In August, I wrote about the Obama administration's flawed $75 billion homeowner rescue effort, the Home Affordable Modification Program, and therein introduced readers to Florida homeowner Kristina Page. Page's mortgage company, Saxon Mortgage Services, first told her it hadn't heard of HAMP. Then, when Saxon finally admitted Page into the program, it lost her paperwork and told her multiple times to send more copies of the same information even though she knew the name of the employee who'd signed for the originals.

Page eventually made it into HAMP's trial period, a test run during which she had to make to three lower payments on time to qualify for the permanently lower, more affordable payments. After the test run, Page's mortgage company, per HAMP's guidelines, re-examined her financial information and recalculated what her permanent mortgage payments would be. Here's where, like so many other homeowners, Page ran into trouble. "As I feared," she recently wrote me, "the permanent payment is much higher than the trial period estimate payments." On the face of it, her new monthly payment will be $40 less—hardly much help when you consider the mess Page's been through to participate in HAMP.

It gets worse. Here's why, in Page's own words, Saxon gave her higher—and as it turns out, incorrectly calculated—HAMP payments:

I couldn't figure out how they had our income so high, so as I told you I contested the numbers. Saxon called this morning and I explained my problem. [The Saxon employee] checked into it and called me back with this gem. She said, "The extra income is because there is a letter in your file stating your sister Samantha will be contributing $1300 per month toward your household income"...I am an only child...I don't have a sister Samantha or any other sister. She [the employee] apologized profusely and even said, "This is all our fault"...I almost dropped the phone.

Ad Update

In case you're interested, here's an update from the LA Times on efforts to turn down the volume on TV commercials.  As near as I can tell, it's the exact same story we all read six months ago.  Anna Eshoo's bill is still winding its way slowly through Congress; it's still wildly popular with ordinary people; it's still being opposed by Republicans; and the ad industry is still "working to address the problem," with progress expected any day now.  Just thought you'd like to know.

Obama and the Bankers

Speaking of Obama and Wall Street, here's the latest.  After last night's attack on "fat cat bankers" on 60 Minutes, Obama held a White House meeting with top financial CEOs today that the Wall Street Journal said "was expected to clear the air between the president and the financial sector."  Good to hear!  The New York Times added this:

Mr. Obama, who has faced criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for being too close to Wall Street, called Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and 10 other big banks to the gathering as anger over last year’s bank bailouts continued to percolate. The president will address the size of salaries and bonuses, an official said, as he seeks to impress upon bankers that they have a “special responsibility” to consumers.

“We have to get them off the sidelines and get them to play a more active role in our economic recovery,” Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on Sunday. “They play an essential role in helping the economy grow.”

Look: bankers are going to keep making lots of money as long as the financial sector makes a lot of money.  That's just the way the business world works, and all the jawboning in the world won't change that.  If Obama really wants bonuses to come down, he needs to propose regulations that will shrink the profitability of the financial industry.  If he does that, bonuses will come down naturally.  If he doesn't, they won't.  He'll get — at most — a bit of short-term posturing designed to relieve public pressure until everyone forgets the whole thing and bankers can go back to business as usual.

So: fewer meetings and more regulations, please.

Sometimes a little public outrage goes a long way. On Wednesday, Rick Warren, the California mega-church pastor who delivered the invocation at President Obama's inauguration, ended his uncomfortable silence on anti-gay legislation in Uganda by condemning (via YouTube) a proposed measure that would make homosexuality punishable by death. (Warren's Twitter feed suggests he’d been a bit more active behind the scenes). That same day, citing pressure from Ugandan pastors—Warren is huge there—politicians temporarily dropped the proposal. Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini's spokesman issued a statement blaming outside activists for derailing the legislation:

"The Anti-Homosexual Bill 2009, yet to be tabled on the floor of parliament, has attracted unnecessary hullabaloo," said the spokesman. "Some Western countries, with their characteristic condescending attitude, are already threatening to cut aid if that bill is passed into law." (h/t Episcopal Cafe)

Taibbi, Round 2

Matt Taibbi is a hard guy to defend.  He exaggerates, he misinterpets, and he uses bad language.  Sometimes he gets his facts wrong.  If I knew what was good for me, I'd just leave it at that and jump on the bandwagon that says his brand of journalism is beyond the pale.

But I'm an idiot, so I won't.  For example: Taibbi says that what unites Obama's economic team is that they're all proteges of Robert Rubin.  I've already said that I think this is a bad interpretation, but Taibbi's underlying point is still a good one: this is a very mainstream group that's overly sympathetic to Wall Street and unwilling to push for really substantial regulatory reform.  Ezra Klein defends them this way:

What unites not only Obama's economic team, but his whole White House, is not its emphasis on rich people. It's the emphasis on people accustomed to dealing with Congress....It's rather difficult to say what these people do and don't believe, as their whole world is finding 218 in the House and 60 in the Senate, and every word, action and policy brief is squarely aimed at that goal.

That leaves two questions worth asking about them: First, are they more or less liberal than the 218th most liberal congressman and the 60th most liberal senator? Second, are they good at their jobs? That is to say, are they good at bringing 218 congressmen and 60 senators into line behind reasonably good policy?

I'm just not sure this works.  It does matter what these people do and don't believe.  Speaking for myself, I'd really like to know whether we have a progressive administration that's hemmed in by Congress or if we have a mainstream administration that pretty much agrees with the 60th most liberal senator in the first place.  If it were the former, we'd at least be hearing leaks that they wanted to propose hard-hitting regulations but eventually decided not to on tactical grounds.  But we haven't.  The regs that came out of the White House earlier this year were mostly pretty soft, and there was very little sense that anyone in the West Wing had been arguing to open the negotiations with Congress from a more forceful starting position.

Now, I suppose one argument is: who cares?  "We don’t want to tilt at windmills," Obama said last June, and hell, maybe he's right.  But that takes things too far.  It suggests that Congress has all the power and Obama virtually none.  I agree that Taibbi should have emphasized Congress, and congressional Republicans in particular, more than he did, but surely it makes a difference if the president stakes out  a courageous position in the first place?  If he gets the public on his side, that's got to count for something.

But he never really even tried, and I think that's largely due not to political considerations, but due to the fact that his team didn't really want to stake out a more audacious position.  Neither did Obama.  He reappointed Ben Bernanke with barely a second thought, after all, which certainly suggests that he's basically OK with Bernanke's general view of the economic world.  And while it's true that in one sense there's nothing new here — Obama was pretty obviously a fairly mainstream guy all throughout the election — he's also the guy that promised at every opportunity to change the way Washington works.  He's the guy who met with bankers and made sure we all knew that he told them he was "the only thing between you and the pitchforks."  He's the guy who tells 60 Minutes that he didn't run for office "to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street."  He may be mainstream, but he's certainly doing his best to sound otherwise.

So sure: Congress is a problem.  But so is the White House.  So is the Fed.  So is the SEC.  And that's the whole point.  They're all problems.  Taibbi chose to illustrate this colorfully, and sometimes that color gets in the way of a coherent narrative.  But dammit, at least he's telling the story, and there are damn few others who are even trying to tell it in popular, long-form venues.  As soon as they do, maybe we can all toss Taibbi on the ash heap and take turns raining down curses on him.  Until then, he's what we've got.

History is Rhyming

The LA Times reports today that the Obama administration wants to expand the war in Afghanistan to include drone attacks on Pakistani cities the size of San Francisco:

The prospect of Predator aircraft strikes in Quetta, a sprawling city, signals a new U.S. resolve to decapitate the Taliban. But it also risks rupturing Washington's relationship with Islamabad.

The concern has created tension among Obama administration officials over whether unmanned aircraft strikes in a city of 850,000 are a realistic option. Proponents, including some military leaders, argue that attacking the Taliban in Quetta — or at least threatening to do so — is crucial to the success of the revised war strategy President Obama unveiled last week.

"If we don't do this — at least have a real discussion of it — Pakistan might not think we are serious," said a senior U.S. official involved in war planning. "What the Pakistanis have to do is tell the Taliban that there is too much pressure from the U.S.; we can't allow you to have sanctuary inside Pakistan anymore."

Boy, those comparisons of Afghanistan to Vietnam just get more facile and ridiculous every day, don't they?

On Sunday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the onetime Democrat from Connecticut, vowed to filibuster any health care bill that contains a public option or that offers a Medicare "buy-in" for people under 65. Lieberman's threat, made to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) during a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, further dims the prospects for health care reform. But in vowing to kill health care reform to block any Medicare expansion, Lieberman has engaged in a dramatic flip-flop.

In 2000, when he was Al Gore's running mate, Lieberman campaigned on a platform that proposed offering everyone 55 and older an option to buy into Medicare. That proposal—which was a central part of the Gore-Lieberman campaign's health care plan—essentially would have created a robust public option for people aged 55 to 65. It's  the same proposal that Lieberman now claims is a deal-breaker for him on health care reform.

 

Regular readers of my coverage of the Copenhagen climate summit know how complicated the proceedings have been. There are many points of contentions—about substance and process—being discussed on different levels and on different tracks. Journalists stuck in the Bella Bubble—the cavernous conference center where this all takes place—routinely complain about the complexity of the negotiations and about trying to figure out what's really going on, if anything. They need not feel too inadequate. Moments ago, I spotted Dr. Ranjendra Pachauri, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN-backed and Nobel-winning group of thousands of scientists, which has produced the scientific research that underpins all these talks. I asked him to assess the current state of play in the negotiations. Shaking his head and smiling, Pachauri said, "It's all very baffling to me." Really? Yes, really, he said. And this guy knows how to run scientific models of the atmosphere. 

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Via Ezra Klein, here's an estimate from the Institute of Medicine of how many people die each year because they lack health insurance.  The number goes up every year as the population increases and the percentage of people covered by health insurance decreases, so it's probably up to around 25,000 this year.  Seems like we ought to do something about this, doesn't it?

Their storefront locations with neon signs usually occupy the most impoverished, minority-populated parts of town. No, I'm not talking about liquor stores, but payday lenders—that fast cash industry that uses loopholes and exorbitant interest rates to prey on the vulnerable. North Carolina outlawed the industry in 2006, Washington D.C. followed suit in 2007, and this week, thanks to a coalition of six local credit unions devoted to derailing predatory lending, San Francisco will launch a low-cost alternative loan program called PayDayPlus SF.

Its 13 locations will open just weeks after a Federal Deposit Insurance Co. report found that 25.6 percent of U.S. households—that’s 60 million adults—either lack bank accounts or use payday loans and check cashing services in lieu of banks. The majority of these folks are black, American Indian, and Hispanic, the report shows. And that's exactly the demographic PayDayPlus SF aims to target, says Leigh Phillips from the San Francisco treasurer's office.  The city is the first in the U.S. with a program designed to bring disenfranchised residents into the financial mainstream. Basically, it has created a local banking system to respond to low-income people's needs and means. PayDayPlus SF is an off-shoot of the program and will cover check cashing and payday loans. "There are a couple of people that PayDayPlus SF's trying to reach," Phillips says. "They are people who need access to emergency funds for a car repair, people who don’t have access to credit cards, who don’t have credit ratings to get one, people who are trapped in the payday debt cycle."