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October 21, 2014 2:41 PM Nudgefail: The Case of Organ Donation

By Keith Humphreys

Behavioral economics is cool science with numerous applications. The concept of nudges, for example requiring newly hired workers to sign a form to stop automatic retirement contributions rather than having to sign a form to start them, is certainly useful in many contexts. But as I write in Washington Post’s Wonkblog, it can’t solve some problems, including the shortage of organ donations, which leaves over 120,000 Americans on the waiting list:

One commonly proposed solution to the organ shortage derives from behavioral economic “nudge” principles. Rather than requiring Americans to complete paperwork in order to opt-in to donation at death, the country could shift to the European model of presuming that donation at death was acceptable. But Tom Mone, chief executive of OneLegacy, the nation’s largest organ and tissue recovery organization, points out that “The recovery rate for deceased donors in the United States is actually better than that of European nations with presumed consent laws. The United States rigorously follows individual donor registrations whereas presumed consent countries actually defer to family objections.”

What this means on the ground, as Tom explained to me and our audience at a recent Stanford Health Policy Forum, is that when European health professionals show up to harvest organs from a newly dead individual, that person’s family often says “no way”, nudges be damned. The state could legally take the person’s organs by force of course, but unsurprisingly it does not. In contrast, in the US opt-in model, both families and the state respect the deceased donor’s wishes because they know they were the result of a proactive decision rather than a bureaucratically-designed nudge. More simply, an active choice has legitimacy that a nudged choice does not.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 21, 2014 10:29 AM Can We Expect a Republican Blowout?

By Jonathan Bernstein

Where are we on the Senate right now?

Perhaps the biggest news over the last week is that Republican chances of holding at least 51 seats have gradually improved. Five of the six leading forecast methods now have the chances for a Republican majority at about two-thirds, while the sixth (from the political scientists at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage) continue to estimate a whopping 93 percent chance of a Republican takeover. The Post’s Greg Sargent has a good state-level view of the lay of the land for those who prefer that to the overall model estimates.

I’d still caution everyone about the significant uncertainty involved; only the Washington Post method reaches levels at which it would be a real shock if Democrats kept their majority. There’s also the possibility that the polls are a little off, although as Sean Trende and others (myself included) have said, there’s no particular reason to believe that the results will be better for Democrats than the polls indicate. They could just as easily be better for Republicans.

Why have Republicans moved into a higher position? In a few states, their leads have increased. That’s particularly true in Alaska, where early (and sparse) polling gave incumbent Democrat Mark Begich some hope, but surveys over the last five weeks have shown Republican challenger Dan Sullivan in excellent shape. Mostly, however, what’s happened is a little different.

Earlier in the cycle, Republicans had many pickup opportunities yet only appeared to be safely ahead in West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota. In the last few months, though, Republicans have maintained small leads in some of their target races — and small leads in five states in mid-October are more likely to produce five wins than similar leads in July or August. Meanwhile, Democrats have failed to generate any likely takeovers of their own, with the party’s chances in Kentucky, Kansas, South Dakota and Georgia failing at least so far to turn any of those seats around.

What all this means is that Republican prospects have improved, but the chances for a big Republican blowout have not. Granted, pickups in Iowa and Colorado would be a nice way to put Republicans over the top. But at least so far, they haven’t managed to add potential targets such as Minnesota, Michigan or Virginia to the list of closely contested states, and they remain unlikely to win New Hampshire or North Carolina. The result is that prediction models are converging at 52 Republican seats, not 54 or more.

I’m not playing that down. No matter what the opportunities, I doubt there has been a single point during this election cycle when Republican strategists would not have been satisfied with winning seven seats to reach 52. And just as Democratic hopes to hold a majority are still realistic, so are Republican dreams of an even larger landslide. Still, what’s happening is consistent with Republicans taking advantage of expected opportunities.

Fifty-five Republican senators are a lot more likely to block judicial and executive branch nominations than 51 or 52 would be. They would also be more likely to stick together on reconciliation to kill a Democratic filibuster or to carry out majority-imposed changes of Senate rules.

For all the talk of partisan polarization and parliament-style Congresses in which parties stick together, no party can count on unanimity across the board. Slim majorities are still more difficult to manage. Every seat won this year for Republicans is important insurance against reverses in 2016, when the races will be more friendly to Democratic pickups than this year’s have been for Republicans.

In other words: there’s a lot more to the Senate contests than which party gets the majority.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 21, 2014 10:04 AM Alabama Relives the Gingrich Revolution

By Martin Longman

As a couple, Alabama and the Democratic Party were more Nelson and Mary Clark Rockefeller than Mike Tyson and Robin Givens, if you know what I mean. If you don’t, look it up.

When the Republican Party finally seized control of the Alabama House after the 2010 midterm elections, it ended 136 years of unbroken Democratic rule. Given the Democratic Party of Alabama’s legacy of racism and brutality, one might have been forgiven for thinking this changing of the guard was a good and well-merited thing. Alas, one would have been wrong. The Alabama Democrats were on the mend, while their successors are revanchist reactionaries with they moral compass of a viper.

It would not take to long for this to become clear.

Powerful Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard has been arrested on felony ethics charges, accused of using public office for personal gain. Hubbard was indicted by a grand jury on 23 charges accusing him of misusing his office as speaker and his previous post as chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

Acting Attorney General Van Davis announced the indictment Monday.

Speaker Hubbard was the Newt Gingrich of the Alabama Revolution. He was the self-proclaimed leader of the Republican takeover. And, exactly like Gingrich, he took whatever preexisting public corruption that existed and he turned it up to eleven.

Mike Hubbard is the one under indictment. He’s the one who now faces 23 Class B felonies, any one of which could send him to the slammer for two to 20 years. He is the one who faces losing the title of Alabama’s most powerful politician, of losing the job as Speaker of the House. He is the one - and this is no small thing — who faces disgracing the party he put in position to dominate this state.

That’s huge. That’s overwhelming and that - well that was sort of expected after all these months. But it turns out that’s not even the most interesting part of the story that broke over Alabama today. Because Mike Hubbard is not the most famous or noteworthy person tied up in this probe. He’s not the richest or perhaps even the most powerful.

When the Speaker is a graftmaster, there’s a line of graftees at his door.

And the people wrapped up in Hubbard’s alleged crimes in some ways are bigger than Hubbard himself. They are not just movers and shakers. They are flat-out Alabama royalty. Former Gov. Bob Riley - the one Alabama loved because he didn’t embarrass us — and his daughter Minda were solicited, according to the indictment.

So was Yella Fella himself. Auburn University trustee Jimmy Rane was asked to pay $150,000 to invest in Hubbard’s company, Craftmaster. So was former Sterne Agee CEO Jim Holbrook, political operative Dax Swatek, and honored Birmingham businessman Rob Burton, CEO of giant Hoar Construction.

The Business Council of Alabama, one of the biggest players in Alabama politics in the last decade, is tied to the charges against Hubbard, along with its president Billy Canary and its former board chair Will Brooke - who ran for Congress this year.

These are the people who got things done in Alabama. No, that’s not it. These are the people who get things done in Alabama.

The Republicans had claimed, with some justification, that the Democratic Party ran the state like mafiosi and that they would clean things up.

Many of them are the very ones who screamed the loudest - and so very rightly - that the Democrats had run this state like the Corleone Family, that Alabama needed to sweep them away and replace them with something honest and sincere. These are the people who made ethics their calling card and their legacy.

This is exactly like the Gingrich Revolution, which was fueled by the relatively petty institutionalized corruption that had built up over fifty years of uninterrupted Democratic rule of the House of Representatives and quickly replaced it with corruption several orders of magnitude more serious and damaging to the Republic.

And if these indictments are true - if it is shown that the architect of Alabama ethics reform didn’t just ask for money and favors but received both from people Alabama trusted, this won’t simply be an indictment of Mike Hubbard.

Oh, Hubbard is the one indicted in a legal sense.

But in a more general sense this is an indictment of all those who burned through trust in the time it took them to gain absolute power.

It is an indictment of business as usual. It is an indictment of partisanship as a way of life, of the seize-power-at-any cost culture that swept in on promises to rid the state of corruption and preyed on good will.

This isn’t just an indictment of the speaker of Alabama’s House of Representatives.

This is an indictment of Alabama.

It’s really just a case lesson on the false promises of the Conservative Movement. They don’t deliver better government. They take the low-level corruption that greases the skids of progress and transform it into an unambiguously criminal enterprise that frustrates the very functioning of government.

And then they point to their own ineptitude at governing to prove the case that government is inefficient and rotten to the core.

And then the pattern repeats itself.

Maybe it’s time that Alabama and the Democratic Party get some couple’s therapy. They need to get back together.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

October 19, 2014 8:05 PM Consider Staying in the Closet

By Keith Humphreys

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 19, 2014 10:32 AM Bush Was Worse Than Nixon

By Martin Longman

Rutgers Professor David Greenberg has a nice review of John Dean’s new book The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It in The New Republic. The impressive thing about Dean’s book is the exhaustive amount of research he’s done of the Nixon audio tapes, including a tremendous amount of new transcribing. Historians will be grateful for this resource.

I want to explore just one piece of this review, and it only touches on Watergate by way of comparison with the administration of George W. Bush. Prof. Greenberg sees Dean as being irrationally opposed to the Bush administration, at least in terms of the seriousness with which Dean compared its misdeeds to those of the Nixon administration.

Dean’s quest for absolution has also taken the form of calling out abuses of political power, as he did in a string of Bush-era polemics: Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush (2004); Conservatives Without Conscience (2006); and Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches (2007). These books confirmed that Dean had grown more liberal in his politics, and like many liberals during the Bush era, he couldn’t help venting his outrage toward the president’s Nixonian abuses of power. Though Bush’s misdeeds certainly deserved censure, the newly fashionable genre of the political attack book is not an ennobling one for anyone. Especially regrettable was Worse than Watergate, if only because its title implied that Dean endorsed the then-fashionable (but profoundly mistaken) idea that Bush somehow did more harm to the republic than Nixon. Although Dean later explained that he meant to suggest only that Bush’s secrecy outstripped Nixon’s—though that claim too is debatable—it was plain that he had inhaled the contentious partisan ether of the new century.

I don’t want to minimize the harm that Nixon did to the republic, but much of what Nixon did was also done by previous administrations, going back to at least Woodrow Wilson. One of the injustices of Watergate was that the Nixon administration took the full brunt of the blame for actions that had been routine under J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for decades, and for domestic intelligence operations and other dirty tricks that traced back through the Johnson, Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. Nixon didn’t invent COINTELPRO, for example, nor did he initiate the CIA’s secret mail opening program. What Watergate and the subsequent investigations revealed was that American’s First and Fourth Amendment rights had been largely mythological in the post-war era. The great triumph of the era was that America rose up and demanded that reality match the myth we were taught in our public schools. Congress enacted the FISA law, gave teeth to the Freedom of Information Act, passed campaign finance reform laws, created intelligence oversight committees, passed the Sunshine Act, the Ethics in Government Act, and the Presidential Records Act. Our country’s dirty laundry was fairly thoroughly aired through multiple congressional investigations, and the media became more combative and confrontational.

The Bush administration attacked all these reforms in a fairly methodical fashion. I won’t list their sins here, as the archives of this blog offer one of the most comprehensive records of that history that you could hope to find. But the harm done to the country by the Bush administration was largely in eviscerating the Watergate reforms and heaping disdain and scorn on the values Americans had risen up to insist upon in the immediate aftermath of that scandal.

We can argue about whether the decision to invade Iraq was worse than the decision to bomb Cambodia, or whether the warrantless surveillance of the Nixon administration was more egregious than the warrantless surveillance of the Bush administration, or whether Operation Phoenix was more grotesque than Bush’s torture programs. But the great sin of the Bush administration was to attack and corrode that noble values that were defended in the face of the revelations of Watergate. He made the Republican Party defend the exact kinds of things that the nation had insisted were indefensible in the 1970’s.

And, for that, his administration was worse than Nixon’s and did much more to harm the country. Look at the GOP today, and compare it to the GOP of the late 1970’s. Which is a greater shame to the republic?

Which legacy would you choose?

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]


October 17, 2014 4:37 PM Has Polarization Killed the Conversation About Social Issues?

By Julia Azari

Some of the biggest questions in American politics are really questions about ideological disagreement and competition within parties. For the next couple of weeks, I plan to tackle some of these topics here, under the heading “peeking under the tent.” I’m hoping to get to some questions about primaries, factions and ideology, and about how changing intra-party politics affects the kinds of political debates we have. This last question is the topic of today’s post.

Is party polarization destroying the quality of political discourse? This seems to be an area where evidence supports the conventional wisdom. According to various scholars, the repercussions of our divisions include “political warfare,” “outrage,” and intense negativity.

Perhaps the damage to contemporary political discourse is not just in the words that are used, but also in the subjects that dominate political debate. Over the summer, questions about race and gender in American political life dominated the discussion among public intellectuals, journalists, and political activists. These conversations have been pretty much completely separate from the official political discourse, in which Republicans talk about how much they hate Obamacare and Democrats do things like encourage their Facebook followers to be the first to wish Hillary Clinton a happy birthday.

On the race side, we have the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, and the larger discussion about race and criminal justice. A few months ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wrote a controversial and important piece about redlining and residential segregation, its impact on the wealth of African-American families, and how this bears on the question of racial justice. As far as gender issues, the response to the tragic shooting in Santa Barbara, CA over Memorial Day weekend introduced the #yesallwomen hashtag and the ensuing debate about violence and harassment against women. Over the past year, the commentariat has ruminated on women in the workplace, including the kinds of policy solutions that would allow for better work-life balance for all. There are undoubtedly other examples of issues that dominated discourse among non-elected elites, but were met with silence from elected officials.

Let’s deal with the obvious first. Naturally, in an election year, savvy politicians are not going to take up thorny topics about sexual assault or race relations except to either offer unobjectionable platitudes or use those subjects as wedge issues to divide the other party. On the other hand, it does seem that in the middle of the last century, the political process actually sustained debate about civil rights, voting rights, and gender equality. Some of this debate was pretty horrifying by contemporary standards, but in several instances it actually produced major policy change. Why do questions about social equality seem so far outside mainstream political discourse now?

Different strains of political science offer different answers. Realignment theory suggests that the American political process is rarely able to respond to the central concerns of the electorate. When the electorate reaches a “boiling point,” realigning elections occur - momentous and consequential affairs like 1860 or 1932 (the story goes). In a very different vein, David Mayhew’s theory of Congress suggests that position-taking trumps actually making policy, for which members have to share credit. Contentious, complicated social issues are rarely good position-taking opportunities; politicians who have attempted it have often paid the consequences.

Another possible explanation is ideological sorting. Historically, some of the biggest issues have divided rather than distinguished the two parties. In the nineteenth century, westward expansion, the existence of a national bank, and even slavery were the subjects of intra-party splits. In the middle of the twentieth century, the parties were divided over many of the biggest issues of the day - civil rights, later, abortion and other gender/privacy/sexuality issues, as well as economic questions. As a result, the things that parties have to do as a matter of course - nominate candidates, write national platforms - regularly resulted in debates over these topics. Now that these differences are mostly between parties, rather than within parties, politicians have fewer incentives and opportunities to communicate about ideas that challenge the status quo. Furthermore, what Geoffrey Layman and Thomas Carsey identify as “conflict extension” plays a role here: for both elites and regular folks, partisanship now corresponds with positions on social, racial, and cultural issues.

The Ferguson situation illustrated the importance of intra-party conflict for social issues discourse. For a brief moment during the summer, there was heightened attention to how Rand Paul, a self-identified libertarian within the Republican Party, would respond. Some of that attention was pointed, but disagreements among Republicans about liberty and authority also provided an opening for discussion.

Events in Missouri also drew attention to mainstream politicians’ tendency to shy away from tough social issues. The generally slow response from politicians, particularly the state’s senior Senator, Claire McCaskill, invited criticism that elected leaders don’t pay enough attention to racial injustice. The issue is complicated, and I’m highly sympathetic to the argument that this neglect is linked to power imbalances and problems with representation. But it is also part of a broader pattern that suggests a different set of incentives at work. When party identification can predict a huge range of issue positions, it makes the debate less likely to foster new understandings. It might also make it less likely to happen in the first place.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

October 17, 2014 1:41 PM Weekend Film Recommendation: Murder by the Clock

By Keith Humphreys

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Halloween month on RBC is devoted to movies about ghoulies, ghosties, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. This week, I offer an admittedly off-beat film recommendation from the early days of talkies: 1931′s Murder by the Clock.

The plot centers on the Endicotts, a wealthy family in decline. The parsimonious matriarch of the clan, Julia Endicott (Blanche Friderici), lives in fear of a Poe-style premature burial and laments the fact that her direct heir is a musclebound half-wit (Irving Pichel, in a quasi-Frankenstein Monster sort of role). Julia reluctantly decides to leave the family fortune to her drunken, ne’er do well nephew (Walter McGrail). But his scheming, sexually voracious wife (Lilyan Tashman) isn’t in a mood to wait for Julia to die of natural causes, and begins using her considerable feminine wiles to get multiple men to work her evil will. Murders and mystery ensue.

Fair warning: Movie sound technology was not well-developed when this film was made. Microphones on the set were few in number, often in fixed positions and of low quality. As a result, actors had to talk more slowly and clearly and not move around too much as they did so. This understandably comes across as stilted to modern audiences. But as with the famous Lugosi/Browning Dracula which came out the same year, if you can let those limits of early talkies go and just enjoy a scary story well told, Murder by the Clock will greatly entertain you.

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In style and plot, this film is an agreeable cross between the haunted house pictures of prior years and the monster movies that were just becoming popular (like Dracula, Frankenstein also came out in 1931). The other enormous appeal of the movie is the campy, vampy work of Tashman, in a part that screams “pre-Hays Code”. Dressed in a series of outfits that leave little to the imagination she sexually disables virtually every male character in the story (Tashman was apparently a sexual dynamo in real life as well, though her energies were usually directed at women rather than men, allegedly including Greta Garbo). Tashman has a lot of fun going way over the top and it’s intentionally funny for the audience too, as were many of the classic monster movies of the 1930s.

The atmospheric photography is another asset of Murder by the Clock, and amplifies the mood effectively. That’s a credit to Karl Struss, one of the first famous cinematographers, who worked with many of the early giants: Murnau, Griffith, DeMille and Chaplin. Struss gives fans of scary movies what they want: eerie shots of dusty secret corridors, foggy graveyards, and killers skulking through abundant shadows

If you just can’t stand the technically-imposed limitations of early talkies, this movie is not for you. But otherwise Murder by the Clock offers creepy, campy fun for the Halloween season as well as being of historical interest for its look and pre-Hays code salaciousness.

p.s. Pachel went on to direct an ever better pre-Hays code film that I recommended here two years ago, The Most Dangerous Game. Note also that Murder by the Clock is in the public domain, and you ought to be able to find it for free online.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 17, 2014 9:22 AM Rick Scott and Fangate: The Limits of Ignorance

By Mark Kleiman

[See update below]

Apparently the rules of the Florida gubernatorial debate forbade the contestants from using electronic equipment.  Rick Scott refused to participate (until his handlers told him how silly he looked) because Charlie Crist brought a fan on to the stage.

Yes, I know that there’s no legal minimum IQ required to become the governor of a state. But really, is it too much to expect the the former CEO of a big health-care company to know the difference between “electronic” and “electrical”?

Update Well … not perzackly. A reader points out that the debate rules banned “electronic devices (including fans).” Now, I still insist that passage is nonsensical, since a fan is an electrical device, as opposed to an electronic device such as a cell phone. I suppose there might be some sort of fan with semiconductor controls that was, to that extent, electronic – in which case the rules would bar such electronic fans, as opposed to normal fans,  but an ordinary air-moving machine with an electric motor is not, by any normal definition, an “electronic device.” So to me, the phrase is about equivalent to “birds (including bats)” or, in Lincoln’s example, “legs (including tails).”  To make sense, the phrase would have had to read “electronic devices or fans.”

Apparently Crist’s penchant for cooling himself was well-known.  And apparently his handlers didn’t agree to the conditions as suggested by the organizers, but added to the signature page *with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”

My understanding of the law is that when one party modifies a contract before signing it, the other party has the choice of accepting the contract as amended or refusing it. So it can’t, I think, properly be said that Crist broke the rules he had agreed to. Clearly, the organizers were remiss in not bringing the amendment to the attention of Rick Scott, which left Scott’s handlers believing that Crist was breaking a rule.

It was, still, I submit, unbelievably foolish to try to use that as an excuse to duck the debate, and it’s remarkable that it took the Scott corner six long minutes to figure out they couldn’t get away with it. But the original post wasn’t right to suggest that Scott doesn’t know that a fan isn’t a cell phone. After all, what are the odds that someone who cheated the federal taxpayers out of most of a billion dollars and never went to jail for it is actually that stupid?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

October 16, 2014 2:36 PM An Interview With the Repo Man

By Megan McArdle

Writer Jake Halpern, whose work has appeared in most of my favorite magazines, has written a terrific new book called “Bad Paper,” in which he dives into the seamy, gray-market world of the people who collect old debt. I sat down with him for an instant-messaging interview yesterday. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Megan McArdle: Normally I’d ask why you wrote this particular book, but in this case, it seems obvious: It’s completely fascinating. So I’ll ask instead: How did you get started?

Jake Halpern: My mom was getting hounded by a debt collector for a bill that she did not owe. She eventually paid it just to get him to stop harassing her.

I started investigating and found out that much debt-collection activities were in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I ended up writing a profile on a Buffalo-based debt collector who bought and sold and collected on debt for pennies on the dollar; that story ran in the New Yorker.

That New Yorker story got optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company. So I went back to Buffalo with the screenwriter.

No one wanted to talk to a journalist back when I was doing the New Yorker piece, but now that I was with Brad Pitt, everyone talked. One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale. They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, New York.

MM: Share your favorite moment from your reporting. What was the most interesting/amazing/crazy thing you learned or saw?

JH: There were a few moments. One was when I first had dinner with Aaron (Siegel) and Brandon (Wilson) at the Buffalo Club. The one guy is telling me how he used to run banks, and the other guy is telling me how they used to rob banks, and now they are happily in business together. It was like the best odd couple of all time. Aaron is wearing a $2,000 suit and talking about his ski trip to Tahoe, and Brandon is pulling up his shirt showing me where he got stabbed and talking about prison, and the two of them are happily toasting glasses. It felt like a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Another favorite moment is when I go to this mosque in the east side of Buffalo and meet the machete-carrying Muslim polygamist debt collector Shafeeq. He was awesome. He is the one who told me that by having multiple families in the inner city of Buffalo, he was role modeling on an exponential level, he was “Xeroxing righteousness.”

MM: You would think it would be hard to get people in this gray market to talk to you, but they seem to have spoken quite freely. Are they proud of what they do?

JH: On this note I think I owe a great deal of thanks to Brad Pitt. Throughout the time that I was writing this book, Brad Pitt’s production company was trying to develop an HBO television series based on the material. In the end, the television show seems to have stalled, but in the meantime I was able to talk to all of these characters. So many of these guys were enamored with the TV show “The Wire.”

I think that Brandon (the former armed robber) is proud. I think that for him, collections was redemption for him. It gave him a new life.

MM: Yeah, there is something about the idea of yourself on television that seems to captivate even the most ordinarily reticent folks.

JH: I told them that this was a nonfiction book, but I think the prospect of the TV show at least got them talking, and once they started talking, they just kept on going. I actually got very close with almost all of the subjects in the book.

MM: They seem likable as you write them, even though it’s not a very likable industry. Sort of Runyonesque, with less hepcat jargon.

JH: Yes, I tried to depict everyone as the complicated beings that they are — flawed, heroic, detestable, endearing, all at once. That is, I suppose, what it means to human. I wanted to avoid cardboard cutouts of good and evil.

MM: That’s hard to do well, which you do: to show them as people, without glossing over the fact that they’re mostly doing something not very nice. Did it make you uncomfortable, to be around folks who are dunning the desperate for debts of dubious provenance?

JH: Yes, it did, but I tried to write the entire book in a way that I did not pass judgments and I didn’t let my own biases and my own opinions cloud the way I portrayed these guys. I also resisted any temptations to sanitize them. After he read the book, Brandon called me up and said, “You told it like it is. It’s not all pretty, but it’s fair, you showed me warts and all. You done me right.” I appreciated that so much.

MM: That’s one of the nicest compliments a writer ever gets, I think.

JH; It’s true. Because you don’t want someone calling up and saying, “I loved every single word that you wrote, it was all fantastic.” Because that probably means you have succumbed to flattery and have rendered them in a way that they are entirely happy with. I think what you want is for them to have some misgivings about what you wrote but in the end feel that it was all fair.

MM: Did you come to see any virtue in what they’re doing? Is there an upside to the existence of this industry?

JH: Any virtue? Hard to say …

Most of the people they were calling were quite poor and had limited means to repay what they owed. It was hard to feel good about collecting from such people. It was the downtrodden versus the downtrodden in many ways. I understand that in order for the system of credit to work, you need to repay your bills. That is fair and right. The problem so many people are broke.

You may have seen this, but according to a recent Federal Reserve survey, only 48 percent of respondents would be able to cover an emergency expense of $400 without having to sell something or borrow. About 43 percent said they wouldn’t be able to afford a major medical expense out of pocket.

MM: Yes, America likes to live close to the edge, financially.

My sense from talking to people who have done collections calls is that many of the people are lying to you, and also that you sort of have to pretend that they’re not really people to be any good at the job. You see this a lot in people who provide financial services to the marginal — tote-the-note car lots, payday lenders. Normal people would give everyone a break, and then they’d lose all their money and get out of the business, which wouldn’t necessarily make the poor worse off. So you end up with people who act pretty callous, because they’re the only ones who can stand it.

JH: Yes. I tried my hand at collecting and I called people who I felt certain was the right person and they ducked out of it. I understood why they did that, but I also saw how it could be so frustrating to be a collector and how you could get very cynical.

MM: Can you talk about the industry a bit? What happens to, say, a bad dentist’s bill that turns into an entry on a spreadsheet that gets sold for pennies on the dollar?

JH: Right. Well, when an account goes unpaid for 180 days, typically the original creditor can no longer deem that as an asset because, at that point, it is no longer reasonable to expect that it will be repaid. At that point, many creditors sell these debts off for pennies on the dollar. What they sell off are just spreadsheets …

There is little in the way of additional data … the absence of such documentation is striking. In 2013, an FTC study found that six of the nation’s largest debt buyers typically receive very few documents at the time of purchase. When purchasing debts, the FTC noted, these buyers received the “account statements” — that is, the actual monthly bills where charges appear, with dates, on an item-by-item basis — for just 6 percent of the accounts that they purchased. And the debt buyers received copies of the original account applications — the documents proving that consumers opened the account and agreed to the terms — for less than 1 percent of the accounts that they purchased. What’s more, debt buyers often did not receive a breakdown of what debtors owed in principal, interest and fees.

Anyway, so what they sell is spreadsheets. A debt buyer buys one such spreadsheet, collects what he can, and then sells the uncollected accounts to the next debt buyers, again and again, until the debt works its way all the way down the food chain. At the bottom of the food chain, you often have the shops that are using the most hard-hitting and illegal tactics. This is especially true in payday loans, but it is true in credit card as well. And because there is no supporting data, there is no way to verify the amount of the debts, as Brandon told me recently: “There is no way for us, who buy the debts, to confirm for certain whether the amounts owed are accurate.”

The consumer has the right to ask for more information and to verify and validate the debt, but that information is often just not available. Sometimes the banks don’t even have that info. I called Chase about the documentation for one debt linked to the package, and their PR people couldn’t find the original records and thus just had to dismiss it as fraud.

MM: What was the most surprising thing that you discovered writing this book?

JH: I was amazed at the notion that a banker and a former armed robber might go into business together, become loyal partners and friends. These were my two main characters. Aaron Siegel was the banker and Brandon Wilson was the former armed robber. When I expressed my surprise to Aaron, he told me: “I have a lot of trepidation about Brandon, but he will always pay you, unlike Wall Street types who may have a suit and talk nicer but will hire a lawyer so they don’t have to pay you.” And here is the thing: Their relationship wasn’t actually as unlikely as it may seem at first glance. In the world of debt collections, the marketplace is fraught with peril. Aaron repeatedly got burned by con men who sold him “bad paper” — debt that, for one reason or another, proved uncollectible. The industry was filled with hucksters and charlatans. And he learned, the hard way, that he couldn’t rely on the authorities — or even the courts — to protect him. That’s why he needed someone like Brandon who — in Brandon’s words — could keep the “sharks” at bay.

MM: What opinions did you change as a result of your reporting?

JH: I never expected that I would like, or feel any sympathy for, a debt collector. In my mind, I saw them as ruff, gruff, fairly ruthless repo men. That changed as I reported the book. In particular, I was moved by the story of Jimmy, a former cocaine dealer who — after going to prison — tries to reinvent himself as a legitimate business man, but the only business that he could get into was debt collection. And his business was doing very badly when I met him. In fact, I was sitting with him one night, in the parking lot outside his office, when he realized that he didn’t have enough money in his bank account to make payroll. Not just that, he didn’t have enough money to take his kids to see ‘Shrek.’ He literally broke down and started to sob. “They deserve to go see ‘Shrek’ tomorrow, man,” he told me. “My son has got the highest average in the fourth grade. I got good kids, man.” At that moment, my heart kind of broke for him. I really saw him as a person.

MM: What do Americans need to know about debt collection that they don’t?

JH: The person who calls your house and demands that you pay your debt is not necessarily to be taken entirely at his word. The amount of the debt might be wrong, his company might not legitimately own that debt, or the debt may be so old that it is no longer legally enforceable. Consumers should be very careful and circumspect before they open their wallets.

MM: Are there policies we need to change about debt collection?

JH: Yeah, there are several things that need to change. First, banks and other original creditors need to start providing detailed documentation — like monthly statements and original signed contracts — so that BOTH collectors and debtors have accurate, reliable information about what is owed. Second, judges need to be very careful not simply rubber-stamp default judgments against debtors for debts that are suspect and that lack proper documentation. Third, we need a system in place to keep track of who owns what debt. Can you imagine a world where cars — for example — were bought and sold and there were no VIN numbers, no reliable chains of title and no DMVs to keep track of everything? It would be INSANE. But that is, to a great extent, the way the buying and selling of consumer debt operates in the U.S. Finally, I would boost the budget of the CFPB. Here is some context: The CFPB’s budget is equivalent to just 2 percent of what JPMorgan Chase set aside in reserves for its litigation expenses in 2013.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

October 16, 2014 8:50 AM Cheap Power is Progressive

By Mark Kleiman

According to a statistic I just made up, 97.3% of all technical “breakthroughs” trumpeted in press releases turn out to be either wrong or minor. Moreover, it’s well known that fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be. When I was ten years old, economically relevant fusion power was thirty years away, and that number hasn’t changed in the half-century since.

Still, the folks at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works aren’t very likely to be either fools or hoaxers, so when they say they’ve figured out how to make magnetic-confinement fusion practical and that they think they can have a prototype in five years and a production model in a decade, that’s worth paying attention to.

The gimmick, if it works, would have all the features that have made fusion such a dream: no greenhouse-gas emissions, no meltdown risk, no waste-disposal problem, no weapons-proliferation issue, and effectively unlimited fuel supply. Even better, they’re talking about 100-megawatt reactor that fits on a flatbed truck, not a 1000-megawatt behemoth like the current generation of fission reactors. That would make producing the devices a manufacturing problem rather than a construction project. (Even more so if you could retrofit a power plant now running on coal by simply substituting half a dozen of the new gadgets.)  With luck, this could put a big hole in fossil-fuel production and the environmental and political disasters it creates.

Of course the Lockheed Martin folks could turn out to be wrong about the physics (though that doesn’t seem especially likely), or (much more plausibly) one of the ancillary problems such as materials development could turn out to be insoluble or too expensive to be economically practical.

But the only reasonable reaction to this from someone not invested in Exxon or Koch Energy or Putinism is a (somewhat hesitant, because the idea is still more likely to fizzle than to work) “Yippeeeeee!!!!”

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will. Since there’s no way a patent-holder could possibly internalize the social gain from making this work, the case for public funding is overwhelming. The social value of the discovery, if it can be perfected, couldn’t possibly be less than $10 trillion,  so spending $10B or so on even a 1% chance of success is an obviously positive-expected-value gamble.

Of course, if we have to triple energy prices in order to prevent a global-warming disaster – which might well prove to be the case – we should accept that, and the economic disruptions that would result, rather than accepting a 3-degree-Celsius rise in average surface temperature and the catastrophes that would result from that. But I’d rather not, thanks.

If cheap energy gets to be real again, that will be a tremendous boon to the planet, and especially to its poorest inhabitants. And if as a result we have to stop saying that 40,000-square-foot mansions are environmentally unsustainable, and have to go back to saying that they’re grotesque and vulgar, is that really such a steep price to pay?

A progressive movement that, in its heart, prefers scarcity is not one I really want to be part of, and it’s not one likely to command majority support.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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