America's Most Hated Industry

Charles Duhigg has a terrific piece about the credit card industry in the upcoming issue of the New York Times MagazineHere's an excerpt:

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire’s stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.

....Testing indicated that Martin’s predictions, when paired with other commonly used data like cardholders’ credit histories and incomes, were often much more precise than what the industry traditionally used to forecast cardholder riskiness....Data-driven psychologists are now in high demand, and the industry is using them not only to screen out risky debtors but also to determine which cardholders need a phone call to persuade them to mail in a check. Most of the major credit-card companies have set up systems to comb through cardholders’ data for signs that someone is going to stop making payments. Are cardholders suddenly logging in at 1 in the morning? It might signal sleeplessness due to anxiety. Are they using their cards for groceries? It might mean they are trying to conserve their cash.

Credit card companies used to be serious about extending credit only to customers they thought would pay their bills.  But then life changed, and they realized that they could make more money by deliberately extending credit to poor risks, encouraging them to overspend, and then dunning them with an endless stream of fees, penalties, and increased interest rates.  They were helped along in this by laws that allowed them almost insane levels of freedom to screw customers while protecting them from the results of their own folly.

But even the United States Congress wasn't enough to prevent them from taking huge losses during the current recession, so now they're getting serious about evaluating credit risks again.  Which is good.  Except for one thing: do we really want credit card companies making these decisions based on the results of bizarrely opaque data mining experiments?  If you're turned down for a card because you don't pay your bills on time, that's one thing.  But if you're turned down because you bought some generic motor oil — and 37% of generic motor oil buyers are poor credit risks — is that fair?  Is that something we want to allow?  What happens when it turns out — and it will — that a lot of this data mining correlates strongly with sex, race, age, religion, and ethnicity?  This is something we ought to start thinking pretty hard about.

But while you're thinking about it, read the rest of Duhigg's piece.  Especially be sure to read down to the section that describes how card companies like Bank of America are perfectly willing to cut distressed cardholder debt in half just for asking ("Much of what they’re paying, after all, is fees and interest that Bank of America itself tacked on"), but that instead of letting distraught customers know this they cynically and studiously create elaborate faux "friendships" over the phone so that customers feel obligated to their new pals.  It's nothing illegal.  But it is disgusting, indecent, and unscrupulous.  And they wonder why they're the most hated industry in America.

Factlet of the Day

Tyler Cowen passes along the news that Americans used to chew their food 25 times before swallowing, but today the average is down to ten chews.  Interesting!  But how do we know this?  Has it been measured?  Here's the original source for the claim:

The modern American diet is mostly made up of "easy calories."  According to Gail Civille, a food-industry consultant and the owner of Sensory Spectrum, Americans of the past typically had to chew a mouthful of food as many as 25 times before swallowing; the average American today chews only 10 times.

In part, this is because fat, which has become ubuiquitous, is a lubricant. We don't eat as much lean meat, which requires more saliva to ready it for swallowing.  "We want food that's higher in fat, marbled, so when you eat it, it melts in your mouth," says Civille.  Food is easier to eat when it breaks down more quickly in the mouth.  "If I have fat in there, I just chew it up and — whoosh! — away it goes."

John Haywood, a prominent restaurant concept designer, agrees.  Processing, he says, creates a sort of "adult baby food."  By processing, he means removing the elements in whole food — like fiber and gristle — that are harder to chew and swallow.

Hmmm.  That's certainly plausible, but I still want to know where those exact figures come from.  I demand proof.

A Senate judiciary subcommittee released copies of two unclassified 2005 Bush administration anti-torture memos at a hearing on Wednesday. A third anti-torture memo, written by Philip Zelikow, a former aide to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is in the process of being declassified. Last week, Zelikow told Mother Jones that he suspected Vice President Dick Cheney was behind an effort to "collect and destroy" all copies of that memo. Zelikow also disclosed the existence of additional anti-torture memos last week, and the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) was able to obtain them for Wednesday's hearing.

Kim Jong Il runs the show in North Korea, but like any self-respecting Bond villain, he does so with the help of a coterie of rubber-stamping yes men. Indeed, politically connected women are few in the Hermit Kingdom. At least that's how it appears in a leadership chart produced by the Director of National Intelligence's Open Source Center. The chart, though unclassified, was not meant for public release, but was obtained by Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. One of the more interesting things about the chart, aside from its gender inequality, is that fact that none of the Worker's Party's Central Control Committee members are pictured. Add to that the ominous red borders around government officials who "neither appeared in nor been mentioned by name in North Korean media throughout 2008." Where they are (and whether they may have run afoul of the Leader) is a big unknown. The leadership family tree compliments a January 2009 chart explaining the supposed power structure of the North Korean regime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote of the Day - 5.13.09

From conservative Jerry Taylor, writing at National Review Online:

The question for conservatives is this: Do you want President Obama to succeed in painting the Republican party as the party of Rush Limbaugh? Given his sub-Nixon popularity figures, I can’t believe I’m causing a firestorm by suggesting the answer here is probably “no.”

Oh, but he is causing a firestorm.  As near as I can tell, not a single person at NRO is coming to Taylor's aid.  They like being the party of Limbaugh.

In other news of the ongoing intellectual collapse of the conservative movement, Politico's Roger Simon reports that the Republican National Committee will meet in an extraordinary special session next week to approve a resolution rebranding Democrats as the “Democrat Socialist Party.”  Yippee!  They're like five-year-olds in a sandbox.  I can't wait to see what NRO thinks of this.

How to Screw Your Constituents

Matt Yglesias watches the sausage grinder at work on the Waxman-Markey climate bill and is especially outraged at so-called moderates who insist that a large fraction of carbon emission permits should be given away, rather than auctioned off:

The moderate bloc [...] has portrayed itself as concerned with the climate crisis but worried about the tradeoffs with short-term economic growth. But the concession they’ve forced here doesn’t do anything to boost short-term growth. Instead, whereas auctioning the permits would have made rich people bear most of the cost of reducing emissions, by giving the permits away you make poor people bear most of the cost.

The environmental impact of the two methods is similar, and the overall costs are similar. But the moderates acted swiftly and decisively to reallocate a portion of the costs onto the backs of the poor. And they’ve done so specifically under guise of looking out for the interests of the working class. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

In a way, this is even worse than Matt makes it out to be.  As I understand the politics of the situation, the problem is basically regional: a lot of moderates come from the midwest and the south, where they rely on coal-fired plants for the bulk of their electricity.  These plants emit more carbon than even other fossil-fueled plants, and way more carbon than hydro or solar plants.  And to make it even worse, most of these states have done very little to become more energy efficient over the years.  Put all this together and the bottom line is that carbon pricing hits them much harder than it hits, say, California.

This means that any bill that raises the price of carbon is disproportionately painful for the midwest and the south.  So they want relief.  Now, you can argue that global warming is such serious stuff that they shouldn't be given any, but let's face it: this kind of regional politics is pretty standard stuff.  It's hard to get too bent out of shape about it.

Except for one thing: it won't work.  The theory here is that giving away permits to coal-fired plants means they don't have to raise prices.  After all, the permits are free.  And this means that voters in the midwest and the south won't start hauling out their pitchforks and throwing out incumbents because their electric bills have gone up.

But guess what?  The electric utilities are going to raise their prices anyway.  Kevin Drum explains:

The economic theory involved is a little hairy, but those permits have a value on the open market, and that means that in many cases marginal producers can make more money selling their permits than by producing power. They'll only be willing to produce power if they can raise prices enough to make the power-producing business more profitable than the permit-selling business, and eventually everyone will jack up prices to follow suit.

This may sound abstract—even a bit fantastical—but it's absolutely real. In fact, when permits in phase one of Europe's ETS system were handed out for free, electricity prices rose and power companies pocketed a windfall profit (which Britain's Department of Trade and Industry estimated at about $1.1 billion a year in the UK alone). Dale Bryk, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), puts it bluntly: "If you ask them point-blank if they'll charge customers for free permits, they won't tell you. But they know they will."

If moderates were demanding free permits because they wanted to keep electric prices in their states low for a few years while they work on converting to new power sources, that would be one thing.  We could argue about whether it's a good idea, but at least it's normal, understandable stuff.  But that's not what they're doing.  Prices are going to go up regardless, and the free permits do nothing except provide windfall profits to operators of coal plants.  The moderates pushing this "compromise" either don't understand basic economics, in which they case they need to learn some, or else they understand it perfectly well and like the idea of screwing their constituents in order to provide a bonanza for coal plant operators.  In either case, yes, they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Last week, Mother Jones reported that Philip Zelikow, the Counselor to the State Department in the Bush administration, suspects that Dick Cheney was behind an order to "collect and destroy" all copies of an anti-torture memo he wrote. Zelikow also told Mother Jones about the existence of other memos arguing against torture. Two of those memos were released at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing this morning, where Zelikow testified about the existence of a small group of dissidents—himself, state department legal adviser John Bellinger, and Gordon England, the deputy secretary of defense, among others—who tried to get the administration to change its detainee treatment policies in 2005 and 2006. You can read about the memos and Zelikow's testimony here.

Retail Sales

The economy continues to suck:

Retail sales decreased by 0.4% compared to the prior month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Economists expected an increase of 0.1%.

Sales in March were revised down, decreasing 1.3% instead of 1.2% as previously reported. Sales rose in January and February, after sliding six straight months.

So how long is this going to last? My rough guess is this: one way or another, the U.S. savings rate has to increase enough that we not only get rid of our trade deficit, but start to reverse it.  That's going to require a drop in domestic consumption on the order of 10% or so over the medium term. This can be masked somewhat by tax cuts and government stimulus and fluctuations in the exchange rate, but eventually consumption has to come down.

And it has!  The chart on the right, from Calculated Risk, tells the story: retail sales have dropped something like 12% in the past year or so.  That doesn't mean our trade deficit has reversed or anything — that's not likely to happen for quite a while — but it does mean that personal consumption might be getting close to sustainable levels now.  Maybe.  I wouldn't bet the ranch on it, but if you're looking for some slightly less grim news than usual, this is it.

The Anti-Cap-and-Trade Lobbying Blitz

Cap-and-trade legislation may clear Henry Waxman's Energy and Commerce Committee as early as next week. But are its supporters ready for it? The bill faces a hostile blizzard of ads and PR from big carbon emitters, whose spending has vastly outstripped that of environmental groups.

So far this year, opponents of climate change legislation have spent $76 million on ads while supporters have spent just $29 million, according to data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group obtained by the Guardian.  The oil, coal and gas industry also boosted its lobbying budget by 50 percent, spending $44 million in the first quarter of the year. In comparison, Grist reports, clean energy interests and environmental groups have managed to cough up less than half that sum.

The End of Universal Default?

I forgot to blog about this earlier, but here's the latest news on Chris Dodd's bill to bring a little common sense to the credit card industry:

Dodd's original bill had sought to ban all interest rate increases on existing balances.

Under the compromise measure, agreed to over the weekend by Dodd and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), card issuers would be allowed to retroactively bump up rates for any borrower at least 60 days behind on payments. However, if the borrower subsequently paid on time for six months, the card issuer would have to restore the original rate.

The bill also would prohibit card issuers from increasing rates during the first year a credit card account was opened and would require them to get a customer's permission to process transactions that would push the account balance over the credit limit. Another provision would require card issuers to post credit card agreements online.

It's good to see that the credit card industry still has a friend in Richard Shelby.  We certainly wouldn't want to pass a law that completely prevents a company from retroactively raising the interest rate on a loan it's already made, would we?

Eh.  At least it's something.  Presumably this means that credit card companies can no longer retroactively increase your rates just because you were a few days late paying your water bill, either.  Though I think I'd want to read the fine print before I was sure of that.

In any case, now it's time to see if any Republicans will vote for this bill.  They might!  Constituents are pissed at credit card companies, after all.  In the past Republicans could prevent bills like this from even coming to a vote, but now that they're going to be forced to take a public position they just might decide that discretion is the better part of valor.  Cozying up to your finance industry pals is one thing, but losing your seat over it is quite another.