A Lesson in Fraud

The matter of wells Fargo represents a case study in a lot of things: corporate fraud, deniability, responsibility and ultimately believability. And it’s not very pretty.

Wells Fargo has admitted that thousands of its employees, pressured to meet aggressive sale goals, opened fake accounts in the names of customers unaware of what was going on, sometimes forging their signatures and imposing fraudulent fees. When that behavior was publicly discovered, the bank fired more than 5,000 of its lower-paid employees. Can you say the word ??? The bank agreed to a $185 million settlement with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — but with no admission of guilt. That was a mistake by the government. What is needed is not merely a settlement but a resolution, and that must involve penalties starting at the top.

Wells’ President John G. Stumpf (rhymes with Trumpf?) says he regrets the bank’s actions — wow — and will do everything to change the culture and see that such things don’t happen again. And, by the way, no top executives at the bank will be fired. Or prosecuted. If that seems like responsible CEO leadership, then you must be a banker.

Will the justice Department move against this obviously criminal behavior by Wells Fargo? According to department guidelines, legal action can follow when “the pervasivness of wrongdoing within the corporation, including the complicity in, or the condoning of, the wrongdoing by corporate management” is apparent. As it apparently is in this case.

Mt. Stumpf is not getting his outrageous salary cut in the least, in spite of the fact that the bank has known what was going on for at least five years, and it was made public by a report in the Los Angeles Times in 2013. And then there’s this: the executive who oversaw this sales program at Wells, Carrie Tolstedt, is leaving the bank. Was she fired? We don’t know, but she’s leaving. But not until the end of the year. And she’s getting an obscene send-off worth at least $100 million. That’s not responsible It’s criminal. And the justice department needs to take action.

Where were the bank’s directors during the times this was going on? Clearly there was no oversight. And if the directors’ weren’t informed, then Mr. Stumpf and others at Wells Fargo should be held accountable for irresponsible corporate behavior in hiding such issues.

Lastly, there are others to blame. Republicans, for instance, who wondered aloud at the recent Congressional hearings why federal regulators didn’t detect this legal activity before now. One reason is because Republicans have sought for years to gut the Dodd-Frank bill and its regulatory statutes and the [people whose jobs are overseeing corporations. Republicans have advocated fewer regulations for everyone. and guess what: when that happened, this happened. And Democrats don’t get off lightly either. But all of this should be firmly placed inside a prosecution by the federal government. That’s would be the responsibility we most need to see now.

Celebrating Dr. Johnson

This week we celebrate the 307th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Samuel Johnson, 18th century England’s greatest man of letters and a giant among the world’s literary icons of any century.
Dr. Johnson, as he was familiarly known, wrote essays, novels, poetry, prayers, and of course a Dictionary (1755) that was perhaps his most remarkable achievement. He was said to be the most brilliant conversationalist of his age with a rapier wit and an unforgiving intellect. And we are forever indebted to James Boswell, who came into Dr. Johnson’s orbit and from his long and rich association produced the finest, most compelling biography ever written, “The Life of Johnson” (look it up — it makes for unforgettable reading).

So full and fascinating was his life that, like Boswell, you could write a book about Johnson. And in fact hundreds of authors have indeed written thousands of books about him since his death. Some of them have been quite wonderful (immodest hint — see my book “Whisky, Kilts and the Loch Ness Monster”). Rather than recalling a highlight list of his life’s work, however, it might be more fun just to remember some of the delightfully piquant, pointed and perceptive things he said during his busy, often aphoristic-driven lifetime.

a. There is no wisdom in useless and hopeless sorrow; but there is something in it so like virtue, that he who is wholly without it cannot be loved.

b. He who praises everybody praises nobody.

c. Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

d. What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

e. In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.

f. OATS — A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. (from the “Dictionary”)

g. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

h. Of himself, he declared the lexicographer “a harmless drudge.”

As I’ve suggested, there is hardly a dearth of books about Johnson. And on the web you can locate many quite outstanding sites. Among the best: www.samueljohnson.com

King of the Lies

Can anyone believe anything Donald Trump says? After more than five years of lying about President Obama’s birth, Trump now says he is dropping his questions about the matter. Just like that. He’s not issuing an apology for lying either to the President or to any of the thousands of racist wannabes he nurtured with his lying.
And even so, he can’t keep from adding to the pile of lies by blaming Hillary Clinton for starting the birth question. She didn’t of course, but Trump lies and says she did. He lies about nearly every subject he broaches, and he refuses to accept responsibility for his lies and continues to lie. Those who continue to insist they support him are supporting a serial liar, a man who cannot be trusted or believed. A liar who, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in today’s Wall Street Journal, is “incompetent and unqualified to be commander-in-chief” of the United States.

And by the way, this is Day 57 since his nomination that Trump has refused to disclose his income tax returns. Wonder if he’s trying to hide indictable activities or just unethical ones?

A Sad Commentary…

Here’s a quote from a newly issued biography whose subject “liked to depict himself as a man of the people, but in fact despised the masses, which he regarded as nothing more than a tool to be manipulated to achieve his political ambitions.”

The subject believed the “receptivity of the masses is very limited. Their capacity to understand things is slight whereas their forgetfulness is great.” It becomes necessary to repeat slogans “for as long as it takes the dumbest member of the audience to get an idea of what they mean.”

The subject believed his opponents were corrupt,” “liars,” “unprincipled.”

Yes, the subject of thee words is, of course, Adolf Hitler. The words come from a major new biography written by German historian and journalist Volker Ullrich and from Hitler himself in his book “Mein Kampf.” And yes, there is no mistaking the parallels which may be drawn from those observations and the political ascension of Donald J. Trump.

There is little evidence from his campaign that Trump cares in any meaningful way about the masses; his directives and policies are more directly focused on the concerns of the wealthy elite, a group of whom the self-described billionaire sees himself a member.

But he also is clearly content at striking out against opponents — which include not merely Hillary Clinton but journalists, scientists, economists and anyone who would dispute him — with the most simplistic and argumentative of tactics. The Democrats are “corrupt” and “unprincipled,” words which more accurately describe Trump, his activities and his ethics.

People are a tool to be manipulated in the Trump campaign; tell them what they want to hear. And keep repeating it until they believe such foolishness as “we will build a wall” and “we will make America great again.” Words that are not merely meaningless but dangerous in their contemptuous demagoguery.

And no, this is not a declaration that Donald Trump is Adolf Hitler. That is far-fetched. But his tactics and his thinking do convey much of the style that helped bring Hitler to power in Germany. If you doubt that, read carefully through historian Ullrich’s heralded, comprehensive biography. It can make for some very scary reading.

Connecticut Woes

There’s a lot to like about our newly adopted state of Connecticut. The people are uncommonly friendly — no New England standoffishness that I’ve noticed — and the landscape is especially gorgeous, from the hills of the northwest to the coastal towns. It’s a smart state, and there seem to be a lot of good things happening all over.

But there also some serious issues in Connecticut. One certainly has to do with an state economy has has all the evidence of poorly thought management and planning. I don’t know enough yet to understand where the blame for that properly rests.

Another has been made abundantly and distressingly clear with a ruling on the state’s education structure by State Superior Court judge Thomas Moukawsher last week. The judge found Connecticut has created a highly unbalanced system of public schools which — not the judge’s words, but mine — resemble in many ways what happened with segregated schools in the South for so many terrible years. The judge found there has been a systematic effort to increase not just funding but educational services of all kinds for students in the wealthy areas of the state at the expense of those in less well off school districts. The rich have gotten rich, and the poor have gotten poorer. that’s a disgrace.

The judge ruled that the lawmakers were “not committed to a principled, constitutional system” that distributed aid based on need and on sound educational practices. Because of that. the state’s testing systems are meaningless, and the judge blasted the state for “imposing token statewide standard” that are unrelated to student learning and achievement.

This sounds more like a ruling in Mississippi than Connecticut, doesn’t it? And there’s more: the judge’s words are a severe chastisement for the way the state has overseen its public education in the last decade. There is no excuse for that, and this legislature has got to begin remedying this crisis. As a newcomer, I certainly am not familiar enough with the system to specify the blame other than the obvious legislature and governor. I hope both will take a hard look at this ruling and begin a serious discussion over how to make necessary changes.

At this moment, I don’t know whether it’s a Republican or Democratic “issue,” but I can’t see that it matters unless there is no effort to revise the existing educational system. Sadly, the only response I’ve seen from any legislator is a comment from a Democratic state senator who said he felt the ruling “overstated” the problem. Unfortunately too few people in power seemed to recognize the state had any problem at all until this ruling.

The Fun of Flying

There’s just something so special about flying in a commercial jet these days. Every time I step off a plane I think once again about what an amazing experience it is that I didn’t have a leg fall off from cramping while sitting in a seat designed for a fourth grader. A small fourth grader.

Yes, truly, flying in the coach section of a modern jet — the word “coach” here substitutes for what the airlines call the “main cabin” and what anyone who’s ever flown in one generously calls the cramped barracks of a third-world prison — is really special.
Unless you are very rich and can afford to sit in the front section of the plane — those are the places where there are beds, butlers, showers, bars, Broadway shows, art auctions and classes in origami — you are doomed to the concentration camp towards the rear, an area packed with cheerless, life-sucked-out-of-them people whose only fault is that they didn’t want to put their life savings into the first-class seating area.

Pity them, for they are us.

Yes, I know your uncle works for one of the major airlines and every Christmas buys you a lovely new tie, but really, is there any reason to like the experience of flying these days? We do know, however, there are lots of reasons not to like flying because a recent survey turned up dozens of things that people don’t like about getting into the coach section (and sometimes even the first class section).

We’re discounting, of course, the fact that you now pay for a seat almost half as wide as the one you paid for 25 years ago. Everybody knows that. Along with the fact that there’s less room — a lot less room — between seats than there was, say, oh, maybe, last year.

No, the list of annoying things on airplanes these days is topped by seat-kickers, the folks who don’t like the lack of space between seats and so they occasionally kick the rear of your seat to remind everyone how miserable everyone is.

The next most annoying feature of flying, according to the survey, is parents who let their children misbehave, followed by passengers who don’t smell very good, people who turn up the volume on their electronic devices, people who drink too much, people who talk too much, and the ones who recline their seats regardless of the fact that doing so pins the person in the seat behind them as surely as if they were a butterfly in a collection. That action is also certain to quickly produce a seat-kicker, which starts the whole thing over.

And we haven’t even gotten around to the overhead bin issues, of which there are many. First, there are never enough overhead bins to accommodate carry-on baggage because the airlines want you to pay the fees they charge, among many other things, for checked baggage. So the battle lines are drawn: get on the plane first however you can and get your bag up there before the bins fill.

And when that happens, then the poor schlubs who couldn’t board earlier are forced to try and squeeze their bags — all of which are packed with carburetors, air-conditioning units and cement-enclosed pachyderms — into the non-existent space. That will almost certainly lead eventually to a round of cheerless drinking and seat-kicking.

There are, of course, ways to avoid this mess. You can start saving your money now so that you can afford a seat in first class sometime in the next decade. Or, you can look at the alternatives such as traveling by train or driving your own personal vehicle, although admittedly planning trips to Iceland that way can prove dicey if not downright treacherous.

You could also wait for the airlines to start making improvements to their coach sections, and if you’re inclined to do that, may I offer you in the meantime an interesting, sure-fire investment on some ocean properties near Santa Fe?

No, I have a mantra that I recite every time I’m tempted to fly. It is quite simple and goes like this: “The airlines are not your friends.” Repeat that over and over and you’ll soon find that your expectations begin to lower, and as they hit rock-bottom you’ll realize that you’re just about ready to climb on that plane.

You’ve surrendered every shred of self-respect, you’re prepared for hours of suffering and abuse — almost as if you are doing to the dentist, for instance — and you are finally ready to acknowledge that the free peanuts tossed out by an over-worked flight attendant will actually seem like a perk.

The News Isn’t So Great for Fox

Fox news has had a bad summer. Oh my, how distressing.

Just how distressing? Well for starters, the network boss Roger Ailes turned out to be a serial sexual harasser who embarrassed his organization, cost it a lot of money, and led to a major loss of face. That’s a lot for just one overpaid, overweight, over-the-hill TV guy.
But his departure — no, he was disgracefully and unceremoniously fired — has led to the departure of one of the network’s more prominent performers, Greta Van Susteren, although some of us would hardly consider that a loss.

Still, the gutty network perseveres with its on-going toxic mix of paranoia and wishful thinking. But there could be more losses coming. The biggest one would be Bill O’Reilly, the arrogant conservative blowhard, who has a contract that’s up for renewal soon. Losing him would put a huge hole in the network’s ratings, so you can figure Fox would be prepared to offer him a lot of the cash they saved by dumping Ailes.

And then there’s Sean Hannity, the wildly under-educated host of another network spot, who is such a toady to Donald Trump that he is almost certain to follow Trump whether the Republican presidential candidate wins or loses. And by the way, he’ll lose. And if he keeps Hannity him, he’ll lose even more.

It is hard to get worked up over any of this, of course. Sexual harassers don’t deserve sympathy or concern, especially not elderly ones in positions of power who have abused those positions for decades. And yeah, I’m looking at you Bill Cosby.

As for Fox, a little more attention to truth and less to conspiracy in the wake of these shenanigans would make for a more credible rival to other networks. And if that should happen, OJ will resume his search for his wife’s killer. And the Pope will buy a Ferrari for the Vatican.

Thank Goodness for Science

I’m beginning to think the healthiest thing I could do for breakfast in the mornings is eat a pizza. Or maybe a watermelon. Or coffee only. Or … heck, just skip breakfast altogether.

The nation’s doctors and health surveyors don’t seem to agree on what constitutes a healthy breakfast, or indeed, whether or not you ought to be eating breakfast at all. The so-called nutrition studies over the last four or five decades are now shown to be largely false, based more on association than causation.
Coffee? Bad for you until it was shown to extend your life. Bacon? Bad for you until it turns out that we need some of that fat. Avoid butter? Not at the cost of using butter substitutes, which can hasten your demise. Eating a hearty breakfast every day. That’s the most important meal of the day, so you’d better not skip it — unless you do skip it because it doesn’t matter at all. At least eating lots of fruit is good for you. Except that all that sugar, even naturally infused, can lead to health issues.

Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t, and dammed if you can’t find any reliable nutritional advice. That’s me. Trying to follow one reasonable-sounding diet one day only to be told the next that it’s wrong. And don’t think you can fix things by taking vitamins; surely everyone knows by now that’s not a panacea and can actually cause some harm.

And now I’m starting to feel tired. And hungry. I want to eat well, do the right thing, stay healthy as long as I can. But there is no — repeat, NO — food counsel anywhere out there (internet, etc.) you can depend on. Everything now must be taken with skepticism, albeit “healthy” skepticism.

Just about the only suggestions I can find that make some sense tell us that moderation is the key. Eat red meat. Drink coffee. Gobble bacon. Enjoy cheese. But do it in moderation, a perfectly reasonable sounding term that could possibly mean something different to you than it does for me. (For instance, I think four strips of crispy bacon with my eggs and home fries is just enough. You, on the other hand, might somehow feel that is excessive. Perhaps we are both correct. And on the other, other hand, I’m fine with a single glass of wine at dinner, whereas you may believe that three martinis is a genuine necessity.).

So with all this conflicting information, I don’t know where to go, other than to head for the refrigerator. And I can’t explain why I keep reading the latest demolishing of long-cherished nutritional principles — except that if I need to find a good excuse for tearing into that chocolate milkshake, I’m happy to know somewhere, somehow, I can find something assuring me it’s the best possible thing I could do.

Thank goodness for science.

Oh, and by the way, this is Day 46 since Donald Trump’s nomination that he has refused to release his income tax returns. And he has never bothered to give us his medical history either. What could this incompetent narcissist be hiding?

Trump the Dissembler

Day 42. Donald Trump goes to Mexico. He gets a photo-op with the unpopular Mexican President, appears to “soften” his outrageous positions on immigration, then returns to the United States and spews the same ridiculously hateful immigration bile that allows us to realize Donald Trump has changed nothing. He is still a self-consumed liar who remains among the the most unqualified candidates ever to seek the office of the presidency.

Donald the Disgraced

Day 36. A New York Times investigation reveals that Donald Trump’s father routinely engaged in racist activities in real estate, with the growing encouragement and support of his son, who on his own later, was guilty of racist practices in accepting applicants to buildings he owned/operated. Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President, has a blatant history of racial discrimination throughout much of his career. What a disgrace he is.