Random Musing

David Reiff has a great piece on ForeignPolicy.com called “Millions May Die . . . Or Not.”  It is hard to read, in some ways, because nobody really wants to criticize folks whose hearts are in the right place.  At the same time, couching pleas for aid in ever escalating “worst disaster ever” claims, is risking the long-term viability of charitable contributions:

By continually upping the rhetorical ante, relief agencies, whatever their intentions, are sowing the seeds of future cynicism, raising the bar of compassion to the point where any disaster in which the death toll cannot be counted in the hundreds of thousands, that cannot be described as the worst since World War II or as being of biblical proportions, is almost certainly condemned to seem not all that bad by comparison.

I see this as akin to blizzard predictions – what one of my friends long ago started calling the “Storm of the Century of the Week” problem.  I cannot take an apocalyptic blizzard prediction seriously anymore, because they are all apocalyptic.  One day this will bite me in the ass, I know . . . well, unless I stay in DC and/or South Carolina.

But there was one thing left unexamined in the article that I wonder about – Reiff notes, quite rightly, that:

All relief agencies know that, where disasters are concerned, not only the media but the public as a whole practices a species of serial monogamy, focusing on one crisis to the exclusion of all others until what is sometimes called “compassion fatigue” sets in. Then, attention shifts to the next emergency.

Reiff does not tell us the origins of this syndrome – and the article seems to suggest that it “just exists,” a cause of the ever-escalating claims about the scale and scope of a given disaster.  I wonder, however, if he has overlooked something important here – that perhaps the escalating claims are the very thing that has created this “serial charity/aid monogamy” by overwhelming our capacity to address the wide range of needs that exist in the world.

In short, has the competition for relief dollars created a cycle in which claims about the magnitude of the crisis will continue to inflate, further focusing the attention of the public and media into shorter and shorter cycles until it completely evaporates?  Are we looking at a midpoint to the creative destruction of the relief industry?  And what have the policy implications of this narrowing been – is there space to back up and think more holistically, and with greater perspective, to do a better job of assessing need and capabilities of meeting it?

I blog about a range of things here – mostly environment, globalization and development.  As a result, I have more than a passing interest in various global markets: food, carbon, and various natural resources.  I’m also interested in the financial products being generated in these markets, and the ways in which they might impact the Global South.  So I’ve had a tangential interest in the mortgage markets, if only because that particular financial swamp is so deep and murky that it remains an anchor on major lenders, which in turn contrains their lending activities and therefore influences these global markets.  But I never really thought about the mortgage debacle as something that mattered in my financial portfolio – after all, my wife and I have excellent credit, have never missed a mortgage payment, and have only ever refinanced to lower our rate.  We were supposed to be the model borrowers.

Yet somehow, in the fall of 2008, my wife and I became embroiled in some sort of shenanigans during a refinance of our mortgage with AME Financial.  I did not know about these issues until a few days ago, when our current effort to refinance turned over the rock under which they were hidden.  So what follows is one person’s account of how a mortgage can go weirdly wrong, even when you are diligently reading the documents and asking questions all along the way:

Recently, in an effort to take advantage of the really low rates, my wife and I initiated a refinance of our house.  We were looking at a very good rate – 4.5% without buying points, and 4.375% if we bought a point.  This would have lowered our monthly payment significantly, so much that it made seeking a refinance a no-brainer.  We shopped around and settled on a mortgage broker that we felt comfortable with, and proceeded to move on the paperwork.  Everything was going smoothly (though I must say, refinancing now is quite different than before the crash – the sheer volume of supporting documentation required is huge), when suddenly I received an email from my broker, asking me to call him.  When I got him on the line, he was very apologetic, but told me that their analyst had found something that was going to be a problem.

Basically, the analyst found that my previous originator (AME Financial) had prepaid the private mortgage insurance (PMI) on our loan.  AME Financial had given us a somewhat higher rate and then covered our PMI in the form of (to quote our current mortgage broker) ‘single premium lender paid MI’.  In his words:

Two of the most common ways of paying PMI is monthly or single premium.  Should the borrower wish for the lender to cover the entire PMI in one shot (single premium), the lender will usually up the interest rate by 1/8th or 1/4th of a point and then cover the PMI for the borrower.  The advantage that this brings to the borrower is that they don’t have to pay monthly PMI, but at the same time they take a little bit of a higher rate over the term of the loan.

Now, this is all well and good . . . except that AME Financial never told us that they were doing a single premium lender paid MI on our loan.  That was NOT disclosed to us at any time, and our HUD-1 form does not list any prepaid MI.  Instead, we received a PMI document outlining the payments we would have to make until we were below 80% LTV or until April 2010, whichever come first.  It was an odd document, though, as our amortization schedule seemed to suggest we were under the 80% loan-to-value required to avoid PMI before the first payment.  At closing, we were told that we could write whoever serviced our mortgage immediately, reference the schedule, and demand the removal of PMI.  This does not explain how, on a loan where someone did a single premium lender paid MI, and where the amortization schedule suggested we were below 80% LTV we were being charged PMI, of course.  If I made one mistake in this process, it was failing to grasp that I was being charged PMI on a loan whose documentation suggested there was no need for PMI.  I am still kicking myself, as I have no idea how I missed this.

As you might imagine, we immediately started calling in to have the PMI taken off.  Sadly, our mortgage was purchased by Countrywide, who was already a part of Bank of America.  In late November 2008, I called them up, and asked to have the PMI taken off.  They argued that the LTV was above 80%.  I noted that the amortization schedule they had just purchased as a part of a larger contract had the LTV below 80%.  They claimed they would have to dig up the documents to support this, and then stopped returning calls.  Then they disappeared completely, as Bank of America seemed to take over servicing directly.  It wasn’t until well into the spring that we figured out who to call at Bank of America about the PMI, since we still made payments to “Countrywide” for a while.  Once we sorted this out, and I got someone on the phone, I referenced our schedule, and they claimed the LTV was above 80%.  At first they just told me to call back, then they started arguing that there were three different values for the house listed in the mortgage paperwork (I have not seen any evidence for this).  I reminded them that a) I did not have evidence for this claim and b) this wasn’t actually my problem – the PMI document was a part of a signed contract, and if they didn’t like the terms in that document they probably should not have purchased my loan.  Bank of America rejected my efforts to have PMI taken off until April 2010, when we lawyered up and had our attorney send BoA a letter demanding the removal of PMI per our mortgage documents.  Suddenly, the PMI came off the loan.  I don’t regret waiting to lawyer up.  My father was an attorney who lamented the overuse of the judicial system, and the only reason we did in the end was to ensure our PMI came off in accordance with our loan documents, as it seemed BoA was willing to ignore them otherwise.

Now, we were owed over $3000 in PMI that we should never have been paying, and that made me furious . . . but I am the son of a lawyer, and I know how much litigation costs.  Had I sued BoA, I probably could have won a moral victory and broken even (legal fees would have more or less eaten up any award).  So I let it go, chalking it up to the horrific circus that was the collapse of our economy in the fall of 2008, and the chaos that ensued as the banks picked up the pieces.

However, with the information I now have, I am newly enraged.  This is a nest of a mess.

  • Clearly, AME Financial did something shaky – we had an appraisal that put us below 80% LTV, which meant we did not need PMI.  Yet somehow they originated our loan with what probably was a slightly higher rate, and did a single premium lender paid MI without disclosing any of this to us.  That is bad enough, but it raises another question for me: to whom did they pay this MI? Did they just fabricate the single premium lender paid MI in the documents and charge me a higher rate, thus pocketing a better commission, or was there an actual payment that went to someone? Neither scenario looks good for AME.
  • If AME was the source of this problem, what was going on with Countrywide/BoA?  Why was it in their interest to keep me paying PMI, when clearly I did not need to be paying PMI?

I haven’t got the slightest idea how to untangle this, but it looks more and more like this has moved beyond the unethical and the incompetent.

Oh, and by the way, because of the single premium lender paid MI on my current loan, and because we are refinancing after less than three years, it appears that someone will have to cover that cost on my refi.  This is happening even though I had fulfilled more than my obligation with regard to paying PMI, and the refi I am looking at comes without PMI on it.  What does this mean?  It means that 4.5% just turned into 4.875% so the broker can cover this cost.  This increase in the interest rate, over the course of the loan, will cost us about $26,000 in extra interest ($208,037.55 at 4.5% to  $234,433.75 at 4.875%).  So not only did I pay an extra $3000 in PMI that I never owed, as well as whatever extra I paid monthly on my slightly inflated mortgage rate (probably about $60, or $1800 thus far), I am being hit with $26,000 more in interest payments over the course of this refinance . . . all because of whatever the hell it is AME did back in the fall of 2008.  $3000 isn’t worth the hassle, but $30,000 probably is.

Folks, if my loan is screwed up, even in this small way, I have to wonder how many other lurking “small” problems like this are out there.  No, people in my position won’t lose their houses, but this is still a drag on the economy.  $30,000 could set up my kids’ college funds.  $30,000 could be used on home renovations that put contractors to work and add value to the property.  Instead, this money has evaporated into someone’s pocket, and will continue to do so for the next 30 years.

Anyone with ideas on how to get any of this back, let me know.  Seriously.  I am in the mood to make someone’s life difficult.

Folks, I am taking a much-deserved and needed break for a week.  Actually, I’ve been offline for a few days already.  See, while I am gone, WordPress and Hootsuite might kick out a post or two I have scheduled.  Nice.

In any case, I saw this story before leaving, and it made me happy.  As a former resident of Kentucky (my Geography Ph.D. is from there), I find it awesome that there are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are . . . Kentuckians.  Barrels, people, not bottles.  Barrels.  I really don’t care if the hipsters are the ones driving the supply, as long as there is a huge supply.  I plan to dent a bit of that over the next week or so in a nice, slow manner . . .

So, in honor of bourbon and the memory of my father, a quick story.  My father went to law school at BC in the mid-late 1960s, and one of the guys he lived with his first year was from Kentucky – of one of the distilling families, with one of those southern names that ends with “the third”.  Anyway, this gentlemen arrived on campus with a few crates of bourbon . . . without the tax seals.  When my father and some of the other folks in the house inquired as to how this was possible, our southern friend replied “Well, every year a truck backs up to Daddy’s house, and they just unload a bunch of crates in the basement.  Daddy won’t miss these.”  Now, I don’t remember which bourbon this was, but my dad said it was the good stuff.  In any case, the few crates that everyone had assumed would last a year did not make it out of the winter, and one day they are dry.  So, everyone heads down to the liquor store.  They head over to the bourbon, when, to my father’s surprise, our southern friend immediately ducks down and starts scrabbling through the bottom-shelf brands – “Old Dirty Sock” is how my father characterized them.  My dad, taken aback, asked what the hell he was doing – why weren’t they buying the same stuff they had been drinking?  There was no answer, and a second later bourbon boy hollers “Aha!” and emerges, toting a bottle of some cheap, no-name brand of bourbon.  My father looks at him and says “why the hell would you drink this?”  The Kentuckian points to the bottle, and says “you see that county there?” (bourbons typically identify the county in which they were distilled on the label).  “Yep” says my father.  “Well,” says our southern friend, “there’s only one distillery in that county, and it’s Daddy’s.”

That’s right, the good stuff in a crappy bottle.  There’s a metaphor here for development, but I am on vacation.  Feel free to work it out yourselves.

As regular readers of this blog know, I find myself occasionally embroiled in discussions of how those of us working on climate change might best engage the media and the public.  It happened in the earliest days of this blog, and again more recently – and my thoughts on this have turned up on Dot Earth at the New York Times site here and here (h/t to Andrew Revkin).  In the end, I think we need to be very open and transparent in what we do, but we need to engage people who work on messaging as professionals – scientists are generally poorly trained in this area, and our universities are mired in the idea that press releases will be sufficient for disseminating important ideas to the public or the policy community (see a good post on this at Marc Bellemare’s blog).

So, I was mortified today when I saw that Tom Paulson, a journalist in Seattle, was more or less denied permission to ask a question of a panel at the Pacific Health Summit . . . even when he was willing to follow Chatham House Rules (where comments made in a session are not for external attribution unless the speaker explicitly gives permission – it allows people to speak more freely, and resolve/address difficult issues more directly).  It is one thing to protect people talking about a sensitive issue (in this case, vaccinations) so they can speak freely at an event aimed at specialists, but entirely another to actively prevent the press from asking questions, even when panelists are free to refuse to answer, or to answer as they please, without fear of identification.  This does nothing to enhance the dialogue within the sessions, nor does it help to foster productive relations with the media.

Now, I was not at the event, and Paulson notes that there were prohibitions against the press asking questions at the event, so to some extent he walked into this one . . . but that does not absolve the organizers of this Summit of blame.  The rules themselves make little sense, unless there is such remarkable mistrust of the media in this community (and I speak from a pretty media-averse community these days) that the organizers felt nobody could be trusted.

This is not a press/media relations plan designed by professionals.  We in the scientific and academic communities need to get over ourselves – our data is not truth/justification/validation to anyone but us.  To most of the rest of the world, our findings are just different viewpoints to be considered.  I’m not saying this is how it should be . . . but this is how the world works.  We can sit around and demand that everyone understand us on our terms, but we’ve seen how that has played out for climate science, for those who argue against the “vaccines are dangerous” crowd, etc. (For those unclear on this, it has played out very, very poorly).  This strikes me as completely pointless, and forever doomed to failure.  My life is too short for pointless – I’m a pragmatist.  This is yet another screaming argument for the need to engage the professional messaging community.  It doesn’t ruin science to engage – it will make what we do a lot more effective.

A quick thank you to everyone who has stopped by this blog over the past 10 months. Google Analytics tells me that my 10,000 individual visitor arrived at some point earlier today . . . which sort of blows my mind. Yeah, some of you all seem to crap 10,000 visitors on a Monday – I know. But hey, I started the blog largely at the behest of my publisher, as a means of getting myself and Delivering Development out there. It has become a lot more than that for me – it lets me vent to a really interesting readership, and helps me to control my lecturing withdrawals while I am on leave from academia. I appreciate all the comments, emails, tweets and retweets – I’ve learned a lot from this effort, and the community it seems to have brought me. I will attempt to remain suitably entertaining/intelligent going forward . . .

Now, I want every single one of you to go out and buy a copy of my book.  Pronto.

Having lived in Spain for a couple of years, I’ve been deeply moved by the history of the Spanish Civil War, especially the experience of Catalunya during that war.  For a moment, the anarchists actually ran Barcelona (such as anarchists can run anything at the scale of a city) and tried to create a vision of something different.  Something not capitalist, not communist, but uniquely libratory.  That vision was squashed between the Fascists of Franco and the Communists in their own ranks, both groups afraid of the challenge to their own political structures that the anarchists’ alternative vision posed.  The world ignored the eradication of the anarchists, the West excusing their inaction in the name of halting the advance of communism.

While the parallels are weak, at best, I feel some sort of odd parallel between anarchist Barcelona and contemporary Misrata.  In the fears that the Libyan rebels might be worse than Gaddafi are the echoes of those who feared the anarchists more than Fascism.  The journalists like Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros share something of a kinship with Orwell and his fellow fighters on the side of the anarchists, the ones who carried the story of Catalunya out of Barcelona as it fell, and never let the story die.

I wonder how history is going to judge our half-assed engagement in Libya.

It’s been a difficult weekend – I spent it at the memorial for the wife of one of my best friends.  I was at their wedding almost 12 years ago, and the reality of the situation has not set in for me at all.

Every once in a while, though, life hands us a particular event through which we can suddenly see much larger issues more clearly.  This weekend certainly gave me that.  When I finally saw my friend on Friday, the first thing out of my mouth was the largely useless phrase “how are you?” – no matter how sincere I was, I know enough about loss to know that there is no good answer to that question.  Yet somehow he came up with one: “Better, now that you’re here.”  I’ve known him long enough to know that this was a sincere response, and I found it deeply moving.

Ever since, this exchange has been eating at me – it is one of those lenses through which I can see a much larger issue in my life.  How many times do those of us who work in aid and development really ask “how are you?” to those we work with/work for when we get out in the field – how often do we really let people participate in our programs and projects by telling us how they are and what they need, versus giving them the right to agree (too much “participatory” work falls under the latter heading)?  And how often could they honestly say, “Better, now that you are here” to us if we were to ask?

Maybe, just maybe, this is an informal metric we might use to evaluate our efforts in the world . . . are things better, now that we are there?  If not, what can we/should we do differently to make sure that people do feel that way?

I sat through an outstanding FEWS-NET briefing today at work – some of the material falls under the heading of sensitive but unclassified (SBU), which basically means I can’t give details on it here. However, the publicly-available information from the briefing (link here – click on the near-term and medium-term tabs) makes it clear that there are really bad things taking place in parts of the Horn of Africa right now that are likely to result in large areas being extremely food insecure, which FEWS-NET defines as:

Households face substantial or prolonged shortfalls in their ability to meet basic food requirements. Reduced food intake is widespread, resulting in significantly increased rates of acute malnutrition and increasing mortality. Significant erosion of assets is occurring, and households are gradually moving towards destitution.

To summarize, people are dying due to food insecurity in the Horn of Africa right now, and it is going to get a whole lot worse for the next 6 or so months.

The briefing was very well run and presented, and the question session afterward was generally quite informative.  FEWS-NET is a remarkable tool – I think it is probably the best food insecurity assessment tool in the world right now – and I am engaged with thinking about how to make their assessments and projections even more accurate.  So I had a sort of technical disconnect from the meaning of the data during the briefing – to me, the numbers were data points that could be parsed differently to better understand what was actually taking place.

I returned to my desk, head buzzing with ways to reframe some of the analysis, but before I could get to writing anything down, an email came in telling me that the wife of one of my closest friends had passed away from ovarian cancer.  She was 41, and leaves behind my friend and their very young son.  For some reason, in that moment all of my data points became people, tens of thousands of mothers, fathers and children whose loss was beyond tragic.

That was it for me. I logged out, walked out of the office, and went to get my oldest daughter out of preschool an hour early.  Somebody needs to parse the data, to reframe and retheorize what we see happening in places like the Horn of Africa so we can respond better and reduce the occurrence and impact of future events.  But not me, not today.

Tomorrow, maybe.

No, the title is not meant to invoke the idea that I am going to sell all my worldly possessions and seek some sort of enlightenment – nor is it a suggestion that you should do so.  Nah, this post is more tricky than that . . . it’s about thinking through who we are, and who we want to be in the world.

This has been at the front of my mind for a lot of reasons of late.  At a personal level, the wife of a very close friend of mine is about to pass away from cancer – she’s 41, and will leave behind her husband and a 6-year-old son.  This sort of thing really tends to put life and its trials in perspective.  And so, with that framing, I’ve also been wrestling with what I am going to do career-wise.  The fellowship I am on required that I declare if I intended to renew by late last week.  This was not a difficult decision – however, I also had to decide if I wanted to continue in my current position, or take up a new one.  For many in my agency, this decision would have been easy – keep the slot I currently occupy.  I have a direct line to my Assistant Administrator (which at AID is very, very far up the food chain), who has a real interest in climate change and really listens to me when I advise her.  I sit in a program office, where I have the capacity to shape the direction of climate change programming for an entire Bureau with a multi-billion dollar budget.  In the bureaucratic world, I have landed in a remarkably influential position . . .

And I have decided to give it up.

Wait, what?

Here is the thing: I have about 14 years of experience working on issues of development, principally from the research end of things.  I’ve had the good fortune to become engaged in several global environmental assessments, which have broadened my perspectives and my expertise/experience.  I know where we have significant holes in our understanding of how the world works that are impeding our ability to address the challenges so many face in the world today, and will serve as roadblocks along any path toward a sustainable future on this planet.  I am working to fill those knowledge gaps with my research . . . but in my current slot, I don’t really use what I know – either what I know to be true from my research experience, or what I know we don’t know.  In seven months, I feel like I have really gone to the intellectual well once – in a briefing to my Assistant Administrator last week.  The rest of the time, a reasonably competent manager with a general awareness of climate change and humanitarian assistance could have done my job.  I cannot tell you the number of days I have left the office without a clue of what I accomplished, deeply frustrated and unsatisfied.

My agency is a contracting agency – we write scopes of work for other people to do our research and thinking.  So I am expected to scope papers and projects for other people, who are significantly less qualified than I am, to execute.  This . . . is . . . maddening.  It is also reality.

So, what does it all mean?  First, it means I am going back to academia at the end of this fellowship: if all of the thinking is done externally, and I feel like I am well qualified to do that thinking, I had better get outside of the agency so that I can actually do it.  And if I am going to leave the agency, I need to start building up my contacts with the people who get what I do and what I know so they will come to me in the future for these tasks.  I am currently in a humanitarian relief bureau, but I am not a relief person – I am a development person by training, research and inclination.  Yes, that is a false dichotomy, but in terms of policy and programming, it is a very real institutional divide here.  So I need to sit with the development people, with those who understand how my efforts to rethink livelihoods (first article in a series is in review), and to rethink the connection between land use change and livelihoods change (here and here), might become crucial contributions to their programs and policy.  So in year two, I am shifting to a new Bureau, and to a relatively minor slot in a line office, to work in detail on issues of adaptation to climate change.  Many people would see this as a demotion – as me giving away access and all its advantages.  I see it as the only way to keep what I have, and to have a much longer-term impact.

You cannot imagine my relief.

Ian Brown was right: Keep what ya got, by giving it all away.

but damn, there are days I am glad I went with a commercial publisher – and one of the big ones, at that.  Yesterday, I came home to a small envelope from Palgrave Macmillan in my mailbox.  I had no idea what it was, since I was not expecting anything from them.  I opened it up, and inside was this:



(Incidentally, I have a promo code that instructors can use for a free inspection copy – if you are an instructor of a course that might adopt this text, send me an email and let me know the course you teach, and I can pass the code along.  They will force you to register and they tend to verify courses, though, so don’t bother bluffing . . .)

Obviously, this is the publicity flyer they are circulating to get my book some visibility in academia.  It’s pretty nice – I like it.  But what really struck me was the post-it attached – unsigned, with only one sentence: “1000 copies mailed out March 2011 to courses in Economic Development”.  Uh . . .

Holy crap.

If 1% of the instructors who receive this mailing adopt, I will sell more copies of my book in the first year than most academic titles ever sell.  There is no way I could have done this anywhere near as effectively by myself. And it is a nice reinforcement of the message I’ve been receiving from my publisher and agent that my editor is heavily invested in this book, and is planning a concerted push to get it out there.

Now, friends and colleagues in the blogosphere/twitterverse, I am awaiting your reviews.  No, really . . . I actually want the feedback.  Yes, I would love to see a bunch of glowing reviews show up telling everyone that my book is the be-all, end-all, but I know that it is not – I want to see what people think, where the book works and where it doesn’t.  That is the only way I can shape my message effectively, and shape the next book (yes, one is already lurking) to engage the development/aid community productively.

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