Saturday, 6 September 2014

Bank of America’s $17 billion atrocity

The Justice Department is bragging about the $37 billion in fines they’ve assessed related to mortgage-backed securities as well as trumpeting the fact that they’ve started to rake in penalties that exceed the cost of operating the department. The latest and greatest item is the $16.65 billion  settlement with Bank of America over wretchedly-underwritten loans at Countrywide Financial during the height of the housing bubble. I’m hoping to keep this item short, but it’s hard considering how many things are wrong with it.

First, of course, is the question of whether or not these assessments will accomplish anything in terms of changed behavior, which remains to be determined but seems unlikely at the moment. Over the past decade or so we’ve been moving in the direction of fines that, while stunning numerically to most of us, are just seen by the businesses as another cost of the game.

Second is the secrecy with which many of these deals are being hammered out. These are not settlements at trial where the specific misbehavior of miscreant companies is laid out and the disposition of the funds is clearly delineated.

Third is the question of how real the numbers are. In the BoA settlement, some $7 billion is “soft dollars” that the bank will spend on relieving the burdens of individual mortgagors. To start with, many, if not most, of these loans were bundled and sold to investors. If BoA reduces a family’s mortgage balance it’s the investors who are going to be paying the price, although to the extent that BoA is being paid to service those loans their servicing income will likely be slightly reduced going forward. For those loans in which BoA is actually holding the assets, the reduction in principal will reduce income, and thus 35% of those reductions will actually be borne by the Treasury.

Finally, exactly why is BoA being held responsible for Countrywide’s actions taken before they took over? Although the pressure that Hank Paulsen applied to BoA to coerce the takeover of Merrill Lynch in 2009 isn’t as clear here, my recollection is that there was a less overt and less specific pressure from Washington for BoA to take over Countrywide the year before. BoA’s CEO Ken Lewis clearly was acting on his own initiative when the bank bought 17% of Countrywide in 2007, but the complete takeover of Countrywide appeared to be something desired by the government to prevent a financial disaster.

I’m one of the growing number of observers that think a permanent change in corporate behavior requires not fines levied against the companies but prison time for the individuals involved. Even if the natural inclinations of the banks and their boards is to grab every nickle that isn’t red hot or nailed down, if their employees have reason to believe they will be wearing prison jump suits if they cross the line future occurrences will drop.

If I Were King, I would have been delighted to see Countrywide just collapse. I would have been particularly amused if, when the bankruptcy court closed the offices and sold off the assets, the computers were auctioned off for pennies on the dollar to someone who would turn around and wipe the disks and use the systems as the first really big Bitcoin mint. Mortgagors would then see their payments returned “Addressee Unknown” by the post office, and the investors who financed all the paper would discover that there was no way to connect their investments with actual properties. That would have been a fiscal stimulus of the first order! Sure, there would soon have been robo-signers cranking out fraudulent documents to remedy this, as actually happened anyway, but after the first few hundred bankers and lawyers involved were sent up the river that would certainly stop.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Baffled for a bit by Hobby Lobby

I’m sorry, but I just can’t pop out a response to the ruling in Burwell vs Hobby Lobby just yet. I have read a fair amount of the coverage, along with most of the decision, and I’ve started to organize some comments on various aspects of it. But the part that nobody else seems to be talking about is the nature of freedom and, more specifically, the nature of religious freedom. If they aren’t perverting the concept, they certainly are inverting it. I do know this much, If I Were King the concept of freedom would be focused on the individual and his spirituality, on his ability to express his spirituality and to live based on what he learned from it. It would have absolutely nothing to do with businesses, corporations, or families of billionaires who think religious freedom means enforcing their narrow-minded concepts of spirituality on tens of thousands of employees, never mind extending those concepts through the legal system to apply to tens of millions of other citizens. Those supporters of Hobby Lobby who are crowing about this ruling as a victory for religious freedom have the spirituality of Simon Legree and the intelligence of platyhelminthes.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty

You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty:
Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About
Dave Barry
Putnam Adult, 2014, 224 pp (no backmatter)

YOU_CAN_DATE_jacket_imageWhen the Empress Larkin and I are both home at the end of the evening, I join her in the bedroom and we share a few light moments. Specifically, she reads for ten or fifteen minutes, normally something light from Erma Bombeck, Tom Bodett, Pat McManus, or with the most titles on our shelves, Dave Barry. This isn’t any intellectual exercise, it’s just fun – it gives us a few minutes afterward to connect at the end of the day.

Here’s the heart of my review: If you like Dave Barry, you’ll enjoy this book. If you don’t, it’s hard to predict.

FACT: If you see a paragraph in this book that starts like this one, you can depend on only one thing: not much of it is true. On the other hand, anything followed by “I am not making this up” is probably verifiably true, although there is a good chance he’s moved it way out of context for humorous effect.

For example, “How to Become a Professional Author” is riddled with paragraphs like these:

FACT: The Hunger Games, as originally conceived by the author, was supposed to be a three-book series on the historical impact of salad dressing.”

FACT: The average children’s book author works two hour per year.”

Somehow, you always come away from a Dave Barry essay with something worth keeping in mind. In this volume, “Seeking Wifi in the Holy Land” relates an eleven-day tour of Israel. Barry is not a believer but his wife, Miami Herald sports writer Michelle Kaufman, is a member of Temple Judea of Coral Gables which is a reformed congregation so open-minded they don’t mind taking the occasional atheist into their bosom. The result is both occasionally hilarious (a visit to the Dead Sea – “my butt still stings”) and touching (after an evening in the home of a local couple, the husband says of his wife who has been holding court while he served endless food, “I do not agree with her. <pause> About anything.”).

It’s unlikely that Sophie is dungeoned up to the extent the book’s title suggests, although Barry’s comments on the subject will resonate with any man who ever raised a daughter. But he’s braver than I am: He actually took his daughter Sophie, as in bought tickets and went inside with her and one of her girlfriends, to a Justin Bieber concert. That may not be the equivalent of raising the flag at Iwo Jima, but I’m impressed.

If I Were King, those who bring this kind of positive energy to the kingdom would be knighted, mostly because the honoree would be required to spend a little time with the monarch, and I wouldn’t want to miss that chance.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

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Keanu Reeves as John Wick, Common as Cassian, Laurence Fishburne as The Bowler King, John Leguizamo as Aurelio, Ruby Rose as Ares, Riccardo Scamarcio as Santino D’Antonio.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Most campaigns aren’t evil

Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” But realistically, when someone campaigns for a defense appropriation that will benefit his town and strengthen the country, he’s campaigning for something that is good even if his good means that someone else gets less, or everyone else pays a bit more in taxes. The vast majority of political campaigns involve competing benefits. Most of the time, the program I desperately want won’t hurt you in any meaningful way.

This can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment. For example, I’m sure that even the people at the RIAA and MPAA believe that fighting for their vision of copyright protection is a worthy goal. They’re wrong, of course, but the point is to remember that they value the results and sincerely believe in their cause. And there are benefits for them.

In Washington we have a campaign this year that isn’t like this at all. In January of this year the Washington State Senate passed SB 6239, allowing same-sex marriages and converting existing domestic partnerships into marriages. Early in February the House passed the same text as HB 2516. There were Republican votes in favor of the bills in both houses. Mary Margaret Haugen, from my district, cast the deciding vote in the house. Governor Grigoire signed it five days later. For reasons passing all understanding, opponents gathered enough signatures to require it be presented to the voters as Referendum 74.

I could argue the merits of the bill, all of which are obvious. For example, opponents of Proposition 8 in California scared the electorate by suggesting it would mean the schools would have to teach that homosexual pairings are acceptable, and the campaign here is managed by the same guy so we’ll probably see the same. Sorry, but if schools teach about marriage they need to teach about the world that is, not a world that a bigoted few think should be. And gays form long-term committed partnerships in this world.

It’s amusing to hear the religious right declaim about how marriage was ordained by God as an institution of one man and one women. These are people who like to literally read parts of Leviticus (not the parts that prohibit eating shellfish or wearing poly-cotton blend T-shirts, of course, which are just as binding on Christians) without noticing that a huge proportion of the marriages in the Bible involved at least three people. Granted, none of these involved more than one man, but that could just have been an oversight. In those cases where only one man and one woman are mentioned we can’t assume that there weren’t more wives, or for that matter more husbands. The Bible simply doesn’t help them, but they manage to not notice that.

I could go on, but my main point here is that there is no competition of interests in this case. On one side are loving couples that want to marry to strengthen their relationships, their families. I’m a great believer in marriage myself, I’ve been unmarried a couple of times but it never lasted long. I can understand how this is important to them. On the other side are nasty people who don’t have any stake in the question at all, other than to hurt the men and women who want to marry and are not currently allowed to. If you are in a heterosexual marriage, that’s great, but my marriage doesn’t affect yours, and neither do the marriages of Barbie and Sue or Ken and Bruce.

In other words, on one side is love, on the other spite. Spite, malice, rancor, and malevolence. They are out to hurt people with no benefits to be had, at least no benefits that aren’t sinful. It’s probably a good thing that our laws allow referenda, but If I Were King I wouldn’t have waited for the lege and I would have laughed at any demands for a referendum. It’s simply the right thing to do.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Todd Akin, Redux

What Rep Akin said on Monday regarding his plan to not allow an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape in legislation he would like to see was this, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” For obvious reasons, this has caused a dramatic kerfuffle, most of his own party wanted him to withdraw from the race. Significantly, he could have done just that by close of business on Tuesday and allowed the party to replace him with very little expense or inconvenience.

Apparently his political judgment is as acute as his comprehension of human physiology and he not only failed to withdraw he brazenly committed himself to continuing the race. He apologized for his remarks: “Rape is an evil act. I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize.” No, Congressman, you didn’t use the wrong words in the wrong way, you used very effective words in a brilliant way to demonstrate that you are absolutely clueless.

To my great surprise, much of the published discussion about the case somehow actually revolves around the extreme, if common among social conservatives in the Republican Party, position that there should be no exception for rape in any future ban on abortion. But that seems to dramatically miss the point. Akin is in a position of significant power and believes that he has the moral, theological, and philosophical authority to control the medical decisions of women when he doesn’t understand as much of the process as the average 13-year-old girl. At least where I grew up, girls seemed to have an extremely clear understanding of human reproduction, even if some of us boys were a little slower.

If I Were King I would be grateful that I was not king of Missouri.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Google Street View and privacy

When Google launched its Street View project in communities around the world in 2007, it sent cars up one street and down the next with an odd structure towering above the roof of each car. The first element identified was an array of cameras that recorded in all directions but it also included antennae to identify the Wi-Fi networks operating along the path traveled. Both visual and electronic sensors were completely indiscriminate.

The primary goal of collecting the electronic signals was to identify the Wi-Fi networks to aid locating ability in mobile devices. Each access point can be identified as part of the Wi-Fi protocols and they tend not to move around. While it’s certainly possible to move your access point from the front room on the main floor to a back bedroom on the second floor, in my experience most people never move them at all. They set them up in places convenient to the DSL or cable modem, turn them on, configure them, and that’s the end of it. Thus they become reliable beacons, like light houses on a stormy coast.

The Street View system was not designed to analyze the information collected, either images or electronic signals. All the cars did was collect both types of information and record the geographic coordinates of the vehicle at the time of collection. With images one assumes they also recorded the direction, that is a certain image was recorded from a specific location with the camera facing to the right. All of the data was stored to a hard drive in the car which was later processed and integrated to create a mosaic of the areas traversed.

Privacy advocates in Europe got excited about the images taken of people’s houses, and then noticed that some images included recognizable people. Google responded by giving property owners the ability to remove detailed images of their property from the final result. Google also took steps to blur faces that were recorded. Although I can’t see any reason to keep identifiable individuals in the images, I disagree with removing property images. In the US there is no issue here, if you can photograph something from a public place you are entitled to keep and use the image.

The same applies to the network information. As I said, the broadcast of the network identity is part of the way the network operates, it can’t work without that. It’s the nature of radio broadcasts of all kinds to emanate from the point of origin and travel in all directions (although some antenna designs are directional this is not normal for access points), ending only as physical impediments and the inexorable result of the inverse-square law dictate. It doesn’t matter if the signals are commercial radio, cell-phone conversations, or from Wi-Fi networks. If you’re entitled to be standing at a specific spot, you’re entitled to tune in. There is no legal basis for requiring the listener to turn over recordings of radio signals received.

Initiated by European authorities intent on protecting privacy, there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism toward Google about collecting data that was transmitted by those Wi-Fi access points. Remember that this is simply radio being broadcast, and the Street View car is as entitled to pick up those signals as it is to pick up the signals from the local “classic rock” station on the FM band. However, unlike the commercial radio station, a properly configured Wi-Fi access point never broadcasts any data at all. Only the network ID (SSID: the name of the network) and certain technical data such as the frequency range and channel and the system of encryption in use should ever be broadcast. If parts of e-mails, fragments of images, or login credentials for online banking are being transmitted, the network is simply not working correctly. Even the weakest encryption requires collecting hours of transmissions to have any possibility of cracking them. Had I been asked at the time this first came up I would have expected at most 10% of the networks to be transmitting “in the clear”, because the early Wi-Fi protocols involved long and difficult keys to be used. Not only were those early protocols fairly easy to crack, the long keys meant people didn’t use them. But that era passed, current products are much more secure and are easily setup, absent incredible incompetence there shouldn’t be more than a fraction of one percent network traffic ending up where a Street View sweep could record it.

In other words, if an individual’s private communication ended up in Google’s data repository, the responsibility lies entirely with whoever setup the access point, not with Google for driving by while this incompetence was being demonstrated. If I Were King I would caution Google to exercise some sense when dealing with the data they collected and order the government busy bodies to find a better use for their time than investigating the innocent sampling of data broadcast into public rights of way. And I would worry about the intelligence of my subjects who would broadcast this data and then be shocked to learn that someone received it.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Weird Politics – New York

On Sunday, wing nut Republican candidate for governor of New York Carl Paladino, side by side with sort-of Hassidic rabbi Yechezkel Roth, made a speech to Orthodox Jewish leaders. Among other things, he said, “I just think my children and your children would be much better off and much more successful getting married and raising a family, and I don’t want them to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option — it isn’t.” Cameras were rolling, it’s on YouTube.

Note that the rabbi in question is not exactly a big deal, his synagogue has roughly two dozen members. That’s even fewer than the fundamentalist Florida fruitcake that made waves with plans to burn a Qur’an last month.

Well, Carl, homosexuality is not an option, it’s a fact. It’s valid in the same way as gravity is, and absent interference from outsiders with no legitimate role in the question, it’s successful.

It’s also a straw man here, nobody has any intention of brainwashing anyone regarding homosexuality. You’re straight? Fine. Nobody is asking you to have sex with a person of the same sex. Nobody even wants you to watch.

And your children aren’t going to choose to be homosexual because there are homosexuals in the classroom or homosexual couples living on your street. (Your legitimate children probably already have established their sexual orientation.) Nobody chooses to be a homosexual. It’s exactly the same as for heterosexuals, you and I didn’t choose that either. (Maybe I shouldn’t speak for you. I know I didn’t choose to be straight, and I’ve never heard of anyone who chose to be straight or gay. At some point we all become aware of our sexuality but we don’t choose it.) You don’t get to take credit for choosing to be straight.

There are options — choices to make — regarding sexuality. Promiscuity is a bad choice. Abusing positions of power for sexual conquests is a bad choice. Fidelity to marital vows is a good choice. You could, for example, take credit for being monogamous and faithful. That’s hypothetical, of course. You could have, if you had been monogamous and faithful. Having sex with an employee is an abuse of your position of personal power. I hope you are providing well for your former employee and the daughter you conceived.

If I Were King, my commitment to freedom of speech would allow Paladino to say the same silly things. Subjects like that could lead to great savings, a court jester would not be needed.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Tricky Foreclosures

Last week (20 September) the New York Times reported that GMAC was suspending foreclosure actions after it was revealed that those responsible for preparing affidavits for the court filings had been signing affidavits at a rate incompatible with a review any more detailed than making sure there was an amount due and a borrower’s name on them. Actually, they announced that they would be suspending foreclosures in the 23 states in which foreclosures take place in a courtroom. That seemed suspicious.

Yesterday the Times reported that JPMorgan Chase was following suit. Strangely enough, Morgan unit is also only suspending foreclosures in 23 states. This is wrong. Given that it is almost certain that it is in those 23 states, where defendants and their counsel have a venue for challenging the lenders’ paperwork, that the problems were the fewest, smallest, and most subject to being found out.

Two national lenders have now both decided to carry on with their suspect actions against homeowners in the states where they have the best chance of getting away with it, and taking a second look at the paperwork in the states where they might get caught at something underhanded. If I Were King, or a governor of one of the other 27 states, I would order that all foreclosures be vacated that had not yet led to new owners paying for the repossessed properties, and that no new filings would be allowed from these vendors until they had submitted plans for preventing recurrence. I would also instruct my investigators to survey the courts to see if other banks that have not yet admitted to the problem needed to be dealt with in the same way.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Why wait?

Congress is turning its attention to abuses by credit card issuers (i.e., banks) and taking steps to reign in the most egregious of these. Most notably, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) drafted H.R. 627, the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights Act of 2009 with an effective date of twelve months after enactment or 30 June 2010. Apparently the Federal Reserve Board needs five months to draft rules to implement the act, which should take any reasonable group of people an afternoon – even if the group included attorneys. And the banks claim that they need time to make changes to their systems.  Stuff and nonsense! If I Were King, I’d allow 30 days, becuase I’d be a very generous and lenient monarch.

I’d allow certain exceptions, of course. Any card issuer could be granted additional time to comply if their IT staff (and here I’m talking about programmers, not the suits who wouldn’t know a variable from an array or know enough to  define “third normal form”) would come to the throne room and explain why they couldn’t have these changes coded by the weekend.