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A Zim vessel laden with cargo.

(Update, Wednesday, August 20: here’s a full list of the Zim Piraeus’ cargo.)

Palestinian solidarity activists have blocked the Zim Piraeus ship from mooring and offloading its cargo at the Port of Oakland, California for over four days. But what’s on the Israeli vessel? What was it supposed to deliver to northern California?

It’s hard to say. I couldn’t find a any bills of lading for the Zim Piraeus’s August 16 scheduled stop in Oakland. These records may not exist until the ship actually docks and unloads. But I did find a lot of records that describe what Zim’s other ships normally deliver to Oakland.

The last Zim ship to moor at northern California’s biggest seaport was the Zim Savannah. It arrived on August 2 carrying, among other things:

1. Equipment for the McGinnis Geothermal Power Plant. The McGinnis Plant is being built in Nevada by a company called Ormat Technologies. Ormat is headquartered in Nevada, but as the company explained in its 2013 annual report: “The majority of our senior management and all of our production and manufacturing facilities are located in Israel.”

2. Marble slabs from Italy, likely to be used outfitting homes, hotels, and downtown offices with counters and floors. In fact, stone and tile seems to be a big commodity carried by Zim into the Port of Oakland.

3. French and Greek olives, Spanish almonds and artichokes, Egyptian lemongrass, and Argentinian rice.

4. The Zim Savannah also contained lots of other Israeli-manufactured goods and materials like solar water heaters built by Magen Eco-Energy, Ltd., Irrigation Equipment manufactured by Naandan Jain Ltd., polyethelene sheets from the Kibbutz Einat, pallets of magnesium chloride flakes, and thousands of kilograms of potassium phosphate mined near the city of Beersheba, Israel, being shipped to a fertilizer company in Missouri.

But Zim Lines also ships personal effects and records, and last November, when the Zim New York docked in Oakland it offloaded a case of what appears to have been materials of the World Zionist Organization. These materials were headed to the Pacific Southwest Region offices of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Check out the bill of lading for yourself.

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Protesters at the Port of Oakland on Saturday, August 16 march to a marine terminal to block an Israeli cargo vessel from docking.

On Saturday between one and two thousand protesters marched on the Port of Oakland to “blockade” one of its busy marine terminals and prevent an Israeli ship from docking. After confronting a line of police guarding the waterfront the protesters declared victory; the Zim Lines cargo was on a vessel that hovered offshore, afraid to dock, they said, and port workers wouldn’t be unloading it.

One protester looking beyond the line of police and barbed wire fences separating the people from the port explained that the purpose of the action was to “impede the flow of capital.” Stopping one of Zim’s ships—the company’s vessels arrive in Oakland about four times a month, according to Zim’s web site—was a small, but real economic blow against Israel.

Palestinian solidarity activists inside Israel’s biggest economic and military partner, the United States, have worked for years to build a boycott, divest and sanction movement. They’ve asked pension funds and universities to divest from companies that do business with the state of Israel, and they’ve asked academics and musicians to boycott Israel by canceling concerts and shunning conferences. They’ve had some success.

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California Governor Jerry Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sign a memorandum of understanding, March 5, 2014 in Mountain View.

But if it’s a matter of stopping the flow of capital, the ports are a relatively small conduit of trade between California and Israel. For over 20 years California’s technology industry has been channeling billions of dollars to finance the growth of Israeli tech firms. The flow of capital between California and Israel is digital, transmitted as currency and intellectual property. And this flow of capital occurs mostly through the decisions of a small number private equity firms and perhaps as few as a dozen large corporations. These flows of capital supporting Israel’s economy are less susceptible to social movement pressure.

The amount of support of for Israel’s economy originating from Silicon Valley’s private equity firms is especially large. In 2001, during the first year of the Second Intifada, Sequoia Capital Partners, a private equity firm headquartered in Menlo Park, raised $150 million to invest in Israeli technology companies. This was Sequoia’s second Israel-focused venture capital fund. Last year Sequoia raised its fifth Israel-dedicated fund, totaling $215 million. Since 1999 Sequoia Capital has injected over $789 million into Israel’s software and electronics industries. Much of this money managed by Sequoia Capital was contributed by California investors, including major tax-exempt institutions like the J. Paul Getty Trust, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, but also from wealthy companies and individuals from San Francisco to San Jose.

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The offices of Sequoia Capital Partners in Herzliya Pituach, Israel.

Accel Venture Partners, another one of the giants of Silicon Valley private equity, set up its first Israel-focused investment vehicle in 2001. Joseph Shoendorf of Accel told the Haaretz newspaper in 2007 that Accel has invested over $200 million in 20 Israeli companies. He added that many of Accel’s investments in Israel are not the run-of-the-mill consumer apps and gadgets that are so popular in the Bay Area’s tech scene. Although Israeli engineers produce plenty of that, Shoendorf said, “the world’s security situation is expected to get worse, and as a result, inventiveness will increase. The armies of the world are seeking solutions to a problem, and will encourage technological answers.” Last March, Accel successfully raised $475 million for a fund that will burn a lot of its powder supporting Israeli tech companies.

A lot of California’s venture capital has been exported to Israel to fund military and cybersecurity startups. Israeli society, constantly mobilized for a counter-insurgency war and occupation, creates an environment in which the nation’s hi-tech firms see their main role as contributing to the security of the Jewish state.

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Google rents 8 floors in this Tel Aviv office tower.

But the U.S. tech industry is also steeped in surveillance and weapons companies, and even the big consumer and enterprise brands like Google, Microsoft, and Cisco produce militarized software and hardware for use here and abroad. The contributions of Hewlett Packard in creating Israel’s biometric tracking system to control the movements of Palestinians is well known. Hewlett Packard also maintains the Israel Defense Ministry’s server farms, a job IBM previously held. What makes the California-Israel economic connection powerful, however, isn’t so much the nature of the technologies being traded, and the capabilities they provide the Israeli state and military, but more so the sheer economic value of these transactions.

Foreign direct investment into Israel has risen since 2010, and the United States is the key source of capital for Israeli companies. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Israel received $1.846 billion from U.S. investors in 2012, a total that has likely risen over the past two years. That’s about two thirds of the total military aid the U.S. government provided Israel the same year.

U.S. investors have built up large positions in Israel’s economy, mostly through ownership of stock in Israeli corporations. In 2012 U.S. investors held a $19.7 billion stake in Israel’s economy, more than double the interest owned by all European countries combined. And corporations registered in the Cayman Islands, a tax shelter where thousands of American investors establish offshore funds, owned another $8.6 billion of Israel’s economy. For example, the Sequoia Capital Partners venture firm of Menlo Park raised $215 million last August to invest entirely in Israel. The legal place of incorporation for this fund? The Cayman Islands.

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Intel’s Haifa, Israel data center, opened in June of 2010. (http://www.intel.com/pressroom/archive/releases/2010/20100422corp.htm)

California investors own and manage stakes in Israeli companies like Mellanox Technologies, Ltd.. In 2002 Silicon Valley venture capital firms and several U.S. tech companies provided Mellanox with $64 million in funding. The American investors included three Menlo Park private equity firms, Sequoia Venture Partners, U.S. Venture Partners, and Bessemer Venture Partners, as well as technology giants IBM and Intel. Using this capital, Mellanox, headquartered in Yokneam, Israel, grew from a small company into a transnational technology giant valued today at $1.8 billion. It’s a key supplier of hardware to Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Intel. It’s main office in Yokneam looks like any other tech campus you can see in San Mateo County off the 101 Highway, with gleaming glass mid-rise buildings tucked among trees and grass.

Yokneam is in the heart of Israel’s Silicon Wadi (wadi being “valley” in Arabic). Prior to 1948 Yokneam was called Qira, the site of a Palestinian village and farms, but the area was “depopulated” and occupied by Israeli forces, and later settled and transformed into one of Israel’s most affluent cities.

Lots of Silicon Valley venture capital firms have also set up offices in Israel. The location of choice for California investors seems to be Herzliya Pituach, a posh ocean side district of the city of Herliya. North of Tel Aviv, Herzliya is named after Theodor Herzl, considered by many to be the intellectual father of Zionism. The Herzliya Pituach is one of the wealthiest spots in all of Israel, home to many of the nation’s elite families. Bessemer Venture Partners’ Israel office is located just a few blocks from the Marinali Marina yacht harbor, and a short drive from million dollar beachfront homes. Sequoia Venture Partners maintain an office on Ramat Yam in one of the high rise towers with views of the azure Mediterranean Sea.

The business links between Silicon Valley and Israel aren’t apolitical. Many of California’s venture capital investors and technology executives are staunch supporters of pro-Israel causes. They have established numerous nonprofit organizations to strengthen economic and political ties between California and Israel.

The California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, located in Cupertino, is funded by Silicon Valley companies, investors and law firms like Intel, Paypal, Silicon Valley Bank, and Morrison Foerster. Executives from these companies sit on the Chamber’s board of directors. Their ties to other pro-Israel political groups are numerous.

Zvi Alon, a director of the California-Israel Chamber, also runs a family foundation out of his Los Altos Hills home. Alongside a donation of $9,900 in 2011 to the California-Israel Chamber, Alon also made donations worth $36,000 to the Friends of Israeli Defense Forces according to tax records. Alon is also credited as being a founder of Israel21C, an “online news magazine offering the single most diverse and reliable source of news and information about 21st century Israel to be found anywhere.”

Operating out of offices on Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco, across the Street from Israel’s consulate, Israel21C produces media promoting Israel’s technology companies. Recent articles published by the group include “20 top tech inventions born of conflict,” and a profile of the “maverick thinker” behind the creation of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. A recent film produced by the organization promotes Tel Aviv as a startup epicenter similar to San Francisco.

The General Consul of Israel in San Francisco, Andy David, is a board member of the California-Israel Chamber, as is the president of Silicon Valley Bank. Nir Merry, another board member of the California-Israel Chamber, was born and partly raised in Israel in the Ma’agan Michael kibbutz. His father worked in a hidden underground ammunition factory making armaments used by Jewish commandoes in the battles that created the state of Israel. In a talk to students at the University of California, Santa Barabara, Merry elaborated on the links between Israel’s technology companies and its military.

“I volunteered to become a commando. It’s quite related to the topic of innovation,” said Merry. “Because to be a commando we have to be very innovative.”

The California-Israel Chamber of Commerce will be hosting an international business summit in October at the Microsoft Campus in Mountain View where innovation will be among the topics.

Silicon Valley’s links to Israel have also been promoted through state legislation and the California Governor’s office. In March of 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed a memorandum of understanding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to promote economic links between California and Israel. The setting for the signing ceremony, Mountain View’s Computer History Museum, underscored the centrality of the tech industry in the agreement.

California’s Bay Area is a sprawling megalopolis of more than 7.5 million people. Its overlapping complex of local governments and public authorities collect and spend tens of billions of dollars yearly. Many of the state’s top offices, courts, and regulatory agencies are located here. They decide on important stuff like energy policy and consumer law. And the Bay Area is host to hundreds of major corporations, including the fourth largest bank in the U.S., most of the largest Internet and biotechnology companies, and the ninth largest oil company in the world.

What happens in the Bay Area, be it technological advances in computing and medicine, or new laws governing property rights and taxation, influences the direction of not only other states east of us, but in fact the entire world. This place is a global epicenter of change.

That means that California’s Bay Area is a political battleground of the highest stakes, and the conflicts here will reverberate around the planet. Labor vs. capital. Immigration. Corporations and the environment. Racial and gender inequalities. Taxes and the social safety net. Policing and surveillance. Public education and its privatization.

A lot happens here, and it’s important that the Bay Area’s centers of power be investigated and held accountable.

But this just isn’t happening. Unfortunately there’s too few actual journalists in the Bay Area these days to keep track of all the changes, and peel back the layers of government and corporate activity. Sure, everyday there’s a flood of new information on the Internet, and even in print, about the latest government scandal, the big money trying to buy a vote or shape a policy, about the wrongdoing of companies, or disturbing environmental crises that are intensifying around us. Stepping back, however, and taking in the whole offering of journalism written here in the Bay Area, about what’s going on in this place, one can’t help but be disappointed. Contemporary journalism about this place is disjoint, and missing a lot. In particular there’s an absence of deeper investigative work examining changes in the economy, and the new inequalities that are being concretized.

Why is this?

Part of the answer is that journalism as an independent profession continues to be hollowed out. Of course the newspapers and magazines of the pre-Internet age were deeply flawed, and the media has never been an oppositional institution. But in prior eras there was a press corps, and for all their flaws and biases the reporters and editors were many in number, enough so that more than a few muckrakers could find institutional bases from which to do work that requires deep digging, perseverance, and a living wage. Plenty of people could make careers by telling stories about abuses of power by wealthy capitalist interests, or the malfeasance of politicians and bureaucrats. Not anymore.

And it’s getting worse. Over the next six years the number of reporters and editors employed in California will continue to drop. There’s already only about 4,600 reporters in California. Many of them work for trade publications, or they write about art, film, music, food. Those are worthy and interesting subjects, but without politics a newspaper becomes Sunset Magazine. Without political content a media outlet is entertainment. It no longer serves a public purpose. Who knows what the actual number is of reporters who are trying to investigate and write about society and politics with a critical eye to power? It’s probably a fraction of 4,600.

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Working in the public relations industry is much more lucrative than being a reporter or editor. Source: California Employment Development Department.

What’s really disturbing is that the overall number of people employed in the media industry in California is growing, but these jobs are focused on producing entertainment and advertisements. But worst of all is where all the former journalists are heading: the public relations industry. Again, there’s only about 4,600 actual reporters in California, and the number focused on politics is much smaller, but the state’s public relations industry has over 23,000 jobs. These are full time jobs crafting stories that valorize powerful interests. These are jobs at the big banks, the big oil companies, and inside the halls of government. These are jobs with the boutique PR firms of the Bay Area that are hired at exorbitant rates by companies and governments to handle crises, or to produce slick PR campaigns. These are jobs producing phoney news web sites that tow the line of corporate giants. What does it say about our society that for every reporter there are five or more PR specialists out there putting their spin on information?

According to the state’s Economic Development Department, between 2010 and 2020 the public relations industry in California will add 5,000 more “specialist” jobs. That’s 5,000 more full time spinners managing the flow and content of information about governments and corporations. That’s 5,000 additional PR jobs, more jobs added in the PR industry than there are total reporter jobs existing. Meanwhile the number of jobs for reporters, for those who are trying to eke out a somewhat independent role digging up information and telling stories about power and politics, are projected to continue slowly declining.

 

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Goodwill Industries of the East Bay’s executive director John Latchford opposes raising the minimum wage to $12.25 in Oakland by next March. Latchford’s total compensation in 2012 was $311,566.

Nonprofit corporation executives are among of the most adamant opponents of raising the minimum wage in Oakland, California.

A ballot initiative spearheaded by labor unions and community organizations to raise Oakland’s minimum wage from $9 an hour to $12.25 next year was criticized in the San Francisco Chronicle by several nonprofit leaders who fear that the law will cut back the reach of their job training programs. Michelle Clark of the Youth Employment Partnership said the minimum wage increase will force her organization to scale back their job training program by 30 spaces. “That’s going in the wrong direction,” Clark told Will Kane of the Chronicle. Olis Simmons and John Latchford, the leaders of Youth Uprising and Goodwill Industries of the East Bay, respectively, voiced similar concerns.

These nonprofit executives are essentially objecting to raising the pay of their employees from $18,720 in yearly pre-tax earnings to about $25,480, an increase of roughly $6,700 per employee.

But what do Clark, Simmons and Latchford make in a given year? How much does their employment cost their organizations?

In 2012 the Youth Employment Partnership paid Michelle Clark $159,330 in total compensation. That’s equivalent to the pay of 8 minimum wage workers.

Olis Simmons of Youth Uprising had a paycheck and benefits equal to $249,761, or 13 minimum wage workers.

And John Latchford of Goodwill Industries is among the highest paid nonprofit executives, taking home $311,566 in salary and benefits in 2012.

Another way of looking at the math of a minimum wage increase, one that focuses not just on the pay of those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy, but also those at the top, is as follows: Under the current minimum wage of $9 an hour, or $18,720 per year, these three nonprofit executives combined are paid as much as 38 of their lowest wage employees. If Clark, Simmons and Latchford have to raise wages to $12.25 an hour, their compensation would drop to an amount equal to the total pay of about 28 of their minimum wage workers.

I break the math down this way because the debate about the minimum wage is centrally about inequality. Few things are certain about the impact of raising the minimum wage. But one certain impact is that income inequality in Oakland would be significantly reduced.

Under the current minimum wage, the ratio of John Latchford’s compensation to that of a minimum wage worker is 16:1, that is, Latchford makes sixteen times more than a minimum wage worker does. Under a $12.25 minimum wage Latchford’s ratio over the lowest paid workers drops to 12:1. That’s a far from the commanding heights of the U.S. economy where the CEOs of global corporations pay themselves hundreds of times more than their average employee, but it’s still a very unequal economic structure that could be addressed if Oakland passes a significant minimum wage increase.

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Source: IRS Form 990s for 2010, 2011, 2012.

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Power couple, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blum.

I’ve reported for a while now on the phenomenon of the Wall Street landlord. During the depths of the foreclosure crisis private equity firms and real estate investors bought up thousands of single family homes in Florida, Illinois, Arizona, Georgia, and especially California. These investors did quick rehabs on these properties and then rented them out, often to households that lost their homes between 2008 and 2013 due to the global financial crash. These elite investors bet that housing prices would rebound, and thanks to the actions of the US Federal Reserve and Treasury Department they did. They also bet that there would be a shift in America’s housing market toward more renter demand. Households that lost their savings and jobs have been forced into the rental market, creating an opportunity for those with capital to obtain higher returns on real estate.

One of the biggest investors in foreclosed single family homes has been Colony Capital, the private equity firm controlled by Thomas Barrack, Jr. Colony has purchased thousands of foreclosed houses in California and other states. Colony has also sustained recent complaints from tenants who accuse the company and its rental property managers of running slum housing and charging above-market rents. Activists in Los Angeles and other cities are now pressing local and federal officials to take a closer look at the Wall Street landlord business.

But some Washington D.C. insiders have already done due diligence with respect to the new corporate landlords. A recent financial disclosure filing by Richard C. Blum, husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, shows that Blum and Feinstein have made a major investment in Barrack’s Colony American Homes. As a member of the University of California Board of Regents Blum is required to disclose his economic interests each year. In his filing for 2014, Blum listed an investment in Colony American Homes Holdings, LP of over $1,000,000, making Blum and Feinstein major owners of one of the largest Wall Street landlord corporations.

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From Richard C. Blum’s most recent statement of economic interest, filed with the University of California Office of the President.

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Former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Julie Myers Wood, currently a board member of the Geo Group, smiling for a photo with the winner of an ICE Halloween costume party.

Two weeks ago the private prison corporation Geo Group added yet another former government official to its inner circle. On July 2 Geo Group’s management voted unanimously to expand their board of directors to seven seats, adding Julie Myers Wood. From 2006 to 2008 Wood was the Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Wood is now the second member of Geo Group’s inner circle to have been employed by ICE. Geo Group’s executive vice president for corporate development, David Venturella, was an executive within ICE for 22 years before joining Geo Group in 2012.

Of course ICE is a major customer of Geo Group. Geo Group’s federal prison contracting began in 1987 when ICE signed a deal with the company to build and operate an immigrant prison in Colorado called the Aurora ICE Processing Center. Later this year Geo Group will open a new 400 bed immigrant “transfer center” in Louisiana. ICE will pay Geo Group $8.5 million a year to hold detainees in this prison.

Some might remember Julie Myers Wood for presiding over an infamous Halloween costume party at ICE’s Washington D.C. headquarters in 2007. Some ICE employees dressed up as immigrant fugitives. Wood awarded the best costume prize to an ICE employee who donned a dread lock wig and blackface paint, explaining to amused colleagues that he was a Jamaican detainee who had escaped from ICE’s Krome prison near Miami. Wood was accused by the House Committee on Homeland Security of exercising “poor judgement” when she rewarded the employee for the costume, and also of covering up the incident afterward when she ordered the deletion of pictures. The pictures included a photo of her smiling next to the make-believe Jamaican immigrant prisoner. (The pictures were later recovered.)

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Network map of the Geo Group’s board of directors and executive officers.

Other top Geo Group managers provide natural links to the other federal branch of government that contracts out prison facility construction and operations work: the Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Prisons. Geo Group director Norman Carlson was the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 17 years before retiring in 1987. John Hurley, Geo Group’s senior vice president for corrections and detention was a warden in the Federal Bureau of Prisons for 26 years. Today Geo Group operates multiple Department of Justice prisons housing federal inmates.

Julie Myers Wood’s recent appointment to the Geo Group’s board of directors also connects Geo Group to new corners of the private security industry. After her brief and controversial term running ICE, Wood, as is now the custom among top federal officials, set up her own consulting firm in 2012, ICS, LLC. ICS stands for “Immigration and Customs Solutions.” Wood’s consulting shop was then bought by GuidePost Solutions, a large private security consulting firm that was already doing business with the Geo Group through a consulting agreement with B.I., Inc., a Geo Group subsidiary that specializes in providing electronic ankle bracelet monitors and other surveillance equipment to track prisoners and parolees.

GuidePost Solutions has become a repository of revolving door law enforcement figures. Among the influential executives at GuidePost Solutions is former prosecutor and Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani. Giuliani is also a named partner at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm, the same firm where Anne Foreman used to be an attorney. Anne Foreman is currently a director of the Geo Group, and former under secretary and lawyer for the Air Force.

Wood is also a member of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration, and the executive committee chair of the Border Security Technology Consortium. The latter is an industry lobbying group comprised of companies that sell surveillance equipment and weapons to the Department of Homeland Security.

The world of private, for-profit prisons, border security contracting, and surveillance technology is quite small really. If you follow an individual’s professional network out a few degrees, it’s likely your search will boomerang back around to where you started. It’s personal relationships forged on corporate boards, and as government officials, that connect the growing private prison and surveillance industry to the current government officials and lawmakers who are in a position to award contracts.

For Wood, her new spot on Geo Group’s board will provide pay and stock awards valued at about $250,000 a year. Her connections to other private prison and surveillance companies and trade associations will strengthen Geo Group’s already formidable lobbying prowess and help the company to secure a bigger slice of the growing market for privatized prisons.

On December 19, 2013 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 49 state attorneys general, and the District of Columbia reached a settlement agreement with Ocwen to resolve the company’s illegal foreclosure practices. The settlement allowed Ocwen to escape prosecution in return for a promise to cease at least 17 illegal practices it used to over-charge and mislead homeowners, to file false documents, and to wrongfully foreclose.

So has Ocwen lived up to its promise of change?

Data compiled by the CFPB shows that in the months after the settlement was announced there was actually a spike in the number of complaints against Ocwen. So far this month complaints against Ocwen are down, but overall, based on consumer complaint data, it’s hard to see how the settlement has changed Ocwen’s practices.

The following graph shows the number of complains received by the CFPB every day against Ocwen, starting on December 1, 2011 and ending on July 16, 2014. The red arrow points to the day that the Ocwen settlement was announced by authorities. The black trend line shows generally that complaints against Ocwen have continued to rise over time.

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Berkeley and Richmond recently upped their minimum wages, and Oakland and San Francisco are also considering significant lifts for their lowest-wage workers. But each city’s minimum wage plan differs in significant ways. These differences reflect the balances of power between workers and employers, unions and business leagues, in each city.

In Oakland, labor and community organizations banded together as a coalition last year and decided to place an initiative directly on the ballot in time for the elections this November. That decision to circumvent the city council prevented what happened in Richmond and Berkeley. In Oakland’s neighbors to the north initial calls by grassroots activists for a $15 minimum wage were translated into a much smaller increase. Final legislation in these two cities was further watered down. Business lobbyists successfully argued that an immediate and significant hike in the minimum wage for all workers would cause unemployment, business closures, and a drain economic activity from these cities.

Berkeley’s minimum wage therefore isn’t very large, and it isn’t indexed to inflation, so it loses value quickly.

Richmond’s minimum wage, while larger on paper, may not impact very many workers in the city because of complicated exemptions that allow lots of employers to simply not pay the new municipal minimum wage, or to pay a lower “intermediate” amount.

In San Francisco the process has been legislative, like Richmond and Berkeley. But instead of starting from $15 and cutting downward, San Francisco’s board of supervisors appear headed toward $15 by 2018. If they pass the minimum wage legislation that was considered at today’s rules committee, San Francisco’s minimum wage will rise from it’s current $10.75 to $12.25 next year.

That would match the proposed increase that Oakland voters will consider in November. But then San Francisco’s minimum wage would jump another 75 cents in 2016, and then a dollar in 2017 and another dollar in 2018. Those increases significantly outpace the rate of inflation.

Here’s what the different enacted and proposed minimum wage increases in the Bay Area look like compared to one another.

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In Oakland the “Lift Up Oakland” ballot initiative would raise the minimum wage for all employees in March 2015 to $12.25 and then increase this wage each year to prevent it from losing value from inflation. The Oakland Chamber of Commerce is attempting to place a competing measure on the ballot that would phase in a minimum wage increase, but the increases charted below for this proposal would not benefit all workers as the Chamber’s proposal carves out certain categories of employers and employees.

 

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San Francisco’s proposed minimum wage would rise to $15 in 2018, possibly bringing pay just above the bare minimum considered a living wage.

 

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Differences between Berkeley and Richmond’s recently passed minimum wage laws, and San Francisco and Oakland’s proposed minimum wages are larger than this graph would imply. In Richmond the number of workers excluded from the new minimum wage of $13 by 2018 is probably very large due to exemption of “small businesses” from having to comply, and a complicated provision that establishes an “intermediate” minimum wage halfway between the city and state minimum wages, allowing employers who obtain half their income from sales or services provided outside the city to pay this lesser wage.

 

 

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A 2000s housing development adjacent to Stockton’s debt-financed new marina. Stockton over-extended itself by borrowing from banks, the state, and other creditors in the 2000s.

In 2007 the city of Stockton, California was riding the nation’s housing boom. Property tax revenues had more than doubled over the previous seven years, and sales tax receipts were up by 65 percent. Two hours by highway from San Francisco, Stockton’s leaders did not want to become just another bedroom community for commuters, and they rejected their past as a sleepy agricultural town. Flush with cash and an influx of tens of thousands of new residents seeking the more affordable housing going up on the city’s periphery, Stockton’s politicians attempted to remake their city into a destination.

Mimicking the borrowing binge in credit markets of housing developers and home buyers, Stockton’s government issued several major series of bonds to finance what was the most ambitious downtown redevelopment scheme in recent California history. Seven bond issues in the 2000s put Stockton deep in debt to build a downtown arena, a minor league ballpark, a marina, to purchase an eight-story office building to serve as the new city hall, and to build a massive parking garage nearby. And Stockton added to this debt with a pension obligation bond issue that was intended to forward fund the city’s retirement system with $124 million, and to free up cash for other projects.

When the economy crashed in 2008, Stockton became the basement floor to which other distressed California municipalities could look and say, ‘at least we’re not down there.’ Stockton’s lawyers frankly described the crisis in their bankruptcy memo:

“The Great Recession hit Stockton hard. Housing prices plunged, causing property tax revenues to fall, and unemployment has soared during the last five years, resulting in a decline in sales tax revenues. Meanwhile, the City’s expenses have remained the same or increased. Poor decisions, lax management, and bad luck have exacerbated the City’s financial woes.”

As Stockton’s revenues dried up, the city’s financial managers slashed virtually every service and program, including basic vital services. At first the cut to the bare minimum. Then they cut far past levels considered minimal and necessary to keep the city safe and functioning. Stockton depleted its meager reserve funds, transferred funds internally between accounts, and then extracted cuts from its workforce. Labor contracts were renegotiated, and when the city’s two largest unions refused further pay cuts, Stockton unilaterally reduced their compensation by $12.5 million. Employees were unilaterally forced to take furloughs, and then the layoffs began. Between 2008 and 2012 Stockton let go 472 employees, 25 percent of its workforce. Still deficits continued. The city shuttered a fire station. All of this happened just when Stockton needed more resources than ever to deal with a record rate of foreclosures surpassing most other cities. Still revenues declined. In 2011 and 2012 Stockton entirely canceled repair and replacement projects meant to keep city infrastructure and vehicles in working order. The city was allowed to crumble.

All through the carnage of one of the largest municipal financial disasters in American history Stockton continued to make payments on its debt. But in March of 2012, after forcing city workers and residents to shoulder spending reductions, the city finally defaulted on $2 million in bond payments. Three months later Stockton filed a petition for bankruptcy.

Stockton’s bankruptcy process, boiled down to its essentials, is an effort to impose a shared pain among the city’s creditors who are owed hundreds of millions. Some of Stockton’s creditors are contractors that are owed pay for construction projects, or goods and services already provided. Others are workers owed pay and benefits for labor already provided. The other big category of creditors includes financial investors who loaned Stockton capital during the 2000s boom.

Although many of Stockton’s financial lenders gave the municipality money understanding fully that their deal with the city was a speculative investment that carried risks, they now are arguing that the compensation owed to current and former city employees should be cut in order to increase the value of their debt claims on the Stockton. In other words, the financial lenders are arguing that the risk they assumed when they bought Stockton’s bonds should be retroactively transferred to the city’s employees in the form of cuts to their pensions.

Franklin Advisors, Inc., part of the Franklin Resources group, better known as Franklin Templeton Investments, a San Mateo-based financial company that controls about $900 billion in assets, has been most aggressive in pushing this argument. Lawyers representing Franklin Advisers are arguing that U.S. federal bankruptcy laws trump California’s law that says pensions administered by CalPERS cannot be reduced through municipal bankruptcy. If they win, Franklin Advisers will reduce their losses by forcing CalPERS, the administrator of many of the city’s retired workers’ pensions, to pay the costs of some of their losses. This cost ultimately falls on the 1.6 million public employees who collect, or someday will collect a CalPERS pension.

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Annual total returns for investors in Franklin Advisers’ California High Yield Mutual Fund. (Source: Franklin Municipal Securities Trust Prospectus, October 1, 2013.)

Franklin Advisers manages several mutual funds which purchased Stockton’s bonds as speculative investments. If you read the bond prospectuses Stockton provided to investors like Franklin Advisers, there’s extensive disclosure of the various risks including potential default on interest payments and even loss of principal. For example, the disclosure statements for Stockton’s 2007 Pension Obligation Bonds included six pages warning investors about various risk factors that could reduce returns or even wipe out their investment. Redevelopment bonds issued by Stockton in 2006 included the warning that a drop in city revenues could lead to losses for investors. All of Stockton’s borrowing from the capital markets came with these boilerplate warnings.

Furthermore, if you read through the prospectuses that Franklin Advisers provides for investors in its mutual funds, the riskiness of investing in municipal bonds of the quality they aimed for is obvious. “You could lose money by investing in the Fund,” explains Franklin Advisers to its clients. “An issuer of debt securities [like Stockton] may fail to make interest payments and repay principal when due, in whole or in part. Changes in an issuer’s financial strength or in a security’s credit rating may affect a security’s value.” It really couldn’t be clearer than that. Well, maybe it can. Franklin Adviser’s California High Yield Municipal Fund also warns investors that:

“Because the Fund invests predominantly in California municipal securities, events in California are likely to affect the Fund’s investments and its performance. These events may include economic or political policy changes, tax base erosion, state constitutional limits on tax increases, budget deficits and other financial difficulties, and changes in the credit ratings assigned to municipal issuers of California.”

Even so, Franklin Advisers is hoping to recoup some losses that it knew were possible when it purchased Stockton’s bonds.

If Franklin Advisers succeeds, who specifically will benefit? First of all, Franklin Resources benefits, as do financial companies like it. If it can establish the precedent that municipalities must cut pensions in order to pay back bondholders, then the value of many of the bonds of distressed municipalities owned by Franklin will increase in value.

So who is Franklin Templeton?

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Gregory E. Johnson, grandson of the founder of Franklin Resources, Inc., currently the company’s Chairman and CEO, and owner of $4.9 million shares of Franklin Resources worth $336 million.

The real force behind Franklin Resources is the Johnson family, a clan of billionaires who inherited their wealth from Rupert Johnson, Sr., the company’s founder. In 1973 Rupert Sr. moved Frankling Resources from Wall Street to San Mateo, California. The company grew over the next four decades to become one of the largest institutional managers in the world. And Franklin Resources’ ownership remained rather closely held. Although it has 631 million shares of outstanding stock, members of the Johnson family still control close to 230 million shares, 36 percent.

The Johnsons are billionaires. Rupert Johnson, Jr., and Charles B. Johnson (who I’ve mentioned before on this blog), brothers, both own over 100 million shares in their father’s company. Charles B’s children, Charles E. Johnson, Gregory Johnson, and Jennifer Johnson all own slices of the company.

Ironically CalPERS itself owns over 467,000 shares of Franklin Resources, worth about $63 million. But that’s a mere 0.1% of Franklin Resources total market capitalization, and an even more insignificant sum, two hundredths of one percent, of CalPERS total assets under management. So CalPERS and its retirees gain nothing from their little stake in Franklin.

The investors in Franklin Resources who would benefit from a win in court against CalPERS and Stockton would include the wealthy individuals who own shares in Franklin’s municipal bond mutual funds. Municipal bonds have always been a preferred investment of wealthy households because of their federal tax exemption. Wealthy California investors have the added incentive to buy into funds like Franklin Advisers’ California High Yield Municipal Fund because income from it (which flows from the interest payments that Stockton and other cities pay) is exempt from California’s relatively high state income tax. The after tax value of tax-exempt municipal securities to wealthy individuals and couples in the top federal and state tax brackets is often more than double the value of what’s available in the corporate bond market, and the risk of default is generally less. Now it would seem Franklin hopes to reduce that risk to its wealthy clients even further.

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A luxury house along “Billionaire’s Row” in San Francisco.

The failed economic policies of the Obama administration have been evident in measures of every important fundamental for six years now. Dismal job growth. High unemployment. Weak consumer demand, and so on. The biggest failure of the Obama administration was arguably the refusal to write down mortgage debt and force the top one percent of wealth holders to share some of the losses sustained during the housing market crash. While monetary policies pursued by the Fed, and a bailout of the secondary housing market with taxpayer dollars, temporarily provided a shot in the arm for housing prices, these gains were artificial. They weren’t based on genuine demand for housing by the majority of Americans. The result is that the top one percent of the U.S. housing market, the luxury segment, is booming, while the rest of Americans are having trouble affording homes. Now the housing market appears to be stalling out, except for luxury purchases by the elite whose wealth was protected by virtually every economic policy advanced through the financial crisis.

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A single family home in Oakland.

Let’s review the problem. In the 2000s the U.S. housing market was flooded with cheap credit. Lenders extended giant loans, many of them sub-prime, and the prices of houses shot upward in a bubble. But stagnating wages for American workers meant that the prices of real estate diverged from the reality of the ability of the average household to safely repay these loans. When the financial system imploded, the price of housing collapsed, and it was the borrowers who sustained the brunt of losses in the form of equity. The debt remained to be repaid, however, because Obama and his economic advisers chose to protect the wealth of the top one percent.

As economists Atif Mian and Amir Sufi have pointed out in their book House of Debt, the federal government could have taken over as the servicer of mortgage-backed securities and renegotiated millions of loans, dropping interests rates and principal balances. Or the government could have allowed bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage debt burdens. The few principal reduction programs there were, like the Home Affordable Modification Program, could have been pushed much further. As is, programs like HAMP served only a small fraction of distressed borrowers with underwater loans. HAMP and other loan modification programs did not meet their original numerical goals.

By not making creditors share the pain of the collapse of real estate prices, the Obama administration enforced a giant wealth transfer from the majority of Americans to a small minority, literally the one percent who own the majority of stocks and bonds, particularly stocks in banks and mortgage servicing companies, and bonds backed by residential mortgage debt.

But the wealthy also cache their fortunes in non-housing related stocks and bonds, and the Obama administration’s quantitative easing program has been good for supporting the value of these securities. So the wealthy never took the same kind of hit the average American did with housing price dips and job losses. Then the wealthy benefited from federal programs that jacked up asset prices.

Should we be surprised then to learn that the top one percent of the residential housing market is booming while sales of literally every home priced below a luxury-grade are dropping? This is one consequence of the Obama administration’s housing and economic policies.

A new batch of numbers from the real estate research firm Redfin illustrates the consequences of the Obama administration’s economic policies by comparing the very top of the American real estate market to everything else. “Sales of the priciest 1 percent of homes are up 21.1 percent so far this year, following a gain of 35.7 percent in 2013,” writes Troy Martin of Refin. “Meanwhile, in the other 99 percent of the market, home sales have fallen 7.6 percent in 2014.”

“For the top 1 percent, the housing market is still booming. But for the rest of the market, the recovery is running out of gas,” concludes Martin. “As home prices have risen, wage and job growth have failed to keep up.”

Redfin’s research shows that in virtually every major metropolitan region the luxury segment of the housing market, the top one percent of homes in price terms, are selling fast and at higher prices. Not surprisingly, there’s considerable regional variation, but it’s a nation-wide phenomenon.

The real estate market in the San Francisco Bay Area is perhaps the most unequal and driven by sales to the super-rich. Luxury home purchases are way up in Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco, with Oakland and San Jose experiencing a virtual doubling of the luxury market over the past year. The top one percent of the market for Oakland, San Jose and San Francisco combined is priced at an average of $3.7 million, but San Francisco has pulled ahead of the rest of the nation with an average home price of $5.35 million for the top one percent of its market. Some of this is likely due to the booming tech sector which is creating thousands of millionaires in the region.

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 10.43.54 PMFor the majority of Americans the problem boils down to household debt. There’s still too much debt for the average household to sustain purchasing power that would drive an economic recovery, including a recovery in the housing market. From 2003 to the peak of the housing bubble in the third quarter of 2008, total household debt shot upward by about $5.4 trillion, according to data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. From the peak of the housing bubble to the present, total household debt only decreased by $1.5 trillion. That means that about $3.9 trillion in debt piled onto U.S. households during the housing bubble is still weighing down family budgets. Most of this debt, about $2.89 trillion, was mortgage debt.

Over the same time period wages remained flat for most Americans. The median household incomes in the year 2000 was approximately $42,000. In 2012 it was about $51,000. Accounting for inflation, the real value of household income actually declined over this period by $5,000.

The income and wealth gains at the top of America’s economic pyramid over this same time frame should be familiar by now, as they have been extensively explained in recent research. What’s important to point out, however, is that the the average household, the median Americans whose incomes dropped by $5,000, took on significant mortgage debt during the 2000s, altogether in the trillions of dollars, and the lenders of this capital, ultimately, are the top one percent households.

So that’s why we see the luxury housing market booming while virtually 99 percent, the rest of America is stagnating.

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