Archive for February 11th, 2017
The last thing on earth that corporations (and thus the GOP) wants is for consumers to be protected. Consumers are their prey, and if consumers are protected profits may fall. Gretchen Morgenson reports in the in the NY Times:
In its promise to roll back the Dodd-Frank financial reform act of 2010, the Trump administration hasn’t provided many details. It’s a safe bet, however, that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency charged with protecting consumers from financial miscreants, will be a target.
Why would the president want to rein in the only federal agency dedicated to the consumer finance beat? Perhaps it has been a little too effective in pursuing wrongdoing by banks, consumer credit reporting companies, credit card issuers and student loan collectors.
While these activities have earned kudos from Main Street, the bureau has also made powerful enemies among financial institutions whose executives have the ear of Mr. Trump and other Republicans. According to a leaked memo that emerged late this week, Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who heads the House Financial Services Committee, will move forward with legislation to weaken the bureau and its enforcement powers.
Republican lawmakers like Mr. Hensarling have been trying to hobble the bureau ever since its creation in 2012 under Dodd-Frank. But none of these efforts have gotten far.
With a new administration in town, the momentum against the bureau is building, said Quyen Truong, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and a former assistant director and deputy general counsel at the C.F.P.B. Although she said that it’s unlikely the bureau will be eliminated, its structure as an independent agency whose budget does not have to be approved by Congress may be threatened.
Future rule-making could also come under fire, Ms. Truong said. “If the C.F.P.B. was to adopt new regulations,” she said, “there would be greater potential for Congress to put a stop to it by removing C.F.P.B.’s authority to adopt those rules or taking action after the fact to undo the regulations.”
Reducing the bureau’s power would deal a blow to consumers, because other federal finance regulators just don’t have their interests at heart. Entities such as the Federal Reserve Board and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency are charged with monitoring banks for safety and soundness. Historically, this has translated to a regulatory focus on profitability at these institutions. And if those profits come at the expense of consumers, well, c’est la vie.
A 2009 research report from the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit consumer organization, spoke to this issue. It said that the O.C.C. and the defunct Office of Thrift Supervision took the view that banks were “customers rather than entities to be regulated.”
Recall that in the Wild West run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed and O.C.C. were glacial about curbing reckless mortgage lending. It wasn’t until March 2007, just as the tsunami of subprime losses was cresting, that the Fed and other regulators published guidance urging lenders to consider a borrower’s ability to repay a loan.
And in a blinding glimpse of the obvious, the Fed also urged banks that “communications with consumers should provide clear and balanced information about the relative benefits and risks of the products.”
Even these tepid suggestions raised the banks’ ire: Their representatives called the guidance an example of regulatory overreach.
So it’s not surprising that the more aggressive stance taken by the C.F.P.B. has enraged big financial institutions and their supporters in Washington. Just last month, for example, it sued Navient, the giant student loan servicer, charging it with cheating borrowers, allegations the company denied. And in early February, the bureau sued a New Jersey-based legal funding company, alleging that it swindled first responders to the World Trade Center attack out of money they were owed from victim compensation funds.
One of the C.F.P.B.’s best features is . . .
Interesting possibility reported in USA Today by Herb Jackson, originally from The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record:
A New Jersey congressman says a rarely invoked 1924 law could be used to examine President Donald Trump’s tax returns for possible conflicts of interest and Constitutional violations.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, has asked the committee’s chairman, Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, to order the Treasury Department to provide tax returns to the committee. Brady’s office did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
After privately examining returns — Pascrell is seeking 10 years’ worth — the committee could decide to share them with the full House, which would in effect make them public. The 1924 law gives congressional committees that set tax policy the power to examine tax returns. It was used in 1974 when Congress looked at President Richard Nixon’s returns, and in 2014 when the Ways and Means Committee released confidential tax information as part of its investigation into the Internal Revenue Service’s handling of applications for nonprofit status.
Trump said during the campaign he would not release his returns because he was being audited. After the inauguration, adviser Kellyanne Conway said he would not release them because the public did not care.
Pascrell said what happened in the election does not matter.
This isn’t for the Democrats or the Republicans, and it’s not to embarrass anybody,” he said. “This is to make sure the American people know the facts, and if there are conflicts, they need to be resolved.”
Asked if he thought he would succeed, Pascrell said he believes many Republicans in the House and Senate “are absolutely intimidated by this president.” . . .
Jane Black has an article at Huffington Post, “Revenge of the Lunch Lady,” that is totally worth reading just for the personal drama and vindication of a government employee. Read the whole thing, but let me quote just one section. (The article is long, but fascinating.)
. . . To those unfamiliar with the absurdist theater of school lunch, it is puzzling, even maddening, that feeding kids nutritious food should be so hard. You buy good food. You cook it. You serve it to hungry kids.
Yet the National School Lunch Program, an $11.7 billion behemoth that feeds more than 31 million children each day, is a mess, and has been for years. Conflicts of interest were built into the program. It was pushed through Congress after World War II with the support of military leaders who wanted to ensure that there would be enough healthy young men to fight the next war, and of farmers who were looking for a place to unload their surplus corn, milk and meat. The result was that schools became the dumping ground for the cheap calories our modern agricultural system was designed to overproduce.
This tension has played out over and over again, with children usually ending up the losers. A case in point: In 1981, America was awash in surplus dairy. The government’s Inland Storage and Distribution Center—a network of tunnels beneath Kansas City, Missouri—was filled with 200 million pounds of cheese and butter, stacked “like frozen pillars and stretching over acres of gray stone floor,” according to The Associated Press. In an effort to ease the glut, the USDA purchased millions of pounds of dairy for schools. But, according to Janet Poppendieck, a professor at Hunter College who specializes in poverty and hunger, this encouraged dairy farmers to keep on milking. So in 1986 the government had to create a new program, the Whole Herd Buyout, which paid farmers to slaughter the dairy cows. The government then bought the beef, which was turned into hamburger, taco meat and so on for school lunch.
That flood of meat and dairy hiked the fat content of school meals just as the country was descending into an anti-fat frenzy. In 1990, the federal government issued new dietary guidelines, declaring that a healthy diet should contain no more than 30 percent fat, with a 10 percent cap on saturated fat. But cafeterias simply had too much of the wrong food to comply. In a USDA study of 544 schools conducted several years later, only 1 percent met the requirement for overall fat and just a single school had managed to keep saturated fat to a healthy level. The deeply conflicted nature of the program was showing itself once again.
Since the 1990s, the USDA has made many improvements—it now requires that canned vegetables have less salt and insists that ground beef be 95 percent lean. But school lunch is still a disgrace, and the timidity of Congress is largely to blame. In 2011, the USDA proposed limiting the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables permitted in school lunches so that cafeterias could make room for healthier options. But the Senate, led by members from two top potato producers, Maine and Colorado, killed the idea in a unanimous vote. Then there’s the pizza lobby. When the 2010 revision of nutrition standards increased the minimum amount of tomato paste required for pizza to count as a vegetable from two tablespoons—the typical amount found on a slice—to half a cup, the National Frozen Pizza Institute and other groups howled, and Congress opted for the status quo. The idea that pizza might not be considered a vegetable was, apparently, un-American.
What makes school lunch so contentious, though, isn’t just the question of what kids eat, but of which kids are doing the eating. As Poppendieck recounts in her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, the original program provided schools with food and, later, cash to subsidize the cost of meals. But by the early 1960s, schools weren’t receiving enough to feed all their students, and many pulled out of the program. As a result, middle-class students, whose parents could cover the difference between the government subsidy and the actual cost of a meal, ended up benefiting the most from school lunch, while the truly needy went hungry. This moral failing became clear in 1968, when a landmark report called “Their Daily Bread” revealed that only one-third of the 6 million children living in poverty were receiving free or subsidized lunch. Schools’ ability to pay for food was so limited that one in Mississippi rotated 100 lunches among more than 400 students, while another in Alabama had just 15 meals for 1,000 needy kids. School lunch had its first official scandal.
In response, Congress, which had preferred to let schools decide who got to eat and who did not, established a three-tiered system. Students from families with incomes up to 25 percent above the federal poverty line—about $3,300 for a family of four, or around $24,000 in today’s dollars—were entitled to free meals. Those from families with incomes between 25 and 95 percent above the poverty line paid a reduced price, while everyone else paid the full price. (Just to make things extra confusing, schools also received a small subsidy for those meals as well). This system had the virtue of guaranteeing that the poorest children would be fed. But it also transformed school lunch from a program designed to feed all students into one for the poor.
Once school lunch was perceived as welfare, it became a target. President Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 on a promise to slash domestic spending, attacked the program. It was one thing to help the genuinely needy, Reagan’s budget director David Stockman declared, but it was “wasteful” to support middle- and upper-class families who could afford to buy lunch. What he didn’t mention was that the cutoff for a free meal was nowhere near a middle-class income and excluded many kids who needed the help.
Still, Congress agreed to cut the small subsidy for full-price lunches by more than a third. The effect was quick and severe. Lunch prices rose, and in the space of just three years, more than a quarter of the kids in the full-price tier stopped buying school lunch. With fewer students participating and smaller reimbursements for each meal served, schools lost their (already limited) economies of scale. The ensuing budget crisis forced schools to seek out even cheaper food—the highly processed stuff, such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs, that they are now condemned for serving. And on it goes.
Not that any of these cautionary tales have diminished the Republicans’ desire to gut the program. In 2014, now-House Speaker Paul Ryan said that public assistance, including school lunch, offered a “full stomach and an empty soul” because it made kids reliant on government handouts. With the party now in control of Congress and the White House—and with Michelle Obama, the program’s greatest defender, gone—school lunch is as vulnerable as it’s ever been.
One Republican strategy to hobble school lunch involves changing an innocuous-sounding proposal called the Community Eligibility Provision. The formula for CEP is complex, but it essentially allows schools in high-poverty areas to provide free meals to all students. This alleviates the administrative burden of keeping track of who qualifies for which tier, and allows money that would normally be spent on administration to go toward paying cooks or buying better food instead.
Judging by its popularity among food service directors, CEP has been one of the most successful innovations in school-lunch policy in decades. Studies show the program reduces the long-standing stigma for kids getting free lunch and enables those who don’t qualify for subsidized meals, but who actually need them, to eat if they’re hungry. This prevents situations like the one that took place last fall, when a school cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania resigned after having to take away the lunch of a first-grader whose parents failed to pay their bill. Not surprisingly, CEP has been embraced in impoverished areas like North Dakota, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, where food-service directors have been forced to hire collection agencies to chase down parents who haven’t paid for their kids’ meals.
Conservatives insist that it’s not the taxpayers’ job to cover for negligent parents. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees school food, called CEP “perverse,” alleging that it incentivizes schools to give free meals to students who either already pay or are capable of paying for school lunch. This despite the fact that schools, like most places in America, have become increasingly segregated by socioeconomics over the last two decades. So the throngs of coddled middle-class kids Rokita thinks are eating for free don’t actually exist.
Rhonda McCoy is emphatic that kids shouldn’t be punished for their families’ financial situations. “It’s not their fault that the parents didn’t pay the bill,” she said. Before CEP, she remembers getting calls, which she said “broke my heart,” about students who chose to go hungry rather than have an embarrassing conversation about money. But if Rokita wins this battle, more than 7,000 schools, feeding nearly 3.4 million kids, will once again have to start charging for some meals. In West Virginia, the new formula would exclude 327 schools, including all 26 in Cabell County. “This would all be over,” McCoy told me. “It would kill us.” . . .
James Fenton reports in NY Review of Books:
Landing last December at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila brought back memories of Ninoy Aquino himself arriving from the US in 1983 on the tarmac that was to be christened with his blood. He was the leading figure in the opposition to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 until 1986. Aquino had been imprisoned by Marcos for seven years and seven months. His health had suffered; he had been on a hunger strike until his family pleaded with him to stop, had gone to the United States for treatment for a heart condition, and now, hearing that Marcos was seriously ill, and sensing that this was the moment he must act, he was coming back out of self-imposed exile, bearing a false passport under the name Marcial Bonifacio.
This return is made most vivid by a TV report, which can be found on YouTube. Ninoy knew that his best chance would be to be placed under house arrest. Next best: back to solitary confinement. The worst option: to be shot then and there. A number of press people accompanied him, and the hope was that their presence might guarantee his immediate safety.
The plane lands. A group of soldiers comes on board and asks Ninoy to accompany them. He gets up out of his seat in a manner that for all the world might seem to indicate resignation to some tedious task ahead. The soldiers escort him off the plane. The press moves forward, trying to follow. Nine seconds later there is gunfire, and four seconds after that there is another longer burst. The first shots are the ones that kill Ninoy. The second are aimed at Rolando Galman, a supposed assassin who would take the posthumous blame for Ninoy’s death.
In the first nine seconds, the soldiers take Ninoy onto the jet bridge and then down a service stair. On one recording you can hear a soldier saying: “I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” The bullet enters the top of the back of Ninoy’s head and exits through his nose. Its downward trajectory indicates that the killer shot Ninoy from above, that is, while the group was still on the service stair. And as soon as Ninoy was dead, someone else turned and shot the patsy Galman.
It seemed a crude piece of theater at the time. You had to be a die-hard Marcos loyalist to be remotely convinced by it. And the killing indeed marked the beginning of the end of the dictatorship, even though that last act took another three years to play out.
Looked at now, however, in the era of a thousand killings a month, the murder of Ninoy seems to belong to a society in some respects more refined than that ushered in by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Martial law under Marcos lasted from 1972 to 1981. Over three thousand people were killed, many of them cases of “salvagings”—bodies found tortured and mutilated, dumped at the roadside, much like the victims of today’s EJKs—extrajudicial killings—only far fewer of them, of course. Indeed, twice as many have been killed during Duterte’s first six months, starting last June, as in the decade of martial law.
Still, in the case of Ninoy, a certain lip service was paid to due process. An alibi was carefully prepared. Ninoy was warned against returning to the Philippines—warned by one of Marcos’s top men that he faced the risk of assassination. And an assassin was found and sacrificed, as it were, at the scene of the crime. When the postmortem contradicted the official story, an alternative postmortem was sought and found. There was some sense lingering in Marcos’s circle of what a respectable outcome would look like, even if respectability was not achieved.
Today by contrast the pretense of due process is impossible, because the man at the top simply blows it away. One of Duterte’s chief selling points as a leader is that he doesn’t give a shit. So, when he gets in front of any crowd, he will say whatever he thinks will make an impact at that very moment, and it is striking that most of the most shocking things we have learned about Duterte have come from his own mouth. For instance, it was Duterte who compared himself to Hitler:
Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts [in the Philippines] there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims. I would like them to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.
It was Duterte who revealed that he had been abusing fentanyl, the synthetic opioid—the drug involved in the deaths of both Michael Jackson and Prince, which is supposed to be a hundred times more powerful than morphine. He needs painkillers to combat both his daily migraines and the pain from a motorcycle accident, which damaged his spine. However, when he saw the reaction to this revelation, he thought again. “Fools,” he said, “I just made up that story and you believed it.”
Addicted or not, he has, on his own admission, four concurrent illnesses: acute bronchitis, regular migraines, Barrett’s esophagus, and Buerger’s disease. But as he is careful to point out, not cancer. His mortality, however, does seem to weigh upon him and he often alludes to it. Speaking to members of the Filipino community in Cambodia in December, he said: “This is my last hurrah. After this, 77. I am not sure if I will still be around by the end of my term.”
So far, Duterte’s war has been largely against the softest of targets—drug users and small-time pushers, pedicab drivers and the like, whose families are too poor to hit back in any way. None of them can afford to sue the police, or to mount any kind of campaign on behalf of the victims. It is out of the question.
Of course a campaign that is largely a war on the poor is going to be short on credibility, so Duterte has recently been raising his sights a little, and increasing his attacks on the mayors who are said to be involved in the “shabu,” or crystal meth, trade. In January this year he was quoted as saying: “As long as I’m president, these big ‘shabu’ dealers will die and the next batch would really be these mayors. I will call them and lock them up.” . . .
Ivanka Trump is not having a great February.
Despite scrambling to the press to take credit for the scuttling of a barbarous anti-LGBT executive order that had been floating around President Donald Trump’s offices, waiting for just the right devastating smirk from Anderson Cooper to find a hospitable berth in the president’s damaged mind, Ivanka’s personal and professional brand took a major hit when Nordstrom announced it would not continue to carry her apparel line. The anti-Trump boycott movement Grab Your Wallet took credit, and Nordstrom levied the only sick burn a Trump can truly feel: “Low sales.”
Having your allegedly prestigious brand dumped by Nordstrom and, as is now the case for her jewelry line, Neiman Marcus, is not good for a woman of Ivanka’s stature. But — for now — she’s still stocked in Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s and Lord and Taylor, perfectly respectable runners-up, as well as Amazon and its subsidiary Zappos. She could keep making money off her sensible flats for years to come. But discount marts T.J. Maxx and Marshall’s ordering their employees to chuck her wares into the gen pop racks? That’s a flat rejection from a safety sorority. And when Belk, a Southern department store chain that could not be more synonymous with Red State Hair, 86-ed the Ivanka line, things really got real in the land of lady-business wear. Sad!
There’s no such thing as divorcing your politics from your consumption — every rural American who saw their Main Street devoured by a Walmart knows this. The only thing I know about the Woolworth’s brand is that four African-American college kids in ties sat down at its lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 and demanded their humanity be recognized in the only way a capitalist system can and will. That lunch counter sit-in spawned a wave of similar ones across the South, and associated boycotts cost the company about $1.6 million in today’s dollars. The desegregation of lunch counters followed. In America, money talks. (Unfortunately, it also tweets in all-caps.)
That women might think twice about buying an Ivanka outfit right now is not surprising. I once recoiled physically from a pair of shoes because they were “designed” by a celebrity whose image I did not see aligning with my own, a decision with a mere $79.95 and my own dumb pride, not the tacit approval of an authoritarian regime, hanging in its balance. Ivanka’s lifestyle brand, designed to be so non-controversial and non-threatening that it might as well not even exist, has now become synonymous with an administration seemingly hell-bent on discriminating against our most vulnerable, helping sick people die faster, and maybe starting World War III before anyone manages to change the password on the president’s phone. Who wants to cop to wearing that look?
Trumpsters are fighting back online, but few of the Ivanka defenders appear to be legitimately dedicated customers, and not only because they’re secretly teen boys from Macedonia. Ivanka has a problem because no there there to defend — her designs lack distinction. As long as Banana Republic doesn’t hire Sean Spicer as its spokesmodel, cubicle-crawling America will be able to clothe itself for the work week if her line disappears tomorrow. Ivanka’s wearables are economically vulnerable because they are needed by none, and now coveted by few.
Take the Ivanka Trump Soho Solutions Work Tote with Battery Charging Pack. . .
Jesse Hellmann reports in The Hill:
Republicans are facing a new public relations war in their effort to repeal and replace ObamaCare.
The GOP Congress has repeatedly approved legislation to repeal ObamaCare, but those proposals went nowhere with President Obama in the White House.
Now that Republicans also hold the White House, the challenge for the GOP is taking the long-promised action in a way that won’t backfire politically.
And that’s turning out to be harder than many anticipated.
Polls show the public is divided on whether to repeal ObamaCare, which doesn’t make the task of unraveling one of the largest social programs passed in recent history any easier.
Republicans say the key to winning the public relations battle is for their party to highlight the weaknesses of ObamaCare, a law even most Democrats admit could improve from legislative changes.
“I think the thing that, simply from a Republican standpoint, is to point out it’s a failing system,” said GOP Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who pointed to rising insurance premiums and fewer choices for consumers as significant problems that will spur public support for the GOP’s plans.
The GOP arguments are being made to a politically polarized population on edge after the 2016 presidential election. Democrats are doing everything they can to make it tougher for Republicans to take action on ObamaCare.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) says Republicans want to “Make America Sick Again,” playing off of President Trump’s campaign slogan.
Other Democratic senators have said repealing ObamaCare will lead to the deaths of thousands of people.
Republicans have faced angry crowds at some town halls, where people have expressed their displeasure at possibly losing health benefits.
While Republicans contend that much of the opposition at the local events is being ginned up by Democrats, it appears to have had an effect.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) tells upset constituents that Republicans are aware that repealing ObamaCare must result in a “much-improved health system.”
“We will be judged on our success in doing so,” he said. . .
Andy Borowitz wrote a New Yorker column that’s uncomfortably close to what we see:
Hinting darkly that “there’s something going on,” Donald J. Trump complained on Friday that he has been treated “very unfairly” by the people who wrote the United States Constitution.
“If the Constitution prevented me from doing one or two things, I’d chalk that up to bad luck,” he said. “But when literally everything I want to do is magically a violation of the Constitution, that’s very unfair and bad treatment.”
Lashing out at the document’s authors, Trump said that “America is a great country, but we have maybe the worst constitution writers in the world.”
“Russia has much better constitution writers than we do,” he said. “I talked to Putin, and he said their constitution never gives him problems.”
“The situation is very unfair!” he added.
In an ominous warning, . . .