Posts tagged ‘fraud’

Federal Government Punishing Private Individuals for the Fraud and Mistakes of Government Workers

From the LA Times, the US Government is demanding that soldiers repay enlistment bonuses years after they were promised

Nearly 10,000 soldiers, many of whom served multiple combat tours, have been ordered to repay large enlistment bonuses — and slapped with interest charges, wage garnishments and tax liens if they refuse — after audits revealed widespread overpayments by the California Guard at the height of the wars last decade.

Investigations have determined that lack of oversight allowed for widespread fraud and mismanagement by California Guard officials under pressure to meet enlistment targets.

But soldiers say the military is reneging on 10-year-old agreements and imposing severe financial hardship on veterans whose only mistake was to accept bonuses offered when the Pentagon needed to fill the ranks.

Note that there is no implication that there was any fraud on the soldiers' part -- they were offered a fair exchange and they took it.  The Federal government is trying to punish soldiers for potentially illegal or fraudulent actions of government workers.  Now that the soldiers have provided the service they promised, the government is trying to take back the money it promised.  But the soldiers cannot in turn take back their service.

This sort of retroactive one-sided reneging on government contracts and promises is actually fairly common.  For example, I wrote about it here, where private creditors lost all the money they loaned to the government when it was determined that the government officials who approved the loans did not have the authority to do so.  The punishment for the government taking out loans it should not have was to allow the government to keep all the money and screw the  private parties who lent them money in good faith.

I actually have faced this same thing a number of times in my own business.  I pay the government concession fees for the public campgrounds we operate.  There is a process by which the government can ask us to pay these fees in kind by doing some of the government's capital maintenance for it.  The government likes this because we can spend the money more efficiently and get more done with it, and we (and our visitors) like it because the money gets spent right in the park where the customer fees were collected.  However, it has happened on a number of occasions that some internal audit has determined that some agency official approved an in-kind project they should not have. When this happens, the government often comes to me and tells me that they need the money back.  My response is consistently something like, "Bullsh*t!  I have your approval to spend the money and your promise to be reimbursed in writing -- I can't unspend the money you asked me to spend.  There is absolutely no way I am going to pay the financial cost of you violating your own rules."

The Madness of Shareholder Lawsuits

At least one investor (and likely soon many more) in Theranos is suing the company:

When Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes announced that the company was shifting its focus, she said her team is lucky to have investors who believe in its mission. But there's at least one major investor who doesn't, and it has already sued the controversial blood-testing provider. According to The Wall Street Journal, Partner Fund Management (PFM) LP is accusing the startup of convincing it to pour $100 million into the startup by feeding it a "series of lies." The San Francisco-based hedge fund firm filed the lawsuit in Delaware today and sent out a letter to its own investors.

In the letter, the firm said:

"Through a series of lies, material misstatements, and omissions, the defendants (Theranos), engaged in securities fraud and other violations by fraudulently inducing PFM to invest and maintain its investment in the company."

At some level, shareholder lawsuits are utter madness.  Consider the case where all owners of a company are suing the company.  If they win, the amount they win from the company is offset by a drop in value of their ownership in the company.  At best this is a break-even proposition but when lawyers fees are included, this is a recipe for immense value destruction.

I am not really an insider on these things, but my guess is that the explanation for the madness comes by relaxing my assumption above that "all owners" are suing.   If only one owner is suing, then this becomes a potential mechanism for transferring value from other owners or investors.  There are of course real situations where a certain minority class of shareholders is screwed by the majority, but I don't think that is the case here.  In the case of Theranos, I assume the whole company is headed into a messy bankruptcy, and PFM is racing to the courthouse to be first in what is sure to become a messy litigation-fest.  They likely have one or both of these goals

  • Since they likely cannot sell their equity and cash out normally, given the uncertainty about the company's future,  they may be able to effectively cash out by getting other owners to pay them off in a settlement of this suit.
  • Since their equity may be worth zero soon, if they can win a lawsuit the payout becomes a much more senior form of indebtedness and might move them up towards the front of the line for any value that still exists in the company

Update:  From one of my readers at a CPA firm:  A key reason for shareholder suits is to trigger insurance coverage payouts for management and/or Board errors and omissions.  This in theory both increases the company’s assets and creates a senior claim by the plaintiffs to those particular assets.

The Lifestyle Charity Fraud

For decades I have observed an abuse of charities that I am not sure has a name.  I call it the "lifestyle" charity or non-profit.  These are charities more known for the glittering fundraisers than their actual charitable works, and are often typified by having only a tiny percentage of their total budget flowing to projects that actually help anyone except their administrators.  These charities seem to be run primarily for the financial maintenance and public image enhancement of their leaders and administrators.  Most of their funds flow to the salaries, first-class travel, and lifestyle maintenance of their principals.

I know people first hand who live quite nicely as leaders of such charities -- having gone to two different Ivy League schools, it is almost impossible not to encounter such folks among our alumni.  They live quite well, and appear from time to time in media puff pieces that help polish their egos and reinforce their self-righteous virtue-signaling.  I have frequently attended my university alumni events where these folks are held out as exemplars for folks working on a higher plane than grubby business people like myself.  They drive me crazy.  They are an insult to the millions of Americans who do volunteer work every day, and wealthy donors who work hard to make sure their money is really making a difference.  My dad, who used his substantial business success to do meaningful things in the world virtually anonymously (like helping save a historically black college from financial oblivion), had great disdain for these people running lifestyle charities.

So I suppose the one good thing about the Clinton Foundation is it is raising some awareness about this kind of fraud.   This article portrays the RFK Human Rights charity as yet another example of this lifestyle charity fraud.

Are You In Control of Electronic Payments from Your Checking Account?

If your business is like mine, a lot of folks to whom I owe money are insisting on the ability to automatically remove the money I owe them each month from our checking account (via an electronic process known as ACH, which is slower but much cheaper and easier to use than the old wire transfer method).  At first, any loan I took out insisted that the lender be able to automatically withdraw my payments.  Then my workers compensation company.  Then certain vendor accounts.  And of course my merchant processing companies are constantly shoving money in and out of my bank accounts.

In retrospect, I was far too sanguine about this situation.  What finally caused me to abandon my sense of security was a libel lawsuit filed by one of my vendors over a bad review I wrote of their product [I won't mention the name here but I am sure anyone can figure it out with a simple search].  Anyway, I realized that this company, who was suing me for untold bazillions of dollars, actually had the right to freely jack whatever they wanted out of my checking account.  What is worse, this same company is being sued by many companies for trying to take an arbitrarily high final payment out of their accounts at contract termination.  Eeek!  And this does not even include the possibility of outright fraud.  I have ACH tools where if I have your bank's name and your account number, I could pull out money from your account without your ever knowing about it until you see it missing.  I presume criminals could do the same thing.

Something had to be done, and it turned out that my bank, Bank of America, has something called ACH positive pay wherein nothing gets ACH'ed out of my accounts without my first approving the payments.   I check a screen each morning and in 60 seconds can do the approvals for the day.  They also have a very easy to use rules system where one can set up rules such that payments to certain vendors or for certain amounts don't need further daily approvals.

I presume most major banks have a similar product.  It cost me some money but I feel way safer and encourage you to look into it if you are in the same situation.

Of Course There Are Accusations of Fraud in Iowa...

...Because the caucus process is absolutely backwards.  It uses non-anonymous voting, for god sakes.   Sophisticated democracies adopted anonymous voting centuries ago for really good reasons -- in particular it limited the ability to pressure people before and after their vote.  So no one should be surprised that a stupid system without anonymity designed to allow voters to "persuade" people voting for someone else over to their side results in stories of coercion and fraud.  Iowa should not be the first primary, not the least because of the damn ethanol issue but also because their process is archaic.

Unemployment Insurance Fraud Tricks

Typically, I see a LOT of people with no intention of working or looking for work collecting unemployment insurance payments.  For example, we have summer workers who take the winter off but still collect unemployment in the winter as if they were looking for work.  Most state governments have no desire to hear about this.  In fact, in California (at least a number of years ago) if you call the unemployment fraud number the only kind of complaint they take is reports of employer fraud.  You can't actually report employee fraud, and the one time I tried to do so I was threatened by a California State employee with dire legal consequences for "harassment" and "retaliation".

The new dodge I saw the other day is when Company A goes to an employee of Company B and offers to hire them away for higher pay.  When the employee leaves B for A, A tells them that they should file for unemployment, claiming they were forced out rather than quit (essentially constructive termination).  In most states, if an employee says one thing (I was forced out!) and an employer says another (She quit!), the employee is almost always believed unless the employer can bring an absurd amount of written evidence to the table to prove otherwise.

Anyway, having convinced the state the employee was terminated rather than quit, the employee collects unemployment benefits.   Then, company A pays the employee in cash under the table an amount per hour less than minimum wage but which in combination with the state unemployment payments does indeed add up to more than they were making at B.  They end up paying less than minimum wage and pay no employment taxes (since it is cash under the table) and the state makes up the difference with an unemployment check.  Company B, by the way, sees its unemployment taxes go way up because these rates are experience-based.

Chip Card Transition, And Life as A Small Business Owner

Well, per the new rules, we replaced all of our old credit card readers (dozens) with new ones that can take chip cards (EMV).  Here is the bone pile of all the old technology, many of which were bought less than 2 years ago:


This illustrates both the best and worst of running one's own company.

The bad:  As CEO, I am actually futzing with distributing credit card terminals to the field and collecting the used ones to be recycled.

The good:  I have total control.  I was just in Washington DC, and in one meeting the National Park Service was there talking about some multi-year, multi-million dollar study to figure out their electronic payments "strategy" at their parks.  My payments strategy discussion went literally something like this:

Merchant guy:  Do you want to pay an extra $100 for the terminals to accept NFC payments (e.g. Apply pay, Android pay).

Me: Um, sure seems like the future.  Does it cost more to clear a transaction that way?

Merchant guy: no

Me:  They yes, I'll take it.

Now, we can take smart phone payments at dozens of public parks my company operates, all decided and implemented in about 30 days.

By the way, I am amazed at how many large companies like CVS appear to have the chip card readers but the store clerk tells me that they are not turned on yet whenever I try to stick my card in that slot (for those of you who don't know, the chip side goes head into a slot like an ATM slot on the front).  October 1 was the date that there was a liability shift, where merchants bear more liability for fraud if they don't take the chipcards.  Not sure how I was able to get this done in my little company but they can't manage it.

I was told by one person at CVS, a store manager but they may be off base, that they don't take the chip cards yet because they take longer than swiping.  This seems dumb.  First, many retailers for swipe cards waste time asking for the last four digits of your card, which is not necessary with the chip cards.  Further, CVS wastes a TON of time at the register with their stupid loyalty program.  Yes, I know it is a pet peeve of mine I rant on from time to time, but I have spent a lot of time waiting for people in front of me to try different phone numbers to see which one their account is under, or to waste time signing up for a loyalty card with 6 people in line behind them.  Makes me crazy.  If they can waste 30 seconds each transaction on stupid loyalty cards they can wait three extra seconds for a more secure credit card transaction.

Postscript:  It really should have been chip and pin rather than chip and signature

PS2:  Never, ever lease a credit card machine.  You pay about 4x its retail price, even present value.  I got roped into doing this for a few machines on the logic that this equipment transition was coming, and they would switch out my equipment.  But then they sold their leasing portfolio and the new owner wouldn't honor this promise, so I ended up overpaying for the old terminal (and having to pay $1000 each just to get out of the lease) and then buying the new terminals.  Live and learn.

You Want to Know Why the Legal System is Broken?

I got a notice in my email that I was potentially a member of a class action against LinkedIn.  What is the case?

The Action challenges LinkedIn's use of a service called Add Connections to grow its member base. Add Connections allows LinkedIn members to import contacts from their external email accounts and email connection invitations to one or more of those contacts inviting them to connect on LinkedIn. If a connection invitation is not accepted within a certain period of time, up to two "reminder emails" are sent reminding the recipient that the connection invitation is pending. The Court found that members consented to importing their contacts and sending the connection invitation, but did not find that members consented to LinkedIn sending the two reminder emails [plaintiffs seem to have other grievances but this is the only one they say the court validated].

You have got to be kidding me.  How much time and money has been spent on this stupidity?

So I wanted to tell them to go screw themselves, and that this was not done in my name and I want nothing to do with it.  Of course there are simple web forms for joining the class and asking for payment, but to be excluded one has to follow a series of detailed instructions and send a snail mail.  Apparently if I do nothing I am part of this fraud whether I want to be or not.  I particularly like the last line of the opt-out instructions (FAQ #9)

This request must include the case number of the Action (Case No. 5:13-CV-04303-LHK), your name, address, email address, phone number and signature, and a statement that you wish to be excluded from the Settlement Class.  If the exclusion request does not include all of this information, or if it is sent to an address other than the above, or if it is not postmarked within the time specified, it will be invalid, and you will remain a member of the Settlement Class and be bound as a Class Member by the Settlement Agreement, if approved.  “Mass” or “class” opt-outs purporting to be made on behalf of multiple persons or classes of persons shall not be allowed.

So mass torts purporting to be made on behalf of a class of persons without even consulting them are A-OK, but mass opt-outs from the class are not allowed.

Postscript:  At first I thought the opt-out headache was the plaintiff's attorney trying to protect their fees, but their fees seem set.  In retrospect, my guess is the difficult opt-out comes from the defense, because opting out leaves one eligible to sue again and having settled this one, I am sure LinkedIn does not want a second class trying to take a second bite of the apple.

Followup #2:  Engadget's reaction to the case:  Oh look, free money!

And the sum is likely to be small, though LinkedIn promised to increase the total amount by $750,000 if individual payouts are less than $10. Still, money is money, so if you're willing to swear that the company spammed folks on your behalf, you can apply for compensation here.

I do not know this author's politics, but I can say from personal experience that the majority of the most breathtakingly amoral statements about money I have heard in real life (ie excluding cartoon lines written by Hollywood for business people) have come from Progressives.

My New Worst Business Ever: YP

YP is the modern name for what used to be the Yellow Pages.  Obviously, yellow pages are a dying business.  Ten years ago the Phoenix Yellow Pages had to be broken up into two books, each a couple inches think.  I happened to see one the other day, and it was the size of a short novel.  They tried to move to the web, but who goes to (vs. google or Yelp) to find a business?

Even in the glory days of yellow pages, it was always hard to cancel their service.  If you did not tell them by like August, they would start billing you for the next year and sic a collection agency on you if you disputed it.

However, it appears that now that YP is a dying business, and knows that each lost customer will likely never be replaced, it has turned into the Hotel California.

In 2013, I left a location in Ventura County.   We had advertised in the Yellow Pages for years (back when it made sense) and had never been able to cancel it in time -- by the time we remembered it each year it had already auto renewed.   Soon after we left, I notified them that we needed to cancel.  At the time, I tried to negotiate a reduction in the 2014 charges but figured I probably would have to pay them, which I did.

Then, in 2015 I started getting bills.  I called each month patiently explaining and sending letters that we had already cancelled.  They would say that they had no record of my ever calling, but they swore they would mark the account as closed and that it would be fixed.  Then the next month it would all repeat -- a bad customer service Groundhog Day.

Finally this week I started getting legal threats and collection agency notices that I owe $499 for 2015 and that my life would be left in ruins with the ground salted if I did not pay immediately.  So I called today and AGAIN they had no record of my cancelling -- in fact, it was on a path to renew again for 2016.

Look, I am the first to tell folks to never chalk up to conspiracy what can as easily be explained by mass incompetence.  But at some point one has to suspect there is fraud going on here to retain customers as long as possible for a dying service.

So here is what I am left with -- I found someone in their organization who may be willing to settle my non-debt for non-services for a couple of hundred.  I told them this was absurd, since I did not owe it, but that I would pay a couple hundred dollars if they would give me a letter that said the account is closed and fully settled.  From the outside, this may seem a bad trade.  But I have enough lawyers in my life and hiring lawyers would be the only way to solve this any other way.  And besides, $200 is cheap compared to the thousands of dollars of my personal time I have spent farting with this.

Update 9/27/15:  God, this is Groundhog Day!  YP said that I should send a certified letter to such and such address to make absolutely sure that my account was cancelled.  I sent it to that exact address, braving a 30-minute line at the post office to do so.   So of course, the letter just came back undeliverable.  I have held off saying this, but these guys are total scam artists.  They seem to have no intention of ever letting me leave.

Must Make for Interesting Family Dinners: If Anything, Ellen Pao's Husband is In The Middle of An Even Bigger Mess

Ellen Pao has had some career problems of late, but as I wrote yesterday, if she takes some responsibility for her own mis-steps and stops blaming it all on misogyny, she might learn something useful and build positive things on the experience.

A very loyal reader gives me a heads up that her husband, who is never mentioned in recent stories, actually faces a LOT more serious trouble (it is probably journalistically appropriate to leave her husband out of the recent stories, but one wonders if the New York Times would show the same scruples on a story about the CEO of Exxon if, say, his wife were independently in the midst of some sort of scandal).

Ellen Pao's husband is Buddy Fletcher, former Wall Street Wunderkind and now subject of a LOT of regulator scrutiny and pension fund lawsuits.  Here is one:

The firefighters’ system eventually said yes, and along with two other pension funds — the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System and the New Orleans Firefighters’ Pension and Relief Fund — invested a combined $100 million in one of Mr. Fletcher’s funds, FIA Leveraged. As they understood it, the fund would invest in liquid securities that could be sold in a matter of weeks.

The details sounded, as one board member put it, “too good to be true.”

In fact, they were.

Mr. Fletcher’s hedge fund has since been described by a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee as having elements of a Ponzi scheme, and four retirement systems are fighting to recover their money. A federal judge is scheduled to rule in March on a plan to liquidate the fund’s assets, which the trustee deemed “virtually worthless” in a report last November.

And another:

New York investment manager Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher Jr. is being sued by the MBTA Retirement Fund and some of his own hedge funds on accusations that he defrauded them of more than $50 million.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in New York, accuses Fletcher and his firm, Fletcher Asset Management , and other parties of conducting a “long-running fraud” in which they misused money for their own benefit, inappropriately took inflated management fees, and overstated the value of assets.

As previously reported, the MBTA pension fund invested $25 million with Fletcher in 2007 on the advice of the fund’s former executive director, Karl White.

White pitched the investment to the pension fund just nine months after he had resigned to work for Fletcher.

The pension fund’s holding is now worthless, and the bankruptcy trustee investigating the case has alleged that Fletcher never invested the money as promised.

And here is an older, in-depth look at Fletcher.

It is starting to look like most of the money went to his family (e.g. $8 to his brother to fund a film), to buffing his image (e.g. $4+ million donation to Harvard), and to an incredibly opulent lifestyle (e.g. 4!! apartments in the Dakota).

Despite the fact that he seems to have grossly overstated income and assets of his funds, no one -- regulators, clients, auditors -- figured it out.  The most interesting part to me was the first group to detect the potential fraud was, of all groups, the governing board of the Dakota.  This group, full of successful Wall Streeters, looked at his financial statements and turned down his application to buy yet another apartment, coming to the conclusion he not only did not have the funds to buy this apartment but they were unsure how he was paying the vig on the $20 million loan securitized by his existing apartments.

One thing Fletcher apparently has in common with his wife is that he seems to respond to every negative business decision with a discrimination lawsuit.  This one backfired, however, and only served to point public attention to the fact that a group of savvy financiers thought Fletcher's wealth was potentially imaginary.  Government investigations and lawsuits have followed.

He still has a chance to escape, though.  Despite Jon Corzine's outright theft of funds from MF Global commodity investor accounts, he got off scott-free due to his close ties to the Democratic Party.  Time for Fletcher to start giving any free assets he still holds (if there are any) to Hillary's campaign.

Excellent Slate Article on GMO Safety

It is a long article, covering a lot of ground, and is full of links to literature on both sides of the debate.  But its conclusions are pretty definite

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

This is just the management summary, the article goes into great depth on all of these.


Q: What's The Difference Between GE and Enron? A: GE Got Bailed Out

I am going to oversimplify, but the essence of bank risk is that they borrow short-term and invest/lend long-term.   This is a money-making strategy in that one can often borrow short-term much cheaper than one can borrow long term.  This spread between long and short term rates is due to people valuing liquidity.  You probably have experienced it yourself when buying a certificate of deposit (CD).  The rates for 5 or 10 year CD's are higher, but do you really want to tie your money up for so long?  What if rates improve and you find yourself locked into a CD with lower rates?  What if you need the money for an emergency?  Your concern for having your money locked up is what a preference for liquidity means.

So banks live off this spread.   But there are risks, just like you understood there are risks to locking your money in a long-term CD.  Imagine the bank is lending for mortgages and AAA corporate customers at 6%.  To fund that, they have some shareholder money, which is a long-term investment.  But they make the rest up with things like deposits and commercial paper (essentially 90-day or shorter notes).  We will leave the Fed out for this.  There are two main risks

  1. Short term interest rates rise, such that the spread between their short term borrowing and long-term investments narrows, or even reverses to negative
  2. Worse, the short term money can just disappear.  In panics, as we saw in the last financial crisis, the commercial paper market essentially dries up and depositors withdraw their money at the first sign of trouble (this is mitigated for small depositors by deposit insurance but not for large depositors who are not 100% covered).

These risks are made worse when banks or bank-like institutions try to improve the spread they are earning by making riskier investments, thus increasing the spread between their borrowing and investing, but also increasing risk.  This is particularly so because these risky investments tend to go south at the same time that short-term credit markets dry up.  In fact, the two are closely related.

This is exactly what happened to GE.  Via MarketWatch:

GE’s news release announcing its latest and greatest reduction of GE Capital summed up the move beautifully, saying “the business model for large wholesale-funded financial companies has changed, making it increasingly difficult to generate acceptable returns going forward.”

“Wholesale-funded” refers to GE Capital’s traditional reliance on the commercial paper market for liquidity. The problem with this short-term funding model for a balance sheet with long-term assets is that during a financial crisis, overnight liquidity tends to dry up as it did for GE late in 2008. When the company had difficulty finding buyers for its paper, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stepped in and through its Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) was covering $21.8 billion of GE commercial paper. GE Capital registered for up to $126 billion in commercial-paper guarantees under the TLGP.

If you have a AAA credit rating, you can always, always make money in the good times borrowing short and investing long.  You can make even more money borrowing short and investing long and risky.  GE made their money in the good times, and then when the model absolutely inevitably fell on its face in the bad times, we taxpayers bailed them out.

Which leads me to think back to Enron.  Enron is associated in most people's minds with fraud, and Enron played a lot of funky accounting games to disguise its true financial position from its owners.  But at the end of the day, that fraud was not why it failed.  Enron failed because it was essentially a bank that was borrowing short and investing long.  When the liquidity crisis arrived and they couldn't borrow short any more, they went bankrupt.   Jeff Skilling didn't actually go to jail for accounting fraud, he went to jail for making potentially inaccurate positive statements to shareholders to try to head off the crisis of confidence (and the resulting liquidity crisis).  Something every CEO in history has done in a liquidity crisis (back in 2008 I wrote an article comparing Bear Stearns crash and the actions of its CEO to Enron's; two days later the Economist went into great depth on the same topic).

So the difference between GE and Enron?  The government bailed out GE by guaranteeing its commercial paper (thus solving its problem of access to short term funding) and did nothing for Enron.  Obviously the time and place and government officials involved differed, but I would also offer up two differences:

  • Few really understood what mad genius Jeff Skilling was doing at Enron (I can call him that because I actually worked with him briefly at McKinsey, which you can also take as a disclosure).  With Enron so opaque to outsiders, for which a lot of the blame has to be put on Enron managers for making it that way, it was far easier to ascribe its problems to fraud rather than the liquidity crisis that was well-understood at Bear or Lehman or GE.
  • Enron failed to convince the world it posed systematic risk, which in hindsight it did not.  GE and other big banks survived 2008 and got bailed out because they convinced the government they would take everyone down with them.  They followed the strategy of the Joker in The Dark Knight, who revealed to a hostile room a coat full of grenades with this finger ready to pull the pins if they didn't let him out alive.




Artist's rendering of 2008 business strategy of GE Capital, Citicorp, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, GMAC, etc.









Postscript:  For those not clicking through, I though this bit from the 2008 Economist article was pretty thought-provoking:

For many people, the mere fact of Enron's collapse is evidence that Mr Skilling and his old mentor and boss, Ken Lay, who died between hisconviction and sentencing, presided over a fraudulent house of cards. Yet Mr Skilling has always argued that Enron's collapse largely resulted from a loss of trust in the firm by its financial-market counterparties, who engaged in the equivalent of a bank run. Certainly, the amounts of money involved in the specific frauds identified at Enron were small compared to the amount of shareholder value that was ultimately destroyed when it plunged into bankruptcy.

Yet recent events in the financial markets add some weight to Mr Skilling's story"”though nobody is (yet) alleging the sort of fraudulentbehaviour on Wall Street that apparently took place at Enron. The hastily arranged purchase of Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase is the result of exactly such a bank run on the bank, as Bear's counterparties lost faith in it. This has seen the destruction of most of its roughly $20-billion market capitalisation since January 2007. By comparison, $65 billion was wiped out at Enron, and $190 billion at Citigroup since May 2007, as the credit crunch turned into a crisis in capitalism.

Mr Skilling's defence team unearthed another apparent inconsistency in Mr Fastow's testimony that resonates with today's events. As Enronentered its death spiral, Mr Lay held a meeting to reassure employees that the firm was still in good shape, and that its "liquidity was strong". The composite suggested that Mr Fastow "felt [Mr Lay's comment] was an overstatement" stemming from Mr Lay's need to "increase public confidence" in the firm.

The original FBI notes say that Mr Fastow thought the comment "fair". The jury found Mr Lay guilty of fraud at least partly because it believed the government's allegations that Mr Lay knew such bullish statements were false when he made them.

As recently as March 12th, Alan Schwartz, the chief executive of Bear Stearns, issued a statement responding to rumours that it was introuble, saying that "we don't see any pressure on our liquidity, let alone a liquidity crisis." Two days later, only an emergency credit line arranged by the Federal Reserve was keeping the investment bank alive. (Meanwhile, as its share price tumbled on rumours of trouble onMarch 17th, Lehman Brothers issued a statement confirming that its "liquidity is very strong.")

Although it can do nothing for Mr Lay, the fate of Bear Stearns illustrates how fast quickly a firm's prospects can go from promising to non-existent when counterparties lose confidence in it. The rapid loss of market value so soon after a bullish comment from a chief executive may, judging by one reading of Enron's experience, get prosecutorial juices going, should the financial crisis get so bad that the public demands locking up some prominent Wall Streeters.

Our securities laws are written to protect shareholders and rightly take a dim view of CEO's make false statements about the condition of a company.  But if you owned stock in a company facing such a crisis, what would you want your CEO saying?  "Everything is fine, nothing to see here" or "We're toast, call Blackstone to pick up the carcass"?

Wow. IRS Caught in a Huge Lie

I had no problem assuming the "lost" IRS emails were incompetence rather than criminal evidence tampering.  After all, how hard is it to believe the government is incompetent?

But it may be in this case it really was fraud.  Suddenly the emails have been found, and they were apparently always there  -- despite all protestations to the contrary, no one in the IRS had even asked for them.  From the WaPo:

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration testified at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Thursday that it tracked down nearly 33,000 emails from ex-IRS official Lois Lerner.

The records date back to 2001, which is 10 years beyond what the IRS has said it could access for investigators.

The inspector general’s office said it is working to identify any messages that the IRS has not already sent to congressional investigators, who are examining the Lerner’s involvement in the IRS targeting scandal.

The watchdog agency found the backed-up emails by consulting with IRS information-technology specialists, according to TIGTA Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Tim Camus.

They were right where you would expect them to be,” he said at the rare late-night hearing, which lasted until about 10 p.m.

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testified before Congress last year that the backups were no help in recovering Lerner’s lost emails, in part because the IRS overwrites them every six months.

Camus said the IRS’s technology specialists told investigators that no one from the agency asked for the tapes, raising doubts about whether the agency did its due diligence in trying to locate Lerner’s emails, or possibly greater troubles.


My Emotional Support Alpaca

This is a great article about the fraudulent practices people pursue to try to take advantage of rules about service animals that help people with true disabilities to bring their pets with them everywhere.  This kind of crap strikes me as being in the same category as folks who used to hire disabled kids to go to Disneyworld with them so they could skip the lines (a practice, by the way, that led to Disney giving fewer special privileges to handicapped kids because of the abuse).

I will say from personal experience that the pressure on service businesses to succumb to this sort of service animal fraud is immense, especially in places like California where the financial penalties for even tiny well-meaning infractions of bewildering ADA rules are substantial.  My employees once felt they had to allow a woman to bring her horse (!) into the park because she had letters like the ones in this article saying she required the horse for emotional support.

This week I was at a conference where a featured speaker was an executive of the Forest Service named Joe Meade who happens to be blind.  I say "happens to" because Joe is one of the best, and best-loved, executives in that organization and what makes him great has little or nothing to do with his disability.  But I watched him work his way through a hotel with his service dog -- a casino hotel I got lost in about 4 times and I could read the signs -- and the skills that dog had are simply amazing.  Service dogs like that get deference from service businesses for a reason.  It infuriates me that people are trying to counterfeit that kind of credential so they don't have to pay an extra airplane fare for their cat.  And the only way they get away with it is because of our screwed up tort system that leaves service businesses at the mercy of even the most outrageous claims.  Because we businesses have given up on, particularly in places like California, ever getting real justice.

hattip:  Overlawyered.

Things I Did Not Know About Compelled Testimony

Ken White at Popehat offers some useful insight to non-lawyers among us about compelled testimony (in the context of the Louis Lerner/IRS saga)

Some people have argued that Lois Lerner should be compelled to testify, either by court order or by grant of immunity. Lerner and her lawyers would love that, as it would make prosecuting her for any suspected wrongdoing incredibly difficult.

Compelled testimony is radioactive. If a witness is compelled to testify, in any subsequent proceeding against them the government has a heavy burden to prove that no part of the prosecution is derived from the compelled testimony, which is treated as immunized. This is called theKastigar doctrine:

"Once a defendant demonstrates that he has testified, under a state grant of immunity, to matters related to the federal prosecution, the federal authorities have the burden of showing that their evidence is not tainted by establishing that they had an independent, legitimate source for the disputed evidence." 378 U.S. at 378 U. S. 79 n. 18. This burden of proof, which we reaffirm as appropriate, is not limited to a negation of taint; rather, it imposes on the prosecution the affirmative duty to prove that the evidence it proposes to use is derived from a legitimate source wholly independent of the compelled testimony.

If I read this right, if the House were to compel her to testify, they might as well grant her immunity and be done with it.

Further on in the post, Ken points out an issue that I have been wondering about myself -- Those who want Lerner to testify are concerned with government arbitrary abuse of power for political purposes.  Given that, how can these same folks have any doubt as to why Lerner might plead the Fifth in front of a hostile and partisan House committee

I've been seeing a lot of comments to the effect of "why should Lois Lerner take the Fifth if she has nothing to hide?" Ironically these comments often come from people who profess to oppose expansive government power, and from people who accept the proposition that Lerner was part of wrongdoing in the first place — in other words, that there was a government conspiracy to target people with the machinery of the IRS for holding unpopular political views. Such people do not seem to grasp how their predicate assumptions answer their own question.

You take the Fifth because the government can't be trusted. You take the Fifth because what the truth is, and what the government thinks the truth is, are two very different things. You take the Fifth because even if you didn't do anything wrong your statements can be used as building blocks indishonest, or malicious, or politically motivated prosecutions against you. You take the Fifth because if you answer questions truthfully the government may still decide you are lying and prosecute you for lying.

Pardon me: if you accept the proposition that the government targets organizations for IRS scrutiny because of their political views, and you still say things like "why take the Fifth if you have nothing to hide", then you're either an idiot or a dishonest partisan hack.

If you want to get bent out of shape about something, you are welcome to wonder why Lerner is being investigated, apparently, by the hyper-partisan civil rights division of Justice rather than the public integrity section.  That, combined with President Obama's pre-judging of the DOJ's conclusions, is more of a red flag than Lerner's taking the Fifth.

Remember, Martha Stewart did not go to jail for securities fraud of any sort.  She went to jail for statements she made during the government investigation.

Arizona Corporation Commission Web Site is Criminally Insecure

Today I had to do my annual renewal of my corporate registration in Arizona.  As in most states, this involves a bit of information foreplay followed by the purpose of the exercise -- sending in a check to the corporation commission.

But here is the extraordinarily scary part -- I started the annual reporting process by just typing in the name of my company and getting started.  There was no password protection, no identity check.  They had no way of knowing I had anything to do with this corporation and yet I was answering questions like "have you been convicted for fraud."  The potential for mischief is enormous.  One would have to get the timing right (an annual report must be due before one can get in) but one could easily open the site on January 1 and start entering false information in the registrations for such corporations as Exxon and Wal-Mart.

See for yourself.  Here is their web site.  Below is a screen shot of the site letting me in to edit one of Wal-Mart's corporate registrations in Arizona:

click to enlarge


Again, note what I am saying.  This is not the result of hacking.  This is not lax security I figured out how to evade.  This is the result of no security whatsoever.  I simply went to the link above, clicked on the Wal-Mart Associates link, and then clicked on the annual report link.  I know from doing my own registration that there is a signature page at the end, but all you do is type in the name of an officer and a title -- data that is right there on the site.  It's like asking you for a password after the site just listed all the valid passwords.

If I disliked Wal-Mart, I could put all kinds of crazy garbage in here.  I did not go further, because I would have had to answer these questions to proceed and I had no desire to mess with another company's critical data, but if I had gone further I could have changed their mailing address, the names of their officers, etc. -- all I had to do was just pay the $60-ish registration fee for them and they would have a big mess on their hands to sort out.   If I had access to a fake or stolen credit card and a public computer, I could have done it all without any hope of being traced.

By the way, from my experience, this is not unique to Arizona.  This criminally lax behavior seems to be the norm in most states.

I have submitted this all as a complaint to the state, so far with no response.  If anyone in AZ knows how I can get someone's attention with this, let me know.

Chevron Ecuador Judgement Obtained Through Fraud and Bribery

Update:  If you want to understand how deep the fraud runs, make sure to watch the 60 second video below with the US environmentalists caught on tape plotting their fraud.

Via Bloomberg:

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan said today that the second-largest U.S. oil company provided enough evidence that a 2011 judgment on behalf of rain forest dwellers in the country’s Lago Agrio area was secured by bribing a judge and ghostwriting court documents. Kaplan oversaw a seven-week nonjury trial over Chevron’s allegations.

“The decision in the Lago Agrio case was obtained by corrupt means,” Kaplan said in an opinion that gave Chevron a sweeping victory. “The defendants here may not be allowed to benefit from that in any way.”

Chevron, based in San Ramon, California, was ordered to pay $19 billion to a group of farmers and fishermen by the Ecuadorean court. The award was reduced to $9.5 billion on Nov. 12 by the Ecuadorean National Court of Justice, the nation’s highest tribunal. That's almost half of its 2013 profit.

The Ecuadorean villagers, and activists working on their behalf, argued the oil producer should be held financially responsible for pollution of the Amazon rainforest by Texaco Inc. from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Chevron, which bought Texaco in 2001, claims the company already paid $40 million to clean up its share of the drilling contamination....

In its racketeering case before Kaplan, Chevron alleged that a U.S. lawyer leading the Ecuadoreans, Steven Donziger, and members of his team engaged in “repeated acts of fraud, bribery, money laundering” and obstruction of justice in pursuit of a multibillion-dollar payout.

I don't think there is any doubt that Chevron owed the Ecuadorans some clean up, since even they have agreed to doing work there.  And it is not unreasonable to be skeptical that Chevron's actions were perhaps incomplete.  But the $19 billion judgement always has smelled, particularly when the judge in the Ecuadoran case publicly admitted he had been bribed.

There was deep corruption in this case from the start, corruption that never will be adequately covered in the media because it "was for a good cause."  Similar levels of corruption by Chevron would have led the front page of the New York Times for weeks.

As a reminder, let me quote from an earlier story.  Please watch the short video, it is amazing:

The clip below is an outtake from the environmentalist movie "Crude", which purported to document the environmentalist's case against Chevron in Ecuador.  Apparently, between takes of earnest and un-selfinterested environmentalists saving the world from greedy corporations, these self-same environmentalists discussed lying about the science and duping the courts in order to score a big payday for themselves.

The video is doubly interesting because, as Anthony Watts explains, the woman in the video taking money to make up untrue findings was recently confirmed to the NAS, where there is a good bet that we will see her as the source for "evidence" that fracking is contaminating groundwater.  These three folks are all the subject of a civil suit from Chevron but all three should be subject to criminal charges for fraud and conspiracy.

Several of the environmentalists involved, including Dr. Ann Maest, have since recanted their corruption, sort of.  They claim they were "misled" in this New York Times story, but the clip above certainly belies that.  Donziger did not mislead her, he is seen convincing her that in Ecuador they can get away with lying.  All for a good cause, of course.

Dispatches from the echo chamber:  Mother Jones was on this story full force for years.  Then suddenly stopped reporting at all when it became clear that allegations of fraud were credible.  Check out the articles.

Update:  More here

Your Tax Dollars at Work

An anonymous quote from an employee at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service

"Let me give you the honest truth: A lot of FMCS employees don't do a hell of a lot, including myself. Personally, the reason that I've stayed is that I just don't feel like working that hard, plus the location on K Street is great, plus we all have these oversized offices with windows, plus management doesn't seem to care if we stay out at lunch a long time. Can you blame me?"

This is actually the least of the problems in the agency -- fraud appears to be rampant.  The Washington Examiner has a five part series.

This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

First, as many of you may have guessed, the "massive cuts" in food stamps over the next 10 years proposed by House Republicans are basically just a modest reduction in their rate of growth.  All attempts to slow the spending growth in any government program will always be treated by the media as Armageddon, which is why government spending seldom slows (see: Sequester).

But I have been amazed through this whole deal that Republicans want to extract a pound (actually probably just an ounce or so) of flesh out of the Food Stamp program but explicitly left the rest of the farm bill with all of its bloated subsidies alone.  Henry Olson asks the same question at NRO.

I will add one other observation about food stamps that is sure to have just about everyone disagreeing with me.  Of late, Republicans have released a number of reports on food stamp fraud, showing people converting food stamps to cash, presumably so they can buy things with the money that food stamps are allowed to be used for.

Once upon a time, maybe 30 years ago in my more Conservative days, I would get all worked up by the same things.  Look at those guys, we give them money for food and they buy booze with it!  It must be stopped.  Since that time, I suppose I never really revisited this point of view until I was watching the recent stories on food stamp fraud.

But what I began thinking about was this:  As a libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.  If people make bad choices, paraphrasing from the HBO show Deadwood, then let them go to hell however they choose.  And, more often than not, it turns out that when you really look, people are not necessarily making what from the outside looks like a bad choice -- they have information, incentives, pressures, and preferences we folks sitting in our tidy Washington offices, chauffeured to work every day, may not understand.

So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?  Why attach a myriad of conditions and surveillance to the use of the funds?  Of course, this is an opinion that puts me way out of the mainstream.  Liberals will treat these folks as potential victims that must be guided paternally, and Conservatives will treat them as potential fraudsters who must be watched carefully.  I think either of these attitudes are insidious, and it is better to treat these folks as adults who need help.

The Inevitable Result of Government Policy on the Labor Market

Assume the following conditions:

  1. I am increasingly liable for any dumbass thing my employees say or do.  It does not matter if it is absolutely against my values and company rules, if someone, say, uses a racial epithet with a customer or another employee, I will likely at least get sued.  Given my deductibles on insurance, I am out $20,000 a case even if I win.
  2. Minimum wages have increased faster than the production value of unskilled, inexperienced laborers.
  3. Obamacare is raising the minimum cost of a full-time employee by at least $2,000-$3,000 a year, not including the as-yet-to-be-define but likely expensive record-keeping and administrative requirements 
  4. In states like California, the law increasingly gives employees the ability to make new claims on my income (e.g. fake workers comp and disability claims) or to even make themselves un-firable (by asking for a family medical leave, or claiming a disability, or claiming to be a whistle-blower).

Against this backdrop, what am I going to do?  I am going to hire more skilled and experienced workers who justify my minimum employment costs.   I am going to hire mature people less likely to get me in trouble via their immature actions.  I am going to hire people with a long work history so I can see there is not a history of scams and fraud.

In other words, I am going to hire older people.  And thus:

click to enlarge


Of all the issues I raised above, the first one gets the least attention but in our customer contact business is perhaps the most important.  The cost of hiring a knucklehead is immense.  And the folks that do stupid stuff in 1 are often the very same people who try to take us in 4.

Scam Alert -- US Telecom

We get literally (as they would say on the TV show Archer, literally literally and not figuratively literally) hundreds of paper bills to pay each month in our business.   We can barely keep up just with paying them all, much less vetting every one.  Which is what scam artist marketers count on when they craft fake bills they spam to businesses in hopes that some percentage, in their hustle and bustle, will pay the bills without knowing they are fraudulent.

These letters really, really tick me off.  They are sent by people who apparently cannot sell a product or service on its own merits and so must trick harried business people into accidentally sending them money.  I get these most frequently from companies that send me letters that look just like a government agency requiring yet another fee (the corporate minutes fraud).

So here is the most recent bill my accounts payable person questioned and put on my desk.   It is from a company called US Telecom, and despite the remission address on the letter it is apparently based in California.  You can click to enlarge the letter -- it is in very high resolution, which we will need to find the small print that they use to try to cover their butts.

Click to Enlarge US Telecom Scam Letter


Does this look like a regular bill to you for some service we have contracted for?  It did to me.  Note the "Due upon Receipt" at the top, the calculation below with previous balance and new balance and "pay this amount."  No reasonable person in this country would say it looks like anything but an invoice for service received.

But this is not a bill.  It is a solicitation for services.  If you send the money, then you are committed.  And by the way, per the terms below, once the agreement is in place, it cannot be terminated or amended (or likely refunded) without a signature from both parties, which means only if they approve it.  If they don't, congrats, you are stuck in this contract.  I have no idea if you actually paid, whether you would receive any services or not.  Since they priced this service without even knowing what assets I have that would be serviced (note no equipment or equipment location is listed in the bill, the first "tell" to me this was a fraud) I am not sure how they would ever provide any service.  (we were really saved by Quickbooks on this one, because my payables person flags any bill from a vendor not set up in our system).

They attempt to cover themselves, in the same way the corporate minutes scamsters do, with the small print in the last two lines at the bottom.   Can't read it?  LOL, I could not read it myself, even full size, without my glasses.  You can click through if you wish to see it on the high rez version.  But it says that it is not a bill, it is a solicitation, and that I am under no obligation to pay unless I accept the offer, which I do by paying.  But by the language, once paid, I have accepted the offer and cannot get out of it without a signature from an authorized officer of their company.  I bet that would be easy to get.

That last fine print may keep them out of jail or even let them sleep at night, but no legitimate business with a valuable product sells its services this way.

Update:  Apparently there is a legitimate US Telecom and they are understandably pissed.  They have set up a page on this billing fraud, and apparently the Attorneys General in a number of states are investigating.

Update #2:  Talk about waddling in late on a story!  These guys' registered corporate name is UST Development, run by a guy named David Bell.  Ken White of Popehat has been on these guys for years.  LOL, I even linked Ken's post a while back.  You sleazy folks out there can f*ck with me all you want but you do not want to mess with Ken White.

Update #3:  Good God, Ken did 14 posts on these guys.  Enjoy.

Previewing the President's College Rankings

Today, President Obama sort-of kind-of acknowledged a problem with Federal college student lending:  Federal loans are doing nothing to improve the affordability of colleges, as colleges are just raising tuition in lockstep with increased lending, thus leaving students massively in debt for the same old degree.

His proposed solution is to somehow tie the availability of Federal funds to some type of government scoring system for colleges.  The probability that this will do anything to reign in student debt is exactly zero.  But it will potentially give the Feds another vehicle for control (similar to what Title IX has given them) of even the most mundane university policies.  Why not, for example, give high scores to universities with the restrictive and politically correct speech codes this Administration favors, thus effectively denying money to students of universities that don't have Eric Holder-sanctioned speech policies?

If you think I am exaggerating, look at the recent Washington Monthly college rankings as a prototype for the Obama scoring system.  In their system, colleges are ranked higher if they have a higher percentage of Peace Corps*** graduates, if more of their Federal work-study grant money is used for jobs at non-profits rather than for-profits**, and if their school reports more community service hours.  This latter points to another issue -- a number of schools rank really low on community service hours, effectively all tied with zero.  This is obviously a reporting issue.  The Obama plan just about guarantees that universities will start to game all these metrics -- does no one pay attention to the fraud that has been found in the law school rankings?

They also have a ranking of the schools providing the best value.  The good news, I suppose, is the school my son attends is #1.  The bad news is that my alma mater Princeton is not even on the list.  I found this odd, because while the authors explicitly laud Amherst's generous program that helps fund students through grants rather than loans, Princeton actually was one of a few schools that did this first (update:  Princeton was the first school to eliminate loans from financial aid packages of low income students, and since has eliminated loans altogether from all financial aid packages.  If you can get in, you can graduate debt-free).

It says this of Amherst:

 It chose to tap its sizable $1.6 billion endowment to provide tuition discounts so generous that the annual net cost to students with family incomes below $75,000 is only $843, less than a third of the sticker price of a year at the average community college. Another elite liberal arts college, Williams, also makes our list. But instructively, none of the other prestigious, well-endowed private colleges and universities in America—not Harvard or Yale, Swarthmore or Smith, none of them—can make that claim.

Actually, we don't know if that last sentence is true because the authors left Harvard and Yale off the list entirely.   My impression is that Princeton makes is very inexpensive for families making less than $75,000 as well, so I could not understand the claim -- perhaps even without debt the tuition charges to low-income families are still unreasonably high.  But we will never know, because apparently Princeton is not even on the list -- not because it does not direct a lot of its endowment to need-based scholarships, but because it has only 10% students on Pell grants, and the authors decided that you could not be on the list unless that number was at least 20% "to make sure they aren’t just catering to the affluent."  This just points to how quickly such a system gets politicized.  What does "catering to the affluent" have anything to do with bang for the buck?  If they really trust their methodology, they would have included these schools and if they are really just over-priced rich kids' playgrounds, that should have come through in the ranking.  Instead, the author's have explicitly invented an unrelated criteria to weed Ivy League schools out, a criteria more related to admissions requirements than to financial aid requirements and affordability and value (the ostensible bases for the rankings).

By the way, if you want to get a really good laugh, this is supposed to be a value or "bang for the buck" ranking, but they only rank the costs.  There is absolutely no ranking of "bang".  Bizarre.  It is as if any degree of any type from any institution is equally valuable.  Which, by the way, is part of the problem in the student loan bubble -- just this assumption.


** This is EXACTLY the kind of incentive that will help pay off those future college loans -- lets make sure to encourage every student to work in non-profits rather than for-profits jobs.

*** Why the Peace Corps?  Why not a myriad of other useful and productive occupations?  If you want to have a service metric, why is Peace Corps there and, say, Teach for America not?

Zombie Earthlink Accounts

I am left to wonder today how much of Earthlink's remaining income is from zombie accounts.  I generally hate the hassle of dealing with a changed credit card number, but one advantage is that I discover some zombie accounts that I have forgotten about and keep charging my card every month.

Today I had an amazing one -- from my old Earthlink dial-up account.  I had thought I cancelled Earthlink something like 8 years ago (I certainly have not used it since about 2003).  That is several credit cards ago and so I have absolutely no idea how they were able to continue to bill me, but they were, right up to this month when my corporate card number changed due to a fraud alert.  It is kind of depressing that I spent well north of a thousand dollars over the years on a service that I would never even consider using again, but that is the danger that comes as a company gets larger and one can't personally inspect every bill that gets paid.

Of course, despite evidence that I never used the account, they would not waive the final month's billing and threatened collections, etc.  They wanted my credit card for one last charge, and then they would cancel.  Which made me suspicious that this is how they got my credit card for the last five years - by asking for it for one last charge and then continuing to bill for 5 years.  So I told them I did not trust them with my new credit card number and to send me a paper bill that I would pay by check.  As a final insult, they said they had to charge me an extra dollar for the paper bill.

If I had time, I would challenge them and give them grief, but sometimes one has to put one's ego away and just move on with the loss.

During the call, it was very, very clear that trying to collect money on zombie accounts that people had forgotten about was very, very typical for their customer service folks.  Leading me to wonder just how much of Earthlink's revenue comes from such zombie accounts.  As a funny side note, they were perfectly fine taking money from me without any identification, but would not cancel the account without an extensive account verification, a verification that is rather hard if one has not used the account in about 8 years.

Matt Yglesias is Reinventing History

Matt Yglesias and I certainly do read history differently.  He writes recently in a Salon article:

The basic economic foundations of industrial capitalism as we've known them for the past 150 years or so have an activist state at their core. Building political institutions capable of doing these things properly is really difficult, and one of the main things that separates more prosperous places from less prosperous ones is that the more prosperous places have done a better job of building said institutions. There's also the minor matter of creating effective and non-corrupt law enforcement and judicial agencies that can protect people's property rights and enforce contracts.

The point is, it takes an awful lot of politics to get an advanced capitalist economy up and running and generating wealth. A lot of active political decisions need to be made to grow that pie. So why would you want to do all that? Presumably because pie is delicious. But if you build a bunch of political institutions with the intention of creating large quantities of pie, it's obviously important that people actually get their hands on some pie. In other words, you go through the trouble of creating advanced industrial capitalism because that's a good way to create a lot of goods and services. But the creation of goods and services would be pointless unless it served the larger cause of human welfare. Collecting taxes and giving stuff to people is every bit as much a part of advancing that cause as creating the set of institutions that allows for the wealth-creation in the first place.

This is counter-historical crap.  Unfortunately, my real job is taking all my time today so I can only give a few quick responses rather than the thorough beating this deserves

  1. Capitalism is not a "system."  It is an un-system.   It is an order that emerges from individuals exchanging goods and services to their mutual self-interest.  While it requires a rule of law, those rules can be exceedingly simple -- at their core they are "don't deal with other people via force or fraud."  Sure, case law can be complex - what happens to a land deed that has one boundary on a river when the river moves.  But I don't think this is what Matt is thinking of.  
  2. Yglesias is following the typical socialist-progressive line that our modern wealth creating capitalist economy was somehow created by the government.  I am sure this line works with the low information voter, but that does not make it any more true.  Industrial capitalism arose long before the government even acknowledged its existence.  The US economy was generating wealth - for everyone, rich and poor - long before politicians stuck an oar into the economic waters.  Go back even 85 years and you will not see anything in the "political economy" that would be recognizable to a modern progressive.  In other words, the wealth creation came first, and then the politics came second.
  3. Again we see this bizarre progressive notion that wealth creation is this thing apart, like a water well in the desert.  Income distribution in this model is a matter of keeping the piggy rich people from hogging all the water.  But in a free society, the economy and its gains are not separate from people, they are integral to the people.  Gains are not somehow independent variables, but are the results of individual gains by each person in the system.  People operate by mutual self-interest.  When I work for you, I get a paycheck, you get your products made -- we both gain.  Steve Jobs grew wealthy selling iPads, but simultaneously my iPad made me vastly better off.
  4. It is wrong to say that all distributions of wealth are arbitrary.  In a free society, there emerges a natural distribution of wealth based on people's exchange with each other.  And contrary to the progressive mythology, that system was floating all boats, not just the rich ones, long before the government gained the power to redistribute wealth.  Yglesias is right in saying that income distribution in a progressive political economy is arbitrary.  In fact, income in any government-managed economy is distributed arbitrarily to whoever can gain power.  I am always amazed at progressives who somehow have this vision that there will be some group of people with absolute power who wukk make sure there will be a flat and equitable income distribution.  When has that ever happened?  Name even a single socialist country where that has happened.
  5. What political decision has ever been made the grows the pie, except perhaps to keep the government's hands off pie creation?  When "political" decisions are made to grow the pie, what you actually get is bailouts of Goldman Sachs, wealth funneled to connected billionaires like Elon Musk, and Solyndra.  Politics don't create wealth, they are a boat anchor lashed to the wealth creators.  The only thing politicians can do productively is make the boat anchor lighter.

Obamacare Hypocrisy

Proponents of Obamacare and other aggressive government health care interventions often argue that government health insurance will be less expensive than private health insurance.  Ignoring the whole history of government provided services (which you have to do to accept this argument), it is entertaining to press them on what costs will go away.

First, they will argue "profits."  Health insurers "obviously" make a lot of profit, so doing away with that will amount to a lot of savings.  Several years ago, when Obama was actively demagoguing** the health insurance business, the profit margins of health insurers were all around 3-4% or less.  Which means in exchange for eliminating all private profit incentives towards efficiency and productivity, we get a 3% one time cost reduction.  Not very promising.

After profits, Obamacare supporters will point to administrative costs.  Their philosophy that private insurance administrative costs drive health inflation is built into Obamacare, which places a cap on non-care related costs as a percentage of premiums.  I would argue a lot of this cost is claims management and fraud detection that government programs like Medicare don't have, to their detriment, but let's leave that aside.  I think most Obamacare opponents are convinced that there are billions in marketing costs that could be eliminated.  This has always been their bete noir in pharmaceuticals, that drug companies spend too much marketing.

I have said for years that to a large extent, what outsiders call "marketing" in health insurance is actually customer service and information, in particular agents who go out to companies and help people understand and make their insurance choices.

Well, it turns out that when the shoe is on the other foot, Obamacare supporters suddenly are A-OK with massive health insurance marketing costs, even when what is being marketed is essentially a monopoly:

[California] will also spend $250 million on a two-year marketing campaign [for its health insurance exchange]. By comparison California Senator Barbara Boxer spent $28 million on her 2010 statewide reelection campaign while her challenger spent another $22 million.

The most recent installment of the $910 million in federal money was a $674 million grant. The exchange's executive director noted that was less than the $706 million he had asked for. "The feds reduced the 2014 potential payment for outreach and enrollment by about $30 million," he said. "But we think we have enough resources on hand to do the biggest outreach that I have ever seen." ...

The California Exchange officials also say they need 20,000 part time enrollers to get everybody signed up––paying them $58 for each application. Having that many people out in the market creates quality control issues particularly when these people will be handling personal information like address, birth date, and social security number. California Blue Shield, by comparison has 5,000 employees serving 3.5 million members.

New York is off to a similar start. New York has received two grants totaling $340 million again just to set up an enrollment and eligibility process.

** Don't be fooled by the demagoguery.  This is standard Obama practice.  In exchange for eating sh*t from Obama in public, private companies get all kinds of crony favors in private.  Remember, health insurers got the US government to mandate that everyone in the country buy their products, and got the Feds to establish trillions in subsidies to help people do so.  This may be the greatest crony giveaway of all time, and to cover for it, like a magician distracting your eye from the sleight of hand, Obama made it appear in public as if he were health insurers' greatest enemy, rather than their sugar daddy.