Put your money where your values are – without spending it

Here the latest idea on dealing with one of the most intractable remaining problems of the recession – unemployment. One of the problems with getting people back to work is that the banks aren’t lending to businesses, especially small businesses. Small businesses are really where it’s at in this increasingly decentralized, flexible, entrepreneurial economy. There are lots of people out there with ideas – but a lot of them require start-up money. Lending to businesses basically dried up when the larger credit market evaporated, and this was one of the things that the TARP stimulus money was designed to do – free up credit. However, the big banks had other ideas, and they still haven’t loosened the purse-strings.

All this makes it hard for your average small business, who is already getting hit hard by less business, rising fuel and raw materials costs, and health care costs. Most of them need loans as a matter of course, to expand, buy materials in advance of a job, or whatever. They just can’t get loans right now, which means a lot of good ideas, and hiring opportunities, go unfunded.

Now you may ask, what does this have to do with you? You’re not a bank, or a small business, so what can you do? Lots, it turns out. Remember, this is OUR money they’re choosing to lend or not lend. And banks have different ideas of how to go about being a bank. Local community banks and savings & loans are a lot more likely to lend to community businesses and also be involved in charitable activities, both of which are important. The big national and transnational banks seem to be mostly engaged in figuring out how to charge us more fees to make back what they lost due to their own financial recklessness, and now they’re lobbying for even more deregulation. There’s a difference, and which type of bank you choose to put your money in matters.

Send a message to the big banks – take your money and put it in a fiscally sound local bank where it can do some good in the community, get businesses going and get people back to work. You can read a lot more about this idea here, in a movement called Move Your Money: A New Year’s Resolution. And if you’re in the Christmas spirit, you can watch a fun video based on It’s a Wonderful Life, which is strangely apropos. There’s even a little box where you can type in your zip code and get a list of the highly fiscally sound local banks and savings & loans in your area, taking the guess-work out of choosing one.

Wouldn’t it be great if collectively we can send a real message to BofA, Citibank, etc., in the only language they really understand?

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Stimulus, anyone?

I’m just curious if anyone has directly felt the results of the stimulus package or new economic policies recently. Here are some ways in which they have positively impacted me lately, from more direct to less direct:

– I was able to claim the $600 tax credit on my 2008 taxes (I think because I didn’t receive it the year before but was eligible this year)
– I will be able to claim a 30% rebate on the installation of an energy-efficient tankless water heater on next year’s taxes (and if I decide to replace my old windows later this year, on that too)
– I refinanced at a rate of 4.65, which will save me $200/month in payments, and a good friend did the same and will save $400/month, and I know of at least two other friends who have refinanced for big savings and/or reduction in loan period
– I have one friend who avoided foreclosure of her home through the new program
– Seems like my SEP-IRA has rebounded a bit

Now if only this were my first house, I could have claimed that sweet $8000 tax credit on buying it last year! Oh well… On the plus side, my cousin and his fiance are buying their first house at very good prices and will get the rebate, so yay :) It was a foreclosed house and they are putting a lot of work into it, but in the end it will be a very good deal for them.

Stuff that is less reassuring… WA Mutual got taken over by Chase. I suppose that is neutral and still fall-out from the original issues. Nothing seems to have changed (we have an non-profit account there that I manage as Treasurer). My bank reduced my credit line from a really ridiculously high level to a somewhat more reasonable level (amounts not listed to protect the innocent) because I pay it off each month and never get anywhere near it. To me, that actually seems like a bright move on their part, a tiny bit of fiscal responsibility. What a concept – give people only the level of credit they actually need/want.

What about you? I usually wouldn’t talk this much about personal money, but it’s interesting to see when/if a government policy actually makes a difference. I haven’t heard of anyone I know getting or keeping a job due to the stimulus money, though I know organizations that have benefited from it. Have you?

A kinder, gentler IRS?

A while back, maybe in March, I heard an interview with the new Director of the IRS on NPR. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and basically said the IRS was going to cut people some slack this year due to all the economic upheaval. Even if you couldn’t pay your taxes, you were encouraged to send in your return and work with them on a plan, or maybe they could find you some credits to help out. Sounds great, in theory :)

Well, this year I had a little problem with my taxes, as in underpaying them. Last year, I decided to start using the annualized income method, which a complicated way of calculating your quarterly estimated taxes. Normally, you have to pay the same amount each quarter, based on what you earned last year. But my income varies so much from year to year and from quarter to quarter that that just wasn’t working for me. I kept guessing wrong and overpaying or underpaying substantially.

So, I started using the horribly complicated form each quarter and carefully filled it out, basically like doing your whole taxes every quarter. Still, I felt good that I was paying the right amount as I went along, and at the end of the year it would all work out right. NOT. You see, I made sort of a basic, unrelated mistake. In the middle of the year I moved and got new bank accounts (but still had the old ones). I downloaded those into Quicken and started directing a lot of my payments into them. But forgot to add them to the automatic reports I was using to calculate my taxes (OOPS!). So, I underpaid for the 3rd and 4th quarters and owed a penalty at the end of the year.

SIGH. In early April I sat down to do my taxes, paid the unpaid amount, and then worked on the form to calculate the penalty. Because I was using annualized income, the IRS couldn’t do it for me – so I had to do all four quarters ALL OVER AGAIN. Nevertheless, at the end, I found I only owed about $60 in penalty. Yay! Mostly because the error was late in the year and the interest on the unpaid amount wasn’t that much.

Remembering the NPR interview and at a friend’s urging, I included a note of apology and an explanation of how I had managed to underpay my taxes. Yesterday, I got something from the IRS. This always makes me a little nervous, as any small business should at even the remotest possibility of an audit. But lo and behold, it was a check in the amount of my penalty payment. Apparently they took my good faith and attempts to do the right thing into account, and gave me a break. It’s not that much in terms of dollars, but it feels like a nice gesture anyway. So thanks, IRS!

Cruelty knows no bounds

In California, the Prop 8 folks have a new champion – our friend, the one and only Ken Starr, who has now introduced a court case to force gays and lesbians who were legally married in California before Prop 8 to divorce. To force them to divorce!!! I have to just express a little outrage at the incredible cruelty of the idea.

Never mind that Prop 8 is still winding its own way through the courts, and may be illegal. THIS case is going to the Supreme Court on March 5. How he managed that I have no idea. But just imagine… your mom and dad, your friends who are married, being forced to divorce. Imagine the effects on you, their children, their family and friends. Imagine the effects on their legal arrangements, their mortgages and bank accounts, their adopted children. Imagine how those with partners in the hospital feel, who can only wait and pray that their rights to visit and care for and make decisions for their loved ones aren’t taken away.

Really, imagine anyone being forced to divorce. ESPECIALLY couples who have, in some cases, waited decades for the right to marry their loved ones. All I can say to the Supreme Court at this moment, if any are listening, is… Have Mercy. You can express your views to the Supreme Court here. But don’t take too long…

It’s high time for a new law in this land. While I support gay marriage universally, I know that others don’t. Obama took a middle course in his inauguration night speech, so here is my proposal, until that day when love prevails and intelligent people decide that supporting stable families is a good idea:

1. Leave the issue of gay marriage up to the states, for now. Pass some form of civil union law at the federal level, if possible. At a minimum, repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

2. As part of the civil union law, require all states to honor legal marriages from any other state or country, and, upon production of a valid marriage certificate, provide any benefits to those couples that would be provided to any other married couple.

3. Invalidate any state or local law that would nullify any marriage in any manner or for any reason other than the two people themselves deciding to end their marriage.

No marriage should ever be involuntarily taken away from two people who love each other. That’s just the height of cruelty.

Quiet doings in Obama-land

Watching the news from Florida last week, it was pretty much all about presidential appointees (which has been disappointing, though it was nice to hear him say he screwed up), and the economic stimulus plan – which isn’t going nearly as bipartisanly as I would have hoped, though thank you to the Senate for trying harder than the House and showing a tad more wisdom on that.

But what really strikes me is what nobody’s hearing about. I do read the EarthJustice blog, because I’ve done some legal work for them over the years. They’re tracking the Obama administration very closely, and he and his people have been doing serious things for the environment and continue to do them almost every day since they’ve been in office. These aren’t really getting reported in the news, but it’s just a reminder to me of why I wanted to elect this guy. He actually cares enough, in the midst of all this other economic and political stuff, to make sure these environmental issues are taken care of.

A partial list in just the first two weeks of office:

– Ordered the EPA to re-review CA and other states’ request for higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles
– Directed the Dept. of Transportation to finalize its own long-awaited federal fuel efficiency standards
– Ordered the EPA to release its long-stalled report on dioxin toxicity
– Removed the federal government’s support for a case before the Supreme Court allowing higher mercury emissions from power plants, which may hopefully lead to it being dropped
– Directed DOE to create energy efficiency standards for dozens of household appliances
– Cancelled 100,000 acres of oil and gas leases near pristine wilderness in the West that were pushed through at the last minute by Bush
– Sent representatives to the international global warming conference in Poland to work constructively for solutions
– Has put all of Bush’s last-minute environmental directives on hold for review

Just reading about this makes me feel a lot better. Finally, it feels like someone up there cares. Makes me wonder what all else he’s up to that isn’t getting reported in the news…

Inaugural impressions

Random walk through the inauguration…

From Obama’s speech, the quote that struck me the hardest: “… we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” Always what I have liked about Obama – he says what needs saying.

At the exact moment when Obama became President (12 noon), he was listening to the beautiful music of Itzhac Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero. Nothing could have been more fitting.

They had the courage to walk part of the parade route. I have to admit I was holding my breath. I am so glad they did, and that they are unafraid.

I received a beautiful embossed invitation to the inauguration, and even though I couldn’t go, I want to keep it. This, from a person who never keeps ANYTHING. I still might keep it.

I never watch TV, but even I can tell that the ads are unique – they’re about health care, green energy, the rights of workers to have a better life, grass-roots organizing, sustainable product cycles. It’s amazing that even advertising is being shaped by Obama’s vision. I remember during the election the major ad campaign for “clean coal”. My favorite ad of inauguration day is the sham ad by coal executives from Al Gore’s group, gently funny enough to be straight out of SNL (“just leave global warming to us”), ending with the tagline “There’s no such thing as clean coal.”

And all day I was thinking, “I can’t wait to see what he does tomorrow.”

Campaign finance and other topics

OK – I know I’ve been quiet lately. I am trying to finish one career to start another (well, really two new ones). Having three jobs is pretty wearing. It’s not that there hasn’t been a lot going on and a lot to talk about! I just keep thinking about blogging and not doing it. I’ve resolved lately to carve out some time though… even if it’s just little observations here and there.

Today’s thoughts are about campaign financing from the public perspective – yeah, that’s you and me. I’ve never given to a campaign before, at least not for a politician. And I don’t tend to like being approached on the street or solicited by mail. This is a candidate I feel strongly about, however, more so than any other politician in my life. Of course, I’m talking about Obama.

That doesn’t mean that I would just run out and give money. As I mentioned, things have been a bit hectic. Knowing that you SHOULD do something is different from actually getting around to it – if I can’t find time to go to the grocery store, clean house, or get my hair cut because I’m working so hard, giving to a political campaign is just not going to be high on my list, no matter how important.

Nevertheless, they’ve managed to get a bunch of my donations, and I think it’s very telling how that happened. First, I found Barack Obama on Twitter. I decided to follow him, and oddly enough, he followed me back. I doubt he’s really reading all our posts ^.^ but it was kind of symbolic. Then I visited the website and signed up for e-mail updates. Then text messages – and yes, I was one of the first to know who the VP was :) That was cool.

Almost immediately, as you would expect, the e-mail requests for donations started coming to my inbox. But these were different. Each one was accompanied by a personal video – of Barack, Michelle, Joe, or the campaign manager. They talked about who they were, shared personal moments on the campaign, talked about the campaign strategy.

Those were the best ones, later in the game. It wasn’t hard to convince me to part with the first $100 or two. After that, I wanted to know what I was paying for. Well, they told us. In detail. Often a specific ad would come with the request for money that we were being asked to fund – that was not airing yet. They would explain why this particular ad right now and where it would be playing. Now Obama hasn’t had too many ads I disliked, most have been very positive. But if for any reason you didn’t want to fund a particular ad – well, you didn’t have to! I REALLY liked that.

Later came discussions of what exactly they were doing in battleground states that was costing so much money. It was nice to hear that, and to think we had some hope of taking Florida, for example. That might go a long way toward erasing the Al Gore pain of old.

The last tactic I personally enjoyed was grass roots matching funds. Everyone has employer matching funds – this was person to person – those that had given before matching new contributors and sending personal messages about why we support this candidate – and getting personal messages back from the person who got our match. That was fun, too.

All of this has contributed to Obama having more than 3 million contributors now. Each has given an AVERAGE of only $86. Compare that to lobbyists, PACs, and industry. Yet, he is so far outstripping McCain in fundraising that he is able to compete in places that no presidential candidate has bothered to before.

It doesn’t hurt that he has a huge army of volunteers (organized on the internet, of course) working for him on the ground. If you don’t have money, you can get lists of people in your neighborhood to call or visit and talk with – and they emphasize that this is just as important or more so. Ads go only so far.

I hope the fact that this personal fund-raising approach has beat the pants off of traditional campaign financing will change the face of politics forever. We’ve shown what our money can do as the vast public, $86 at a time. Go, Obama!

(and please keep sending those videos, twitters, and e-mails AFTER you become president)