Issues Missing in Presidential Campaign

20160711_election_issues_2New Orleans    Not long ago there was an op-ed piece that ran in the papers about the fact that poverty and what to really do about the equity gap was missing as an issue in the campaign. More recently, others have noted that climate change has also been raised, but not engaged as a campaign issue. When you think about it, we’ve definitely seen issues around race and gender as centerpieces of the campaign, but when it really comes down to hard-and-firm debates about policy choices and decisions that we might face once we live through this campaign, there’s not much there, there.

We can infer that Trump would reboot our foreign policy with a Russian warmup of some kind. We know that Clinton traveled to a host of countries while Secretary of State, but I’m not sure if we know exactly what she would do on foreign policy as President, other than more of the same. If we grab at straws there are contradictory readings of some of the WikiLeaks email dumps that indicate that Clinton might – or might not – be tougher on Wall Street. Immigrants may have to learn to crawl the wall with Trump, but we’re guessing that Hillary would continue to push forward with Obama-lite programs in this area. We know Trump would appoint highly conservative nominees to the Supreme Court, and, we can guess that Clinton would not, but she has not committed to pushing forward on Obama’s stalled nomination or been clear where she might look in this regard.

It’s kind of amazing how little we know about what either candidate would really do as President, given the nature of this campaign. It has been so bitter and so divisive that it has drowned out any but the most strident messages of the candidates.

We can gather that something might happen on daycare, but Trump’s initiative here was tactical, rather than profound, so it’s not like we could take it to the bank. And, speaking of the bank, for all of the controversy about Trump’s non-payment of taxes, if a gun were pressed up against my head, I would still be hard-pressed to repeat exactly what Clinton has said that she would commit to doing to change the tax rate and how it favors corporations and the rich, even if we can be confident from Trump’s remarks that he thinks it’s fine and dandy, and even smart to not pay taxes. I’d say about the same on trade and jobs, which have surprisingly been clearer issues for Trump, than Clinton.

Maybe this is just real-politick. Perhaps we are seeing all of these sideshows from both candidates because neither are sure that they can get anything through Congress? The increasingly confident Clinton is putting more money into Arizona, Indiana, and Missouri to try and influence Senate races to switch control, but meanwhile polls are also indicating that people are tuning out and tired of the back-and-forth, particularly African-Americans and younger voters which could lead to lower turnout.

One thing that was clear in the Sanders campaign and his constant one-note repetition: voters knew where he stood. The only thing clear about this campaign as we come down to the wire is that voters know who they don’t like – not what they can expect to see over the next four years.


Discrimination by Math

5399389a5e1ae61cf1eda5d0e84ef070Seattle   Having spent a week in Juneau, Alaska working with men and women dealing daily with the stigma and discrimination that comes with mental health challenges and disabilities, I should have been prepared for Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction and its warnings of the pervasive, powerful, and often destructive and discriminating role that Big Data and the algorithms it is fueling are having on all of our lives. I wasn’t. But, I also wasn’t surprised.

One of the issues I heard about from the members of MCAN included being fired from jobs in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They didn’t know the half of it! O’Neil detailed the way that huge employers including lower wage service establishments like McDonalds and others are using personality tests with data driven questions that sort out people with any kind of mental health issue. A lawyer in Tennessee watched his son, a super student with two years at Vanderbilt University who had dropped out for a couple of semesters to deal with depression successfully, somehow failed to land any minimum wage jobs as a janitor, burger flipper, and so forth from a number of companies using the same blunt instrument of a personality test. He filed a ADA class action suit that is still pending. Even that may be only the tip of the iceberg since data driven, resume reader machines are also discarding applications with a few misspellings, bad typos, and other trivialities.

These WMD’s, as O’Neill cleverly calls them, are perhaps most destructive when it comes to the way too many of them from police and crime statistics to loan applications to even the efforts to get insurance or an apartment from a landlord are discriminating, often invisibly, based on the zip codes identifying where someone lives. The question may never say race or risk, but the zip code identifying the neighborhood plots the Big Data odds, and they do not stack up in your favor. Stop and frisk programs, common under New York mayors Guilliani and Bloomberg and now touted by Trump, under analysis revealed huge racial profiling and targeting of African-Americans and Latinos because of misapplied and understood algorithms.

It was also disconcerting, given our long experience in the United States and Canada in providing service at citizen wealth centers for low-and-moderate income families to find that algorithms employed by payday lenders, diploma mills, and other shyster, predatory operations that are datamining names and contact information from people who are going online to ask for information and access to programs to provide them advice or assistance. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I can remember complaining to our tech people years ago when we used Google Ads about the fact that I could be writing a Chief Organizer Report on our fights against payday lenders and find, embarrassingly, ads running alongside my blog for some of the same blood sucking, scammers I was calling into account in the paragraphs next to their ads. Duh!

It goes on and on. O’Neill cautions that there are dangers here, and they need to be regulated not just for privacy along the European opt-in system, but for transparency. If you ever thought, even for a second, that some of the “value-added” tests for teacher evaluations that many states have employed were valid or about the meaning of things like body-math-indexes and wellness, your application for McDonald’s would also probably be rejected.

She does argue that it is not the math’s fault, as much as the way the math is being used. With a different objective some of the same algorithms could be pointing people in the right direction, connecting them with resources, getting them out of prison, rather than in, and into a job rather than out on the street.

There seems to be no mathematical formula on when that miracle might happen.


Tax Records Show that Trump is a Promoter, not a Businessman

A line from one of Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax returns obtained by The New York Times.

A line from one of Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax returns obtained by The New York Times.

New Orleans    The poor New York Times. They have the scoop of the election campaign when a little birdie drops in the mail a copy of much of Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns, and because of the speed of the internet and our digital world, it doesn’t really even get in the newspaper itself. At least not the one delivered around the country and the world. They have to release it on Saturday night, so it ends up not in their Sunday paper, but in local papers who subscribe to their news service. Their own editions talk about the story without ever having run it. To me that’s a good example of how the internet and media have made this campaign different than any other, but that’s just me.

All of us have our mouths wide open when we imagine how anyone can declare a loss of almost a billion dollars on their tax returns and still be allowed to sign a payroll check, much less be in business, or for that matter a potential President of the United States. Oh, and of course ask someone to vote for him because he’s such a good businessmen and employer so that he can be in charge of the federal budget which it turns out you and I likely contribute more to than he does.

Reading the analysis of what was revealed the Times quotes “Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economist who served as director of the Congressional Budget Office and is now president of the American Action Forum, a conservative pro-growth advocacy group, commenting on Trump’s taxes, said, ‘It’s either a unique combination of bad luck or he’s a terrible businessman or both. I don’t understand how you can lose a billion dollars and stay in business.’”

Here’s the mistake people have been making. Trump’s claims that he is a businessman are another piece of flim-flam. He’s a promoter, a salesman, and a brand, not a businessman. In the same way a model advertises fashion, Trump is an empty suit advertising what people think a businessman is. But, that’s really what real estate developers always are to some degree. They are dream weavers who work the press and the public for subsidies and sales, and, when they get lucky, actually see something built, and then sell out as quickly as they can.

Turns out the tax code is fantastic, if you’re rich and in the real estate game. On some of these losses you have to understand he may have been able to take this 20-year federal tax holiday and didn’t even have his own money or any money at risk. He’s wheeling and dealing, and bankrupting this and that, and still coming out roses. Casinos are coming and going, and he’s still playing the odds, because he’s the “house,” and the house is his.

The tax records conclusively prove that he is a wretched businessman, but a supreme hustler. Politics was a natural place for him to go. There’s no bigger pile anywhere for a gambler to play.

It’s hard to believe though that any of that qualifies him for President in anyone’s mind.


Wells Fargo, Criminal Enterprise

ct-wells-fargo-settlement-questions-oversight-20160910New Orleans   I’ve never been a fan of Wells Fargo. We fought them endlessly over predatory lending practices in mortgages and subprime products. They don’t listen, they obfuscate, stonewall, and hide behind layers of lawyers in stubborn refusal even when faced with evidence of clear misdeeds. We were able to fight Citicorp, Bank of America, HSBC, and a ton of subprimes, even Countrywide, and succeed in reforming practices and achieving decent settlements, but Wells Fargo, even when they settled did so narrowly and without conviction. I was clear for ACORN and our members, you just can’t trust a bank like that with your money.

It is some relief that now everyone in the United States is getting a crash course in learning that Wells Fargo is not the community banker it has claimed to be, but a criminal enterprise.

Let’s review the facts, now being widely reported. For five years employees of Wells Fargo opened up to 2 million bank and credit card accounts willy-nilly without any permission from anyone. Often the accounts were closed fairly quickly which is why the penalties now being paid by the bank are less than $200 million. It was a penny ante, amateur scam with employees making up email addresses and sometimes virtually opening up the accounts from Wells Fargo internet domains. The bank has now fired 5300 employees who were involved in this fraud. As the New York Times’ columnist, Andrew Sorkin, points out, “that’s not a few bad apples.”

Wells Fargo has taken out ads apologizing and taking responsibility, but they clearly, as usual, have their fingers crossed behind their backs. A couple of months ago before all of this criminality became public, they allowed Carrie Tolstedt, a 27-year veteran and their head of “community banking,” to retire and walk away with over a $120 million going away present. Various banking analysts are calling for a “clawback” since Wells has rules allowing them to recover monies from executives where there were ill-gotten gains. The Wall Street Journal was so grossed out by all of this that they reported the calls for clawbacks and showed a picture of Ms. Tolstedt, but couldn’t bring themselves to mention the $120 million she took away with her office plants for fear that all of us Visigoths would be clamoring at the gates.

What will they learn? Likely nothing.

But, it’s easy to explain how this happens, and it is the same way that it happened when mortgage brokers were writing fictitious so-called, “lair’s loans,” where many observers of the 2008 financial meltdown are still confused and some think it was the borrower fibbing, rather than the underwriter. In the current Wells Fargo case on cards and accounts, as well as their own and many other situations previously on loans, it is crystal clear that once you link pay to simple production, you can guarantee there will be fraud. The only question will be how long it takes you to be caught, and how much money the bank makes in the interim.

For managers there, just like Carrie Tolstedt, there is a disincentive to impose the kind of controls that would weed out these problems. Top dogs get paid on the numbers, just like the runts of the litter. In bank after bank, once you get them across the table for all of their talk about protection using sophisticated algorithms, risk management, and blah, blah, blah, they simply are culturally and systemically unable to tightly manage on performance and standards, once production is all, and pay is linked to such incentives.

They are all smart enough to know this, but it’s the nature of capitalism in some ways to ignore it. You can only conclude that they didn’t care or thought that they wouldn’t be caught. None of which recommends a bank like Wells Fargo as a place to trust your money, since they are clearly committed to themselves first and their customers last, as little more than numbers being crunched in their back rooms somewhere.


Please enjoy Phish’s Breath and Burning. Thank you KABF.


Tradeoffs Between Time and Money

timeormoneyNew Orleans   Two professors reported on the results of a study they made about the choices people made between time and money. They reported that people were happier and more satisfied with their lives when they chose to value time over money. They led into the piece by mentioning that one of the economists – a man – faced the choice analytically over spending time over a weekend with a new baby. He was offered a reasonably lucrative opportunity to conduct two days’ worth of workshops across the country which would have helped pay for the cost of daycare and other associated expenses of a new child, or he could have chosen to spent the time at home with the child. We were sort of left hanging on this one, but given their survey result and his argument, he clearly chose time over money.

All of this seems fine and dandy, but it also stops way short of being about reality. To have any real meaning such a study would have to try to determine what the financial benchmark would be that would realistically allow an individual the luxury to choose. Furthermore, there are two edges to this sword when you grab it, but we’ll get to that.

At the simplest level you have to have money in order to choose time. The professor was making a choice on allocation of his resources, but he started with sufficient resources to allow him to have a choice or at least believe that he had a choice and to believe that the consequences of either decision would not have been fatal or painful or face public scorn. And, in fact his time itself had value, as evidenced by the fact others were willing to pay him to expend it. An interesting question for him, as an economist, might have been what level of payment for these two workshops would have established a tipping point where he chose the work and the money, being able to rationalize that it would allow him to essentially purchase more time in the future.

For marginal workers and lower income families all over the world who lack baseline resources, there simply is no choice. If someone shows them the money, they have to go for it. And, in fact there’s another public risk for lower income individuals and families, especially those that get any kind of public support or resources. This is the other edge of the sword. This is the “welfare Cadillac” problem. A significant part of society wants all lower income individuals and families to never have a choice, but to always choose money, meaning work, because they believe against all evidence that work is always available, that nothing is too menial, and that anyone essentially choosing time is stealing their money and should have no choice. When it has to do with women on welfare with children, the same folks might want their wives to stay at home with their children for the sake of the children as their view of a social good, but want to deny such a choice to anyone receiving public aid.

Admittedly all of this was on my mind recently as I spent more than 30 hours in order to travel in one day from Berlin to Amsterdam to Washington, DC to Toronto and then wend my way through rental car hell and pouring rain to my final destination all as the result of a series of decisions solely based on being forced to choose money and assign zero value to time. The pre-dawn train and flight from Berlin to Amsterdam, is what had allowed visits with many activists, organizers, unions, and parities in Hamburg and Berlin in the first place. The cost of the roundtrip to Amsterdam was at the lowest possible cost to allow a peoples’ party to marshal its resources and the last and cheapest flight to Toronto and the cheapo 24-hour EZ-Rental Car operation was about saving every looney and toony for ACORN Canada.

Are people really happier with time rather than money? Sure, if that have enough money to start with and the right to make a choice in their best view of their interests. How many people are excluded from the right to make such a choice? Without that information, it would seem the conclusions are both irrelevant and trivial.


Waking up the Sleeping Giant and Building a Renters’ Voting Block

us-hr-ageBuckhorn, Ontario  It is hard to escape the feeling, country to country, that low-and-moderate income families, and, just possibly, even families with more money, are rapidly consolidating into a permanent class of renters. Certainly in some cities around the world like New York City, Toronto, London, and elsewhere, this has long been the case. In the United States though it is a bumpier transition because the dominant narrative in the vast expanse of the land is that the American dream includes home ownership. Increasingly that dream comes with a disclosure now that you better be ready to move to smaller towns, cities, and rural areas if you want to live that dream.

In the US, the number of renters, and therefore potential renter’s votes, are rising. Renter votes increased 49% between 1996 and 2012, while owner votes only increased 23%, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data. According to data reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Nonetheless, just 22% of votes cast in the 2012 election were by renters, according to the analysis. But as the renter population grows, Apartment List [a rental leasing website] estimates that one-third of eligible voters in this election could be renters. Based on historical voting patterns, renters would likely cast about one-quarter of the votes—a small but meaningful increase from the last election.

This sleeping giant traditionally has not stirred much around Election Day. Renters are often seen as more transient, though some data interestingly finds that voting rates are as low for stable tenants as they are for frequent movers. They are also young, and poorer, none of which are huge vote movers. Furthermore, owners vote more consistently than renters. Another statistic in the Journal piece points to a potential game changer as anger over cost and affordability continues to rise.

The number of cost-burdened renters—those who spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent—has risen by 3.6 million since 2008, to a historic high of 21.3 million in 2014, according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In the meantime, the number of cost-burdened owners has declined by 4.4 million since 2008 to 18.5 million.

The Presidential campaign is silent on the issue of renters and rising rents and housing prices are at the heart of the entire Trump business model, so we shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, if any of them have a plan, it’s a secret.

There’s a way to change this though and wake the sleeping giant: put issues directly on the ballot in cities and states wherever possible that allow the people to step in with solutions where politicians fear to tread on campaign contributions from developers. Just as ACORN did earlier in place after place on living wages, we need to start crafting initiatives from our renters’ bill of rights from rent control to dedicated spending for public and subsidized affordable housing. Organizationally, we need to craft proposals that meet the crisis and the interest of tenants and bring them out to polls in force to alter this landscape.

We need to make sure there are consequences as well. As campaign discussions wound down on the prospects of winning a comprehensive and enforceable landlord licensing ordinance or bylaw in Toronto, ACORN’s head organizer there, John Anderson, noted flatly that either the Council passed the measure this fall or they would likely see the issue as the largest issue in the next election. As the votes of renters are triggered in just that way everywhere the issue is rising, that’s not a threat or a promise, but virtually a take-it-to-the-bank prediction.