force in self-defense, jumped from 19 in 2010 to 34 last year — a 79 percent rise — according to newly released city data.

Signs that vigilantism was taking hold in the city came earlier, around Memorial Day 2009, when former federal agent Alvin Davis decided he’d had enough of the break-ins at his mother’s home on the east side. She called the police again and again, but the brazen robberies continued. Davis, then a 32-year-old Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, snapped.

Prosecutors said he spent days chasing and harassing the teenagers who were allegedly robbing his mother, even shoving his federally issued firearm into one of their mouths. No one was killed, but by the time he was done, Davis had racked up charges of unlawful imprisonment and assault. In August 2010, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

But many residents in his mother’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood are sympathetic to Davis, whose case is on appeal.

“He basically did what a lot of us wished we could do,” said Ken Gray, 58, who lives down the street from Davis’ mother.

One high-ranking official in the county legal system, speaking to The Daily, said the rise in justifiable homicides mirrors a local court system that’s increasingly lenient of the practice.

“It’s a lot more acceptable now to get your own retribution,” the official said. “And the justice system in the city is a lot more understanding if people do that. It‘s becoming a part of the culture.”

Detroiters are arming themselves with shotguns and handguns and buying guard dogs. Anything to take care of their own. And privately, residents say neighborhood watch groups in Detroit are widely armed.

“It’s like the militiamen who stepped up way back when. That’s where the neighborhood folks are," said James “Jackrabbit” Jackson, a 63-year-old retired Detroit cop who has patrolled the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood for years.

“They’re ready to fight,” Jackson said. “We don’t hardly see police anymore.”

The city’s wealthier enclaves have hired private security firms. Intimidating men in armored trucks patrol streets lined with gracious old homes in a scene more likely seen in Mexico City than the United States.

That kind of paid protection can run residents anywhere from $10 to $200 per month, and companies say business is good.

“We’re booming,” said Dale Brown, the owner of Threat Management Group, which along with Recon Security patrols neighborhoods like Palmer Woods in black Hummers.

“We’re paramilitary, but we’re positive. I’m not a vigilante. I’m an agent of change.”

The Detroit Police Department, grappling with deep funding cuts in a city with a spiraling budget crisis, acknowledges that response times are high and says it is working on a plan to lower them. But a spokeswoman for the department insists the rise in justifiable homicides is unrelated.

“It’s not about police response time because often the act has already taken place by the time the police are called,” said Sgt. Eren Stephens. She said citizens have a right to defend themselves.

“Anytime a life is lost, we’re concerned,” she said. “But we can‘t be on every corner in front of every home. And we know that there are citizens who will do what they have to do to protect themselves.”

That’s the terrifying position in which Kevin Early found himself in November when he was held up at gunpoint outside his home in the upper-middle-class Rosedale Park area. Neighbors called the police, but it was 25 minutes before an officer arrived.

Early, the director of the criminal justice studies program at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, reasoned with the men for more than 20 minutes before he sensed they were about to shoot him in the head — then he ran. As his attackers fled in the opposite direction, neighbors emerged from the street’s stately homes with shotguns.

“All I could think of was my daughter coming home,” Early said. “I didn’t want her to see me shot dead.”

Weeks later, Early packed up his home and left Detroit. He hired Threat Management to supervise the move.

“Where else do the police come to your house after you’ve been robbed and ask you, ‘Why did you call us?’”

[Via The Daily]

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Civic Hybrid Owner Wins in Court Over Low Mileage

Southern California Honda Civic hybrid owner Heather Peters won $9,867 in a court fight with Honda over what she said was her car's too-low mileage.

The Southern California owner of a Honda hybrid car won her unusual small-claims court lawsuit against the automaker over the vehicle's failure to deliver its stated fuel economy.

Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Douglas Carnahan awarded Heather Peters $9,867 on Wednesday, saying Honda did mislead her about the expected mileage.

"At a bare minimum Honda was aware ... that by the time Peters bought her car there were problems with its living up to its advertised mileage," he wrote in the judgment.

Peters opted out of a class-action lawsuit so she could try to claim a higher payment for the failure of her Civic to deliver the 50 miles per gallon that was advertised when she bought it.

Informed of the decision by The Associated Press, Peters exulted, "Wow! Fantastic."

"I am absolutely thrilled. Sometimes big justice comes in small packages," she said. "This is a victory for Honda Civic owners everywhere."

Honda hadn't seen the decision Wednesday afternoon but planned to issue a statement after it was reviewed, said spokesman Chris Martin.

Peters, a former lawyer, hoped to inspire a flood of lawsuits by the other 200,000 owners of the Hybrid Honda Civic model sold in 2006. She said that if all 200,000 owners of the cars sued and won in small claims cost, it could Honda Motor Co. $2 billion.

She launched a website,, and said she was contacted by hundreds of other car owners seeking guidance in how to file small claims suits if they opted out of a class-action case already filed.

The upside of small claims court is that there are no attorneys' fees and cases are decided quickly. Individual payments are far greater than in class-action cases.

Honda's proposed class-action settlement would give aggrieved owners $100 to $200 each and a $1,000 credit toward the purchase of a new car. Legal fees in the class action case would give trial lawyers $8.5 million, Peters said.

Legal experts had said it was unlikely that all owners would take the small claims route because of the time and energy involved in pursuing such lawsuits. But it was a unique approach that could have an impact.

Carnahan held two hearings on the claim in January.

Peters claimed her car never came close to the advertised 50 mpg and that it got no more than 30 miles per gallon when the battery began deteriorating. She still owns the car and wanted to be compensated for money lost on gas, as well as punitive damages, amounting to $10,000.

A Honda technical expert who testified at an earlier hearing said the company was required by federal law to post the sticker estimating the highest mileage the car could get. But he said the mileage varied on how the car was driven. The company said Peters was not deceived.

A judge in San Diego County is due to rule in March on whether to approve Honda's class-action settlement. Members of the class have until Feb. 11 to accept or decline the deal.

Small claims courts generally handle private disputes that do not involve large amounts of money. In many states, that means small debts, quarrels between tenants and landlords, and contract disagreements. Attorneys aren't usually there; in California, litigants aren't allowed to have lawyers argue their case.

The limit for small claims damages in California is $10,000. In other states it ranges from $2,500 to $15,000.

[Via Usa Today]

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Living Life Off the Grid in California's Badlands

"Chicago" Joe Angio and his wife Anna did everything by the book to secure their slice of the American Dream. They earned college degrees, started a small business, bought a house and pair of cars, paid their taxes and credit-card bills on time. But when the economy tanked, so did the dream. Between two jobs they could barely pay their mortgage, reaching a point where they had to choose which creditor to shortchange at the end of the month in order to keep the lights on. With foreclosure no longer a matter of if, but of when, the couple looked on the Internet for the ideal place to lay low, spend less and experiment with solar power to "get more for our buck out of our environment." They bought a used RV and went off the grid. Way off.

Slab City, their home for the past three months, is a squatters' camp deep in the badlands of California's poorest county, where the road ends and the sun reigns, about 190 miles southeast of Los Angeles and hour's drive from the Mexican border. The vast state-owned property gets its name from the concrete slabs spread out across the desert floor, the last remnants of a World War II–era military base. In the decades since it was decommissioned, dropouts and fugitives of all stripes have swelled its winter population to close to a thousand, though no one's really counting. These days, their numbers are growing thanks to a modest influx of recession refugees like the Angios, attracted by do-it-yourself, rent-free living beyond the reach of electricity, running water and the law. And while the complexion of the Slabs, as the place is locally known, may be changing in some ways, the same old rule applies: respect your neighbor, or stay the hell away.

"It's pretty much as close to the Old West as you're gonna get. Most of us don't own guns or none of that garbage, but if we have problems, we take care of [them]," says Ray, 56, a former drug addict turned born-again Christian who has traversed the country six times with a giant wooden cross on his back. Katie Ray, 30, a perennial visitor from Oakland, Calif., calls the place a "postapocalyptic vacation zone."

Although Slabbers tend to defy easy characterization, de facto neighborhoods ("Poverty Flats," "Lows") and tribes have emerged. There are Year-Rounders who brave the 120°F summer inferno, and Snowbirds who land from as far as Canada with their souped-up RVs and pensions, soul-searching Gypsy Kids who arrive by train with little more than the ragged clothes on their back, Spaz Kids and their electro-psychedelic outdoor parties, and Scrappers who risk life and limb to collect shrapnel from the gunnery range that flanks the camp, where Navy SEAL teams train year-round (and where rumor has it they prepared for the Osama bin Laden raid). That's to say nothing of the rowdy bikers who pass through, or the meth-addled loners on the outer edges inclined to greet a trespasser with a gunshot. If the Burning Man festival were a permanent settlement instead of a weeklong escape — remixed with a hard dose of reality — this might be it.

"The Last Free Place in America" lives up to its nickname. Want to hang out nude in thermal mud baths or skateboard stoned in the bowl of an Olympic-size pool? Go for it. In the mood to construct outlandish pieces of art with scrap metal, dig an SUV-size trench for no particular reason or play 18 holes of golf on a grassless course to the sound of bombs in the distance? This is the place. Yet despite the anything-goes reputation, those who stick around the Slabs long enough insist they are made to feel welcome, provided they have the right attitude. Free meals and entertainment are on offer, capped by Saturday-night concerts at the Range, a clapboard venue that showcases live acts of varying quality. This bohemian aspect was featured in the 2007 film Into the Wild, rare mainstream attention that drew a surge of newcomers to Slab City.

One of them is Sandra "Sandi" Andrews, 61, a nomadic mother of eight without a retirement plan. Her daughter saw the film and figured it was her mom's kind of place. She was right. "When I first got here, I thought this is a whole new planet, there's no place like it," she exclaims. Initial concerns about her safety as a woman alone did not last long. Three years on, she's surrounded by friends and lives on less than $100 a month, supplementing her Social Security check with paintings she sells to tourists that stop by her studio, a converted school bus. Among her neighbors are two widows in their 90s and an 89-year-old who jokes that she'd die as soon as she set foot in a retirement home. "We've all chosen and like Slab City," Andrews says, "so the caring and sharing is always there."

Well, it depends on whom you ask too. "Builder Bill" Ammon, 63, a year-round resident who manages the Range, says that when he moved from San Diego to the Slabs back in 1999, the community was more tight-knit. "In those days, you could be poor and be separate from the engine of the world and still be all right," he says, fondly recalling how most everyone talked to one another on their CB radios and exchanged services and goods at regular swap meets to support themselves. "People had skills to offer." These days, he grumbles, a new generation of youngsters is turning up ill equipped for the sobering demands of life off the grid, looking for handouts. No one is left to go hungry, he notes. But if they don't adapt, they are given the cold shoulder, which may help explain the rise in petty theft at the camp. "A kind of segregation has developed here" between young and old, he says.

No one would disagree that the Wild West element has its darker side. Hang around the evening campfires a while and strange stories pour out: disappearances, mysterious drownings in the mud baths, the man who showed up in camp with his finger apparently bitten off, claiming he'd been attacked by a cannibal. The border patrol keeps a visible presence, searching for illegal immigrants that ply the region. When there's serious trouble, though, firemen must drive over from Niland, a derelict town five miles to the west that boasts the closest grocery store and post office. In 40-plus years on the job, Michael Aleksick, 63, the recently retired fire marshal, says he's been repeatedly shot at, stabbed and gotten in too many fistfights to remember, often with people he knows. Crime has worsened. "The crystal-meth influence," he says, "has been huge."

"There's the good, bad and the ugly," says "Shotgun" Vince Neill, 38, a newcomer who got his nickname partly for stopping a man from stealing a friend's solar panels with a blast of rock salt. He first visited the Slabs as a boy and returned this winter with his wife and six children in tow after he lost his audiovisual business and their home in Northern California. Sometimes he worries about his family's safety, but Neill reckons that Slab City's problems are proportionate to any normal city in the country. And he has no regrets about bringing his kids (ages 2 to 18). In this case, math and English lessons are rounded out with training on catching scorpions and rattlesnakes. "They're much happier learning in the great outdoors; it's the best school," he says. Still, Slab City is more of a parking spot than a long-term solution: come summer, the family will head to Los Angeles so he can look for full-time work.

Others, like "Radio" Mike Depraida, 60, keep choosing to return. The native New Yorker was living the fast life as a consultant and photographer but grew weary of the hectic pace and an apartment building where he didn't know his neighbors. A chance visit with friends three years ago got him hooked on the Slabs, and he's since become the perpetually tan guy in a polo shirt who operates a radio station and greets travelers with a gin and tonic at his makeshift tiki bar. The freedom and mix of people keep him coming back, a dearth of single women notwithstanding. "Why are these some of the most intelligent people I've met in my life?" he asks aloud. "I came to the conclusion that if you're smart enough to get out of the rat race, well, then, you're pretty damn bright."

Chicago Joe and Anna are proof positive. They ended up parking their trailer in East Jesus, a renegade open-air art space with Mad Max accents. The view outside their window features a half-buried coach bus and, beyond that, a giant mammoth made of tires; their neighbors include an ex-chef, a documentary filmmaker and a wandering magician cum tattoo artist. What started as an adventure has settled into a routine filled with solar projects and other odd jobs that will keep them busy and fit. Joe's already lost 80 lb. "People back home still think we're crazy for doing what we've done," he says. "It's not for everyone, but this lifestyle has grown on us, tremendously." The couple swear their relationship has also improved because they no longer fight about money. It's not hard to understand why: their living expenses have dropped from about $4,000 to $200 a month. Less than their electricity bill when they owned a house.

[Via Time]