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Credit Where Credit Is Due

One of the unfortunate effects of our corrupt and paralyzed political structure is the “drowning out” effect, sometimes described as Washington “sucking the oxygen out of the room.” While our attention is fixated on the more dramatic consequences of our national government’s “brokenness,” we fail to notice the harms being done by the multitude of problems that government is simply not fixing.

One of those is the way creditworthiness is measured.

There’s no doubt that credit card companies charge excessive rates of interest. But as scholars at the Brookings Institution point out, simply legislating a cap would actually compound the problem.

When does the interest rate a lender charges cross the line from economically justified to immoral? Societies have struggled with this question since biblical times. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took a crack at this puzzle, proposing to cap credit card interest rates at 15 percent. They’re concerned that the U.S. credit system traps working families with unsustainable debt. We share their concern, but their proposal uses a blunt instrument to attack a nuanced problem.

The Loan Shark Prevention Act, as the new legislation is called, is likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help, driving the market away from consumers with low credit scores. Some people may have their interest rates reduced, but many would no longer have access to credit at any price. Banks have been clever in figuring out how to hide credit in fees, as anyone who has paid $35 for an overdraft knows.

Instead, the authors propose making affordable credit accessible to a much larger group, by fixing what they identify as “the flawed scoring system that allocates credit.”

Our current system decides who gets credit and at what price using algorithms that analyze a person’s credit history and calculate a credit score. FICO, the most common credit score, employs a range between 300 and 850. There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a prime or subprime credit score but, generally, people with scores above about 680 are rewarded with cheap credit and high borrowing limits. Those classified as either near-prime or subprime, whose scores largely fall below 680, have a tougher time accessing and paying for credit.

The apparent objectivity of the algorithm masks a whole host of issues. A peek behind the credit-scoring curtain reveals that, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” there are humans feeding imperfect information into the machine. You could be the most creditworthy person on the planet, but if you lack a credit history, are a young adult or a recent immigrant, or had financial hardship in the past five years, your score will be low. Credit reports are rife with errors: One out of 5 Americans has a material error on their score.

I recently encountered this precise circumstance with my granddaughter-in-law: she is young and had virtually no credit history. It wasn’t bad credit, it was no credit, because she had been prudent and avoided debt. No credit became a real problem when she and my grandson applied for a mortgage. (Even more maddening, one of the three reporting agencies kept telling the bank her credit was “frozen”–whatever that means–but continued to insist to her, during her multiple calls to correct the issue, that it wasn’t.)

The Brookings scholars write that “Congress should start examining this system and aggressively pushing for its improvement.”

Lawmakers should push for credit-scoring formulas that take a wider range of data into consideration. Paying a mortgage on time improves your credit score, but paying your rent on time does not, because mortgages are tracked and rents generally are not. That’s just not fair…

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates that 45 million Americans lack the data that credit bureaus use to create a credit score. If you don’t have a score, it can be very hard to get a loan, rent an apartment or persuade an employer to hire you. Credit scores have become an essential component of what Princeton sociologist Frederick Wherry calls “financial citizenship” — the ingredients necessary to participate fully in the economy and civil society.

If we had a functioning Congress, this is one of the multiple tasks to which they should attend. But of course, we don’t. Right now, Mitch McConnell (aka the most evil man in America) is preventing the Senate from even considering one hundred bills that have been passed by the House.

We have a legislature that is incapable of doing anything, and an Administration trying its best to undo what was accomplished in the past. We aren’t even a banana republic: we’re a failed state.

A Lesson On The Constitution

Jamin Raskin was a Professor of Constitutional law when I met him, many years ago now. That meeting occurred only because Beverly Hudnut was in his law school class at American University, and introduced us when I was in D.C. Raskin had recognized the Hudnut name from the famous First Amendment case that struck down an Indianapolis ordinance outlawing an ill-defined “pornography”–a case on which I had served as local counsel.

Raskin was an impressive constitutional scholar and teacher, and his subsequent performance as a legislator from Maryland and activist for the National Popular Vote Project has been equally impressive. That’s why his recent Washington Post op-ed on the proper relationship of the executive and legislative branches during the current constitutional crises is well worth reading.

He began by documenting the current–unprecedented– intransigence of the Executive branch:

Constitutional crisis looms, preceded by constitutional illiteracy and confusion, which now hang like a thick fog over Washington. President Trump’s administration refuses to cooperate with any congressional investigations he disfavors, drawing a curtain over the executive branch and blockading our oversight work: His treasury secretary has declinedto produce the president’s tax returns, as demandedby the House Ways and Means Committee under federal statute. His attorney general has refusedto comply with a House Judiciary Committee subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller’s unredacted report and the evidence underlying his findings, and he has orderedJustice Department official John Gore not to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee (without even bothering to assert a legal privilege). Trump is suingHouse Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) for seeking documents from one of the president’s accounting firms. And the White House has directedformer counsel Donald McGahn and other witnesses not to appear before Congress. “Congress shouldn’t be looking anymore,” the president-king proclaims. “This is all. It’s done.”

Oversight isn’t the only area where the president thinks he can supersede and supplant Congress. He believes he can declarea national security emergency when lawmakers reject funding for his border wall — and then reprogrammoney Congress has appropriated for other purposes to build the wall behind our backs. And despite the fact that his main job is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” as the Constitution’s Article IIprovides, he routinely sabotages the effective administration of the Affordable Care Act (by starvingrecruitment efforts and promoting“junk” plans) and encourages government officials at the border to violate the law on asylum seekers. All this falls outside of his constitutional power.

Raskin then reminded readers (at least those who paid attention in civics class, assuming they had a civics class) of the traditional story we tell ourselves about “co-equal branches” and the operation of checks and balances.

Then he dissents.

But this naive cliche is now the heart of our current troubles. Congress was never designed as, nor should it ever become, a mere “co-equal branch,” beseeching the president to share his awesome powers with us. We are the exclusive lawmaking branch of our national government and the preeminent part of it. We set the policy agenda, we write the laws, and we can impeach judges or executives who commit high crimes and misdemeanors against our institutions. As James Madison observedin the Federalist Papers, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Congress is first among equals.

Raskin’s column proceeds by detailing the history and jurisprudence that support his assertion of legislative superiority, and he also illuminates the path by which Presidents have amassed unauthorized powers. I really encourage you to click through and read the column in its entirety.

It’s tempting to think of the president as the main actor in the story of America, because he (or she) is a cast of one. But as the great Rep. Thaddeus Stevens reminded Americans during Reconstruction, “The sovereign power of the nation rests in Congress,” and its members stand around the president “as watchmen to enforce his obedience to the law and the Constitution.”

One of the most disappointing aspects of the travesty that has been triggered by a corrupt and incompetent Executive branch and a President who consistently displays his contempt for the law and his ignorance of even the most basic provisions of the constitution, is the continued refusal of Republicans in the House and Senate to defend the institution and the country they presumably serve.

They should listen to Raskin.And grow some balls.

Trump–Frankenstein’s monster

Regular readers of this blog–for that matter, even occasional readers–could hardly avoid noticing that I’m no fan of Donald Trump. When I read through the comments, it’s pretty obvious that most of my readers are equally repelled.

Sometimes, however, it is hard to put into words the (numerous) reasons so many usually civil and thoughtful people become tongue-tied and sputter when asked to identify the characteristics that most appall them–which is why I’m sharing one of the best descriptions I’ve encountered.  (If I did embroidery, I’d make it into a wall hanging….)

It’s from an Englishman, and the British do have a way with words.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

The writer goes on to say that Trump is not merely a spoiled child of wealth, but “A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.” There’s an image I won’t soon forget!

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

I have taken the liberty of quoting most of the post, because it is so perfect–it captures virtually everything I find despicable about Trump and incomprehensible about the people who–despite it all–support him.

Some even, apparently, like him.

That’s the worst part of all of this–the fact that so many Americans can look at the damage being done, not just to this country’s policies, norms and institutions, but to the very ideal of decency, by this fatuous, empty, self-absorbed facsimile of a human, and not recoil in disgust.

I want to ask them: are you raising your children to behave like this?

For that matter, if you were drinking in a bar, and someone at the other end of that bar was bragging ungrammatically and embarrasingly like Trump, wouldn’t you assume there was something really, really wrong with the guy, and edge away?

The last poll I saw gave him a 38% approval rating. It’s shaken my faith in my fellow-humans.

Red Myths, Rural Realities

Paul Krugman recently looked at the effects of Trump’s policies on rural America, and found–to no sentient person’s surprise–that the effects have been disastrous.

Economists, reports Politico, are fleeing the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Six of them resigned on a single day last month. The reason? They are feeling persecuted for publishing reports that shed an unflattering light on Trump policies.

But these reports are just reflecting reality (which has a well-known anti-Trump bias). Rural America is a key part of Donald Trump’s base. In fact, rural areas are the only parts of the countryin which Trump has a net positive approval rating. But they’re also the biggest losers under his policies.

As Krugman points out, whatever Trump’s campaign rhetoric might have promised, his actual policies have been aligned with (okay, dictated by) Congressional Republican priorities–what Krugman calls “G.O.P. standard”: big tax cuts for corporations and rich people, accompanied by cuts to the social safety net.

The only real deviation from GOP orthodoxy has been the tariffs, and Trump’s evident belief that trade wars are “easy to win.” Even the farmers who have been a reliable part of Trump’s base are beginning to recognize that they will bear the brunt of the substantial injuries caused by those wars.

As for the tax and social safety net cuts…

The Trump tax cut largely passes farmers by, because they aren’t corporations and few of them are rich. One of the studies by Agriculture Department economists that raised Trumpian ire showed that to the extent that farmers saw tax reductions, most of the benefits went to the richest 10 percent, while poor farmers actually saw a slight tax increase.

At the same time, the assault on the safety net is especially harmful to rural America, which relies heavily on safety-net programs. Of the 100 counties with the highest percentage of their population receiving food stamps, 85 are rural, and most of the rest are in small metropolitan areas. The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which Trump keeps trying to kill, had its biggest positive impact on rural areas.

It is fair to suggest that many rural Americans are unaware of the variety of ways in which Medicaid expansion and other social programs support farm country; some of those benefits are indirect (which doesn’t mean they aren’t critically important). The impact of the tariffs, however, is hard to miss.

What about protectionism? The U.S. farm sector is hugely dependent on access to world markets, much more so than the economy as a whole. American soybean growers export half of what they produce; wheat farmers export 46 percent of their crop. China, in particular, has become a key marketfor U.S. farm products. That’s why Trump’s recent rage-tweeting over trade, which raised the prospect of an expanded trade war, sent grain markets to a 42-year low.

If Trump succeeds in plunging us into a full-blown trade war, which certainly seems more likely than not, Krugman says American imports and exports will both shrink — and since farmers rely disproportionately on exporting, they will be the biggest losers.

The harm being done to rural America by Trump leads to that perennial question: why do so many of the people bearing the brunt of his ignorance continue to support him?

Krugman delicately suggests that it has to do with “cultural factors”–by which he means hostility to immigrants and resentment of coastal elites they believe look down on rural America. (What Krugman calls hostility to immigrants is, if the research is to be believed, part of a much larger and more ingrained hostility to non-whites and non-Christians.)

Krugman thinks that rural America’s support for Trump may start to crack as the negative effects of his policies become too obvious to miss. I’m less sanguine.

When we so-called “elitists” talk about “voting ones interests,” we are almost always referring to economic interests. When I listen to Trump supporters–when they post angry diatribes on Facebook or are interviewed for a new program–what I hear is a very different view of what constitutes their interests.

Economic reality be damned. Trump voters are defending their vision of America, and that vision is white, heterosexual, and fundamentalist Christian. So long as they believe Trump is hurting people who fall outside that narrow category, he’s their guy.

 

Funerals

Like many readers of this blog, I’m at “that” age–the age at which you experience what seem like weekly losses of long-time friends, acquaintances and family members.

Last Friday, I went to yet another funeral.

My deceased friend left an accomplished and loving family. He died after a lifetime of service–to his profession, which was (ironically) that of funeral director–and to his various communities: the Indianapolis Jewish community, of which he was a part, the political community (he was a longtime, passionate liberal Democrat), and especially and always the larger human community, for which he demonstrated infinite love and compassion.

It is a tired phrase, but so true of this particular individual: he never met a stranger.

What struck me during the service were the characteristics the clergy focused on (a number of them participated). One after the other, they remarked upon his integrity, praised his compassion, and admired his willingness to stand up for what he believed. They repeatedly noted that he was a man of his word–that no matter how difficult, if he made a commitment, he kept it.

If he gave you his word, you could “take it to the bank.”

To use an old-fashioned but entirely appropriate word, he was righteous. Yes, his smile could light up a room, his personality was warm and his laugh infectious–but he was also righteous. He was incredibly kind. He was unfailingly moral, but never judgmental.

He was righteous.

As I listened to the (entirely accurate) glowing eulogies, all I could think of was that as those in the (jam-packed) room mourned the loss of a good man, we continue to live in a country with a chief executive whose word is worthless, whose commitments are laughable, and who has displayed absolutely no connection to–or comprehension of– integrity or righteousness. At Trump’s funeral, no one will be able to say with a straight face that he was a good or loving– or even nice– person, let alone honorable or righteous.

There is a growing abyss in our country between truly admirable people (of whom there are more than we sometimes realize) and the empty and pitiable “captains of industry,” political posturers, and pious hypocrites who currently occupy positions of authority and power in this country.

My friend saw that abyss, and it troubled him greatly.

There were hundreds of people at my friend’s funeral. They had to put up a tent outside the capacious funeral home to accommodate the large and diverse crowd who were there to pay their respects to a man who exemplified the attributes of human kind we most admire–a man whose smiles and hugs reached into multiple neighborhoods and constituencies.

At the end of the day–and we are all closing in on the end of our days–the genuine affection of our fellow humans, the earned respect of our peers, and the honesty of a celebratory eulogy is all the success that any of us can really hope for. To repeat another hackneyed truth: we can’t take anything else with us.

It’s the memory of a life lived with integrity, love and compassion, not the trappings of power or wealth or celebrity, that ultimately matters. The hundreds of people who came to my friend’s funeral were there to comfort his family and mourn the passing of someone they genuinely cared about. I’ve been to a number of funerals where that wasn’t the case.

In the Jewish tradition, there’s a saying: may his memory be for a blessing.

Leaving a memory that is a blessing is beyond the ability of today’s self-engrossed wanna-be autocrats to achieve.