- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. June 16, 2016

Personal debt a cause for concern.

Many politicians like to claim the chaotic federal budget process is in marked contrast to the care Americans take managing their finances.

But as worrisome as the public debt is, household finances are a cause for concern as well.

The federal debt is $19.2 trillion and counting - $59,409 per person and $154,344 per household - according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

U.S. consumer debt - mortgages, car loans, credit cards and student loans - stood at $12.2 trillion in 2015 or $130,992 per household, according to the online site nerdwallet, which extrapolated New York Federal Reserve Board and U.S. Census Bureau figures and commissioned a Harris Poll. (A widely quoted estimate of $11.4 trillion uses lower student loan debt.)

Recent governmental actions indicate some recognition of the problem.

Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - created in the aftermath of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown - proposed rules for the payday loan industry, which has charged consumers as much as 390 percent in interest for short-term loans. Payday loans are illegal in 18 states and the District of Columbia, but are available in Iowa.

Meanwhile, an Iowa law effective July 1 will enable motorists to retain their driver’s licenses if they’re having trouble paying fines or court debts but are not a public safety threat. The Iowa Department of Motor Vehicles suspends 140,000 to 160,000 driver’s licenses annually, half for nonpayment of debts, according to the Des Moines Register.

Much of consumer debt is taken for granted. Buying a residence for cash is beyond the means of most Americans, but the investment, equity accumulated and tax deductions that come with a mortgage are highly valued.

The downside, though, was evident during the savings and loan debacle of 1980 and the more recent subprime loan disaster - the catalyst for 7.6 million homes going into foreclosure from 2009-11. Nearly one in 14 homes had a delinquent mortgage in July 2012.

The average mortgage, according to nerdwallet, is $168,614.

Unexpected expenses and poor budgeting practices are common credit card culprits. More than 160 million Americans have credit cards - three on average - with $15,762 in debt on them, according to nerdwallet.

It puts the average auto loan at $27,141 and student loan at $48,172 ($33,000 in 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal).

The problem isn’t limited to lower-income households.

A Brookings Institution study found a significant percentage of households earning $100,000 to $150,000 annually are “financially fragile.” A quarter couldn’t come up with $2,000 within 30 days for an unexpected expense, while another 19 percent would resort to selling possessions or using payday loans.

With payday loans, lenders will accept checks - with a fee included - that won’t be cashed until the next payday. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a customer borrowing $500 would typically owe around $575 - 391 percent (a median fee of $15 for every $100). Most borrowers, who are unable to obtain a 12 percent bank rate, roll over the loan and accumulate more fees.

With auto title loans using vehicles as collateral, the CFPB Bureau found more than 80 percent of the time they are rolled over or extended because borrowers can’t pay in full.

The proposed CFPB rules, which it acknowledges would put many lenders out of businesses, are fraught with loopholes, allowing certain loans and prohibiting others.

As USA Today editorialized, “The CFPB attempts to allow some loans while disallowing others. Its new rules would allow short-term lenders (both payday and car-title lenders) to lend at whatever rate they choose, but only to people who have an ability to repay the loan when it is due. To complicate matters further, these rules would kick in only after a lender places six loans with an individual during a 12-month period.”

Under the new Iowa law, a motorist can avoid their driver’s license suspension by entering into a payment plan - instead of payment in full. The county clerk of court would notify the state Department of Transportation. A motorist in default also could seek lower installment payments. Those who have missed payments aren’t precluded from the program.

Twenty-two states have had similar license suspension laws. Many suspend professional licenses as well. Tennessee lifted 1,500 licenses for nurse’s aides, teachers and emergency medical personnel for failure to pay student loan debts.

While some Americans are guilty of poor budgeting practices or purchases far beyond their means, the burgeoning debt burden is due in great part to basic expenses far outstripping incomes.

Median household income have increased 26 percent since 2003, but essential expenses are up substantially more - medical costs, 51 percent and food and beverage 37 percent.

If financially strapped Americans are averse to government spending and debt, their own debt burdens are a primary reason why.


Dubuque Telegraph Herald. June 17, 2016

Barring media bad for America.

Politicians bashing the news media is nothing new. However, Donald Trump has taken the practice to a new low.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee taking swipes at the “liberal media agenda” and insulting and making fun of reporters - including one with a disability - resonates with a great many of his backers. They love it. And so he keeps it up.

However, Trump’s reaction to an unflattering headline in The Washington Post goes too far. When he didn’t like the news coverage, he yanked the newspaper’s credentials allowing access to his campaign events.

“Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post,” he tweeted.

This isn’t the first time Trump has banned specific media personnel or organizations from covering his events. He has also barred Politico, The Des Moines Register, the Daily Beast, Buzzfeed, the National Review and the Huffington Post - all when he didn’t like what those organizations reported or said about him.

The message is clear: Media that are too critical of the candidate will be shut out of coverage opportunities.

Does that sound like the American way?

Obviously, many people are applauding Trump’s rhetoric; he earned millions of votes and drew thousands upon thousands of people to his rallies. They find his unfiltered, insulting and outrageous statements attractive.

But at some point soon, more Americans must ask themselves the serious question: Are these really the qualities and behaviors we want in our president?

Trump seems to lack the most elementary understanding of the role, responsibilities and rights of the American press.

The First Amendment gives him the freedom to shout his criticisms and accusations against President Obama and other political opponents. Yet, when there is commentary - as well as facts about him - that he’d rather people not see, well, then his skin gets pretty darn thin.

Historically, presidents have withstood negative press without resorting to barring press access. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both withstood the heat of a fiercely partisan and powerful press. Even Richard Nixon didn’t pull the credentials of The Washington Post, the newspaper leading the pack in reporting the Watergate scandal. (However, Nixon did secretly try to get the FCC to pull the broadcast license of a station owned by The Post’s parent company. And during the Civil War, Lincoln had Dubuque editor Dennis Mahoney jailed.)

Vigorous scrutiny of presidential candidates is a vital role of the press and a foundation of our democracy. Though they do not always like it, candidates should value the ideal and put the public’s right to know, and the value of a free exchange of ideas and opinions, above their own squabbles over coverage and commentary.

If he is elected, can we expect President Trump to stop his press conferences - if he conducts any - to evict from the White House Briefing Room a reporter whose news organization published or broadcast something to displease him? Will members of his administration do the same - to the point that the only news Americans get from the Executive Branch is delivered by those who remain in Trump’s good graces?

Americans should demand more in a presidential nominee. Regardless of partisan allegiance, subversion of the democratic process is bad for America.


Fort Dodge Messenger. June 17 2016

Ag sales abroad help America.

America’s economy would be more robust if this nation were able to sell in the international marketplace more of the products that are made or grown here. Unfortunately, achieving a positive trade balance overall has been an elusive goal.

The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued a statement on May 27 reminding Americans that our nation’s farmers and ranchers are doing quite well in foreign markets. Here is some of what Vilsack said:

“Exports comprise 20 percent of U.S. farm income, drive rural economic activity and support more than 1 million American jobs. We have the opportunity to expand those benefits even further through passage of new trade agreements … A report published by the International Trade Commission just last week shows that the TPP will significantly expand U.S. exports to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and add an additional $10 billion to annual U.S. agricultural output by 2032.”

The TPP and other trade pacts have become controversial in the current presidential campaign. Much of the disagreement, however, relates to the alleged negative impact of some proposed trade policies on the manufacturing sector.

Nobody wants to see factories closed in the U.S. because companies can increase their profits by sending jobs outside our borders. Consequently, it may well be that some existing and proposed trade pacts need to be adjusted to reduce the likelihood that will happen. It’s important, however, as trade policies are reconsidered that no changes be adopted that would reduce the ability of our nation’s farmers to sell their products abroad.

The Messenger agrees with Vilsack that stimulating international sales of agricultural products is very much in America’s interest. Trade policies that continue to make that possible should be a priority of our leaders in Washington.


Des Moines Register. June 14, 2016

Bring back the ban on assault weapons

Many factors contributed to the largest mass shooting in U.S. history on Sunday.

Some of those factors, including the motives of 29-year-old Omar Mateen, won’t be uncovered for weeks or months. But right now, as with many mass shootings, we know one of the major contributing factors was the killer’s access to a semi-automatic rifle built and designed for the express purpose of killing large numbers of people in a very short amount of time. The quick-loading AR-15 assault rifle used by Mateen allows shooters to fire as fast as they can pull the trigger.

You might think there wouldn’t be much demand for a weapon of that sort. You’d be wrong. The National Rifle Association calls the AR-15 “America’s most popular rifle.” A modified AR-15 was used to kill 14 people last year in the San Bernardino shootings. An AR-15 was also among the weapons used by James Holmes when he opened fire in a Colorado movie theater four years ago. The AR-15 was also the weapon of choice in the 2012 killing of 26 people, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn.

In fact, sales of the AR-15 reportedly soared after the Sandy Hook shooting, with gun enthusiasts worried that sanity might prevail and the guns would be outlawed by Congress. They needn’t have worried. The AR-15 remains readily accessible and easily affordable. Typically, the price ranges from $1,000 to $2,000, but some AR-15s sell for as little as $250.

This being America, with a culture steeped in guns, there are times when no purchase is necessary to acquire an assault rifle. Last fall, a central Iowa animal shelter - ironically, it’s a “no-kill” shelter - raffled off an assault rifle as part of a fundraising campaign. A few days ago, an Iowa gun retailer gave away an AR-15 as part of its heavily promoted grand opening celebration.

In Florida, the site of Sunday’s shooting, there is a mandatory three-day waiting period between the purchase and the delivery of a handgun, but for the AR-15 and similar weapons, there is no waiting period at all. It appears Mateen legally purchased both the handgun and the AR-15 he was carrying at the time of Sunday’s shooting. And therein lies the problem.

There’s little doubt that Mateen and other mass shooters would have resorted to some type of violence even if their weapon of choice was outlawed. But the argument that America shouldn’t outlaw military-style assault weapons because people will still find a way to kill each other doesn’t hold water. Restrictions on gun ownership aren’t intended to eliminate violence; they’re intended to discourage violence.

It’s simple and irrefutable, really: Laws that allow people to quickly and easily obtain assault rifles only help to facilitate mass homicide. And what is the trade-off? What benefits do we reap as a society when our laws make it easier for people to stockpile assault riles than to purchase a box of Sudafed? Even George W. Bush, a vocal supporter of the NRA, backed an assault-weapons ban and declared, “It makes no sense for assault weapons to be around our society.”

It’s true, as the NRA argues, that guns are only as deadly as the people who use them. But of the two elements in that equation - guns and people - the guns are the one element we can more effectively control. We can’t outlaw mental illness, and we certainly can’t imprison people for fear of what they might do in the future. We can, however, control access to guns that serve no useful purpose outside of the military and law enforcement.

As President Barack Obama observed in January: “At the same time that Sandy Hook happened, a disturbed person in China took a knife and tried to kill, with a knife, a bunch of children in China. But most of them survived because he didn’t have access to a powerful weapon. We maybe can’t save everybody, but we could save some. Just as we don’t prevent all traffic accidents, we do take steps to try to reduce traffic accidents.”

In 1994, with the support of national police organizations and former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Congress banned assault weapons. The law easily survived several constitutional challenges, but it couldn’t survive the self-contained sunset provision - written to appease the gun lobby - that caused it to automatically expire in 2004.

Prohibiting the sale and ownership of semi-automatic assault rifles, and requiring background checks for all gun sales made online or at gun shows, will not stop all of the violence. But those measures, both of which are long overdue, will save lives.

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