Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Deal Me In": Hillary plays the Gender Card.

Let's be clear:  Hillary and I are all for playing the gender card.  Hell, men have been doing it since the dawn of mankind. (See what I did there?)

The top job in this country has been held by that other gender since George Washington became our first president in 1789.

Women couldn't even vote until 1920.

It wasn't until 1932 that the first woman was elected to the Senate. Since then, only 31 women have served in that office.

Of the  435 members of the House of Representatives, fewer than 20% are women.

Only 39 women have ever served as state governors.

In too many workplaces women are still paid less than men in the same job.

Our body parts are under attack daily by people who want to take away our right to own them unilaterally.

Our sex makes us vulnerable in every aspect of society, even here in America, even in the 21st Century.

So when we say out loud that it's our turn, that's because it's our turn.  Nothing subversive about it.  It's our damn turn.

As of this morning it looks like Hillary Clinton will be running against Donald Trump for the top job. She'll pull out all the stops to prove she's far more qualified to be president than he ever could be. He'll be using what he sees as his male privilege to attack her.

He won't give up. But I've got news for him: Neither will she. And neither will we.

Dismiss us at your peril, you cocky loser.  Bring it on. You and the rest of your pals dealt this card. Now sit down, shut up, and watch how it's played by the other side.

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Crooks & Liars)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Today we Celebrate the Earth. Tomorrow, Business as Usual

(Today is Earth Day in America.  The first, 46 years ago, was a big deal.  It was 1970.  We were in the mood to celebrate the earth and to warn against the destruction of our natural places.  Now we're watching again as our supposed caretakers are licking their lips at the thought of all that land open to rape-for-profit.  

I wrote and published this piece six years ago so you'll note some outdated references.  I present it again today as a history and a celebration of Earth Day.  We're at that point, and maybe beyond, where our own safety is at stake.  The earth is our only home.  We owe it to her--and to ourselves--to keep her healthy.)
"On April 22, 1970, 20 million people, 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 grammar and high schools and 1,000 communities mobilized for the first nationwide demonstrations on environmental problems. Congress adjourned for the day so members could attend Earth Day events in their districts. The response was nothing short of remarkable, and the modern American environmental movement took off.
My major objective in planning Earth Day 1970 was to organize a nationwide public demonstration so large it would, finally, get the attention of the politicians and force the environmental issue into the political dialogue of the nation. It worked. By the sheer force of its collective action on that one day, the American public forever changed the political landscape respecting environmental issues."
Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Dem. Wisc - Founder of Earth Day.

Created by Walt Kelly for Earth Day, 1970

I remember that first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.  The scope of it was astonishing and really surprising. It was a grassroots movement in the best sense of the phrase, and we all felt good about it.  (Most of us, that is.  The day after, The Daughters of the American Revolution branded  the Earth Day commemoration "distorted" and "subversive".  (It didn't help that the first Earth Day happened to fall on the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin's birth.)

What Gaylord Nelson originally proposed was a nationwide teach-in on school campuses.  He chose April 22 because it would fall after Easter break but before final exams.  It was spring.  The earth was renewing itself.  Environmentalism was gearing up and in motion,  and it was a fine time to give the earth a day.  Richard Nixon was president and, while he didn't participate in any of the day's events (maybe because a damned Democrat came up with the idea), he was actively talking about attacks on the environment and the steps the government would need to combat them.  Pollution was a big issue already, and steps had been taken to de-smog the cities.  It was working.  (Nelson had actually talked to JFK in the early 60s about the need to draw attention to the environment, and a day to commemorate had been thrown out there then.)

Industry was king, and the environmentalists, alarmed at water, ground and air pollution levels, were talking to brick walls (when they weren't batting their heads against them).  In 1962, the year Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring", 750 people died in London's smog.  In 1965, four days of inversion held down a cloud of filthy air that killed 80 people in New York City.  In 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River caught fire. Earlier that year, an oil platform six miles out from Santa Barbara, California, blew out, spilling 200,000 gallons of oil, creating an 800 square mile oil slick that settled on 35 miles of California shoreline.  Almost 4,000 birds were killed, along with fish, seals and dolphin.  

Enough had finally become enough, and under Lyndon Johnson and a congress that could see clearly now (even though the rest of us were still lost in a choking, eye-watering, salmon-colored, man-made smog), we saw a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water act, a National Wilderness Preservation System, a Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a National Trails System Act, and, for what it was worth, a  National Environmental Policy.

That all changed, of course, when Ronald "A tree is a tree" Reagan became president.  For the Department of Interior, he chose James Watt, a notorious anti-environmentalist, to head it. He chose Ann Gorsuch, another determined anti-earthling, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.  What a laugh that was--or might have been, if it weren't so serious.  They were chosen for the same cynical reasons George W. Bush chose his department heads--so that regulatory agencies could, from the inside, be forced to stop regulating.  

Gale Norton, GWB's choice for Secretary of Interior was called "even worse" than James Watt, by the Defenders of Wildlife.  I shuddered over that one.  I remembered James Watt, and I thought nobody could cause as much havoc on our little section of the earth as that little man did.  I thought we had learned something along the way.  I thought all those Arbor Days and Earth Days and global warming warnings had taught us all something.  Some of us obviously weren't listening.

But now we're in the era of Obama and former Colorado senator Ken Salazar is the Interior secretary.  The jury is still out on him; his voting record was either for or against the environment, depending on what I'm assuming was the alignment of the stars or the fullness of the moon.  I don't know.   But he's showing signs of bucking the oil industry, and he isn't necessarily doing what his naysayers thought he would, so I'm willing to cut him some slack for a while.

Lisa Jackson is the current head of the EPA. She's a chemical engineer, which seems like a start, and she said this in Newsweek:  "The difference between this administration and the last is that we don't believe we have an option to do nothing."  I like that.  But she seems to think there's no cause for alarm over offshore drilling.  That makes me more than a little nervous, considering the above-mentioned Santa Barbara incident, and the 11-million-gallon Exxon-Valdez incident, and today's oil-rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana.  (I hope she remembers that the EPA is 40 years old this year, too.  In fact it's a few months older than Earth Day--all the more reason for it to be the designated caretaker.)

This Earth Day, 40 years after the first, got a lot of play in the news and on the internet, but I was hoping to see crowds out there giving it their best.  I didn't expect teabags, of course, but what I wouldn't give for a sea of tie-dyes and peace signs and flower garlands. . .  The aroma of patchouli. . . 

All those things I thought were pretty silly in the day are looking downright good to me as I take note of the day we promised to give Earth a chance.

"Sometimes I wonder if Lewis and Clark shouldn't have been made to file an environmental impact study before they started west, and Columbus before he ever sailed.  They might never have got their permits.  But then we wouldn't have been here to learn from our mistakes, either.  I really only want to say that we may love a place and still be dangerous to it.  We ought to file that environmental impact study before we undertake anything that exploits or alters or endangers the splendid, spacious, varied, magnificent and terribly fragile earth that supports us.  If we can't find an appropriate government agency with which to file it, we can file it where an Indian would have filed it--with our environmental conscience, our slowly maturing sense that the earth is indeed our mother, worthy of our love and deserving of our care."

Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

(Cross-posted at Crooks & Liars)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Mortgage Fraudsters and Their Get Out Of Jail Free Card

I don't have to tell you that when it comes to Big Money I know nothing. Beyond coming deliciously close to balancing my checkbook once in a while and/or putting a few pennies away in a sock or a next-to-no-interest savings account, finances are a complete mystery to me.  I know people who do know something about Big Money but when they talk about it, it's in a foreign language.  Pretty sure.  When they're talking about billions and trillions they might as well be talking about the enormity of the galaxies.  No comprendo, buddy.  Don't even waste your time.

So when I read a story in USA Today about Goldman Sachs finally getting around to agreeing on a settlement for bilking mortgage customers out of billions of dollars over many years, causing many thousands of them to have to default and move out of their homes, their fine seemed colossal enough where even I should have been screaming with joy.  Over $5 billion!  Dollars!
The glimpse of the New York-based banking and investment giant's internal review process came as Goldman Sachs acknowledged it marketed and sold tens of billions of dollars in residential mortgage-backed securities without weeding out questionable loans as investors had been promised.

“This resolution holds Goldman Sachs accountable for its serious misconduct in falsely assuring investors that securities it sold were backed by sound mortgages, when it knew that they were full of mortgages that were likely to fail,” Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery said as the Department of Justice, state attorneys general and other officials announced the finalized agreement.
They weren't the only ones, of course.  In February, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $1.2 billion for their part in cheating on mortgages.

From USA Today:
NEW YORK -- San Francisco bank Wells Fargo Wednesday said it has agreed to fork over $1.2 billion to settle allegations that it fraudulently certified loans in connection with a government insurance program.

In a 2012 lawsuit, the U.S. government accused Wells Fargo of sticking it with "hundreds of millions of dollars" in Federal Housing Authority insurance claims as a result of years of "reckless" underwriting and fraudulent loan certification.
As a result, FHA had to pay out insurance claims on thousands of FHA-insured mortgages that defaulted, the government said.
Around that same time in February, Morgan Stanley agreed to pay $3.2 billion.

Also from USA Today:
“Morgan Stanley touted the quality of the lenders with which it did business and the due diligence process it used to screen out bad loans.  All the while, Morgan Stanley knew that in reality, many of the loans backing its securities were toxic," said acting U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch of California's northern federal district.

Morgan Stanley said its previous financial set-asides for the settlements would prevent the payments from affecting the bank's 2016 earnings. "We are pleased to have finalized these settlements involving legacy residential mortgage-backed securities matters," the bank said.
 Well, isn't that special?  Their bottom line won't be hurt at all by it. BIG sigh of relief.

Note that ugly word "fraudulent".  Note, too, that innocent phrase "agreed to pay"--as if paying, for them, is an option.  Note also too there is no mention of anyone going to jail.  Not a single soul from anywhere within those vast companies had to go to jail for their misdeeds. They couldn't even muster up a single scapegoat.  Nobody.  They paid fines large enough to sustain entire cities but it turns out it's no more than money in a sock to them.  So, big frickin' deal.  Let's move on.

Well, how about we don't this time?  I know for a fact if I did something "fraudulent" or even "toxic" that caused even one family to lose their home, I would be in big trouble.  HUGE trouble.  It would probably cost me everything I owned.  I would surely go to jail. I would be a bad, bad person.  I would even think so myself.  I know for a fact I would not have the option to "agree to pay" for my crime.  I would pay for it, or else.  And I know for a fact I wouldn't be "pleased with the outcome".  That's the point of punishment.  It should be the opposite of "pleased".

When huge institutions cause that much indisputable harm to hundreds of thousands of citizens, when billions of our taxpayer dollars end up having to pay for their crimes, we should expect more from them than a slap on the wrist.  We should expect that they lose everything, and every member of their group who knew anything about it and let it happen should have to spend many thousands of their remaining days in prison

They sure as hell shouldn't be able to "agree" to the amount of their fine, and it shouldn't be pennies on the dollar. They sure as hell shouldn't be pleased at the outcome. And they sure as hell shouldn't be allowed to go back to business as usual.

In August, 2013, Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing her dissatisfaction with the criminal-free mortgage settlements.  In it she wrote:
"I am concerned that this might be yet another example of the federal government’s timid enforcement strategy against the nation’s largest financial institutions. I believe that if DOJ and our banking regulatory agencies prove unwilling over time to take the big banks to trial or even require admission of guilt when they cheat consumers and break the law — either out of timidity or because of a lack of resources — then the agencies lose enormous leverage in settlement negotiations."
To which I can only add: You can say that again, sister.  We've been living in a system for far too long where the bigger the crook, the lighter they fall. I don't need to know a single thing about high finance to know it's time to end that insane double standard.

So now we come to the elephant in the room: This is a big election year. My candidate, Hillary Clinton, has taken big bucks in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street giants. She says they haven't bought her influence, and so far I haven't seen any signs that they have, but if she is the Democratic party nominee we're going to need to know how close she is to agreeing with Elizabeth Warren.  It had better be pretty damned close.  (Let's not get sidetracked by my admission that I'm supporting Hillary.  We've been through this.  Here's why.)

My party, the Democratic Party, has lost its guts, and it's people like Elizabeth Warren and, yes, Bernie Sanders, who are willing to take up the pitchforks in order to bring some sanity, some fairness, to a system that has fallen all over itself to keep from governing as a full-fledged democracy. 

My party is the party of the people.  It should be obvious to our party leaders that it's their job to make sure we live up to our name.  We've been too long pretending that any move in the direction toward the people makes us better than the Republicans. Not good enough. Anybody is better than the Republicans. 

Big money is the bane of our existence.  When we speak of billions the way we used to talk about millions, we've lost touch with the common needs of the people.  We read the articles about billion dollar fines and tend to forget how many lives were adversely altered or outright destroyed, thanks to the fraudsters working out in the open with no fear of punishment or retaliation.  They didn't get to that place on their own.

Money talked louder than we did and money won.  Now we're in the midst of a crazy election season, and what we're seeing is the equivalent of an angry mob scene.  Somebody's to blame and somebody has to pay. 

Let's hope it's not us again.

(Cross-posted at Crooks and Liars)