I love stories like this:

[Mark] Elliot's cellphone nightmare began last week when he received a notice from Bank of America saying a payment had bounced on his online bill-pay service. He looked into it and discovered that Verizon was trying to charge him $9,993.88 for his April bill.

....According to the bill, Elliot used his cellphone to upload, download or otherwise access more than 44,000 megabytes worth of data in a single month.  That's the equivalent of downloading about 11,000 songs from iTunes or 60 full-length movies.

[Blah blah....some idiocy from Verizon about how this was all perfectly normal....blah blah]

Elliot woke up Tuesday morning to another notice from BofA saying something was amiss with his account. Turns out Verizon had once again billed his account for the entire $9,993.88 — and this time BofA paid the bill.  This resulted in Elliot losing the $781 he had in his checking account and then owing more than $9,200 to the bank.

So I contacted BofA. Tara Burke, a bank spokeswoman, said the way the online bill-pay system works is that if insufficient funds exist in an account, the first two attempts by a business to withdraw funds will be rejected.  But if the business tries a third time, the transaction will be processed.

Verizon and BofA eventually fixed this stuff, but only after learning that it was going to be publicized in the LA Times.  Without that, this might have gone on forever.  And who knows if it's really over anyway?  I wonder if Elliot has checked his credit report yet to see if anyone has put a big fat black mark on it that will take the next five years to clear up?

Anyway, this is why I don't use electronic bill pay.  You have been warned.

According to a new study, as the economy tanked last year, so did Americans' charitable giving. The Giving USA Foundation reports that we donated nearly six percent less than we did in 2007, the biggest annual drop in 50 years. This is hardly unexpected, but it's still notable that charitable giving didn't drop at the same rate as the stock market or people's retirement funds. Which may suggest that even in hard times, we Americans are a fairly generous lot. Or are we? In our current issue, I explore the question of whether we can afford to give away even more of our hard-earned cash. As residents of the richest nation in the world, do we have an ethical obligation—as philosopher Peter Singer argues—to give away a substaintial chunk of our personal wealth to help others? And even if we do, can we write our favorite causes an IOU until the economic mess works itself out?

My take: I find Singer's basic argument compelling, if guilt-inducing. We should still keep our checkbooks at the ready, not simply because it's the right thing to do, but because nonprofits are an economic engine every bit as important as mismanaged auto companies or short-sighted investment firms. And they're picking up much of the slack in our frayed social safety net. So, if you can afford it, go out and stimulate the economy and your conscience. (I don't say this just because I work for a nonprofit magazine. Really.) Read my article and let me know what you think.

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Remi Jouan.

We gave the Pentagon more than $500 billion (PDF) last year, but, according to the Center for Public Integrity, that hasn't stopped defense officials from routinely accepting trips bankrolled by special interests.

Despite the Pentagon’s big budgets, DOD personnel routinely accept free flights, accommodations, and hospitality from outside interests, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of thousands of travel disclosure records. From 1998 through 2007, the analysis found, outside sources paid for more than 22,000 trips worth at least $26 million, sponsored by an array of foreign governments, private companies, and other groups which have business with the Pentagon.

The best (or most suspect) trip taken by an American official? A $24,000, Saudi-funded excursion—complete with a trip to a camel race as special guests of Prince Miteb bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz—taken by Richard Millies and his wife in 2005. Millies is one of the Pentagon's men in charge of selling advanced weapons to foreign governments.

Yesterday I posted a photo from Afghanistan. Today, it's Iraq.U.S. Army Pfc. Anthony Mariscao of Houston, Texas, from 3rd Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas, gives an Iraqi girl candy in the village of Raml in Kirkuk, Iraq, June 4, 2009. U.S. Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces are working to identify areas that need road repair in and around Kirkuk, Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Bobby L. Allen Jr./Released)

Uighurs to Palau

Kevin Drum relays the fact that the Uighurs are headed to Palau, an island nation in the North Pacific. You may remember Palau because it's especially threatened by climate change. Mother Jones has covered the story of the Uighurs, 19 Chinese Muslims held in Guantanamo Bay, extensively. In November 2008, when it looked like the Uighurs might be released near Washington, DC, Stephanie Mencimer spoke to members of the local Uighur community. Here's a video from that story (Jonathan Stein narrated):

Later that month, Stephanie reported on the Bush administration's half-hearted struggle to find a home for the Uighurs. Back in January, Kevin wrote that he hoped Obama would be able to settle the Uighurs.

As Nick and Kevin have noted, 17 Uighurs may soon be headed for the tiny Pacific nation of Palau. This strikes me as a little odd, because when Palau's government isn't offering to accommodate Guantanamo detainees, it's publicly fretting that the country may become unliveable because of global warming.

At the United Nations, Palau is one of the savviest, loudest voices (admittedly there aren't many) calling for the international community to help small island countries whose existence is threatened by climate change. Palau says it has already lost one third of its coral reef ecosystems, which it depends on for food and tourism, due to rising ocean temperatures and increasingly frequent storms. The government fears that if these weather patterns continue, the islands will no longer be able to sustain its population of around 20,000 people. Palau's UN ambassador, Stuart Beck, has said that "the destruction of coral reefs is tantamount to the destruction of our country."

Palau's dire predictions never seemed to result in much tangible assistance. Now the US is pledging the country $200 million in development aid. Just to put that in perspective, that's $10,000 per person, and nearly twice as much as the US gives to Rwanda. In 2007, US aid to Palau totaled $27 million. But the extra money has nothing to do with the Uighurs, of course.

I'm not griping about Tuesday night's Webby Awards simply because MotherJones.com, winner of 2005 and 2006 Webbys for Best Political Blog, wasn't even nominated this year. I'm griping because I don't think that the awards show is headed in the right direction.

First, it's not televised. The result is that awards nominees don't get the same attention that Broadway performers (at the Tonys) or even sound technicians (at the Oscars) do. Why can't web awards be a full-fledged red carpet event? With Tim Gunn tactfully commenting on Arianna Huffington's poor taste in dress, or kooky Joan Rivers telling Kevin Drum that his wife looks great, even though he has actually brought his cat Domino as his date?

The Uighurs have apparently finally found a home:

The United States has won an agreement to transfer up to 17 Chinese Muslims from the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Palau, a sparsely populated archipelago in the North Pacific, according to a statement released by Palau to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

....The agreement opens the door to the largest single transfer of Guantánamo prisoners and is the first major deal on detainees since President Obama pledged upon taking office in January to close the prison within a year.

It also gives Mr. Obama some relief on an issue that has become a political hot button among Congressional Republicans and even some Democrats, who have noisily protested against releasing what they call potentially dangerous extremists on American soil or transferring them to prisons in the United States.

According to Palau's UN representative, "Palau is paradise."  Better than Cuba, anyway.

The Treasury Department made headlines today announcing that 10 mega-banks will be allowed to repay their TARP funds. These banks—among them JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, American Express, and Bank of New York Mellon—will return an estimated $68.3 billion to the government’s coffers, almost triple what the Treasury initially estimated.

So what do Obama, Geithner, Summers, and the rest of the gang have in mind for that $68.3 billion? Well, according to Obama's remarks today, the government can save its money and spend it, too:

This [repayment] is not a sign that our troubles are over—far from it... But it is a positive sign. We're seeing an initial return on a few of these investments. We're restoring funds to the Treasury where they'll be available to safeguard against continuing risks to financial stability. And as this money is returned, we'll see our national debt lessened by $68 billionbillions of dollars that this generation will not have to borrow and future generations will not have to repay.

Huh? The $68 billion in repayments are apparently going back to the Treasury to "safeguard against continuing risks to financial stability." This is most likely doublespeak for TARP II, the newest round of bailouts that uses TARP repayments from healthier banks to subsidize the weaker ones. Yet at the same time it's subsidizing banks, that $68 billion is also going to reduce the national debt. This doesn't quite add up.

Obama's contradictory comments on the bailout also fuels the criticism that the government really doesn't have a coherent vision for the bailout, but instead sees it as a endlessly spinning revolving door for taxpayer money coming from and going out to struggling banks. Stay tuned here for more updates on the bailout, and where that $68 billion in taxpayer dollars is really headed.

(H/T Paul Kiel, ProPublica)

"Don't Mess With Texas," perhaps the most famous state slogan in history, began as an anti-littering campaign. Having grown up in the Lone Star State, I remember a TV ad showing two fighter jets swooping over a highway, presumably about to strafe some guy who tossed a can out of his pickup. Well, turns out San Francisco is about to do Texas one better. Today, the city's Board of Supervisors made it illegal not only to throw that can out the window, but also in the trash; a new law will require you to recycle it. I can't wait for the bus ads featuring a gun-packing hippie: Don't mess with San Francisco.

Of course, San Francisco's strong recycling norms aren't unique along the Left Coast, which, as we noted in our recent Waste Issue, takes those curvy green arrows much more seriously than folks in New York. Recycling is already mandatory in San Diego and Seattle, where trash collectors shame offending homeowners by posting notes on their trash bins and leaving them unemptied on the curb. Still, San Francisco might up the ante. SF Weekly notes that its proposed fines for not recycling--$100 to $500--are ten times higher than Seattle's.

San Francisco is already the least trashy city in America. In May, it announced that it recycles 72 percent of its waste.  And most homeowners and more than a fifth of apartment dwellers compost (under the new law, everyone will). Fascinated by how the city where I live achieves such high numbers, I recently began following my garbage. I've tracked it from the can at my apartment building to its eventual reincarnation, learning a lot along the way about the obstacles to going "zero waste," as the city hopes to by 2020. Check back tomorrow for the first installment of this colorful--and stinky--trash saga, which will appear on this site throughout the week.