Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, April 13, 2015 9:52 pm

Odds and ends for April 13

Gunter Grass, the Pulitzer Nobel Prize-winning author (and, ironically, former Waffen SS soldier) whose work forced German culture to confront the horror of Naziism, is dead at 87.

Apparently Marco Rubio is running for president. Here are seven reasons that’d be a bad idea.

Sigh. One more example of out-of-control cops. At least no one died this time.

Duke Energy’s contributions to the Republican Governors’ Association increased by an order of magnitude after the Dan River spill. Duke says that’s just coincidence. Yeah. Sure. Right.

The former executive director of the State Employees Association of N.C., Dana Cope, appears to have spent close to half a million bucks that wasn’t his.

Why make North Carolina workers safer when you can just rig the numbers?

How bad has this legislative session been for North Carolinians? Let us count the ways.

It’s a uterus, not a clown car: A 65-year-old German woman who has 13 kids and seven grandkids is pregnant with quadruplets.

The Lost Colony? Maybe not so lost after all.

Thursday, April 9, 2015 8:22 pm

Odds and ends for April 9

Sorry, guys, I was on the road today, so I ain’t got much.

The Rhino Times commissioned a push poll by a conservative chop shop to make it appear there is more support for a measure to redistrict Greensboro City Council than there actually is. Doug Clark at the N&R calls them out on it.

Meanwhile, some Wake County voters have sued over the recent changes to the Wake Board of Commissioners imposed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

In other popular stuff carried out by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, a lot of middle-class North Carolinians saw their state income taxes go up this year. But hey! Tax cuts for the wealthy and big bidness!

Why Stephen Curry, and not James Harden, should be this year’s NBA MVP. (I mean, besides Davidson. Duh.)

Sunday, April 5, 2015 8:10 pm

Odds and ends for April 5

He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Cops in California are using a 1930s-era anti-lynching statute to intimidate protesters. Prosecutors so far have declined to press those charges, but it’s only a matter of time until a right-wing nutjob decides to try to make an example of someone.

Speaking of California, its people are in serious denial about its extreme drought, now in its fourth year. About 94% of the state considers the drought serious, but 61% still favor voluntary measures to deal with it. Y’all need to wake up.

Likely presidential contender and perennial horse’s ass Mike Huckabee thinks I’m a member of the “militant gay community,” inasmuch as that’s whom he’s blaming for the backlash against Indiana’s bigoted “religious freedom” statute. Who knew that Christians who take the Second Great Commandment seriously were militant gays? My wife certainly had no idea.

We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent and this case proves it.” (Previously.)

In Florida, relatives of officers of for-profit charter-school companies are enacting legislation to divert money from public schools to charter schools. But none dare call it a conflict of interest, let alone a crime.

Randi Harper, somewhat unwillingly turned into an activist by GamerGaters and perpetrators of online violent and/or sexual threats, got SWATed — someone called in a false tip to police that led a SWAT team to raid her apartment. Her experience could have ended with her dead, or at least her dog. Fortunately, both are alive and well. She talks about what you need to do to protect yourself from such potentially deadly “pranks.” For the record, given the risk of gunplay anytime heavily armed cops storm a home, I think this “prank” should be treated as attempted manslaughter, at least. (h/t: Chip)

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh draws a useful distinction between what he does and much of the “news” you see in print and online today: Instead of taking a tip and building it into a story, too many reporters just run the tip.

 

Monday, March 9, 2015 8:59 pm

Odds and ends for March 9

I challenge any sentient carbon-based life form to read President Obama’s speech at Selma this past weekend and tell me that the man doesn’t love America.

Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel is all butthurt because President Obama talked about today’s voter-suppression efforts at Selma. Because Selma had absolutely nothing to do with voting rights. Dear sweet baby Jesus, please make Stoopid painful. Amen.

For what it’s worth, I took issue with many on the left who argued that the House GOP’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak constituted “treason” or a violation of the Logan Act. I thought it was despicable but didn’t meet the act’s definition of a crime. I also don’t see this letter from 47 senators to Iran warning them that any agreement not ratified could be overturned by executive action at any time as a violation of the law. Is it obnoxious and counterproductive? Certainly. Would the Republicans be unleashing the flying monkey poo if a Democratic Senate had done this to a Republican president? Oh, Lord, yes. Does it include a passage indicating that at least 47 of 100 U.S. senators do not understand what “ratification” is? Why, yes. Yes, it does. But the fact of the matter is that any agreement not approved for the president’s ratification by a two-thirds vote of the Senate is, indeed, that tenuous.

Fox News is America’s most trusted news network, this notwithstanding.

Like we didn’t have enough to worry about, Pakistan has tested a missile that can carry a nuke.

So we can insure 30 million previously uninsured Americans under the Affordable Care Act and still save a metric assload of money. Good to know.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in a world of hurt as he fights for re-election. I ain’t crying for him; I’ve never liked him and never trusted him.

Convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza decries Hillary Clinton’s “lawlessness.” From jail.

Relatedly, how bad has The New York Times’s reporting on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails been? Incredibly bad. (That’s not to say what Clinton did was right, but neither was it either as bad or as remarkable as the Times reported.)

The Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon gets busted after a video of members chanting racist lyrics goes viral. Remind me again how we’re a post-racial society. Go on. I’ll wait. Fortunately, that behavior already has caused the university some pain.

So the state of Connecticut has forced a 17-year-old to undergo chemotherapy even though both she and her mother didn’t want it. If only the state would crack down half as hard on Big Pharma.

Surprise, surprise. Not only is the GOP-backed N.C. tax “reform” screwing lower-income taxpayers, it’s even amounting to a screwing, or, at best, a wash for small-business owners it was supposedly intended to benefit. Meanwhile, the state’s job growth continues to lag the national average and the wealthy get wealthier.

 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015 9:21 pm

Odds and ends for March 4

As my cat might say: OHAI. I haz had a gone. Now I haz a back.

Hey, we finally got a clean bill to keep the Department of Homeland Security open! Now was that so hard, John Boehner? (Or maybe it was, but, anyway, it’s always good to see Republicans eating their own.)

Just a thought, courtesy of Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.: Saudi Arabia has the fourth-largest military in the world, so explain to me why U.S. troops are obligated to fight ISIS?

Ben Carson, a doctor whom some carbon-based life forms want to be president, believes that prison turns straight people gay because they choose to be. Or something equally insane; I’m not sure. The derp got too thick to read through.

The Supremes heard arguments today in King v. Burwell, the case that supposedly is going to explode Obamacare. Justice Anthony Kennedy didn’t quite tear plaintiffs a new one, but he sure seemed sympathetic to the government’s case — and hospital stock prices rose accordingly.

The idiots on the Alabama Supreme Court have decided that the federal judiciary is not the boss of them regarding same-sex marriage. We had this discussion about which court is the boss of which already. In 1860. Spoiler: It ended poorly for Alabama.

Perhaps no major American pundit has been more loudly and frequently wrong than David Brooks, so Flying Spaghetti Monster bless the blogger Driftglass, whose chronicles of Brooks’s unpunished and deadly wrongness will be essential reading in journalism courses a century from now. This is just one tasty example.

There is a club. You and I are not in it.

There’s gonna be a NASCAR race this year called the SpongeBob SquarePants 400. I am absolutely not making this up. As Ed Thomas says on Facebook, it’ll be interesting to see how they dry the track when it rains.

 

 

 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 7:06 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 17,

Seasalt & Co. offers a grade-A example of how not to do corporate communications. Pro tip: Threatening to sue people for what they say about your marketing materials is never a good idea.

President Obama’s executive action on immigration is on hold while a lawsuit against it by a number of states proceeds. IANAL, but from what I could tell, this looked legal to me — and not horribly different from what Reagan did 30 years ago. A district judge thinks there are tryable issues of fact and/or law, but his opinion reads like a long string of GOP talking points and judicial activism, not a finding of fact and determination of law, so we’ll see.

N.C. gets a winter storm, and Transportation Secretary Tony Tata is … promoting a book on cable news. In fairness, 1) It hasn’t been THAT bad as storms go, 2) the Highway Patrol, local police, and local and state emergency-management are probably up to the job without Tony’s help, and 3) his appearance probably was scheduled well before we knew the storm was coming. But the optics aren’t very good.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has extended its no-bid contract with a D.C. consulting firm to roughly $8 million. The firm made a $12,000 contribution to the Republican Governors Association in 2012 that found its way into now-Gov. Pat McCrory’s 2012 campaign. DHHS still hasn’t fixed its long string of problems, however.

N.C. state taxpayers should be glad the state’s business-incentive program doesn’t like to bet the ponies. We’d go broke fast.

Chapel Hill triple-homicide suspect Craig Stephen Hicks has been indicted on three counts of first-degree murder and one count of shooting a firearm into an occupied dwelling, a felony. The death penalty remains a possibility, although the DA hasn’t indicated whether he’ll seek it.

N.C. State Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, was the only legislator to go to work during today’s snow day in Raleigh. To judge from his Twitter feed, he got an AMAZING amount of work done; I’ve Storified the relevant tweets here.

Monday, February 16, 2015 7:34 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 16

Greetings from — well, not Snowmageddeon; I guess that’d be Massachusetts.

In the words of my friend Joe Killian, go home, N.C. Ethics Commission. You’re drunk.

If they ever remake “The Breakfast Club,” I’ve found the guy who can play the principal. He’s a principal.

It’s looking less likely now, but if SCOTUS rules against the government on Obamacare in King v. Burwell, insurance exec Richard Mayhew at Balloon Juice has a legislative fix, short and satisfying.

In the sentencing of three white men convicted of killing a black man, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, only the second African American to serve on the federal bench in Mississippi, gave a smackdown for the ages.

Probably not for the first time, the state of Texas is set to execute an innocent man.

It’s her funeral and we’ll cry if we want to: Singer Leslie Lesley Gore is dead at 68.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 7:39 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 11

Memo to the airlines: You whiny bitches can just pay your taxes like everybody else does.

Oh, good. Another war. Because we were running out of them, or something. People, ISIS is NOT an existential threat to this country. If you think otherwise, imagine ISIS trying to capture Detroit or Dallas, mmkay? Relatedly, if Chris Matthews wants a war so damned badly, let him go fight it himself.

Meanwhile, a committee of the Arizona Senate wishes to reprosecute the Civil War. Didn’t work out too great for their side last time, but what the hell, you know?

Our “allies” in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t allowed to drive, apparently believe women drive in the U.S. and elsewhere because they don’t care whether they get raped. Evil AND stupid is no way to go through life, son.

FBI director James Comey is urging Americans to panic about possible ISIS militants under their beds. It’s a real shame the Snowden revelations and that lib’rul Obama cut back so badly on our nation’s intelligence-gathering capabilities; otherwise, we wouldn’t need to wet our pants like this. Oh. Wait.

#AdviceToYoungJournalists is trending on Twitter. Here’s mine: Run. Save yourself. While you still can.

Our new idiot senator, Thom Tillis, has hired a new idiot legislative director who thinks birth control causes cancer.

Cops in N.C. are spying on citizens. One would think the GOP-controlled legislature might want to do something about Big Gummint, but one would think that only if one believed Republicans are serious about stemming the overreach of Big Gummint.

NBC’s Brian Williams gets suspended for six months for misremembering what happened in Iraq. Good. But Alberto Gonzalez took the Fifth 67 times before Congress, and we’re still paying his ass. Just saying.

Our “divisive,” “obstructionist” president has, when his length of service is taken into account, vetoed fewer bills than any president since James Monroe.

Even in Colombia, there’s no uprising so nasty that the addition of Miss Universe might not ameliorate it.

I’m starting to think technology and Republicans just don’t mix. This week, the N.C. legislature’s main website went down after — no kidding — someone forgot to renew the domain.

What happens if the anti-ACA case King v. Burwell, now before the Supremes, results in the ACA (or at least the part about exchanges) being overturned? Insurance exec Richard Mayhew says it won’t be pretty, with most subsidized exchange policies being yanked this summer. But wait! There’s more!

After [those policies are yanked], the remaining individual insurance market now looks like the pre-PPACA New York State insurance market, where there is guarantee issue and no medical underwriting but no subsidies and no mandates to get healthy people into the risk pool.  We get a death spiral where average premiums for a 30 year old would almost double in two years, and most reasonably healthy people who otherwise would have qualified for subsidies now sit out of the market because they can’t afford the coverage.

 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015 7:28 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 10

Terrorists are winning the war on terror, primarily because, more than a decade after 9/11 and despite all the costly lessons we’ve learned since then, the U.S. persists in playing the terrorists’ game instead of its own.

Dean Smith‘s public memorial will be 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, in the Smith Center. Which leads me to wonder: Where will they hold Billy Graham‘s, once he passes on? Bank of America Stadium? Charlotte Motor Speedway? The National Mall?

There’s just one teeny-weeny little problem with the four plaintiffs in King v. Burwell, the case now before the Supreme Court that could, perhaps, lead to the Affordable Care Act’s being struck down: None of the four appears to have standing to be suing in the first place.

Could the hammer at long last be coming down on rogue Swiss(-ish) bank HSBC? I’ll believe it when/if it happens, but the Honorable Senator Professor Warren is on this like white on rice. (And just how rogue? Check this out.)

Jim Crow lynchings: significantly more common than previously reported.

I’m not the brightest bulb in the fixture, but I could tell in 11th grade U.S. history that “right-to-work” was Orwellian doublespeak. Unfortunately, that ain’t all it is.

Debtors’ jail, ostensibly illegal in the U.S., apparently is alive and well in Ferguson, Missouri. A lawsuit seeks to change that.

“Trials” at Guantanamo: No, Casey, nobody here can play this game.

If you’ve never worked in newspapers, you probably thought newspaper executive editors couldn’t get any stupider, and that if they did, it wasn’t your fault as a reader. You were wrong, as Robert Price of the Bakersfield Californian is pleased to demonstrate:

Several weeks ago, [director of audience development] Louis [Amestoy] and I introduced a set of new expectations for reporters and editors. Chief among them was that reporters and editors shall write publishable content every single day. Not blow-out, eight-source 30-inchers (although they have their place), but quick-hit 4-inchers based on as few as a one source or even personal observation — “what I saw driving in to work” stories. So far I have seen almost none of these.

These are required and will be measured on your annual reviews (which are coming up). Please think about how you might start creating these. If you’re like me, you may think some stories (weather related, seen on a business marquee, etc) just don’t clear the bar of importance. Not true, in most cases. Readers gobble this stuff up. [emphasis added; along with the unmistakable sound of Our Lord and Savior weeping bitterly]

#StealAlltheGrammys According to Google, Annie Lennox, Kristen Wiig, Prince (“almost”), Kanye West, Sam Smith, Frank Ocean, and Pharrell Williams’s funky park ranger hat, among others, “stole the Grammys.” Thought you’d want to know.

 

 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015 8:34 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 4

The FCC comes out plainly in favor of ‘Net neutrality. That’s wonderful, but the devil will be in the details of the regulations, which have yet to be written.

Former Michigan attorney general Andrew Shirvell must pay $3.5 million in damages to a gay college student whom he stalked online and in real life. Dude, wouldn’t asking him out, getting shot down, and then moving on with your life have been  a lot cheaper?

A creationist theme park in Kentucky that wants both $18 million in state tax credits AND the right to discriminate on the basis of religion has sued the state, which is insisting on either/or. Guys, look up the Bob Jones University case, decided more than 30 years ago. Penguins will ice skate in Hell before you win this.

If you’re waiting on the Supreme Court to settle the question of mandatory vaccination, you can stop; it already did. In 1905.

Vermont’s new motto is in Latin. So what do conservatives do? Start bashing Latinos, obviously. Teh_Stoopid: It burns.

New York police commissioner Ray Kelly, whose fascistic tendencies already have gotten full display in cases of violence committed by his cops, now wants to be able to make resisting arrest by protesters a felony offense. Because there’s no way THAT would ever be abused.

Here in Greensboro, state Sen. Trudy Wade has introduced a bill to change the current city council election system (mayor and three other members elected at large, plus five district members, so that any one voter can vote for a majority of the council) to seven members, all elected from districts, plus a mayor, and to extend terms from two years to four, and other mischief. I’ll probably say more about that later, but the short version is that it’s a bad idea and Trudy should sit down and shut the hell up.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015 7:41 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 3.

North Carolina’s junior senator, Republican Thom Tillis, says he’s just fine with NOT requiring food workers to wash up after visiting the restroom. Remind me never to shake his hand.

English majors, rejoice! Harper Lee will publish a sequel to her 1960 masterpiece, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” on July 14.

Standard & Poors, the investment ratings agency whose labeling of crap mortgage-backed securities as investment-grade helped blow up the economy a few years ago, will pay $1.38 billion to settle those allegations. But — say it with me, kids — once again, no criminal charges against anyone.

The New York Times asks an incredibly stupid question about how anti-vaxxers got so much influence. Athenae at First Draft delivers a righteous dopeslapping of an answer.

Y’all have a good evening.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015 7:17 pm

Boy Scouts, you keep using that phrase, “morally straight.” It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Most days, all I ask of the world is that I not be forced to respond to outright asshattery before I’ve finished my first cup of coffee. Today, my modest request outstripped the capabilites of the Boy Scouts of America.

I received the weekly e-newsletter from my son’s Boy Scout troop, No. 101 here in Greensboro. And the very first item in it was an editorial titled, “California Supreme Court on the Offensive against the BSA.” It read:

Can we agree to disagree? Not in California, where self-appointed arbiters of public morality have chosen to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ignoring the legacy of a century of service to the country, the California Supreme Court unanimously chose to join the ranks of those who have chosen to vilify the Boy Scouts. In this, they join the current federal administratation, which has effectively barred Boy Scouts from using military bases for camping and travel, using the same argument that the BSA is “discriminatory.” In the corporate world, Disney has not given the Boy Scouts funding for many years. The company does, however, allow employees to do volunteer work in exchange for cash donations to the charities of their choice. That is, unless their charity of choice is the Boy Scouts. I, for one, do not have to agree with every administrative edict or policy statement issuued by BSA National. The core purpose of the BSA remains the same – building young men of character who will be responsible to their families and communities. The program as it stands today seeks to carry this out in a fair and good-hearted manner. It has been an integral part of the fabric of American life for years. Can it continue to be so in the face of mounting opposition?

This editorial, which seems to be purely local in origin, appeared to be a response to the California justices’ recent, unanimous vote to bar California state judges from belonging to all organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. That rule had been in effect since 1996, but with an exception for nonprofit youth groups. In February 2014 the state bar’s ethics advisory committee recommended scrapping the exception on the grounds that there was no good reason for it, and the high court unanimously agreed.

There was a link from the newsletter to, presumably, more of the editorial on the troop’s website. When I clicked the link, it appeared, however, that the page had been taken down. (And quickly; it looks as if no cached version is available.) I presume this means that cooler, by which I mean “less oxygen-deprived,” heads prevailed.

The first thing I did was email one of the troop’s longtime leaders (a friend of mine for 35 years) to express my concerns. But I also decided pretty much immediately that I wasn’t going to let this drop.

When you wade through the flawed logic, Orwellian diction and legal ignorance of the paragraph above, what you get to is this: The author doesn’t like gay people and, for whatever reason, thinks the Boy Scouts ought to be able to discriminate against non-hetero adults in its leadership ranks even though there’s no sound legal, scientific, or sociological reason for such a ban.

And this is just one small example of a much larger problem with American conservatives: They think that when the rights of others are protected, their own rights are threatened. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Anyone who doubts the existence of eternity need only ponder the conservative capacity for playing the victim. You see it in this editorial:

  • The California Supreme Court is “on the offensive” against the BSA. Actually, it is holding itself and the state’s other judges to a clear standard of fairness that is consistent with the law and the Constitution. It is not interfering with the Boy Scouts or the organization’s mission in any way that any sentient human being would notice.
  • Duly elected California Supreme Court justices are “self-appointed arbiters of public morality” (no, that’d be YOU, jackass).
  • The justices have “thrown the baby out with the bathwater.” In fact they have protected the rights of adults not to be discriminated against by a non-church tax-exempt organization without materially affecting, let alone damaging, the organization’s mission or its ability to carry out that mission.
  • The justices have “ignored the legacy of a century of service to the country.” In fact, the justices are protecting the rights of all Americans to take part in, and add to, that legacy of service.
  • Upholding the rights of all equates to “vilifying the Boy Scouts.” (No, that’d be what I’m doing right here, and for damned good reason.)
  • The Boy Scouts seek to carry out their mission in a “fair” manner. In fact, the author is defending the right of the organization to behave UNfairly.
  • The Boy Scouts cannot carry out their mission “in the face of mounting opposition” — which isn’t opposition at all, but rather a demand that the organization comport with the laws and principles of the country it claims to love and support.

Jesus H. Christ on a turbocharged sidecar, I do SO wish stupid were painful.

I’m no one’s idea of Father of the Year, but I’ve tried very hard to raise my kids not to discriminate against people on the basis of inherent characteristics. I believe enough in fairness that I put my life on the line for it early in my journalism career. And God bless ’em, my kids have responded very well. Indeed, unknown author, let me give you a clue about today’s Boy Scouts, and today’s kids in general.

They know that people differ in their sexual orientations, and you know what? It’s only a big deal to them to the extent that their parents make it a big deal. In other words, in complying with both the law of the land (as enunciated in the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment) and its spirit, not only are the kids all right, they’re a damn sight better than you. They are the leaders. And you need to get in line.

Scouts take an oath to keep themselves “physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” You missed on two out of three, dude: Not only do you make nonfactual, illogical arguments, you also are trying to call yourself morally straight while discriminating. That’s ridiculous.

And what’s the Boy Scout motto? “Be prepared.” Your lack of preparedness for changing times is showing.

And so’s your ass.

Thursday, November 20, 2014 7:45 pm

Here’s where a good part of the middle class went — and what Obama could do to fix it

Welp, in today’s blind-pig category, self-described “wealthy capitalist” Nick Hanauer identifies one reason why the middle class is weaker than it used to be.

And he does it in the pages of Politico, which will never be mistaken for a publication interested in the concerns of the middle class (or, to be more forthright, will never be mistaken for a publication interested in interrupting the greatest theft from the middle class in history).

If you’re in the American middle class—or what’s left of it—here’s how you probably feel. You feel like you’re struggling harder than your parents did, working longer hours than ever before, and yet falling further and further behind. The reason you feel this way is because most of you are—falling further behind, that is. Adjusted for inflation, average salaries have actually dropped since the early 1970s, while hours for full-time workers have steadily climbed.

Meanwhile, a handful of wealthy capitalists like me are growing wealthy beyond our parents’ wildest dreams, in large part because we’re able to take advantage of your misfortune.

So what’s changed since the 1960s and ’70s? Overtime pay, in part. Your parents got a lot of it, and you don’t. And it turns out that fair overtime standards are to the middle class what the minimum wage is to low-income workers: not everything, but an indispensable labor protection that is absolutely essential to creating a broad and thriving middle class. In 1975, more than 65 percent of salaried American workers earned time-and-a-half pay for every hour worked over 40 hours a week. Not because capitalists back then were more generous, but because it was the law. It still is the law, except that the value of the threshold for overtime pay—the salary level at which employers are required to pay overtime—has been allowed to erode to less than the poverty line for a family of four today. Only workers earning an annual income of under $23,660 qualify for mandatory overtime. You know many people like that? Probably not. By 2013, just 11 percent of salaried workers qualified for overtime pay, according to a report published by the Economic Policy Institute. And so business owners like me have been able to make the other 89 percent of you work unlimited overtime hours for no additional pay at all.

And he points out a way that the problem can be fixed, singlehandedly, by the president.

The president could, on his own, restore federal overtime standards to where they were at their 1975 peak, covering the same 65 percent of salaried workers who were covered 40 years ago. If he did that, about 10.4 million Americans would suddenly be earning a lot more than they are now. Last March, Obama asked the Labor Department to update “outdated” regulations that mean, as the president put it in his memo, “millions of Americans lack the protections of overtime and even the right to the minimum wage.” But Obama was not specific about the changes he wanted to see.

So let me be specific. To get the country back to the same equitable standards we had in 1975, the Department of Labor would simply have to raise the overtime threshold to $69,000. In other words, if you earn $69,000 or less, the law would require that you be paid overtime when you worked more than 40 hours a week. That’s 10.4 million middle-class Americans with more money in their pockets or more time to spend with friends and family. And if corporate America didn’t want to pay you time and a half, it would need to hire hundreds of thousands of additional workers to pick up the slack—slashing the unemployment rate and forcing up wages.

But … but … wouldn’t this be bad for business?

But here’s a little secret from the corner office: The arguments that the corporate lobbyists are making—about how badly business will be hurt—just don’t add up. What is adding up instead is the trillions of dollars in corporate profits and stock gains that corporations have made over the same decades that your hours climbed and your wages fell. From 1950 to 1980, during the good old days of U.S. economic might—the era in which the Great American Middle Class was created—corporate profits averaged a healthy 6 percent of GDP. But since then, corporate profits have doubled to more than 12 percent of GDP. That’s about a trillion dollars more a year in profit. And since then, wages as a percentage of GDP have fallen, you guessed it, by about the same 6 percent or 7 percent of GDP. Coincidence? Probably not. What very few Americans seem to understand is that that extra trillion dollars isn’t profit because it had to be, or needs to be or should be. That extra trillion dollars is profit because powerful people like me prefer it to be. It could have been spent on your wages. Or it could have gone into discounts to you, the consumer. We capitalists will tell you that our increasing profits are the result of some complex economic force with the immutability and righteousness of divine law. But the truth is, it is simply a result of a difference in negotiating power. As in, we have it. And you don’t. …

Of course, capitalists like me will tell you that when we cut into profits, the entire economy is damaged. And think of all the investment that corporate profits make possible. What do executives like me do with all that extra money? Why, invest in creating good-paying jobs for middle-class Americans like you, of course.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true either. Mostly, we use profits to manipulate our stock price for personal gain.

Here’s a little history that will explain how: Back in the 1970s, when the share of total U.S. income that the top 0.1 percent of households got was at a 100-year low, corporate executives received most of their compensation in the form of a salary, just like you. But since the late 1980s, the largest component of income for the top 0.1 percent has been stock-based pay. This shift toward compensation via stock options and grants means that CEOs are directly incentivized to increase the share price of their company’s stock.

Building better products that lead to higher sales and fatter margins are the traditional way for a CEO to push up the price of his stock. But that’s so old-fashioned. So yesterday. Instead, ever since a former Wall Street CEO in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission back in 1982 loosened the rules that define stock manipulation (beginning to see a historical pattern here?), U.S. corporations have increasingly resorted to stock buybacks to prop up share prices.

(Aside on this point: There is an economic climate in which taking this action would have the effect that the corporate critics say — a climate of wage inflation and full or near-full employment. But we’re nowhere near either and haven’t been in decades.)

The president is going to announce his new, unilateral immigration policy in a few minutes, and that’s good. It’s so good, in fact, that Congressional Republicans have threatened to impeach him over it (although Reagan and Bush 41 did basically the same thing) is gravy.

That’s no reason not to change immigration policy. But if the president really wants to pick a hill to die on, this is the one. It benefits pretty much every wage earner making less than $70,000 a year (and the median total household income in this country is only about $53,000). It would pump up the economy significantly, directly benefiting the Americans who most need the help. It would be a strong substantive AND symbolic response to the complaints of voters in the 2014 elections that Democrats weren’t hearing their concerns about the economy. And it’s just the right thing to do on the merits.

Unfortunately, as Hanauer points out, there’s little indication that Obama understands why this is the right thing to do. Perhaps you can help him out on that one.

Hanauer agrees that that’s the right thing to do — for purely selfish reasons:

Contact the White House. Do it for yourself. Or, at the very least, have the courtesy to do it for me. Because honestly, I’m beginning to run out of customers.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 9:14 am

Early voting has begun in North Carolina.

So vote. It annoys the bastards.

Monday, October 6, 2014 10:00 am

An open letter to Kathleen Parker re the War on Women

Ms. Parker:

Normally I enjoy your work, but in your column today in the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, you stumbled and fell right out of the gate.

You wrote: “Let’s be clear. The war on women is based on just one thing: abortion rights.”

Clear as mud, ma’am.

I have not needed to work particularly hard to gain any special understanding or insight into the war on women. I only have needed to look at what goes on in my field, the media and communications, and to look at the experiences of my mother, my sister, my wife, and my daughter.

My mother runs a management consulting firm with clients on three continents, and that running is very much hands-on despite the fact that she will turn 80 in December. She has a long list of anecdotes about sexism in the workplace ranging from hiring and pay discrimination to the constant little patronizing, condescending comments men make to and about women, often without even realizing how offensive they’re being.

My sister works in the technical end of music and theatrical productions, a male-dominated field, and has had to work twice as hard to be paid half as well.

My wife, before changing careers recently, worked in information technology, which was, as you can imagine, even more of a testosterone sink than my sister’s field. And that was in higher education. I can only imagine what she would have had to put up with in the for-profit sector.

And my daughter is 16, and you and I both know what 16-year-old boys are like … as well as the condescending male adults in teens’ worlds. Just a few weeks ago, she had to sit and listen to teachers at her high school tell girls they couldn’t wear Nike shorts to school because doing so would be a distraction to the boys — as if the boys are somehow not responsible for their own actions.

The war on women takes many forms and is fought on many fronts, from hiring and pay equity to rape culture, particularly but not exclusively on college campuses.

You misleadingly argue, in effect, that because the Saudis mistreat women, the U.S. does not. Such an argument not only is untrue, it also seems to be implying that Americans have just as much control over Saudi law and culture as our own. That’s patently absurd. You’re desperately hoping that we won’t notice that one major political party in this country is doing everything it can both to cut back women’s rights and to discredit anyone who argues in favor of them, and that the other major political party is doing the opposite.

One particularly insidious aspect of this war is the inevitable blowback that any woman will receive when she attempts to speak out against the war on women — blowback from what anyone can see is a mixture of uninformed bigots and well-paid trolls, such as you with this very column. I hope the money helps you sleep at night.

You’ve made the classic mistake of argumentation, asking me which I’m going to believe, you or my lyin’ eyes. Lady, given that choice, I go with my eyes every single time.

Get bent,

Lex Alexander
http://www.lexalexander.net

Monday, August 11, 2014 7:45 pm

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hayek

I read Friedrich A. von Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” several years ago, and although it wasn’t a total waste, I couldn’t understand how a guy whose thinking was so obviously messed up in some ways could be held in such high regard. It turns out that I was missing a whole bunch of backstory (an entire book’s worth, at least), as Robert Solow explained two whole years ago (h/t Brad DeLong for unearthing this), while I was in grad school and not reading much of anything not school-related:

The source of confusion here is that there was a Good Hayek and a Bad Hayek. The Good Hayek was a serious scholar who was particularly interested in the role of knowledge in the economy (and in the rest of society). Since knowledge—about technological possibilities, about citizens’ preferences, about the interconnections of these, about still more—is inevitably and thoroughly decentralized, the centralization of decisions is bound to generate errors and then fail to correct them. The consequences for society can be calamitous, as the history of central planning confirms. That is where markets come in. All economists know that a system of competitive markets is a remarkably efficient way to aggregate all that knowledge while preserving decentralization.

But the Good Hayek also knew that unrestricted laissez-faire is unworkable. It has serious defects: successful actors reach for monopoly power, and some of them succeed in grasping it; better-informed actors can exploit the relatively ignorant, creating an inefficiency in the process; the resulting distribution of income may be grossly unequal and widely perceived as intolerably unfair; industrial market economies have been vulnerable to excessively long episodes of unemployment and underutilized capacity, not accidentally but intrinsically; environmental damage is encouraged as a way of reducing private costs—the list is long. Half of Angus Burgin’s book is about the Good Hayek’s attempts to formulate and to propagate a modified version of laissez-faire that would work better and meet his standards for a liberal society. (Hayek and his friends were never able to settle on a name for this kind of society: “liberal” in the European tradition was associated with bad old Manchester liberalism, and neither “neo-liberal” nor “libertarian” seemed to be satisfactory.)

The Bad Hayek emerged when he aimed to convert a wider public. Then, as often happens, he tended to overreach, and to suggest more than he had legitimately argued. The Road to Serfdom was a popular success but was not a good book. Leaving aside the irrelevant extremes, or even including them, it would be perverse to read the history, as of 1944 or as of now, as suggesting that the standard regulatory interventions in the economy have any inherent tendency to snowball into “serfdom.” The correlations often run the other way. Sixty-five years later, Hayek’s implicit prediction is a failure, rather like Marx’s forecast of the coming “immiserization of the working class.”

So, basically, conservatives are reading Hayek the same way they read the Bible, which is to say selectively. Hayek imposed some limits and context on some of his ideas, just as Jesus imposed the same on the Law and the Prophets, and conservatives conveniently overlook them in both cases. Moreover, Hayek, not being divine and all, fell prey to overreach, as intellectuals of all political stripes have done throughout history, and conservatives have been unable or unwilling to recognize that when it happened.

It has become an article of faith among some progressives that Hayek, like Milton Friedman after him, is the enemy. I think it’s not quite that bad: Both men had both good and bad ideas; both men had ideas that would benefit the less-well-off (guaranteed basic income from Hayek; negative income tax, which amounts to almost the same thing, from Friedman) as well as some that would turn the economy radioactive. I think it’s only fair to treat the work of both with a combination of openness and skepticism: openness to that which already has been demonstrated to work, or that might work to the benefit of the poor; skepticism toward that which already has been shown not to work or that appears likely to harm the poor. I defer to economic experts as to how much of each constitutes each man’s oeurve while reserving the right to call BS on stuff I already know from experience is BS.

Monday, June 23, 2014 6:31 pm

N.C. seeks to immunize pension-fund managers, banks from criminal liability

Really, that’s about the only way you can read this:

In the last few months, there has been increasingpressure on public officials to stop hiding the basic terms of the investment agreements being cemented between governments and Wall Street’s “alternative investment” industry.

That pressure has been intensified, in part, by twosets of recent leaks showing how these alternative investment companies (private equity, hedge funds, venture capital, etc.) are using the secret deals to make hundreds of millions of dollars off taxpayers. It is also in response to the Securities and Exchange Commission recently declaring that many of the stealth schemes may be illegal.

And yet, as the demands for transparency grow louder, a potentially precedent-setting push for even more secrecy is emerging. Pando has learned that legislators in North Carolina — whose $86 billion public pension fund is the 7th largest in America – are proposing to statutorily bar the public from seeing details of the state’s Wall Street transactions for at least a decade. That time frame is significant: according to experts, it would conceal the terms of the investment agreements for longer than the statute of limitations of various securities laws.

In other words, the legislation – which could serve as a model in state legislatures everywhere – would bar the disclosure of the state’s financial transactions until many existing securities laws against financial fraud become unenforceable.

A growing scandal in North Carolina

If the North Carolina Retirement System and its sole trustee, Treasurer Janet Cowell (D), seem familiar to tech readers, that is because the NC system is one of the lead plaintiffs in the class action suit surrounding Facebook’s initial public offering. Additionally, as part of her career in the financial sector, Cowell was the marketing director for the tech-focused VC firm, SJF Ventures.

Like other states, North Carolina has been redacting and/or refusing to release the contractual terms of its pension fund’s massive Wall Street investments, even though the contracts involve public money and a public agency.* In recent months, that practice exploded into a full-fledged political scandal when the State Employees Association of North Carolina released a 147-page report from former SEC investigator Ted Siedle.

The report asserted that under Cowell, up to $30 billion of state money is now being managed by high-risk, high-fee Wall Street firms, and that the state could soon be paying $1 billion a year in fees to those firms. The report also noted that the investment strategy “has underperformed the average public plan by $6.8 billion” and it alleged that Cowell has misled the public about how where exactly she is investing taxpayer dollars. The union has called for a federal investigation, while Cowell has publicly denied the allegations.

Note that it’s state employees, a majority of whom are presumably Democrats, calling for a federal investigation of a Democratic state official.

I don’t know whether the state’s Republicans just haven’t had this issue on their radar, or whether they see a payoff in insulating investment banks and other financial institutions with which the state does business from criminal liability. But either way, their silence is puzzling. And since banks are about as popular with Americans right now as strychnine, this down-low approach by the GOP doesn’t even make political sense.

*This practice appears to this layperson to be a clear violation of North Carolina’s Open Records Law. No exception recognized in the statute to the presumption that a record is public applies to this information. This practice appears to be the equivalent of your stockbroker refusing to tell you where and how he has invested your money: Would you find that arrangement acceptable?

Additional, deeply scary and infuriating background via Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism:

North Carolina’s investment performance in alternative investments is terrible. Of 23 reporting public pension funds, it ranked 21 in real estate and 23 in private equity. Whether due to corruption or incompetence, it is clear the state would have done better and at lower cost buying a mix of index funds. So the notion that these persistent bad results are due to payola is worth taking seriously.

However, the overwhelming majority of abuses Siedle cites [in the report linked above — Lex], such as charging of dubious fees, pervasive broker-dealer violations, pension fund consultant conflicts of interest, various securities and tax law violations, also take place with investors who have no potential for pay to play to be operating, such as private pension funds, life insurers, and endowments like Harvard that also invest in private equity. We’ve written about many of these bad practices in earlier posts, and have had to stress the degree to which limited partners have deeply internalized the idea that they can get better returns from private equity than from other investment strategies, and therefore they can’t cavil about the terms, since otherwise they won’t be allowed into this club. In keeping, the SEC has said, with uncharacteristic bluntness, that supposedly sophisticated limited partners have entered into agreements which are vague on far too many key terms and weak on investor protections.

Disclosure: Never having worked as a public employee in North Carolina or anywhere else, I have no direct interest in the state’s pension fund; nor, so far as I know, do I have any indirect interest beyond being a North Carolina taxpayer.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 11:21 pm

Rigged

Nine years ago today, my father died. He was 75 and a self-employed financial consultant who was still working about 30 hours a week right up until his final illness (acute pulmonary fibrosis), which lasted a couple of weeks before his death.

From an early age, I heard Dad talk about the importance of saving and investing, and I did the best I could to follow his advice. As I got older and better able to grasp the mechanics, he talked about the stock market as the best long-term investment vehicle for retirement (although he did say that once I hit 50 I should start swapping some equities for bonds).

To the best of my abilities, I have followed his advice. I won’t give you numbers, but I’ll tell you the following: I don’t have a ton of ready cash and never have. But were I to die tomorrow, my family would be pretty well fixed, especially considering I was a journalist, and thus not particularly well paid, for most of my career. Like many Americans, I haven’t gotten a dime in retirement matching for coming up on about seven years now, but — although no one can read the future — I think my family and I will be OK assuming I live to 67 and actually get to retire.

But Dad didn’t live long enough to see the mortgage bubble burst. He didn’t live long enough to hear all the revelations about bank and nonbank and insurance-company and security-rating shenanigans on a scale that dwarfed the crimes of the S&L crisis two decades prior. He thought repealing Glass-Steagall was a bad idea, but he didn’t live long enough to see just how bad. For that matter, he didn’t live long enough to see high-frequency trading and the ease with which the practice makes front-running a trade possible.

So although I’m remembering Dad today with warmth and his passing with sadness, for some reason the Dad thought that has been most on my mind today has been: I wonder what he would make of today’s financial markets? Would he still consider it possible for a single, well-informed investor to do OK? Or would he be convinced, as I have been, that most of the market is a rigged game — that there is a club and that most Americans like me aren’t in it?

(And I’m writing from a middle-class prospective. My problems don’t even begin to touch the problems of the working poor, who are being robbed outright.)

I don’t know what he’d think. All I do know is that while he certainly wasn’t perfect, in his professional life, to the best of my knowledge, he acted with integrity and took seriously his fiduciary duty to his clients. I’m struggling to name a commercial or investment bank that exists today that I’m confident does the same thing.

Thursday, May 15, 2014 8:18 pm

Throwing our children’s still-beating hearts into the stone mouth of the free-market idol; or, you’ll never guess whom economist Steven Levitt tried to bullshit.

Anyone who has sat through Econ 102 and higher understands that while lots of things work well in theory, in real life they bump up against human beings who are not nearly as rationally self-interested as theory would have us believe.

Noah Smith likens belief in free markets to idolatry and calls its unblinking supporters “the free-market priesthood.” The good news, he says, is that among econ academics, a little nuance is finally starting to creep into an area of thought that had been dominated for decades by the free-marketeers. The bad news, though, is that popular economics, which is the only kind most Americans are aware of and espouse, hasn’t gotten the memo.

One guy who should know better is Steven Levitt, co-author, with my acquaintance Stephen Dubner, of the “Freakonomics” books. Their new book is called “Think Like a Freak” — i.e., like them. I haven’t read it and so won’t pass judgment on it, but the behavior of Levitt himself is, by his own description in the book, apparently … questionable.

In their latest book, Think Like a Freak, co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tell a story about meeting David Cameron…They told him that the U.K.’s National Health Service — free, unlimited, lifetime heath care — was laudable but didn’t make practical sense.

“We tried to make our point with a thought experiment,” they write. “We suggested to Mr. Cameron that he consider a similar policy in a different arena. What if, for instance…everyone were allowed to go down to the car dealership whenever they wanted and pick out any new model, free of charge, and drive it home?”

Rather than seeing the humor and realizing that health care is just like any other part of the economy, Cameron abruptly ended the meeting…

So what do Dubner and Levitt make of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which has been described as a radical rethinking of America’s health care system?

“I do not think it’s a good approach at all,” says Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. “Fundamentally with health care, until people have to pay for what they’re buying it’s not going to work. Purchasing health care is almost exactly like purchasing any other good in the economy. If we’re going to pretend there’s a market for it, let’s just make a real market for it.”

Smith brings the pain:

This is exactly what I call “free market priesthood”. Does Levitt have a model that shows that things like adverse selection, moral hazard, principal-agent problems, etc. are unimportant in health care? Does he have empirical evidence that people behave as rationally when their health and life are on the line as when buying a car? Does he even have evidence that the British health system, specifically, underperforms?
No. He doesn’t. All he has is an instinctive belief in free markets. Of course David Cameron didn’t “realize that health care is just like any other part of the economy” after a five minute conversation with Levitt. Levitt didn’t bring any new ideas or evidence to the table.
And it’s not like Levitt’s idea was new or creative or counterintuitive. Does anyone seriously believe that the question of “why is health care different from other markets” had never crossed David Cameron’s mind before? Obviously it has, and obviously Levitt knew that when he asked his question. He wasn’t offering policy advice – he was grandstanding. Levitt wants to present himself as “thinking like a freak” – offering insightful, counterintuitive, original thinking. But if this is “thinking like a freak”, I’d hate to see what the normal people think like!
Surely it has not escaped Levitt’s notice that the countries with national health systems spend far less than the United States and achieve better outcomes. How does he explain this fact? Does he think that there is an “uncanny valley” halfway between fully nationalized health systems and “real markets”, and that the U.S. is stuck in that uncanny valley? If so, I’d like to see a model.
But I don’t think Levitt has a model. What he has is a simple message (“all markets are the same”), and a strong prior belief in that message. And he keeps repeating that prior in the face of the evidence.
I’m am not arguing, nor would I, that free markets are always and everywhere wrong. But Levitt is arguing pretty much the opposite, even though 1) he knows damned well it’s untrue, 2) he knows damned well that control of markets exists on both a quantitative and qualitative spectrum, and 3) he knows a world of empirical evidence derived from both this depression and the last one proves him wrong. I mean, dude, if Alan Greenspan admitted that, much to his surprise, free markets were not always self-regulating and self-correcting, surely you could concede the same?
But no.
I don’t know whether Levitt is insane or just has books to sell, nor will I speculate. But the fact is that he is intentionally saying things about the economy that he knows are false, and the fact is that he knows that these falsehoods that have real and painful consequences for tens of millions of Americans and make America look ridiculous in the eyes of the world. He had the ear of perhaps the second most powerful person in the free world, and he bullshat the guy.  I don’t care why. I just want him to stop.

Stressing the country out; or, Tim Geithner should have been fired about umpty-‘leven years ago

Tim Geithner, the guy President Obama inexplicably put in charge of the bank bailouts, has a new book out called “Stress Test.” (The term derives from the laughably phony “tests” endangered large banks were put through to see whether they had so many crap assets on their books that they needed to be liquidated; the fix was in, so not one large bank was broken apart of liquidated. Instead, we gave them bazillions of taxpayers’ dollars which they spent on bonuses for themselves instead of lending money to businesses to create jobs.)

The consensus seems to be — unsurprisingly, to me — that it sucks. Particularly, it’s incoherent where it’s not downright dishonest. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth rounds up some of the responses:

Glenn Hubbard:

About housing… I must say I split my side in laughter because Tim Geithner personally and actively opposed mortgage refinancing…. And now he’s claiming this would be a great idea…

David Dayen:

The guy who handed hundreds of billions of dollars over to banks with basically no strings attached [was] suddenly worried about fairness when homeowners get a break on their mortgage payments…. Even as he says in the book “I wish we had expanded our housing programs earlier,” he completely contradicts that to Andrew Ross Sorkin, saying [that his own] statement is “unicorny”…

Amir Sufi and Atif Mian:

Multiplying $700 billion by 0.18 gives us a spending boost to the economy in 2009 of $126 billion, which is 1.3% of PCE, 10 times larger than the estimate Secretary Geithner asserted in his book. So Mr. Geithner is off by an order of magnitude…

Economist Brad DeLong concludes:

In the “real world” Geithner did have full control over the GSEs and the FHA–because Paulson nationalized them in the summer of 2008.

In the “real world” Geithner submits his recommendation that Glenn Hubbard be nominated as head of the FHFA to President Obama on January 21, 2009, it is approved by the senate in February 2009, and thereafter there are no constraints on technocratic use of FHFA and the GSEs to rebalance the housing sector and aggregate demand.

Geithner should not say “I wanted the FHFA to act but I did not have the authority to get the FHFA to act” and at the same time say “having the FHFA act would have made no difference”; Geithner should to say “you cannot blame me because of the constraints” when we know that it was his own actions and inactions made those constraints.

Look: Tim Geithner did much better as a 2009-2010 finance minister than any of his peers. Look: the stress tests worked, and worked very well. (I disagree — Lex.) Look: Christina Romer and company say that if you need a bank rescued in 48 hours, Tim Geithner is your man. But the purpose of Stress Test is to explain to us what Tim Geithner thought and why he thought it, and thus why he did what he did.

And in Stress Test, on housing policy, he doesn’t.

Saturday, May 10, 2014 10:46 pm

An even more special kind of stupid

SpecialKindOfStupid

It takes a very special kind of stupid to inherit peace, prosperity and a budget surplus and explode the deficit, allow a horrific terrorist attack, launch a war both illegal and unnecessary (killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the process), order Americans to carry out exactly the same kind of torture for which we hanged Germans and Japanese after World War II AND push policies that allowed the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century.

But it takes an even more special kind of stupid to say, on the subject of George W. Bush, to intelligent Americans, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” Naturally, these days we do not lack for that very special kind of stupid; we need only turn to Matt Bai, formerly of the Times Almighty and now with Yahoo, to find it:

A graphic this week on FiveThirtyEight.com showed how fewer and fewer Americans blame Bush for the country’s economic morass, even though his successor, Barack Obama, won two presidential campaigns based on precisely that premise.

Bush’s critics will argue that this is testament to how quickly we forget the past. But it has more to do, really, with how we distort the present.

The truth is that Bush was never anything close to the ogre or the imbecile his most fevered detractors insisted he was. Read “Days of Fire,” the excellent and exhaustive book on Bush’s presidency by Peter Baker, my former colleague at the New York Times. Bush comes off there as compassionate and well-intentioned — a man who came into office underprepared and overly reliant on his wily vice president and who found his footing only after making some tragically bad decisions. Baker’s Bush is a flawed character you find yourself rooting for, even as you wince at his judgment.

Not just no, Matt, but hell, no.

I don’t need to read your buddy’s slobbery hagiography: I know what I saw and heard, out of the man’s own mouth, for eight long, painful, and disastrous years. For sheer incompetence, only Buchanan comes close, and in terms of the consequences of his stupidity, he is without peer or even parallel. America is vastly poorer, dumber, less free and yet more vulnerable today than it was in 2000, and the blame for that can be laid squarely at the feet of Li’l Boots McDrydrunk and the monsters he hired. I heard the man talk, so I know for a fact that he is an imbecile. I heard him admit on ABC News that he ordered torture, so I know for a fact that he is an ogre. And you, sir, can go straight to hell with him.

The only thing I’m rooting for where Bush is concerned is a seat in the dock at The Hague. And while oral sex is no longer a crime, public oral sex still is, so, Matt, buddy, next time you sit down to write about Bush 43, I’d look around for cops first.

 

Actually, only PART of the 1% is the problem. But we don’t know which part.

OK, strictly speaking, it’s the top 8%: CNBC commissioned a poll of U.S. households with $1 million or more of investable assets. And to a significant (and, to me, surprising) extent, they think a lot like you and I think on the economy:

  • 51% believe income inequality is a “major problem” for the country.
  • 64% support higher taxes for the wealthy.
  • 63% support increasing the minimum wage.

Now, they don’t think exactly like us; they’re likely to overestimate the effect of a good education and hard work (America tops only the U.K. in social mobility among the 20 wealthiest nations), and they tend to underestimate the effect of inherited wealth and luck.

But the fact remains that close to two-thirds of millionaires think they, themselves, should be paying more taxes and that the minimum wage should be higher. Just thought you should know we have some support among their ranks.

 

 

The problem with the “new economy” — and how the media make it worse

Ed at Gin and Tacos:

Things like airbnb and Uber (a car sharing service, for those of us who don’t live in a city large enough to make the prospect of paying a stranger to drive you somewhere viable) are “building trust” among Americans, bringing them together and facilitating economic activity. Plus, they make the economy more efficient, partially eliminating the dead airtime in daily life. Why leave your house empty when you can get someone else to pay you to stay in it? Why sit around watching TV all evening when you could make money driving people around?

It all sounds great, at least according to the fawning sycophants who provide all of us out here in the provinces with such worshipful coverage of the amazing achievements of the Techno-Demigods. And it is great as long as you don’t bother to ask (or care) why people are suddenly employing themselves as improvised innkeepers and taxi drivers. After all, does anyone really want to let some strangers stay in their home for a few bucks? To drive some trust fund asshole to the airport on Saturday after a 45 hour week? I doubt it. People turn to the “Trust Economy” because they’re somewhere between financially stressed and desperate. They don’t make enough or they’re without any steady source of income at all. They do it for the same reason that people go to work at a temp agency or loiter in a Home Depot parking lot to do day labor: because they have no better options.

The tech media work hand in hand with the mainstream media to put the brightest and prettiest coats of paint on economic developments of this kind, but who really benefits from this kind of arrangement? Hold on to your hats, kids, but it isn’t you. The beneficiary is the guy who can get people like you to perform for pennies on the dollar all of the tasks that a driver, personal secretary, and butler would do. It’s remarkable how many of the recent Big Developments from the omniscient men of the Valley have managed to make the lives of the well-off easier without actually creating any jobs that pay a livable salary or have benefits. Oh, and they convince the media to cover these breakthroughs in a way that makes it sound like they’re doing you a favor. You’re free at last, free at last. Say goodbye to the chains of full time employment and hello to the boundless freedom of working piecemeal, making phone calls on Mechanical Turk for a quarter and driving Damon the Junior Content Developer to the airport so he can spend the weekend in Cozumel with his frat bros.

The problem with the fact that the economy created a robust 288,000 jobs in April is that it needs to keep doing that for many, many more months to begin to undo the damage wrought by the Crash of ’08. And in the meantime, people are doing whatever they have to do to get by. Ignore it if you like, sociopaths of the world, but for God’s sake do not try to romanticize it. There is some shit even Americans won’t eat.

The future is here, and it blows.

 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 7:09 pm

If you’re having trouble understanding why Citizens United and McCutcheon were such bad decisions, it’s because Nixon would have loved them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, author of the majority opinion in McCutcheon, and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in McCutcheon, live in a fantasy world, Ian Millhiser explains:

In 1974, a Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) revealed activities that nearly anyone other than the five justices who signed on to Roberts’ decision in McCutcheon v. FEC would unreservedly describe as corruption. In the early 1970s, for example, the dairy industry desired increased price supports from the federal government, but Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Hardin has decided not to give these price supports to the milk producers. In response, various dairy industry organizations pledged $2 million to Nixon’s reelection campaign — and then developed a complicated scheme to launder the money through various small donations to “hundreds of committees in various states which could then hold the money for the President’s reelection campaign, so as to permit the producers to meet independent reporting requirements without disclosure.”

President Nixon later agreed to a meeting with industry representatives, and he decided to overrule his Agriculture Secretary. The milk producers got their price supports.

The Ervin report “identified over $1.8 million in Presidential campaign contributions as ascribable, in whole or in part, to 31 persons holding ambassadorial appointments from President Nixon, and stated that six other large contributors, accounting for $3 million, appear to have been actively seeking such appointment at the time of their contributions.” Outside of the White House, the report uncovered “lavish contributions” to members of Congress from both political parties. The chairman of one oil company testified that executives perceived campaign donations as a “calling card” that would “get us in the door and make our point of view heard.” American Airlines’ former chair testified that many companies funneled money to politicians “in response to pressure for fear of a competitive disadvantage that might result” if they did not buy off lawmakers. In essence, businesses feared that if they did not give money to elected officials, but their competitors did, then their competition could use their enhanced access to politicians in order to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

And yet, according to Chief Justice Roberts and his fellow conservative justices, hardly any of this activity amounts to “corruption.”

Even the Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which famously created the law that money = speech (but also largely upheld post-Watergate campaign-finance reforms), conceded that Congress could regulate campaign contributions to prevent corruption or its appearance. But Kennedy and Roberts have gone much, much farther than that:*

Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon, however, defines the word “corruption” so narrowly that it is practically meaningless. In order to survive constitutional review, Roberts writes, a campaign finance regulation must “target what we have called “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.” Thus, unless a donor offers “dollars for political favors,” no corruption exists.

Lest there be any doubt, this narrow understanding of the word “corruption” does not capture cases where a donor pays off a politician in order to buy access. To the contrary, as the conservative justices held in Citizens United v. FEC, “[t]he fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt” (The word “speakers,” in this context, is used to refer to what most people describe as “donors”). Indeed, Citizens United goes much further than simply claiming that dollars-for-access arrangements must be tolerated. At one point, it seems to view them as an objective good:

Favoritism and influence are not . . . avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies. It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness.

Democracy certainly is premised on responsiveness. Though it is a strange definition of democracy that offers enhanced responsiveness to those who can afford to pay for it.

Under Roberts’ definition of “corruption” most of the corrupt activities of the Nixon era would be viewed as completely benign. Though an isolated incident, where a Nixon fundraiser promised that the president would make a donor Ambassador to Trinidad in return for $100,000, would qualify as an explicit “dollars for political favors,” arrangement, politicians who give greater access to their donors are not “corrupt” under McCutcheon and Citizens United unless they offer to exchange votes or similar favors in return for campaign donations. Indeed, even the dairy industry’s $2 million bid for a meeting with President Nixon may not qualify as “corruption,” as Roberts understands the word, because there is some uncertainty as to whether the $2 million donation was “conditioned upon or ‘linked’ to” the President agreeing to make specific changes to the administration’s policies. According to Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon,

Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. And because the Government’s interest in preventing the appearance of corruption is equally confined to the appearance of of quid pro quo corruption, the Government may not seek to limit the appearance of mere influence or access.

So what Nixon likely would have gone to prison for in the 1970s had he attempted to stay in office is now the law of the land, per five Republican justices who no doubt also believe they are Tsars of All the Russias, to borrow a phrase from Charlie Pierce.

And the American people know it, Millhiser concludes:

Very few Americans agree with Roberts’ view of what constitutes corruption. Indeed, a 2012 poll determined that 69 percent of Americans believed that the rule emerging from cases likeCitizens United allowing “corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.” Just 15 percent disagreed.

To put that number in perspective, another poll found that fully 19 percent of Americans believe in “spells or witchcraft” — a full four percentage points more …

Myself, I’m wondering, given how many presumably sensible Americans have, since 2000, been willing to give away so many of their own rights and to refuse to hold accountable a generation of the most corrupt and wicked pols and business leaders since the Harding administration, whether more Americans ought to believe in witchcraft.

*I’m “conservatives oppose judicial activism” years old.

 

Monday, April 7, 2014 6:59 pm

Do peons dream of loyalty?

I spent my 16th, 17th, and 18th summers working in food service at the Carowinds amusement park on the N.C./S.C. line near Charlotte. It was hard, hot, sticky, messy, occasionally dangerous work — hot frying fat is nothing to mess with, which doesn’t keep teens from messing with it, and I once got knocked back 10 feet into a stream cabinet when I accidentally touched a bare wire on a 440-volt grill I was trying to unplug. (Had I not been wearing rubber-soled shoes, an electrician told me, I might’ve been killed.) When I finished my first full day of work — 9 hours in a steamy kitchen on a humid April Saturday — I was in outstanding physical shape and still as physically tired as I would ever be in my life until I got E. coli food poisoning two decades later.

We had all kinds of rules about customer relations, grooming (sideburns no lower than the earlobe), our itchy-ass polyester uniforms, not sitting while on duty, and so on.

So when I read this post on working in retail by ex-journalist Joseph Williams, I didn’t find a whole lot that was new to me, other than the vastly increased amount of theft-prevention activity. But a lot of it was new to him, or forgotten since his last stint in retail 30  or so years ago. And there’s a small part of me that wants to criticize his ignorance, because retail and restaurant work is one of the fastest-growing segments of the labor force in an economy that is not, generally, creating enough new jobs even to match growth in the working-age population, let alone bring down the un- and under-employment rates. If journalists know nothing else about the economy, they need to know that, and what the ramifications are for the growing numbers of Americans for whom this is real life.

Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.

That put me at a distinct disadvantage.

In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.

Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.

Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers: overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.

“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”

I soon realized the only way I’d have a shot in retail is if I dumbed down my job application, met directly with the person in charge before applying, and used my journalism story-telling skills to sell myself, stretching the truth past the breaking point.

He also discusses how “wage theft” — essentially, employers ripping free labor from employees, works, and this, too, I remember from Carowinds:

Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.

Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.

In at least one respect, I had it better than this guy: Once in a while, I actually did get overtime pay. Not always. Not often. But once in a while.

This guy was paid $10 an hour in a state where the minimum wage is $7.25. He has an interesting take on whether the minimum wage should be raised, and once again, it involves wage theft (highlighted text below):

Proponents [of a minimum-wage increase] argue that three extra dollars an hour can lift hundreds of thousands of workers out of poverty. Opponents say a raise for hourly-wage workers would keep some businesses from hiring and force others to make layoffs to stay in the black.

As a worker who earned $10 an hour, I say: Neither argument is entirely true.

Sporting Goods Inc., I came to realize, was fine with paying me a few dollars more than the minimum wage—officially $7.25 an hour in Maryland—because it had other ways to compensate itself, including disqualifying me from overtime or paid sick days. Requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift also saved management the money it would have had to pay a cleaning company to maintain the store. Yet even $10 an hour—about $400 a week before taxes—can barely keep a single adult afloat in a city like Washington.

A modest studio apartment in a safe neighborhood would easily consume an entire month’s pay. Meanwhile, depending on circumstance, an annual salary of roughly $20,000 might not automatically qualify a retail worker for government assistance. One of my co-workers, a young single mother I called Flygirl, lived with her mom and commuted 40 minutes, one-way, from a far-flung suburb to make ends meet. Most of my co-workers, in their early 20s or 30s, had roommates, spouses, or second jobs. None of them seemed to be making it on their retail salaries alone.

Even though I was living rent-free in a guest bedroom, my every-other-Thursday paycheck couldn’t help me climb out of my hole, particularly after the state took half my pre-tax, $300 weekly salary for child support payments. Grateful just to have a job, I didn’t think twice when I noticed Stretch sometimes cut me from the daily crew and kept my hours under 30 per week—until Mike, a longtime friend and a former union shop steward, explained.

“You’re part-time,” he told me. “If you work 40 hours or more, they’ll have to give you benefits.”

Because I live across town, meanwhile, I had an hour-long commute that cost as much as $10 a day round-trip on public transportation.

“Dude,” my best friend Jamie said. “After taxes, you’re making just enough to get to and from work each day.”

And when the writer finally finds a new job, one that pays a living wage, he tells his boss, who promptly criticizes his work ethic and  loyalty.

We seldom get to pick either the messages we receive or the messengers from whom we receive them. And it would have been nice if this guy hadn’t landed in poverty through his own doing, at least in part. But his story matters no matter his personal failings, because his story is pretty much the story of everybody who works in retail.

As was discussed in the Ideas section of Sunday’s News & Record, North Carolina still has about three unemployed people for every available job opening, and that doesn’t even count the so-called “discouraged” workers who have stopped looking for work and therefore are not counted as unemployed. Nor does it count the people who, though qualified for better jobs, are working part-time or minimum-wage jobs because that’s all they can find.

Their experiences are not hugely different from this guy’s. If you’re not one of them, you probably know many people who are. The American economy is screwing them to the wall, and it’s happening because of conscious and intentional decisions made by lawmakers in thrall to large corporations. It’s 21st-century peonage. And it needs to stop.

There is dignity and morality in honest work, even in retail, as long as workers are paid and treated fairly. But there is no dignity for the worker, and no morality for the employer, in taking from the worker what is rightfully his and debasing and degrading him while doing so.

 

Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:53 pm

Thought for the day, rugged-individualism edition …

… from Helaine Olen at Reuters:

To presume home-buyers put into predatory loans by mortgage brokers working for outfits like Countrywide Financial could have stopped the housing market implosion if they knew a bit more about balancing their checkbook is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking a high school class in money management could help someone two decades later decipher a 100-page, single-spaced mortgage origination document loaded with “gotcha” clauses.

But our self-help culture doesn’t allow us to admit we might not be able to overcome greater economic woes on our own. In fact, it often makes our individual situations worse when things don’t work out.

Thomas Scheff, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently published a paper in the journalCultural Sociology claiming that in highly individualistic cultures like the United States, where people are encouraged to “go it alone,” shame is the price we pay for not achieving success.

Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.

This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.

According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.

True, self-help advice is not always fully useless. Saving money, for starters, is certainly more likely to lead to a prosperous life than not putting anything aside at all. Yet all too often, knowledge and individual action are not enough.

Self-help causes us to take the political and economic problem of increasing income inequality and make it personal. That’s both morally wrong and financially ineffective.

That we fall for it only makes it worse.

I would add that the fact that we fall for it is no surprise when you watch how much and how deeply American media of all political stripes (or none at all — movies produced purely for entertainment, for example, often include this theme) drill this message home. As we are bombarded by and marinated in those messages, the notion that many if not most great things we’ve accomplished could only have been accomplished by teams, groups, companies, communities, or the states or the federal government becomes the dog that didn’t bark: We’re so used to, and have so absorbed, this self-reliance tenet that we fail to note its all-too-frequent systemic failures.

We’re all in this together, folks. And before we can act like it, we — or most of us, anyway — have to think like it.

(h/t: Fec)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 8:17 pm

There is a club. You and I are not in it.

Filed under: Evil,Hold! Them! Accountable!,I want my money back. — Lex @ 8:17 pm

So, Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon has been arrested and indicted on corruption charges, including theft and bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, honest services wire fraud and extortion under color of official right. For selling his office — before becoming mayor, Cannon had been mayor pro tem and a City Council member — received a total of $68,000 in cash, plus airline tickets, a hotel room, and use of a luxury apartment.

The three charges, which came after a 3 1/2-year undercover sting operation in which FBI agents posed as real-estate developers and allegedly bribed Cannon to use his office to do them favors, carry a combined maximum of 50 years in prison. Assuming Cannon is guilty on all counts, he still won’t do anything like 50, but he’ll do quite a number of years. And it won’t be in Alcatraz, but it won’t be in Club Fed, either. He also could be fined up to $1.5 million, which, for him, is years’ and years’ worth of income.

Meanwhile, retired Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and the bank itself settled a civil lawsuit today with the New York attorney general’s office that had alleged securities fraud. Specifically, Lewis and the bank were accused of deceiving BoA stockholders about what crappy shape Merrill Lynch was in when the bank asked stockholders to approve a takeover of Merrill in December 2008. This transaction played a nontrivial role in blowing up the economy, although that demolition was well under way when the sale closed on Jan. 1, 2009.

Neither Lewis nor the bank is required by the settlement to admit any wrongdoing. The bank will have to pay $15 million. Lewis himself will have to pay $10 million, although that’s the equivalent of zero days’ worth of income for him because the bank will pay it for him. Given the bank’s net earnings of $4.2 billion in 2012 (the 2013 annual report is due out any day), those fines amount to about two days’ profits, give or take. That’ll certainly warn all the other banks not to screw their shareholders, I think.

Oh, and Lewis is personally barred for three years from serving as an officer or director for any publicly traded company. Which is really going to cramp his style because he’s, you know, retired.

So:

  • Criminal charges vs. civil.
  • Prison and a significant fine vs. no prison and a trivial fine.
  • A guilty verdict or guilty plea vs. no admission of guilt.
  • Prison (again) vs. an order not to do something he probably wasn’t going to do anyway.

What have we learned from this experience?

We’ve got one set of rules for banksters, and another set for everybody else, including mayors of major cities, you, and me.

There is a club. You and I are not in it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014 9:09 pm

America, land of free markets. … Oh. Wait.

It would appear that up to several dozen tech companies have been conspiring to artificially suppress wages for their employees. In other words, they’ve been stealing from their employees, although because they used email instead of a knife or gun no one will go to prison. At first it was just Apple, Google and Intel that we knew of; now, well …:

Confidential internal Google and Apple memos, buried within piles of court dockets and reviewed by PandoDaily, clearly show that what began as a secret cartel agreement between Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt to illegally fix the labor market for hi-tech workers, expanded within a few years to include companies ranging from Dell, IBM, eBay and Microsoft, to Comcast, Clear Channel, Dreamworks, and London-based public relations behemoth WPP. All told, the combined workforces of the companies involved totals well over a million employees.

At the link you can also find embedded court documents bearing out the claims.

This is money that went to a very few officers and directors at these companies. It is money that was taken from hard-working employees and will never be returned. And do not kid yourself that tech is the only sector in which this is happening. One reason the government has been so easygoing on monopolies and near-monopolies the past 30 years is that they make this kind of thing easier. In other words, if you’re a CEO, this is a delightfully profitable feature, not a bug.

Worse, this conspiracy to suppress wages likely is going on in every major sector of American private industry. I can’t prove it, but I’m certain of it right now, because if there’s one thing I learned from investigative reporting, it’s that corrupt organizations are almost never just a little bit corrupt. Indeed, I would not be surprised to find that this phenomenon, along with daisy chains of CEOs sitting on each other’s board compensation committees, is a significant driver behind the fact that the overwhelming majority of profits from productivity gains are going to the top 1 or 2 percent of earners in the work force.

The CEOs involved knew that what they were doing was wrong, that it involved the permanent, unlawful taking of the property of others. They should be doing at least as much time as your run-of-the-mill bank robber, in facilities no more luxurious. But they won’t. And that’s why we can’t have nice things.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 8:27 pm

Was EVERYBODY to blame for the 2008 crash? Not just no, but, hell, no.

Dean Starkman at The New Republic, writing long and worth every word and minute:

With Wall Street’s demand for mortgages unending and some loan producers managing to book up to 70 loans per day, the system didn’t just crash. It was brought down.

But we’ve also been made to understand that subprime lenders and their Wall Street funders didn’t act alone. Instead, they were aided by the avarice of the American people, who were not victims of the crash so much as accomplices in it. Respondents to aRasmussen poll done during the throes of the crisis overwhelmingly blamed “individuals who borrowed more than they could afford” (54 percent) over Wall Street (25 percent). To this day, the view is widespread and bipartisan: Main Street was an essential cause of the meltdown. The enemy was us.

“It all goes back to the increase in the tolerance for debt,” David Brooks wrote a couple of years ago. …

One of so many instances in which Brooks has been flat wrong on the facts without professional consequence. But I digress.

Is that not the truth?

Actually: No, it’s not. The notion that American consumers share the blame for the mortgage crisis is a lie. And it is one of the most pernicious out there.

Everyone-Is-To-Blame (or EITB, for brevity’s sake) has done much to mute the public outcry essential for sweeping efforts to respond to the financial catastrophe. To the extent that Dodd-Frank fell short of the root-and-branch reform that followed the last great crash in 1929, EITB is to blame. The fact that banks too big to fail before the crisis have been allowed to grow to twice their pre-bubble sizes can be traced to a nagging sense that they didn’t act alone. And if you wonder why, six years after the fact, no significant Wall Street figure has been criminally prosecuted, I would suggest that EITB has muddied perceptions just enough to allow the administration to sidestep the necessary legal mobilization. If everyone is to blame, then criminal indictments of individual executives can be framed as exercises in scapegoating.

Everyone-is-to-blame did its worst damage to the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, an effort rolled out in the immediate aftermath of the crisis to reduce borrowers’ monthly payments through refinancing or principal write-downs. It was the mere idea of HAMP that set off Rick Santelli on his 2009 rant about “losers’ mortgages” and their “extra bathroom,” sparking the Tea Party revolt. The prospect of helping delinquent borrowers, while others paid theirs on time, unleashed a flood ofressentiment that filled the Congressional Record with denunciations of “irresponsible” actors who “lied” only to wind up in line for “gift equity,” and “tax-payer subsidized windfall.” Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner introduced the concept of “happy-go-lucky borrowers” and “cagey borrowers.” Jim Bunning, then Kentucky’s junior senator, felt compelled to warn against helping homeowners “who made bad decisions.” The outpouring tapped into a sentiment powerful enough to silence even some liberals and turned hamp into a political disaster for the Obama administration. Left adrift, the program went from a potential lifeline for borrowers to a fee-machine for servicers and a Kafkaesque nightmare for those it was supposed to help.

As an agent of obfuscation, EITB is a gift that keeps on giving. In October, The Washington Post’s editorial board objected to a $13 billion mortgage-era civil settlement with J.P. Morgan largely because it unfairly singled out the bank, when, in fact, “everyone, from Wall Street to Main Street to Washington, acted on widely held economic beliefs that turned out not to be true.” A forthcoming book by Bob Ivry, a Polk Award–winning investigative reporter for Bloomberg News (and, full disclosure, a friend), eloquently inveighs against big banks and their Washington lackeys, but also includes this assertion: “In the years leading up to the Great Bubble-Burst of 2008, everybody got a chance to cash in. … If you wanted to buy a place to live, you could get more house than you ever dreamed. You could use your rising home equity for the Disney vacation, the power boat, the fourth bedroom or the college education.” …

True. But that’s not the same thing as mortgage fraud, which, though not trivial, was an incredibly small part of the total problem:

In 2010, an FBI report drawing on figures from the consultancy Corelogic put total fraudulent mortgages during the peak boom year of 2006 at more than $25 billion. Twenty-five billion dollars is obviously not nothing. But here again, teasing those mortgages out of that year’s crisis-related write-downs of $2.7 trillion from U.S.-originated assets leaves our infamous “cagey” borrowers to blame for only a tiny share of the damage, especially since not all of the fraudulent mortgages were their fault. The ratio looks roughly something like this:

Yes, some of our cab drivers, shoeshine boys, and other fellow citizens tricked a lender into helping them take a flyer on the housing market. But the combined share of the blame for bad mortgages that can be placed on the public sits—and I’m really rounding up here—in the high single digits, and not the much larger, fuzzier numbers in our heads.

The fact is that defrauding a bank that actually cares about the quality of a loan is actually rather difficult, no matter how aggressive or deceitful the borrower. Lenders, on the other hand, can lie with relative ease about all sorts of things, and mountains of evidence show they did so on a widespread basis. For starters, it’s lenders who establish the loan-to-value ratio for a property: how much money the buyer is borrowing versus the house’s estimated worth. Banks didn’t used to let you take out a mortgage too close to the home’s total cost. But play with those numbers and, voilà, a rejected loan application turns into an accepted one. Leading up to the crash, some banks’ representations about loan-to-value ratios were off by as much as 40 percentage points.

Then there was the apparent rampant corruption of appraisals, which also have nothing whatsoever to do with borrowers. Before the bubble popped, appraisers’ groups collected 11,000 signatures on a petition decrying pressure by banks to arrive at “dishonest” or inflated valuations.

And that’s to say nothing of lenders misleading borrowers directly—a practice that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the Levin-Coburn report, and lawsuits by attorneys general around the country have all found was very much systemic. Mortgage brokers forged borrowers’ signatures and altered documents; Ameriquest (those guys again!) had its own “art department,” as it was known internally, for precisely that function. Oh, and remember those 137,000 instances of “suspicious activity” about possible borrower misdeeds? For the sake of perspective, Citigroup settled a Federal Trade Commission case alleging sales deception that involved two million clients in a single year. That’s what we call wholesale, and it was happening before the mortgage era even really got started.

Today, there’s a big and growing body of documentation about what happened as the financial system became incentivized to sell as many loans as possible on the most burdensome possible terms: Millions—and millions—of borrowers were sold subprime despite qualifying for better.

Perhaps the most astonishing and unappreciated finding comes from The Wall Street Journal, which back in December 2007 published a study of more than $2.5 trillion in subprime loans dating to 2000 (that is to say, most of the subprime loans of the era). The story, by my former colleagues Rick Brooks* and Ruth Simon, painted the picture of a world gone upside-down: During the worst years of the frenzy, more than half the subprime loans issued went to borrowers who had credit scores “high enough to often qualify for conventional loans with far better terms.” In 2006, the figure hit 61 percent. Along with its article, the Journal illustrated the alarming trend line with a version of the following graphic:

It goes without saying that no one would voluntarily eschew a prime loan for subprime—subprime is called that for a reason, carrying higher, often escalating rates; pre-payment penalties that “shut the backdoor” by precluding refinancing; and other burdens tacked on for good measure. The Journal concluded that its analysis “raises pointed questions about the practices of major mortgage lenders.” That’s putting it mildly!

He goes on to suggest some reasons why Everybody Is To Blame is such a popular world view. But what he keeps coming back to, what we must keep coming back to, is that it is wrong. If you actually look at the numbers — you know, like bankers are supposed to do — you consistently find that the overwhelming majority of the financial damage was caused by the banks, often through unethical and sometimes even illegal means.

Even so, today, we refuse to punish those responsible. If there’s Blame to be laid at the feet of Everybody, this is it. Charlie Pierce is fond of saying that for all Occupy Wall Street’s many foibles, gaffes and mistakes, it at least got people shouting at the right buildings — i.e., corporations rather than government, and the big banks in particular. Unfortunately, some of the country’s top journalists and pundits still get it wrong, and they and the lawmakers on the take form a daisy chain that keeps anything substantive from happening, not only to punish those who were responsible last time but also to do what it takes keep something like this from happening again.

It’s not Everybody’s fault. Everybody is NOT to Blame. The banks and their executives and boards are to blame. And part of citizenship in a constitutional republic is to hold them to account.

*Disclosure: Rick Brooks worked with me at the N&R in the early 1990s.

Thursday, March 6, 2014 7:45 pm

Do you want N.C.’s economic recruiters spending your tax money at Yankee Stadium?

Because if the state GOP’s plans to make the state’s economic-development efforts a public-private “partnership,” we may well have that and other shenanigans to look forward to. It certainly didn’t work out well for the taxpayer in Florida:

CBS 12 News spent hours reviewing 20 months worth of spending at Enterprise Florida and uncovered thousands of dollars spent on sky boxes, steakhouses and at fancy hotels.

Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on credit cards. We weren’t provided the detail on what was purchased.

Our investigation found leaders at Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development machine, spent more than $21,000 at Yankee Stadium in New York.

They also paid a visit to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX where they dropped more than $7,100. The stadium tour also stopped off in Atlanta, GA for a cost of $4,400. …

Enterprise Florida is tasked with handing out tax dollars to recruit multi-national and global corporations to our area.

A CBS 12 News investigation last November found hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Enterprise Florida since its inception created less than half of the 200,000 jobs initially promised.

State data we reviewed also found millions of dollars in incentives handed over to companies who have employees that sit on the board of directors.

And it turns out, this public private partnership is more of a publicly funded partnership. …

Our review of the records found more than half-a-million dollars charged on American Express and thousands of dollars spent at steak houses, seafood restaurants and lavish hotels.

The “partnership” Gov. Pat McCrory wants is nothing more or less than a license to steal from the poor and the middle class. And I am confident that if our arrangement looks anything like Florida’s, we’ll get the same result Florida did.

(h/t: Billy)

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