Is Wells Fargo Forcing Regulators and Politicians to Finally Take on the Banks?

Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, before Senate Banking Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Wells Fargo Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016, before Senate Banking Committee. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

New Orleans   Ok, I’ve always been clear that Wells Fargo for more than a decade has led my list as the most evil and customer-exploiting of the nation’s big banks, and I am loving the fact that they have been caught red handed in fraud and are having their comeuppance. No one can ever take a victory lap with the megabanks though, but for a fleeting minute there’s hope that just maybe the government might be forced to finally start taking the steps to straighten out some of their commonplace, but predatory business practices.

First, let’s savor the hot mess that is now Wells Fargo. The California state treasurer, where Wells Fargo is headquartered and has been frequently sanctified, has reacted to the bank’s fraud by suspending the bank from handling municipal bond sales in California and a number of other lucrative practices. The Wells Fargo board, realizing the light hand slap to bank executives and their efforts to push this off as if 5000 fired fraudsters were just a few bad apples wasn’t getting it, finally starting to at least pretend to do its job. They permanently retired the head of community banking who had presided over this mess and clawed back $19 million from her golden handshake. They told the CEO who had snoozed and covered up all of this mess that he was working for free during their investigation of this mess and would not get a bonus for 2016 and clawed back $41 million in stock awards from him. Congress is taking another shot at the CEO soon as well. His head still may roll, as rightly it probably should. A couple of fired workers are suing the company,  because they had refused to go with unethical and unrealistic sales practices.

At the heart of this mess is Wells Fargo’s boiler room sales operation and the holy grail of a lot of big bank and financial institution mischief: cross-selling. Cross-selling is simple to understand. Once a bank has a customer, they view that customer as a mini-market for them to hustle all manner of products to Joe Schmoo. In the belly of these beastly banks they all do this, and they all have giant boiler rooms trying to move product with little supervision and high sales quotas.

Wells Fargo was caught, but it is something they are all doing in general, even if some of them may not have gone with outright Wells Fargo fraud. The Wall Street Journal looked at complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and found that Wells had 1576 complains about account management, while Citigroup had 1722 or 1.8 complaints per billion dollars of deposits. Bank of America had 1.7 compared to Wells Fargo’s 1.3 complaints per billion and JP Morgan Chase had 1.1 complaints per billion. I’m grasping a straw of hope in reading that “Analysts say the problems at Wells Fargo put pressure on government agencies to more closely regulate the cross-selling of products and incentive compensation tied to tough sales goals.” Hosanna!

It’s a safe bet that since they are all doing it, they are likely all dirty on this as well. While the government and politicians are finally starting to grow a backbone in dealing with banks, we can hope it lasts long enough to clean up this high pressure, direct theft from customers.


Hacking is Everywhere, What are You Saying on Your Email?

silhouettenoire-blocked22            Douala, Cameroon     Crossing the world to places where you feel lucky to have internet, rather than thinking it’s as common as air, I follow this hacking thing perhaps more than the average bear.

In Germany between Hamburg and Berlin, a funny thing happened to me that in my naiveté, I ignored blithely until returning to the United States. It was a situation I wrote off, jokingly, in mi companera’s words as Mercury-in-Retrograde, when mechanical things and even simple communications go awry. I would send an email in Hamburg tightening down a meeting or a pickup, and somehow it would never be received. My blog wouldn’t show up for posting in New Orleans. Finally hitting New Orleans I consulted our server mastermind, thinking, duh, it might be me, not them. Sure enough he and his team found that 87 of my emails had been blocked from so-called “blacklisted” sites. I’m still sorting it out, and working to tell people that in some cases their homes are even blacklisted, not just random buildings, coffeehouses, and hostels. They recommend that I go through a VPN network like people do in China and Russia, so that I’m linking virtually to an eye-spy server in the US with a random address and then bouncing on from there. Maybe their right. Maybe it’s the way we all need to go?

With emails being randomly hacked throughout the US now, first with tech companies and Hollywood, and now politics and most recently former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell, I read that a network anchor had stayed home to delete his entire Gmail account so that he wouldn’t be taking a chance. Others in public life are also scouring their emails. Senator Lindsey Graham told a reporter, no problem, he had never sent an email yet, so he wasn’t worried. What world does he live in, and can we move it farther from the rest of us?

The simple lesson might be, don’t say anything in private that you wouldn’t want to have made public, but who among us could ever live in that glass house forever. Even if we tried, that doesn’t protect us from misinterpretation or, you know, Mercury-in-Retrograde.

Veterans of the burn from previous hackers say that in fact you learn to be more careful. Law firms have created abbreviations that essentially say, talk to me in person, and don’t put it in an email.

None of this is a step towards more transparency and in fact it seems to be a step away from the quick and fluid communication that is part of the gift of email.

So what’s the solution? Go all German and flip IP addresses and blacklists like cards in a deck in the name of privacy, but that may mean even emails that you might want to read are being blocked from you or slow-death in a spam file. Meanwhile weeks may go by before some poor sucker, like me, realizes he’s talking to the internet, and not the people he’s trying to reach.

I’m with the “no substitute for good judgement” crew, because we have to communicate to move forward, but what a mess!


Is Labor Day for Workers or Politicians?

highlight-img2Berlin   Every four years Labor Day marks the official beginning of the “real” campaign for President in the United States. Of course these campaigns are endless and began years and years before for most candidates, like a Hillary Clinton. Even Mr. Surprise Candidate, Donald Trump, has been hard at it for at least a year now. Both candidates had their big-bodied planes in Ohio on the same tarmac on Labor Day. Reporters could run back and forth between the planes. Candidates could nod in each others’ direction and note how important Ohio is as a battleground state. Democrats could show up at some of the few remaining Labor Day parades, marches, picnics, or whatever we might call them and genuflect to what’s left of the remaining power of labor unions, much of which is in fact on the goal line stand defense of politics and elections.

It is worth wondering if Labor Day really exists anymore to celebrate workers and their unions or just an easy access bridge for politicians to have their photo ops with workers, and then move on to more fundraisers and other touchstones of micro-targeting. It goes without saying for most people Labor Day is more the mark of the end of summer and perhaps the beginning of school sessions, and a last chance at a 3-day holiday in the long stretch until Thanksgiving. What’s labor got to do with it?

Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer forwarded me this piece she had gotten commemorating Labor Day, and it’s worth sharing:

In 1894, it [Labor Day] became a national holiday in Canada. The Canadian government was seeking to accommodate the Labour Movement after the rise of the Knights of Labor and the strengthening of unions in the 1880s. Shortly after, the American government followed suit, wanting in particular to offer a counterpoint to May Day, which commemorated the state violence against the 1886 Haymarket demonstrators. The contrast remains between the North American Labour Day holiday and May Day, which is Labour’s day elsewhere. While May Day stands for the international struggle against capitalism, Labour Day signifies the accommodation of workers within the capitalist system. Canada and the U.S. are the only countries where Labour Day rather than May Day celebrates the achievements of workers.

Accommodations are much, much different than achievements, especially with the disappearance of any social contract between labor and management involving an equal sharing of the benefits of work and wealth. When Labor Day becomes little more than a showcase and access point for politicians, that’s an even further dilution of the critical content of the day.

We have to hang on to it of course. At least we have one day that we can still try to claim as our own, since almost every other day of the year seems to celebrate business and the rich for all of us, and perhaps especially for politicians.


Republican Latino Backfire Continues to Reverberate

Latinos_for_Trump_rtr_imgAmersfoort, Netherlands    Donald Trump is quickly proving that he is the best Presidential nominee the Democrats may have ever had. His recent brief visit to Mexico City embarrassed the Mexican government, became a huge public and political relations disaster for the Mexican president, and totally confounded and angered both supporters and opponents in a case study of flip-flop confusion. And, this is what he managed in an effort to try and build a bridge to the Latino community that he has called rapists and criminals and threatened to deport. Can it get any better than this?

In Mexico, Trump tried to pretend he was a diplomat. President Pena Nieto was suddenly his friend. He claimed they didn’t even talk about his notion of the Great Wall of America to seal the border. President Nieto on other hand says, they won’t pay for the Great Wall, and that he had told Trump that in their meeting. But, if Trump was trying to build a bridge, he burned it as soon as he got to his rally in Arizona where he repeated that he would build the wall and that the Mexican government would pay 100%, even if they didn’t know that yet. He once again paraded families onto the stage would were allegedly victims of crimes by immigrants. He once again went all bully-boy and promised to deport people, even while saying elsewhere that he would be humane and everything would be on a case-by-case basis, or what is known in immigration circles as Obama-like. Three Republican pollsters interviewed by the Financial Times pointed out, essentially, that you “confuse the base,” then you “lose the base.”

Pew Research reports 27 million Latinos, equaling 12 percent of the total electorate, will be eligible to vote in November, an increase of 4 million in the last four years, fueled by more than 3 million Hispanics that have turned 18 years old in that period. The voter turnout from Latinos has been low historically – less than 50% — compared to 67% turnout for African-Americans and 64% turnout for white. Hillary Clinton is currently polling 66-24 over Trump, which is about the same as Obama’s numbers over Romney in the 2012 election. Even hitting the same benchmark would help Clinton, given that the Latino vote is the fastest growing segment of the total electorate, especially in a number of battleground states, and even significantly in states like Arizona and Georgia which have been consistently in the Republican column.

Voter registration efforts by Voto Latino and Mi Familia Vota are reporting much higher totals than in the last election cycle. Other experts have noted something they are calling a “Trump bump,” in the increase of citizenship applications in the community which hit a record high compared to four years ago. Others remind that of the 5 million Latinos who are eligible for naturalization and in the country legally, 3.5 million are from Mexico. These experts believe that Trump’s positions have energized the community to legalize and vote.

Jorge Ramos, the popular Univision anchor who was ejected from a Trump press conference in Iowa, was quoted as saying, “Donald Trump is the most important figure pushing Latinos to register and vote. What he has done is really push young Latinos who are turning 18 to register and go to the polls….”

Muchas gracias, Senor Trump!


More Sports Protests Matter

Feyisa Lilesa protesting at the Rio Olympics

Feyisa Lilesa protesting at the Rio Olympics

Amersfoort, Netherlands    Colin Kaepernick, who is now a backup quarterback for the National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem at an exhibition game between his team and the Green Bay Packers. He said he was sitting in protest to the way the nation is dealing with race and in the spirit of Black Lives Matter. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President, suggested to a Seattle radio station that he “find another country that worked better for him.” National Basketball Association legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a Washington Post op-ed said Kaepernick was a “true patriot.” Drew Brees, quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, said he has the right to speak, but should pick another way to do it. Back and forth, back and forth.

Dwayne Wade, Miami Heat basketball star for many years, and this season signed to play in his hometown of Chicago with the Bulls, called again for an end to gun violence after his cousin, a mother of four, was shot down and killed in Chicago. Was he wrong to protest, too?

How about the Ethiopian runner who came in 2nd in the marathon at the Olympics in Brazil, raising his arms in a crossed manner to symbol an “X” with the thousands protesting against the repression in that country now. Was he wrong to protest, too?

How about the women’s soccer and basketball teams that have protested their unequal pay? Are they wrong to protest? Or, LeBron James and many basketball players that have responded personally and politically to the recent killings of unarmed, young black men. Kareem Abdul-Jabbbar of course recalled Muhammed Ali’s protest about of the Vietnam War and the draft as well as the Olympic sprinters black power salute at that Olympics. Are they are all wrong to protest, too?

Many star professional players raise money and endorse candidates for office. Often very conservative candidates. They make extra bucks speaking to businesses, advertising all manner of mess. Most stand for a full-throated embrace of the military, including allowing the armed forces for a while to pay multi-million price tags to use sports events as recruitment venues. Are we supposed to pretend that none of this has a “political” meaning and symbol in the United States? Should they finally find new countries as well? Or, is this just another double-standard debate.

The problem when the star-making machine in athletics breaks down is when the public – and some of the disgruntled pols – are forced to remember that these athletes are not just bodies with special athletic gifts and skills, but real people, just like other people, with their own thoughts, hopes, and dreams for themselves, and even their country and their fellow men and women.

I know it’s hard for Trump and the rest of those who would say to women, athletes, and others, just shut up and let us look at you as nothing more than entertainment and eye candy, while we run the world the anyway we want, but that’s not America and that’s not the what I hope the future holds for us now. The Michael Jordan, anything for a dollar, days are over. It may not be Kaepernick’s world either, but the “shut up and stay in your place” days are over. It’s a new world we’re making here, and Trump may find that another country works better for him, while the rest of us continue to try and make wherever we live, work better for all us.


No Place to Hide from Climate Change

Baton Rouge area

Baton Rouge area

New Orleans   For the second time this year Louisiana has been hit by unexpected flooding. The latest and most horrific is the so-called 1000-year rain and flooding event that has already pushed more than 87,000 to apply for FEMA relief and has decimated homes and communities in East Baton Rouge, Livingston, and Tangipahoa Parishes. A cloud formation hung over these areas on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, overfilling rivers, canals, and bayous with rising water with no place to go, and actually pushing water backwards against and reversing normal flow. So many of these areas were outside – far outside – of normal flood maps and low-lying areas that the vast majority, in some cases more than 90%, had no flood insurance meaning that the likely $30,000 cap on assistance will leave tens of thousands of families far short of recovery.

It’s not the Katrina of 2005, but it’s a big league disaster. Taylor Swift has committed one-million. Lady Gaga has come in with a big pledge. Trump and Pence have been down. Obama is coming next week. Many are thanking the “Cajun navy” of volunteers in skiffs running up and down the waterways for rescuing thousands. Big retail, like Walmart and Home Depot, are stepping up. Sadly, this is a scene we’re seeing repeated too frequently now. This is more like “standard operating procedure,” than emergency preparation or reaction.

Is there any place to hide from this level of emerging climate change and the disasters it triggers? How many times does a 500-year or 1000-year rain become so common that such an event becomes a 100-year rain or just something we see with regularity? Will this kind of rain become the “new normal” in Louisiana and elsewhere?

One of the morning papers speculated on what the difference might have been if several proposed diversion and reservoir projects had been implemented or completed. Looking at the charts, it might have saved 30% of the homes in some areas, but these would have been big-time infrastructure projects, and the experts seemed to be saying that it was probably cheaper to let the water come than make a place for it. That’s a sobering conclusion. The reality of climate change may be to keep your valuables on the second floor and keep a canoe on your patio and a generator at the ready like I do in New Orleans. You get the message: we’re on our own now, less citizens, and more survivalists.

And, we’re not talking about temperatures rising and their impact as well. A map the New York Times showed the distribution of the coming heatwave of over 100 degree days by 2060 and 2100. 77 days in Hot Springs, 98 in Dallas, 62 in Houston, 77 in Jackson, 64 in Memphis, and even 39 days in the home of humidity, New Orleans. Outside of the upper northwest and upper northeast around Maine, the only areas not sweltering ran along the western slope of the Rockies and nearby areas from northern New Mexico through much of Colorado and western Wyoming into southeast Montana from the Centennials to the Bitterroot Mountains.

We’re past the point of arguing about what we read and hear. It’s now come down to what most of us can feel and see for ourselves. There are few places left to hide from rising water and heat, so before all of this is an everyday deal, we better change not just our “where,” but our ways.