Lions, zebras, attack stagecoach

“Elizabeth Warren was not nearly as polite as I was…”

In February I posted an open letter to Timothy Sloan, the avowedly reformist CEO at Wells Fargo, regarding his company’s regrettable sales practices and its retrograde investments in fossil fuels, and our plan to divest ourselves of ties with his bank.

In April, Mr. Sloan himself published an open letter, listing the many ways in which Wells Fargo had been “ acting to regain its customers’ trust” after last year’s nasty scandals. No, of course he didn’t mention my letter, or many others he must have received.  ( Nor did he mention his good works with the Boy Scouts of America, who have had their own image difficulties in recent years.)

Bouy Scouts of America 9th Annual Business Leaders' Breakfast

Center, Timothy J. Sloan, Greater Los Angeles’s Boy Scout Leader of the Year

My letter had circulated in the social media, while Mr. Sloan’s was a full-page ad in national newspapers.  At the time, Mr. Sloan and the head of the Wells Fargo board purchased a total of $5 million of their company’s stock in a handsome display of good faith.

Meanwhile, lacking this good faith, my husband and I began laboriously to transfer our accounts out of Wells Fargo to more socially responsible banks.  At least a few of my readers and friends said they were doing the same.

When the Wells Fargo fake- accounts scandal first erupted in 2016, it had mattered less to us than the bank’s short-sighted investments in oil pipelines and other destructive fossil fuel projects.

Later, in October 2016, the New York Times reported at some length how employees at various Wells Fargo branches had preyed upon the most vulnerable individuals—immigrants with little English, older adults with failing memories, students opening their first accounts.

According to Kevin Pham, a former Wells Fargo employee in San Jose, California, “It was like lions hunting zebras.”  Pham mounted a Facebook campaign to hold Wells Fargo accountable.  He scored 50,000 “shares”.

While there had reportedly been no systematic targeting of vulnerable groups, demographic patterns sometimes emerged, such as Native Americans near Phoenix, looking for a safe place to stow their quarterly distribution checks and being set up with several unnecessary accounts per capita. There were other cases, and dispiriting details.

The bank has been trying to channel new lawsuits away from the two million fake-accounts scandal, by moving them into private arbitration. We just received such a mediation offer and ignored it, having already closed the gratuitous account and shredded the card. Other customers, however, are indeed pursuing litigation.

Meanwhile, the revelations continue.  Recently several plaintiffs have claimed that Wells Fargo changed the mortgage terms of bankrupt borrowers without their knowledge, much less their consent.  Generally the changes meant smaller payments over longer time periods—but with immense finance charges accruing to the bank.  As the New York Times reported in June, in its best imitation-tabloid style, “Wells Fargo, the $270 billion California- based lender, is driving its stagecoach further into the mud.”

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Also in June, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter, this one to Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen, demanding the removal of twelve Wells Fargo board members who had been present and passive during the years when bank employees were setting up the infamous two million fake accounts. While 5300 lower-level employees were fired as a result of the scandal, $185 million fines had been paid, and the CEO sacked, the original Wells Fargo board members had remained in place, drawing their annual average base salary of $187,000— with bonus and additional compensation, $319,000.  (An average Wells Fargo “personal banker” makes $37,000, a teller, $25,000. Why would one use “K” to signify all those thousands?)

Wells Fargo had been cited earlier for poor loan-servicing and foreclosure practices.  In 2012 it was among the five lenders agreeing to a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and 49 states, to rectify these “poor” practices.  In 2015 it settled $1.2 billion against claims of reckless lending under a Federal Housing Administration program.

Elizabeth Warren’s letter was not nearly as polite as mine, which may be why a super-pac has promised $10 million to “Deal Her Out” of re-election in 2018.

Meanwhile, it’s taken months to find what we hope are ethically (and fiscally) sound financial institutions, and to complete the tedious maneuvers of rerouting into new accounts our network of monthly payments to utilities, college funds, subscriptions, charities.  Rerouting our monthly deposits was the easy part.

Why are we doing this, when we could be using more time to address climate change or health care, or at least to haranguing our legislators?  Here’s the thing:  our votes and our protests often seem more self-righteous than effective because they originate in the bright blue state of California.  Our state is viewed quite negatively, it is clear, by the present Potus and his cronies—and with good reason, we hope.

Choosing not only where we spend our money, but where we keep it and who uses it, seems valuable leverage just now, in this thoroughly unhinged capitalist democracy.

To be continued, for better and for worse.

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THE GOOD NEWS!

THE GOOD NEWS!! Where to begin? Simply typing that unlikely heading suddenly turned my screen deeply black—tracked with tiny white letters like tearstains.   Anna, a Google emergency chatter, rescued me.  I decided to persevere.  Anna had promised to stand by in case the Dark Side returned. Though the Comey imbroglio doesn’t qualify as Good News … Continue reading

Doomsday Clock and Related Last Things

Originally posted on frances smith starn:
January 2015 ? The Doomsday Clock, a simplistic concept created by a posse of guilt-riddled scientists, now allows just three minutes until midnight and the end of the world as we know it. The apocalyptic clock first appeared on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, established by…

An Open Letter to Timothy J. Sloan, CEO of Wells Fargo

Dear Mr. Sloan,
I don’t envy your new responsibilities as CEO of beleaguered Wells Fargo, from forging fraught decisions in the board room to facing protesters on your own front lawn.  No doubt you have been working hard to restore trust in your banking services.  In the interests of reshaping the WF image,I assume, our PMA account package has just been re-branded as “Portfolio,” and functions like Bill Pay have been been redesigned to improve our “online banking experience”.  Statements have been made about ending aggressive sales practices and withholding executive bonuses.
Yet there remains (for me) the more serious issue of Wells Fargo’s shortsighted investment strategies–most notably its massive financial support for retrograde fossil fuel projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s true that virtually every major investor holds petroleum stocks, so vastly profitable for so very long.  Still, the terrifying realities of climate change are speeding the move from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy such as solar and wind.  Even pragmatic China is investing some $360 billions in renewable energy.
Seattle has divested its Wells Fargo stock.  Yale, Stanford, and the University of California are in various stages of divestment from fossil fuels. Some analysts have questioned the financial effectiveness of divestment as a tool.  Nonetheless, to keep one’s own funds from being used destructively is not only symbolic. The Dakota Access Pipeline will carry as much as 570,00 gallons of crude oil per day, and whether it is used only domestically as was originally claimed, or exported, as is now permitted, the resultant environmental pollution will be shared globally.
Several friends have asked me to report if and when I can locate a socially responsible bank. I think that I have. These quite prosperous citizens all bank with Wells Fargo and dread the mechanics of changing, as do I.
My husband and I have been with Wells Fargo even longer than you, Mr. Sloan. We transferred our accounts from Bank of America because of its investment in the apartheid government in South Africa. Protest divestment seems to have worked in that case.
Maybe it will work again, in the best interests of the planet.
I have grandchildren.  Do you?

Very sincerely,

Frances Smith Starn

 

I was  in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.  

Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.

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Social media will soon feature these scenes of the conflagration from scores of phones, in a technique pioneered in the Arab revolutions.

Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur  invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.

Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS.  Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified:  there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.  

In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels.  The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.)  Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.

Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria.  Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…)   Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.

Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times. 

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”

While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.  

Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested.  The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week.  When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.

Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India.  In October 2010, we Americans were welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Note:  Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands:  Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.

Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee.  Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.

Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.

A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.    

The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000.  But no more.  Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.  

In any event, this is no time for comedy.  Or is it?

 

 

DEBT IN VENICE AND ELSEWHERE

venice & dolomites

Dispatch from the Laguna

Italian friends have been most sympathetic about our recent election.  After all, they say, we survived Berlusconi.  It’s not the end of the world.

 

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Silvio Berlusconi & Amico

They offer us political asylum, but then say that of course we are needed in our own country.  Meanwhile, we are still here to see them through their coming referendum vote on the so-called “Italicum” reform of their electoral system.

The dynamic young Italian leader, Matteo Renzi, has pushed for a “Si” on the referendum, but is canny enough to have backed off as “No” rises in the polls

 

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Matteo Renzi (technically irreducible, perhaps politically as well)

Renzi has been intrepid in many ways, not least in defending the rescue and accommodation of many thousandof profughi, refugees, arriving in Italy during the current migration crisis. Renzi points out that while Italy pays hundreds of millions of euros in this humanitarian mission, most other European governments have used their euros to build walls.

At a pizzeria on the Strada Nova the guy behind the counter couldn’t decide whether to use English or Italian. I suggested Cinese and we both laughed.  I asked where he was born and he said Romania. He has been in Italy for fourteen years and lives in Mestre, twenty minutes away by bus on the mainland. We talked about the high rents and long commutes in Venice and California. He said he could give my husband and me one room and shared use of his Mestre apartment for 350 euros a month. I said that unfortunately we already had a rental contract through December. He said that he really wanted to learn more English so that he could get a better job, and I said that I could give him lessons if I was staying longer.

I only had a 50-euro bill to pay for my pizza. He smiled and ran off with it to get change. I wasn’t really worried when he didn’t reappear for ten minutes, but it did occur to me that 50 euros was probably more than a couple of days’ take-home pay. He said his name was Nikolai, Nicola in Italian, he added. I said mine was Frances, Francesca in Italian. See you tomorrow? he said.

A  hundred yards on, I stopped to let a herd of school children go ahead of me across a narrow bridge. Meanwhile I went to a kiosk to get a paper with news about the latest earthquake in the Marche, and about the crises with the new refugees. The earthquake had definitely won that news cycle; there was not a word about the town in the Veneto that had barricaded its streets against the arrival of a dozen refugee women and children to be billeted in an empty hotel.

The vendor gave me two papers even after I had said, conversationally, that my husband usually bought the Gazzettino so I would only take La Repubblica. I said that I was sorry my Italian was so bad. He said, no, MY Italian is bad. I asked where he was born, and he said Bangladesh. He had only been in Italy for six months, he said in English. Before that, he had lived in London for six years, but it was too expensive. His brother, who had been in Italy for a long time, owned the kiosk. He lived with the brother nearby, and planned to go to school to learn Italian so that he could get a better job. My name is Francesca, said I. His is Nabis. See you tomorrow, I said. La Repubblica is running a series on changes in the Italian language, so I will be back. (I wish that Nicola’s pizza had been better.)

Of course it was only an idle thought that Nicola and Nabis could exchange language lessons. But maybe with ingenious use of cellphones and social media…some kind of networking?

I had been hoping to make myself useful in the refugee crisis, perhaps teaching or translating, during our Italian stay, but that too was an idle thought.  The needy refugees were not in la Serenissima, but in Mestre and smaller inland towns, Veneto, where, unfortunately, the locals are not always welcoming. In Venice the neediest refugees only come for the day trade, foreigners passing from Rialto to San Marco from cruise ship to gondola, who might need an umbrella or a carnival mask, or will drop a euro into an outstretched hand.

Many constructive responses to the migrant crisis are to be found in the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, too soon closing.  And note that funds for housing the homeless were voted in by healthy margins–at least in California. As Italian friends tell us, we’ll get through this somehow.

https://francessmithstarn.in/2016/07/18/dirty-tom-trump-tower-san-francisco-venice/

 

The Wild West, My Family Gold Mine, a Bordello Holiday, and Big Alma

Around the start of the last century, my grandfather and his cousin found gold on a slope an hour west of Mount Shasta, as the crow flies.  They lost no time homesteading a hundred forested acres around their mining claim.    Not much gold emerged after that initial strike on Scott Mountain.  No matter: each … Continue reading