Saturday, September 17, 2016

So this really isn't worth reading at all.

Mr F is very different to, than, and from, many other kids.
I had a bit of a break yesterday in between some hearings, and was doing some light reading while I ate lunch.

I read an article with some spoilers about the Justice League movie and The Force Awakens, and came across this:

Here’s a quote from Adam Driver discussing the film’s tonal shift—saying that, just as Empire Strikes Back was different to A New HopeEpisode VIII is different to The Force Awakens:

I found it kind of jarring, because I had just read a different article about a scene from Iron Man 3 (look I told you it was light reading, I was in between complicated legal battles and wanted my brain to cool off a bit), and in that Iron Man article an actress had said:

I signed on to do something that was a substantial role. She wasn’t entirely the villain – there have been several phases of this – but I signed on to do something very different to what I ended up doing.

The thing that made me pause about both of those was:

"different to."

Different to.

I've always said different than.

I'm not some kind of Grammar Monster -- that's more Andrew Leon's bag, although I'm sure he would see it as "Grammar Crusader" -- but when something starts showing up all over the place and I haven't heard about it, I feel like I missed the boat somehow, like everyone got together one day and said hey let's all say different to and make Briane feel like a nerd, which is 100% how I assume the world operates.

So I looked it up and found out I'm either wrong anyway or maybe a bit right, so far as 'proper' grammar goes. This site says that traditionally it was different from, but that different to is gaining acceptance. "Different than," it says, can be used but is usually used with clauses rather than single words -- which means that of those quotes, the Star Wars guy probably had it right (the movies being a proper noun and so hence a singular kind of thing) while Iron Man Lady got it wrong, because hers followed a clause.

Unless of course I'm totally wrong and here is the part I hate about grammar and also love, because you are always wrong or always right (and truthfully, I think grammar matters only insofar as you are making yourself understood, but I also think that you ought to know the basis precepts of grammar and make conscious choices to ignore them, like Ezra Pound might have done). Anyway, this site says that the to and than forms are the ones that are correct:

First, one point in favor of different to and different than is that these constructions are common and have been common for centuries. They have appeared in works of great writers and can be found in books from editorially fastidious publishers, and no English speaker has trouble understanding them. Different than, which is especially common in the U.S., appears about twice for every three instances of different from in 21st-century newswriting from the U.S. and is common (though less so) in American books from this century. Different to, meanwhile, is nearly as common as different from in recent U.K. newswriting and is easily found in U.K. writing of all kinds not just from this century but from as long ago as the 18th century.

So those are "facts", quotes needed because there is no source for those facts listed and when you say stuff like "editorially fastidious" and "about" you are saying "these are judgment calls, opinions, and guesses" -- what constitutes an editorally fastidious person? Where's the cutoff?-- and the article goes on to suggest that despite than and to being common and making sense for other reasons, you shouldn't use them...

... so I went to the Oxford English Dictionary, which has the distinction of having been more or less originally written by a madman, for the definitive answer, but my computer wouldn't log on. So there you have it.

It only took until 7:44 a.m. for me to feel sad today.

I worked 55 hours this week and will have to work some on Sunday morning, too. My job, as I've said before, is to help people save their houses and their cars and their credit from big banks like Wells Fargo, where criminals like Carrie Tolstedt get rich stealing your money. This week, I actually helped two people stay in their house against all odds -- one of which was against Wells Fargo.

Then this:

That's a picture, from Twitter, of Sharon Stone the other morning.

Sharon Stone is worth $60,000,000.

I don't know much about Sharon Stone as a person, but I do know that the total amount of good Sharon Stone has contributed to the world is... not much. A B-list actress, Stone gets a lot of credit for charity work that doesn't pan out (a claim that she raised $1,000,000 to buy mosquito nets fell through, and UNICEF had to pony up $750,000. Not Sharon Stone, UNICEF. Sharon Stone thought the Chinese brought it on themselves when an earthquake struck that country, probably lied about having breast cancer once, and despite having claimed she "built 28 schools in Africa" with pledges, there's absolutely no evidence the schools were built.

But she lives in a mansion and has $60,000,000.

$*%&$% America.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

If corporations are people then treat them like people: Close down misbehaving corporations.

Carrie Tolstedt, Wells Fargo executive who
presided over a massive criminal enterprise
and will be paid $125,000,000 for doing so.
In the Citizens United case the US Supreme Court held that corporations must be treated like people, for purposes of First Amendment speech rights, at least.

Corporations should, in fact, be treated like people, because treating them any other way hurts society while allowing, if not rewarding, wrongdoing. Corporations who violate the law in a severe enough way should be disbanded and prohibited from ever doing business again.

Earlier this week, the news broke that for the past five years, Wells Fargo has been letting employees create fake accounts on behalf of customers. Wells Fargo employees at many levels are required to 'cross-sell,' that is, to get existing Wells Fargo customers to buy other Wells Fargo products. It is important to note that word: products. Banks exist, like any business does, to sell you something. Banks do not exist primarily to hold your money and pay you interest; that's a thing they must to do operate as banks.

Your bank deposits help keep the bank's "reserve" up: a "reserve" is the amount of money a bank must have to cover its current obligations. Not that it matters much, because if a bank falls short on a daily basis the Fed will lend it the money anyway to cover those transactions. So the bank wants your deposits because it helps them keep up their reserve, but if a bank really wanted your money it would offer far better interest rates. Look at the returns promised by mutual funds, and the returns promised by banks, and determine which actually wants your money.

Banks actually want you to leave as little money as possible in them, if you are an average consumer. Banks used to require minimum balances in checking accounts. Over the past 20 years, banks have increasingly switched to checking accounts that require no minimum, and offering short-term personal lines of credit for people who overdraw their account. After legislation (in the wake of The Great Recession) limited banks' ability to charge fees, banks responded by upping their fees for overdrafts and negative balances, and by 2014 were making about $32,000,000,000, collectively, from such fees. That profit was equal to what banks earned from such fees in 2006, prior to all the regulations being implemented.

Banks also, in the wake of new regulation, began trying to sell  you additional services: loans, credit cards, whatever they could. This is increasingly profitable: since 2013, banks' quarterly income from non-interest income has risen from $59,000,000,000 (rounding up to the nearest billion) to $66,000,000,000 (ditto.)

Wells Fargo demonstrated the continuing prevalence of systems which provide the wrong incentives with too little oversight. In the years running up to The Great Recession, the big problem was that incentives in the lending industry were generating new loans, not modifying old loans. (A new loan typically pays more in origination fees and adds capital to the bank's value, whereas a modified loan typically reduces the income.)  Mortgage originators and bankers created systems like "no doc" loans, where they would simply believe what a person said about their income and assets on paper, and make a loan, and the incentive was to simply make the loan and sell it, not care whether the loan performed. That was Somebody Else's Problem.  And it led to The Great Recession.

Wells Fargo, in the wake of regulation restricting its ability to make new loans and in light of restrictions on overdraft fees, created a system where it had employees 'cross-sell' other products. "Cross-selling" in banks is the same as when a person at McDonald's asks if you want fries with that: it takes a person who already is interested in doing business with you, and gets them to do more business with you.

Wells Fargo imposed draconian requirements on employees to cross-sell and punished those employees who didn't make the cut. Anywhere from 3-15% of employees' incomes were determined by payments related on their ability to cross-sell.  Wells Fargo does not seem to have had any sort of scrutiny of the system, which led to millions of fake accounts for credit cards, new bank accounts, and the like being set up for borrowers who didn't know it was being done. In some cases, money was transferred to these new accounts, resulting in an overdraft fee on the old -- a double win for the banks!

In the wake of the scandal, these things have happened:

Wells Fargo was levied $185,000,000 in fines. This is inconsequential: Wells Fargo reported $5,560,000,000 in net profits in the second quarter of 2016 alone. The fine was equal to 3% of its quarterly profits. To put this in perspective: if you are a Wells Fargo employee and work for $10 per hour, a 3% of your quarterly income fine equals $156.

Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees. That figure has been reported as though it happened this week. It did not. The 5,300 employees were fired over the last few years. It appears that few, if any, executives were fired.  

Wells Fargo's stock price has barely moved and many analysts think it is worth buying or holding.  This demonstrates the fact that shareholders are unable or unwilling to police a company's practices.  Warren Buffett, who enjoys a reputation as the kind of billionaire you'd like to pal around with, owns 9.5% of the bank, and is its largest shareholder. I haven't seen any quotes from the Denny's-loving billionaire about what he might do with his control of the world's most profitable bank.

Several Democratic senators, demonstrating how little the government wants to regulate Wall Street, have "demanded" an explanation. Hillary Clinton denounced it. Presumably, Wells Fargo shrugged.

Wells Fargo executives, meanwhile, will receive millions in payments including $125,000,000 going to the retiring head of the department that committed all the crimes. Letting Carrie Tolstedt (the exec in question) keep her money and not face charges is like letting Al Capone go and executing the driver of the getaway car.

As a professional, I am subject to scrutiny by the courts and the State Bar of Wisconsin. Doctors, accountants, nurses, truck drivers -- anyone who holds a license can, if they behave badly enough, have their license revoked, effectively shutting them out of that industry.

I'm not an expert on the types of regulations the federal government uses to monitor banks -- I'm a consumer lawyer, not a regulatory compliance guy -- but if the power does not exist to shut down banks for illegal activities, then it should. The fact that politicians levy nominal fines, let rank-and-file employees be fired, and allow rewards in the hundreds of millions to executives is a shameful facet of our country. But, then, so many things are, these days.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Book 66: So, um, I was going to write about the book but then one thing led to another and now I am air-guitaring my way around the living room

I actually finished The Clasp last Friday, but haven't gotten around to posting about it 'til now mostly because I've been tired: Operation: Sandman has actually been kind of a success, and Mr F has been sleeping in his room without many problems for 8 or 9 days now, but at the same time, my asthma has kicked up a notch or so, and that's left me exhausted over the weekend.

Anyway, The Clasp was a bit of a surprise, and was better than I'd expected.  The basic storyline is this: three old college friends (Victor, Nathaniel, and Kezia) reunite at the wedding of another friend of theirs from college. While there, Victor (who has recently been laid off) hears a story from the groom's mother about a necklace that she has a drawing of, which supposedly was confiscated by the Nazis and is hidden in a French chateau.  Victor does some research and becomes convinced that this is the necklace immortalized in a short story by Guy de Maupassant. He sets off for France to try to find it at the same time as Kezia has to travel there to try to salvage her boss' line of jewelry, which has -- aha! -- a problem with the clasp, in that it (the jewelry clasp) is too weak to hold the weight of the necklace (which, as it turns out, ties into the necklace of Victor's short story.)  Nathaniel tags along to Europe mostly because as an unemployed screenwriter, he's got nothing better to do.

As a story, The Clasp could have been another humdrum story like The Nest; uninteresting people trying to do interesting things. But it was better than that, and a fairly enjoyable story that deviated from the expected enough to make it feel fresh.

What I think helps elevate The Clasp is the way it incorporates, and builds on, the short story The Necklace. I've never read that short story, but it's explained in the book as: poor woman borrow necklace from friend to go to a ball, loses necklace, replaces it without telling friend, having to work her whole life to pay off the replacement she bought, only to learn at the end the original necklace was a fake. As a story, it seems to be right up there with other twist-y short fiction from that era like that of O. Henry, and therefore not of much interest to me.

But in the book, the three friends were all in class when their professor, who had recently gone through a divorce, has sort of a breakdown in talking about The Necklace, which is part of why it stuck in Victor's mind, it seems, inadvertently taking on a larger significance than it might have had Victor not had the class or the professor been more stable, and that slight twist of events helps set into motion the rest of the story.

There was, I think, a word for a song or story that incorporates or builds on another story; I learned about such things a while back when I found out that John Allyn Smith Sails was about the poet John Berryman's suicide; that song uses snippets of Sloop John B to good effect, making John Berryman's life a sort of living re-creation of the voyage of the Sloop John B.

(John Berryman, it turns out, is quite the muse for songwriters: another favorite song of mine, Stuck Between Stations is also about him:

I love that song. It is a song as big as I want the world to be. When I hear it, all I can imagine is being in a car, the windows down, with me and my family on the way to something... something new and exciting and wonderful.  Knowing that it is about Berryman's suicide doesn't change that for me. It is a song, I think, that captures the poignant feeling that exists between this life and the perfect life. No matter how good your life, there are bound to be troubles, Those troubles will overwhelm you, as they did Berryman, if you cannot lift your head and stare at the horizon and feel, in your heart and in your bones and in the tiny hairs on the back of your neck lifting up by the electric impulses in your own mind, feel that there is something better just a bit ahead. When you cannot feel that any longer, you might give up. But this song helps me feel that, helps me remember that you can never, never give up.)

That was quite a digression. I should end there. I will.