Thursday, October 30, 2008

Blood and Guts Politics in America

We Americans are a bellicose bunch. All in all we really don't like each other very much. The "I've got mine, so fuck you" attitude that many here carry around lends itself quite seamlessly to multiple gun ownership and rabid support for it. It's no wonder that our politics are so full of vitriole and hate. It's simply an extension of our desire to shoot one another.

A great number of Americans retain the old wild west, shoot from the hip cowboy, persona that has been reflected quite aptly by the current presidential administration. John McCain hopes to carry that tradition forward for another 4 to 8 years.

Yes. Many Americans may publicly complain about negative attack ads, but they do tend to lap them up with a similar enthusiasm as those who used to attend public executions and lynchings. Obviously, we're not alone in this. Remember scenes of beheadings performed during breaks in soccer matches in Afghanistan by the Taliban. When the sword came down, the cheers went up. The French loved to watch the guillotine in action, but of course to be fair, that was 200 years ago.

Now, in the U.S. we don't publicly execute criminals any longer, although there are some who ardently wish we did. Lynchings are rare. Generally, the news media take great pains to prevent explicit scenes of violence from hitting the airwaves. I saw Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswalt live on TV. With the standard 7 second tape delay utilized for virtually all so called live television broadcasts , such a thing will likely never be seen here in the U.S. again. We Americans just don't get to see much blood letting.

Aside from sports and some so called "reality" TV, there's not much we can see that will satisfy our lust for blood and gore. I suppose that's why "hack-em up" horror flicks are so popular, but they ultimately aren't very satisfying because after all, it's just make believe. Hell, now that Mr. Blackwell has shuffled off his mortal coil, we won't even get his killer "worst dressed" lists anymore. We can only hope that another smug, condescending "fashion maven" will take up the Blackwell gauntlet.

Political campaigns are about the nearest we get to a blood sport (that's not actually a sport, anyhow.) Generally, the most we can hope for is a cutting sound bite. Unfortunately, while we begrudgingly settle for such moments to sate our hunger for political "red meat," our country is tumbling willy-nilly over the waterfall, its arms and legs flailing helplessly about on the verge of being smashed on the rocks below.
The Photo: Sadly, I was not quick enough to get a shot of this lovely lady from the front. As she walked passed my wife and I after the Indianapolis Obama rally last week, I smiled and waved at her. She answered saying with a scowl: "Obama Bin Laden," spat on the ground and slammed her staff down on the asphalt walk for effect. Hooray for our side!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Myth: John McCain: Patriot and War Hero

Senator and Republican presidential nominee John Sidney McCain III spends much of his stump time regaling his devotees with stories of how he is - at least since his release from North Vietnam's "Hanoi Hilton" - a genuine war hero who has always put "country first." To the contrary, there is evidence that he has always put John McCain first.

A recent Rolling Stone article written by Tim Dickinson,
"Make-Believe Maverick", goes some distance in casting a shadow over the Arizona Senator's supposed hero status.

McCain freely admits that he led a lackluster youth, much of it spent carousing and womanizing, and that he was a poor student at the Naval Academy graduating fourth from the bottom of his class. However, he rarely, if ever, has mentioned how he repeatedly took advantage of his family ties — both his father and grandfather were U.S. Navy admirals. It was his family connection that got him admitted to the Naval Academy in the first place, something that he likely would not have otherwise accomplished. It was through his father's intervention that John III was saved from expulsion from the Academy on more than one occasion. He used this same influence in obtaining assignments during his military career.

Nor does he mention that he was a less than able pilot. Beside the "Tinker Toy" bomber that blew up on the deck of the USS Forestal and the A4 jet lost when he was shot down over Hanoi, McCain managed to lose no fewer than three other planes owing to his lack of piloting skills. None of these incidents involved combat, and all took place before his imprisonment in Vietnam.

Dickinson includes statements from a number of McCain's naval colleagues and other acquaintances who claim that he was a short-tempered, spiteful bully and misogynist both before and after his time as a POW.

Much has been made of John McCain's POW experience in Vietnam during the last several months of his presidential campaign. No one will dispute that it was an horrific experience. But Dickinson claims there are issues regarding McCain's version of events during the five-plus years of his captivity. McCain claims that he was tortured and left to die until his captors discovered that he was the son of an American admiral. What he doesn't relate is that it was McCain himself who informed the Vietnamese of his family ties. According to some fellow POWs, McCain rather readily gave up much more than his name, rank, and serial number while held captive.

To be fair, very few POWs actually manage to adhere strictly to that honor code. However, according to fellow POW, Air Force Lt. Col. John Dramesi, McCain's behavior as a prisoner, while certainly not dishonorable, was also not exceptional. He managed generally no better nor no worse than the average POW. He did what was necessary to survive. There is no dishonor in that. But, that McCain has chosen to highlight this experience and create the sense that his conduct was exceptional and heroic, leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many former POWs. McCain has and continues to use his POW experience expressly to further his political fortunes.

There is a great deal more to discover in Dickinson's article. McCain's tireless propensity to promote John McCain above all else continues throughout his political career. Dickinson notes that despite what a number of his fellow Senators may say, McCain has few true friends. He is just not a particularly likable guy. The portrait Mr. Dickinson paints of John McCain is far different than the one the Arizona Senator would like you to see.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Earlier today I tore much of my garden down. I pulled up all my tomato plants, the cages and the stakes. I rolled up most of that black underlayment and raked a layer of grass clippings over the area. When I get everything down in the next couple weeks after a killing frost, I'll till it all and cover it all with tons of maple leaves. It's a job that I don't take a great deal of pleasure in.

Opening up a garden in the spring is a much more hopeful task. It marks a beginning. Planting the young tomato plants, placing the cages around them and so on signifies the new season of growing with the promise of the harvest down the road.

Autumn in Indiana is a truly lovely time of the year. We usually enjoy what I consider our best stretch of weather from the last couple of weeks in September sometimes through the first week or two of November. Daily temperatures begin to drop off from the more intense levels of August. The humidity drops. We get but little rain. While it doesn't always work out that way, more often than not, it does.

The gradual cooling urges the leaves to begin turning from their deep late summer green, first to yellow/gold, then to red, usually peaking in color and contrast by mid-October. As lovely as it is, it is also a time tinged in sadness. Another summer season is gone.

I'm not a fan of winter. I can appreciate it, say, up until about New Years Day. By then we've had at least a taste of winter weather - some bracing cold, some snow. But January, February and much of March are often pretty bleak times in Indiana. With a few exceptions, the weather is not pretty. We don't get the heavy snow and deep cold that more northern or mountainous regions usually get. This ain't ski country.

Nor do we get away with wearing just a sweater and light jacket in January as they may in more southern climates. Our winters generally fall somewhere in between - just cold enough and wet enough to be miserable most of the time. Bad weather often lingers off and on through most of April, sometimes even well into May. There are usually a number of glorious spring days starting sometimes as early as late March, but winter just won't let the other shoe drop until deep into spring.

Then, we often do an about face into hot, humid summer weather in early June. We often swelter through much of the summer. Again, it isn't tropical or desert like. But just hot enough and humid enough to be uncomfortable, to sweat, to find it hard to remain outside come mid-afternoon.

So the fall is prime time for Indiana weather. Unfortunately, winter is on its heels. Come February, I'll likely start some plants under lights in my basement. That's always fun.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Appraisals: A Disappearing Act

The following is a letter I sent earlier today to Sens. Barack Obama, Evan Bayh and Richard Lugar. I know it's a bit presumptive of me, but what the hell.

I have been a real estate appraiser working in central Indiana for more than 20 years. The following are some observations and suggestions for perhaps solving some of the problems facing our economy - specifically problems in the housing and mortgage lending industries:

Whatever happened to appraisals?

The troubles in the housing industry have many sources. Among them are the processes adopted by various mortgage lenders over the years in determining the value of real property to be secured.

In years past - certainly prior to the S&L melt down in the early 90s - most mortgage lenders required detailed valuation reports which included full exterior and interior inspections by approved appraisers. However, over the last fifteen years or so that requirement has changed significantly. Now, a large portion of properties secured by mortgages are not backed by thorough "on the ground" inspections and detailed written appraisal reports.

So called drive-by reports have become far more popular which are, as the name indicates, literally done by "driving by" a property, usually taking one or more photos of the front of the house from the public street, usually having no observations from the rear and no access to the interior. Some lenders are also relying on even less detailed and reliable "desk top" appraisals completed without any inspection of the property at all.

Even more troubling, given the current dire situation in the housing industry, many lenders have adopted the use of Automated Valuation Models or AVMs in determining the value of real property. There are now several companies offering AVM services to both the lending industry and individuals for both residential, and more recently, for a variety of commercial properties as well. AVM reports are computer generated valuations utilizing property and sales data acquired from a variety of sources all over the country. These reports also do not include any type of inspection of the properties. They are all done sitting in front of a computer screen. It is unclear just what oversite exists and to what standards these companies must adhere.

It has been my experience that AVM data is lacking in detail and is often inaccurate. While these models may at times work fairly well for properties located in large sub-divisions having a high number of recent sales, their reliability drops off drastically in areas of less homogeneity. The end result is that properties are often improperly valued through this process. While many people rightly repeat the mantra of 'location' being a primary factor in the value of real estate, there are also other factors having significant influence as well. An AVM generated report cannot make any determination regarding the condition of any improvements on a property, nor as regards quality and amenities. AVM reports usually cannot adjust for recent additions in living area or remodeling, etc. Neither can an AVM report adjust for unknown damage from storms, floods, fire, etc. If the core data is in error, there is no way in which an AVM valuation can be accurate.

There is no substitute for a complete exterior/interior inspection of the property and a full, well considered appraisal report completed by a qualified and impartial appraiser.


The word "impartial" is vital.

All too often appraisers are pressured by mortgage brokers, loan officers, realtors, buyers, sellers, etc., to arrive at or above a specified figure. Since the current system allows these brokers and loan officers to choose their appraisers, they then become beholden to those brokers and loan officers for their very livelihood. Consequently, inordinate pressures can come to bear upon appraisers torn between doing one's job impartially, and the need to have an income.

Up until a dozen or so years ago, FHA maintained a panel of appraisers from which FHA, not the broker or lender, made appraisal assignments in an ongoing rotation. Pressures from the lending industry, and, I believe government cut backs caused HUD to abandon that system in favor of allowing individual brokers and lenders to maintain their own lists of FHA approved appraisers from which appraisal assignments are made. The effect of this is the loss of the "arms length" relationship between the lender and the appraiser. As you may know, most banks and mortgage companies have, over the last several years, done away with employing "staff appraisers" owing to the appearance of a conflict of interest. There is though, from the appraiser's perspective, little difference in being an employee or an independent contractor. The relationship remains largely the same.

Lastly, it has been suggested in some quarters that regional or national appraisal management companies or AMCs should be given the task of making all appraisal assignments. While on the surface this may seem an attractive answer, it does not adequately create or maintain that "arms length" relationship owing to the fact that the AMCs are beholden to the lenders. Some appraisal management companies are owned by lenders. AMCs are NOT impartial.

What to do?

It is my contention as noted above that most if not all mortgage transactions should require full exterior/interior inspections and written appraisal reports completed by
licensed or certified appraisers with assignments made through a government entity to insure impartiality. I realize that I am talking about more government bureaucracy, but the consequences we now face, which are at least in part the result of lax lending procedures including the improper valuation of properties, weighs far heavier on us than what would be a relatively minor addition to government. The banking industry has pushed and shoved its weight around in its effort to divorce itself from responsible lending practices. Closer oversight and involvement by government could go a long way in preventing another such financial catastrophe.

I understand that I have an abiding interest in this issue. I could possibly benefit personally if my suggestions were adopted. I certainly don't deny that. However, that does not obviate the problem nor invalidate either my concerns or the course I suggest to remedy the problem. Accountability and transparency are at issue. Accurate and impartial valuation of secured real estate is essential to achieving both.