Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 10:02 pm

Rough justice

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 10:02 pm
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Which Democrats are likeliest to pay a political price in November? Why, the ones who foolishly argued for cutting the deficit rather than creating jobs. Imagine that.

Now, will Republicans who actually created these conditions pay a price? Some won’t because they already did in 2008. But lots of others won’t because voters increasingly believe that the situation Obama inherited on Jan. 20, 2009, was actually his fault. (The fact that things have gotten worse is his fault, but not the situation itself.) And to take revenge on the Democrats they think are to blame, voters are re going to elect Republicans who would’ve done even worse things a few years ago given the chance and who will unquestionably do the kinds of things in the next couple of years that will make Smoot-Hawley look like the CCC.

The sad thing is, the right thing is and always has also been the politically popular thing, and yet the conservaDems choose neither:

15. Which ONE of the following do you think should have the higher priority for policy-makers in Washington RIGHT NOW… ?
37 %Reducing the federal budget deficit (or)
57 %Federal spending to create jobs (or)
6 %  Don’t know

16. Do you think Congress should allow the Bush tax cuts for persons in the top two percent income category to EXPIRE in 2011, or should Congress pass legislation to EXTEND the Bush tax cuts for the top two percent?
52 % Allow Bush tax cuts to expire
38 % Extend Bush tax cuts
10 % Don’t know

Unrelated side question: Can someone explain to me the business case for NYT Co.’s having acquired FiveThirtyEight.com?

Dead banks walking

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 9:55 pm
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I’ve had some things to say in the past about zombie banks and how bad they are for the economy. But, hey, what do I know? I’m just the guy who called Howard Coble out for failing to vote for the LaFalce Amendment, as a result of which the S&L bailout of the early 1990s ended up costing about four times what it would have if Coble and others had supported his fellow Republican’s put-the-S&Ls-out-of-their-misery measure and Coble himself admitted he’d screwed up.

But you know who’s saying bad things about zombie banks now? Those silly liberals at American Banker:

… no stage of the [foreclosure] process has returned to pre-September 2008 levels. That is when the Treasury unveiled the Troubled Asset Relief Program and promised to help financial institutions avoid liquidating assets at panic-driven prices. The Financial Accounting Standards Board and other authorities followed suit with fair-value dispensations.

These changes made it easier to avoid fire-sale marks — and less attractive to foreclose on bad assets and unload them at market clearing prices. In California, ForeclosureRadar data shows, the volume of foreclosure filings has never returned to the levels they had reached before government intervention gave servicers breathing room.

Some servicing executives acknowledged that stalling on foreclosures will cause worse pain in the future — and that the reckoning may be almost here.

“The industry as a whole got into a panic mode and was worried about all these loans going into foreclosure and driving prices down, so they got all these programs, started Hamp and internal mods and short sales,” said John Marecki, vice president of East Coast foreclosure operations for Prommis Solutions, an Atlanta company that provides foreclosure processing services. Until recently, he was senior vice president of default administration at Flagstar Bank in Troy, Mich. “Now they’re looking at this, how they held off and they’re getting to the point where maybe they made a mistake in that realm.”

Duh. Ya think?

And, honestly, if it were just banksters getting hurt, that would be one thing. But you know who’s going to pay for this: homeowners, and you and I whether we own homes or not.

Delayed foreclosures might be good news for delinquent borrowers, but it comes at a high price.

Stagnant foreclosures likely contributed to the abysmal July home sales, since banks are putting fewer homes for sale at market-clearing prices.

Moreover, Freddie says a good 14% of homes that are seriously delinquent are vacant. In such circumstances, eventual recovery values rapidly deteriorate.

Ayep.

Priorities; or, Banana Republics R U.S.

Filed under: Uncategorized — Lex @ 9:40 pm

Remember, kids, it is more important to bail out rich banksters  — and keep their taxes low — than to keep fires suppressed.

Why does Obama hate small business?

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 9:15 pm
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Personally, I think it’s because he’s a Muslim:

But we have to do more.  And there’s currently a jobs bill before Congress that would do two big things for small business owners:  cut more taxes and make available more loans.  It would help them get the credit they need, and eliminate capital gains taxes on key investments so they have more incentive to invest right now.  And it would accelerate $55 billion of tax relief to encourage American businesses, small and large, to expand their investments over the next 14 months.

Unfortunately, this bill has been languishing in the Senate for months, held up by a partisan minority that won’t even allow it to go to a vote.  That makes no sense.  This bill is fully paid for.  It will not add to the deficit.  And there is no reason to block it besides pure partisan politics

Things that make you go “Hmmm …”, cont.

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 8:48 pm
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So, Republicans are claiming that the “Tea Party” slate in Michigan was actually a ruse set up by Democrats to split the Republican vote. And unlikely as it seems, there might even be some there there.

If it exists, this operation bears a strong resemblance to the kind of trick that has been a GOP tradition (and, in particular, a Young Republicans) tradition since the era of Nixon. (There’s actually a specific term for it, one that I won’t repeat here but involves rodents and coitus.) And I’m torn. On the one hand, it’s a shame that Democrats feel like they have to stoop to that level. On the other, it’s encouraging that the gang that always brings a knife to a gun fight is finally packing heat.

When hypocrisy turns deadly

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 8:42 pm
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Ordinarily, I wouldn’t bother taking note of the fact that someone who isn’t an elected official has come out of the closet. But Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is a special case.

Mehlman spent decades in powerful positions in the GOP as its anti-gay platform literally took lives. Choire at The Awl connects the dots:

But also let’s not forget the plans that began in 1992 to funnel public health money solely into religious institutions, so HIV prevention money could be spent almost entirely in systems that advocate “marital fidelity, abstinence, and a drug-free lifestyle,” as that year’s Republican platform put it. (This scheme had as a nice backdrop and semi-foil Pat Buchanan’s still-unbelievable convention speech.) This resonated for years around the world, undermining HIV prevention in Africa. (Ahem: “A full two-thirds of the money for the prevention of the sexual spread of HIV goes to abstinence.” And: “HIV prevention funding turned into a patronage system for the religious right.”)

Anyhow! How about that Ken Mehlman? Is it completely biased of me that I can’t take his personal struggle that seriously? Given that he was the fund-raising architect of a system that advocated and literally built anti-gay initiatives? I guess, to extend the empathy that he never once exhibited, it’s sad that he has spent 40+ years blinded by ambition, in love with power, literally unable to think properly about causes and effects. And that he’ll spend the rest of his life trying (one assumes) to compensate for his self-betrayal.

But really, I find it next to impossible to keep any empathy going, given that his self-betrayal has a bodycount.

Yup. Thousands of people are dead who might not be if Ken Mehlman had been more honest with himself, sooner, about who and what he was.

Sunday, August 29, 2010 10:08 pm

… and no sense, either.

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 10:08 pm
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Fox News’ Chris Wallace urged Fox talk-show host Glenn Beck this morning to run for president.

I think that tells you almost everything you need to know about Chris Wallace, Fox News and Glenn Beck. As for the rest, Steve Benen sums up why it’s hard to take Beck’s movement seriously: It is ideologically incoherent, the intellectual/political equivalent of the guy in shabby clothes on the street corner mumbling to himself and urinating in his pants.

No shame

Filed under: Evil,I want my country back. — Lex @ 9:58 pm
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Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition who, as a lobbyist involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal, just missed going to prison, is holding some sort of event in Washington soon, and five Republican congresscritters, five Republican congressional candidates and Karl Rove will be speaking at the thing.

Notice how neither the media nor the Democrats are making a big deal about this. Why? Because It’s OK If You’re a Republican.

Finally, some honest services

Former lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings goes free:

Ending what former N.C. lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings called a five-year nightmare, the same federal judge who sent him to prison more than three years ago has officially exonerated him. …

The order came two months after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the scope of the fraud statute under which Geddings was convicted. In essence, it said the statute no longer applied to what Geddings did. …

His legal troubles began in 2005 when then-Democratic House Speaker Jim Black appointed him to the fledgling state lottery commission.

He resigned five weeks later after reports that a lottery company had paid him thousands in the years leading up to his appointment. Prosecutors said Geddings denied the public of “honest services” by failing to disclose his conflict on a state ethics form. …

“I should have been more fulsome in the disclosures I made on that ethics form,” he said, “but I never committed a felony.”

fulsome (adj):

1. offensive to good taste, esp. as being excessive; overdone or gross: fulsome praise that embarrassed her deeply; fulsome décor.
2. disgusting; sickening; repulsive: a table heaped with fulsome mounds of greasy foods.
3. excessively or insincerely lavish: fulsome admiration.
4. encompassing all aspects; comprehensive: a fulsome survey of the political situation in Central America.
5. abundant or copious.
No longer an inmate, but still a douchebag.
(h/t: Mom)

Friday Random 10, Sunday Chores Edition

Filed under: Friday Random 10 — Lex @ 5:21 pm
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Death Cult — With Love
Mekons — Country
Mary-Chapin Carpenter — He Thinks He’ll Keep Her
Caesar’s Rebuilders — Every One Would Listen
Interpol — Lights
M.I.A. — Paper Planes
The National — Blood Buzz Ohio
Juicy Bananas — Bad Man
Brains — Heart in the Street
Big Pink — Love Song

lagniappe 10:

The Rescues — Break Me Out
Dave Matthews Band — Rhyme & Reason
AC/DC — Brain Shock
Warren Zevon — Sacrificial Lambs
Steely Dan — Babylon Sisters
Jeremy Fisher — Cigarette
Rolling Stones — Turd on the Run
Sweet — Fox on the Run
Aerosmith — Back in the Saddle
Killing Joke — Total Invasion

Headed home

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 3:20 pm
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Sunset on the tidal creek off Wadmalaw Island near Charleston, S.C., March 2010. Shot at a Hay family reunion.

Forget, hell

Filed under: I want my country back. — Lex @ 3:00 am
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Friday, August 27, 2010 8:59 pm

The rotating corpse of Thomas Jefferson is lighting a small New England town

For crying out loud. What part of “warrant” do you people not understand?

Law enforcement officers may secretly place a GPS device on a person’s car without seeking a warrant from a judge, according to a recent federal appeals court ruling in California.

Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Oregon in 2007 surreptitiously attached a GPS to the silver Jeep owned by Juan Pineda-Moreno, whom they suspected of growing marijuana, according to court papers.

When Pineda-Moreno was arrested and charged, one piece of evidence was the GPS data, including the longitude and latitude of where the Jeep was driven, and how long it stayed. Prosecutors asserted the Jeep had been driven several times to remote rural locations where agents discovered marijuana being grown, court documents show.

Pineda-Moreno eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to grow marijuana, and is serving a 51-month sentence, according to his lawyer. …

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the appeal twice — in January of this year by a three-judge panel, and then again by the full court earlier this month. The judges who affirmed Pineda-Moreno’s conviction did so without comment. …

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., arrived at a different conclusion in similar case, saying officers who attached a GPS to the car of a suspected drug dealer should have sought a warrant. Experts say the issue could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

Relatedly, you know those full-body scanners for use in airports? Law-enforcement agencies are buying them to use on the street … again, without warrants.

Let’s see if this subject comes up at the Glenn Beck rally …

Politics 101 …

Filed under: I want my money back. — Lex @ 8:56 pm
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… offered free of charge to the many Democrats who apparently skipped the course:

With the economy rapidly weakening, some senior Democrats are having second thoughts about raising taxes on the nation’s wealthiest families and are pressing party leaders to consider extending the full array of Bush administration tax cuts, at least through next year.

This rethinking comes barely a month after Democrats trumpeted plans to stage a high-stakes battle over taxes in the final weeks before the November congressional elections.

The Bush tax cuts are set to expire in December. Republicans are pushing to extend them all, while President Obama has forcefully argued that the country cannot afford to keep tax breaks on income over $250,000 a year for families and $200,000 a year for individuals.

But a growing cadre of Democrats – alarmed by evidence that the recovery is losing steam and fearful of wounding conservative Democrats in a tough election year – are advocating a plan that would permanently extend tax cuts benefiting the middle class while renewing breaks for the wealthy through 2011, senior Democratic aides said.

That idea has long appealed to some conservative Democrats in both chambers, who argue that Congress should not raise anyone’s taxes until the economy is more stable. But Democrats said it has gained momentum since economist Mark Zandi, a key adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), adopted that view during a presentation at a Democratic issues conference in California in mid-August.

Zandi, an adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), later played an important role in designing Obama’s economic stimulus package, enacted by Congress last year.

These tax cuts never should have been enacted in the first place. The president has the right idea here. So if you’re a Democrat running this year, here’s what you do:

  1. call the GOP plan “a bailout for the same people who benefited from the bank bailouts.” This description, by the way, is basically true.
  2. hang it around your opponent’s neck like a dead, stinking sea bird.
  3. run against it.

In addition to being winning politics in all but a few of the nation’s 435 House districts, this approach has the added benefit of being the right thing to do from a policy standpoint.

If you’re a Democratic congresscritter and you’re paying any money at all to a political consultant whose advice to you on this issue differs in any significant way from my advice to you on this issue, fire him/her and hire me. You won’t regret it.

Alan Simpson, the Cat Food Commission and Social Security

Former Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chair of the presidential commission looking at deficit reduction — and, by “looking at deficit reduction,” I mean, “looking for ways to cut Social Security unnecessarily so as to benefit wealthy taxpayers” — said some condescending things to to the head of the Older Women’s League and some economically ignorant things to the head of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, apparently not understanding that he was saying sexist things to a woman and economically ignorant things to an actual economist and that both of them were not inclined to sit on their respective butts and nod at stupid things.

The Older Women’s League, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), and North Carolina’s Democratic Senate nominee, Elaine Marshall, have all called for Simpson to be fired. Won’t happen; as long as you don’t insult AIPAC or rich white conservatives, you’re safe. But the main problem is, they’re wrong.

President Obama needs to fire the whole damn commission.

As currently structured, the commission is a fraud, a single, particular solution in search of a nonexistent problem. You want to fix the U.S. deficit? Then you fix health care, because health-care costs are the biggest part of the deficit (closely followed by a bloated defense budget and two wars, one of which should have ended long ago and the other of which never should have been fought in the first place).

Social Security benefits do NOT need to be cut, retirement ages do NOT need to be raised, and Alan Simpson calls Social Security “a cow with 310 million tits” like that’s a BAD thing, apparently because he doesn’t understand that we’re all feeding the cow, too. Moron.

What we talk about when we talk about “free markets”

John Cole at Balloon Juice thinks out loud and raises some interesting questions about whether we’re all on the same page:

Something I’ve been tossing around the last couple of days … is that it has occurred to me there are differing conceptions of the free market. To me, when I say the free market, I think of people being able to freely and openly share their wares, to purchase what they want and need, and with some degree of happiness on both the buyer and seller’s end.

It seems to me, though, that the folks who most discuss the free market and are the biggest free market advocates just don’t see things that way. They sort of view things much like the “pain caucus,” who seem to be [incapable] of thinking a policy is acceptable unless a majority of the nation [suffers] in the name of patriotism and fiscal responsibility. Instead of viewing the “free market” as I have described it, their vision of the free market is an economy in which those with power are able to freely [screw] over everyone else. The free market needs energy, so those of you living in towns with your water polluted by mine runoff can [just deal with it], because any government intervention messes up the “free market.” The market demands oil, so Allah forbid we get in the way of oil spills that might ruin the Gulf forever — witness the freakout over a mild cessation in deep sea drilling by “free market” advocates. The free market advocates that there be Randian geniuses who vacation at the Hamptons after fleecing people who tried to do the right thing investing.

In short, it has become obvious to me (belatedly), that when a lot of free market advocates talk about the free market, what they mean is the right to [cheat] people with no recourse. Hey — you should have invested better! Hey — you should have known those Iowa eggs were [contaminated]! It seems as if in their minds (and I’m thinking of total [jerks] like Welch, Gillespie, and McMegan), there simply can not be a free market unless someone is getting screwed, which is completely contrary to my understanding of the “free market.” In my understanding of the free market, things are a win/win scenario, not a tilted table with a win/lose situation where the winner is predetermined by influence and power and connections and societal standing.

The explanation, of course, is that we don’t have free markets. We have crony capitalism, and we have unprosecuted theft of money, goods and services, but we don’t have free markets. Everyone in a position to do anything about this knows it and refuses to do anything about it, either because they’re getting a piece of the action or they hope to someday.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 8:39 pm

Death by drowning

Filed under: I want my country back. — Lex @ 8:39 pm
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Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist is perhaps most famous outside Washington for saying he wanted to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Well, apparently we’ve gone him one better and are now drowning it in the toilet:

It has come to this: Parents are now being asked to send their children to school with their own toilet paper. And not just toilet paper, but all sorts of basic items that schools themselves used to provide for kids. It’s all part of a disturbing trend, highlighted by the New York Times last week, of cash-strapped public schools — their budgets eviscerated by state cutbacks — shifting more and more financial responsibility onto parents.

Privatization meant transferring responsibility for entire programs or functions to the private sector. But with the drastic budget cuts that states have been forced to make, responsibility for public services and programs is literally being forced into private hands one roll of toilet paper at a time. We’ve entered the era of backdoor privatization.

This isn’t public policy, it’s sociopathy and IGMFY, and it’s wrong.

Monday, August 23, 2010 10:56 pm

I don’t spend much money on clothes …

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 10:56 pm
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… but I may have to spring for one of these:

The last word on “Doctor” Laura Schlessinger …

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 10:29 pm
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… from Nancy Nall, for the win:

Now she can sliiiiide into full retirement and comfortable obscurity, there to await the death of her much-older (ha ha!) husband, and god-knows-what from her horrible son, and then, finally, the rancid breath of the Reaper himself. “It’s time, Laura,” he’ll whisper, as he will to us all. What will she say in reply?

“Daddy? Is that you?”

Quote of the Day

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Quote Of The Day — Lex @ 9:39 pm
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Steve Benen at Washington Monthly: “I imagine that if the RNC [Republican National Committee] hired a science advisor, she’d be the single most bored person in American politics.”

Welcome to post-Enlightenment America

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 9:38 pm
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Neal Gabler at Politico (which, to be contextually accurate, has contributed significantly, via poor reporting and fabrication of/adherence to distorted and even just flat wrong narratives, to the very problem Gabler describes):

Daniel Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Well, Moynihan spoke too soon. From the political shoutfests on TV and radio to the endless drone of sports radio callers to the millions of vanity blogs, opinion has rapidly become fact. …

Indeed, of the multitude of ways that President George W. Bush changed America, this may have been the most important. He helped legitimize the idea of individual truth. In doing so, he became the first president to challenge the old Enlightenment foundation on which this country was established. …

So when you read that the preponderance of Americans doesn’t know what religion our president practices, it is not that they are ignoramuses. It is that they have come to feel that whatever they think is fine because — in post-Enlightenment America — facts really don’t matter.

The immortal but anonymous Bush White House aide who dismissed journalist Ron Suskind as a member of the “reality-based community” wasn’t just being snarky; he and a lot of people like him really believed that they had the power to alter reality — that facts are malleable:

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The problem is, 2 and 2 are always going to equal 4, it doesn’t matter how close to the Oval Office you work. As somebody said on some blog somewhere, you can ignore reality, but reality is not going to ignore you.

Eastern Inferno now available for Amazon.com pre-order

Filed under: Salute! — Lex @ 8:44 pm
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My sister-in-law’s grandfather’s journal of his service in the German infantry on the Eastern Front during World War II, which she and her brother edited, is now available for pre-order from Amazon. (Short excerpts here.) In addition to being a rifleman, he also was his unit’s cartographer, so the book is going to include some of his hand-drawn maps.

I am really proud of Christine and Mason. They recognized early the value of what they had, and they have worked hard and spent a lot of their time and money to bring to light this lengthy piece  of primary source material from an episode in history in which a high percentage of participants did not survive. I hope it will be of help to historians. I know it will be of interest to anyone, professional or amateur, who studies World War II.

And it’s just my opinion, but even having seen probably every WWII movie ever made, I think it would make a helluva movie.

I don’t think hyperinflation is a near-term risk …

Filed under: I want my money back.,Y'all go read this — Lex @ 5:55 pm
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… but Zero Hedge guest poster Gonzalo Lira does. I find his how more plausible than his why, and I agree with him that IF it happened, some sort of dictatorship likely would be in our future. But he hasn’t sold me on the notion that hyperinflation before the end of 2011 is inevitable or even likely.

That said, read him for yourself and see what you think.

Good luck with that; or, On the whole, I would rather NOT be in Philadelphia

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 4:30 pm
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The city of Philadelphia actually expects bloggers to pay $300 annually for business licenses.

Teh Stoopid. It knows no bounds.

Will Obama nominate Elizabeth Warren … or not?

Joseph Nocera of the NYT outlines the case for her:

How did a once-obscure Harvard Law professor become such a powerful touchstone?

Partly, it is because she really did come up with the idea [for the recently-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- Lex]. Ms. Warren’s views about banks and borrowers were largely formed early in her career when she and two colleagues, Teresa A. Sullivan, now the president of the University of Virginia, and Jay Lawrence Westbrook, a law professor at the University of Texas, conducted two seminal studies about people who file for bankruptcy.

In the late 1980s, when the first study was unveiled in a book the three of them wrote, “As We Forgive Our Debtors,” the root causes of bankruptcy weren’t well understood. The bank lobby routinely complained that Americans with the means to pay their debts were taking “the easy way out” by filing for bankruptcy. The empirical work done by the Warren-Sullivan-Westbrook team proved those claims false.

People who filed for bankruptcy were genuinely in over their heads, the researchers found. They had accumulated debt they couldn’t repay because they had lost their jobs or had some other life event that robbed them of their ability to earn a decent paycheck. They were often middle class, homeowners even. They filed for bankruptcy because they were desperate. Looking through thousands of bankruptcy filings, Mr. Westbrook said a few days ago, “you got a sense of human beings in real trouble.” He added, “All of us were very much affected by what we found in those files.”

In the [2007] article where she proposed the new agency — she called it the financial product safety commission — she began with an analogy to toasters. (Ms. Warren has a thing for toaster analogies.) “It is impossible to buy a toaster that has a one-in-five chance of bursting into flames and burning down your house,” she wrote. “But it is possible to refinance an existing home with a mortgage that has the same one-in-five chance of putting the family out on the street.” Her timing could not have been better, she wrote the article at the exact moment the subprime bubble was reaching its peak.

What struck me, when I reread that article recently, was the bluntness of her language. She used words like “tricks,” “fleece,” and “bribe” to describe the actions of mortgage and credit card lenders. And I think a lot of her appeal stems from that simple fact: she describes abuses — predatory lending, hidden fees, bewildering “disclosures” that hide more than they disclose — in precisely the way most Americans have experienced them. She conveys a powerful sense that she understands what we’ve been through this last decade.

Her critics have complained that in her quest to avenge the downtrodden consumer, she could endanger the safety and soundness of banks, by writing rules that would strip them of billions in profits. Her essential position is that if taking advantage of borrowers is necessary to save the banks, then there is something deeply wrong with the banking system in America. The American Bankers Association may not agree with that, but that is unquestionably what most Americans believe. And they are right.

I argued for years before I left newspapers that one reason newspapers have lost readership is that so many of them have done away with consumer-affairs reporting. (TV has been far slower to ditch it for a variety of reasons, some more flattering than others.) When you’re a consumer and you’re going up against a business, particularly a big business, with a legitimate complaint, you need help. And if the newspaper helps you get a refund you were owed, or a replacement for a faulty product, or if it even digs up enough information to result in a crook getting arrested because of what he did to you, you are going to stay loyal to that newspaper through an awful lot.

During my time at the N&R, I worked with two particularly good consumer-affairs reporters, Nancy Feigenbaum and, later, Nancy McLaughlin (who is still at the N&R as religion writer). Both of them frequently took their work beyond mundane refund requests all the way to front-page stories; both broke stories that eventually led to people going to jail. Nancy McLaughlin also worked with me on a three-month investigative project involving some places that were scamming consumers by selling state motor-vehicle inspection stickers while not performing some or all of the state-required inspections.

Stories like that build a bond between newspaper and reader. I can’t prove it, but I would argue that agencies like that can build a bond between government and the people who pay taxes to support it. And if there’s any transaction in which government has a role to play in alleviating the information asymmetry between business and consumer, it’s home mortgages, which represent the most significant purchase most consumers will ever make.

I posited in 2004, on the occasion of my 20th anniversary in the news biz, that the struggle between large corporations and the rest of us would be one of the two defining issues of the 21st century (the other being medievalist religion vs. liberal democratic values). This nomination is political in the sense that all presidential appointments are, but more than any other appointment President Obama has made, this appointment will show us whose side he is on. Democrats have made it quite clear they have 60 votes to break the inevitable Republican filibuster, so it’s really up to the president. He can choose to side with the banksters, or he can choose to side with the rest of us.

And, believe me, the rest of us will be watching.

Sunday, August 22, 2010 11:35 pm

Catchin’ up on stuff; or, Odds and ends for Aug. 22

  • Questions more people need to be asking about the deficit, answered.
  • Why, if I lived near DC, I might be tempted to burn a Confederate flag at Glenn Beck’s upcoming rally.
  • I think the F-bomb has become a highly convenient excuse to keep adolescents from seeing a movie that shows how the American government screwed over an American hero and lied to his family.
  • Apparently it’s OK for American journalists to write highly inaccurate articles as long as they do so in the right (pun intended) way. Relatedly, these days, a DC journalist, given the choice between giving a deserved screwing to a colleague and giving an undeserved screwing to the American people in general, will screw the American people every time.
  • Governmental foot-dragging has its intended effect: Tom DeLay walks free. There are no consequences. There is no accountability. Rule of law? Ha.
  • The Internet will be the death of the music bidness as we’ve known it. Of course, no one who has known it will shed a tear, but that doesn’t mean the bidness is going down without a fight. Now they’re partnering with the National Association of Broadcasters, another powerful lobby, to try to get the government to mandate the inclusion of FM radio in future cell phones. Good luck with that. Oh, and die already.
  • The question isn’t why “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger “quit” her radio show after dropping about 11 N-bombs. The question is why any responsible broadcaster ever allowed someone with such obvious mental problems on the air dispensing advice in the first place.
  • Despite rising wheat prices caused by Russia’s drought-driven ban on exports, U.S. wheat farmers aren’t sure they should plant more wheat. Why? They’re pretty sure the wheat market is rigged, just as it was a few years ago. Now someone explain to me again what social utility investment bankers serve. Relatedly, Harper’s makes the case that they’re just playing games with the world’s food supply.
  • August: Stupid American Month.
  • If The New York Times or CNN had contributed $1 million to the Democratic Governors Association, do you think the country would have responded with such a yawn? Me, neither.
  • So will all the Wikileaks critics shut up now that the Pentagon’s own evidence shows Wikileaks tried to work with the Pentagon to redact sensitive information but was rebuffed? Yeah. I thought not.
  • The oil from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster? Government reports to the contrary, it’s mostly still out there.
  • When it comes to protecting our rights and our privacy, those commies in Europe are eating The Land of the Free’s lunch.
  • You know how the government has always claimed Guantanamo detainees are “the worst of the worst”? In fact, the government lacks enough evidence to charge 3/4 of them with any crime at all.
  • The $75 billion Home Affordable Mortgage Protection Act is a bust … because Congress, after approving the money, did nothing to ensure that bankruptcy judges would use so-called “cramdown” provisions to make sure the money would do what it was supposed to do. What has happened instead has left a lot of homeowners even worse off than if the government had done nothing and has hampered the recovery of the housing market. And the administration hasn’t bothered to try to get Congress to do the right thing. Heckuva job all the way around.
  • Memo to Army Maj. Gen. Charles E. Chambers: Your punishing soldiers who opted not to attend a concert by an evangelical Christian rock band should carry punishment of its own: loss of your stars and your pension. You violated your oath to protect the Constitution, General, plain and simple.
  • Robert Frank has an interesting proposal that could help both government and consumers: The government should buy up consumer debt, on which consumers are paying 20% and up, and charge consumers 8%. This would put more disposable income in consumers’ hands and give the government a substantially better return on its investment than the 2.8% or so that 10-year bills currently are paying. It makes so much sense that there’s zero chance Congress will pass it because it would hurt deny banks their current flow of blood money.
  • Shorter Paul Volcker: Lending deregulation was bad because allowing higher interest payments on risky sub-prime loans encouraged banks to make more risky loans.
  • Barry Ritholtz: We’re good at saying “What if we had done nothing?” about the bailout, but an even better question is, “What if we had done the right thing?”
  • COOL (as it were): Scientists are working on a way to use carbon dixoide and certain kinds of bacteria to convert crude oil into cleaner-burning methane — while the oil is still in the ground. A separate effort is working on using solar power to convert CO2 to carbon, or carbon monoxide to, in turn, synthesize hydrocarbon fuels.
  • I have found my Official Anthem for the Summer of 2010. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too R-rated to link to, but I’ll give you a hint: It’s by Cee-Lo, from his forthcoming album.
  • Colombian Supreme Court to U.S. military: Don’t let the sun set on you in Bogota. Oops.
  • Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, leaves the Wall Street Journal and tears U.S. news media several new orifices on the way out the door (whether he also grabbed a beer is not clear).
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has apologized for a blog post suggesting that the male-female wage gap and the glass ceiling aren’t real problems, which might actually mean something if it would apologize for everything else it has said and done in that same vein for the past several decades. But it won’t, so it doesn’t.
  • The American Family Association apparently believes our soldiers in Iraq died for nothing. Actually, so do I, inasmuch as that war was illegal from the git. But you know why the AFA believes it? Because Iraq is not a Christian nation.
  • Would someone who considers him/herself a deficit hawk and supports extending George Bush’s tax cuts for millionaires please explain to me how we can afford to do that but cannot afford to put people to work?
  • And, finally, this week’s tasteless joke, from D. Aristophanes at Sadly, No!:

A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into an Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero. The bartender says, ‘What’re you drinking?’ and the imam orders him beheaded because sharia law dhimmitude Allahu Akbar alalalalalalalalala flabberty jabberty jabber etc. etc.*

You’ve been a great crowd! We’re here all week!

*Also the priest molests the bartender’s kids and the rabbi drinks their blood.

Not exactly a noted economist …

… but Michael Moore (yeah, I know, he’s fat) has put his finger on something deeply disturbing:

During the first half of 2010, GM made $2.2 billion in profit, yet according to The Wall Street Journal, they’ve only added 2,000 jobs in all of North America, taking their workforce from 113,000 to 115,000.

And what’s true for GM is true for the country. The government stepped in with trillions of dollars in cash and guarantees to keep Corporate America from collapsing due to its own stupidity, short-sightedness and greed. And it worked — for Corporate America. You may not have noticed as you were being foreclosed on, but the profitability of the Fortune 500 is almost back to normal. It jumped to $391 billion in 2009, up 335 percent from 2008. And the 500 biggest non-financial corporations are now sitting on $1.8 trillion in cash, more than at any time in the past 50 years. …

To understand what’s happening, we have to focus on the bottom line, just like they do. And what the bottom line says is that the entire business world has figured out how to make huge buckets of money without hiring us to work for them. I’m not sure how in the long run this benefits these companies. Maybe the same robots who make most things now are also programmed to buy them?

But the upshot is this: We have to face the fact that most of America’s CEOs don’t want the economy to get “better.” Because for them, it couldn’t get better — they’ve got profit coming out their ears, while with 9.5 percent unemployment their entire workforce is too scared to ask for a 25 cent-an-hour raise. They’d be happy to have things stay just like they are now. Forever.

I’m rethinking my position on genetically modified crops …

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 9:38 pm
Tags:

… from “eh” to “Holy [EXPLETIVE]“:

One of the primary concerns with transgenic (aka genetically modified) crops is the risk of genetic contamination, i.e. the transfer of engineered genes to wild versions of the same plant. The corporations involved in genetic engineering, such as Monsanto and Bayer CropScience, have time and again assured regulators and the public that this risk is minimal. Still, the government mandates “buffer zones” around such crops’ plantings and the corporations who sell the seeds have created their own protocols to ensure this kind of thing never happens.

Well, surprise! It’s happened. Big time.

Scientists from the University of Arkansas announced at the Ecological Society of America annual meeting the results of a study that showed genetically engineered pesticide-resistant canola growing like a weed in North Dakota. They found that up to 80 percent of wild canola in their sample from various North Dakota roadsides contained genes that conferred resistance to either glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready pesticide) or gluphosinate (from Bayer’s LibertyLink seeds).

But it gets better, er, worse. The scientists also found wild canola with both properties. And as lead scientist Cynthia Sagers observed in an accompanying news report, “these feral populations of canola have been part of the landscape for several generations” — plant generations, mind you, not human generations. Still, this is not a new phenomenon. It’s true that biotech companies do sell seeds with multiple forms of pesticide resistance, so-called “stacked trait” seeds. But these wild canola plants managed this interbreeding feat all by their lonesome.

So, these genetically engineered plants — which, when out in the wild, are considered weeds — are cross-pollinating and transferring “alien” genes that confer pesticide resistance. The next step in the chain is for the canola to interbreed with other related weeds. Suddenly, the prospect of our nation’s bread basket infested with superweeds becomes very, very real.

So this stuff spreads like kudzu and may be even harder to kill. So? You can eat kudzu.

But ask yourself: Do you WANT to, if corn and wheat are available? No, you generally don’t.

And what happens when these genes show up in plants we don’t want to eat? Like, oh, say, poison ivy?

Saturday, August 21, 2010 5:08 pm

Vitamin K, depression and stress

Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 5:08 pm
Tags: ,

… and by Vitamin K, I don’t actually mean Vitamin K, I mean horse tranquilizer:

Ketamine, a general anesthetic usually administered to children and pets but perhaps best known as a horse tranquilizer, is also highly effective in low doses as an anti-depressant, according a study published Thursday.

Researchers at Yale University wrote in the August 20 issue of the journal Science that unlike most anti-depressants on the market which can take weeks to take full effect ketamine can begin to counter depression in hours.

“It’s like a magic drug — one dose can work rapidly and last for seven to 10 days,” said Ronald Duman, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Yale and senior author of the study.

The researchers noted that ketamine was tested as a rapid treatment for people with suicidal thoughts. Traditional anti-depressants can take several weeks to take effect, they noted.

About 40 percent of people suffering from depression do not respond to medication, and many others only respond after many months or years of trying different treatments.

I’m all in favor of pretty much anything that will treat depression effectively, particularly if it’s something that’s already out there and available in generic form. That said, the article kind of slips past something that I think is incredibly important right now — the kind of depression on which ketamine is effective:

The researchers found that ketamine improves depression-like behavior in rats by restoring connections between brain cells damaged by chronic stress.

Anne Laurie comments:

For all the attention paid to the delicate feelings of Wall Street banksters and other highly-paid criminals, being poor is one of the main causes of chronic stress, as well as contributing to many other sources (untreated medical conditions, bad nutrition, family dysfunction, dangerous living environments). And chronic stress will shorten your lifespan even when it doesn’t lead directly to suicide. But I can confidently predict that this study will lead to a spate of thumb-sucking (finger-wagging) articles about the “dangers” of allowing people who can’t afford six weeks at Hazelden to “self-medicate.” And a bunch of pharmaceutical funding diverted to coming up with a “boutique” (i.e., patentable) version of ketamine that can be marketed to Medicare users as a long-term mood improver…

Ayep. Because that’s just how our World’s Greatest Healthcare System rolls.

When beer and science mix

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 3:55 pm
Tags:

We’ve known that drinking beer makes other people more attractive. Now we know why: Humans prefer their potential mates to have symmetrical features, and alcohol dulls one’s ability to discern asymmetry.

(h/t: Fred)

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