Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo is off today, so the world is a little sunnier.  Mr. Cohen, in “Hold the Referendum,” says Britain would be mad to leave the European Union, but a vote on membership is needed.  Mr. Nocera has a question in “The Foreclosure Fiasco:”  How has the government fumbled the Great Foreclosure Crisis? Let’s count the ways.  Mr. Bruni casts a jaundiced eye at “Colorado’s Marijuana Muddle” and says the legalization of pot raises many questions, including whether we’re formalizing a tacit permission.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

In case you have wondered, Brexit is not a new breakfast cereal or a form of early-morning euthanasia.

No, dear reader, it is the neologism doing the rounds in this land of alternating euphoria and despair to describe possible British withdrawal from the European Union, the 27-member Nobel-Prize winning club whose hold on national affection has been distinctly mixed ever since the retirement of De Gaulle and his French veto opened the way for membership in 1973.

David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, is to give a much-awaited speech on Europe later this month in which he will demand renegotiated terms and set out the road map for an eventual referendum on revised membership. So-called “Outs” are convinced they can win.

Brexit alarm is on the rise. The United States, Germany and British business leaders have all warned Cameron in recent weeks that a 21st-century Britain bobbing adrift off the Continent is a losing proposition. Philip Gordon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said this month of Britain that, “More than most others, its voice within the European Union is essential and critical to the United States.”

It was an unusually forthright U.S. intervention in the murk of euro-affairs, reflecting geostrategic concerns that a British exit would destabilize Europe, leave it under German-French domination, reduce the free-market voice within it, and deprive a multitude of British-based American corporations of the benefits of the vast single European market.

Has the Obama administration overreacted? Britain has been grumbling about the European Union for four decades without getting close to withdrawal; a 1975 referendum backed membership by a wide margin. Tabloids bang on about silly E.U. regulations (like a supposed ban on reusing jam jars), but referendums are not won on such issues.

I think not. This time the British rumblings are serious. A recent Guardian/ICM poll found that 51 percent of respondents would vote for a British exit, against 40 percent who would vote to stay in. The causes for concern lie deep.

First, the euro crisis has cemented the British conviction that it was right to stick with sterling and soured the image of Europe in general.

Second, the only long-term answer to that crisis is ever closer union, both fiscal and political, and that is precisely the federalist direction most people here (including many who favor continued membership but not a United States of Europe) reject. The logical consequences for the European Union of its euro dilemma are not consequences that Britain, the world’s sixth largest economy, relishes.

Third, the rise of the rabidly anti-European U.K. Independence Party has put pressure on Cameron because of potential Tory voter defection to Nigel Farage’s growing political movement. This pressure is unlikely to abate. Austerity has been the name of the game for the Cameron coalition, an abstract term for lost jobs and squeezed incomes that have fueled the disgruntlement on which anti-immigrant rightists thrive. Britain is in a bipolar state. Its post-Olympics euphoria has subsided into a new despondency; the search for scapegoats is on. The Union is not a bad candidate, seen as a synonym for bureaucracy and, on the right of the political spectrum, for state-heavy economies full of “freeloaders” sapping the will of British “strivers.”

Fourth, Britain has changed in unpredictable ways. The recent census [pdf] revealed a country where 7.5 million people are foreign-born, an increase of 2.6 million since 2001. The country is more diverse, less white, less Christian, less religious overall, less hidebound, more open. In theory these changes should favor Europe, but I am not sure: The Jessica Ennis generation, named for the popular gold-medal winning athlete of mixed Jamaican and English descent, does not look to Brussels with the reverence that will be on display at the Franco-German celebration on Jan. 22 of the 50th anniversary of the treaty cementing their postwar reconciliation. Europe’s agony and rebirth as a Continent whole and free are not its concern.

For these reasons, continued British E.U. membership should not be taken for granted, even if Britain would be mad to leave Europe. Little-Britainism does not suit a globalized world. Business would suffer, influence diminish, and the special relationship (such as it is) with the United States would not fill the gap. Nor would the new ties to emergent economies that euro-skeptic Tories are keen to talk up.

Paul Haydon, writing in The Guardian, noted that there has been close to $10 billion of foreign investment in the British auto industry in the last two years, and 80 percent of all U.K.-produced vehicles are sold overseas, more than half to the European Union. If the “Outs” won and tariffs went up, investors would exit. Just extrapolate from that.

Still, Cameron should go ahead with his referendum plans. The democratic deficit of the European Union is real. It is a core problem. Precisely because the British debate is serious and deep-rooted this time, it has to be played out. A vote is needed. And I believe that, as in 1975, British good sense would prevail.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

It’s been five days since Jessica Silver-Greenberg’s article on the latest bank settlement was posted on The New York Times’s Web site. I’m still shaking my head. Her “story behind the story” of the $8.5 billion settlement between federal bank regulators and 10 banks over their foreclosure misdeeds illustrates just about everything that is wrong with the way the government has handled the Great Foreclosure Crisis.

Shall we count the ways?

1. It is more about public relations than problem-solving. Pick a program — any program — that the Obama administration unveiled to help troubled homeowners over the past four years. Not one has amounted to a hill of beans.

This settlement is no different. The country’s primary bank regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — which, along with the Federal Reserve, engineered the settlement — is trying to make it look like a victory. Of the $8.5 billion, $3.3 billion will go directly to foreclosed-upon borrowers, making it “the largest cash payout to date,” according to Bryan Hubbard, the O.C.C.’s chief spinmeister. (The rest of the money will consist of reduced interest payments and loan modifications.)

In truth, the O.C.C. needed to save face after a foreclosure review process it had mandated had become an expensive fiasco. As amply demonstrated by Silver-Greenberg and American Banker, the government insisted that the banks hire expensive consultants to do a review of every foreclosure that took place in 2009 and 2010. The consultants racked up more than $1 billion in fees, while proceeding at such a molasseslike pace that the feds and the banks finally threw up their hands. The settlement made the whole thing go away.

2. Accountability? What’s that? We have known for a long time that overwhelmed bank servicers took shortcuts, like robo-signing, that violated many state laws. They also put people through hell who were trying to get a modified mortgage. “I’ve seen marriages break up because of what banks put families through,” says Elizabeth Lynch of MFY Legal Services. All this settlement does is push those misdeeds under an $8.5 billion rug.

3. It won’t actually help anybody. The settlement will cover some 3.8 million foreclosures. The government is going to distribute $3.3 billion dollars. It comes to around $1,150 per lost home.

Of course, the O.C.C. says that is the wrong way to look at it: Some people — military personnel, for instance — could get as much as $125,000 while others won’t get much at all. People denied a modification will be eligible for up to $40,000 or $50,000, said Hubbard. I have no doubt that money will be welcome. But for those who lost their homes because of bank misconduct, it doesn’t come close to making them whole.

4. The money is being distributed with no regard to whether a borrower suffered harm. In some ways, this is the sorriest part of the whole episode. The foreclosure review never answered the key question: which borrowers had legitimate claims against their bank and which didn’t. Thus, the settlement doesn’t make that distinction. If you lost your house in 2009 and 2010, you are going to get money — whether the bank was culpable or not. “The notion of error is not involved in this settlement,” conceded Hubbard.

As a result, those who really were truly harmed by bank behavior will be shortchanged. As Karen Petrou, the well-known banking consultant, puts it, the government has “come up with something that gives every borrower — maybe — a pittance and leaves the truly hurt — and there were many — as much in the lurch as before.”

This is hardly the only time in recent months that a settlement that is publicized as righting a wrong instead hands money to people who were never victimized. Think back to the $4.3 billion fund established by Congress to compensate people who became sick because of their exposure to toxic dust created by the 9/11 attacks. Even though there is no scientific evidence that the dust caused cancer, the government added cancer to the list of diseases that would be compensated. The result will be less money for those who truly did become sick because of their exposure to the 9/11 aftermath.

Or take Toyota, which recently paid $1 billion to settle a lawsuit claiming that an electrical flaw caused some accelerators to stick — even though there turned out to be no evidence to support that claim.

People who do these kinds of settlements regularly say that the world has become so complicated that, more often than not, it is simply too expensive to figure out who was harmed and who was not. So best just to throw a little money at everybody and make the problem go away.

That is what the federal government did last week in its settlement with the banks. It’s nothing to be proud of.

And now here’s Mr. Bruni:

Colorado is going to pot. It’s just having a tough time figuring out how.

Although an Election Day referendum legalized marijuana for recreational use, it left questions unanswered. Like: how high can you be behind the wheel of a car? Lawmakers are debating a specific blood level, as with alcohol, above which a motorist is deemed an uneasy rider.

In a restaurant or private club, might the dessert choices someday include an upscale riff on the pot brownie and a double entendre of a pot de crème? One lawyer I spoke with lofted this possibility, but who knows. State officials still have many months to draft regulations for recreational pot’s retail sale, which should begin next January. The new law has already made recreational possession O.K.

Certainly, there will be a bigger workload for Denver’s Craig Claiborne of cannabis, who began reviewing Colorado’s medical marijuana dispensaries for the alternative newspaper Westword in 2009. Last month the critic, who writes under the pseudonym William Breathes, added a weekly advice column called “Ask a Stoner.”

For a while now, Colorado has been deeper in the weed than most other states. It permitted medical marijuana in 2000, and at dispensaries, of which there are now hundreds, a person with physician approval can choose among a dozen or more strains of pot, which vary in strength, hue, fragrance. A dispensary named Denver Relief stocks Durban Poison, which promises a fruity aroma “with undertones of milk chocolate,” and ChemDawgD, with its “strong smell of Pine-Sol and jet fuel.”

There are different delivery systems as well. If a patient doesn’t like to smoke, he or she can try marijuana cola, marijuana baklava, marijuana bath salts.

“The baklava is excellent,” said Breathes, who has a stomach condition for which he got a medical marijuana card. (The card has his real name; his nom de plume protects him from exposure when he presents it.)

But the referendum puts Colorado, along with the state of Washington, whose voters also opened the door to bong hits purely for pleasure, on new legal terrain.

“This will be a complicated process,” announced Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper shortly after the referendum passed. “Don’t break out the Cheetos or Goldfish too quickly.”

These were the words of a man who had inhaled in the past — he admits as much, though he says it was 15 years ago — and seems to know something about the munchies. And they pointed to another interesting wrinkle of the Colorado story: the marijuana muddle will be tackled by a politician who rose to local prominence in the intoxication business, as the owner of popular brewpubs.

When I caught up with him here recently, he volunteered that a paleontologist with whom he’s friendly believes that cannabis and hops, which are flowers used to make beer, have a shared horticultural ancestry.

“If you take hops, and you grind them up in your fingers, they smell just like what I’m told marijuana smells like,” said Hickenlooper, who is 60.

“That was a joke,” he added, meaning the “I’m told” part.

He actually opposed Amendment 64, the measure that legalized recreational pot, and didn’t greet its passage with reefer gladness. Although it applies only to adults, he worries that kids will feel emboldened and that frequent marijuana use could hurt them.

I shadowed him for a few days, including to Colorado Springs, where he disappeared into a meeting with a local newspaper’s editorial board. More of the questions he was asked touched on marijuana than on gun control, an aide said.

The next morning I arrived midway through a Q. and A. that he did with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, and what do you suppose he was discussing? Pot.

The alarm is confusing. For many years in many places, pot has been prevalent and its casual use often overlooked. Enforcement of laws against possession has been uneven, to a point where New York leaders want to move away from small-scale pot arrests.

Presidential candidates have felt free to allude or own up to past marijuana use. So why all the hand wringing over pot’s legalization, when its illegality isn’t always taken seriously? If we have a problem with pot, we sure haven’t behaved that way.

Colorado and Washington aren’t being experimental so much as honest. They’re acknowledging reality, and giving people the same chance with pot as with alcohol: to use it responsibly — or not. They’ll also pick up some tax revenue in the process.

And perhaps Breathes will need a co-critic. Patricia Calhoun, the editor of Westword, told me she gets applications. But, she added, they’re responses to the initial announcement she posted more than three years ago.

“A lot of potheads don’t move very fast,” she said.


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