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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cook County Board proceedings and the end of civilization

The research I'm doing for my dissertation requires me to read the proceedings of the Cook County Board from around the mid 1880s through 1940. (Actually, I look through the indexes for subjects that I'm interested in....I don't read the proceedings page by page.) One thing I've noticed is unsurprising is that, as the years go on, the volumes get bigger and bigger so that, by the 1920s, they're about twice the size for the same time span (one year).

A lot of obvious things explain this increase in length, which I take to be rough proxy for an increase in the number of things the Cook County government did (as for the types of things, they were: managing the county court system, managing the county public service institutions, like the county hospital, its "psychopathic ward," etc., and providing for poor relief: all these duties required advertising for innumerable (well, I guess they're numerable, but I'm not going to count them) bids, issuing loads and loads of check letters, and receiving all sorts of "communications" from people in the county). One explanation is that the county population had increased at least twofold and probably threefold, so the board had to oversee more and more people. The demands of World War I required, or at least effected, a significant mobilization of the county's services, and the relief demands of the Great Depression required a significant expansion of the county's poor relief.

But I suspect at least some of the growth of the proceedings' content has to do with something inherent in government, that is, the tendency for most institutions to take on more and more duties and concern themselves with more and more things so that they expand, almost inexorably. One (for example, me) gets the impression that these volumes will just succumb under their own weight some day and implode.

I guess I've been working on my dissertation too long.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The myth of the immortal twenty-something

There is much to be said for the claim that younger people tend to think themselves immortal, but the point ought not be pushed too far. Even though I once was a teenager and a twenty-something (I am now 37), I can't speak with much authority about what other teenagers and twenty-somethnigs think and any recounting of what I used to feel or believe or think when I was younger is inevitably bound with and obfuscated by my current biases.

I remember a philosophy of science class I took as a freshman in college. The professor asserted confidently that we--almost all of us were traditional aged college students--did not really understand our immortality the way he--a forty-somethingish (I guess) professor--did and, by implication, that we did not have as close of an understanding of death as he did. I remember resenting that claim, not because I thought it factually incorrect (even at the punkish and arrogant age of 18 or 19, I realized that an older person might actually know more than I), but because this professor simply assumed that his claim was true. It was true of me, but he had no way of knowing which students in that class, if any, had had parents or close friends died, or who had witnessed one violent or near fatal episode, or who had undergone their own life-threatening situations.

I at 37 have known at least one person much younger than me who had faced the prospect of an early death through childhood cancer, and I suspect (because I've never really talked to him about it) that he had and has a much more acute sense of mortality than I did at his age or than I do now.

I'm reminded of the poem by Billy Collins "On Turning Ten," which ends like this:
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
There is much we don't know about the consciousness of others, and there is even less that we have the right to assert.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

How did Robo-Signing happen?

When I worked as a loan processor for a local bank about couple years ago, there were two kinds of shortcuts I at least once took or played a part in when processing the paper work.

The first had to do notarized documents. Certain documents had to be signed by one, sometimes more than one, bank officer. I would take the documents to the eligible officer(s), have them signed, and then drop them off at the desk of a fellow employee who had the misfortune of being both nice and a notary. (Some of the nice people were not notaries, and some of the notaries were true grouches, so the nice people probably got more than their fair share of documents to notarize.) The notaries would look at the signatures because they recognized the signatures and notarized them, attesting to the fact that they had seen the officer sign the document, even though they really hadn't. I picked up the documents and continued to process them.

The second shortcut I did only once. I was processing a refinance loan for a person who was self-employed. Part of the refinancing process involves calling the applicant's employer. I either didn't know or was willfully ignorant that the "employer" I called was actually the loan applicant. And so I credulously wrote down his assessment of his own income, which is a big no no. The loan officer in charge of reviewing the loan application caught what I had done, and informed me of my mistake (I had only been on the job a few weeks and had no prior experience, so I wasn't punished). He simply told me that in cases where someone was self-employed, we had to use a different process (in this case, call his accountant to verify income) and made me correct my error.

These two types of shortcuts were different. The first was not technically the right thing to do, but was so close to technically the right thing to do that the officers of that bank and the notary(ies) would not face much if any trouble if a regulator had called them on it. Of course, if I, as a loan processor, had forged a bank officer's name on one of the loan documents (because, say, I was in a hurry to go home and couldn't find a qualifying officer), that would have been quite a different story, and by doing so I could have, would have, should have been fired. (This first type of shortcut reminds me of another shortcut taken when I was a bank teller. The tellers were divided into two groups of people, and the members of each group each had a set of keys to the vault unique to that group, so that, if someone wanted to open the vault or one of the protected lockboxes--such as the box that held blank traveler's checks--theoretically two people were needed. This was the concept of "dual control," premised in part on the notion that it's harder for two people to conspire to rob the bank than it is for one person. In practice, however, if a teller from one group needed to access the traveler's checks box, he/she would simply ask a teller from the other group for their keys.)

The second type of shortcut was simply wrong. I don't know precisely if it was a federal regulation, a state regulation, or an internal regulation (probably a combination of all three) that required us to verify income in certain prescribed manners. But simply taking the type of shortcut I had taken was wrong, and I should have known it.

I suspect that certain banks' alleged practice of "robo-signing" may have originated as a shortcut of the first category. "Robo-signing" was the practice of some large banks to process their mortgage and foreclosure paperwork without doing the appropriate verifications of income, etc. And the discovery/disclosure of this practice have prompted calls for moratoria, some voluntary others mandated, on foreclosures in some states. So many documents were being processed (probably) and certain things that had to be signed and verified took on a certain pro forma quality so that these large companies fell into the practice of simply signing off on things that had to be verified. The rules, technically construed, did not allow for this, but I suspect that the companies that engaged in this practice thought either that it was standard industry practice or that it was worth a risk: the increased "efficiency" from robo-signing was worth the risk that a foreclosed person's attorney would not find the error (and, more perniciously but probably never explicitly stated in order to claim plausible deniability, that people facing foreclosure were unlikely to afford the legal representation of their interests that would root out technical violations). The lapse into "robo-signing" was also, I suspect, made easier by the practice of bundling mortgages and selling them to different banks (a process I only dimly understand).

Although I suspect that "robo-signing" began as a shortcut of the first type, it obviously (to me) came to function as a shortcut of the second type, especially as the practice of foreclosures, at least by the banks implicated, is being called into question. (I have heard that a reader must beware when a writer uses the word "obvious" or "obviously," because such usage often signals that the point is not obvious at all. Still, this is my blog, and I'm making the claim.)

For what it's worth, I don't really have a problem with the fact that people facing foreclosure are challenging these allegedly robo-signed mortgages. These people would be on the hook for technically violating their mortgage agreement, and while banks often would prefer to continue accepting mortgage payments rather than resorting to foreclosure (banks probably don't make as much money on foreclosures as they lose by engaging in the process), banks would not hesitate to cite technical violations when resorting to foreclosures is convenient for them. Banks, after all, have lawyers on retainer, and the larger banks have legal divisions that advise them on this stuff, something actual homeowners usually don't have. I also think the "moral hazard" of a moratorium on such mortgages is almost nil: I can't imagine someone irresponsibly taking a mortgage in the future on the off chance that his or her bank will engage in improvident processing and that any subsequent foreclosure proceeding against them would be delayed for about three or six months.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Get out the vote: the shaming strategy

I reject the popular notion that "if you don't vote, you don't have the right to complain."

For starters, I assume that people who make this statement exempt certain people, to wit:
  • Children who are not old enough to vote.
  • Someone who gets in some sort of accident on the way to the polls.
  • Military commanders who, as a matter of conscience and to remain "apolitical" choose not to vote.
For continuers, I assume that people who make this statement don't mean the following by "complain":
  • Any complaint that has nothing to do with government.
One radio talk show host I listened to on election day piously clarified to his audience why he believed that people who don't vote have abrogated the "right to complain": if someone complains and didn't do the bare minimum of voting, then he will discount that person's complaint. This talk show host then offered a hypothetical to a caller who said she wouldn't vote this time around: say Pat Quinn be elected governor and he run this state (Illinois) into the ground, and say that this caller complain: he would discount her complaint automatically because she didn't vote.

He needn't have been so hypothetical. As most people who follow politics know, the Illinois governor (re)elected in 2006 disgraced his office by, apparently and among other things, trying to sell Barack Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder. I suppose if someone who had not voted in 2006 made the complaint, this talk show host would have discounted that complaint. So far, so good. But the fact that the one who made the complaint hadn't voted in 2006 has nothing to do with whether Blagojevich tried to sell the senate seat and says nothing about whether his attempt to do so was a bad or illegal thing. The truth or falsity of the governor's actions, and the goodness/badness or legality/illegality of those actions, has nothing to do with whether the one making the complaint voted.

I think the talk show host would probably respond that, well, yes, he would exempt people who are blowing whistles or making fact-based claims, but wouldn't abide complaints about "politicians these days" from people who don't vote. In my observation, however, most of the time that people complain about "politicians these days," with election seasons excepted, they are doing so in the context of a certain policy debate, such as (choose your poison) the Iraq war, Cap and Trade, Health Insurance Reform. And the complaints here are not the general "politicians these days don't care about people like me"; they are "politicians favor and are enacting policy x but they neglect the very legitimate concerns of people like me."

The most charitable construction to put on the "if you don't vote, don't complain" aphorism is that the act of voting is the most minimal forms of political participation and puts the voter among the community of people who are making the basic decisions in a democratic republic such as we live in. It is, in that respect, the "least we can do" is participate in the electoral process and be part of the civil society that puts a check on governmental power and expresses the voices and concerns of "the people."

Fair enough, and this construction has a certain appeal. And that is probably one reason why I usually chose to vote in city and national elections, although I usually do not vote in the primaries. (In Colorado, at least when I lived there, one had to be registered with a party to vote in its primary, I was not. Now in Illinois, one needn't register to vote in the primary, so I have less of an excuse.)

But not voting does not preclude participating in other ways. And the complainer, by complaining, is participating, and usually more vocally, than if all he or she did vote. If one writes a letter to one's congressperson, that is a more direct form of participation (although I suspect a letter from someone who the record shows has voted might carry more weight.....who knows? I don't.)

I'm not saying, as I used to say by implication (click here and here and here for examples), that voting is an entirely worthless exercise. And I think one should vote in the same way that one should [insert logically appropriate, but preferably also witty and folksy, analogy here]. But voting is not the summum bonum of all things good in a person qua member of civil/civic society.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The five more minutes syndrome

When I was a freshman in college, I took a "world history" class (actually, it was a history of the "20th century world"), and when the professor talked about Winston Churchill's disastrous Gallipoli Campaign--in which the British army, during WWI, tried to take control of the Dardenelles from the Ottoman Empire--I chimed in that I had read something, somewhere, to the effect that later evidence showed that if Churchill had held out for a few more days, the Turks would've surrendered. That professor chided me for what he called the "five more minutes syndrome," the notion that a failed policy will work if only it's given more time.

Well, I don't know if it's a failed project, but I just finished the rough draft of a chapter for my dissertation (it's rough indeed: it has no conclusion and is still 95 pages), and it took at least two weeks longer than I had anticipated. One reason was that I stumbled upon an interesting tidbit in the local papers that cover one of my case studies, and I took a 1 to 2 weed digression in researching the item. It was a true case of serendipity, and actually helped make whatever point it is I'm trying to make in my chapter (I'm not sure what that is.....when it comes to this project, I'm working rather inductively and am trying to draw conclusions as I go). Anyway, I might have spent even more time researching this tangent that turned out not to be a tangent but integral to what I wanted to do.

In my case, the "five more minutes" plea played out.