Posted tagged ‘WASF’

Could He Spell “CAT” If You Spotted Him The “C” And The “A”?

May 23, 2017

As a follow up to Betty’s post below, I’d like to look at the other thing that bothered me about our Donald’s grotesque Yad Vashem/Mean Girls yearbook note.

Here’s Trump’s deathless prose:

It is a great honor to be here with all of my friends — so amazing and will never forget!

Now remember what else we’ve heard about Fearless Leeder’s work reading habits:

President Trump is getting ready to embark on his first international trip later this week and officials have encouraged him to stay on script, despite him having trouble doing so in the past, briefing him with single-page memos as well as maps, charts, graphs, photos and have purposely included his name in “as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,”

And add to that the fact that there is virtually no hint anywhere that the Cheeto-faced, ferret-heedit shitgibbon has ever read a book for pleasure, or ever will:

His meetings now begin at 9 a.m., earlier than they used to, which significantly curtails his television time. Still, Mr. Trump, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television.

No go back and read that note, a written work he had to produce himself, on the spot, inscribed by hand.*

Diagnosing at a distance is always a mug’s game, and I’m not going to do it here.  I’m not going to say that Donald Trump is functionally illiterate.

But I am going to say that nothing on the record rules that conclusion out, and his Yad Vashem embarrassment is the latest straw in the wind to suggest that Houston, we have a problem.

To get a sense of what it means to say an adult is functionally illiterate, I took a fast look at a report from 2002 from the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Please note, again, I’m not a literacy expert; I haven’t studied up on this issue; I’m just reacting to the sense that something was more than egregious in Trump’s note — it was off.  So take this next quote as representative of some sort of recent informed thinking about literacy, and not as the distilled essence of a body of knowledge to which your humble blogger makes no claim.

The NCES report bills itself as a “first look” at the National Adult Literacy Survey of about 25,000 Americans conducted several years before this write up.  To contextualize its findings, the report’s authors described the definitions of the five levels of literacy across three domains — prose, documents [as in, parsing forms], and quantitative operations.

So how did this survey categorize the two lowest tiers of literacy in the prose category:

Level 1: Most of the tasks in this level require the reader to read relatively short text to locate a single piece of information which is identical to or synonymous with the information given in the question or directive. If plausible but incorrect information is present in the text, it tends not to be located near the correct information.

Level 2: Tasks in this level require readers to perform single, relatively simple arithmetic operations, such as addition. The numbers to be used are provided and the arithmetic operation to be performed is specified. Some tasks in this level require readers to locate a single piece of information in the text; however, several distractors or plausible but incorrect pieces of information may be present, or low level inferences may be required. Other tasks require the reader to integrate two or more pieces of information or to compare and contrast easily identifiable information based on a criterion provided in the question or directive.

Again, I’m not going to say that Trump’s demonstrated reading skills match these brief, rather formal descriptions.  But that Yad Vashem note leaves me little confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the written word, whether he’s consuming or producing prose.  There’s no reference to the place he’s in.  There’s no response to the content of any exhibit or display he may have encountered.  There’s not a single detail.  It’s a rote response to a prompt: write something about your visit in our visitor book (or some such).

Those surveyed with weak or almost non-functional literacy skills found themselves confined to a narrowed life, or worse — the NCES analysis notes that “Nearly half (41 to 44 percent) of all adults in the lowest level on each literacy scale were living in poverty, compared with only 4 to 8 percent of those in the two highest proficiency levels.”  If Donald Trump had fallen victim to that kind of constraint, it would be appropriate to feel pity, and even anger on his behalf; surely as a society we should do anything we can to ensure that as near as possible to everyone masters the basic skills needed to make it through the day in 21st century America.

But, of course, Trump has never suffered as a result of his inadequacies.  He is instead, as much as it pains me to type it, President of the United States.  That’s a job in which much better than functional literacy is, basically, a requirement.  POTUS, after all, has a kind of broad brief, a lot of issues to cover.  Most of the background information most presidents have used to guide their thinking across the range of their duties comes in written form.  Obama, a well-documented avid reader, still used hours of reading at night to keep up.

Trump isn’t doing that. It doesn’t appear he could do that if he wanted to.  His mind appears to be a reflection of that fact — or rather, reading is a habit that trains the mind. If you can’t or won’t tackle a text more complicated than a one pager of bullet points with your name in most of them…then you can’t think at the level events in the world demand.

In other words…Trump can’t do the job he’s got.  Because he’ll still act with the powers of that position, that’s not good.

TL:DR — WASF…and we need to get this malicious reboot of Chauncey Gardner out of power as soon as possible.

Oh.  One last thought.  If I’m right, and Trump is as he appears to be, not cognitively up to his responsibilities, there are lots of people in his own party who’ve known this for a long time.  And yet, come last summer, all but a very few lined up behind him.  If he’s not fit for power, they aren’t either, not because they’re not smart, but because they fail as patriots.

/rant over

*To add: I found Trump’s performance reading his Islam speech to be a similar signal of problems with the written word.  It seemed halting, almost frightened, as if at any turn the ‘prompter would put up one of those SAT words to gnarly for his brain to process in time for his mouth to catch up. YMMV

Image: Boris Grigoriev, Woman Reading, c. 1922.

Robbery with Violence

August 2, 2011

Via Twitter buddy and MIT colleague/Technology Review publisher/editor Jason Pontin, I got myself steered to this brutally, elegantly clear account of federal debt.

Writing at the website of the literary mag n+1, Stephen Squibb lays it out:

Letting one dollar equal a trillion, the total debt of the US Government is roughly $14.27. This divides into $8.32 of public debt, which is held by other nations, individuals, and institutions, and $5.95 of intragovernmental debt, which is owed to programs like Social Security and Medicare, and to the Federal Reserve.

Of the $8.32 of public debt, $4.47 is owed to other countries: $1.15 to China, $0.91 to Japan, $0.36 to the UK, roughly $0.20 each to oil exporters and Brazil, and $1.70 to the rest of the world. $0.63 is due to mutual funds, $0.61 to private pension plans, and $0.31 to depositors like commercial banks, credit institutions, and credit unions. Insurance companies hold $0.25 and savings bonds and state pensions $.018 each, while individuals, brokers and dealers, bank personal trusts and estates, corporate and non-corporate businesses, and other investors are due $1.21.

Intra-governmental debt is something of a misnomer: $4.53 of it is really money owed by the government to the American people. The biggest single number in sight, $2.40, represents what Americans have collectively set aside for retirement, or Social Security. This $2.40 is a surplus, collected over decades, as the total revenues from Social Security payroll taxes have exceeded the total amount being paid to beneficiaries. This surplus has been invested in the government, where it counts towards the total debt. The psychological impact of this language game should be clear. What ought to be celebrated as sound financial planning appears instead as further evidence of reckless profligacy. The more money we save, the poorer we are told we are. There is also $1.68 in savings for health care and $0.40 dedicated to needs such as highways, housing, the disposal of nuclear waste, and unemployment insurance.

The remaining $1.42, the second-largest amount, is owed to the Federal Reserve, a public-private institution born of a compromise a century ago between a familiar set of bankers and a less familiar set of populists. The Fed has bought government debt over the last three years in increasing quantity as part of its quantitative easing programs. Unlike other money owed by the government, this debt has no destination, and in many ways is fictitious. If the money were to be repaid, it would simply cease to exist.

He also makes clear where the debt comes from:

The three primary causes for the rapid expansion of the federal debt from $5.77 in 2000 to over $14.00 today are well known. The first is the Bush tax cuts, which with interest cost $2.39 ($1.30 went to the top 20 percent of earners); the second is $1.47 the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the third is about $1.20 in lost tax revenues due to the recession and a dollar for TARP and other stimulus programs. The Medicare prescription drug benefit cost $0.22 and the health care bill $0.15. Because the federal budget was balanced at the turn of the century, these added costs really do correspond to the size of the current problem, an expansion financed almost entirely by issuing new public debt.

This is essentially the same story discussed on my last post (with a material error now corrected):  the McArdles of the world may not like to confront the sources of our debt, nor the implied policy responses, but the facts, sadly, remain stubbornly factual.
__

The quotes above form Squibb’s set-up; the rest of the piece is an analysis of what the “resolution” to the debt crisis actually means.  Two money quotes:

The fact that John Boehner walked away shouldn’t obscure the facts: A Democratic president offered to pay for the Bush tax cuts by handing over the health care, education, safety, and savings of the American people.

And:

It is worth remembering what drove us to the edge of the cliff: the right’s absolute commitment to the further robbery of the American people for the benefit of unproductive wealth.

Read the whole thing.  Despite the author’s occasional use of DFH words like “hegemony,” it’s sharp and depressing as hell.  Squibb offers some truly gloomy last thoughts, but here’s mine:

The response to this whole episode is not usefully despair.  Rather, there is a specific pair of tasks we need to drive our representatives to accomplish:  the first is to come up — fast — with a tax expenditure reform package that includes as much as possible, to begin the tax reform vs. cuts argument of the new Catfood Commission Super Congress with as much revenue on the table as possible.  Wonkish — I know, but haven’t we learned by now that it is the first statement of policy that drives the rest of the discussion?

And second:  begin the pressure now and now-er on Obama to keep the extension of the Bush tax cuts at risk unless a genuinely acceptable package comes out of the new Big Daddy committee and the Congress.  No ten cents on the dollar nonsense.  It is not just fairness, but the actual long-term economic and social future of the country that depends on getting revenue up to its historic fraction of GDP.  Again, wonkish, a bit — but necessary, IMHO.  So call and write your folks — and the White House — as often as you can.

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Robbery, c. 1794

 

 

Social Security: Undead

July 8, 2011

Per John and ABL yesterday, this:

Rep. Barney Frank says Minority Leader Pelosi reassured House Democrats that the COLA change (which amounts to escalating cuts to Social Security over time) floated in the press will not happen.

Democrats are far from perfect, still waaay to naive about GOPer feral behavior, and all that, but they aren’t bone stupid — certainly not of the balanced budget amendment/weeks-wages-in-wine-swilling variety.  They know (from recent, bitter experience — remember that 1/2 trillion buck Medicare “cut” that was actually simply an end to the transfer payments to private insurers) that there is a reason entitlement support, and especially Social Security, is called the “third rail” of politics.  One that the Republicans seem determined to lick.

I’m coming to something of an eleven dimensional chess explanation for Obama’s current behavior — which is to me very scary, because even if you win the game, when you play with clout-foreheaded louts, the inevitable smashing of the board is a real loss.  And maybe I’m wrong, and this isn’t clever strategy at all, and Obama really is trying to solve a problem I don’t think is the one we actually face in his global attempt to reframe the US budget.  But I’m with ABL and John:  there’s enough to be angry about in the world before blowing skull shrapnel all over the ceiling about some disaster that hasn’t happened yet.

Oh — and it looks like one of the most cynical and disastrous politicians of my lifetime is finally waking up and smelling the coffee.  Too late, I fear.

Image:  J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed-The Great Western Railway, 1844

Even When They’re Right, They’re Wrong.

July 8, 2011

So, the banks, some of them, finally figure out that (some) loan modification is better than the alternative:

Two of the nation’s biggest lenders, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, are quietly modifying loans for tens of thousands of borrowers who have not asked for help but whom the banks deem to be at special risk.

Rula Giosmas is one of the beneficiaries. Last year she received a letter from Chase saying it was cutting in half the amount she owed on her condominium.

Banks are proactively overhauling loans for borrowers like Ms. Giosmas who have so-called pay option adjustable rate mortgages, which were popular in the wild late stages of the housing boom but which banks now view as potentially troublesome.

Before Chase shaved $150,000 off her mortgage, Ms. Giosmas owed much more on her place than it was worth. It was a fate she shared with a quarter of all homeowners with mortgages across the nation. Being underwater, as it is called, can prevent these owners from moving and taking new jobs, and places the households at greater risk of foreclosure.

All well and good.  Option ARM’s, the particular class of loans the banks are now modifying, allowed  borrowers to pay no principal, and only part of the interest each month — with whatever interest they chose not to cover ending up as additional loan balance encumbering whatever poor structure to which it is attached.

Those are clearly financial anti-personnel devices,* and it’s probably not a bad idea to try and defuse some of them before they blow. Or at least that’s the reasoning reported:

Bank of America and Chase inherited [interesting choice of word, there, don’t you think? — ed.] their portfolios of option ARMs when they bought troubled lenders during the housing crash.

Chase, which declined to comment on its program, got $50 billion in option ARM loans when it bought Washington Mutual in 2008. The lender, which said last fall that it had dealt with 22,000 option ARM loans with an unpaid principal balance of $8 billion, still has $33 billion of them in its portfolio.

Bank of America acquired a portfolio of 550,000 option ARMs from its purchase of Countrywide Financial in 2008. The lender said more than 200,000 had been converted to more stable mortgages.

Dan B. Frahm, a spokesman for Bank of America, said it was using every technique short of principal reduction to remake its loans, including waiving prepayment penalties, refinancing, lowering the interest rate, postponing some of the balance and extending the term.

“By proactively contacting pay option ARM customers and discussing other products with better options for long-term, affordable payments, we hope to prevent customers from reaching a point where they struggle to make their payments,” Mr. Frahm said.

But the infuriating thing about this story is, of course, that the banks have chosen to help out loans (and people) not yet in deep trouble, but are witholding such aid from those who need it most:

The concern the banks are showing for those who might get in trouble contrasts sharply with their efforts toward those already foreclosed. Bank of America and Chase were penalized last month by regulators for doing a poor job modifying mortgages in default.

Adam J. Levitin, a Georgetown University law professor, said these little-publicized programs were more evidence that the banks were behaving in contradictory and often maddening ways.

“Loan modifications that should be happening aren’t, while loan modifications that shouldn’t be happening are,” he said. “Homeowners of any sort, whether current or in default, would rightly be confused and angry by this.”

So, while I’m glad that something is finally being done to modify loans made through one of the worst ideas in the history of finance, this story actually highlights the much larger failure to deal with the financial and social catastrophe of the broader failure of the home mortgage market. The foreclosure mess is a disaster because it simultaneously has generated a feedback loop of decline in many housing markets and it breaks communities.  Nothing good happens in a neighborhood where too many houses are unoccupied.

DFH’s (Atrios/Duncan Black comes most prominently to mind, but there are plenty of others) have been pointing this out for years now.  And at last, even The New York Times seems to be noticing, even as it documents what may be the first crack in the bankers’ resistance to grappling with their losses.

Welcome to the party, I guess — and, so as not to seem ungracious, let me not say “what took you so long,” to plead instead for much more attention on “the loan modifications that should be happening” to come.

*PS: no doubt, someone, somewhere (Brooks? Will?) must soon instruct us that these clever little monetary claymores were somehow the love-children of FDR, LBJ, Malcolm X, the Big Dog, and Howard Dean.  But, in fact, this is your invisible (and never-to-be-regulated) hand in action.

Image: Jan van Goyen, Peasant Huts With A Sweep Well, 1633

Fry and Laurie Do the Entire 2012 GOP Campaign in 3:30

June 4, 2011

Via the young Fry and Laurie, the next year of Republican campaigning distilled to its essence:

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This video goes into the dictionary next to the phrase “word salad.”  Sarah Palin clearly took notes.

Too Busy To Post, Too Enraged Not To Note The Latest Bit of Fraud/Nonsense–Mortgage Backed Securities/Foreclosure disaster edition

October 13, 2010

On multiple deadlines today, but I couldn’t resist this juxtaposition.

First, this, from two weeks ago (h/t LegalForesicAuditors.com):

NEW YORK — JPMorgan Chase has temporarily stopped foreclosing on more than 50,000 homes so it can review documents that might contain errors.

JPMorgan’s move Wednesday makes it the second major company to take such action this month, underscoring a growing legal problem. The issue could stall an already overloaded foreclosure process.

…..

JPMorgan acknowledged Wednesday that its employees signed some affidavits about loan documents without personally verifying the files. These affidavits verifies the accuracy of the loan information, including who owns the mortgage.

….

In some states, lenders can foreclose quickly on delinquent mortgage borrowers. But 20 states use a lengthy court process for foreclosures. They require documents to verify information on the mortgage, including who owns it. Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois are the biggest states with this process. 

Christopher Immel, a Florida lawyer who represents homeowners, said people who already have lost homes could sue their lender, alleging errors in documents.

In August, a judge in Duval County, Fla., ruled that JPMorgan could not foreclose on two homeowners. The reasoning was that Fannie Mae carried the mortgage on its books and JPMorgan Chase only collected payments on the loan. JPMorgan Chase had identified itself as the owner of the loan.

….

More lawsuits could come soon.

In May, JPMorgan employee Beth Ann Cottrell said in a deposition that she and her staff of eight signed about 18,000 legal documents a month without reviewing every file. In a similar testimony, GMAC employee Jeffrey Stephan said he signed 10,000 documents a month without personally verifying the mortgage information.

And then there’s this, hot of the intertubes via NYTimes.com:

JPMorgan Chase kicked off what was expected to be a mixed quarterly earnings season for big banks on Wednesday with a 23 percent increase in third-quarter income.

After powering ahead for the last year on the strength of its trading operations, JPMorgan topped investor expectations with the help of improvement in its credit card business and a gain from money it had previously set aside to cover possible losses from bad loans.

Net income rose to $4.42 billion, from $3.58 billion a year earlier. Earnings were a $1.01 a share, handily topping analyst forecasts for 88 cents. Earnings were 82 cents a share in the period a year ago.

The Times piece does note the fact that the bank faces significant costs and potential liability as it confronts the failure of its foreclosure process, and it quotes JPMorgan’s new CFO trying to discount the implications of this issue, saying “The whole mortgage issue costs us so much money now, to me it [the foreclosure SNAFU] is incremental.”

Just two quick thoughts:

1:  Given the different avenues through which JPMorgan is exposed to potential liability (as holder of delinquent loans, and through its role in the making of the market in mortgage backed securities affected by flawed documentaton — see this excellent series for more), the confidence expressed by the CFO in question, Mr. Douglas Braunstein, reminds me of this moment of assurance:

2:  What justification can anyone provide for the ongoing employment and wealth of the management of the major US banks/investment houses?

And to add just one more query in the spirit of honest curiousity:  what rationale is left for avoiding a modernized version of Glass-Seagall?  Commercial lending is a public utility, and needs to be both regulated and guaranteed as such.  Everything else can be at one’s own risk — but the two activities have to be kept separate, not just by alleged Chinese Walls, but institutionally, at the level of holding of capital and the existence of public insurance/guarantees.

Tell me, anyone, why this is wrong.

All of which is to say that before the Obama adminstration or Congress starts immunizing the big Wall St. firms from the consequences of what appears to be a decade of profiteering on real estate fraud, we gotta take the current structure down to the foundations.

Carthago Delenda Est.

Image:  Vincent van Gogh, “The Cottage,” 1885.

In Honor of ….

September 3, 2008

What I promise will soon be a receding of the All-Palin-All-The-Time body snatching of this blog, a timely reminder from your favorite and mine, xkcd: