Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Direct Democracy: The need for initiatives, referendums, and recalls

"I believe in the Initiative and Referendum, which should be used not to destroy representative government, but to correct it whenever it becomes misrepresentative."  ~Theodore Roosevelt

Our country was founded by rebels.  They didn't like that they were being taxed without representation, so they did something about it.
And it worked.  A new nation was born.

This instilled in our country a value of standing up for what we think is right and letting our voice be heard.  

242 years later we still do it.  

April 22, 2017, March for Science 
And it still works.  Well, sort of.  

Our country is founded on the idea that the power comes from the people, not from a monarch. But we are not a democracy.  We are a republic.  

There are lots of opinions out there as to how they differ but I like this summation. 

Democracy vs. Republic
Not just in America, but all over the world, populism is on the rise.  Populism is essentially support for the common or ordinary people.  Sometimes they are called the silent majority.  In essence it is a call to let their voices be heard by vote so that the majority can rule.  A democracy. 

Which sounds like a good thing right?   

Have you ever been to a carnival or a fair where you are asked to guess something?

Did you win?  Most likely you didn't.  Chances are pretty good your guess was wrong.  But according to a study conducted by NPR, it's okay that you might be wrong, because your guess helped the total number of guesses average to the correct answer.

So as a collective whole, the majority can get it right.  So shouldn't we just let everyone vote on every issue, law, and tax?  


We have representatives for a reason.  While the power comes from the people, it is given to our representatives to serve in our best interest and on our behalf.  But not just our behalf, but EVERYONE'S behalf.  Even those who didn't or can't vote.  Even those who didn't vote for the representative.  They are to represent all the people.  

But therein lies a problem.  Sometimes for the good of the whole, some must sacrifice.  

Whether it be with their life in war for everyone's freedom.  

Spanish American War
Or their land so that a community can develop and grow.

Or money in the form of taxes so that everyone can benefit from a public good or service

Obviously we don't like to make these sacrifices, especially if we don't feel like we should have to.  Thankfully, if we feel like our elected representatives are asking more of us than they should, we have the power to do something about it. We can vote for someone else at the next election.  

Or some of us can do something even more powerful, we can vote for an initiative, a referendum, or a recall, also known as direct democracy.

To remember the difference between them, I think of it this way.  

INITIATIVE = to initiate or start something = create a law
REFERENDUM = retract something = get rid of a law

RECALL = call back = remove an elected official from office

Basically it's a way to undo whatever your representatives are doing or not doing or get rid of them all together. 

Seems like a great tool, right?  

Well..... let's see.

Only 27 states in the United States of America have some form of direct democracy. It is probably most used in the state of California.

Californians have explicitly said that they follow Switzerland's direct democracy model which has been successful since Medieval times.

Sadly, it hasn't been quite so successful for California though.  

Californians have recalled their governor and rejected acts of legislature, but what they love the most are initiatives, especially when it comes to the budget. 

Since 1978, they have lowered taxes and mandated spending.  

This created chaos in the California State budget, which explains why they have such a poor credit rating.  

To read more about California and their initiatives, click here.  

So should direct democracy ever be used? 


The best use for this powerful tool is when there is misrepresentation.  Meaning the elected officials are not acting in the best interest of the common good or the people as a whole.  They are either benefiting only themselves, or a specific group of people.  A good example would be gerrymandering or non-partisan primaries, which was happening in California. 

An initiative has also been presented to a little town nestled between a lake and a mountain range, where the winters are cold and the summers are hot.  The tax base is low and the potholes are a plenty.  
Pleasant Grove, Utah
A select minority decided they want to use direct democracy to mandate spending to fix the roads.  They want almost 20% of its General Fund to fix the roads. Not only could this adversely affect the city's credit rating, (which they have spent years trying to repair) it will definitely affect its already strained budget.    

To read more about how a small group of people were able to get a town up in arms about the condition of the roads, click here.  

Now what is happening in this small, bucolic town probably doesn't seem like it should concern the rest of the nation.  But I submit that it should.  

Our founding fathers warned us against this mentality of switching our country from a republic to a direct democracy.  James Madison and Alexander Hamilton warns that it can give undue power to the passions of the mob or a select minority.  

To read more about what our Adams, Madison, and Hamilton said about a direct democracy, click here.  

When we bypass our representatives to get what we want, we are exposed to many risks.  Our representatives are dedicating time to research the issues so that we don't have to.  They are sometimes forced to make unpopular decisions because they know how it will benefit the common good.

With the populist movement comes an inherent distrust and dislike for our own representatives.  When our elected officials come forward to defend their decisions, they are called liars and crooks.  Why?  Because sadly, sometimes our representatives are liars and crooks, which is what created a need for direct democracy in the first place!  

So to the town of Pleasant Grove, Utah, and anyone else facing an opportunity to use direct democracy in an election here are some things to consider:  

1.  Be aware of the power you are wielding with your vote.  You are bypassing all of the checks and balances outlined in our Constitution.  Our founding fathers did not want an uninformed and manipulated public to have this kind of power. Take this vote seriously.

2. Do your research.  Don't let the person at your door asking you to sign a petition to put an initiative, referendum, or recall on a ballot to tell you what you should know.  He or she isn't your elected official.  They are someone who is passionate about an issue and want to see a change.  The power is being taken from your elected official back to you.  So you need to do the same amount of research as if you are the legislator or the city council member.

The top Google search in the UK was "What is the Brexit?"  Sadly, it was the top Google search the day AFTER the election.

3. Remember it isn't all about you.  You don't live on an island.  You live in a republic.  You live in a country that asks us to sometimes sacrifice for the good of all.  Ask yourself some hard questions before voting for an initiative or a referendum.
  • Who does this benefit?  
  • Who does this not benefit?  
  • Does the current law, code, tax, ask me to sacrifice for a greater good?  
  • Am I willing/able to make that sacrifice?  
  • How will this affect our city or state in the long term? 

4. Look outside of your community. See how this issue is handled elsewhere.

How are other cities paying for their roads?  How many other communities use 20% of their general fund to pave over potholes?  

5. Follow the money.  Use your critical thinking skills to look at those who are calling for a change.  How will they benefit from this action?  Beware that it might not be obvious.  They can easily present themselves as concerned citizens just wanting to make their community a better place.  Don't let yourself get manipulated.

In Pleasant Grove, the people who are trying to hijack the General Fund with an initiative are with the same group who tried to run for City Council a few years ago.  They were running on a ticket known as PG3.  They ran on a single issue of roads, but weren't clear as to why they were running as a group.  No matter the issue, when a group runs together for city council, I get nervous.  Municipal politics are nonpartisan for a reason. 

6. Don't hunt pheasants with an assault rifle.  Is this issue worthy of something as powerful as direct democracy?  We don't want to fall into the trap that California fell into.  They used initiatives for chicken coop regulations!

Despite my federalist leanings, I actually am supportive of direct democracy.

 I love that I live in a country that allows for the voice of the people to be heard if they are being represented by corrupt officials.  But I think we don't always realize just how powerful (and damaging) direct democracy can be.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

When India Comes Calling: Fun as a Scambaiter

For the past couple of weeks, I have had unexpected free time since my son is away at our other residence.

What started as feeling bored one morning, has turned into almost a new hobby for me: talking to scammers on the phone.
At first I was nervous to engage; I was afraid that somehow they'd be able to get my personal information through osmosis and I'd find my bank account emptied after I got off the phone. But I quickly realized that they are targeting the vulnerable so they go for what is easy. And I am definitely not an easy mark.

I Never Pay My Bills

"You pay about $100 a month on your electric bill?"
Me: "That sounds good."
"And you have a good credit score?"
Me: "Thank you for saying that, you are so kind."
"We looked at your house on Google maps and can see that your roof is exposed. We are going to have someone call you to give you completely free solar panels, you just have to have your electric bills in your hands when they call."
Me: "But I can't have my electric bills in my hands."
"That's okay, just have an idea of what your bills are."
Me: "But I have no idea what my monthly bills are."
"But you said they were $100 a month."
Me: "No YOU said they were $100 a month. I thought that sounded like a good price."
Now he's getting really frustrated and starts yelling me. I let him rant and rave and don't say anything.
"Look I'm going to get to the point. Do you want a solar panel on your house or not?"
Me: "I don't know. How much do you think I pay each month for electricity based on the size of my house?"
"(Expletive) Ma'am. I'm just trying to qualify you for this program!"
Me: "So do I qualify for the program?"
"I don't know until you can tell me how much you pay in your electric bills. Don't you pay your bills?"
Me: "I never pay my electric bills."
"Thank you for your time, ma'am." Click.
I never got to tell him we are on autopay.

My $3000 a Year Bills

"Do I have the pleasure of speaking to Mr. or Mrs. Pack?" It's a young sounding woman.

Me: "Yes." (I'm either Mr. or Mrs. Pack and it is a pleasure to speak to me.)

She gives me the whole spiel about the auto warranty that is about expire on my car and asks if I want to learn more about the cost to renew it.

Me: "I don't know how interested I am in a warranty since I don't drive it."

"You don't drive it? Don't you own the car anymore?"

Me: "Yes, I still own it, but I don't drive it."

"How is it that you still own your car but you don't drive it?"

Me: "Well I live in New York City and..."

"Oh I see, so you are paying $1000 a month to keep it in a garage and you don't even bother to drive it?"

Me: "No, it stays at my home in Utah where I...."

"Enjoy your day ma'am. And enjoy those $3000 a year bills!"


How to Give a Child Highlights

"I understand that you are receiving Highlights at your home?"

Me: "No, I'm not getting any highlights at home."

"Oh, maybe you are having Highlights sent as a gift to a child?"

Me: "No, I am not giving any children highlights." Do you see where I'm going with this?

"Do you live at ______?"

Me: "No, that is not my address."

"I am so sorry ma'am, we need to update our records."

Me: "So there is a way that I can give children highlights?"

"Yes, it is a magazine."

Me: "It's a magazine that teaches me how to give children highlights?"

"No, ma'am. It's an education magazine for children."

Me: "So the magazine teaches the children how to do their own highlights?"

"No, you probably have seen them at a doctor's office."

Me: "Children have to go to the doctor to get highlights?"

"No, it's an educational magazine to help them at school."

Me: "Oh, so like a magazine that teaches them how to put highlights in their own hair?"

"No, it's doesn't teach them about hair."

Me: "Then how do they learn how to do highlights if it doesn't teach about hair?"

"Ma'am, it is an educational magazine that teaches them letters, numbers and how to do mazes. It does not have anything to do with hair or beauty school. I'm going to update my records now."


To be fair, I don't think this was a scam, I truly think she had the wrong number.
I ran out of buttons

"Please be handy with a pen and paper and please be in front of a computer."

Me: "Okay."

"How old are you?"

Me: "I'm 47."

"Who pays the bills?"

Me: "I pay the bills."

"What it is wrong with the computer?"

Me: "You called me."

"Look at your keyboard, what do you see next to the Crtl button?"

Me: "I see a button that says Fn"

"And what do you see next to that?"

Me: "Nothing, I ran out of buttons."

"You are out of buttons?"

Me: "Yep, no more buttons."

"All your keyboard has is Fn and Ctrl?"

Me: "Yep, those are my only keys going right."

(Sigh) "Go to the left what do you see?"

Me: "I see a button that is a square and on top of it is four white squares."

"Press that button and tell me what you see."

I start describing in DETAIL what I see starting in the upper right hand corner for about 3 minutes.

Me: "...then I see another trapezoid with an "x" and inside is an orange box with a white B inside it and the words blogger, then the next trapezoid also has an "x" but this has a picture of a tree and the words "FamilySearch..." I keep describing all of my tabs...

"Ma'am. When I tell you to stop talking, you need to STOP TALKING!"

Me: "You never told me to stop talking."

"Press the windows button and the letter R. What do you see?"

Me: "I see the word "run." Do I need to go run?"

"No, you don't need to run. But click on the..."

I won't bother you with the rest, but I made him wait will I put a bunch of food in the freezer, I told him that I didn't have any mice in my house (he wanted me to left click on the mouse) I described what was on my screen except the very command he wanted me to see, over and over again. He finally had enough.

"Ma'am, do you want me to help you fix your computer or do you just want to buy a new computer?"

Me: "I'd like to buy a new computer please."

"Okay, I'm going to shut this computer down so you can't use it anymore and then you can go out and buy yourself a new computer."

Me: "Okay, great, thanks so much!"

(Click) He hung up, not me.

My Relative Marshall

Me: "Who did you say you worked for again?"

"I work for Microsoft"

Me: "What is your employee number?"


Me: "And what is your name again?"

"Marshall Smith"

I google Microsoft Marshall Smith and a guy from Seattle pops up who works for Tesla.

Me: "So how do you like living in Seatlle?"

"I don't live in Seattle. I live in Portland, Oregon."

I google Marshall Smith Portland Oregon, a different guy pops up.

Me: "Wow! You've had quite the career."


Me: "You've had some pretty cool jobs in the basketball industry, what made you decide to switch over to Microsoft?"

"I don't have to give you any personal information."

Me: "You say you want to access my computer so that you can look at all of my personal information to diagnose what is wrong, and I don't get to verify that you are who you say you are?"

"I verified it when I gave you the unique ID off of your computer."

Me: "But I googled that ID and everyone has that ID on their computer."

He then started talking really fast with some weird answer as to why the Internet told me this.

Me: "The article says that people call from India, tell me that there is something wrong with my computer, and that they are from Microsoft."

"I am not calling from India. I am calling from Portland, Oregon. I am not Indian."

Me: "Then why is our connection so bad? I have talked to people from Portland Oregon before and it is much easier to hear them."

"I am a _____ person." (I think he said honorable, but I'm not sure.)

Me: "What did you say? You are what?"

"I am ______ I am relative..." (I still couldn't make out what he was saying.)

"Did you just say you are my relative?"


While talking to "Marshall Smith" about his basketball career is funny, the reality that people fall for these scams isn't. They are targeting the elderly and the uneducated. But we can help.

The FTC keeps a running list of known scams.
Click here to read the FTC's list of known scams. If you know anyone who might be particularly vulnerable to these scams, you might want to encourage them to sign up for email alerts since they change rapidly.

Click here to join the email list.
We can help FTC with this list by reporting a scam using their complaint assistant.
Click here to file a complaint. It's not hard to find lots of tips and suggestions on the internet for recognizing that something is a scam.

Your phone call might be a scam if....

  • When you answer the phone, there is silence and then a click. That means your number was autodialed. Typically you have to say "hello" twice to get a human.
  • The connection is poor and you can hear other people talking in the background.
  • The caller wants to help you even though you didn't solicit their help.  
  • The caller tries to make you think they have specific information about you; e.g, roof exposure of your home, personal computer ID number, your credit score, your electric bill, your make and model of your car, etc.
  • The caller creates a sense of urgency. They want you to feel panicked and that time is of the essence.
  • The caller seems to be able to "know" what is uniquely on your computer.  It's actually the same on all computers.
  • They will tell you that they are a legit company, that they are honorable, or that this is not a scam.
  • Their name and their accent don't match.
  • When you ask for verification or a website, they get frustrated. 

And remember don't download anything from any website they send you to, like ammyy.  Don't let anyone access your computer.  Don't give out any personal information.  Don't ever give out any financial information.

 Gotta go, India is calling!  

To see a heartbreaking video of a scammer opening up about what is really like for those in India, watch this 16 minute video. This is why I never try to be mean to whomever I'm talking to, but keep them on the phone as long as I can.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What Toolulah Taught Me About Online For-profit Schools

I'd like to introduce you to Toolulah Rogersmith.

Toolulah is 57 years old with a GED.  She's never gone to college and is interested in getting a degree in Information Technology.  She has access to a computer and the Internet but has never worked in the field and has no certifications.

Oh and one more thing.

Toolulah isn't real.

Thank you Daily Mail and Alamy for the photo.  

I made her up in hopes of attracting some con artists so that I could have some funny material for my blog.  What started as a way to have some fun like James Veitch turned into a heartbreaking adventure learning about online for-profit schools.

In an attempt to get Toolulah's email address out there, I signed up to learn more about an online school. The next day I got a call from them.  Within two seconds I knew I didn't want to "play" with them, but that I could actually learn something.  And boy did I.

First, my apologies to the nice people who have taken the time to talk to me today and have tried to help Toolulah start a new career with an online degree.  I'll just tell you now, she's not interested.  

I'd like to try to sum up what I learned talking to the different schools.

Bryant & Stratton

All of my email communication with Bryant & Stratton immediately went to the spam folder.  Gmail was concerned that I was getting emails from them and tried to warn me that others consider them spam.  So when they called, I was definitely on my guard.  

But to my surprise, I wasn't talking to "Alan from Chicago" who is actually from India, and actually had a delightful conversation.

She told me that they had counselors that will help me get Financial Aid and told me that every single student she works with has Financial Aid.  What I suspect is that many of them actually have student loans through FAFSA, but sadly I didn't ask her that.  She spent quite a bit of time telling me about Financial Aid and didn't really talk too much about the school.  I had to probe to find out more.

They offer lifetime career services even if I earn other degrees in the future.  Services include help with cover letter, resume, and mock interviews.

I asked her what the graduation rate was for students, and she started beating around the bush.  She talked about how the number is determined by the government and doesn't include transfer students.  But she assured me it was higher than other schools.  (She was wrong, see the stats below.)
The cost to get an IT Bachelor's degree is $584/credit.  You need 75 credits to graduate for a cost of

$43,800 not including fees and books.  

American Public University

This was an interesting phone call.  Almost immediately my questions started to stump the person on the other line.  Repeatedly he kept saying "No one has ever asked me that before."  I asked questions like:

"What is the average starting salary of someone who completes a degree at your school?"

"Do you track what percent get a job within 90 days of graduation?"

Basically, what will my return on investment be?  No one had ever asked him that.  

He finally got so stumped that he turned me over to someone who was getting a degree in IT.  This is when it really got interesting.

She essentially told me that in order to get a good job in IT, I need certification before education.  She also said that this university doesn't do anything to help me get certified.  If I want a certification, then I need to figure out what I want, what books I need to buy to study, and find time outside of school to get certified.  In fact she confided in me that her certification is taking months because she's so busy with school.

She said that an education is what is required to get a job in IT in the government sector.  Who is providing the financial aid for these students to get a bachelor's?  That's right the government.  

This school charges $270 per credit and it takes 122 credits to graduate.  You might also have to take an additional 9 credits to get ready for college for a cost of

$35,370 + an avg. of $1,091 in course materials. 

Ashford University

All of my emails from Ashford also went directly to my spam folder.  Gmail warned me not to communicate with them.

Talking to Ashford took quite a bit of self-control on my part.  The woman I spoke to was pleasant but extremely defensive, especially after I told her I was looking at other schools.  She talked condescendingly and it took some time before she believed I wasn't an idiot.

Ashford didn't seem too interested in helping me find scholarships or grants to pay for my education.  I was told that I'd have to do all that on my own.  But she definitely pushed student loans.  She told me that the government WANTS me to take out loans to pay for my education even if I have enough money to pay the tuition.  She said the government doesn't want me stressed about paying for tuition but wants me to focus on my studies.

As we wrapped up my phone call she told that it was refreshing to talk to me.  "Why?"  I asked.

"Because my students don't normally ask such good questions.  I can tell you actually care about your education."  

And just what does it cost to attend Ashford?  

$452/credit, but that's not all.  It's also $50 for each class, plus some other fees.  Two semesters comes to $11,928.  It takes 120 credits to get a bachelor's degree for a total of


Western Governor's University

I decided as a comparison to see what a nonprofit online school was like.  No sooner had I filled out the form when the phone rang.  

It's hard to describe how different it was talking to WGU than the other three schools today.  But I'll try.  The two people I talked to treated me very respectfully.  They didn't seem shocked at any of my questions.  They definitely were not trying to push me into attending the school.  And financial aid was never mentioned until I brought it up.  It really did feel like I was talking to a actual university.  They even knew what an alumni network was.  

The enrollment counselor really took the time to listen, and didn't seem anxious to talk me into anything.  I was also intrigued to find out that I actually had to qualify to attend the university.  Apparently warm, breathing, and able to fill out a FAFSA wasn't enough.  

The pricing model at WGU is very different than the other schools.  You pay for a period of time, not for credits.  Six months costs $3035 and you can take as many classes as you think you can handle.  If you don't finish a class, it carries over to the next time period.  He told me that they will work with me to find scholarships, grants, and even loans if I want one.  The school itself offers scholarships. 

He said that it takes on average 3 years to complete a bachelor's in information technology for a cost of 


but that's not all.  

That also covers CERTIFICATIONS which cost around $200 to $300 to sit for an exam.  And WGU will pay for you to take each one twice.  

The only catch is that you need to have some IT experience in order to get into the program.  For those like Toolulah who don't have any, the fastest least expensive way is to get a certification.  It takes about a month and lets the person know whether they like the field or not.  

After a day of talking to lots of schools and taking lots of notes, I had a difficult time processing everything I had learned.  Fortunately I found a website that has already done the work for me.  

College Scorecard

This website uses data collected by the Department of Education.  Let's see how these four stack up to the national average, shall we? 

Graduation Rate

Note: Since Bryant & Stratton has several campuses (or is it campusi?) I couldn't find any aggregate data for their online school.  So I chose their Cleveland campus.  

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 

Average Annual Cost

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 

Percentage Receiving Student Loans

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
70% (according to Market Watch)

Typical Debt After Graduation

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
$37,132 (for some depressing statistics, click here)

Salary After Attending School

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:
No data

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
$48,127 (according to

Percentage Earning More than a High School Graduate

Bryant & Stratton:

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
This is a complicated answer.  To see an interesting analysis, click here.  

Percentage of Students Paying Down Their Debt

Bryant & Stratton:
16% (and remember 92% have a student loan to pay)

American Public University:

Ashford University: 

Western Governor's University: 

National Average: 
Again a complicated answer, but the deliquency rate is 11%.  

Parting Thoughts

I fully recognize that spending one day as Toolulah Rogersmith in no way scratches the surface of the complicated issue of post high school graduation and the pros of cons of online schooling.  But I would like to share my impressions of my conversations today: 

  • Typically, those considering an online degree are not asking probing questions to get the full picture.  Any questions that require critical thinking were shocking to those whom I talked to, except for WGU. 
  • The for-profit schools were eager to push financial aid, but not clear that I most likely will have to pay the money back some day.  
  • The for-profit schools talked about the government like it was a separate entity who was paying for my schooling out of the goodness of their heart.  Whenever I mentioned that they were talking about tax payers, they went silent.  
  • None of the for-profit schools wanted to know anything about my financial situation or ability to handle paying for school.  
  • When asked why I wanted to go into Information Technology, I said, "I just scrolled through the list and picked that one."  The response was usually something like, "Great." or "Perfect" and they moved on to the next question.  No concern was expressed that I might not have the aptitude for it.  WGU was the only one concerned with my response. 

I am a huge advocate for post high school education.  I also think that education can be found in many different ways.  For some, a traditional four-year degree is the best option.  For others a vocational or trade school is a better choice.  While I'm not necessarily endorsing Western Governor's, I did sense a huge difference between those schools that are for-profit vs. WGU's responses.

For-profit schools remind me of the human smugglers "helping" the Syrian refugees make the two-and-a-half mile boat ride to Turkey for $6000 per person.  They pack the boat with three times the capacity, give them fake life jackets, and get the money whether the passengers survive the trip or not.

And we as a nation are paying the price.

To read an interview from someone who was a recruiter for for-profit schools, click here.