Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obama Era Postmortem

Obama's Legacy as a Historian:

Around noon on Friday, the presidency of Barack Obama will officially be history, and for months the news media has been awash in considerations of the first African-American president’s legacy.
But there’s one aspect of his record that has received less attention: his legacy as a historian.
True, Mr. Obama may be unlikely to emulate Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and follow his years in the Oval Office with a stint as president of the American Historical Association. But some scholars see in him a man who used the presidency not just as a bully pulpit but also as something of a historian’s lectern.
And he wielded it, they say, to tell a story more strikingly in sync with the bottom-up view of history that dominates academic scholarship than with the biographies of great leaders that rule the best-seller list.
“Obama had these confabs with the presidential historians, but I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said, referring to the regular dinners Mr. Obama held with leading historians in the early years of his presidency. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”
I've said for years, he's about as close as we'll ever get to having a true sociologist in the House.
David M. Kennedy, a historian at Stanford who attended the dinners, said that Mr. Obama had very much focused on the presidency, and on how his predecessors had responded to crises or maneuvered in Congress — “blocking and tackling,” as Mr. Kennedy put it.
But this president, Mr. Kennedy added, also had “a detached sense of himself as an actor in history.”
“He doesn’t think of history as himself writ large,” Mr. Kennedy added, “but as a big stage with a lot of actors on it.”
Paging Erving Goffman: please report to the dramaturgical analysis aisle as soon as possible.

I've certainly been critical of the Obama years and his justice department in particular: criminal justice reform was largely a failure, decarceration never materialized, and Eric Holder's tenure should be remembered as one of the great disasters in the department's history (save for probably the incoming AG). Obama's failure to close GITMO, the drone strikes and disaster in Syria, and being the only Nobel Peace Prize winner ever to maintain a kill list, have also been more than troubling.

But in terms of support for the arts and we writers, musicians, painters, actors and other nuts out there? No one was more passionate about it than Obama, which is important since the incoming administration supposedly wants to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, and a host of other arts-related endeavors.

This makes sense, if you think about it, because killing funding for the arts kills critical thinking, and killing critical thinking ensures more bozos being elected to political office by a lobotomized, walking dead populace.

No postmortem can be written without sufficient hindsight, so I would expect the combination of time and the impending, uh, "shit show" the next few years, will probably help put the Obama presidency in proper perspective. The fact that his approval rating is 60% on leaving office, higher than it's been since he took office, and trending upward, is probably a good indicator of things to come.

Bend over and grab your cankles, y'all. Yes you can, and yes you did.

The Death Row Doctor

Death Row Doctor Defends Actions:

One of the core pillars of medicine is “do no harm.” So how do the physicians who take part in the American institution of capital punishment rationalize their involvement? This film profiles Carlo Musso, a doctor who contemplates his moral compass as he participates in executions, though he personally opposes capital punishment.
Watch the short film. Musso is a resident of Atlanta and apparently worked on executions in Georgia for almost 15 years (being attendant...let's remember protocols do forbid them from running lines, administering the drugs, etc. He is only present to pronounce the official death).

I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, Musso's intentions seem somewhat honorable. If the state is going to execute people, a physician should be on hand to ensure the process is as humane as possible and goes according the execution procedures laid out by the law.

On the other hand, his mere presence allows executions to continue. As the law is written, two physicians must be in attendance at all executions. So if they couldn't find an M.D. to show up...

What I like about the film is that it is balanced in its portrayal of the issue of capital punishment and doesn't seek to demonize those who carry out what are essentially orders of the court. While the death penalty is a dying anachronism from another era, it is still prevalent enough for us to keep our focus on its administration, and ensure that it is being done constitutionally and humanely, however long that might actually be.

Debt Collecting Leeches

Student Loan Collector Cheated Millions:

Navient, the nation’s largest servicer of student loans, has for years misled borrowers and made serious mistakes at nearly every step of the collections process, illegally driving up loan repayment costs for millions of borrowers, according to lawsuits filed on Wednesday by a federal regulator and two state attorneys general.
Navient handles $300 billion in private and federal loans for some 12 million people — touching about one in four student loan borrowers. Every customer may have been affected by Navient’s misdeeds, said Lisa Madigan, the attorney general of Illinois, announcing her own lawsuit with the one filed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Navient does not make the loans, but it holds lucrative contracts to collect payments each month on behalf of banks, government and other lenders.
The damages sought could reach billions of dollars, said Ms. Madigan, who sued Navient and Sallie Mae — which split into the two companies in 2014. Washington State’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, filed a similar lawsuit against both companies.
The lawsuits describe routine mistakes and lapses in oversight that over time added up to systematic failures, eerily similar to the mortgage servicing industry’s bungling of borrower accounts and property foreclosures during the 2008 recession. Financial companies eventually paid more than $100 billion to settle mortgage-related lawsuits.
Navient mishandled loan payments, buried critical information in fine print and set obstacles for borrowers trying to release co-signers from their loans, among other failings, according to the consumer bureau’s legal filing.
Unfortunately, it's a civil case rather than a criminal case, where frankly the executives of this company, and the cockroaches they hire as employees, belong behind bars.
Navient, which plans to fight the lawsuits, denied all wrongdoing.
“The allegations of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are unfounded, and the timing of this lawsuit — midnight action filed on the eve of a new administration — reflects their political motivations,” Patricia Nash Christel, a company spokeswoman, said in a written statement. “We will vigorously defend against these false allegations.”
Snicker. As only a "debt collection" agency might.
Navient is accused of deliberately steering borrowers away from income-based repayment plans that could have lowered their loan costs — in order to maximize its own profits. Enrolling customers in such plans can be time-consuming and complex, and Navient’s compensation system for its customer service representatives encouraged them to push struggling customers toward other options, according to the bureau’s complaint.
Derek Smith said he is one such borrower. In 2011, when his loan payments kicked in, he was living in a homeless shelter in Boston. He had no job and three children.
Mr. Smith was exactly the kind of former student who should have had his payments reduced, according to Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center. But that never happened, she said. After struggling for two years to make a dent on his loans, Mr. Smith defaulted and his wages from a new job were garnished. Collection calls poured in.

“I was just at a standstill,” said Mr. Smith, whose debt has ballooned to more than $13,000.
Navient declined to comment on Mr. Smith’s case, but said it was “a leader in enrolling eligible borrowers into income-driven repayment programs.”
LOL...even if that means chasing you down to the bridge you're living under and stealing your pennies. 

The Smith case is just one of hundreds illustrated in the complaint, which I would strongly encourage you to read, but it illustrates the larger point I've made for years about these debt collection companies, their employees, and the executives who run them: civil suits are a great start, but prison is where these vermin belong.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Privatize This

Prisons Run by CEO's Harbinger of Things to Come:

Last summer, the Justice Department decided to start winding down its use of private prisons.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates noted in a memo that while private prisons were useful when public prisons were overflowing, they made little sense now that the prison population was falling. They didn’t save much on costs. Nor did they provide the kind of rehabilitation programs proved to reduce recidivism.
And they are particularly dangerous. A recent report by the department’s inspector general found that prisoners in private facilities, which house some 12 percent of federal inmates, were much more likely to have weapons. Private prisons had many more assaults on inmates and prison workers than those run by the Bureau of Prisons. And they went into lockdown to respond to disturbances 10 times as often.
But on Nov. 9, the day after Donald J. Trump was elected president, the stocks of correctional conglomerates were among the best performing on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares in Corrections Corporation of America, now CoreCivic, gained an astonishing 43 percent on the day. The reason? Privatization is back at the top of the government’s agenda
While this is being applauded in executive suites across corporate America, the cost for the rest of society is likely to be high.
And it's going to expand far and wide, way beyond prisons/jails/detention centers, to include other areas of both the correctional system (probation, parole, bail/bond, reentry programs, healthcare in prison, etc.). In fact, not only are other areas of criminal justice up for grabs (privatizing police, courts, etc.) but the move will include healthcare, hospice care, higher education, and foreign policy.
“There’s a magical thinking among business executives that something about the profit motive makes everything run better,” noted Raymond Fisman, a professor of economics at Boston University. “What is government going to be like when it is run by billionaire C.E.O.s that see the private sector as a solution to all the world’s problems?”

A serious body of economics, not to mention reams of evidence from decades of privatizations around the world, suggests this belief is false.

It is critical to understand how profit seeking can go awry, giving companies a motivation to skimp on quality to bolster margins. When a private provider faces little or no competition, or when quality of service is difficult to track properly — think of the well-being of patients in a nursing home, or the health of prison inmates — there will be nothing to stop it from pursuing higher profits at society’s expense.
And as I've written here about a million times over the years, that's the ultimate problem: the profit motive destroys fundamental goals in criminal justice. The point of the correctional system is to "correct," to ensure the person doesn't come back. Privatizing corrections makes no sense since a "success" story means loss of clients, business, and ultimately profit. And the cost-cutting measures usually enacted in private corrections harms inmates and endangers staff and public security.

Plus, it's not like these companies are really "private" in the capitalist sense anyway. When your business relies solely on government contracts for revenue, i.e. sucking at the public trough for tax dollars, you're basically on welfare. Privatization is just another massive fraud perpetrated on the tax payers by transferring public monies to the private sector.

But don't let a few facts get in the way. We're in for all kinds of "magical thinking" the next four years, the most egregious of which will be the ongoing (or ramping up of) commodification of prisoners.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Slow Decarceration

Correctional Populations Decline Slightly 2015:

The nation’s jail and prison population decreased in 2015, according to federal data released on Thursday, and the number of adults locked up or on parole or probation fell to a level not seen since 2002 while overall crime continued to drop.

Reasons for the declining incarceration rates include the federal prison system releasing thousands of nonviolent drug offenders in 2015 and states seeking to save money by enacting legislation and policies to reduce prison populations.

The 2015 data was compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in an annual report that focuses on the nation’s prison and jail populations. Data for 2016 will not be available until next December.

Adults in jail, prison, on parole or probation: 6.7 million. The figure represents about 1 in 37, or 2.7 percent, of all adults in the United States, a level far higher than in most other nations but the lowest rate in America since 1994. Of those 6.7 million adults, some 2.2 million were in local jails or in state and federal prisons — about 51,000 fewer than in 2014. The rest were either on probation (about 3.8 million) or parole (about 870,000).

As always, go to the horse's mouth for more details. Good news to end the year on. We'll see if the decarceration momentum continues in 2017.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy Holidays

We're closed here at TPE till January. We leave you with Frank & Bing (and one of the grooviest open pit indoor fireplaces I've ever seen). Holiday felicitations to you and yours.


Big Bank Humbug

The New Round of Bank Bailouts You Won't Be Hearing About:

European banks have rushed to cut deals with prosecutors over longstanding claims that they pushed toxic mortgage securities in the years before the financial crisis.

The payouts are steep: Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse said that they would disgorge nearly $13 billion combined to settle with the United States Justice Department.

But with the clock ticking before President-elect Donald J. Trump takes over, there appears to be an eagerness in Washington to conclude cases before a new, potentially more sympathetic, administration begins. As a result, these banks may have benefited from paying billions less than once proposed.

The $7.2 billion settlement with Deutsche Bank was a relief on Friday to its investors, who were rattled when it emerged in September that prosecutors were seeking a penalty of as much as $14 billion. Shares of Deutsche Bank rose as much as 5 percent in Frankfurt, before settling up 0.8 percent.

A smaller player in the mortgage-backed securities market, the British bank Barclays, appears to be willing to take its chances under the administration of Mr. Trump.

The crackdown on banks for those tainted securities was the Obama Justice Department’s biggest and most prominent crisis-era legal effort by far. Banks, most of them American, have paid more $100 billion in settlements with the government.

Yet the Obama administration has been criticized for allowing banks to write big checks to settle claims and for not prosecuting Wall Street executives.
As the history of the Obama administration starts being written, one of the most significant failures of his eight years in office will be their decision not to prosecute and jail the people responsible for the greatest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression. As I've noted on this blog since he was sworn in, the minute he uttered those now infamous words "we need to look forward, not backwards," we were doomed.

And now with an incoming administration seen as potentially far more friendly to the Big Banks than Obama has been (how that's possible, I'm not sure), they are quickly cutting deals and walking off into the sunset, totally escaping once again any criminal liability for the Great Recession.

So, bend over and grab your ankles, America. Since writing checks is the now accepted method of beating a criminal rap on Wall Street, expect a Caligula-like orgy of white-collar crime the next four years (and just as assuredly, another epic financial meltdown).