Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why Should Equifax's Problem Be Your Problem Too?

So, roughly half the American population is at extra-high risk of identity theft after the Equifax security breach. In honor of the occasion, here's a reprint of an article I wrote ten years ago for a now-defunct alternative weekly in Connecticut, explaining how identity-theft laws actually benefit banks and credit-card companies at the expense of ordinary American citizens.

Thy Brother's Keeper (And Thy Bank's, Too)
Protecting the assets of wealthy lending institutions is your personal responsibility. Seriously.

By Jennifer Abel
Hartford Advocate
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Here's how the five stages of grief play out when you learn that your lucky self is at risk of identity theft because you're one of the 106,000 taxpayers whose names and social security numbers were on the laptop stolen from the Department of Revenue Services last month:

Denial: I don't believe this!
Anger: Dang government, always making innocent people miserable.
Bargaining: I'd give anything for competent leadership.
Depression: Yeah, right, that'll happen (sniffle).
Acceptance: I can't afford to move to Amsterdam.

Once you complete the final phase you can start taking steps to regain control of your destiny, by contacting either Equifax, TransUnion or Experian, the three credit-reporting agencies listed on the DRS letter, and telling it to put a credit alert on your accounts. Whichever agency you call is legally obligated to contact the other two on your behalf.

What's the benefit of a credit alert? According to a Sept. 14 press release from Attorney General Richard Blumenthal (who did not return our calls for this story), "Credit alerts require companies to make a good faith effort to verify the identity of anyone seeking credit or a loan. Alerts must be renewed every 90 days."

Envy me, reader, for the security that's temporarily mine: over the next three months minus the time it takes for this to get to print and thence to you, if anyone contacts the Gigantobank Corporation to say "Hi, I'm Jennifer and I'd like to take out several thousand dollars in high-interest, unsecured credit-card debt," Gigantobank has to make a good-faith effort to ensure it's actually me before burdening my credit record with a legal responsibility to pay them back this money.

This is a special privilege, not a default setting. After I activated it for myself by calling the first company listed on my DRS form letter, I made a few more phone calls in hopes of learning why anyone need bother with credit alerts anyway.


"Protect yourself from identity theft." That phrase, in quotation marks, yielded 141,000 hits in an online search. Take the quotes away and it's nearly two million. Who in America hasn't heard it at least that many times? It's a bona fide part of the zeitgeist. Yet the assumption behind it is false.

The classic identity theft scam works something like this: the thief manages to convince Gigantobank he's actually you, and borrows money in your name. It will be a very annoying and time-consuming process for you to straighten out the mess, but at least you're not liable for the money Gigantobank lost.

Read that last sentence again: it's not your money you're protecting. So how did it become your responsibility (or mine) to protect the assets of wealthy corporations which, in most cases, we've never even done a lick of business with?

The folks I spoke to said that expecting financial companies to make sure it's really you they're lending money to would bring the credit card industry to its knees, which would be an undesirable outcome.

Let's say you've just been informed of the presence of one or more previously unknown credit cards in your name. It's up to you to prove that it's not yours. No "innocent until proven guilty" assumptions apply. Why can't you just tell the company "I never borrowed this money, and if you think I did then prove it?" Why is the onus on you to prove your innocence?

"That's simple," said Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "The fact that your personal information was used to open the account."

But calling it my "personal" information sounds like a bit of a stretch these days, doesn't it? Given how commonplace identity theft cases and database security breaches are, it seems folly for credit-card companies and the like to continue pretending that on all God's earth, the only person who could possibly know my social security number and date of birth is me. My credit alert requires companies to make a good faith effort to ensure I'm responsible before loaning money in my name. Why isn't that standard practice?

Foley spoke for several paragraphs that boil down to: this would kill the credit industry as we know it. "If it fell to credit card companies to prove the individual opened the account ... if I walked into a Kmart, or a Wal-Mart, or a Sears," he'd no longer be able to apply for and receive on-the-spot credit.

Nessa Feddis, from the American Bankers Association, put it more succinctly. "If consumers were simply allowed to make the statement 'I owe you nothing' and avoid payment, all consumers could simply make the declaration and avoid paying legitimate debts."

Well, all consumers could certainly try that. But the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven hasn't prevented society from imprisoning criminals, most of whom vehemently deny having committed the crime for which they were convicted. It's up to the prosecution to prove guilt. Why isn't that the case with debts incurred via identity theft?

"Criminal transactions are far less frequent and presumably more serious than loan transactions," Feddis said. "Resolving every loan dispute would clog the courts and make loans far more expensive ... the burden of proof in a criminal case is stronger than in a civil case."

Speaking of civil cases, consider this: if a thief steals your identity, you are (at least) not required to pay the actual bills your identity thief rang up. But neither are you entitled to compensation for the dozens of hours you'll spend clearing up the mess. And if you're unfortunate enough to suffer additional financial consequences, like being denied a mortgage or even turned down for a job because of your unjustly low credit score, you can't sue for damages in a civil court. Why not?

"State laws often allow victims to get compensation from criminals," Feddis observed. "Whether the victim is entitled to compensation from others ... is a matter of state law and tort law. It is no different from any other case where someone incurs damages due to someone else's actions."

Oh, but it's very different from such cases. If I, as a private citizen, make an honest mistake that causes you to be rejected for a loan or denied a job, you can sue me for damages in civil court. But if you suffer this same consequence due to the honest mistake of a credit-card company or credit reporting agency, you have no legal recourse at all.

"Unfortunately, that's right," said Jay Foley. "As much as I hate to say that, that's true."

Friday, September 08, 2017

Hurricane Prep: A Sadly Clueless Anecdote

Apparently, there are a lot of people in my neck of the woods who not only don't know there's a good chance we'll get hit by Hurricane Irma (albeit a much weaker version than what Florida is supposed to get), they don't even know it's possible for Atlanta or suburbs thereof to be affected by hurricanes!

I had to get my car's emissions test done today, and the test center nearest to me is in the parking lot of the strip mall holding the Kroger where I usually shop. When I got there, the emissions center was closed, but the man there said it would re-open in 15 minutes, after the operator got back from the bank. So I walked over to Kroger, figuring it wouldn't hurt to pick up a few more granola bars and other non-perishable snack-type foods.

There were a few people in Kroger making what I suspect were storm-prep purchases, including at least three shoppers whose carts were chockful of cases of drinking water. But for every one person buying storm-prep or non-perishable stuff, there were four people buying things like "carts full of frozen dinners" or other things certain to go bad if we do indeed lose power for any significant length of time. (Personally, I haven't bought any frozen or refrigerated food for the past week, ever since Irma got her name and I realized I was in the storm's maybe-possibly zone of possibility; furthermore, I've been making a point of eating as much as I can out of my own freezer or refrigerator. I'm still annoyed by the memory of the $150+ worth of food I had to discard in Connecticut, after the Halloween blizzard of 2011 left me without power for almost a week.)

I bought a few things and then returned to the emissions center, which had a long-ish line by then; I had to wait 20 or 30 minutes for my turn. While the test was going on I made small talk with the operator (who seemed amazed that my 2002-model car was still on the road), and at one point he also expressed surprise over how many people were in line for the emissions test. So I said something like "Yeah, I came by a little earlier but the guy said it was closed until you got back from the bank, so I went to Kroger to pick up a few more hurricane supplies."

"What, you're going to Florida?" he asked in a surprised tone of voice.

"No, but the storm's forecast to hit us here on Monday," I said in an equally surprised tone.

He said that's impossible; hurricanes can't hit us here because we're too far from any beach. I agreed that we don't have to worry about storm surges, but told him we can still get winds and rain bad enough to lose power, and maybe have contaminated tap water too. I also mentioned that when Hurricane Opal hit 20 years ago, parts of Atlanta and its suburbs were without electricity for up to a week.

Judging from the look on his face, I'm about 95 percent sure he thought I was just bullshitting him, or possibly a shill for the Granola Bar, Bottled Water and Canned Food-Industrial Complex (similar to what Rush Limbaugh claimed to believe a few hours before evacuating his own Florida digs). He also did not believe me when I mentioned going through a couple of hurricanes in Connecticut, because, quote, "hurricanes don't go that far north." Which made me incredulous, and I mentioned Superstorm Sandy trashing parts of New Jersey and New York City a few years ago, but -- again, he seemed to think I was full of it. He seriously seemed to believe hurricanes can only ever be a problem for people who live in Florida, or within a mile or two of a southern-state saltwater beach.

For his sake, as well as mine and all my neighbors, I hope he doesn't learn otherwise the hard way, come early next week.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Trump's Remaining Fanbase and the Broken-Glass Proof

Apparently I'm developing a taste for masochism, as I sat through the entirety of Trump's televised Phoenix rally the other night. He kicked it off with an outright lie – claiming there were not many people protesting him outside – and things only got worse from there. Yet his outright lies and lies of omission mattered not at all to his remaining fanbase of supporters. Here's the actual transcript of a brief back-and-forth I had on Twitter while the rally was still ongoing:
ME: Trump just accused CNN of cutting off the feed to the #PhoenixRally. I'm WATCHING that lying narcissistic twit on CNN.

SOME TRUMP FAN: He never said CNN

ME: Yes, he did. You can check it yourself, once this travesty of a speech re-airs.

SAME TRUMP FAN: Awesome speech calling out the media.
It's almost as though "support for Trump" exists in a set amount, and as that support is divided among fewer and fewer Americans, it becomes evermore concentrated in those Americans who DO still support him — mere seconds after his ludicrous claim that the very networks airing his speech were cutting off their feeds (because "they" don't want Americans to hear his words), his fans insisted that no, he never said any such thing, and it's awesome how he said it. The hell of it is, I don't think these people are actively, consciously lying; they genuinely can't see or hear what Trump says or does, when his words or actions contradict reality. They don't even see their own contradictions.

Suppose instead that Trump and his fans admitted the truth about how relatively few people went to the rally versus how very many protested it outside, but said “See, now, this rally WOULD have been packed, if not for God-loving Americans' fear that the evil violent Antifa-types would attack them....” yeah, that would be dishonest and self-serving, but in a way which at least accepts certain undeniable aspects of reality – namely, the numerical amount of people who went out for or against Trump at the rally. But no – instead Trump and his fans went for outright gaslighting: there were YUUGE numbers of rally attendees, a TINY number of protesters, the very networks airing this speech are refusing to air it....

I recall a conversation I had on a certain chat forum years ago—the context was discussing why certain otherwise-intelligent people will deny evolution, or manmade climate change, or something along those lines. And I posited that maybe part of the problem was that such issues lack what I called a “broken glass proof.” By which I mean: suppose you and I are debating the nature of glass – I say it is breakable, you say it is not.

I could perhaps change your mind (or maybe, “You are perhaps capable of changing your mind, if you are intellectually honest enough to admit 'Hmm, my previously held idea was wrong'”) via persuasion, reasoning and deduction: here are the facts regarding glass' chemical formula, crystalline structure, molecular bonds and the relative strength of them all. Everybody knows that substances with these qualities can break, glass has these qualities, ergo glass can break.

But if reasoning and deduction won't convince you that glass can indeed break, it is extremely easy for me to illustrate the breakability of glass: Here's an unbroken glass object. Behold, I just broke it. I can repeat this experiment multiple times if necessary. And if look at those broken shards and still deny glass is breakable, there's two possibilities: you are either lying/dishonest regarding what you actually see, or you are downright delusional/insane. Either way, it's clearly not worth my time to debate you anymore.

Most of the great religious, political or scientific controversies that currently exist or once existed are controversies for which there is no broken-glass proof: you personally cannot see man evolving from lower animals, nor single-celled organisms evolving into complex multicellular life. There is no vantage point from which you can observe the Earth orbiting the sun, the way you can observe carousel horses circling the center of a merry-go-round. You can't even directly see increased levels of greenhouse gases leading to higher average temperatures, the way you can directly see “Huh, holding a lighted match to a pile of newspapers makes those papers catch on fire.” Smoking tobacco doesn't immediately and directly cause lung cancer in the way that swallowing cyanide immediately and directly causes death. Et cetera.

So disbelieving in the evolution of man, the earth orbiting the sun, the reality of man-made climate change – at best these suggest a MASSIVE blind spot, but don't necessarily prove outright dishonesty or delusion in the manner of someone who can look at glass breaking and still deny glass can break, because evolution, the movement of the Earth or similar things all lack that undeniable broken-glass proof.

But lately, this past week or so, the Trumpsters ARE going so far as to deny broken-glass proofs – looking at huge crowds of anti-Trump protesters, yet insisting there's hardly anybody there. Swearing that the very stations which aired his speech refused to air it, because “they” don't want Americans to hear the truth. Accepting Trump's revised accounts of his original post-Charlottesville commentary despite video evidence proving his revised accounts were wrong. And so forth. And that's why I've given up even trying to debate with Trump fans, anymore than I'd waste time trying to convince  people who don't believe those broken shards of glass they see is proof positive that yes, glass CAN break.

Monday, August 14, 2017

What REAL "Heritage, Not Hate" Would Look Like

My father was career military so I'm not really “from” any one particular place, but between childhood, adolescence and adulthood, I've spent more than half my life living in former Confederate states, so technically, I qualify as a “Southerner.” And I'm about as pale as you can get without crossing the line into full-fledged albino status, which means I'm among the whitest of white Southerners, too.

Meanwhile, there's an ongoing argument which claims that my own heritage, history and/or culture is under attack, due to efforts to remove Confederate memorials from public places, or rename public streets and buildings named after Confederate heroes. To which I say: hogwash. Quit honoring Confederates; the only good thing to say about the Confederacy is that it lost. If private citizens want to continue honoring the memory of slavery and those who fought to defend it, that of course is their right, but the government should not be using taxpayers' money to glamorize such people.

Nor am I impressed by arguments that statues or road signs honoring Confederates are a vital part of “Southern heritage,” “Southern history” or “Southern culture.” Surely, there's more to the heritage, history and culture than those four years fighting for the right to own slaves? You could name streets after various Southern literary greats -- there's far too many to mention here, but off the top of my head I can think of Harper Lee, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Truman Capote and Alice Walker. Or, erect monuments and name public buildings after the various genres of music which started in the South, or the Southern musicians who made those genres famous. One could honor famous painters and other artists from the South. Or Southern inventors and scientists ranging from John Pemberton to George Washington Carver …. if “honoring Southern history, heritage and culture” (rather than honoring white supremacy and those who fought to maintain it) were the actual goal, there are plenty of options which don't require fetishizing the four years white Southerners spent trying to secede from the United States so they wouldn't have to give up their slaves.

(To forestall any arguments a la “It wasn't about slavery; it was about states' rights! And tariffs!” .... bullshit. Read the actual Confederate states' own articles of secession, which explicitly mention the importance of preserving slavery and/or white supremacy. As for the counterargument “What about monuments honoring slaveowners such as Washington and Jefferson, huh? You wanna take THOSE down, too?” ... those men today are honored and remembered for other things they did despite the stain of slavery on their souls. There's a big difference between “refusing to honor famous people who happened to own slaves” and “refusing to honor people who are famous solely because they fought their own countrymen to preserve the right to own slaves.” Had slavery never existed in America, there would still be plenty of reasons for American history books today to remember the likes of Washington and Jefferson ... but no reason at all to remember the likes of Jefferson Davis.)

Friday, August 11, 2017

James Damore, Aaron Sobczak, and the Right to Free Speech

For the past couple weeks I've been facepalming on the sidelines of two online free-speech battles: a small skirmish generally unknown to anyone outside of the libertarian Twittersphere, and a larger, more recent war making headlines around the world.

First, the libertarian skirmish: during a libertarian conference on the weekend of July 29, the Ladies of Liberty Alliance, using the hashtag #MakeLibertyWin, went on Twitter to ask for suggestions on how to get more women involved in the libertarian movement.

In response, a young man named Aaron Sobczak, a Liberty University student who is or was the state chair of Virginia's Libertarian Youth Caucus, tweeted back a photo of a sandwich, alongside the witty and original suggestion that this is “The best way for a woman to #MakeLibertyWin.” Later – though I don't know the exact timeline of events – he doubled down on his comment by making a public Facebook post claiming that “screeching feminists” are why women shouldn't be involved in the liberty movement at all (except, presumably, as sandwich-makers for the menfolks).

In response, Reason writer Elizabeth Nolan Brown tweeted a screenshot of Sobczak's comedy stylings, under the observation “This is a young man who ostensibly wants a job someday, tweeting at professional women in his field under his own name,” and “RT to help ensure Aaron Sobczak’s prospective employers know this when they search for Aaron Sobczak’s name.”




Which made a lot of capital-L Libertarians furious – what kind of horrid groupthink is Brown promoting, suggesting that a man should suffer professional consequences just for spouting an unpopular opinion?

Though not usually prolific on Twitter, I decided to join the fray myself, re-tweeting Brown's comment along with this observation:
Libertarian hypocrisy: "We don't need anti-discrimination laws; The Market will punish sexism. Also, how DARE ENBrown call out this bigot!"
I'll be the first to agree: it would be awful to live in a world where merely “expressing an unpopular opinion” seriously hurts someone's chances of making a decent living. But what if that “unpopular opinion” specifically boils down to “I believe certain groups of people – many of whom are employees or customers of my employer – are inherently inferior, somehow”? If a libertarian-outreach organization refuses to hire Sobczak just because he wants to pre-emptively write off slightly more than half the human race, is that organization punishing him for non-conformity to groupthink – or making a sensible, defensible decision?

Kat Murti of the Cato Institute posted a 13-tweet thread explaining Sobczak's genitally focused idiocy in more detail;  for convenience's sake, I've combined all 13 tweets into a single paragraph here:
I stand by @ENbrown and those who critiqued the "sandwich tweet." Here's why... The tweet was posted in response to a discussion about women's role in the liberty movement and misogyny faced by libertarian women. The tweeter is a low-level representative of a liberty org who was attending a liberty conference and tweeting at fellow libertarians. No one searched out sexist jokes to make an example of their tweeters; the tweet was meant to be seen. It was made publicly, using the hashtag of the discussion, & tagged numerous libertarian women & orgs. It was not taken out of context. This was not a "joke." When called on it, the tweeter's response underscored these were his actual views on libertarian women. He (posting publicly on Facebook) said "screeching feminists" are exactly why women shouldn't be a part of the liberty movement. Suggesting that someone who hold these views is not a good ambassador for liberty is not an attack on his free speech. None of the people critiquing the original tweet called for legal repercussions or a violent response to silence the tweeter. However, some libertarian women who shared the tweet received anonymous texts with their home addresses & threats (actual doxxing). While I do think political correctness and call-out culture has in many cases gone overboard, this was not such a case. Libertarians must take a (peaceful, voluntary) stand against bigotry espoused by those who purport to be a part of our movement. Misogyny is not a libertarian value and standing against it is not an attack on free speech.
I've no qualms about admitting I agree completely with Murti's take: a man who espouses views antithetical to liberty shouldn't be employed in the liberty movement. But what about non-political (or apolitical) employers – is it acceptable for them to not-want to hire a man who publicly argues the inherent inferiority of women? Who is the source of the problem here: the man who repeatedly, publicly expresses a low opinion of women, or the women (and friends of same) who don't want to work with or for such a man?

A few years ago, the then-CEO of Mozilla resigned after it came out that he'd donated time and money to political efforts against gay marriage. Same conundrum: yeah, it stinks that someone lost his job merely for an unpopular opinion, but on the other hand that specific opinion was "Certain of my fellow citizens – many of whom work for this company, or use this company's products – are undeserving of full equal legal rights." Are the "un-equal" people in question being oppressors, if they say "Y'know, I really don't want to work for or with a man who is so convinced of my inherent inferiority?" Or "Given how many identical products there are on the market, I choose to use the product made by executives who don't seek to deprive me of equal rights?"

That said, the issue of former Google engineer James Damore is a bit trickier. Damore lost his job after publishing – on an internal Google message board – a ten-page pseudo-intellectual screed basically arguing that the reason companies like Google have far fewer women than men on their payroll is because of inherent biological differences. (He also implied – though never outright stated – that racial disparities in hiring are also due to biology rather than culture.)

My single favorite eyeroll-worthy paragraph from Damore's memo is probably this one:
Communism promised to be both morally and economically superior to capitalism, but every attempt became morally corrupt and an economic failure. As it became clear that the working class of the liberal democracies wasn’t going to overthrow their “capitalist oppressors,” the Marxist intellectuals transitioned from class warfare to gender and race politics. The core oppressor-oppressed dynamics remained, but now the oppressor is the “white, straight, cis-gendered patriarchy.”
If nothing else, I admire Damore's talent for creating semi-plausible deniability for himself: no, he did not specifically say that striving for full racial or sexual equality is as unrealistic as Communism's attempts to bring about full economic equality. And he doesn't specifically say that anyone opposed to sexism or racism is either a gorram Commie or unwilling dupe of same. All he did was post a historical fact about the repeated failures of Communism! And all Sobczak did was tweet a photo of a delicious-looking sandwich.

EXTRA CREDIT BONUS QUESTION

See if you can find the logical flaw in the following hypothetical statement: “Certain people will call us neo-Nazis 'bigots' just because we hate all Jews... yet those same people never call Jews 'bigots' even though they hate all neo-Nazis. That's because of hypocrisy.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

It's Not White "Privilege"; It's White "Insulation"

A friend of mine -- white, civil libertarian, thoroughly opposed to racism and as appalled as I am by how modern American police enjoy the de facto legal right to kill any innocent (and usually black) person they see, so long as said cop later takes the time to say "Whoops, I was really totally scared for my life" -- was talking about the concept of "privilege," most often seen in the term "white privilege," and said he opposes it on the following grounds:

...however well-intended its original purpose (and let's assume here that it was well-intended), it has devolved into a tool for delegitimizing people on the basis of their race and/or sex. It doesn't allow for looking people at individuals, but defines them based solely on group characteristics. In that, it perfectly mimics the racism it supposedly targets.

The concept embodied by that use of "privilege" is real, but the actual word "Privilege" is probably the wrong one to use, in part for the reasons he mentions. I prefer the suggestion of another friend of mine, who once said that the word should instead be replaced by "insulation." If your house is insulated, you're not completely protected from temperature extremes, but the more insulation you have, the less likely those extremes are to bother you.

My being white and speaking with what Americans call an educated middle- or upper-middle-class accent doesn't guarantee me immunity from bad cops, for example, but it gives me a lot of insulation compared to any American black person, even with the same or better educational and financial status. 

Imagine if you will an upper-class modern black family -- no doubt their wealth in many ways gives them an easier life than I have had, and opportunities I lack. On the other hand: I've never had cops arrest me for trying to enter my own house (or a friend's house in a ritzy neighborhood), whereas Henry Louis Gates did -- even though he was surely dressed better at the time than I usually am. Gates is a Harvard professor who is friends with an ex-president, much richer than me, and has a far better career too -- I am not "privileged" compared to him, but I have a hell of a lot more insulation than he does, against such indignities as "Cops in a rich neighborhood look at my complexion and automatically, wrongly assume I must be up to no good."

The idea "innocent person minding his or her own business is not hassled by the cops" should not be considered a "privilege" in an ostensibly free country. In the country we actually have, unfortunately, even innocent people who mind their own business often find themselves harassed by cops, arrested by cops, even murdered by cops (who rarely face any legal consequences, provided the cop remembers to say "Whoops, I was really totally scared for my life" afterwards). I cannot guarantee nothing like this will ever happen to me -- but so far, my skin tone has provided me excellent insulation against this extreme example of modern American injustice.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Of Gun-Free Zones and Transgender Bathrooms

I've noticed an odd left wing vs. right wing dichotomy regarding belief in the magical power of signs: if you believe "A person intent on committing mass murder will be deterred by a sign saying 'This is a gun-free zone'," your politics most likely lean toward the left. By contrast, if you believe "A person intent on raping a child in a public bathroom will be deterred by a sign meaning 'This bathroom off-limits to those who genitalia at birth looked like your own'," your politics most likely lean toward the right. Both ends of the political spectrum have adherents who manage to believe "A person evil enough to commit major felony harm against another human being will surely be scared off by the prospect of misdemeanor charges being added on."
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