Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Banks and Loan Sharks: Payday Loans and Online Lending

When you think of a "loan shark" you might stereotypically think of a hard nosed man who will advance you some cash when you're in a bind but is rumored to hurt or even murder people who don't pay him back on time. He might be affiliated with the regional office of a national organization of similar businessmen. He probably employs people the size of small refrigerators who collect for him. He may tool around town in a late model Cadillac or older Town Car with an expansive albeit suspiciously stained trunk. If you are late on your payments or if he suspects you might be thinking about being late on your payments, he might suddenly appear at your home and politely ask for his money. Or he may follow you to your anniversary celebration and throw you a beating in front of your spouse and kids. It all depends on his mood and how late you are. 

Hey, all he wants is his money. Since he can't rely on the courts to enforce a technically valid but completely illegal contract, you can understand why he would need to have some, well, unorthodox methods of securing his capital. Since many of his clients are themselves violent lowlifes, criminals and other trash, stern dunning letters and threats to report late payers to credit bureaus won't have the desired effect. Generally speaking baseball bats and tire irons are more effective than plaintive phone calls at getting people's undivided attention.

But if you're a loan shark all this can be hectic and dangerous. Your clientele is often armed themselves. If you kill a debtor you lose that payment stream. Harassing or beating up debtors, while occasionally satisfying, can bring in the police or worse, scare the deadbeat so much that he scurries down to the local FBI office. And then you'd probably be convicted of several racketeering, conspiracy, usury and assault charges and spend the next 40 years in a federal penitentiary. No good. So what's an ambitious hoodlum to do?

Well if he was smart he'd realize that the risks of dealing with criminals and degenerate gamblers, ordering or carrying out beatings and murders, sharing profits with bosses who are even more paranoid and brutal than he is, and spending time worrying that a customer or associate might be an undercover FBI agent or informant don't really justify his shylock profits. I mean you can't spend your money if you're dead or in jail right? And really, who needs all the stress? What if you could make similar profits in a related venture that not only was completely legal (more or less) but also put banks and lawyers on your side for a change? I mean how cool would that be? Wouldn't a loan shark like to have a regular nine to five gig with above board profits, vacation and sick days, 401K opportunities and incentive bonuses without all the messy illegality and violence that used to go along with his business? Classic loan sharks aren't as common as they used to be. They got smart.

A loan shark should enter the payday loan/online lending business. Now, in payday loan lending you might not attain the 1040% annualized nominal interest rate on a typical 6-for-5 mob loan but then again you don't have to pay hoodlums who will beat up, intimidate or kill delinquent clients either. You can start your car without wondering if a co-worker put a bomb under the seat. You can attend last minute meetings with the franchise president without being frightened because the conference room is empty. Your overhead shrinks. You can pay taxes and bank your profits. And banks will help you with your business instead of informing the IRS. And if you like, you can even keep your two-tone pinstripe suits for old time's sake. What a country, eh??
Major banks have quickly become behind-the-scenes allies of Internet-based payday lenders that offer short-term loans with interest rates sometimes exceeding 500 percent. With 15 states banning payday loans, a growing number of the lenders have set up online operations in more hospitable states or far-flung locales like Belize, Malta and the West Indies to more easily evade statewide caps on interest rates.
While the banks, which include giants like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, do not make the loans, they are a critical link for the lenders, enabling the lenders to withdraw payments automatically from borrowers’ bank accounts, even in states where the loans are banned entirely. In some cases, the banks allow lenders to tap checking accounts even after the customers have begged them to stop the withdrawals. “Without the assistance of the banks in processing and sending electronic funds, these lenders simply couldn’t operate,” said Josh Zinner, co-director of the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, which works with community groups in New York.
For the banks, it can be a lucrative partnership. At first blush, processing automatic withdrawals hardly seems like a source of profit. But many customers are already on shaky financial footing. The withdrawals often set off a cascade of fees from problems like overdrafts. Roughly 27 percent of payday loan borrowers say that the loans caused them to overdraw their accounts, according to a report released this month by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That fee income is coveted, given that financial regulations limiting fees on debit and credit cards have cost banks billions of dollars.
Ivy Brodsky, 37, thought she had figured out a way to stop six payday lenders from taking money from her account when she visited her Chase branch in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn in March to close it. But Chase kept the account open and between April and May, the six Internet lenders tried to withdraw money from Ms. Brodsky’s account 55 times, according to bank records reviewed by The New York Times. Chase charged her $1,523 in fees — a combination of 44 insufficient fund fees, extended overdraft fees and service fees.
For Subrina Baptiste, 33, an educational assistant in Brooklyn, the overdraft fees levied by Chase cannibalized her child support income. She said she applied for a $400 loan from and a $700 loan from in 2011. The loans, with annual interest rates of 730 percent and 584 percent respectively, skirt New York law. Ms. Baptiste said she asked Chase to revoke the automatic withdrawals in October 2011, but was told that she had to ask the lenders instead. In one month, her bank records show, the lenders tried to take money from her account at least six times. Chase charged her $812 in fees and deducted over $600 from her child-support payments to cover them.“I don’t understand why my own bank just wouldn’t listen to me,” Ms. Baptiste said, adding that Chase ultimately closed her account last January, three months after she asked.
Now stupid people will often do stupid things. Now why does this even matter you might ask? Well it matters because instead of helping people start businesses and get out of poverty payday/online lenders are largely in the business of helping poor people to stay poor. And wouldn't you know it, black people, who already have lower incomes and wealth than most Americans, are disproportionate customers of payday/online lenders. Black people are about 12% of the US population but make up 23% of payday borrowers. Renters and people of lower income are also more likely to use payday loans than homeowners and higher income Americans. Most people are using payday loans for daily expenses. This means it is more difficult for people who are already behind the 8 ball economically to get over the hump. They are diverting a sizable portion of their already meager resources to interest payments for things that if they really thought about it, they may not have needed. 

Or viewed another way if they really did need them then this is another good reason we need to raise the minimum wage here and work to increase income in this country for our citizens as opposed to helping people in China, India or elsewhere. If people are taking loans just to make ends meet then something has gone drastically wrong with our job generating machine.  I view payday/online lending not just as a symptom of poor personal financial management or temporary desperation but as a wholly predictable outcome of a deunionized workforce with stagnant income growth. JP Morgan Chase, not content with aiding legal loan sharks to rip off low income citizens, also allegedly ripped off other banks by selling them crap mortgages. HSBC escaped criminal charges after willingly assisting drug cartels in laundering their profits. Apparently something has gone drastically wrong with the financial superstructure in this country and world. We need to fix this ASAP because otherwise not only will we continue to have record levels of income inequality as well as financial corruption but growth will also stay anemic. You can't grow when you're spending so much of your income servicing debt.
What we ought to be worried about is not the mob shark but all of the other debttrappers that have proliferated since our credit markets were deregulated. There are more of them now than ever before and most of them have been issued licenses. That is the loan-shark problem regulators should confront.
It looks like financial market deregulation hasn't so much gotten rid of the classic loan shark as it's made him clean up and operate above board, with almost the same business model. It looks like Lucky Luciano was right on the money with his insight.

‘I’d do it legal. I learned too late that you need just as good a brain to make a crooked million, as an honest million. These days, you apply for a license to steal from the public. If I had my time again, I’d make sure I got that license first!’
Charles "Lucky" Luciano


1) Should Payday loan/online lending be outlawed completely?

2) Does the government have a role to protect people from themselves? 

3) Is there any difference between a bank and an unregulated lender?

4) Do you know anyone who has used payday loans? Have you used them?

Monday, February 25, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones Season 3 Trailer

Well it looks like some people (and some dragons) have grown up a bit. 
As far as the Game is concerned some people are still in it and they are in it to win it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Book Reviews-Changes, The Mafia's Greatest Hits, The Norse Myths

by Jim Butcher
Usually I don't like reading the later books in a series without reading the first. In the case of The Dresden Files series I made an exception. I had read one of the books before but had not read the first. I liked what I read so when I saw Changes on deep discount I picked it up without worrying about where it was in sequence. It's closer to the end, maybe firmly so, judging by some events. But like many such books in long running series if you are interested in the themes, you can buy this book and enjoy it without having read all of the other books-though that probably helps.

Ok, what's it about? It's similar to the Mike Carey book I reviewed earlier  though I think that Butcher was published first. It's a mystery book with supernatural elements. Or maybe it's a supernatural book with mystery elements. Basically not only is magic real but also everything you ever worried about that goes bump in the night, every crazy myth, every religion, is all real as well. 
Vampires, ghosts, goblins, elves, demons, angels, gods, everything. They're all out there.
Smack dab in the middle of this is one Harry Dresden, who is a Chicago based practicing wizard and private detective. Dresden is more public than most of his magic using brethren prefer. Dresden is something of a maverick who is known to stretch if not outright break rules if he thinks he has a good reason. Wizards are not allowed to kill humans using magic and Dresden does his best to follow that rule. It's a pretty serious rule and breaking it can get a wizard killed himself. But Dresden also carries a few sidearms. Although Dresden is not the most powerful wizard, he may have the most natural talent and is part of the White Council, an organization tasked to protect normal humans from abuses of magic.

In this book, Harry is literally minding his own business when out of the blue an ex-girlfriend named Susan calls him up to tell him that vampires have stolen their daughter. This is a double shock to Harry as not only had he not had any contact with Susan for ages but he didn't even know that he had a daughter. And oh by the way he doesn't know if he can even trust Susan as Susan herself is now a half-vampire which is part of the reason they had a rough break-up. The vampire Arianna Ortega intends to sacrifice Harry's daughter in revenge for actions Harry took previously. And she's supported not only by all the Red Court Vampires but by the evil gods they serve. There are different types of vampires. Arguably Red Court is the most organized, the most dangerous and almost certainly the most vicious. Harry's tangled with them before and it's not something he looks forward to doing again by any means.

And the story takes off from there. In short order Harry's office is bombed, his apartment building is burned down and he is wanted by the police. Harry tries to get support from the White Council but unbelievably the Council is in the middle of trying to arrange a truce with the vampires and can't be bothered to get involved in Harry's personal problems. Some rivals murmur that Harry brought it on himself. No, Harry will have to try to get his daughter back with the assistance of a few very special associates. These people include:
  • Sanya, a Black Russian man who, despite being a committed agnostic, wields a holy sword built from the nails used in the crucifixion and given to him by an angel. So Sanya is a paladin. He is the last remaining Knight of the Cross. Despite this honor Sanya still insists the angel may be an alien or a hallucination.
  • Donar Vaderrung aka Mr. Wednesday aka The Allfather aka Odin. He's not what he  used to be but even a diminished god is exponentially more powerful than Harry.
  • Karin Murphy a no nonsense Chicago Police Officer. She and Harry may or may not have a thang going on.
  • Molly, Harry's girl Friday and young apprentice who, according to the other women in Harry's life, does have a thang for Harry.
  • John Marcone-the head of the Chicago Outfit who intends to kill Harry someday, just not yet. Harry's feeling towards Marcone is mutual. Despite being completely evil, Marcone doesn't harm children and enjoys hurting those who do.
  • Lea aka Leanansidhe, an elvish sorceress who is literally Harry's faerie godmother. Thing is, elves aren't nice and have little use for or understanding of human morals. They do however take oaths and promises (implied or explicit) very seriously so it's extremely dangerous to even speak with them though they certainly enjoy wordplay.
  • Mouse-Harry's dog and bodyguard, a Tibetan Temple Mastiff who has powers, intelligence and abilities of which even Harry is unaware.
  • Susan and her associate Martin, both half-vampires, who lead an underground terrorist organization that kills Red Court vampires.
  • Thomas Raith, Harry's half-brother and a White Court vampire. Vampires of the White Court are basically incubi/succubi and feed off human emotions-primarily lust. 
The book is told in first person which is pretty par for the course for this sort of noir fiction. Harry is a bit of a smarta$$ to everyone he meets, especially if they have more power than he has. He explains this by saying that to many of the predators he must deal with in his line of work, like Marcone, everyone else looks like prey. It's best for his business relationships and his continuing existence on the planet that dangerous people think that he doesn't care how dangerous they are.
This book was a little long at just over 400 pages hardcover. There's quite a bit of ironic humor within. Although I liked it I probably would have been a bit more emotionally invested in it had I read about Harry's abortive relationship with Susan earlier. There is a lot of explanation of the limits and rules of magic. But the story feels very real and logical. You shouldn't be put off by the magic elements. It's really just a good old fashioned detective/adventure/mystery story overlaid with a roaring rampage of revenge theme. Harry gets tired, makes mistakes and gets seriously hurt. He also has to decide if he's willing to break laws of morality and magic in order to rescue his child. It's a rollicking good time and with the exception of one or two missteps I enjoyed the story.

The Mafia's Greatest Hits

by David H. Jacobs
This book is just what it sounds like. It lists ten of the most public or infamous murders of various mob/Mafia figures in the 20th century. The introduction is by now deceased former mob associate Henry Hill (inspiration for the movie Goodfellas) who gives a quick overview of exactly the sort of mafia protocol violations that can see an up and coming mobster appear in a car trunk or end up at the bottom of Sheepshead Bay tied to a jukebox. These include serious offenses like sharing information with law enforcement officials, holding back money that you were supposed to kick up, sleeping with someone's wife, being so violent or erratic that fellow mobsters decide they can do without you, relatively minor mistakes like making a crack about how someone of lower status used to shine shoes for a living, or even just being in the way of an advancing co-worker who is more ruthless and ambitious than you are.

The criteria used for including the ten hits discussed are how well the murder plan went off, if the conspirators and actual executioners got away clean, if the strategy made sense, and how well the short term and long term results of the murder dovetailed with organizational goals. It's no good getting rid of a greedy boss if he's replaced with someone just as grasping. Similarly, killing someone who may be under indictment could have the unintended consequence of enraging prosecutors and bringing even more heat to the organization. As the fictional Sollozzo said in The Godfather film, "Blood is a big expense".

The book doesn't just discuss the actual murder plans or participants. In more cases than you might think, the men who gave the order or carried it out are still unknown to history. The book also explains who the murder victims were, their history, business relations and standing in the mob, why people may have wanted them dead, and what the aftermath of each murder meant to that particular mob organization, or in many of these cases, what the effects were on the mob as a whole. For example, the murder of Paul Castellano,as ordered by John Gotti put Gotti at the top of the Gambino Crime Family. But Gotti's rule proved disastrous for the Family and the NY Mafia as a whole and for him, personally.  In some cases the book discusses if there is anything differently the men listed could have done to avoid being put on someone's termination list.

Hits discussed include Big Jim Colosimo, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano (both masterminded by Lucky Luciano), Dutch Schultz, Abe Reles, Bugsy Siegel, Albert Anastasia, Sam Giancana, Carmine Galante (that's him on the book cover) and Paul Castellano. This story is therefore a pretty fair oversight of top level 20th century organized crime. It's a good pick up for any crime history buff or a novice who has interest. It's quick reading.

The Norse Myths

by Kevin Crossley-Holland
As a child I enjoyed reading about many different mythologies. But some I liked better than others. The Roman myths seemed to just be dimmed down retelling of Greek or Sumerian myths. The Greek myths were occasionally sexually disturbing while the Greek gods didn't seem to struggle against anything. IIRC there's a point in the Illiad where Zeus boasts to the other gods that they could all stand on earth and pull on one end of a rope but he could stand in Olympus and pull on the other end and pull them up to heaven. Greek mythology seemed to be one big pan-sexual party. I only got exposed to a little of African mythology growing up. Arabian mythology and stories were exciting but also full of some very ugly racism.

But Norse mythology was my favorite. Winter is coming indeed. The Norse Gods didn't always win. In fact at the world's final battle, or Ragnarok, they knew that they were doomed to lose everything. However they persevered anyway. And they certainly expected humans to do the same. It's grim. These are the gods the Vikings worshipped. It's these sorts of myths that inspired the 8th and 9th century Christian prayers "Oh lord deliver us from the fury of the Northmen!". It says something about the Norse culture that their idea of heaven was a place where you got to fight to the death all day every day before being reborn and feasting. Norse myths fit very well with my enjoyment of blues music. They were both similar in being realistic and even cynical about human motivations and needs while taking a slightly pessimistic view of life and a "me against the world" attitude. They also shared a strong sense of fatalism.

"Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for any man who puts his nose out of doors. The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago"
For Scirnis

This book is a translation and slight retelling of 32 of the most important Norse myths from the creation of the world, the beginnings of life, the start of evil, the final destruction of the universe and its rebirth. There are some intriguing links to other religious myths both near and far. Indian myths have world trees and the destruction of the universe by fire. Loki, a trickster archetype, is found in many Indo-European myths. But Loki is also (at least initially) reminiscent of the West African trickster god Legba while the blustering Norse thunder god Thor shares some characteristics and domains with the Yoruba god Chango.  Even Odin, who sacrifices himself to himself, is pierced with a spear and hangs dead from the world tree for nine nights before resurrecting himself, has some obvious parallels to Christ. Humans are more alike than different and every human personality type or heroic figure seems to be represented in every religion or myth if you look for them. 
"The Marriage of Njord and Skadi" in which a god and goddess(giantess) decide that they cannot live together may be an early endorsement of feminist thought.
These are the founding myths which not only still resonate in some of our day names (Tuesday = Tyr's Day, Thursday = Thor's Day, Friday = Frigg's Day, Wednesday = Woden's Day) but also served as the basis and inspiration for such works as the Nibelungenlied and Wagner's Ring Cycle, creations by literary giants such as Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, and Poul Anderson, and a fair amount of Led Zeppelin lyrics.

The stories have a fair amount of humor and wordplay which is apparent when Loki having lost a bet to a dwarf and forfeited his head tells the dwarf that although having lost his head, he said nothing about his neck. The powers of the gods, though far greater than those of men and most giants are not without limit. As guests of giants Thor, Loki and a companion are challenged to contests to show off the supposed abilities of the gods. Loki loses an eating competition. Their speedy human companion loses a race against a young giant. Finally Thor, disappointed in his friends' performance, steps up to prove his strength. The giants claim to not want to test Thor too much as they are skeptical of his abilities, given the poor results so far. They give Thor a horn of mead to drink from and tell him that even a weak giant can finish it in 2 swigs. Thor drinks and drinks but can make only a slight difference in the horn's level. The giants then ask Thor to pick up a cat from the floor. He tries and tries but the best he can do is to get one paw off the ground. Sadly the giants say they've seen enough and tell Thor they would ask him to wrestle against one of their champions but to do so would be an insult. So they place him in a wrestling match against an old crone. Thor is angered and calls upon all his might as strongest of the gods. But the old woman is unmoved. They wrestle interminably but finally the woman forces Thor down on one knee though she can't beat him. The giant king calls an end to the games and feasts begin.

The next morning the giant king abruptly awakens Thor, Loki and their human friend and explains that all of them are far too dangerous to remain among the giants. The human raced against thought so there was no way he could win. Loki was trying to out eat fire so that was impossible. The horn of mead Thor drank from was actually connected to the sea. The cat that Thor tried to pick up from the floor was really Jormungandr, the serpent that encircles the world and which is fated to kill and be killed by Thor at Ragnarok. And the old woman who just barely forced Thor down to one knee was old age, which eventually beats everything. Though they pretended contempt the giants were actually greatly shocked by and extremely fearful of Thor's strength. Ultimately there are natural forces which neither man nor god can surpass. This is one of my favorite stories and is typical of the entire mythos. We're all going to die someday and there is nothing you can do about it. So you might as well go down swinging with a smile on your face and a song on your lips. Humans can get immortality via their deeds, which will live on long after their deaths.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Michigan: Old School Racism in Hospitals and Child Support

It's impossible to tell without performing or acquiring some deeper research which I can't do at the present moment but I wonder if President's Obama's election and especially his re-election has just caused some bigots to completely lose their minds. Not only do we have drunk white men slapping black toddlers and telling the child's mother to shut that n****** baby up but in Michigan some old school 1950s style racism recently came to my attention.

There was an old joke about the difference between southern white racists and northern white racists being that in the south, bigots didn't care how close a black person got s/he just better not get too high and successful. But in the the north, bigots didn't care all that much about how successful a black person became, they just didn't want to get too close to blacks.

I was reminded of that joke when a white man in Flint, Michigan, in a hospital to attend the birth of his new baby, allegedly requested that no black nurse touch his precious newborn child. According to the black nurse who filed a lawsuit, the hospital temporarily agreed to the white man's request. The hospital denies this allegation and states that it remains committed to non-discrimination. It's hard to believe that in this day and age a hospital would open itself up like that but you never can tell. Let's see what the facts show.
The head of Hurley Medical Center in Flint on Tuesday denied allegations that hospital officials granted a father's request that African-American nurses not tend to his baby. Rather, when the father showed a nursing supervisor his swastika tattoo, it "created anger and outrage in our staff," Melany Gavulic, president and CEO, said in a written statement. "This resulted in concern by supervisors for the safety of the staff. The father was informed that his request could not be granted."
Last month, Tonya Battle, 49, an African-American nurse and veteran of the neonatal unit, filed an eight-page lawsuit contending that the hospital prohibited her from caring for an infant last year because a man objected to her race. The lifelong Flint resident said she was working the late shift Oct. 31 when a man walked into a room where she was caring for a newborn. She asked to see his identification, and the man, who was the father of the newborn, demanded to see her supervisor, she told the Free Press on Monday. According to Battle, a note was placed afterward on the assignment chart that read: "No African American nurse to take care of baby."

In another story from my ever so charming home state, a black woman named Crystal Perry who works at Michigan's Department of Human Services Child Support division filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in promotion. After she met with a supervisor to discuss her lack of promotion , someone placed a five foot ape on top of her cubicle. Yes, you read that correctly. It gets weirder though because for some strange reason Perry did not turn into an angry black woman, take the ape down and immediately quit her job/curse someone out/file another lawsuit, but instead asked the same supervisor who was refusing to promote her to take the ape down. He of course refused. When I saw this story I was angry because it illustrates the damage that racism does when not only when whites express it but when blacks internalize it and start to second guess themselves.
Just days after Crystal Perry met with her supervisor to discuss why she wasn’t being promoted, a 5-foot-long toy ape appeared perched atop her office cubicle. To Perry, a black woman with a master’s degree in human resources and labor relations from Michigan State University, it was a racially motivated attack. Her supervisor at the Michigan Department of Human Services’ child support office was a white man. He told her he didn’t know who placed the toy there. It remained atop the cubicle for three weeks. “It truly belittled me. It just made me feel less than a person,” said the 47-year-old Delta Township woman, who in 2010 filed a discrimination lawsuit against the agency. Last month, after a bench trial, Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina found that there was no evidence that discrimination caused Perry to not be promoted. 
Perry’s lawsuit was among at least three filed in recent years alleging discrimination within DHS.  Last year, in a separate case that went to a bench trial, Ingham County Circuit Judge Clinton Canady III ruled in favor of Perry’s onetime co-worker, Cynthia Jackson, also a black woman. Jackson alleged that racial discrimination affected her ability to be promoted. A class-action lawsuit involving more than 580 minority male DHS employees is expected to go to trial in March, said Novi-based attorney Daryle Salisbury, who is handling that case and also represented Perry and Jackson. The male employees allege that they were discriminated against on the basis of race and ethnicity in promotions to supervisory and management positions.
Now I tend to be a bit of a pessimist in such matters so actually stories like this don't really surprise me all that much. Once you get out into the real world you see how poorly many in the majority population still react to the idea of having to take orders from a black person or having to admit that a black person has more education, experience or credentials than they do. It's certainly not as bad as it was for my parents or grandparents but it's not equal or good by any means. Nobody ever put an ape on my cubicle but I could share some stories about whites getting promoted more quickly or whites not needing to have certain levels of educational attainment or certifications to get hired/promoted while blacks with those credentials have a much tougher road to travel. And if you talk to some black professionals in corporate America or even in the public sector, these sorts of stories aren't all that uncommon even today in 2013. Sometimes it's nepotism. Other times it's school snobbery. But far too often it's good old fashioned racism combined with the first two elements mentioned as well as other causes.

You often hear from conservatives and increasingly some liberals that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are the real cause of racial division in this country, that they're anti-white, that they keep racial grievance alive, that they agitate simple minded black folks by getting them worked up over nothing, that they convince black people to blame whites for their own lack of accomplishments. Well. Not really. What keeps racial grievances alive is seeing people that are less or equally qualified to you get hired and promoted faster and paid more. That's a serious problem. It's one that must be addressed. Racism is the original sin of this country. It's a poisonous seed that is still blooming dangerous flowers all over this nation.

We've seen those all too common videos of blacks acting a fool with each other whether it be in a low rent Atlanta "mall" or on a Cleveland area bus. We've read the stories of black men killing each other because someone stepped on someone else's shoes or was walking in the street and refused to get out of a vehicle's path. Anecdotally it seems as black people, men and women alike have a very low threshold of violence with each other but seem to be willing to tolerate much higher levels of disrespect from whites. I think this is internalized racism. I think that people who are for whatever reason often afraid to raise their voice to a white person who mistreats them transfer that repressed rage to other black people, with often tragic results. It's something to think about anyway. I won't blame the victim if everything went down like Ms. Perry claimed it did. But I can't think of any other reason besides fear/internalized hatred that someone would allow another person to put an ape on their cubicle and then leave it there.
“I didn’t want someone to say (I wasn’t) supposed to do that,” she said. “It always gets turned back on the victim.”
The Flint hospital situation brings up some libertarian objections to state intervention into private matters as well as the right to discriminate. I definitely don't think that the hospital should have acceded to the racist man's request. If I were the hospital administrator I would have told the father that we assign the best nurses regardless of race and that if he didn't like that we he was free to take his fragile newborn elsewhere. At the same time we know that some people are more comfortable with a doctor of the same gender. Should that sort of discrimination be banned? Other people make a point of hiring accountants, realtors or lawyers of a particular (their own) race. Some black people discriminate against other black professionals. Where do we draw the line? 


1) Is racism more common post Obama re-election or are these isolated incidents?

2) Do you prefer open hostility or quiet backstabbing?

3) Is there ever a place for discrimination in the marketplace?

4) In each situation, what would you have done? (At work someone crudely insults your race/gender or someone makes a request that requires you to discriminate)

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Movie Reviews-End of Watch, Looper, Irreversible

End of Watch
directed by David Ayer
End of Watch is a big sloppy wet French kiss to the L.A.P.D., tongue swirl and all. Depending on how you feel about the L.A.P.D. and/or how effectively or whether you are able to put those feelings aside for a movie, you may really enjoy this movie as a neo-western or you may be a bit put off by yet another mainstream film in which most of the dying is done by the racialized other. Just once, I would like to see a modern film in which whites sacrifice for non-whites and die doing so. Those films tend to be pretty rare, Django Unchained notwithstanding. Ok, my particular racial hangups aside, what's this film about and how well does it work?

Well it's directed by the same fellow who wrote Training Day and S.W.A.T. and directed Street Kings and Harsh Times. So if you liked the plot or characterization in those films, you probably will appreciate the storyline here. It's not all that different. Two L.A.P.D. officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavala (Michael Pena) are close friends and partners who share a rough camaraderie as they patrol the streets. Brian is a former Marine. Nothing is off limits for them. They tease each other a lot in ways that might be considered inappropriate were it not for their tight bond. Brian playfully mimics the singsong patois of Mexican-American women (Zavala is married to his high school sweetheart Gabby (Natalie Martinez) ) while Miguel cheerfully mocks the nasal Caucasian valley girl vocal rhythms of the Anglo girls Brian pumps and dumps. Brian is starting to get serious about one such woman in particular, Janet (Anna Kendrick). Neither Martinez not Kendrick have a lot to do here since their roles are decidedly secondary but they do very well with what they have. Martinez's big moment comes when she gleefully and graphically describes to a young couple exactly how a newly married wife should ensure that her husband doesn't cheat.
The movie's hook is that Brian is taking pre-law classes. One course is media studies so he's filming everything he and his co-workers do. For obvious reasons, his fellow officers aren't fond of this and tell him so repeatedly. No one wants to show up on youtube. They (jokingly?) threaten to beat him up while one stick in the mud complains to higher authority. The film's sweetest scene is after Brian and Janet have enjoyed carnal knowledge of each other. Janet tells the sleeping Brian (via his camera) how much she loves him but also takes the opportunity to go through his wallet. She finds names and numbers of other women and throws them out, telling the camera "Oh, you won't be needing these any more". I have heard that women sometimes do such things. 
But it's not all just fun and games. The dynamic duo is aggressively looking for bad guys. They don't like writing moving violation citations or handling less dangerous, more routine work, much to their sergeant's (Frank Grillo) dismay. He has ticket quotas that need to be met and he doesn't need cowboys.  Miguel and Brian are also constantly warned against being too aggressive by an older, quite bitter cop, Van Hauser (David Harbour) who tells them that he knows from horrible personal experience that the department will not back them up if things go wrong. Van Hauser is the sort of person people generally avoid speaking to as even telling him "Good Morning" is likely to set off a long diatribe about the person who ******d him over back in 1997 and how he's gonna get him back some day and how he doesn't make enough money, and his woman left him and life is one big bowl of s***. I worked with a few people like that and I'm sure you have also.

Miguel is insulted and challenged to a fight by a Bloods member Tre (real life former Bloods member Cle Sloan). Miguel beats Tre fair and square and arrests him but doesn't charge him with assault because that would have been a third felony. Tre respects this and later tries to do Miguel a favor. But first Tre survives a driveby from the local Mexican-American gang which is assiduously attempting to drive all blacks out of what it now considers to be a Mexican neighborhood. The drug rivalry and racial hatreds feed into each other. The Mexicans are depicted as very much the worst of the worst here though honestly Black people (especially black mothers) don't come off that much better. You could very easily watch this movie and think to yourself "Who the **** lost LA?".  I don't know if that was the film maker's intention or not but that question certainly crossed my mind.
After the driveby murder (they aren't supposed to be investigating it as they are not detectives) Miguel and Brian make a few arrests, shake some people down and stumble upon what they later learn are links between the city's Mexican-American gangs and the Mexican cartels. The cartels have a completely different set of rules regarding murder and who can or can't be killed. The Sinoloa Cartel does not automatically consider police officers to be untouchable. Miguel and Brian unintentionally disrupt an ICE investigation into human trafficking and narcotics importation. They are warned off for jurisdictional issues and concerns about their safety. Of course it wouldn't be much of a movie if they listened to this warning. This movie really looks realistic. I liked the cinematography. Every shot is captured by what looks like handheld cameras, surveillance cameras, dashboard mounted or cop mounted cameras or even night-vision. There's more than a hint of conspiracy or federal cover-up as we see ICE or other agencies gather intelligence on threats to L.A.P.D. officers without sharing it with that department. 
Yahira Garcia, aka Flakiss , a Latina rapper with no acting experience, steals most of the scenes she's in as "Lala", a swaggering thugged out racist lesbian gangster. She's Snoop's (from The Wire) evil twin. America Ferrara, Cody Davis, Shrondella Avery, and Kristy Wu also have roles. Obviously this is a violent film. There's gunplay, beatings and dead bodies. I didn't think it was over the top for an action film but YMMV. I'm kind of inured to cinematic mayhem. There are a few scenes which I DID think pushed the limit so take that for what it's worth. The film makes a few sharp changes in tone, which may catch you by surprise. The finality of death, as well as its banality, punches you in the gut. If I were a cop not only would I always have vests and body armor I think I would make sure I'm coming home at end of watch no matter who else gets got.

directed by Rian Johnson
There are some movies which almost must be seen a few times just to get all of the little hints and stories within stories that are being told. Looper may well be one such film. I watched it a few weeks back and will probably watch it again this weekend. It was really that good. It could be a new Matrix. Time travel is something that has always fascinated people perhaps because it opens up some unanswerable questions about destiny, free will and causation. While supposedly physics allows for time travel  as far as I know no one has ever done it. I'm not sure if special and general relativity also allow for time travel into the future as that would really throw causation into question. It's like the ball being hit before the pitcher throws the ball. I remember reading somewhere that such a thing would also imply faster than light speed which also seems to be a fundamental quality of our universe. I don't know. I'm not a physicist and all of this is FAR beyond me. Maybe someone with physics knowledge can chime in.

Time travel into the past seems to be a bit more conceivable but again you get into that tricky question of destiny and free will. Physics has some theories about different choices (quantum) creating different universes. I am making the choice to type these words right now but perhaps in another universe I didn't and so my life goes down a different path. And maybe every living being makes an infinite number of choices and so there are literally an infinite number of universes. Maybe your mother didn't smile at your father at just the right time and so you never existed. Maybe you don't exist now and are just a figment of my imagination. Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" was an excellent short story that examined the perils that time travel into the past could engender. Looper is an excellent movie that examines all of the decisions that you make and how they impact your life. I know for damn sure I wish I had some decisions back because they turned out to be the wrong decisions. But what if I could send myself back in time a decade or more to talk to myself. Would the younger Shady listen?  What if the younger and older Shady not only don't like each other but have violently conflicting interests? Or would this all be pointless because what will be will be? The moving pen writes and having writ moves on and such. Or maybe time is really an illusion. Perhaps past, present and future are all one and it's just that our perception is tragically limited, much like the square in Flatland who is visited by a sphere, whom he perceives as a circle that can randomly and apparently magically change in size.

It's hard to talk too much about this film without giving spoilers but basically in 2044 time travel is not only considered possible it actually takes place. Or to be more precise, it takes place in 2074 but the effects occur in 2044. See by 2074 time travel has been invented but it's not legal. Murder still exists but it's virtually impossible to get rid of a body. So criminal organizations being nothing if not inventive send their victims back in time (with payment attached) to 2044 where hitmen called loopers kill them and dispose of the body. Eventually the looper's future self will be sent back to 2044 where he will be murdered by a younger version of himself. No witnesses, no bodies, no snitches. This is called closing the loop. Left unexplained is exactly why the older looper in 2074 wouldn't have the memories of what he did in the past and what his employers intended to do to him. It seems like such a person, being the resourceful violent thug that he is would take steps to kill people in 2074 or failing that go underground. Anyway as is explained in voiceover the hitter business doesn't attract a lot of deep thinkers. So it's a nice little setup for looper Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cold blooded man who is also skimming a little bit from the payments he receives. Joe also has a thang going on that is a little more than client/call girl but something less than boyfriend/girlfriend with prostitute/stripper Suzie. (Piper Perabo)
An affably evil hitman from the future Abe (Jeff Daniels) oversees everything to make sure no one gets too far out of line or asks questions they shouldn't. Joe's co-worker and only friend Seth (Paul Dano) shows up at Joe's apartment with a harrowing tale. Seth was on the verge of closing his own loop when his future self told him they were being played and that some unknown man called the Rainmaker was killing all the loopers prematurely. Seth thought twice about killing his future self. Older Seth escaped and now Abe and his crew are looking for both Seths to terminate them. Initially Joe hides Seth but when Abe explains the facts of life Joe sees the light. Eventually Joe terminates his own future self (Bruce Willis). Or does he? Gordon-Levitt not only wears makeup and prosthetics to make himself reasonably look like a younger Bruce Willis, he also does a pretty fair job of mimicking Willis' thin-lipped smirk, vocal cadence and casual one liners. Future Joe has his own plans, which obviously conflict with those of present day Joe.

Words can't explain how good this movie is. Just see it. It combines action, drama, some really deep questions about causation and time, Freudian overtones, and oh yes, the battle for one soul's redemption. And the special effects are not only awesome, they are surprising, which is getting increasingly hard to do. Emily Blunt and child actor Pierce Gagnon have critical roles. I also liked this film because the ending does not explain everything that happened or will happen. You can have different interpretations. It's a pretty smart flick and doesn't spoon feed you things. Looper shows that sci-fi or action films can be just as smart as any talky drama. I'm definitely going to watch this again because even writing this I can think of a few things which I missed or am now thinking about differently. Once you start to think about the paradoxes and loops within loops you might have to sit down for a while.

directed by Gaspar Noe
I think Monica Bellucci is one of the planet's most beautiful women. Because I recently watched Amelie I thought I'd check out another French language movie. So for those two reasons I sat down and watched Irreversible in its entirety. As the President might say, let me be perfectly clear. This was a mistake! I should not have watched this film. Let me say that again in stronger language. Watching this movie was like going to an expensive exclusive restaurant , sit down to eat a scrumptious looking salad, think the taste is odd and then discover a half-eaten piece of excrement in your salad bowl. So you will gag, attempt to vomit, demand alcohol and mouthwash and spend the next few hours trying to forget what you just did. And when you angrily confront the waiter, chef and management, they smugly point to small print on the menu that reads "There may be small pieces of sh** in salad added for taste. Caveat emptor!!"

To be fair, I had heard that some of this movie's scenes were rough. Bellucci herself had said they were among the toughest things she ever did. I had seen bits and pieces of Irreversible over the years and knew the basic story outline. But I had never watched the film all the way through or seen the infamous scene unedited. So this was a bit of a shock. And I don't shock easy.

Irreversible tells the story in reverse chronological order and jumps around a bit. This can be confusing sometimes but it would have worked here were it not for the underlying ugliness. Two men, Marcus (Vincent Cassel-Bellucci's real life husband) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel), are frantically searching for the homosexual pimp who attacked, beat and raped Alex (Monica Bellucci). The rape scene is the ugliest, harshest and bloodiest I've ever seen. It's also seemingly interminable. Unwatchable. There are ways to show that someone is the bad guy without also seeming to enjoy the defilement and degradation of a woman. 

Marcus and Alex are an item. Alex and Pierre used to be together but in a bit of strangeness Marcus and Pierre are good friends. The trio hang out together constantly and don't mind sharing intimate details. At a party Marcus is behaving like a bit of a jerk. He's high and fondling other women. Alex gets annoyed and leaves, declining Pierre's offer to escort her home.

Homosexuals and transgender people are portrayed as the scum of the earth, who aggressively seek to inflict their "perversions" on other people. The homosexual/S&M underworld is NOT a place you want to visit. Things that were hinted at in Blue Velvet are shown in full frontal here. Cassel does a good job portraying the anguished guilt and insensate rage of a man who will kill the entire world if that's what it takes to get rid of the fact that he failed to protect his woman. His acting is about the only "good" thing in this film. Now where's my mouthwash?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

February Book of The Month: The Black Count

The Black Count
By Tom Reiss

Alexandre Dumas is best known today for his swashbuckling adventure/revenge stories such as The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Corsican Brothers and several others. What's not widely known is that details of and inspiration for Alexandre Dumas' bestsellers often were drawn from stories and memories of his own father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

Thomas-Alexandre, who generally preferred to be known as Alexandre, was the son of a dissolute French nobleman (who sold his own children into slavery) and a black Haitian slave. He rose to claim aristocratic status and worked his way thru army ranks to become a General (and rival of Napoleon). He died when his son was only four. Once you become familiar with the General's story, his feats of derring-do, his struggles against racism, the intrigues of nefarious aristocrats and bigoted bureaucrats, great battles in the Alps, fortunes won and lost, it becomes very apparent that his son the novelist loved him dearly and put bits and pieces of him in just about everything he wrote.

It is amazing how the more things change the more things stay the same. The accounts of police harassment that the elder Alexandre had to deal with in France, especially if he were in the company of a Frenchwoman, as he often was, read like something out of 1930s Mississippi. There were French laws requiring the registering of anyone with African blood and petty apartheid rules were occasionally enforced (No black person could be called "Sir" or "Madame".)

On the other hand, like Britain, France had a tradition of not tolerating slavery within its borders, regardless of what it was doing in Haiti or elsewhere, and of rewarding talent regardless of race. It was between these clashing interests that people like General Dumas and Chevalier St. Georges made their way..

Author's essay from Amazon:
I've always loved exploring history. It's like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I'm also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?
In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The "famous" Alexandre Dumas is the general's son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon's destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)
I first came across Gen. Dumas's life in the memoir of his son Alexandre, the novelist. And what a life! Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be known, was born in Saint Domingue, later Haiti, the son of a black slave and a good-for-nothing French aristocrat who came to the islands to make a quick killing and instead barely survived. In fact, to get back to France in order to claim an inheritance, he actually "pawned" his black son into slavery, but then he bought him out, brought him to Paris, and enrolled him in the royal fencing academy, and then the story begins to get interesting.
What really stuck with me from reading the memoir was the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. I could never forget the novelist describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father's gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Little Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God – for killing daddy." When he grew up, he took a greater sort of revenge, infusing his father's life and spirit into fictional characters like Edmond Dantes and D'Artagnan, with shades of Porthos, too. But the image of the angry child stuck with me and drove me onward to discover every scrap of evidence I could about his forgotten father.
And recovering the life of the real man behind these stories was the ultimate historical prospecting journey for me: I learned about Maltese knights and Mameluke warriors, the tricks of 18th-century spycraft and glacier warfare, torchlight duels in the trenches and portable guillotines on the front; I got to know about how Commedia del Arte influenced Voodoo and how a Jacobin sultan influenced the Star-Spangled Banner, about chocolate cures for poisoning and the still brisk trade in Napoleonic hair clippings. I discovered the amazing forgotten civil rights movement of the 18th century – and its unraveling ...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Are Republicans the party of White People?

As we discussed previously and on multiple occasions the re-election of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States, sent some conservative whites into paroxysms of rage or valleys of despair. Now obviously not all of this was racially based but a great deal of it was, with the comments and snarks by people like Sununu, Palin, Nugent, and more recently South Carolina GOP Executive Director Todd Kincannon.

The main issue that some people seem to have is that despite the fact that overall Romney won a majority of the white vote of both genders (59% overall, 62% of white men and 56% of white women) that simply wasn't enough to give Romney a victory, let alone a decisive one. Some folks just can't wrap their heads around why that happened. The reasons will still be debated and discussed for quite some time but they include at least three salient points:
  • The country has become more diverse. The white vote in 2012 was just not as large a portion of the electorate as it was in 2004 or in 2008, let alone 1996 or 1992.
  • Many white voters who came out for Republicans in 2008 did not show up in 2012.
  • The Republican party has become overly identified with a particular form of social conservatism and radical free market theory that remains quite popular in the South but is not easy to sell in the Northeast or to a lesser extent in the Midwest, and is virtually impossible to win with in California.
Recently, The New Republic magazine produced a cover story by New York Times Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus (he's also an author) that basically argued that Republicans (since at least the sixties) explicitly became the "party of white people" and have worked that particular mojo for about all it's worth. You can read the whole article here.

"Who needs Manhattan when we can get the electoral votes of eleven Southern states?" Kevin Phillips, the prophet of "the emerging Republican majority," asked in 1968, when he was piecing together Richard Nixon's electoral map. The eleven states, he meant, of the Old Confederacy. "Put those together with the Farm Belt and the Rocky Mountains, and we don't need the big cities. We don't even want them. Sure, Hubert [Humphrey] will carry Riverside Drive in November. La-de-dah. What will he do in Oklahoma?"
Forty-five years later, the GOP safely has Oklahoma, and Dixie, too. But Phillips's Sunbelt strategy was built for a different time, and a different America. Many have noted Mitt Romney's failure to collect a single vote in 91 precincts in New York City and 59 precincts in Philadelphia. More telling is his defeat in eleven more of the nation's 15 largest cities. Not just Chicago and Columbus, but also Indianapolis, San Diego, Houston, even Dallas—this last a reason the GOP fears that, within a generation Texas will become a swing state. Remove Texas from the vast, lightly populated Republican expanse west of the Mississippi, and the remaining 13 states yield fewer electoral votes than the West Coast triad of California, Oregon, and Washington. If those trends continue, the GOP could find itself unable to count on a single state that has as many as 20 electoral votes.It won't do to blame it all on Romney. No doubt he was a weak candidate, but he was the best the party could muster, as the GOP's leaders insisted till the end, many of them convinced he would win, possibly in a landslide.
Neither can Romney be blamed for the party's whiter-shade-of-pale legislative Rotary Club: the four Republicans among the record 20 women in the Senate, the absence of Republicans among the 42 African Americans in the House (and the GOP's absence as well among the six new members who are openly gay or lesbian). These are remarkable totals in a two-party system, and they reflect not only a failure of strategy or "outreach," but also a history of long-standing indifference, at times outright hostility, to the nation's diverse constituencies—blacks, women, Latinos, Asians, gays.
But that history, with its repeated instances of racialist political strategy dating back many decades, only partially accounts for the party's electoral woes. The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun. This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun's ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.

So what's going to happen with the Republican Party going forward? Are things quite as dire as Tanenhaus would make them seem? Is Tanenhaus doing a little premature spiking of the football and touchdown dance? Well maybe. Look, the Republicans have lost four out of the last six Presidential elections. They would be foolish not to examine why. And the 2012 loss is going to sting them for a while because not only did they lose (again) to a racially different incumbent presiding over a sluggish economy, they did virtually everything but take out signs saying "Don't vote for that (insert racial slur of choice)! "and they still lost decisively. Republican operatives or media personalities attacked President Obama's parents in the nastiest and ugliest of ways but it just didn't get the job done. The electorate is just not what it was in the good old days. Certain tricks just won't work any more. The Republican party needs to do some soul searching and some addition by subtraction. This probably explains the slow thaw on immigration reform. I am sure that over time we shall see similar overtures made on abortion, contraception and gay marriage. There is some evidence that younger voters are less open to the current Republican message. Republicans will need to change that to remain competitive going forward. Hoping that President Obama messes up for the next four years might be gratifying but is not really a political strategy.

On the other hand, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whites are still the overwhelming majority in this country and will continue to be so for quite some time. Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives and are the majority of governors. So obviously many people think that some Republicans are doing a good job. No one knows what will happen going forward but we do know that President Obama (absent some very unlikely turn of events) will not be on the ballot in 2016. A more charismatic and less ideologically rigid Republican candidate could very easily win in 2016. I have no idea who that person might be. By 2016 there will have been more Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action, voting rights, and racial discrimination cases. These decisions could theoretically move more white voters to vote Republican. Or there could be millions more Hispanic voters that might vote Democratic. The Republican Party is stuck between the frying pan and the fire. Does it more explicitly embrace a grievance based white nationalism and try to get its base out?  It could do that but then lose almost everyone else. Or it could become Democratic-lite and try to sell a message of limited government, low taxes and free markets (without any ugly racial overtones) to a changing demographic. However so far it hasn't had success doing that with Hispanics, Asians or Blacks. "Limited government" often has racialized meaning to different groups of people. It's very difficult to have a racially neutral discussion about "states rights", "negative rights", "rugged individualism" or several other tropes of Republican belief.
What to do, what to do...


1) Do you think the Republican Party is the party of Whites?

2) If so how can this change? Should it change? What's wrong with looking out for "white interests"?

3) Can Republicans win back the Senate and the Presidency or are they a dying party?

4) Will the Republican party split between the social conservatives and economic conservatives?