Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “Decline of American Exceptionalism” Mr. Blow says polls suggest that Americans are not feeling very positive about their nation’s standing in the world. We will have to work to make America great again.  Mr. Nocera, in “Baum Weighs in After Uproar,” says you thought the Halloween party was bad. Look at what the largest “foreclosure mill” in New York State is up to now.  Ms. Collins addresses “Republican Financial Plans,” and says the Republican presidential candidates seem to have done really, really well for themselves income-wise. Surely there are some career tips for us here.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Is America exceptional among nations? Are we, as a country and a people and a culture, set apart and better than others? Are we, indeed, the “shining city upon a hill” that Ronald Reagan described? Are we “chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world” as George W. Bush said?

This year, for the first time, most Americans did not say yes.

According to a report issued on Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, when Americans were asked if they agreed with the statement “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others,” only 49 percent agreed. That’s down from 60 percent in 2002, the first time that Pew asked the question.

Perhaps even more striking was that, among young people (those ages 18 to 29), the percentage of Americans who believed that their culture was superior was lower than young citizens of Germany, Spain and Britain.

Even if you put aside the somewhat loaded terminology of cultural superiority, Americans simply don’t seem to feel very positive about America at the moment. A Time Magazine/Abt SRBI poll conducted last month found that 71 percent of Americans believed that our position in the world has been on the decline in the past few years.

And an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey conducted earlier this month found that most Americans believed that we aren’t simply going through tough times as a nation but are at “the start of a longer-term decline where the U.S. is no longer the leading country in the world.”

We are settling into a dangerous national pessimism. We must answer the big questions. Was our nation’s greatness about having God or having grit? Is exceptionalism an anointing or an ethos? If the answers are grit and ethos, then we must work to recapture them. We must work our way out of these doldrums. We must learn our way out. We must innovate our way out.

We have to stop snuggling up to nostalgia, acknowledge that we have allowed a mighty country to be brought low and set a course to restitution. And that course is through hard work and tough choices. You choose greatness; it doesn’t choose you.

And that means that we must invest in our future. We must invest in our crumbling infrastructure. We must invest in the industries of the future. We must invest in a generation of foundering and forgotten children. We must invest in education. Cut-and-grow is ruinous mythology.

We must look out at the world with clear eyes and sober minds and do the difficult work as we’ve done time and time again. That’s how a city shines upon a hill.

It would also help if we stopped torturing people, treating peaceful protesters like violent felons (remember when cops looked like cops and not combat troops?), and wound down the wars.  Just sayin’…

“Mr. Nocera — You have destroyed everything and everyone related to Steven J. Baum PC. It took 40 years to build this firm and three weeks to tear down.”

Thus began a lengthy e-mail that I received, on Thursday evening, from Steven J. Baum, the owner of his eponymous law firm, the largest “foreclosure mill” in New York State. Foreclosure mills, of course, are firms that represent banks and servicers trying to foreclose on the millions of homeowners who have defaulted since the housing bubble burst.

Baum was referring to a column I had written in late October after a former employee had sent me some photographs of the firm’s 2010 Halloween party. They showed employees wearing costumes that mocked people who had lost their homes; the ex-employee who forwarded the pictures had described them as “appalling.”

A lot of people agreed. Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, wrote the firm a letter demanding documents and records. In New York, the attorney general’s office ratcheted up its investigation of the firm; I heard that investigators were looking for more photographs of Baum Halloween parties. Occupy Buffalo protesters picketed Baum’s offices in nearby Amherst, N.Y. And, not least, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own or guarantee half the country’s mortgages, issued new rules forbidding servicers of their mortgages from using Steven J. Baum.

None of which was why I had contacted Baum’s press spokesman earlier this week. What had caught my eye was an article in The Buffalo News headlined, “Foreclosure law firm is battling rule on accuracy.” The article described a court hearing a few weeks ago during which the Baum firm asked the judge to reject — as unconstitutional! — a year-old rule that foreclosure lawyers must attest to the validity of the mortgage documents held by their bank and servicer clients. You would think that any lawyer worth his salt would be happy to affirm that his client was using valid documents to toss someone out of a house. But not, apparently, Steven J. Baum.

In fact, this case matters a lot more than a creepy Halloween party. In October 2010, reacting to the robo-signing scandal, the judge overseeing the New York State court system had issued an order commanding that lawyers representing banks and servicers sign a document “affirming” that their clients had reviewed the accuracy of the documents and records — and that the documents were, indeed, accurate.

Almost immediately, the number of foreclosures in New York dropped dramatically. Why? Because Baum and most of the other foreclosure mill firms wouldn’t sign the affirmation. As time went on, a pattern emerged. Banks and servicers would file a notice of foreclosure. But the next step, which required the affirmation, would never happen, so that case would remain in limbo — and the homeowner would stay in the home.

If you think this is somehow a good thing, think again. For starters, it makes a mess of the court system, which is clogged with foreclosure cases. More pressing for homeowners, New York law gives them a right to a mediation session to see if their mortgage can be modified. But that only takes place once the litigation ensues.

The failure of the lawyers to sign the affirmation means that no mediation can take place. Meanwhile, fees and interest continue to accrue. “By the time the homeowner gets to a negotiating session, there can be a huge amount of additional debt,” said Yolande Nicholson, the president of the newly formed New York State Foreclosure Defense Bar. “It makes a modification impossible.”

When I first asked Baum’s media representative about the case, he sent back a statement claiming that the firm had signed an affirmation in 4,500 cases. When I pressed him, he lowered his estimate to 3,000 affirmations. Most of the foreclosure defense lawyers I spoke to, though, think that even the latter number is wildly exaggerated. “We looked through a couple thousand filings and found less than a dozen affirmations by Baum,” said Adam Cohen of MFY Legal Services, which has filed a class-action suit against the firm.

The spokesman also told me that it was the client — a servicing arm of HFC Beneficial — that had pushed to have the affirmation ruled unconstitutional and that Baum was just carrying out orders. But when Baum e-mailed me himself, he made no such claim. Instead, he said that the order to affirm was difficult to carry out because servicers were so overwhelmed — “and they wish to do it right.” In a second e-mail, he added that the order was overly confusing. He said nothing about it being unconstitutional — even though that’s the argument he made in court.

“There is blood on your hands for this one, Joe,” he wrote at the end of that second e-mail. “I will never, ever forgive you for this.”

I think that’s what they call shooting the messenger.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Our topic for today is: Where do the Republican candidates for president get their money?

The personal finances of the G.O.P. presidential hopefuls are important for two reasons. One is that we’re talking about people who aspire to the most prestigious and important job the nation has to offer. The other is that these folks seem to have done really, really well. Perhaps, they can offer career tips.

Remember when Newt Gingrich claimed that the mortgage giant Freddie Mac paid him $300,000 for his advice “as a historian?” Thousands of young history majors who were resigned to a future in which they would pad out their $2,000-a-semester salaries as part-time adjunct lecturers with fulfilling careers in bartending suddenly were engulfed with new hope.

Unfortunately, it turned out that Newt’s income actually comes from running think tanks that help promote the corporate clients’ goals in the public sector. That may be a little harder for the youth of America to put their heads around. But, kids, if anybody asks you what you want to be when you grow up, say: policy guru.

Gingrich wants everyone to understand that he does not lobby. Really, whatever the exact legal definition of lobbying is, that is something he did not do. The Gingrich Group got what turns out to be about $1.6 million to not-lobby for Freddie Mac, one of a long, long list of clients. Let’s all pause to recall the high dudgeon with which Gingrich announced, during one of the debates, that Representative Barney Frank ought to be put in jail for being “close to” Freddie Mac lobbyists. What kind of politician demands that an elected official be incarcerated for hanging out with the same people who are paying said politician $1.6 million or so to not-lobby?

This is an unusually delusional presidential field. Mitt Romney’s greatest political asset is that he doesn’t seem to actually believe it when he says he’s been consistent on matters like health care reform or abortion. Thank God there’s at least one guy on the stage who knows he’s fibbing.

Romney is the richest person running for president, worth somewhere between $190 million and $250 million. Most of that came from his work at Bain Capital, a firm that bought up troubled companies and gave them makeovers. Although many people lost their jobs when Bain Capital reeled in their employers, Romney’s work did create a lot of new value. Which, on occasion, Bain Capital walked away with, leaving the remnants of the company flopping helplessly on the beach.

In 2010, Mitt earned somewhere between $9.6 million and $43.2 million, according to The National Journal’s calculation of his financial reports. I believe I speak for us all when I say that there seems to be a lot of room in the middle of that estimate, but you get the idea. Much of that came from investments, but Romney also gets quite a bit of cash for making speeches. He once made $68,000 for one appearance before the International Franchise Association in Las Vegas.

People, if you were raking in more than $9.6 million a year, would you waste your time talking to the International Franchise Association? Perhaps you would if international franchises were especially close to your heart. But, in that case, why charge them $68,000? There are a lot of mysteries in the Mitt saga. For instance, if you were a very wealthy father of five energetic young boys, would you choose to spend your vacation driving the whole family to Canada with the dog strapped to the roof of the car? Wouldn’t it be more fun to take a plane to Disneyland?

Some of the Republican candidates seem to have no visible means of support whatsoever — like Rick Santorum, who has seven kids. You would hate to think they were going without shoes just so Dad could continue his never-ending quest to break into the 5 percent range in the polls.

But, good news! Santorum made at least $970,000 in 2010, in all those mysterious ways unsuccessful Republican candidates for president seem to have of making money. Part of it came from being a commentator for Fox News, and part of it came from Santorum’s work at — yes! — a think tank.

Rick Perry does not have a vast fortune, although he is blessed with friends who fly him around on private jets, take him on cool vacations and, occasionally, sell him real estate at bargain-basement prices. This week, Perry laced into Barack Obama as a man who could not possibly understand what ordinary Americans were going through because he “grew up in a privileged way.” This is a strange way to describe the president’s upbringing — particularly when Romney, the guy Perry is actually supposed to be running against, was the son of the head of American Motors. Maybe he got the two mixed up.

All I can tell you is this. Rick Perry will never be paid by a tank to think.



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