Sunday, January 05, 2014

Judge Fines Overstock.com $6.8 Million, Rules It Needs a 'Price Coach'

Sam Antar's blog is out this weekend with an item describing how a California judge has slammed Overstock.com with a $6.8 million penalty for consumer fraud.

Ruling on a lawsuit brought by a consortium of California district attorneys, the suit contends that Overstock used phony price comparisons in claiming that it offered customers a bargain.

What's interesting about this case, I think, is how Overstock worked overtime to head off the bad news. In a TV commercial (see below) featuring Mike Ditka, the "price coach," the company claimed that it "price checked over 500,000 products a week" to make sure customers got the best prices.


But Judge Wynne S. Carvill, a Superior Court judge in Alameda County, didn't buy that malarkey. He ruled that Overstock systematically overstated the amount of savings customers could get by buying at Overstock.

To make matters worse for the company, it not only has to pay the fine, but is likely to be assessed attorneys fees and investigative costs, which could run into the millions, and it will be subject to an injunction requiring Overstock to provide proper price comparisons.

That's a real "price coach," not an actor playing one.

The irony is that customers don't need a price coach to find out if they're getting a good deal at Overstock. All they need is Google or a free browser add-on called Priceblink, which automatically compares prices at a variety of online vendors.

Anyway, it's not over for Overstock. I'm sure the company will appeal, throwing more good money after bad. Sam reported that last quarter "the company reported a $2 million increase in legal fees resulting in large part from the 'defense of a case brought by district attorneys in eight California counties.'" That's dumb, I guess, but not as dumb as the consumers who actually buy there expecting the best deal.

Just today I was looking for a cheap corded phone. At Amazon.com an AT&T 210 corded phone costs $9.34. At Overstock the price is $13.59. OK, that stinks, $4 more than Amazon. That's bad, but what's worse is this:  

Save $12.23 (47%) Compare $25.82
 Yep, that's what it says. $25.82-- $7 above the list price, which, as the Amazon listing points out, is $18.79.




 When you click on "compare" you get the following gobbledygook:
What is "Compare"?
The term "Compare" means the price at which, in the reasonable judgment of our experienced buyers, manufacturers or suppliers, the item may be sold in the U.S. on an everyday basis. Other vendors sometimes refer to this as the "retail price" exclusive of special promotions or sale prices, at which the item might be offered at retail stores and at customary retail mark-up. In many instances, though not all, the "Compare" prices reflects a price suggested by the manufacturer or supplier of these goods, without reference to actual retail sales and may amount to an estimation of a retail offer price in accordance with standard industry practices. It may also include a reasonable average estimated shipping cost, if ordinary shipping costs have been discounted or eliminated.

We make no representation that the products have been sold or offered at the "Compare" price, and the price may or may not reflect the average or prevailing market price in any area on any particular day. For some items listed as a set, the "Compare" price may be an aggregate of the suggested or estimated prices for all items included in the set. Actual retail sales in your area may substantially differ from the "Compare" price. Moreover, the nature of internet sales on a national or international basis, and the fact that we deal in overstocks, closeouts, end-of-season, and unique items that may be sold only on Overstock.com, precludes our ability to know whether our products are sold at the "Compare" price at any particular location or time by other vendors.

You may choose to use the "Compare" price as an approximate guide to what you would or could pay for these items in other locations, at other times, or under other conditions, including full retail price.

Translation: "ain't nobody selling it for $25.82." A Priceblink price search bears that out.

When Overstock says "the nature of internet sales on a national or international basis, and the fact that we deal in overstocks, closeouts, end-of-season, and unique items that may be sold only on Overstock.com, precludes our ability to know whether our products are sold at the 'Compare' price at any particular location or time by other vendors..."--that's just sheer ca-ca. A quick Internet search, with or without Priceblink, shows quickly that the "compare at" price is as phony as a $3 bill.

Yep, Overstock customers sure could use a "price coach," though I don't think there's much the "coach" would say except, "shop somewhere else." 


© 2014 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
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Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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United Healthcare, Obamacare, Franz Kafka, and the 'Positive Healthcare Experience'

United Healthcare was excited to have me

The letter from United Healthcare was dated December 9, 2013. It said as follows:

Dear GARY WEISS,

Thank you for choosing United Healthcare. We are excited to be able to provide you a positive healthcare experience and to ensure that you understand your benefits and payment requirements.

I was very pleased to receive this letter.

As I recounted a few weeks ago, United Healthcare had previously provided me with differing and inconsistent versions of my 2014 health insurance, which I had purchased in early November on the New York Health Exchange. The letter included a bill for the premium, which correlated with the amount of the premium previously disclosed to me.

Since the payment was due on January 1, I felt that there would be no problem with waiting until Dec. 28 to make my payment. I did so. My payment, which was by credit card, was acknowledged.

There was only one problem. At no time after receiving that letter did I receive anything else from United Healthcare--such as, most importantly, insurance ID cards  that would permit me to actually use my health insurance. That was a matter of some concern to me, as my previous healthcare coverage expired on December 31.

On January 2, I telephoned United Healthcare at the Member Services phone number (877-856-2429). That put me into its automated service, which asked me whether I had questions about "benefits" or "enrollment." There were no other categories. I pressed the number for "enrollment," which seemed closest, and after a while a person answered.

I explained my situation. I expressed concern that I could not actually use the health insurance for which I had enrolled and actually paid for.

The United Healthcare person expressed sympathy. He was here to help me. So I asked for assistance. Could he tell me when I would be receiving my cards?

He could not. He said that apparently (he was not sure himself) cards are only sent out after payment is tendered, so I would have to wait another "seven to ten business days."

In the interim, I asked, could I have my member and group number? That way I at least could sign up online, and actually give this information to any doctor I may need to utilize prior to receipt of the membership card.

Expert assistance was available
No, he could not.

However, he told me that if I called the billing information line, 800-708-2848, I could obtain the information that I requested.
I telephoned that number. A very nice lady said to me that she did not have the information that I requested, but that it would be available at another number that she provided: 877-856-2429. In other words, the number that I had just called.

At that point I  decided to go to the website that I had used to pay my bill.  There was a link on the left: "Ask the Expert." I decided to do so. At that link there was a form that could be used to contact United Healthcare. Four categories were given: "Account changes," "Coverage questions," "Payment Inquiry," and "Website Assistance."

Nonreceipt of insurance (and prescription, I imagine) cards and ignorance of one's member number did not seem to be covered by any of those choices. The closest seemed to be "Coverage questions," and below that, the subject that seemed closest was "confirm coverages." In the message field, I asked as follows
I have not yet received my ID cards for my wife and myself, and do not know my Member or Group Number. Please advise when the cards will arrive and, in the interim, please provide me with my Member and Group Numbers. Thank you.

I pressed the send button. At that point the "send" on the button turned into "please wait." I did. After a few seconds, the screen stated that my message had been submitted. That was good. "Please keep this request number. . . " it said. I reached for a pencil. But then I read on:



". . . (Error code 101) for Future Reference" it said.  My reference number was an error code? Below were the words "Unable to submit your request. Please try again later."

I tried again later and received the same result. I did so on subsequent days, and received the identical error code and message.

When I had spoken to the person at Member Services, he was reassuring. Not to worry, he said. I have insurance, he said. Even if I hadn't paid, he said, payment by Jan. 10 would assure me of coverage retroactive to January 1.

But in the interim, I asked, what do I do if I get sick? How do I prove to the doctor that I have coverage? How do I obtain prescription drugs? He did not have an answer to those questions.

© 2014 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Preet Bharara Pours Gasoline on the Fire

Protests continue in India over diplomat's arrest. Thank you, Preet Bharara!


The raging diplomatic incident that has breached relations between the U.S. and India--the arrest of a deputy counsel general on visa charges--continued to simmer on Wednesday. TV reports showed images straight out of the sixties, with protesters burning American flags and an effigy (above). Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement of regret, and the furor lead off  Erin Burnett's CNN broadcast (hosted by Chris Cuomo) at 7 p.m.

It seemed that cooler heads were prevailing--for a few minutes. Then a not-so-cool head, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, stepped in, and proceeded to pour a gallon of Exxon Unleaded on the raging fire.

Bharara, whose ham-handed prosecution of the diplomat--charges carrying a fifteen-year prison term--touched off this entirely unnecessary diplomatic rupture with a key U.S. ally, was apparently feeling the heat. Or, perhaps, he didn't think that soothing U.S.-India ties were a good idea. Or something.

In a gratuitously nasty statement emailed to reporters at 7:25 p.m., Bharara defended not just his prosecution of the Indian counsel, Devyani Khobragade, but also the body-cavity search which so enraged Indians. It was not carried out by his office, but not to worry, Bharara was mad as hell and not going to take all the "inaccuracies" in the media anymore.

The New York Times called it "an unusual and robust public defense," and reported that "the tone of Mr. Bharara’s statement, issued in the evening in New York, seemed in marked contrast to an expression of  'regret' made earlier in the day by Secretary of State John Kerry." That's putting it mildly.

In a way, you have to admire Bharara for stepping up to the plate and slamming one into the stands (albeit, the ones behind him) with quite so much vigor.  A more astute prosecutor, or one desiring to  repair this international incident, would have either kept silent or leaked to the media about how Khobragade was allowed to keep her cell phone and was given a cup of coffee by the arresting officers, etc.

Bharara ended his statement by saying that "this Office's sole motivation in this case, as in all cases, is to uphold the rule of law, protect victims, and hold accountable anyone who breaks the law - no matter what their societal status and no matter how powerful, rich or connected they are."

He might have added: "... unless they are major bankers who precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. In that case, I'll find an excuse not to prosecute them."

Predictably, India did not react favorably to Bharara's statement. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a response. CNN-IBN reported: "Taking a dig at the US Attorney prosecuting the case, MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said, 'The statement issued by Preet Bharara that the procedure followed in the Indian diplomat case is a standard practice for every defendant, rich or poor is a rhetorical remark and that is not conducisve in resolving inaccuracies.' " The Times of India reported further on the antagonism that Bharara generated  by his statement.

There's no question that India has overreacted, and also that there is another side to this story--the domestic worker whose complaint of underpayment resulted in this whole crisis. But there's a deeper issue here, one of judgment and prosecutorial priorities. It's been my belief for quite some time that Preet Bharara's are way out of whack. This whole episode not only confirms that, but shows that there is something seriously wrong with his judgment and temperament.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss


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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Could Arrest of Indian Diplomat Sink Preet Bharara?

Won't prosecute "untouchables," but fierce against errant diplomats

For years, complaints have swirled around the most visible--and inexplicable--outcome of the 2008 financial crisis: Not a single financial executive has been prosecuted for doing engaging in any criminal activity. And no, I don't mean insider trading, a favorite of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. I mean the kind of stuff that almost sank the banking system.

PBS's Frontline, in a memorable special report, called them "The Untouchables."

Five years after the crisis, prosecutors here are supposedly "exploring new strategies for criminally charging Wall Street bankers who packaged and sold the bad mortgage loans behind the financial crisis," according to Reuters, but time is not on their side. The trail is going cold, and statute of limitation issues are going to start kicking in.

Bharara has famously focused on other kinds of wrongdoing--drug gangs in the Bronx, insider trading rings, and other wrongdoing not involving large, politically connected Wall Street banks. Most recently, his office arrested Devyani Khobragade, deputy consul general for India based in New York, for allegedly submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper and paying the woman less than the minimum legal wage. She faces ten years in prison on one charge and five on another.

It seemed at first as yet another day at the office for Bharara, who I profiled for the Daily Beast in 2011. Another heavy-handed prosecution of a fairly routine immigration-law violation, aimed at deterring other transgressors, and also showing the public that the man is not entirely an empty suit. I mean, he is actually doing something. He may not be prosecuting people involved in the financial crisis, but at least he can nab people for visa transgressions.

I wonder if Bharara knew that he'd be touching off the worst diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and India--a crucial U.S. ally, for heaven's sake--in recent memory.

The Indians have gone ballistic. There was outrage that not only was Khobragade arrested, but strip-searched and tossed in the clink with dope addicts before forking over a steep $250,000 bail. The New York Times reported today that the U.S. ambassador was summoned for a strongly worded protest, and people in Delhi were furious. Indian authorities even removed the vehicle barriers that prevent car-bombers from driving into the U.S. Embassy grounds.

The Indian national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, used words like “despicable” and “barbaric,” and the Indian government retaliated in a way that harkened back to the Cold War, when India and the U.S. were barely on speaking terms:

In addition to removing the maze of concrete security barriers surrounding the American Embassy compound, Indian news reports said, officials demanded that the embassy provide details about all the Indians it employs, as well as the names and salaries of teachers at the American Embassy School; that the embassy commissary stop importing liquor; and that diplomatic identification cards for consular staff members and their families be returned.

Here's a video from NDTV of the barriers being removed outside the U.S. Embassy:



What's striking about this diplomatic crisis is that it was totally unnecessary. Expelling the diplomat, or arresting her while showing more sensitivity to Indian sensibilities (you'd think the Indian-born Bharara would be acquainted with them) would have had the same deterrent effect, without causing a rupture in U.S.-India relations.

And yes, it is a rupture.  Politicians from leading parties refused to meet a visiting U.S. congressional delegation, The Guardian reported. The leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party suggested arresting gay U.S. diplomats because homosexuality is illegal in India, the Times reported.

This is not to say that there isn't an element of hypocrisy in the Indian protest. As the Times points out, "It is not unusual in India for domestic staff to be paid poorly and required to work more than 60 hours a week; they are sometimes treated abominably. Reports of maids being imprisoned or abused by their employers are frequent."

But that's beside the point. The handling of Khobragade's case was inept, and  as ham-handed as his approach to Wall Street has been hesitant. Make no mistake: all this happened because of one man, the prosecutor who can't find a single major banker to prosecute, but seems to think that a deputy counsel general of a major U.S. ally should get ten years in prison for visa violations. Right now it is Devyani Khobragade who is in jeopardy, but I have to wonder if Bharara has sealed his own downfall with this prosecutorial overreaching.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
Please note that the comment function does not work, possibly because I've screwed up the settings. No problem. Drop me a line at the email address on the right side of this blog, and I'll include your comments.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Bernie Madoff



Today is the fifth anniversary of the Bernie Madoff scandal. Here is the blog item I wrote on it at the time.

Interestingly, the questions that I raised at the time--how did he do it and for how long--have never been satisfactorily and comprehensively answered in the years since.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Franz Kafka, Obamacare, and Me

He worked for two insurance companies.

I should preface this by saying that when I signed up for my 2014 health insurance last month on the New York exchange, four United Healthcare plans were available to me, in ascending order of price: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

I couldn't help but notice that the Silver plan was substantially better than the Gold plan. The annual deductible was less--just $500 for two people, vs. $1200 for the Gold plan. Copayments were less, as was the maximum out-of-pocket ($4000 vs. $8000).  Yet the Gold plan cost $235 a month more.

It made no sense whatsoever. I also thought it odd that this peculiarity was nowhere noted in any of the news media accounts of the New York debut of Obamacare. But my feeling at the time was that this was the System, and it was not to be questioned. I signed up for the Silver plan.

On Friday the first monthly bill for 2014 arrived in the mail. It contained no details of my insurance coverage, just a bill. The bill matched the amount stated on the website when I signed up for the plan some weeks ago. It described the Silver plan for which I signed up as "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS."

A perusal of the United Healthcare website for New York health exchange plans showed plan documents for 12 New York Silver plans. However, "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" was not there.

A Google search for "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" revealed that it did not exist.


The plan I signed up for did not exist

I telephoned the toll-free number provided on the website. I was connected to a customer service person after a short wait. I described the discrepancy to her. I pointed out to her that no health plan called  "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" was listed on the United Healthcare website.

The existence of this discrepancy  appeared to annoy this person. She behaved as if I was somehow withholding information readily available to me, or was too dimwitted to read plain English.

"Can you please tell me the plan that you signed up for?" she asked.

I pointed out to her, again, everything I had previously told her, including that the website called the plan merely "Silver EPO" but that I was billed for "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS."

That was impossible, she said to me. The website surely must have a more complete description of the plan than "Silver EPO." No, I responded, it did not.

She did not believe me.  She told me that no plan called "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" existed for New York State, and that no Silver plan had such a low annual deductible.

No supervisor was available

"If that's true, then what plan did I sign up for? What am I being asked to pay for?" I asked.

"I don't have that information," she said.

Would it help if I called the phone number listed on the bill?

"That's just the billing number," she said.

Could I speak to a supervisor?

"They have all gone home," she said. She promised that one would call me Monday morning.

I telephoned the New York Health Exchange. After an hour of waiting, during which time I was told repeatedly by a mechanical voice, "Your call is important to us," I was disconnected.

My call was important to them

I called back United Healthcare. I was promptly connected to a customer service representative. Her manner and tone were so different from the previous one that it was if she was from a different planet.

After hearing about the discrepancy, she pointed out to me that the New York Silver plan that I signed up for did indeed exist, but was not "Silver EPO Rx 10/35/70 87AV CS" but was actually " Silver EPO Rx 9.20.40 87AV CSR."

Yes, she said, the information on the New York Exchange website is and was correct. The deductibles are correct, as are the copayments and annual spending limits.

She said she did not know why it had a different name than the one stated on my bill, but assured me that it was the same one.

My fate remains uncertain
I questioned her closely. Her answers were clear and reassuring. Yes, the Silver plan is cheaper than the Gold plan. Yes it is better.  She had no explanation.

"A number of people have asked about that," she said.

I wasn't sure what to make of these two conversations. Was the System toying with me? Was I being punished? But if so, for what? What did I do? What was my crime? How would this end?

I will find out on January 1.

Note: Comments are accepted for this blog and as of this writing there was one published comment. However, perhaps not surprisingly, when I click on the "comment" button below I get a "not found" message.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

Goodbye Marc Fagel, and Good Riddance

Routine news from the Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday: Marc Fagel, director of its San Francisco office, was leaving to become a partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, a leading securities fraud defense firm.

It just seemed like yet another twirl of the revolving door. But it wasn't. This was actually the long-overdue departure of a quintessential example of the "captured regulator."

Fagel was the driving force behind one of the darkest chapters of the SEC's recent history: Its 2006 probe of research firm Gradient Analytics and its client Rocker Partners, and the subpoena of reporters who told the truth about the company that inspired the probe, Overstock.com, and its crazy CEO, Patrick Byrne.

Gradient's "crime" was that it questioned Byrne's management and Overstock's accounting and  earnings capacity, which was richly borne out by future events.

The probe was based on trumped-up allegations of collusion between Gradient and Rocker, as became clear when it emerged that the former Gradient employees who were the SEC's star witnesses -- as well as Byrne's, in a civil suit he had filed -- had been fired for cause. After all the publicity died down, Gradient and Rocker were quietly exonerated.

It was bad enough that Fagel, who spearheaded this wrong-headed witch hunt, let himself be led around by the nose by a CEO who was so unhinged that he directed lewd and obscene remarks to a reporter for Fortune, Bethany McLean, and fantasized that a fictional character from the Star Wars movies had ruined his business.

All this was known to Fagel, and he should have been canned for poor judgment. But on top of that idiotic Keystone Cops routine, there was the little matter of the subpoenas.

They were issued to three leading financial reporters, Herb Greenberg of Marketwatch, Jim Cramer of TheStreet.com,  and Carol Remond of Dow Jones News Service, who had been  critical of the company's management and accounting..

The subpoenas, which were whipped up by Fagel and other SEC lawyers who swallowed Byrne's conspiracy theories, were such a major embarrassment that they made the front page of the New York Times when they were withdrawn by SEC chairman Chris Cox. 

The shamefaced Cox actually scolded his own enforcement division for doing such a harebrained thing.

But it was even worse than it appeared to be at the time. At the same time that Fagel & Co. were chasing their tails at the behest of a nutty CEO, Bernie Madoff was ripping off his customers and the major Wall Street bankers, including many with large operations in San Francisco, were stealing from everyone in sight.

So what happened to the official who dreamed up this absurd waste of government resources? He was promoted in May 2008, just in time to not cover himself in glory during the financial crisis that was in the process of unfolding.

And now he's where he belongs, defending bad guys. Which was pretty much his role in the Gradient/Rocker investigation. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Fagel.

Byrne, meanwhile, has crawled back under a rock, emerging briefly in January when he was arrested for trying to carry a gun on a plane. Since he no longer can coax regulators to do his bidding, he has taken to crazy rants in his Deep Capture blog, which is run by the disgraced ex-journalist and fantasist Mark Mitchell.

Byrne and Mitchell are now ensconced in a libel suit in Canada that, I understand, will be keeping them both very busy through 2014. The suit against Byrne is such an open-and-shut case of craziness and fabrication -- a minor stock promoter was accused of Al Qaeda connections -- that none of Byrne's dwindling number of pals in the media, not even the Utah press corps, have taken up the cause.

Byrne has since stepped down for "medical reasons." I understand doctors have been probing a rupture in his conscience.

When Byrne was busted in that gun incident, a police report stated that he sleeps with a Glock by his side every night. That's odd. Why does he need a gun, or even a teddy bear, when he has an entire regulatory agency and the likes of Marc Fagel to do his bidding?

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Thursday, February 07, 2013

If You Don't Think We're in an Ayn Rand Nation.......

Read this:

Idaho State Senator thinks Ayn Rand should be required reading for high schoolers  - NY Daily News


© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Ayn Rand Nation is Now in Paperback




I would be remiss if I did not point out that AYN RAND NATION, my account of the nation's long struggle with the hard-right maxims of the author of "Atlas Shrugged," is out in paperback today.

It contains an Afterword that describes how Americans actually adopted a key facet of Rand's philosophy in 2012: they acted in their "rational self-interests" by voting for candidates who would not turn the clock back on Medicare and Social Security.

One of the key prophecies in the book, articulated by Ayn Rand Institute leader Yaron Brook, turned out to be correct: the elections, and their aftermath, turned out to be a struggle between traditional American values and narrow-self interests.

So far, the narrow self-interests are not carrying the day. But give them time. They have funding and ignorance on their side, and that usually wins out. 



© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

------------------------------
My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Monday, February 04, 2013

The Lessons From Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne's Gun Caper

 Byrne under arrest

I was appalled (but not surprised) to learn about Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne's latest escapade: a couple of weeks ago, he was arrested at Salt Lake  Airport trying to carry a loaded Glock handgun onto an airplane.

I was even less surprised by the revelation, buried in a police report, that he sleeps with the gun every night, ready to drill any intruding "miscreants" with .40-caliber, bone-shattering hollow-point bullets.

It's hardly news that Byrne is crazy as a bedbug, or that the 50-year-old Byrne would take to cuddling at night with a loaded gun.

But what is noteworthy, and troublesome, is that he is not being prosecuted.

Ask yourself this question: if you tried to bring a loaded gun onto an airplane, even if you had a permit (albeit in a state that, as this proves, will give a carry permit to literally anyone) would you get away with it? Especially if you were carrying almost $3200 in cash?

Byrne did just that, and got away with it. Press reports say that he posted bail, but there is not a trace of any case against him in local court records.

Emails to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office yielded a kind of massive shrug. They've never even heard of the guy! And statements to the media indicate that Byrne is not alone. Other gun-toting morons, one who even tried to bring an artillery shell on an airplane, were nabbed by Salt Lake airport authorities and cut loose.

In Byrne's case, the geniuses in Salt Lake City (an email runaround makes the decision point unclear) bought into Byrne's explanation that he "forgot" the gun was in his bag.

His explanations are inconsistent and contradictory, as Sam Antar points out in his blog in his two recent items on this bizarre episode.

The gun was nestled right next to an IPad. All the cops had to do was to check if the IPad was charged up. If it was, his explanation was clearly a lie. There is not a word in the police report to indicate that this simple step was taken to determine the credibility of his story.

Maybe they didn't want to find out.

I'm not naive enough to think that Salt Lake City authorities are going to nail the Utah Republican Party's biggest contributor.  But what that does is send a message to Al Qaeda, some white supremacist nut, or pretty much anyone who wants to hijack an aircraft, that you can get one bite of the apple at bringing a handgun on an aircraft if you're brazen enough, white enough, or well-connected enough. Or maybe just because you are using an airport where the local constabulary is just plain dumb. You will be cut loose, to try again.

Meanwhile, we are treated to a rare note of reality in the Walt Disney world of Patrick Byrne's imagination. He has spoken in the past about "men with guns" dropping a dragnet to sweep up all the "Sith Lords" and villains that are out to get him. In the real world, the only one who has wound up in handcuffs and behind bars, albeit all too briefly, is Patrick Byrne.

© 2013 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
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My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thomas Peterffy's Omission

Over the past few weeks, a gent named Thomas Peterffy has been bombarding the airwaves with a television commercial in which he says as follows:
America's wealth comes from the efforts of people striving for success. Take away their incentive with badmouthing success and you take away the wealth that helps us take care of the needy. Yes, in socialism the rich will be poorer. But the poor will also be poorer. People will lose interest in really working hard and creating jobs. I think this is a very slippery slope. It seems like people don't learn from the past. That's why I'm voting Republican and putting this ad on television.

This ad is more than just a simple-minded, intellectually dishonest exercise in sophistry, equating concern about income inequality with advocacy of "socialism." It's also incomplete, in that Peterffy does not disclose how he is able to afford running a shrill, dishonest TV ad.

He is able to do so because of the very party that he is fighting against.

Peterffy is founder and CEO of Interactive Brokers, a publicly traded firm that is in the options trading business. The company's most recent 10-K annual report observes as follows:

The advent of electronic exchanges in the last 21 years has provided us with the opportunity to integrate our software with an increasing number of exchanges and trading venues into one automatically functioning, computerized platform that requires minimal human intervention. Three decades of developing our automated market making platform and our automation of many middle and back office functions has allowed us to become one of the lowest cost providers of broker-dealer services and significantly increase the volume of trades we handle.

In other words, Peterffy made his fortune largely because of Democratic policies favoring electronic trading--especially the policies of the Securities and Exchange Commission under Democratic president Bill Clinton.

Institutional Investor pointed out in a 2005 profile that Peterffy was close to Bill Clinton's deregulation-loving SEC chairman Arthur Levitt, who was an outspoken advocate of electronic trading.

II says that "after Peterffy demonstrated his system to then-­SEC chairman Arthur Levitt Jr. in 1999, the agency became convinced that U.S. options exchanges could link electronically to ensure that investors would always receive the best available prices. The SEC soon mandated such a linkage. Peterffy pressured exchanges that resisted moving from floor trading to automated execution. 

"Timber Hill [Peterffy's firm] quickly became one of the biggest market makers on the all-electronic International Securities Exchange when it debuted five years ago [in 2000]. "

That's a far cry from the image Peterffy paints of himself as a John Galt-like, regulation-hating capitalist. 

He looks like a crony capitalist to me. And a first-class hypocrite to boot.

© 2012 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.
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My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from Amazon.com, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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