Class, Social and Traditional Media, and the Mortgage Mess

I’m going to tell one on myself, and since I suspect my reflexes are atypical, I suggest you watch this video by a realtor, Leigh Brown, before reading the balance of the post:

First, I regarded her story as entirely credible. Second, it’s not at all surprising to learn that her video got Bank of America’s attention when going through normal channels didn’t. The Charlotte Observer picked up on her story at about the same time the video and her tweets started getting traction (the bank has “social media monitors” on staff). And the Observer’s account adds some ugly details:

The sale closed on Jan. 27, and the first-time homebuyers, Kacie and Christopher Justice, began moving in. Six days later, on Feb. 2, they noticed unfamiliar men outside their home taking photos.

They wore black shirts with images of handguns on the front and the word “Agent” emblazoned on the back, Kacie Justice said. Their truck was black with tinted windows. “It was just scary,” Justice said.

The men said they were there to perform work on a foreclosed home — on orders from Bank of America. The tasks included removing furniture and capping some exposed wires. The Justices explained they were the new homeowners, and that the home had been a short sale, not a foreclosure.

Now admittedly, the homeowners were lucky enough to intercept the “agents” who are tricked out to look as intimidating as possible (I wonder if they prefer guys with tattoos, scars, and/or teeth missing).

Now why did I debate with myself a bit before posting this story? Some of it is that there are so many variants of servicer-created horrorshows happening in America that I could turn Naked Capitalism programming over entirely to this sort of thing and not even scratch the surface. Given the continued insistence by various banking regulators that banks never never make any mistakes (well, whoops except with HAMP mods and military foreclosures, but trust us, everything else is just fine), I’ve decided to feature more examples to illustrate how patently false the party line is.

But I realized I was weighing how media-genic Brown was. She did a fine job of outlining the basic facts, but her presentation was a tad theatrical, which undermined her credibility. And as someone who learned how to do TV without any media coaching, it takes some practice to get any good at it. Now in this case, that didn’t matter one whit in terms of her succeeding in her immediate aims; the fact that she was arguing someone else’s case, when she had nothing to gain financially from it, and that she wasn’t super polished might have added to her perceived authenticity. So already we see an obstacle for ordinary people, even ones who are pretty shrewd, to getting their stories heard: you need to be able to master the medium of YouTube. And as anyone who has done casting will tell you, it helps to “type out”, as in look and sound like the sort of person other people will trust. Those with, say, a speech impediment or wall-eye or a turban or a lower class accent need not apply.

It was noteworthy to see the chattering classes react to the woes of Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank in trying to undo some force placed insurance foisted on him by, one of the bad tricks servicers play to increase their fee income. And why? Because an organized, educated person (and one who presumably threatened to write about it in the Post before he did) could not get any satisfaction. As Milbank said:

My wife and I are reasonably savvy consumers – she has a brand-name MBA, and I began my career as a business reporter for the Wall Street Journal – but we were no match for a bungling bank. After five months of trying, we still haven’t been able to resolve all of Citibank’s mistakes – nearly all of them, curiously, in the bank’s favor […]

That so much can go wrong with such a simple refinance doesn’t bode well for the 5.5 million homeowners in default (on top of the 3 million already foreclosed). It’s impossible to know for sure, but by some estimates, half of them are victims of some form of servicers’ errors.

“What happened to you,” Ira Rheingold of the National Association of Consumer Advocates told me, “happens to people every single day.” And it will continue, with its resulting drag on the economy, unless and until the big banks can be brought to heel.

So even though the Brown/Justice tale is a success story of sorts, it still points out the obstacles to abused homeowners getting any satisfaction from almost completely unaccountable servicers. On the one hand, Brown did get the immediate problem resolved for the stressed-out homebuyers. But has Bank of America changed conduct as a result of her video, or Citibank stopped force placing insurance as a result of Milbank’s story? Successful case-by-case strategies do not appear sufficient to get banks to change behavior.

Do I have any suggestions? I wish I did. The powers that be seem to care only about what stories break into the MSM, and local press does not cut it. They reacted with embarrassment and a bit of panic to the robo signing scandal. What is happening in America on a daily basis in servicing land is even more scandalous, but as long as they can pretend it does not exist, they believe they can stand pat.

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    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Let me repeat a little story from an article of mine about the rationalization of bias in the workplace, called Fit v. Fitness, which ran in the Conference Board’s magazine.

      Once upon a time, I was starting up the U.S. merger-and-acquisition department at Sumitomo Bank and hiring a new MBA. However, I encountered resistance over my choice, and went to see the board member responsible for my unit.

      “I have found someone I want to hire,” I informed Mr. Ono, “but they are giving me a hard time because he is Indian.”

      “We have Mr. Patel,” he replied. “We have Mr. Gupta. Indian is not a problem.”

      “Some people do not like his turban,” I commented.

      Mr. Ono recoiled backward in his seat. I looked miserable. After a long silence, Mr. Ono finally said, “Well, I will meet him.”

      A week later, after his session with the candidate, Mr. Ono called and announced, “I have changed my mind. His talent overcomes his turban. We must hire him.”

      BTW, his name was Ashta, which means “tomorrow” in Japanese.

      1. Dr. Pitchfork

        Honestly, I’m not sure I understand the issue with the woman in the video. No turban, no walleye… Is there a “class” issue here I’m missing?

        1. Brian Sierk

          Yes- She has a Carolinian (I think north) accent, and is over-emotive in the telling, which is seen as indicative of a middle class southern background.

          1. Masonboro

            As a life-time lower middle class Tar Heel I love her accent. These days it seems more likely to hear a Bronx accent – especially here on the coast. Tempus Fugits.


        2. Yves Smith Post author

          You had the benefit of seeing her quoted in Charlotte Observer and having her validated by NC. There is lots of social psychology research that says that stuff like that matters. The outline of her story was credible but her overly dramatic presentation might have led some to wonder whether she was exaggerating a tad or making strategic omissions.

          She’s admittedly not an obvious example, that’s why I needed to provide more vivid illustrations. But the fact that I stopped to think about the credibility of her presentation style, as opposed to just the content, made me realize this is a more general issue.

          Although it’s not quite the same (this woman is clearly middle class, but emotional, which rubs some the wrong way), remember the early scenes of Erin Brockovich, where she loses in court because she’s seen as less credible (as a divorced woman with kids and depicted as looking for a meal ticket) in a car accident case in which she was severely injured v. the driver, who was a surgeon and therefore more trustworthy.

          1. hipparchia

            “The outline of her story was credible but her overly dramatic presentation might have led some to wonder whether she was exaggerating a tad or making strategic omissions.”

            but she wasn’t talking to “some” people, she was talking to her fellow carolinians, for whom her accent and “overly emotive” style are more familiar [and make her seem more trustworthy] than, say, your yankee-ness would be.

      2. Tom Crowl

        Let me give a bit of scientific support to what Yves is talking about.

        I’ve touched occasionally in comments here on the mis-understood and neglected distinction between intellectual vs. biological altruism

        Intellectual altruism is about ‘being nice, feeling empathy, sacrifice for others, etc. And is an important part of the biological form of altruism as well!

        But biological altruism is about distinguishing in-group from out-group… and being on either side of that line has a lot to do with decisions and actions… and it can be very, very subtle and very brutal in its effects.

        From Science News Feb 26, 2011

        ‘Love’ hormone has a dark side: Oxytocin may accentuate social tendencies for good or ill

        “Previous work has shown that a nasal blast of the hormone encourages a usually trusting person to become more trusting (SN Online: 5/21/08), but now Bartz and her colleagues find that it also makes a highly suspicious person more uncooperative and hostile than ever.

        “Oxytocin does not simply make everyone feel more secure, trusting and prosocial,” Bartz says.

        “…researchers have recently reported that oxytocin stimulates greater trust of members of one’s own ethnic group and greater suspicion of other ethnicities.”

        While this article doesn’t make the point, the connection of oxytocin to a root in the evolution of biological altruism seems obvious.

        Its social distance that enables oligarchy.

        On the Birth of the Global Social Organism

        1. Tom Crowl

          BTW, this is why corporations having human rights is total BS and why its necessary to focus the issue on the top individuals (by name, location and personal history) at these banks. Relative anonymity is their friend.


          In my case I look forward to helping Mr. Stumpf of Wells Fargo to personally assume his responsibility for managing a TBTF bank.

          But that’s the problem isn’t it?

          “TBTF” (or more properly “Too big to be ALLOWED to fail”) really means no responsibility at all…

          1. Dave of Maryland

            If the solution is to strip the top guys naked & parade them in the town square before their jeering subjects, astrology, uniquely, can do that. Date and place of birth is known for nearly every one of them. Figuring out the approximate time of birth can oftentimes be done.

            The resulting analysis can be very specific & hugely embarrassing. I did that with Jon Stewart in my newsletter some two weeks back. I picked him as he’s popular & funny & I thought I would have a cheery story & a practical “how-to” for my readers.

            Instead I found a man who had been torn to pieces in his childhood & who never quite got over it. I’d have said more, I’d say more here & now, but Stewart is an innocent and I was a blunderer.

            Wiki tells me that John Stumpf, of Wells Fargo, was born in 1953, in Pierz, Minnesota. No other details are available (there is presumably a reason), but a check of birth announcements in the St. Cloud newspaper (presumably the St. Cloud Times) should turn it up. The St. Cloud library may well have it on microfiche.

            Astrology is one of the best tools out there. Use it & you can know truth from lies. The astrology of the Japan nuclear plant, of the upcoming Libyan war, are simply horrific. I knew last week that the US would be at war. I know, right now, that if attacked, Libya will fight back – and may well win.

            But as we know, astrology is charlatanism, it is fake, it is a fraud, only saps and idiots have anything to do with it. I despair.

  1. skippy

    Two Tier World *TTW* as a friend of mine used to say, Dear Lady.

    What leverage do we have left, um voting[?], protest, civil *disobedience* (what ever that means ie child like?) et al. You can not have discourse with some one that elevates themselves so far above you, their greatness is apparent in wealth, this is the final arbitrator in the present system.

    Skippy…I turn my back on it and those that weld it for personal gain, above all other considerations.

  2. Crocodile Chuck

    ps an excellent example of the virtues of scale economies for America’s biggest bank (as in, left hand not knowing what the right (‘Property Preservation Team’) is doing……..

  3. john bougearel

    Well Yves, you need not have made any admissions about being had about the hoax, but “you real cool.”

    Not to diminish from the point about servicer abuses that “happens every day” but here is a poem from a Chicago poetess Gwendolyn Brooks who passed by a pool hall during school time and saw a bunch of boys school shooting pool who asked “I wondered how they feel about themselves? And she wrote this poem:

    We real cool. We
    Left school. We

    Lurk late. We
    Strike straight. We

    Sing sin. We
    Thin gin. We

    Jazz June. We
    Die soon.

    “The poem has been banned here and there cuz of the word jazz which some people considered a sexual reference that was not her intention, though I have no objection if it helps anybody,” said Gwendolyn.

    1. Dave of Maryland

      In the 1920’s, “jazz” = “sex”. I presume the poem dates from that era.

      Jazz displaced the word “sports” in that regard. A “sportsman” was a skirt chaser.

      In Gershwin’s opera Porgy & Bess, there is a rather lazy character with the name, “Sportin’ Life”.

  4. Glen

    Funny how I keep reading about the slow death of the “traditional” MSM in America. Maybe if the MSM started reporting reality rather than the Wall St and DC spin on reality, it wouldn’t be dying.

    1. Name (required)

      Exactly the point, Glen.

      Yves wrote: “What is happening in America on a daily basis in servicing land is even more scandalous, but as long as they can pretend it does not exist, they believe they can stand pat.”

      No, Yves. It should be “.. as long as they are allowed to pretend it does not exist, they can stand pat.”

  5. RueTheDay

    What people need to do in this case is call the police and report that their home has been burglarized. The buyers OWN the home. Bank of America had no more right to send a wrecking crew to that house than a local street gang did. The men who participated had no more right to do it than common thieves did. A crime was committed and should be prosecuted. When people see others going to jail for any activity, regardless of their personal feelings, they will have second thoughts. That’s been the problem with this whole mess – crimes were committed all along, but no one is going to jail.

    1. reslez

      You appear to have a great deal of faith that the police would arrest these thugs and that prosecutors will prosecute them. Yet this hasn’t happened in any of these cases, and there have been many reported.

      The legal industrial complex will always protect the banksters, not the people. That’s what it’s designed to do. Looking to the police for protection against these miscreants is simply naive. Your best hope is to shame the bankster responsible by making your case embarrassingly public. For whatever reason these institutions still act to protect their public image.

  6. pjwrites

    I’m working on a short sale of my house now. Three different contracts have fallen through as they buyers can’t get financing at the last minute. That is suspect enough, but let me finish:

    I quit paying my mortgage in Sept., after losing my job. I had a first and second mortgage, both with GMAC. The second was turned over to SLS, Specialized Loan Servicing, in October. (Google complaints against SLS and you’ll find the same story over and over again. They call nearly every day, but it’s a recording, just a way of gigging you, I imagine. Psychological warfare, if you will.)

    I received a note shortly afterward, stating that they would be sending someone out to change the locks on the door. This is BEFORE any indication of foreclosure, and we had also been in contact with them regarding the upcoming sale. (How do you change the locks on a house you don’t legally own yet?) Regardless, I called them to let them know the realtor was freaking out because we were in the middle of a sale and still needed inspections, etc.. SLS referred me to the “department” that handled those things.

    I called that department and have to tell you that I’ve never dealt with any supposed “professional” like him in my lifetime. It isn’t that he was mean or rude – nothing like that. On the contrary, he sounded barely interested in what I had to say. It sounded like he was stoned, he had to look for a pen to write my address down, he was laughing about my situation – it was just plain weird. Then, I realized he was no more than a bounty hunter of sorts. A thug like the guys described above in the black shirts.

    If you want to find an interesting trail of coincidences, do a little research on SLS, its officers, and those officers’ other connections.

    There may be something fishy in Denmark, but they don’t have anything on SLS.

  7. M

    I think this video is great, I honestly don’t see the problem with it. The way you started the post, I thought you were going to say it was a hoax.

    The Erin Brockovich sassy good-looking woman is a big hit with most Americans – and that is who she is talking to. There’s a very long line of individuals exactly like this who’ve gotten America’s attention. I’d rather watch her than anything on CNBC.

    Obviously, she wouldn’t pass muster as a corporate spokesperson for Bof A — She’s telling you not to buy a Bank of America short sale unless you are willing to hire security guards and have your friends and family at the house 24/7.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      it really sounds like you did not watch the movie. She loses a lawsuit based on her looks and manner when she really needed the money, and then gets fired from her job because everyone in the office assumes she’s a playgirl. It was only a call from a researcher that makes her then ex boss realize she might have been on to something. External validation, in other words.

      And later in the movie, her boss has to run interference for her with the law firm they brought in. Even when she has established her value she does not go over well with some people she needs to work with.

      1. M

        I guess I was thinking of the fact that the movie character Erin Brockovich was a big hit with Americans – she’s a folk hero now. No, she didn’t go over well the elites.

        The woman in the video is talking to her neighbors and potential clients, not BofA executives.

        And I still think that any movement against banksters is going to come from people like the woman in the video.

        I grew up in NY and went to all the finest schools (but it’s the internet so there’s no way to prove that), and I would like to have this woman as my real estate agent, because I really like the way she went to bat for her clients.

  8. Random Blowhard

    The following litany of Broken incentives, fraud, incompetence and moral bankruptcy is brought to you by the TBFT doctrine. TBTF = YOU get the shaft, I get the money.
    The only bright side is the coming economic collapse will destroy ALL the TBTF banks at the cost of the United States becoming a super sized Mexico/Argentina.

  9. Transor Z

    Sociolinguistics. Go back and read your Shakespeare. The Bard was all about poking fun at regional and class differences in spoken English.

    And we all know what “s/he is very well-spoken” is code for.

    IMO what you are getting at here Yves is an enormous cultural problem right now that goes part-and-parcel with the celebrity/infotainment culture. Studies are showing that people ascribe greater importance to what attractive and fluent people say. IOW, our critical faculties get suspended to some extent.

    The antidote is going to have to be more extensive than adding full-figured/non-bulimic models to the Dove soap campaigns.

  10. Elliot X

    Tom Crowl: “why its necessary to focus the issue on the top individuals (by name, location and personal history) at these banks. Relative anonymity is their friend.”

    In March of 2009, after the news broke that AIG traders would be receiving million dollar bonuses (the same AIGFP traders who had destroyed so many people’s lives), AIG began receiving angry calls, emails, letters and death threats.

    And so, as a public service, eXiledonline posted an article entitled “How To Find The Nearest AIG Financial Products Office”, as well exact directions to the AIG Financial Products millionaire closest to you.


    “For exact directions on how to get there in your gun-rack-loaded Ford Dodge Ram F150 Prius, just go to google maps, plug in your address, and plug in the and plug in the address of the nearest AIG Financial Products office – say, for example, the one on 50 Danbury Road in Wilton, Connecticut. Here’s the list from AIGFP’s “contact us” page (oh you bet we’ll “contact” you, “contact” is definitely the operating word here!)…… – exiledonline

    Those were the good old days, before the corporate media went into overdrive with its 24/7, 365 days a year, pro-bankster campaign….

    1. Elliot X

      In the original article, I think “gun-rack-loaded Ford Dodge Ram F150” had a line drawn through it, so the emphasis was on Prius.

      So they were just encouraging people to drive to their nearest AIGFP multi-millionaire in their Prius, for a nice friendly discussion.

  11. scraping_by

    First Ms. Brown is a realtor. The affect that she’s got is appropriate to a sales job, especially one with the greater public. Were she to be testifying in court, she might adopt the monotone string of polysyllabics, the unrelieved drone that lawyers and cops use in trials. Politicians and academics use that steady, evenly tempo voice to create the illusion of credibility. Bright affect, lots of inflection, active head movements, all seem natural to her and to her job. It’s also more reasonable in person than on camera. Her communication style is pretty good for dealing with people she wants on her side.

    Second, there are many states where a private company can’t strip a home without a warrant and an order from the county sheriff. Indeed, private companies can’t operate in some places, it’s a job for the deputies. Get hold of your county sheriff before you get in the situation and ask him about the law in evictions, if you think you might need it.

    However, don’t rely on the fact it’s against the law to keep you safe. Some sheriffs consider evictions a civil matter, others just don’t have grit to stand up against banksters. And of course, we’re talking about the banksters, who break every law on the books with impunity. But check in and see if the law and the law enforcers are on your side. You might be pleasantly surprised.

  12. craazyman

    I don’t know. I went to University of Virginia where a lot of southern upper class debutantes drank heavily and when they got going that woman has nothing on them.

    And then a lot of them came to New York and hit the bars and clubs. They were somewhat self-possessed after one or two drinks but after 4 or 5 forget about it.

    Not sure about the class stuff. I think that woman is pretty hot and she has a wall of official looking certificates behind her haid. That must have been thought out by some Spielberg behind the camera. You don’t just point and hit a wall of diplomas. She seems credible to me, but I’m biased in favor of anyone who emotes in a truly human way.

    If those were certificates from a cosmetology school I’d be even more likely to take her seriously. But not a cosmology school. I’d prefer Astrology.

    The people I mistrust most are the ones who cultivate a removed and frosty distance from reality, whose truth is an illusion manicured by data, and who recite their nostrums with a practiced and cool perfection that bears the same resemblance to truth that astroturf does to natural grass.

    They look really good on a TV, but that’s why I don’t watch TV. Because I see through their charade, even though they, themselves, don’t.

    And so it’s a double lie. It’s the lie they speak, and it’s the lie they represent. The lying apostles of the pilot wave, flying through their own skies and trying to bring you down with them. No way. I’ll stay up here with the cosmetologist and the drunks and the truthtellers. LOL.

    1. JTFaraday

      It’s also a northeastern corridor thing. Southern means low class (if not low life) by definition. Also, notice you said “UVA Debutantes” not Skull & Bones Yale frat boys or “Wellesley girl.”

      Definitely not the same thing, and there are whole industries devoted to maintaining the distinction.

  13. Superduperdave

    Alas, dear old Yves is mistaking “Southern” accent for “low-class” accent, typical Yankee imperialism. Of course anti-provincial bias is a worldwide phenomenon: You don’t see many top French officials who speak Creole…

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Nah, we Yankees like Virginia and Texas accents, and on a good day, Tennessee too. It’s those deeper South ones that give us the willies.

    2. par4

      When you guys quit electing politicians that are still talking about secession and the fucking civil war we’ll quit thinking of you as backwoods hayseeds. It’s the 21st fucking century!

  14. russel1200

    I liked her. But then I live in the Carolinas.

    She is a bit over the top, but she seemed pretty genuine to me.

    A number of women I know from Charlotte-Piedmont have that sped up southern pronunciation style of delivery. She just emotes a little more than most, and may have been slowing down a little to make herself more understandable to a general audience.

  15. Leigh Brown

    If I may respond.

    I am born and bred in North Carolina. I carry a BSBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (although I am likely one of the only conservatives to graduate from that fine institution). I have been accepted to two MBA programs, however I didn’t matriculate because of time constraints.

    One reason that I choose to live in the South, is that Yankees (bless their hearts) tend to deduct about 100 IQ points when I speak. That bias hasn’t changed over decades, and I suppose it’s not changing now either.

    The wall of awards and certificates? That is my personal office. This wasn’t planned at all-I got off the phone and got my partner to hold the camera while I spoke. Yes, I am a bit dramatic. That’s key to getting the point across, yes? The MSM is blocked. SM is the only way to get a point across.

    I have been told now that BofA employees are not to speak to me, since I represent a ‘PR problem’ to the bank. Which I find to be ridiculous, since I’m a local Realtor with 25,000 views-not exactly earth-shattering.

    What I contend is that one consumer who goes through this type of situation, is one consumer too many. I do not believe that BofA or any bank is ‘evil’. I do believe their processes are flawed and need to be examined and changed. I have offered my services for free to BofA to comment on their short sale system….but they do not want my voice. The bank believes that their MBAs can do the job better than I, who deal with their flawed system every day on behalf of consumers.

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