Kevin Drum

Like a Zombie, You Just Can't Kill Countrywide Financial

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 3:44 PM EST

Back at the height of the housing bubble, Countrywide Financial was responsible for about 15 percent of all the mortgage loans in America. This turned out to be disastrous because the people who ran Countrywide showed no interest at all in the quality of the loans they originated. Thanks to this, their business eventually imploded and in 2008 they were acquired by Bank of America.

But fear not. The executives behind Countrywide are still around, and they're still shoveling out the loans:

PennyMac, AmeriHome Mortgage and Stearns Lending have several things in common.

All are among the nation's largest mortgage lenders — and none of them is a bank. They're part of a growing class of alternative lenders that now extend more than 4 in 10 home loans.

All are headquartered in Southern California, the epicenter of the last decade's subprime lending industry. And all are run by former executives of Countrywide Financial, the once-giant mortgage lender that made tens of billions of dollars in risky loans that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis.

This time, the executives say, will be different.

You betcha! I'm sure these folks have all learned their lessons and will never push the mortgage envelope again. We can all breathe easy.

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Today in State Secrets: The FBI Wants Both Your Day and Evening Phone Numbers

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 2:20 PM EST

Back in 2004, the FBI served Nicholas Merrill with a National Security Letter. Merrill owned Calyx Internet Access, and the FBI wanted him to turn over transactional records about his clients. As usual with NSLs, this was done without a subpoena or a court order. Merrill was forbidden from revealing the contents of the NSL or even publicly acknowledging that he had received an NSL.

Merrill went to court, and US District Judge Victor Marrero initially ruled against him. Merrill subsequently reached an agreement with the government that allowed him to discuss the NSL but not to reveal which records the FBI had requested. Merrill continued to fight, and today, in Merrill v. Lynch,1 Marrero finally ruled definitively in his favor. In cases like this, the government has to demonstrate that disclosure would cause specific harm, and Marrero found that they hadn't done so. Among other things, he points out that the Department of Justice itself already publishes a manual that includes sample language for NSLs. It includes most of the transactional data the the FBI requested from Merrill, and the remaining items would hardly be difficult for a potential target to figure out.

Still, the FBI argued that there were some differences, and those should be kept secret. Marrero provides an example that he finds singularly unimpressive:

Many of the remaining redactions in the Attachment are even harder to justify than the categories discussed thus far. For example,  the Government seeks to prevent Merrill from disclosing that the Attachment requested "Subscriber day/evening telephone numbers" even though the Government now concedes that the phrase "telephone number" can be disclosed. The Court is not persuaded that there is a "good reason" to believe that disclosure of the fact that the Government can use NSLs to seek both day and evening telephone numbers could result in an enumerated harm, especially if it is already publicly known that the Government can use NSLs to obtain a telephone number, more generally.

Thanks to Marcy Wheeler for pointing this out. You may consider it your entertainment for the day. That is, you could consider it in that light if it weren't a pretty important subject. And unfortunately, the court's ruling is quite narrow: the only reason Marrero changed his mind is because the investigation has been closed, the target has been revealed, and virtually everything else about the NSL is already public. In other words, this will have very little impact on the government's future power to issue tens of thousands of NSLs with virtually no oversight. We now know what information the FBI wanted in 2004, but we're no closer to knowing what they routinely ask for today.

Full details here.

1Yes, seriously. Nicholas Merrill vs. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The Paris Attacks Had Zero Impact on the Republican Race

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 12:33 PM EST

Here's the most recent Pollster aggregate of the GOP primary contest. Donald Trump's scheme to prove that Republican voters are the most gullible people on the planet continues apace. (Seriously folks: you all have blowhards in your life, don't you? You know what they're like, and you wouldn't trust one of them to be dogcatcher, let alone president. Surely you recognize Trump as one of the same breed?)

But enough of that. The reason I'm putting up the latest standings is this: despite the maunderings of various pundits, it looks like the Paris attacks had exactly zero impact on the race. All five of the leading candidates were on a trajectory before the attacks, and they continued that trajectory very precisely afterward. There's not so much as a blip in the polling data.

Debates seem to have an effect on Trump and Carson. Nothing much seems to have had an effect on the others. They've been on cruise control for the past month. But the Paris attacks? Whatever you felt about the candidates before, apparently they made you feel exactly the same way afterward, except more.

Here's What It's Like to Work at Planned Parenthood

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 11:32 AM EST

Last night, Bryn Greenwood, who worked for Planned Parenthood in the late 90s, tweeted about her experience:

I worked at a #PlannedParenthood clinic in Kansas for 3 years. My coworkers & I were subjected to the following acts of terrorism:

  • Gasoline was poured under our back door & ignited 4 times. Twice while the clinic was occupied, causing patients to be evacuated.
  • Butyric acid (used as a stink bomb) was poured under our doors & into ventilation system so many times I lost count. Clinic evacuated.
  • 2 cherry bombs were left on our doorstep after hours, causing damage & clinic closure. Imagine what it's like going to work after that.
  • We received hundreds of phone calls, threatening to torch our clinic & to kill the "murdering whores" who worked there.
  • 3 times someone drove by at night & shot out our windows. Picketers stood on the sidewalk & harassed employees as we swept up broken glass.

Our clinic didn't perform abortions. We did well woman exams, pregnancy tests, dispensed birth control, & treated STIs. Our clinic offered free & low cost services in a low income neighborhood, but every day the "pro-life" movement tried to frighten us. The goal was to make us afraid to come to work, to make us quit, to make us close the clinic. That's terrorism. That's how terrorism works.

This is what life is like for women's health providers, even ones who don't perform abortions. I guess I'd urge caution about calling this terrorism, since I'm not sure it does us any good to expand the scope of crimes that are part of the "war on terror." Historically speaking, that hasn't been great for liberal values. Still, it's hard to argue that the goals and methods aren't pretty terrifying—and that's even without Greenwood mentioning the personal threats implicit in photographing license plates and publishing names and addresses of clinic workers, which are common tactics.

After two days of near silence, Republican presidential candidates are finally "praying" for the victims of the Colorado attack. They could hardly avoid it when they were booked on national TV—and anyway, praying is always okay, even for sinners. Especially for sinners, in fact. It's a turn of phrase that doesn't risk showing even the slightest desire to protect Planned Parenthood from future attacks. Republicans might not want Planned Parenthood workers killed, but they sure don't seem to mind if their angry hordes do everything just short of that.

Would You Like Fewer Fries With That?

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 10:48 AM EST

Aaron Carroll writes today that calorie labeling in restaurants doesn't seem to have any effect. I skimmed through his review of the evidence in order to get to the part of the story where he tells us what does have an effect, but I was disappointed. Not surprised, though. Hardly anything works. Here's his single paragraph about alternatives:

Previous work in Health Affairs showed that training servers to ask if customers might like to downsize three starchy sides induced up to a third of customers to order and eat 200 fewer calories per meal. More recent work in the journal showed that changing the “prevalence, prominence and default nature of healthy options” on children’s menus led to sustained changes in what people ordered.

I don't know about children's menus, but that first suggestion rings a bell. One of my favorite restaurants offers two sides with dinner entrees. I always order the same thing, and all I want is a single side order of fries. This is all but impossible to get. If I tell my server I want just one order of fries and nothing else, I'm told brightly that it's no trouble to just double up the fries. If I say I don't want two orders of fries, the cook gives them to me anyway. I think they want to fill up the plate and make sure I don't feel ripped off.

Suggesting that we downsize calorie-laden sides might be a good idea. But in my experience, the first step is for restaurants to allow sides to be downsized if the customer asks. Baby steps.

Kevin's Three Laws of Political Speech

| Sun Nov. 29, 2015 7:21 PM EST

Following the attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic on Colorado, we are having the usual spats over what kind of political speech is and isn't appropriate. Apropos of that, here are three things I believe. These are not universally fashionable at the moment, but I suppose that's all the more reason to lay them out yet again.

Nazi analogies are OK. Most Americans are not great students of history, and Nazi analogies are often just the most accessible way to make a historical point that you know everyone will get. Generally speaking, comparing a bit of behavior to the Third Reich doesn't mean you're literally accusing someone of being Hitler, and everyone knows it. We should all stop pretending otherwise. What's more, sometimes the comparison is actually apt. For example, pro-lifers claim to believe that abortion is murder, which makes comparisons to the Holocaust perfectly reasonable.

Obvious caveats: Don't be an asshole. It's easy to go overboard and trivialize Nazi horrors. This is both insulting and tedious. It also makes you look like an idiot, so have a care. Not everything deserves to be compared to Hitler.

There's nothing wrong with politicizing tragedies. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire prompted a sea change in views of workplace safety, and I think that was just fine. The 9/11 attacks increased public support for the invasion of Iraq, and I assume conservatives think that was just fine. More generally, what's wrong with politicizing tragedies? That's when people are paying attention, which means it's often the best time to mobilize public support to address the issues underlying the tragedy. That's what politics is for, isn't it? If liberals want to use the Planned Parenthood attack to raise public awareness of gun violence and access to abortion, they should go right ahead. If conservatives want to use it to raise public awareness of the number of abortions performed every year, they should feel free to try.

Obvious caveats: Don't be an asshole. Wait until we actually know what happened. Show some respect for the victims and their families. Don't lie. Never even hint that the tragedy was in some way deserved.

Talk is not responsible for extreme acts, especially by the mentally ill. Political speech is often fiery. It's often supposed to be fiery, and there's always a risk that a few unhinged listeners will react in extreme ways. That's a chance we have to take. If we rein in political speech to a level where there's literally no risk of anyone reacting badly, we'll have nothing but pabulum. Robert L. Deer might very well have been motivated to attack Planned Parenthood because he heard about them selling fetal tissue, but that doesn't mean it was wrong for activists to bring this to the public's attention.1

Obvious caveats: Don't be an asshole. If you're doing the verbal equivalent of hoisting a pitchfork and telling people to storm the Bastille, don't pretend to be surprised when they storm the Bastille. Directly inciting violence is both legally and morally wrong.

1It was wrong to lie about it, but that's a whole different subject.

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Ben Carson and the Conservative Grift Machine

| Sat Nov. 28, 2015 3:15 PM EST

In the LA Times today Joseph Tanfani and Maloy Moore have a great piece about the American Legacy PAC and its 2014 Save Our Healthcare campaign. It was fronted by Ben Carson, who starred in a video denouncing Obamacare and told viewers, "If you want to hold Washington accountable and truly save American health care, join me and sign our petition today." Needless to say, when you called the toll-free number, it turned out that Carson wanted more than just your John Hancock. He also wanted your Benjamins:

When Juanita McMillon saw his name, she was eager to get out her checkbook. “I think he is sincere, and I think he is honest, and I think he is exactly what we need,” said McMillon, 80, from the small town of De Kalb in northeast Texas. She gave $350....American Legacy raised close to $6 million in 2014 — and spent nearly all of it paying the consultants and firms that raised the money. Just 2% was donated to Republican candidates and committees, financial reports show.

“I’m really careful who I give money to, but I guess I did not read it close enough,” McMillon said, adding that she had never heard of American Legacy. “I prefer to give money to individuals, and I assumed, I guess, that Dr. Carson was getting my money.”

Though American Legacy didn’t raise much money for Obamacare-hating Republicans, it was a success at something else — finding people willing to give to Carson....When Carson entered the race, the campaign tapped those donors again. Donnell gave another $250 to the campaign, and McMillon another $450. Of the more than 4,000 donors to American Legacy, more than 25% also ended up giving to the Carson campaign, a Los Angeles Times analysis showed.

This is good reporting, but so far there's nothing all that new here. Conservatives have turned grifting into a high art, and Carson is just the flavor of the month. What makes this piece great is the response from Doug Watts, Carson's campaign spokesman:

Watts defended the American Legacy effort and offered assurance to donors. “I would say to those people, you did give to Dr. Carson,” Watts said. “They participated in the building of a list” of donors for the campaign.

Booyah! By giving money to Carson's anti-Obamacare campaign, you identified yourself as a soft touch who would give Carson even more money later on. And that's a big help. Of course, these elderly donors thought they were helping Carson fight Obamacare, because, you know, that's what Carson actually said. But what's the difference? Tomayto, tomahto.

Anyway, read the whole thing if you've got the stomach for it.

Republican Candidates Are Too Busy This Morning to Denounce Attack on Planned Parenthood Clinic

| Sat Nov. 28, 2015 11:55 AM EST

When I went to bed last night, none of the Republican presidential candidates had said anything about the horrific shootings at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. But that was ten hours ago, and it's now nearly noon on the East Coast. Anything new?

As near as I can tell, no. No tweets, no statements, nothing on Facebook. On Twitter, Donald Trump is still blathering about how much he loves the disabled. Jeb Bush is tweeting about football. Ted Cruz hasn't put up anything new in over a week.1 Marco Rubio was "sickened" by the killing of Luís Diaz in Venezuela a couple of days ago, but is busy promoting his cold-weather bundle of Rubio gear today. Ben Carson is burnishing his foreign policy credentials by talking to refugees in Jordan. Carly Fiorina has been quiet since Thanksgiving.

But it's a holiday weekend, so maybe they've turned off the news to spend more time with their families. All 14 of them. Still, I know they're all resolutely opposed to terrorism and adamantly in favor of law and order, so I'm sure they'll issue uncompromising condemnations sometime soon. After all, we can't allow depraved attacks against health clinics on American soil to be met with silence that could easily be interpreted as backing down in the face of hate. Right?

1Oops. I was fooled by the fact that Cruz has his demand for President Obama to insult him to his face permanently at the top of his feed. But Cruz did indeed tweet something this morning. Here's the full version of his statement on Facebook: "My and Heidi's prayers are with the loved ones of those killed in Colorado Springs, with those injured, and with the first responders who bravely got the situation under control." Not exactly a stirring condemnation of violence, but I guess it's a start.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment

| Fri Nov. 27, 2015 6:50 PM EST

As you surely know by now, the latest round of Republican campaign cretinism came a few days ago when Donald Trump mocked a reporter with chronic arthrogryposis, which restricts the movement of his arms and hands. Today Josh Marshall posted a brief but spot-on explanation of why Trump is not only not apologizing for this, but going on the offensive over it:

If you're surprised that Donald Trump isn't apologizing for mocking a reporter's physical handicap and doesn't seem to be paying any price for it, let me help. Half of rightwing politics is about resentment over perceived demands for apologies. Apologies about race, about fear of Muslims, about not being politically correct, about not liking the losers and the moochers, about Christmas, about being being white. This will hurt Trump about as much as going after Megyn Kelly did. Remember: his biggest applause line at the first GOP debate came for calling Rosie O'Donnell a fat slob.

About half the juice of far-right politics in this country is rooted in refusing to apologize when 'elites' or right thinking people reprove you for not being 'politically correct.'

The thing about Trump is that he talks as if he's sitting at home with a couple of his buddies. In settings like that, lots of us make casually derisive remarks that we wouldn't make in public.1 But Trump does say it in public, and to his supporters that's great. He's finally saying the stuff that they're quite sure everybody says in private.

The giveaway was this bit from Trump about Kovaleski: "He should stop using his disability to grandstand and get back to reporting for a paper that is rapidly going down the tubes." That's what Trump's fans think is going on all over the place. The blacks, the Hispanics, the disabled, the immigrants, the poor: sure, they've got problems, but who doesn't? They're just making a big deal out of it in order to gain sympathy and government bennies that the rest of us have to pay for. And the worst part is that you know what everyone else is already thinking about this claptrap, but you get in trouble if you say it. Republican candidates have tapped this vein of resentment for years, but usually in coded ways that won't get them in too much hot water. Trump just dives in. Other politicians may have paved the way, but it's Trump who's finally figured out how to turn it into electoral gold.

1Yes, I do it too, and no, for obvious reasons I'm not going to tell you what my sore spots are.

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 November 2015

| Fri Nov. 27, 2015 2:13 PM EST

I am an idiot. Yesterday, in a fit of bad timing, my camera chose to tell me its memory card was getting full. I had already transferred all the photos to my PC, so I went ahead and deleted everything on the card. Today, I went looking for a terrific Thanksgiving-themed picture of Hilbert that I took a couple of weeks ago, and....I really don't have to finish this story, do I? It turned out I had transferred everything except for about 50 pictures taken two weeks ago. For some reason, I missed those. File recovery restored a bunch of deleted photos, but not the Hilbert pics.

It was a really great picture, too. But I guess you'll never see it. Luckily, my sister-in-law came up for dinner yesterday and brought her dogs. So today you get a very special edition of Friday catblogging starring Rupert the dog. Isn't he cute? There are no Thanksgiving pictures of the cats available because they were both upstairs hiding under the bed. They're such brave little furballs.