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Insurers are Running from Climate Change

Stormy Futures MapNew Orleans      Fair enough, I call New Orleans home and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina nine years ago, I still pay way more attention to climate change than the average Joe, partially because I’ve been there, done that, and think it’s coming again someday both here and to an area near you.  So, when Ceres, a heavily established and institutionally backed nonprofit, did a report on how big insurance companies were preparing for climate change, I knew it was worth a hard look.  Here’s a spoiler alert:  it’s almost all bad news!

            Ceres surveyed most of the insurance companies in the USA and more than 300 replied, giving them very good response.  Importantly, several states, including California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, and Washington, are now requiring insurance companies writing more than $100 million in policies to disclose their climate related risks, so part of the response may have been part of their own “get up to speed” drill in some of these larger markets.   The results on the Ceres grading system were pathetic.  Of the companies replying only nine ranked in the “leading” category while 83% or 249 companies were minimal or only beginning.  Only Hartford and Prudential were US-based companies in the top nine.

            Living in the swamp with receding coastline all around us in Louisiana and levees hardly reinforced up to a Category 3 storm, those grades were confirming what we already knew in our hearts.  We’ve essentially been left not high-and-dry, but in the soup to swim.  Even though I didn’t flood, sitting high and dry on the alluvial flood plain only three blocks from the Mississippi River, our home was forced into Citizens, the high-priced, high-risk last resort insurer.  Ceres essentially confirmed that’s the “new normal” everywhere.  The main response from most “property and casualty” insurers after Katrina and Sandy, has not been to prepare for climate-change risks but to abandon the markets and the risks entirely leaving it to whoever and whatever is left behind to fend for themselves.  This abandonment is especially pronounced along coastal areas in Long Island, Virginia, Delaware, and of course Florida.

            Ceres makes an interesting point, that the insurers and major businesses can run but they can’t hide, especially given the supply chain inherent in globalization.  Flooding in Thailand disrupted deliveries and production adding up to $15 billion in business losses.  With droughts in California and elsewhere in the west and everyone and their cousin from the National Geographic on down writing about the impact of climate on agriculture and food supply, this is also an area where insurers seem asleep at the switch from the board level and the executive suites down to the agents on the block.  According to the Ceres report most companies are simply behind the eight-ball in taking climate change seriously.  I’m not sure whether ideology is clouding their own self-interest and creating a weird sense of denial or whether we’re just talking about high level, major corporate incompetence.  Warren Buffet, I thought this insurance thing was your baby, what’s happening here, dude?

            The recommendations from Ceres were predictable.  They want, and we should all agree, all fifty states to require the same insurance disclosures that the first five have mandated.  Not surprisingly they also want a grading system, similar to their own report, to be adopted nationally so that consumers and regulators are on the same page, and, heck, why not?

            This climate change thing is already real, and it’s past time for insurers and everyone else to catch up before we get caught up in it any deeper.

 

Philanthropy’s Desertion: You Just Can’t Count on the Rich

moneyNew Orleans      As Lilliputians living in the land of the giant rich 1%, it is hard to avoid the heavy helpings of bad news coming in daily about how their habits and highly selective generosity imperils us everywhere, especially because we also live in a world dominated by neo-liberalism that has too often ceded the responsibilities of the state to private and personal interests. Here’s the emerging lesson, as you might have already guessed: when we come knocking, no one is hearing us, and no one is home.

Recently, there was yet another report establishing that with the increasing concentration of wealth, even more of the burden of giving is falling towards those with lower incomes. The percentage of giving by the rich has decreased almost 1%, while the percentage of total income donated by lower income families has increased by more than 1%.

A professor at Stanford noted that inequities of wealth are showing up in local philanthropic fundraising, which is of course unregulated and tax-deductible for donors, mirroring the growth of the 1% with money raised for schools attended by their own children at the expense of efforts on a broader basis to get public dollars to be enough for all kids. In other words they are giving, but only to the public schools where their own children are going, self-interest being what it is and has always been. This translates into a new gym for them, and broken glass in the playgrounds across the street from the school for us, pottery and dance classes for them, and police in the hallways for us, and so on. Others argue that we should shut out mouths, at least they are donating to public schools, since the rich, unlike the rest of us, retain the threat of exit and can move their money and children over to private or parochial schools, if they hadn’t already.

Even the desperate Ebola crisis in lower income countries in West Africa like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone where groups like Doctors without Borders have been heroes, leading the way for even governmental responses, has revealed the gaps in philanthropic response compared to other global crises. At one level groups are not asking, claiming no boots on the ground in some cases, but that was also true in Katrina and other disasters. One worries that part of the issue is race and a disinterest in Africa. One or two of the big boys have stepped up, Mark Zuckerman and his wife for example, who I have to admit have funded public institutions in need before like the Newark school system, though wrongheadedly perhaps in that case, but for the most part, Ebola and West Africa doesn’t interest the rich, so thank goodness the military still knows how to pitch tents for field hospitals.

I read an interesting piece the other day on something called philanthropy-capitalism in connection with the political scene in Vancouver, British Columbia. The argument was strained, but the phrase was interesting, largely because the proof seems clear that in reality, despite what many might have hoped, it just doesn’t exist.

And, that spells trouble for all of us living in the shadow of the rich and under the rule of neoliberalism, because the shrinking and privatization of the state at every level, means there’s no safety net anywhere and no calvary will be coming over the mountain to save us. A report from Ceres, a new sustainability research outfit, finds that in weather-related disasters the level of insurance coverage is plummeting. Where 45% of the losses from Hurricane Katrina were covered, only a bit over a 30% of Hurricane Sandy were covered. Future disasters couldn’t depend on insurance or massive donations to help, leaving more and more communities stuck with only beleaguered public and private resources.

Despite some of the conservative, libertarian, and Republican rhetoric, the facts are rolling in again everywhere we look that we simply can’t count on the rich to save us. They’ve concentrated the wealth, and have different plans and interests than the rest of us or in the rest of us.

Neoliberalism crashes and burns at the point we all realize there is no Plan B, and once again the only justice is just us.

New and Better Mortgage Lending Standards Maybe

rs-2New Orleans               The press is making a big deal of Mel Watt’s comments as the chief housing regulator at the Federal Housing Finance Agency to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s convention in Vegas.  He claims he has a new plan to loosen up the rules so that banks finally lend some money to first-time buyers and lower-and-middle income borrowers.  There’s a problem though.  The bankers are applauding, but there are no real details to the plan available, so what’s the story here?  Frankly, I don’t trust this.

Too much of this seems like a suck-up to the bankers and the equivalent of a “get out of jail” quickly ticket for them to blame their fast and loose behavior on the borrowers, which has been part of their narrative since the meltdown of the Great Recession.  Under the so-called “plan,” the housing finance agency would ease up on the rules that require the banks to buyback mortgages “that show evidence of fraud or other flaws in the underwriting process.”  Supposedly the buyback now would be based on the ability of the feds and the prosecutors to prove a “pattern of misrepresentations and inaccuracies.”  Furthermore the bank rip-offs would have to be “significant” enough to have disqualified the borrower from a Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac guarantee on the loan.

There’s a rumor of approving loans with as little as 3% down payments, and maybe that’s a good thing, but who really knows without the details.

To me this looks like a bank stickup with the bankers holding the gun against the government’s head and refusing to make loans until they get enough promises that they are not going to have to pay billions in fines and buybacks if they rip-off their borrowers yet again.  My argument would once again focus on one of the least corrected causes of the meltdown:  brokers.

As long as lenders refuse to supervise their broker networks even while all of the incentives are left in place for brokers to act independently and to be paid at the point of production regardless of affordability of the loan to the borrower, the conditions remain in place for fraud and predatory behavior.  Allowing this much finger pointing away from themselves, lets the bankers juice up the market without any accountability.  Even better, but only for them, they’ll get to still blame the victims, rather than take responsibility for their own thievery.

We need a subprime market.  We need for low-and-moderate income families to have the choice of buying a home, if it makes sense for them financially.  But, do we really want to make it easier for bankers to look the other way and claim their hands are clean when they are financing the fraudsters?

Many of the advocates are applauding this so-called plan.  I’m hoping they know a lot more of the down-low than has been made public, because at this point it looks like a deal made on our knees with the bankers where we’re once again begging for money for our people and they, once again, are dictating the terms and setting the table for more mischief and mayhem.

Bosses Intimidating Their Workers at the Ballot Box

2008_BIPACNew Orleans      A lot of this is an old story, but there are enough new twists and turns that it settles disturbingly, especially if you care about democracy and understand the subtle things that can become significant in razor close elections with huge consequences. I know the freelance reporter and investigator, Spencer Woodman, who often is published by The Nation, largely as a phone pal. He calls every six months or so when he’s working on a story or to talk about what’s going on in case I might know something or say something that sheds a small light on some big story he’s following.

Months ago when he called he said he was working on a story about something called BIPAC, the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a political outfit with a huge footprint but a small public profile, funded not surprisingly by business and industries including of course the Koch Brothers. I wasn’t very helpful other than to contribute the information that the name was surprisingly close to the Louisiana-based LABI, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which had led one fight after another over the last 40 years in Louisiana against unions, most notoriously in their signature victory at forcing through the right-to-work law in the mid-1970’s. Turned out, as Spencer and I talked and searched the web simultaneously, that LABI in fact was directly affiliated with BIPAC, so one could just imagine the mischief and mayhem that such a ruthless outfit could create.

Woodman’s story is now out and that turns out to have been the tip of the iceberg. It’s available now on Slate.com and elsewhere and worth a look, if you worry, like I do about what happens when a company’s so-called “freedom of speech” crosses the line and becomes coercive in these difficult and dangerous economic times for workers.

Speaking of the “tip of the iceberg,” Woodman’s story on BIPAC starts in Alaska and the gang up of three BIPAC affiliated big energy companies Conoco Phillips, British Petroleum, and Exxon Mobil on their workers during a recent initiative vote, which is especially worrisome given the importance of the Alaska Senate in determining who and how the Senate is run for the next two years. Of course BIPAC is everywhere given its base that it claims reaches 25 million workers in the USA. Past any specific contest, Woodman points out that the ambitions of BIPAC are more disturbing, because it’s…

“…primary aim isn’t to help individual candidates win office; rather BIPAC’s goal is to turn as many private employers as possible into “employee political education” machines for business interests. BIPAC urges major companies to transform their workforces into a voting bloc and provides sophisticated tools that show employers how to do it.”

BIPAC, unlike Americans for Prosperity, and other business fronts, specializes more in hiding its hand as it throws the rock, but the directions of the toss aren’t hard to follow. Woodman got to be a fly on the wall in a training session they ran in North Carolina and the message was clear as their representative…

“…reminded the business crowd of the uniquely advantageous position bosses have in influencing their employees’ votes. “Employers are the most credible source of information for employees about this type of material as it affects their jobs, their own prosperity. They’re susceptible to the information. They’re a willing audience.” He advised that political messaging should appeal to employees’ sense of economic insecurity, or as he put it, their “kitchen-table economics.”

You get the drift. It’s worth following this story more closely.

Employers have always tried to sway their workers, who often have very different self-interests, to vote their way, since their own votes are few, and their workers are many. Nothing new there. But the level of bombardment, coercion both direct and implied, and increasingly intrusive pitches meant to capture their votes for the bosses interests are crossing more and more lines and moving towards the point where they are violating the protections workers need to feel for their votes.

This BIPAC business is scary stuff and worth closer attention as its messages come pouring out of the mouths of big businesses over the coming weeks for this election and coming years for many more to come.

The Hard Problems Integrating “Culture” into Social Change

Mural 2221 First PanelNew Orleans      Jagrati Bhatia is community organizer I know in London who I’ve talked to about our organizing in Narobi, where she has family.  I posted on my Facebook page that I was rolling through Lake Village, Arkansas between Little Rock and New Orleans and stopped by:

….to help set up the KABF sponsored Oxbow Jazz & Gospel Festival in Lake Chicot State Park outside of Lake Village, Arkansas today. KABF’s John Cain and Robert Griffith were the organizers and I was a helper along with other volunteers. The first group was blowing the leaves off the trees on a beautiful day at a beautiful site as I left.

She commented, “You have time to absorb culture, Wade Rathke?  Wish I was there.”  I glibly responded something about being the KABF station manager so it was part of the job essentially, but Sister Jagrati has a point.  It’s not easy to connect culture to the work of organizing.

           Part of it plainly and simply has to do with sustainability and KABF’s partnership with Arkansas’ Lake Chicot State Park is a good example of the pleasures and pitfalls.  The park is a great facility in southern Arkansas closer to Louisiana than anywhere else and in the very outer range of KABF’s 100,000 watt signal.  The park people wanted to encourage visitors and show off their improvements so were donating the pavilion and some other services. Putting on a jazz and gospel, two day festival is great for the audience and the players, but hell on the organizers.  The park would be ahead and the local school system was getting 40% of the ticket sales to buy musical instruments for their students.  The sheriff was getting the beer permit, but he dropped the ball and filed too late, so much for that.  The food vendors and sound people were coming from distances and could hardly find the park, 8 miles from the 2200 person town of Lake Village.  To have a shot Cain and Griffith had raised $10,000 through another one of the DJs connections to some small foundation.  All of us will be lucky to breakeven, and that doesn’t count the real issue which is how to get a crowd out to the venue, swaying to great music with their hands in the air.  Culture takes hard organizing just like social change does, and maybe that’s the real issue Jagrati? 

            All you can do is your best.

            At our new building we had a driveway which will end up being the entrance way to the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude once we finally get all the state fire and health people to give their blessings.  There is a 9 foot tall wall that runs 50 feet from the street to the patio area.  How about a mural that celebrates all of this says Dine’ Butler with Local 100?   A friend of hers recommended Danae Brissonnett, a young, talented muralist from Montreal, Canada with a great sense of color, politics, and adventure, so we made a good deal all around.

The first panel has now gone up.  We’re working with a serious artist!  I understand it’s meant to convey the forces aligned against us and the fight for justice and power.  It’ll be interesting to see this develop, but it’s a “buckle the seat belt” and “hope for the best” proposition.  Will people run into the building and the coffeehouse or run away from it once it’s done?  What do a bunch of organizers know about art?  We know what we like, but….

            So, yes, Jag, we do “absorb culture,” and we try to integrate it into the work, but it’s not easy, and too often it’s not sustainable except on the margins, when we find artists as scrappy and committed as organizers.

            But speaking of culture and KABF and all of its music, we’ll let Bruce Springsteen, somebody we do understand better than most, and his song, “Jack of All Trades,” summarize the problem and our notion that we have to stand steady and tall in the face of it, just as Danae’s mural is symbolizing:

The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again, yeah they’ll bet your life
I’m a jack of all trades, darling we’ll be all right

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The USA Political Scene as Spun by the National Chamber of Commerce Political Director

IMG_2228Lake Village         Rob Engstrom is the political director of the National Chamber of Commerce and a big time DC player. When he talks about dropping $20 million in only 15 election races, and his only gripe was that they were having to put that much in early in the primaries rather than waiting for the general elections, there’s no bluff or braggadocio to it. The biggest danger in listening to him speak and answer questions at the Clinton School for Public Service in Little Rock is that you had to be careful as you got up to leave. He was so smooth, slick, and finely polished that I was afraid of an X-men kind of effect that might have made it dangerous to walk on the floors, in case they had become transformed by some magic while he talked.

If you had just helicoptered down along the Arkansas River to hear his talk, you might not have realized why Engstrom was in town. He lathered up every politician of standing, past or present, in Arkansas, along with his constant and casual bolstering of the local city and state chamber functionaries. Former Senator David Pryor, his wife, and current Senator Mark Pryor his son, were well respected, beloved, and had made great and lasting contributions to the state. He was repeatedly nostalgic for former President Bill Clinton and his ability to work with a divided Congress to govern. He said the same for current Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe while noting that Beebe had the highest popularity polling now at the end of his term compared to any governor in the country. Until the last minutes off his remarks when he went over the edge a bit in duplicitously answering a student’s question about climate change and was too extravagant in his defense of the gazillions of dollars the Koch Brothers, upstanding and generous members of the Chamber and employers of 90,000, that you might have realized he was only in town for an earlier press conference making clear the wild, enthusiastic endorsement of the Chamber for hard right, rabid Republican Congressman Tom Cotton in the pivotal Arkansas Senatorial election over incumbent Senator Mark Pryor. Or, that his political career had started with Clinton nemesis Newt Gingrich or his role in the Florida recount that scuttled Gore. Finally the stiletto fell clamoring to the floor after having been so skillfully and surgically inserted in the body politic of all of the politicians he had named.

He was good. He knew it all, chapter and verse, state by state, race by race. He was wildly impressive. The primary direction of most of his spin was trying to fabricate a picture of the Chamber as the voice of business somehow occupying middle ground as politics polarized. They were fighting the “caveman caucus.” The primary fights were about getting people who could govern. They were for immigration reform, the Import/Export bank, and Common Core, so “see, we’re not so bad” was the message. Yet his recitation of the “facts” as he called them made it clear they were a partner in the polarization. Election cycle after election cycle from his report they had moved farther and farther away supporting any Democrats ever, so that at this point it was less than a handful. And, his recitation of issues that put them in the middle faded away when he listed their policy priorities after the election: “fixing” the Affordable Care Act, Energy Policy, i.e. build the XL Pipeline for the Kochs, Financial Security, read gutting Dodd-Frank even more, and Labor Policy, which means hitting unions even harder. As an afterthought he wanted us not to forget about fair trade and gutting entitlements. So much for any common ground, he and the Chamber are the drum majors and policy pros for the Republican elephant parade.

His predictions pulled out of piles of faint praise for his opponents was an increase of 6 to 10 seats in the House for the Republicans, and maybe a record plus 12, and 51 or 52 seats in the Senate to take control. Engstrom is smart though, and threw a bone out to the crowd about making no permanent enemies reminding us all that in 2016, the pendulum swings again especially in the Senate with 24 Republicans up for re-election and only 10 Democrats all of whom are in blue states won by Obama in 2008 and 2012, leading him to believe that whoever might be the next President will once again face a divided Congress.

That’s some small comfort to take home. Driving back to the office and the studio it was hard for me to hold onto that thought because I imagined all of the wannabe and elected Congressman, Senators, and Governors having to meet with Rob Engstrom as supplicants begging for his and the Chamber’s money and support and promising away their pride and their people at the altar of these policies. Most of them would be putty in the hands of a pro like Engstrom in the K Street offices and boardrooms that determine their future. This guy was scary good with steel in the syrup of his voice, ready to shake your hand today and push you in front of the bus tomorrow. Most of our elected officials would be no match for the likes of Engstrom.

There is no way to sleep soundly. The nightmares keep coming!