I must confess Saint Popes don’t excite me

There has been a significant amount of hoopla over beatifying two recent, long serving popes as saints. It is the first time two popes have been so honored at one time and also in front of two living popes. This may not happen again. I must confess I am not too excited about this event for a key reason. While I think Pope Francis is a wonderful new leader of a church that had lost its way and is focusing on helping those in need and the two new saints were good men, the new saints failed to do something significant that was harmful to many. To me, it is hard to call men saints when they let pedophilia of the worst kind continue unchecked under their watch when they had an awareness of its repeated occurrences.

You will note I have not mentioned their names as they are getting enough wonderful treatment for all of the good things they have done. And, they did. Yet, if you have not seen the documentary movie “Mea Maxima Culpa” I would encourage you to watch it. This movie will highlight that these popes did have an awareness of the pedophilia going on under their tutelage and failed to act to stop it. In essence, their actions showed they were more concerned about the church and priests, than the countless children who were raped time and time again. A link to a post I wrote a few months back on this movie follows: https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/02/10/mea-maxima-culpa-piety-does-not-trump-criminality/

I am certain pedophilia has been going on in the church for a long time, but what makes the last sixty years different, is the practice was becoming more apparent. One of the violated children from a school for the deaf in Milwaukee eventually sued the Catholic Church. In “Mea Maxima Culpa,” you learn that his repeated rape was known for ten years before the lawsuit was filed and no action was taken. When a religious figure violates his oath to serve others and harms innocent (and in this case deaf) children who do not have a loud enough voice to fight back during or after the rape, it offends me in the greatest way. I should add there is a similar school for deaf children in Italy near the Vatican, where the same kinds of atrocities occurred.

So, yes these popes did wonderful things. Yet, to call them saints, when they did not act to help many children who needed them, does not seem appropriate.

 

If you need to wear a mask have you given up the high road?

For the all of the flak that Vice President Joe Biden takes for sometimes saying the wrong thing, he oftentimes can say the painfully obvious truth. On his visit last week to the Ukraine, Biden admonished Vladimir Putin and Russia by saying “stop supporting people who wear masks.” This applies far beyond the boundaries of Ukraine. As I was watching the training footage of Al Qaeda the other day, almost every person was wearing a mask. I fully realize it is a head covering pulled down over the face, but the key goal is anonymity.

Sitting in my comfortable seat in a country where it is OK for me to register my dissent, it is very hard for me to place myself in this situation. It is easy for me to send emails and vocalize my concerns to elected officials or as a shareholder to a CEO, which I often do. For those that live in a corrupt and/ or fascist country, anonymity in showing your dissent may be vital to keep yourself and your family alive or out of harms way. This caveat cannot be emphasized enough, as in countries like these, dissent is not tolerated. But, when dissent begins to harm people who simply get in the way, I find that troubling and I find that there can be an element of cowardice behind the mask. It is one thing to protest. It is another to kill innocent people.

Call me crazy, but at my age, I would observe that if you need to hide your identity behind a mask, then you are likely up to no good. Or, to put it another way, you may have given up the high road on how you have chosen to disagree with something. When I see people covering their faces, unless it is for religious reasons, to protect the sun and wind from the face or because the regime is so corrupt, it usually registers that the person is doing something they would be less inclined to do if someone saw their face. This issue becomes cloudy when you have a government that will harm protestors or their families.

I have been taught that the worse a person’s argument, the louder they yell or more they name call. If someone is using labels to define an action they do not like, that means their argument is poor. It usually means they are identifying someone else as the reason for your anguish and asking you to hate them. In my country, we have politicians and religious leaders call things Nazism or Apartheid when they want to demonize something. Even Putin knows America’s weakness, so he also is calling American’s actions as Nazism in Ukraine, when in fact, his troops are acting as instigators across the border in masks and unmarked uniforms. To me, the name calling is a way to mask intent or real discussion of the issues because your points are poor.

With Islamic extremist groups, Americans are infidels. That is a convenient label which is often used to paint America as an enemy. America is far from perfect and our leaders disappoint, but infidels? Give me a break. There is a former Islamic extremist in Great Britain whose new mission is to reach as many young Muslims as possible and say don’t let the extremists blame others for your shortcomings. He is telling these people that extremists are using their religion to divide people, hold people down (especially women), hold back freer flowing economies and not allow people to live a safer, secure life and raise their families worshipping their religion in peace. These are the kind of people who fear Malala Yousafzai and her power when she becomes educated. She is the kind of person who can shame people into acting against these extremists.

We have a worldwide poverty problem. We have a worldwide human rights problem directed at women. We have a worldwide corruption problem where people in power take and take and don’t help those in need. My blogging friend George Dowdell (www.georgedowdell.org) notes until we address this corruption problem, the have-nots will always have an uphill battle. Let’s begin with rebelling against extremists. We can start with those wearing masks. If you are using the mask to promote violence and hate, then your message is one we don’t need. If you have a grievance, come out in the open. If you are wearing a mask, you have given up the high road.

 

Billy Crystal – 700 Sundays is worth the watch

On HBO, they are currently airing a wonderful show put on by comedian Billy Crystal called “700 Sundays.”  Crystal is at his poignant, funny and reflective best as he chronicles his life through years of Sundays growing up in his house. He takes you through his impersonations and stories about his many relatives who had their charmingly, imperfect mannerisms. His mimicry is how he got started on his journey to becoming a comedian. But, he also walks you through an important piece of Americana, as his dad and uncle were pioneers in helping integrate jazz music and musicians into more people’s lives.

In fact, when his dad passed away when Billy was age 15, people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong and others were in attendance at the funeral. Billy also spoke fondly of his time with Billie Holliday, the tremendous singer. He said she called him “Mr. Billy” while he called her “Miss Billie.” He reminisces about her taking him to see his first movie – “Shane.” When he speaks of his dad’s record label Commodore recording Billie’s most powerful song “Strange Fruit” which is a protest song, he takes great pride in his family’s involvement in what some voted the most impactful song of the 20th century. Here are some of the lyrics:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

With some of the news items in the US the past few days of two racists getting headlines, I felt the timing of hearing his story about these powerful words are even more compelling and should be read and heard.

The show is a must see. It will leave you spent as he makes you laugh, cry and remember. He is so vivid in explaining scenes and settings. He makes you see, hear and smell the sights, sounds and fragrances of the place he is describing. The jazz segment is memorable, but there are other terrific segments in his storytelling – the death of his father and mother, helping his mother study for a new line of work after his dad died, falling in love with his long time wife and balancing the good with the bad things that happened in his life. Nice job, Mr. Billy. Thank you for the walk down memory lane.

 

But, you told me fracking was perfectly safe….

To honor Earth Day which was earlier this week, I feel compelled to restate and add a few additional concerns that make fracking, at its best, a very challenging process. I have seen numerous legislators state without reservation that “fracking is perfectly safe.” Nothing in life is perfectly safe except for the prediction you will die at some point. Getting anything out of the ground is a difficult process and fraught with problems. Fracking is no exception to this rule especially the way fracking has been done in the last ten years, which exposes further its weakest points.

But, to recap the problems fracking causes, here is quick summary:

1) Radioactive waste – Apparently, frackers are sloppy with their waste and have left some radioactive stuff lying around. This is a new challenge that threw even the most strident fracking critics for a loop. While the level of radioactivity is not high, this is clearly a metaphor for sloppy tactics and does not give confidence that we know the whole truth about fracking dangers. Chester Dawson of the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote an article on this issue entitled “Fracking’s New Problem: Radioactive Waste.” Here is a link:

http://money.msn.com/investing/post–frackings-new-problem-radioactive-waste

2) Earthquakes –  This one gets dismissed often, as frackers have said fracking does not cause earthquakes. That is not exactly correct and may even be less accurate than before. It has been proven the deep underground disposal of the chemically toxic fracking slickwater has caused (not just correlated with) earthquakes in Arkansas and areas like Ohio, Oklahoma and in the UK have seen an increase in earthquakes. Yet, there have been recent reports that the intensity of the fracking process itself (and not just the water disposal) has been linked to earthquakes in some areas like Ohio. Oklahoma, in particular, has seen a significant increase in earthquakes in the past few years dwarfing previous numbers.

3) Chemically Toxic Slickwater – Duke University’s and other studies have shown that the toxic slickwater is finding its way into people’s water. The people in fracking areas like Dimock, PA already know this. When industry tried to discount that you could always light the water on fire, a plain-spoken resident said, that industry person did not live here when I moved in, so how does he know how different it is today? A former fracking engineer said that 1 out of 20 cement casings around the fracking well fail immediately and the toxic slickwater gets out. With 10,000 wells, that means 500 will fail immediately. And, the engineer said with the way they are doing fracking now (which is horizontal as well as vertical), the exposure is even greater. Water finds a way, even when it is toxic slickwater, to get into stuff it should not.

4) Toxic air particulates – This does not get talked about enough, as the toxins that are blasted from the shale are not all captured and find their way into the air. You add to that the dust from the heavy equipment and trucks and the air pollution can be significant and drift into more populated areas as evidenced when Dish, Texas pollution migrated. On top of this, unused methane gas is vented directly into the air. This is such an issue in North Dakota land owners want money for the vented methane and the industry does not want to pay for it. More importantly, this venting has to be factored into the impact of using natural gas on the environment and climate change.

5) Infrastructure degradation – It is hard for us to appreciate what goes on daily with the heavy equipment and trucks that run constantly. One of the landowners actually videotaped the constant noise and dust pollution that wreaks havoc. If fracking goes on in your area, your life will be totally different from before and not in a good way. This sounds like a small issue, but it is a significant change on residents in a fracked area.

However, let’s set that aside. The key concern that is now getting the attention it deserves is the significant impact of water usage that fracking entails. Industry keeps telling everyone it is not that much water, but California and Texas are in a bad way with the droughts going on. Frackers and farmers have been fighting over water in Kansas, Oklahoma and California the past two summers. With 2 million gallons per frack (on the low side) and 10 fracks per well (on the low side), that is 20 million gallons per well. When an area is fracked the wells can easily number 10,000, but let’s shoot low and say 5,000. With that many wells in one area, that totals 100 billion gallons of water.  Per Steven Solomon’s book, “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” he notes “water is the new oil.” With water so dear, the key question remains – Is this where we want to spend our water?

But, don’t just take my word for it. George Mitchell, the father of fracking told us before his death “Fracking can be handled if they watch and patrol the wildcat guys. They don’t give a damn about anything; the industry has to band together to stop isolated incidents.” Mitchell is contradicting with this statement that fracking is perfectly safe. Even if it were, his statement also points out it is only as safe as its worst operator. He was investing in alternative energy before his death, so he saw the future as one that needed to move more away from fossil fuels. But, Greg Zuckerman of the Wall Street Journal and  author of “The Frackers” said it best that the dangers of fracking are greater than what the industry is letting on, but not as great as what the critics are saying. Yet, he added that we won’t know the full extent of the dangers until down the road. Based on what I have read, I would place the fulcrum closer to the critics end.

Truth be told, we are fracking and wanting to drill for oil offshore as the US can become more energy independent and fossil fuel companies can make a bucket load of money. Yet, we are being extremely shortsighted. We could power the entire eastern seaboard of the US with wind energy off just the North Carolina coast. It would create jobs around the wind turbine building/ maintenance and power grid installation. If we played our cards right, we could have over 500,000 wind energy jobs by 2030 (we had 75,000 as of last summer). And, solar energy continues to expand in major and minor ways in the country. Solar energy has become much more efficient, so much that individual homeowners can deploy it. Almost every IKEA store in the country is solar-powered and any data center like the ones Google and Facebook have here in North Carolina are solar-powered. And, Ivanpah, at 377 megawatts is the largest solar enterprise in the world, has gone online near Las Vegas. There are jobs today in solar energy from installation to maintenance.

The United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change released their updated report last week. The IPCC notes we must act in a significant way to address climate change in the next fifteen years or the cost will be prohibitive. We must move in a more accelerated manner away from fossil fuels. The luxury of time has gone.

Plus, contrary to what the fossil fuel industry, with its huge vested financial interest in the process and who has hired a PR firm, has said about how safe fracking is, take everything you hear with a grain of salt because it is not safe. There is no way it can be as it is too hard a process. If the industry had been more forthcoming about the dangers, saying we are doing our best to be as safe as possible, that would have been believable. But, to say something is perfectly safe when it clearly is not and cannot be is far beneath the truth. People should be insulted when they hear someone say this. But, what do I know, as I am just a concerned citizen who cares about what happens in our country and is highly skeptical when people tell me there is no problem with something when there obviously is.

Two movie reviews – one must see, one must not

We have a wonderful, locally and colorfully run video store in my city. It is organized in a genre fashion, with new releases on one wall. The manager and staff are eclectic people with large hearts and extensive movie knowledge, so it makes it a fun excursion when we go. We stopped by and picked up a couple of new releases to view this long weekend – “August: Osage County” and “The Book Thief.” I will not spoil these movies, but provide observations of what is in store for you if you rent them.

“August: Osage County” is a well-directed and well acted movie about one of the most dysfunctional families you will witness. We rented it because of the talented list of actors: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, et al. With that said, unless your goal is to watch a loud and hateful train wreck of a family to make you feel better about your own challenges, my suggestion is to put it back on the shelf. There are only three redeeming characters in the whole movie, with all the others cursing and yelling throughout.

On the flip side, “The Book Thief” was a terrific movie based on the novel by Markus Zusak and set in Nazi Germany prior to and through World War II. Liesel is an adopted girl whose little brother dies on the train ride to their adopted family. She becomes the book thief, as she wants to learn to read and is encouraged by her adopted Papa and a young Jewish man, Max, who they are hiding in their basement. Liesel is played by Sophie Nelisse, while Geoffrey Rush plays a very kind-hearted Papa to his wife’s pragmatic and cool Mama played by Emily Watson. Ben Schnetzer plays Max.

Liesel is befriended by a young boy Rudy who is loyal to her. Yet, she has to keep the secret of their family’s hiding of Max or all of them will get in trouble. So, she cannot tell even Rudy until he surmises later what’s happening. The key to the movie is her love of books and how they are essential to keeping their humanity when all around them human decency is under brutal attack. This love of reading befriends her to even the burgermeister’s wife who helps because of her own love of reading, at a time when books are being burned. The woman observes Liesel saving a book from a smoldering fire as she looks on forelornly.

So, I would highly recommend the latter movie and advise you to stay away from the former. “The Book Thief” is also well acted, but the story has characters and a plot that have redeeming value to them.  While drawn to Sophie, I particularly liked Rush’s Papa character. If you have seen either or both movies, I would love to hear your thoughts. Also, if you read “The Book Thief” which I have not, please let me know how it stacks up to the movie and vice-versa.

 

Love your neighbor as yourself (with no caveats)

Two things in the morning newspaper (The Charlotte Observer) caught my eye, one was a local column and the other a national news article. As reported by Cathy Lynn Grossman, of the Religious News Service, a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found 21% of Americans are “unaffiliated” with a church meaning they are atheists, agnostics, religious without a church or not religious at all. The survey noted that Catholics made up 20% and white evangelicals make up 19%. When all Protestant groups are tallied, the total is 48%. These numbers are fairly similar to The Pew Research findings.

The column written by Reverend Nicole Martin, who is the Executive Minister at The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, was called “When a stranger becomes a neighbor.” In it she notes that in Leviticus 19:18b, God told Moses to instruct the people to love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus reinforced this in Mark 12:31, by restating this scripture calling it the greatest of all commandments. I link these two articles together because Reverend Martin’s column reiterates the most important rule that Jesus asked us to live by and as the survey shows our neighbors are likely to be different from us in beliefs.

From earlier posts, readers know I harp on a key theme – when religion is inclusive, it is at its finest. When it is exclusive, it is at its worst. It divides. My blogging friend Roseylinn at http://www.roseylinn.wordpress.com has a terrific post which notes in a comment response how people are arguing about who is more religious and what political party should own a set of beliefs. We both find this ludicrous, as God is above political and country boundaries. In fact, Reverend Billy Graham said about twenty years ago that religious leaders need to be wary of aligning with a political party as you will be used for their purpose.

As the elder Graham notes, God should be above and separate from political party affiliation. I like to surprise people with the following statements on occasion to glean their input. You do realize God is not an American. This one throws them a little, as some believe God ordained the US Constitution. The other one is if God did choose sides, which side was he pulling for in the Civil War – the one who believed that an African-American was a possession or the one who fought to end slavery. There were many Confederates who believed their cause was righteous, yet I would argue if God did pick sides, it would have not been that one.

Getting back to Jesus valuing the most important commandment of love your neighbor like yourself, it should be noted Jesus did not offer caveats. He did not say love your neighbor unless they are LGBT, religiously or politically unaffiliated, or believe in the exact opposite of what you do. Jesus also hung out with “the lesser of these” when he ventured from town to town. He was not too keen with the religious leaders who used their power inappropriately. He was not too keen with people who had money tables in houses of worship. He was not too keen with people with wealth who did not help those in need.  He did not say be a good Samaritan unless the person in need is gay or lesbian or Jewish, Muslim or agnostic.

Our country has many aspects of which we can be proud and show as an example to the world. The separation of church and state is one of the paragons. The freedom to worship as you wish is another. When we chip away at these paragons, we lessen our greatness. We lessen the exemplars for others around the world. We are a melting pot of many cultures, ethnicities, religions, and diverse beliefs and sexual orientations. We are all different, which makes us a wonderfully diverse country. But, while different, we have similar wants and needs – to live freely and to have a secure environment to raise our families and ourselves. That is something Jesus would be proud of, even though He is not an American. He is more than that.

Civil Rights Museum reminds of where we have been, but what is left to do

Yesterday, I had some free time in the Greensboro, North Carolina area and decided to revisit the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Why Greensboro? For those of you are old enough to remember or know your history, the museum incorporates and builds off the actual Woolworth’s lunch counter where four African-Americans started a movement of non-violent sit-ins. The story of this daily sit-in helped bring about change along with many other efforts. Our tour guide whose mother used to bring her to Woolworth’s to shop, said the operative word they had to overcome was “separatism.”

In an attempt to protect the whites from the significant misconceptions about African-American citizens, “separate, but equal” laws were passed to allow discrimination to continue under the guise of the law. These Jim Crow laws, as they were called, came about to show that society need not have to integrate to give rights to its African-American citizens. The ugly truth is separatism was not very equal and continued to put down and discriminate against African-Americans in perceived legal and moral ways. There were some whites who spoke out before the overt discrimination became more apparent, but we had far too many leaders in business, government and faith communities who perpetuated this maltreatment.

The list of examples in the museum of discrimination and the fight to alleviate it are significant in number and impact. It makes you feel ashamed, disillusioned and angry that our fellow citizens were treated this way. The bombings, the lynchings, and the beatings are well documented and illustrated. The separate, but very unequal, train station terminals where whites had bigger waiting rooms, restrooms and easements are eye-opening. The separate, but unequal restrooms in stores, where our guide said her mother would tell her to go at home before they went to the store, are indicative. Sitting in the back of the bus, yielding your seat to white person and even the leather straps for standers in the back of the bus versus cushioned straps in the front showed the lack of equality. The Coke machine with two sides, one for whites at 5 cents with the opposite side for African-Americans at 10 cents is separate and very unequal. The voter laws that made it so very difficult for an African-American to register and vote were definitely not equal. And, so on and so on.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) pushed through the Civil Rights Act in the United States. The next year he followed up with the Voters Rights Act. These key pieces of legislation changed the long term and horrible course of inequality America was on. Forced busing to allow for fair and equal education was passed in 1970 sixteen years following the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. LBJ helped change the future in response to the efforts of many from Martin Luther King to John Lewis to Rosa Parks. It was critical that LBJ, a white southerner working with a coalition across political parties was able to shame leaders into doing something for America.

We are much further along than before, but our work is not done. We each need to be mindful of our biases and prejudices we have to various groups of people. We need to be active to voice our concerns over recent state actions by conservatively led states (ironically and sadly like the one in NC) to limit the voting rights of people who are primarily African-American, under the disguise of doing something against voter fraud. Rampant voter fraud has been proven not to exist, even as recently as last week with touted data in an attempt to show it does. Some of these laws have been ruled unconstitutional and others are being sued for such as of the time of this post. Make no mistake, these laws are designed to suppress voters who tend not to vote with the conservative side of the ledger. This is masked cheating, which is straight out of Jim Crow book.

What makes this further disturbing is our Supreme Court ruled that parts of the Voters Rights Act are no longer needed. This is one of several decisions made by this court which puzzle and frustrate me. What country do they live in? I see or hear examples of discrimination almost every day. It often is masked with code words or followed by words like “but, I am not a racist.” It would surprise these folks to learn most food stamp recipients are white. Even Senator Paul Ryan parlayed that misconception in some of recent speeches and interviews. The bottom line is it should not matter, as poverty knows no color. I use this as an example of unstated racism in America. It is those people who are in need of aid, so it is OK to cut benefits.

There are Civil Rights museums in several cities. Please frequent them with your children and friends. If you’re near Greensboro, please stop by and tour this well crafted museum. I was pleased to see two bus loads of school children of all stripes leaving the museum when I arrived. This stuff really did happen and discrimination still exists today. Use these occasions as opportunities to discuss what is happening today with others. Per the play and movie “South Pacific” bigotry has to be carefully taught. The converse of this is also true. Let’s carefully teach that discrimination is not right.

Here is a link to the Greensboro Civil Rights Museum. http://sitinmovement.org/

 

 

Bankers used to be trustworthy, but threw their reputation out the window

Last week, Bank of America was the latest bank to be penalized for fraudulent or aggressive marketing practices. They have had so many fines for malfeasance or aggressive marketing practices that it is hard to keep track of their sins. The latest penalty fined Bank of America $783 million for selling credit card consumers products and services they did not request. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which was newly created a couple of years ago by the Dodd-Frank Act under the tutelage of now Senator Elizabeth Warren, said the $738 million of that fine is used to restore money to those customers who were fraudulently sold these products.

In its first two fiscal years of operations ending June 30, 2013, the CFPB has fined banks and financial entities $942 million of which the significant majority goes to the consumers who were harmed or defrauded. The banks and financial institutions that were penalized include, but are not limited to American Express, Capital One, Discover, and JP Morgan Chase. While the significant majority of the penalty goes to the consumers, the remainder, which is usually less than 10% of the overall fine, goes into a Civil Penalty Fund, which has the following purpose as stated in the CFPB 2013 Annual Report:

“Under the Act, funds in the Civil Penalty Fund may be used for payments to the victims of activities for which civil penalties have been imposed under the Federal consumer financial laws. To the extent that such victims cannot be located or such payments are otherwise not practicable, the Bureau may use funds in the Civil Penalty Fund for the purpose of consumer education and financial literacy programs.”

What is interesting to me is why certain politicians are against this agency? I want them to tell me why an agency designed to protect the average Joe’s and Josephine’s is a bad thing. To state the obvious, these politicians tend to be Republican and tend to be supported by bankers. Senator Richard Shelby, who Chaired the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee from 2003 – 07 is one of the key critics of the CFPB.

This is one area where people who don’t want regulation need to explain how we would be better without it. Would it be OK for bankers to have full license to sell their customers services they do not need? Is it OK for banks to screw people over? I find most people confuse unwieldy bureaucracy with regulation. We need the latter, but need to guard against the former. I also find people who don’t want to be regulated tend to be those who need to be regulated more. The fossil fuel industry comes to mind, but that would be a large digression.

Having worked in Human Resources within a bank back in the 1990s, what I have witnessed is being a banker used to be one of the most trusted professions. Now, it ranks much lower in trust.  And, they only have themselves to blame. Truth be told, bankers used to be trustworthy, but threw their reputation out the window.

The slippery slope began in earnest with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in the late 1990s. This act had been put in place at the time of the Great Depression and was designed to assure that banks would be banks and not investment banks, security traders or insurance companies. With the feeling everyone learned their lesson and cooler heads would prevail, the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act reopened the can of worms. The real reason for the repeal was banks wanted the fee income that usually came with those products and services. Yet, to add another metaphor, the can of worms became a Pandora’s Box.

What transpired after that repeal is banks pushing the envelope more and cross selling products and services to unsuspecting customers. Two marketing trends emerged. “Bundling” and “Tying.” Bundling represents the concept if you do more business with us, we will give you better terms. By itself, that is not necessarily a bad practice. Yet, when married with tying, it becomes unethical and illegal. Banks started tying business marketing together, so that you had to business with them in one area to get a better deal on another service which was more vital to the buyer. Usually these offers were not made in writing, as some tying can be illegal.

But, the larger trend that occurred is a selling push to reward employees for selling you services you may or may not need. The unscrupulous ones would push the hardest and do things that now get the attention of the CFPB. One of the key reasons the mortgage crisis hit is the better mortgage market dried up and banks had all of these mortgage bankers with nothing to do.

With the push out of the second Bush White House that home ownership was good, the higher risk mortgage market became the target. It was at this time you saw mortgage-in-a-box retail stores competing against banks to sell mortgages to people who did not understand fully what was being sold to them. Variable mortgages and the dreaded Pic-a-payment mortgages that brought Wachovia down after their acquisition of Golden West, were being sold to people who were in over the heads, both economically and educationally. People should have been asking more questions, but trusted the men and women in nice suits that told them they could afford the American Dream. They failed to mention or fully explain terms like “negative amortization” and “variable mortgages” especially what transpires when the rate goes up by 200 basis points.

So, bankers used to be trustworthy, but they threw it out the window. They earned these new stripes. You have to be the navigator of your customer service experience, in general, but especially with a bank. You have to ask questions about why you are being asked to do something. You need to ask why you need another credit card. You need to ask why is the salesperson pushing so hard on this issue. If you don’t, you may need the help of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

With that said, I know many fine people who work for banks. They do their best to serve their customers. Yet, the higher-ups are pushing for sales and align incentives with that push. As a result, even well-meaning people will push the envelope even more. I have been a business for over 34 years and a truism I have learned is you make more money serving the needs of your client long term. You may make more money on occasion by pushing that envelope, but you may do so at the expense of a long term relationship which might come to an end.

For full disclosure, I am a shareholder and customer of both Bank of America and Wells Fargo. These fines disappoint me. I want them to be accountable to their customers, employees and shareholders. But, they also need to be accountable to their regulators. They owe it to all of us.

 

 

 

There are votes and there are votes that count

A couple of events occurred last week that galvanized my concern for democracy in our country. They impede our essential right that each of our votes is important and it should be made as easy as possible for us to cast them. Yet, after last week, it is apparent that all of our votes are not important and they certainly are not equal. We have been evolving toward this, but American democracy is up for sale and it goes to the highest bidder. Unless you have a lot of money, your voice does not really count that much. If your call as a constituent is answered, it will only be after your legislator takes a call from someone across the country that funded his or her campaign.

Last week, our Supreme Court ruled on a case called McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission. In essence, the 5 to 4 ruling said it was OK for someone to spread his or her money around and fund as many candidates as possible. Apparently, the previous rule was infringing on the freedom of speech of wealthy people to have a stake in candidates around the country. When added to one of the worst rulings ever made by our Supreme Court in the infamous Citizens United case, people with money and influence can attempt to buy as many elections as possible. The latter ruling on top of previous ones allows unlimited funding of Super PACs to fund advertisements to discredit an opponent of one they favor. These rulings make it easier for an oligarchy to rule our country and state. My friend Barney has a great post on this topic from last week: http://mountainperspective.wordpress.com/2014/04/page/2/

That was only the beginning of the week’s events. Various states like mine in North Carolina (NC) have put forth similar, restrictive voter suppression laws under the guise of Voter ID. A few months ago, a less suppressive law than the one in NC was found unconstitutional in Pennsylvania. The NC law is being sued for unconstitutionality by four separate entities with multiple parts of the law designed to suppress votes of the elderly, African-Americans and college students. This independent voter will not be surprised to see it declared as such when the ruling is made. In fact, the NC Attorney General told the legislature that this law was unconstitutional before it was passed.

These Voter ID Laws were passed to combat the illusion of rampant voter fraud. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell noted in a speech in Raleigh there is no evidence of rampant voter fraud. Our rampant voting problem in this country is not enough people voting. But, last week in an effort to show there is rampant voter fraud, a study was done and found 765 cases of potential dual state voting cases in the last presidential election in NC. This should be looked into as to why this happened, but let’s put things in perspective and look at the numbers. In the 2012 presidential election, North Carolinians cast 4,499,039 votes. If you divide 765 by 4,499,039 you get a result of .017% (less than 2/100th of a percent). This very low percentage would support Mr. Powell’s assertion that we do not have rampant voter fraud.

So, what should we do about all of this? First, we should mute every campaign commercial we can. Just don’t listen to what the funders are selling. In the last Presidential campaign, FactCheck.org said only 1 out of 3 commercials for Romney was fully correct and 1 out of 2 for Obama. So, with those percentages, you are more informed by not watching. Second, we should get informed about the candidates and not the party they represent. Read and watch reputable news sources and not those who will have a biased spin on the news or cover the game of politics and not the issues. The latter especially includes Fox News and MSNBC which provide a version of the news that is spun to fit the demographics of viewers.

Third, let’s advocate common sense voter laws. Let’s start with passing bi-partisan redistricting laws designed to prevent gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is harmful to governance and it hurts both parties, as we end up with unopposed candidates and makes it easier for politicians who are the party fringes to get elected. Next, let’s repeal all Voter ID Laws like the one in NC, before they are ruled unconstitutional; that will save legal fees and let us replace them with more common sense laws to promote voting. A new Voter law should include automatic runoff voting, which means you rank your candidates, so when a runoff is needed, the system can do a runoff election without another vote. This is far cheaper and runoff elections often vote in a candidate with fewer than 10% of the voters making it to the polls. Let’s also change how we call on people for jury duty. This is an impediment to people signing up for voting. And, let’s repeal any laws that make it easier to influence elections of judges. The change made last year in NC, e.g., is akin to the horrible Supreme Court decisions above as it gives people with money too much influence over judges.

Democracy is under fire. We need to do what we can to make all of our votes count. The above is a start. But, don’t just believe me, I would encourage you to watch Bill Moyers’ documentary from earlier this year called “State of Conflict – North Carolina” to get a better sense of how our democracy has been polluted in my state as an example of what can and is happening. http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-state-of-conflict-north-carolina/

Granddaddy

I only knew my step-grandfather. I have been told I met my father’s father and my mother said her real father came by the house once, but the only grandfather I knew was my mother’s stepfather. We called him “Granddaddy.” When I think of Granddaddy, I think of his love of fishing. When we visited him and Big Mama (my grandmother), he would usually take my dad, brother and me fishing on his favorite fresh water lake.

The irony of all of this is his best friend, my real grandfather’s brother, would join us. While my real grandfather was a wanderer (which is the nicest thing I could say about him), his brother was one of the kindest, most loyal people you will ever meet. And, to make the irony complete, the brother was married to one of my grandmother’s sisters until she passed away.

But, this is about Granddaddy. He was a gruff man, one of few words, but I have seen him cry at weddings of his grandchildren. He dearly loved my cousin who had Autism and lived with them for a brief time. His house was also open to my mother’s oldest sister (and another cousin) when her husband was in Vietnam. He was bricklayer and house builder. His hands were very worn and he could pick up a catfish bare handed as he removed the hook. If you know fish, a catfish can slice you open with its sharp fins. When he fished, he would use two rods and reel out of the back of the boat. It was not a fancy boat, seating only three in its ten foot length, but it was his.

My favorite memory was the day the fish were hitting big. I think we hauled in over 150 fish between the two boats – my older brother would be in my Great Uncle’s boat. Granddaddy probably hauled in 80 by himself. He was so quiet when he fished, you could not tell by his demeanor when he was catching fish, even when he was having a very successful outing. This was the day his teachings of how to clean a fish were practiced over and over again. He was very patient as he taught my brother and me how to do it. And, we ate what we caught – fried fish, hush puppies, collard greens, corn bread, etc. Those were feasts, especially after a long morning on the water.

Granddaddy loved my grandmother, but they would have a tete-a-tete on occasion. Big Mama would get mad at him and he would say “Madame” and proceed with his defense. When we heard “Madame” we knew it was not a fun conversation. We also knew he was outgunned. My grandmother could talk, so she would not let anything go without colorful discussion. She would win almost every argument, but even when she was right, he did not want to hear anymore.

One time, I deserved his wrath as before one of our fishing trips, I knocked over a basket of crickets in his house. My dad was the one who carried out the fussing, but I know he beat Granddaddy to the punch. My mother later told me Big Mama heard crickets in the house for months. Granddaddy would only shake his head and curse under his breath.

Granddaddy died of lung cancer. The last few months of his life he could only speak with a rasp, as his doctors actually damaged his vocal chords with some of the tubing he had to swallow to breathe better. He dared not sue them as they were only doing their job. Having been a bricklayer, he knew first hand that mistakes could be made and you fixed them and moved on. He was not a litigious person. He was a hand shake person. But, to his death, he was always thankful for our visits as they meant so much to him. And, vice versa.

Big Mama lived for fifteen more years after his death and she missed him greatly. No more Madames. No more fish fries. No more yin and yang. They were quite the pair. My grandmother, the character who had character, and my quiet, decent, and hardworking grandfather who loved to fish. Thank you Granddaddy. Thank you both. I remember you well.