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Inquirer Daily News

POSTED: Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 12:09 PM

On the Senate floor today, and in op-eds such as this one in today's Inquirer, congressional Republicans are trying to reverse last year's modest attempt by the Federal Communications Commission to set basic standards for network neutrality - the principle that Internet network owners such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast can't favor or disfavor data packets they handle based on factors such as their content or their source.

Sen. GOP leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas), Senate sponsor of a House-passed resolution that would roll back the December 2010 FCC decision, start their op-ed argument with a fundamental fallacy - that net neutrality is a reversal of policies that allowed the Internet to blossom into a huge economic engine. It's a misstatement of history that has been debunked by, among others, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

McConnell and Hutchison write:

POSTED: Thursday, November 3, 2011, 6:17 PM

Occupy Wall Street activists and their allies have been touting Saturday as "Bank Transfer Day." Credit unions say they're already seeing results, thanks to the firestorm over Bank of America's $5 debit-card fee: Since Sept. 29, when BofA announced plans for the new fee - since reversed - credit unions have gained an estimated 650,000 members and $4.5 billion in new deposits.

The Credit Union National Association announced its estimates today - crowed about them, really - in a news release based on a survey of about 5,000 member institutions. It says the growth in membership dwarfs the 80,000 new customers gained in an ordinary month.

"When we did the number crunching and came up with that number, we kind of sat back and said 'Wow,’" said CUNA spokesman Patrick Keefe. He said "the vast majority" of credit unions attributed the extraordinary growth "to new bank fees and/or Bank Transfer Day."

POSTED: Thursday, November 3, 2011, 4:10 PM

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), whose amendment limiting banks' cut on debit-card transactions triggered a plan by Bank of America to charge a $5 monthly fee for its debit cards and a huge consumer backlash, is trying to address the underlying problem: Most consumers have no idea how they pay their banks for service, which makes it difficult to comparison shop.

Today Durbin embraced a proposal made this summer by the Pew Health Group's Safe Checking Project: requiring banks to provide a simple, one-page disclosure - much like nutrition labels or the "Schumer Box" that identifies key credit-card terms - for key terms such as monthly fees, overdraft fees, and ATM fees on a standardized form (see a sample here) designed to make comparison shopping easier.

Pew, which helped draw crucial attention to bad practices by credit-card issuers in 2008 and 2009, has been trying to do the same with checking-account fees. In a study earlier this year, it said bank disclosures typically overwhelm depositors with an avalanche of paper: an average of 111 pages.

POSTED: Tuesday, November 1, 2011, 1:35 PM

Bank of America says it's backing down on its controversial plan to impose a $5-a-month fee for debit-card use "in response to customer feedback and the changing competitive marketplace":

"We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee," said David Darnell, co-chief operating officer. "Our customers' voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so."

The decision was welcomed by consumer advocacy groups, but there's no sign that the most outspoken groups plan to back down from their broader aim of urging customers to switch banks to voice objections not just to the new fee but to the broader damage caused by "too big to fail" banks in the financial crisis and recession.

POSTED: Monday, October 31, 2011, 1:41 PM

JP Morgan Chase gave up on a new $3-a-month fee after a test in Wisconsin and Georgia, and the Wall Street Journal says other banks seem to be backing off, too - perhaps even Bank of America, which started the current firestorm by announcing plans to impose a $5-a-month charge for debit-card use.

So did consumers "win"? It's a lot more complicated than that.

The Journal story says that in addition to Chase, at least four other banks - U.S. Bancorp, Citigroup Inc., PNC Financial Services Group Inc., and KeyCorp - have acknowledged similar moves, which the Journal and others frame as banks' backing down from following in Bank of America's footsteps. (I explained BoA's plan, and the ensuing firestorm, here and here.)

POSTED: Friday, October 28, 2011, 11:18 AM

The Philadelphia utility will give five winners - one in each Philadelphia-area county - a free $400 energy audit, an autographed jersey from Eagles tight end Brent Celek, and an autographed football as part of a new "Peco Smart Ideas" promotion that kicks off Saturday in South Philly - not at the Linc but nearby at a Home Depot at 1651 South Columbus Blvd.

From 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., you can meet Celek, Troy Vincent, Mike Quick and Merrill Reese - Peco calls them its "Smart Ideas Go Green Team" - and learn about energy efficiency.

I'll get out front of the inevitable snarky comments - you know you're out there - with one from a colleague who jokes that "a typical Philly winner will keep the jersey and the ball and give the energy audit to his mother-in-law."

POSTED: Thursday, October 27, 2011, 2:46 PM

Credit where credit is due. After Consumer Reports announced a troubling dip in the projected reliability of Ford vehicles, based on its annual survey of owners, Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally addressed the issue forthrightly, and said the company was well along in its response - not via a PR blitz, but by fixing some genuine problems.

“We are incorporating the fixes now in the existing vehicles and will do that in all the new vehicles going forward,” Mulally told Fox Business Network’s Cheryl Casone yesterday during an interview focused on the company's quarterly results.

Consumer Reports said Ford sank from 10th to 20th place in expected reliability among 28 nameplates - a steep comedown for an automaker that just two years ago had been heralded by CR as "the only Detroit automaker with world-class reliability." The magazine blamed the fall on redesigns of three models - the Explorer, Fiesta and Focus - and on problems with new technologies, especially the new MyFord Touch infotainment system and a new "automated-manual transmission" in the Fiesta and Focus. (You can read my post here and our news story here; to see Consumer Reports' announcement of the annual survey results, click here.)

POSTED: Wednesday, October 26, 2011, 12:10 PM
Growth in Real After-Tax Income from 1979 to 2007 (Congressional Budget Office)

The Occupy Wall Street slogan, "We are the 99 percent," was partly a response to reports showing that recent economic growth has chiefly benefited those at the top of the income and wealth scales. Plenty of academic and think-tank research has demonstrated the trends, but a new report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office should be a must-read for anyone with lingering doubts or those who just want to know more.

We can debate the causes of the growing disparity, and how society should respond. On the right, flat-tax proposals drawing plaudits in the Republican primaries reflect support for doing nothing at all - saying that's just the way the market works.  Though they rarely argue their case equally forcefully, President Obama and most Democrats want to make the tax code a little more progressive, and to use some of the extra revenue to support investments in education, research, and infrastructure that should pay off for everybody in the long run.  

But the CBO's report should lay to rest any doubts about what has happened since 1979, the year before President Ronald Reagan was elected and the country essentially turned to "trickle-down" economics, which was based on faith that benefits flowing from policies helping the rich - starting with a flatter tax code with decreased top rates - would trickle down to everybody else. As the CBO data show, the vast majority of gains since then have gone to the top 1 percent.  From the CBO Director's Blog:

About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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