Deliberate Governmental Opaqueness and Obfuscation

New Orleans       It’s one thing to feel powerless in the face of government like the Chinese ophthalmologist who died of the coronavirus after being reprimanded for warning colleagues in his hospital.  Poignantly, he said, “every country needs more than one voice.”  This is why we build organizations to confront power and create change.  What do we do when governments don’t show their hands so clearly, but hide from citizens in opaqueness and obfuscation?

I thought about this reading about the deliberate way that the Department of Education under billionaire rightwing conservative Betsy DeVos is going out of its way to hide any resolution for the thousands of students who in good faith dedicated years to valuable nonprofit, public service believing in the government’s promise that they would forgive their student loans in exchange.  They were lied to by countless loan servicers and told that their particular work and service qualified, only to find later that for specious reasons DOE was rejecting their service.  Normal appeals were caught in a Catch22 with 99% rejected.

Lo and behold, it turns out that in fact there was an effective resolution mechanism, but you had to be able to stumble onto it by finding a needle in the website haystack.  A student harmed should file a complaint through the Federal Student Aid office’s feedback system on the website that routes complaints to the agency’s Ombudsman Group which will try to resolve the situation.  Once you are in the hands of the ombudsman, the success rate for resolution for the few, lucky seekers is very good.  They confirm that the promise was made and the student deceived and credit the loan as paid.  DeVos has made it clear as an investor in for profit educational scams and corporate education that she doesn’t want to forgive student loans under any condition, so this small department is the answer only if you play hide-and-seek.  Amazing!

The Department of Education certainly isn’t alone.  If you ever try to resolve a question with the Internal Revenue Service, DOE looks like rookies comparatively.  Recently, trying to sort various things out I had the opportunity to deal with one of their agents.  The rules are byzantine for any communications.  They aren’t in the 21st century, but more like a cross between the 19th and now. They will not email or answer email.  They will not respond to correspondence.  They will only accept documentation via facsimile machine.  They will not answer phone messages or return phone calls, but will blame you if and when they eventually call your cellphone, and you do not have voicemail set up as an excuse to issue penalties and more warnings by mail, even if they had not responded to your voice mail or correspondence to them – sent by fax.  They will not credit payments or explain why they will not.  They are the “Service,” as they call themselves, so shut up and pay.  At least, that’s how their lack of transparency and obfuscation feels on the receiving or query end of the process.  Don’t get me started on the difficulties of puzzling out the Federal Communications Commission and their websites for station filings, but at least they have a help line that tries to give you answers.

This isn’t “deep state,” but neither are these kinds of deliberately unresponsive and citizen-hostile bureaucratic methods and procedures worthy of a democratic country.

It also doesn’t have to be this way.  If you want a surprise, then deal with the Social Security Administration.  The website is clear and responsive.  The answers are virtually immediate.

Maybe they should run the country?  Just saying.


Foundations as “Extensions” of Corporate Reach

New Orleans   Foundations created by corporations and the superrich are multi-headed monster of tax havens and public relations that combine to whitewash a story for the people down below that makes us swallow rather than spit.  The latest examples have Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder and world’s richest man, claiming to make climate change his thing and BlackRock, the supersized private equity firm with $7.4 trillion under thumb, trying to carve a place for itself in philanthropy.  Yes, it’s hard not to spit, isn’t it?

But, wait, there’s a kernel of truth that has escaped from this mass of puffery.  The new head of the new BlackRock foundation without thinking became totally transparent in describing the planned pursuits of their new foundation as “an extension of what the firm does.”  What BlackRock does too often is rip-and-run or perhaps more accurate wreck-and-ruin.  The CEO Lawrence Fink has been collecting newspaper clips of his statements that maybe BlackRock will stop investing in companies that don’t at least genuflect in the direction of climate change and is tilting towards gulping down companies with better social and enviro records.  Thus far, it’s mostly talk, while we look for action.

BlackRock has another foundation that claims to “build savings tools for lower-income individuals,” and like a lot of money machines pretends to care about financial literacy.  The irony is painful.  This is the same company hoarding formerly foreclosed properties for rent and resale and helping change the entire real estate market in cities like Memphis.  In fact, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, most of their new foundation is being funded by its half of its $600 million stake in PennyMac Financial Services.  PennyMac is a straight-line successor to predatory lender, Countrywide Mortgage.

Public Integrity was clear in a 2013 analysis of all of the subprime execs who have made comebacks and reruns once people could pretend to have forgotten the great recession.

PennyMac, a fast-growing company founded by former Countrywide Home Loans CEO and IndyMac director Stanford Kurland, is a sprawling concern that earns fees by originating loans in call centers and online. It consists of two intertwined companies: a tax-free investment trust that holds mortgage investments and an investment advisor that manages the trust and other investment pools, among other activities. PennyMac buys loans from pre-approved outside sales offices, bundles them and sells off the slices. The company manages other peoples’ mortgage investments, collects borrowers’ payments and forwards them to investors. It forecloses on properties and amasses portfolios of loans and mortgage-backed securities as investments.

Tell me this doesn’t sound like a late-night horror movie coming back at us again.  BlackRock is probably exiting this investment and hiding it in a tax haven foundation to prevent reputational and financial damage when the whole thing explodes again.

As for Bezos, Amazon is now ranked in the top 200 companies emitting the most to impact climate change.   Groups of his workers have been organizing and demanding he and Amazon address climate issues and their impact on the destruction within the company.  His ex-wife just pledged to offload most of her share in the great giveaway with Gates, Buffet and the gang.  The article in the Times about the Bezos Earth Fund said it was unclear what they wanted to do.

Not really, all of these projects start as clear expressions and extensions of their corporate interests, just as the new exec said.  We again will take the hindmost.