Sorting Out Consumer Protection Agencies

Forget it, they’ve all had their teeth pulled by Congress and are now staggering around looking for something soft enough to chew. The names remain among the body politic, but enforcement is lying flat on its back and barely breathing.

1Consumer protection consists of laws and organizations designed to ensure the rights of consumers as well as fair trade competition and the free flow of truthful information in the marketplace. The laws are designed to prevent businesses that engage in fraud or specified unfair practices from gaining an advantage over competitors and may provide additional protection for the weak and those unable to take care of themselves. Consumer protection laws are a form of government regulation which aim to protect the rights of consumers. For example, a government may require businesses to disclose detailed information about products—particularly in areas where safety or public health is an issue, such as food. Consumer protection is linked to the idea of „consumer rights“ (that consumers have various rights as consumers), and to the formation of consumer organizations, which help consumers make better choices in the marketplace and get help with consumer complaints.

Well, we all know how well that’s worked out and you have your personal stories to tell, as do I. But let’s run down the list just for old time’s sake:

Consumer Protection

  • Consumer Product Safety Act – gives the Consumer Product Safety Commission the power to develop safety standards and pursue recalls for products (more recalls than safety)

  • Federal Trade Commission Act – created the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prevent unfair competition, deceptive acts, regulate trade, etc. (unless they bump up against someone with more clout than your local butcher shop)

Privacy Laws

  • United States National Do Not Call Registry – allows US consumers to limit telemarketing calls they receive. (Does not keep the Feds from monitoring your calls)

Food & Drug

  • Pure Food and Drug Act – led to the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate foods, drugs, and more (unless the drugs that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year are marketed by Big Phama)

Communications

  • Communications Act of 1934 – created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate all radio and interstate cable, phone, and satellite communications (worked in 1934 and now we have monopolies in all markets)

Banking

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act (FRCA) – regulates the collection, dissemination, and use of consumer credit information (so now, when you miss a single credit-card payment, all your credit-cards and, occasionally, your mortgage up their rates)

  • Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) – eliminate abusive consumer practices, ensure fairness, etc. (absolutely overpowered by the lending industry)

  • Truth in Lending Act (TILA) – requires clear disclosure of key terms of the lending arrangement and all costs (replaced by liar-loans, fine print and lender inserted escalation clauses)

Real Estate

  • Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) – prohibits kickbacks and requires lenders to provide a good faith estimate of costs (yeah, sure and a lollypop on the way out)

Health Insurance

  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) – provides consumer protection for Health Information (works seldom enough and not well)

Digital Media

  • Digital Millennium Copyright Act – prohibits production or sale of devices or services intended to circumvent copyright measures ( a set-up deal by the movie and music industry that is now likely to be overturned)

So there we are folks, your consumer protection agencies at work, trying to muddle their way out of the dentist’s office, dazed and toothless.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren, bless her, is a mover and a shaker and a no-nonsense consumer advocate admired by a great many people who see her as a fresh breeze in Washington. She’s also a poster-child for why we can no longer get anyone other than the self-interested into politics in America. Mr. Smith no longer goes to Washington, no matter the talent with which Jimmy Stewart played the role.

Elizabeth had in mind a twelve-step program for those in the Congress who are addicted to being paid to vote and addicts seldom move willingly into rehab. Being who they are and what they are and how they operate, Warren has been praised and photo-opted, smiled at and sent home like a kid who didn’t do their homework. But she’s actually done hers, serving as the Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) in 2008, when Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson gave away the store to the investment banks. Paulson, of course, was CEO of Goldman Sachs prior to that stint of ‘public service.’ Warren then served as Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Treasury Secretary in another bureau slated for the dentist’s chair; the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

That President was Barack Obama. Her problem was that she took both her job and the title seriously, actually wanting and expecting to protect the American consumer.

That’s not how Washington works and, eased out with all those smiles, Warren went home to Massachusetts to run for Senator from that State in the 2012 Senatorial race and see if she could gain access from a more powerful position. By the time you read this, that race will have been settled but win or lose, Elizabeth Warren is a woman well worth a few moments research on Youtube.

I urge you to do that. She speaks in thrillingly plain language and still has what remains of a wonderful sense of humor and candor.

Calling Stuff What It’s Not

I guess that’s always been with us, but in the past half century the advertising industry has become such a powerful shaper of tastes that imagery to a very large degree now represents fact. The references outlined below are from California, the referendum state.

Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions sounds like an anti-smoking group, until you peek under the rug.

2Funded with a reported half-million dollars from Philip Morris, Dolphin CEO Lee Stitzenberger set up a front group deceptively named „Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.“ Using this name to fool petition signers, the group has gathered the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to place a pro-smoking referendum before California voters this November. If passed, the referendum will do away with the hundreds of strong local anti-smoking ordinances in California.

Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates which might be very supportable, especially in this climate of rising insurance rates. Who’s the financial angel behind C-FAIR? According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian,3 it’s a front group for Mercury insurance, hoping to pass Proposition 17 in a California referendum.

Mercury Insurance founder and chairman George Joseph became a billionaire by offering car insurance policies to California drivers who were at a higher risk for accidents than most other companies would accept, charging them expensive rates and then challenging their claims.

The Guardian opens its article with this:

California voters are about to be bombarded by more than $50 million in political advertising designed to convince them to approve a pair of measures desperately sought by two powerful corporations with a long history of lies and political corruption.

Will this brazen and transparently self-serving effort work? And what does it say about the state of modern politics — particularly California’s money-driven initiative system — that these deceptive campaigns just might convince voters to cast ballots against their own interests?

In the same referendum, Pacific Gas and Electric fronts an organization called the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act, plumping for enactment of Proposition 16. One might surmise that the taxpayers rights were already covered by the opportunity to vote on this issue, but hey, this is California. Again, from the Guardian article:

As the utility seeks to alter the state constitution with Prop. 16, it is also boldly pursuing a rate hike of roughly 20 percent by 2011. Winning the Prop. 16 campaign could trigger an economic boon for PG&E since it would dramatically decrease the potential for municipal competitors to spring up and win over customers with lower rates, cleaner power, and more reliable service. Locking in such a monopoly would leave consumers with little choice but to endure rate hikes.

Will this brazen and transparently self-serving effort work? And what does it say about the state of modern politics — particularly California’s money-driven initiative system — that these deceptive campaigns just might convince voters to cast ballots against their own interests?

Perhaps more to the point, will Californians actually read and debate the article or, as both industry giants hope, merely pull the lever to support Californians for Fair Auto Insurance Rates and exercise their Taxpayers Rights to Vote? That ball is bound to fall on the industry side of the net.

Accuracy in Media (AIM) claims to police media for ‘fairness, balance and accuracy. Nice name and wouldn’t we all like those attributes to be expanded? A look at their funders raises the question of whose points of view are represented;

Bethlehem Steel, Carthage Foundation; see Scaife Foundations, Chevron, Ciba-Geigy, Coors Foundation, Dressor Industries, Exxon, Getty Oil, Horizon Oil and Gas, IBM, Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical, Mobil Foundation, Pepsico, Phillips Petroleum Company, Texaco Philanthropic Foundation and Union Carbide.

The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care4 (and who wouldn’t be in favor of that for grandma?)

is an umbrella group founded in 2000 by fifteen for-profit members of the American Health Care Association (AHCA) that has run major print and radio campaigns to advance it is agenda.

What is not obvious from the advertisements is that the alliance represent the views of for-profit nursing care operators such as HCR Manor Care, Sun Healthcare Group, Tandem Health Care, Kindred Healthcare and Advocat Inc. Its founding members include the nation’s 11 largest nursing home companies. (See below for the current membership list). The Alliance represents nursing home operators who want reduced federal regulation – and the Republicans who promise it.

The „Wise Use Movement”5 was founded by Ron Arnold in the late 1980s, primarily operating on behalf of mining and timber interests in the western US.

It inspired a number of spin-off groups, including the „Share“ groups in the Canadian province of British Columbia (B.C.), which give the appearance of being grass-roots community organizations, but are in fact organized and funded by major corporations.

„Wise Use groups are often funded by timber, mining, and chemical companies. In return, they claim, loudly, that the well-documented hole in the ozone layer doesn’t exist, that carcinogenic chemicals in the air and water don’t harm anyone, and that trees won’t grow properly unless forests are clear-cut, with government subsidies. Wise Use proponents were buffeted by Bush’s defeat, but the movement has quickly rebounded. In every state of the US, relentless Wise Use disinformation campaigns about the purpose and meaning of environmental laws are building a grassroots constituency. To Wise Users, environmentalists are pagans, eco-nazis, and communists who must be fought with shouts and threats.“

You get the idea. Much of what we see is PR and while it’s vitally important to support organizations that support your points of view, it’s equally important to peek a bit under the rug and find out who’s actually funding them and whether their agenda fits yours.

Language is all we have and more and more, language is being used to cloud rather than clarify important issues. Certainly, take a close look at anything someone thrusts at you in search of a signature. Those who would take your name in vain are particularly fond of locations where you may be rushed, such as busy sidewalks in downtown areas, exits to mall parking lots, airports and train stations.

1 Wikipedia, Consumer Protection

2 PRWatch, Smokers‘ Hacks: the Tobacco Lobby’s PR Front Groups

3 Buying power, Mar 16, 2010, How PG&E and Mercury Insurance are spending millions to try to trick Californians into voting for corporate interests

4 SOURCEWATCH, Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care

5 Sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Front_groups#US_examples

published: 28. 9. 2014