Chart of the Day

Maybe you know this, maybe you don't, but generally speaking you can't sue your credit card company if you have a dispute with them.  The fine print in your contract says that all disputes have to be resolved by an arbitrator.  And not just any arbitrator: it has to be one chosen by the credit card company.  Probably one with a record of siding against the consumer 99.8% of the time.

But those days may be ending thanks to Lori Swanson, the attorney general of Minnesota.  She sued one of the two biggest arbitration outfits in the country last week and they caved almost immediately.  Within days they announced they'd no longer be taking new cases.

So what was Swanson's complaint?  Simple: it turns out the National Arbitration Forum had affiliated itself with a debt collection conglomerate, something that might have made them just a wee bit less than perfectly neutral in consumer debt disputes.  The affiliation was done through a chain of intermediaries to try and keep everything on the QT, but it was still there.  The chart on the right shows how it worked.  Here's the explanation from the court filing:

Accretive, Agora, Axiant, the Forum, and Mann Bracken form a complex web of companies that compose some of the largest debt collectors and arbitrators of consumer credit card debt in the country.

....In June 2006, principals of Accretive, LLC met in Minnesota with Edward Anderson and Michael Kelly, officers of the National Arbitration Forum....Among other things, Accretive promised the Forum that it could provide it with “[i]ntroduction to legal collections individuals” and stated that “we believe Accretive would be a great partner to help NAF become a billion dollar company.”

....Under the proposal, Cline’s company — Accretive, LLC — would acquire a 40 percent ownership interest in the Forum and the right to appoint two members to its board of directors. Accretive promised to play an “active role in landing new customers.”

....The Forum — aided by principals of Accretive — thereafter went to great lengths to concoct an elaborate corporate structure that conceals — but does not legitimize — the affiliations that undermine its claims of independence and neutrality. For example, for most of its existence, defendant NAF, Inc. operated as a standalone company. As part of the transaction between the Forum and Accretive, both companies created new companies that would conceal the affiliation between them. The Forum formed Forthright, and Accretive formed Agora. As a result, at no time is Accretive publicly disclosed as an owner of the Forum....In fact, the three defendants — NAF, Inc., NAF, LLC, and Forthright — effectively operate as one enterprise.

Italics mine.  Basically, a guy named J. Michael Cline, who owned a bunch of debt collection companies, put together a plan to secretly buy a stake in NAF.  Result: synergy!  NAF rules against the consumer and one of Cline's companies collects the debt.

There's plenty more like that if you plow through the rest of the complaint.  And needless to say, NAF claims that nothing shady was going on at all: their rulings would have continued to be completely fair and neutral regardless of who their partners were.  You can decide for yourself if you believe them.

UPDATE: There are two big arbitration outfits, NAF and the American Arbitration Association, and both have stopped taking new cases.  However, Swanson's office didn't sue AAA.  They only sued NAF.  The post has been corrected to reflect this.

The Hollywood Reporter recently gathered Emmy Award nominees Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Christina Applegate, Jane Krakowski, Mary-Louise Parker, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to discuss the entertainment business. Surprisingly, the conversation turned to Mother Jones:

For the record, Mother Jones doesn't have an age limit for our cover girls.

On the other hand, we do have strict accuracy requirements, and it's a pretty sure bet that our team of fact checkers would catch a discrepancy like casting Amy Poehler to play Rachel McAdams' mom (she's only 8 years older) or Sarah Silverman to parent Jonah Hill (a 13 year difference). Then again, this is the same Hollywood that thought we'd buy Winona Ryder as Zachary Quinto's Star Trek mom—she would have been a mother at the age of six.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been in Washington this week, selling Iraq as a success story of national reconciliation and democracy and looking for businesses willing to invest there. On Wednesday, he met with President Barack Obama at the White House and claimed he was working hard against sectarian conflict--even as he's been criticized for increasingly playing sectarian politics.

On Thursday morning, Maliki spoke to policy wonks and reporters at the United States Institute of Peace. He didn't make much, if any news. He hailed the "democratic process in Iraq," maintaining that all sects are treated equally by his government. Asked whether US military forces will remain in Iraq after the ongoing withdrawal is completed in 2011, he said that Iraq might request that the United States provide military training. He said nothing significant about Iran and the political upheaval there. He did contend that his government had "achieved a great victory" in fighting the corruption that it had inherited from Saddam Hussein's regime.

With that remark in mind, after Maliki concluded his speech, I headed toward the microphone set up for questions. I had a simple query. How could he claim victory against corruption when his own government had chased out of the country the two leading anti-corruption investigators: Salam Adhoob and Judge Radhi al-Radhi? (I've written about each.) These two men have repeatedly blasted Maliki for heading a government rife with corruption, from top to bottom. And how had Maliki and his aides rewarded Radhi and Adhoob for trying to investigate corruption cases that represented what they claimed to be billions of dollars in fraud? Maliki and his crew accused these two men of being corrupt, and the pair were forced to flee Iraq, out of fear of being murdered.

So I was prepped to press Maliki on all this. But several people elbowed me to reach the mike, and with Maliki giving long-winded answers to questions (as do most politicians), time ran out before I could question him. He then scooted off.

As the crowd left the room, I mentioned to another journalist the question I had composed for Maliki. "Or," he said, "you could have asked him how his son got all that money to buy that luxury hotel in Damascus." (It only cost a reported $35 million.) I suppose I could have, had I been given the chance, but no one else had. And by now, Maliki was long gone.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Ensign Jason Revitzer, Supply Officer of the Virginia-class attack submarine USS New Hampshire (SSN 778), kisses his wife during the return of New Hampshire from its maiden deployment. (Photo courtesy

Do the high costs of health care keep you up at night? Then like millions of people, you too may have health care-exia nervosa.

Watch Doctor Decline, the invention of satirist Mark Fiore, discuss the condition below:


If you are uninsured and were hoping to see action on health care sooner rather than later, you should know that your needs aren't nearly as important as senators' need for vacation and Republicans' pleas that, after 60 years, what they really need is more time to think about whether or not we should have a country where everyone has access to affordable health care.

So yeah, no health care until September. If ever.

As you may have heard, The Onion has been sold to the Chinese. Not really, of course, but you could be fooled by their site this week. It's a much-needed comedic shot in the arm after the recent sad news that their California print editions are shutting down.

The funniest bit isn't actually any of the China-related content on the Onion homepage, but the website they set up for their fake Chinese parent company, Yuwanmei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Corp. From the "Company History":

Founded in 1998 without incident or legal complication, what is now a glorious 300,000-square-foot processing center began as a humble 230,000-square-foot warehouse.

Clicking through the Yuwanmei website I can't help but think that we're witnessing the birth of a new—and potentially game-changing—comedic genre: the fake website. While fraud and deception are nothing new to the internet, and fake websites have been sometimes innovative promotional tools for movies and TV, the culture is still barely scratching the surface. Besides the Chinese Onion, the best example I've come across is an extensive spoof website featuring the comedian Charlie Murphy as Leroy Smith, the man who motivated Michael Jordan. Nike is apparently behind this project, which explains the bells and whistles, like the Leroy Smith video game. The ease with which this stuff can go viral (Leroy's website comes fully equipped with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and iPhone apps) has to have entertainment execs salivating.

Look for Hollywood to follow the lead of the website for the new Apatow flick, "Funny People", which features long fake trailers for the fake movies its protagonists star in.

Have a favorite fake website? Leave your links in the comments. But first, watch a video of Charlie Murphy (yes, Eddie's brother) as Leroy Smith, the man who motivated Michael Jordan, after the break.

Update: The Onion has taken it even farther than I had realized. Check out the Yu Wan-Mei Corp. Twitter feed (h/t to commenter Yu Wan Mei).

In the LA Times today, Harold Meyerson echoes a common complaint about California's two-thirds rule for approving tax increases and budget resolutions:

The most basic principle of any democracy is that of majority rule, with minority rights running a clear but close second. Simple though this precept may be, California seems to have gotten it backward. The budget deal that emerged from Sacramento on Monday was the result of minority rule — the consequence of a state Constitution that vests more power in the minority party than the constitution of just about any other state.

....Californians need to amend their state Constitution, in convention if need be, to end the practice of minority rule. Democracy — not to mention the future of the state — depends on it.

I agree, but I wonder if Republicans ever stop to think about how badly these rules have hurt them too?  Don't get me wrong: for various reasons, California would probably be a blue state these days regardless of whether we had a two-thirds rule or not.  But the fact is that Californians, like most people, are generally unfriendly to tax increases.  And yet they keep voting for Democrats anyway.  Why?

Well, why not?  Everyone knows the two-thirds rule will keep them from raising taxes, so if you like them for other reasons there's no reason not to vote for them.

But what if they could boost tax rates?  Then, basically, their bluff would be called.  They'd have to either raise taxes, thus pissing off a lot of people and giving Republicans a great campaign issue, or they'd have to leave taxes alone and take responsibility for cutting services.  There would be no Republicans to blame it on.  And guess what?  That might make Democrats quite a bit less popular.

Now, it's unlikely that anything could turn the California legislature over to the GOP in the near future, but in the past 25 years California has had only one Democratic governor — and we recalled him after five years in office.  We're not all that unfriendly to Republicans.  If Democrats had the power to raise taxes — and actually did it — we might become even less unfriendly toward the GOP.

In other words, even though the two-thirds rule is the only thing that currently gives Republicans any influence at all in Sacramento, repealing it might be their only long-term hope of ever taking back the California legislature.  Ironic, isn't it?

Question about Henry Louis Gates' encounter last week with Cambridge's finest: what's up with the witnesses?  The initial reports suggested there were half a dozen onlookers, but I haven't heard anything further about this.  It's hard to believe that no one has managed to round up at least a couple of them since Thursday.  Like, say, the neighbor who took this picture.  Have I just missed something?  Did I read the initial reports incorrectly?  Or what?

Anybody know?


An Ohio state rep., John Adams (R, for Ridiculous), has introduced a bill that would require a woman to get written consent from the man she had sex with to conceive. And if she doesn't know who the dad is, she has to submit a list of names of men she's had sex with! Scarlet Letter, here we come.

The bill would make it illegal to lie about who the dad is, and would make abortions without consent a crime. No word on instances of rape and incest, would we need to get a permission slip from daddy then, too?

Listen, I get that a father has a vested interest in seeing his progeny thrive, that's a man's most basic evolutionary instinct. But until men have to carry a growing fetus for nine months, sometimes risking their health to do so, and most certainly altering the rest of their lives, until then, the woman has the final say. If she makes the hard decision that abortion is what's best for everyone, well, sorry boys, you're going to have to be live with that. Just like she will.