Three weeks ago St. Mark’s Bookshop hosted us for one last reading of The Trouble is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street, the fourth small book from n+1. Three New York–based letter writers came to read their contributions in person, and those who couldn’t make it sent words for us to read in their absence. A handful of volunteers from n+1, and one brave soul from the audience, read on their behalf.
For would-be audience members who couldn’t make it either, we’ve assembled the following photos and recordings of the event. We’d like to thank Frances Harlow and Malcolm Donaldson for their help with audio, and note that any mic bumps and fax noises are not their fault. St. Mark’s is a business, after all—one you should support!—and has stuff to do. Thanks also to Margarita Shalina and St. Mark’s Bookshop for hosting us, and to Mark Greif for taking such great pictures.
Not least of all, thanks to letter writer Leathea Vanadore for coming out to read on her birthday; to Dave McGee for contributing not one but two letters to the book; and to Heather Duke, who traveled a long distance to share her incredible story.
Lynn Giglio, I Have Worked Hard All My Life—read by Mark Greif, Coeditor of The Trouble is the Banks
I have worked hard all my life. I grew up in foster care because my father had a drinking problem and my mother was completely dependent on him. These are the ways people cope with the struggles in the system you work in. You only care about profits, not people. Thank God I was able to know that my father beating me and drinking was not okay. I ran away from home. I was homeless until I was able to find a home in foster care. I have a good head on my shoulders.
I was unable to attend college. After turning 18, I went to work and worked two jobs. I gave my free time to working as a volunteer firefighter. I wanted so badly to be a firefighter in New York City or in my hometown of Rochester. That dream did not come true. Instead, I got a job at Delphi making auto parts. I work hard, very hard. I made $14/hour. I am a UAW member.
Again, your policies attack my family. You attack unions and try to break them just so you can make more profits. My union is all I have of a family. It’s given me everything you don’t want me to have: dignity, a voice in my workplace, a roof over my head, and friends to talk to when I feel alone in the absence of family.
I know I am wasting my time trying to ask you to stop pulling apart my family. I know that, at the end of the day, you sleep well with a bought family. Money buys everything, right? Is that why you do what you do to America and the rest of the world? If you have more money, you can buy more friends and family.
I have 99%. You have 1%. I feel sad for you. My friends and family are true and plenty. We will fight to protect our families and our friends until ethics return to our country and to our world. You will not break us. We are awake to what is going on and until it ends, we will occupy everything.
Pavilion, NY 14525
Dave McGee, An Open Letter to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein
To: Lloyd C. Blankfein, Goldman Sachs
So, I’ve been writing these letters to bank CEOs where I gently rib them about stuff like “being abysmally terrible at their jobs” and “openly stealing from the general populace” and “having the morality of a supervillain” and stuff like that. You know. The usual. And so I was writing one to you about what a terrible businessman you are, and how you had to get your old boss to give you $64 billion because of how badly you suck at being a CEO. Ha, ha. It was going to be funny.
So I was doing research to find more things to make fun of you about. But I kept reading more and more about what a hive of scum and villainy your company actually is, and the more I read the less I felt like being funny. Because, you know, whatever. Any jackass can illegally accept naked short sales or underwrite bondsand encourage people to short those bonds or help Greece hide the true nature of its debt in order to make some extra cash, causing long-term damage to not just Greece but the whole Eurozone and therefore the world economy?—?which is at risk of going under (again!) partially because of your nefarious deeds (again! I guess you can fool people twice!). Hell, I could do that.
But really it was in finding out that your company’s creation of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index helped literally starve millions of people that I stopped feeling jokey and started actually feeling pity for you. That’s the worst thing to feel for somebody, Lloyd, because it means I consider you less than me. You know what? I do!
I’m asking this honestly: How do you sleep at night? I know that sounds all melodramatic, but when I’ve, you know, inadvertently hurt somebody’s feelings, I have trouble getting any rest at all. I can’t imagine ever getting a bit of shut-eye again if I found out I helped artificially drive up the price of wheat in the greatest year of plenty the world had ever known, pushing 250,000,000 more people to the breaking point and causing food riots in thirty countries.
You must either have a really comfortable bed or a metric boatload of Ambien. Or no conscience whatsoever, and such broken morality that you don’t realize what damage your little money games are causing the planet.
No, I’m just playing, I’m sure you’re a great guy. Ha, ha.
New York, NY 10039
Caroline Holley, From a Fellow Capitalist—read by Amy
From a Fellow Capitalist
I’m a capitalist too. I own a small hair salon in Manhattan. But we have made investments to minimize the harm our company does. We pay more for our electricity because we want to use wind power and encourage investment in alternative energy. We pay more for organic products so that we minimize the chemicals on our skin, in the air, and in the water supply. We want to make a profit and meet our financial obligations, but we want to do so with a clear conscience.
It pains me to see big businesses garnering advantages in government and benefitting from bailouts, subsidies, and tax loopholes while we watch our costs and credit rates increase and our customers’ ability to pay for services decline.
Please tell me it pays to be honest and ethical. Please join our fight for equity in governmental representation and better terms for all businesses?—?not just the big ones?—?because we will all benefit.
Brooklyn, NY 11201
John Farley, How the American Dream Turned $60,000 Cash into $30,000 Debt—read by Lizzie
I just wanted to pass along my story of how I bought into the myth of the American Dream, and it blew up in my face.
My wife and I were expecting our first child in 2005, and we thought we needed to settle down and find a safe, secure place for our growing family. We bought into a housing market that was climbing at unprecedented rates. Prices were incredibly high, and we knew what we could realistically afford. We put $35,000 cash down. We locked in a low, fixed rate. We put another $25,000 into the house to fix some issues, replace the roof after a couple of years, and tend to general maintenance. You know, to “protect our investment.”
In 2008, we watched our home value plummet. We cringed a bit, but our home was still worth the amount of our mortgage, so we stuck it out. Since then, we have watched our home value crumble, along with the safety of the surrounding neighborhood. Right now, our house is worth about $30,000 less than our mortgage. That $60,000 cash we put into it is long gone, and now we’re just renting from the bank. The neighborhood is deteriorating because people can no longer afford the upkeep, and I’m certain the banks won’t step in to protect their investments.
We have since learned that the housing market was artificially inflated by banks doling out easy money. Many of those easy mortgages were given to people who had no ability to pay for them; they were preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders. And then those “toxic” mortgages were rolled into AAA securities that eventually killed what were usually very safe bets.
This makes me think the housing crash of 2008 was not an unfortunate accident, but rather the fallout of careless gambling and calculated, short-term greed. We were set up.
I don’t expect you to do anything about it. I’d rather you just get out of the way so the rest of the country can start rebuilding. Take your business to Greece, or Ireland. Oh wait, you already bankrupted those countries. I guess the US was just the next target.
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
Leathea Vanadore, Measuring Up
To the 1%,
I am a retiree who spent many years teaching students not only subject matter but self-respect, respect for others, and measuring up. My students were inner-city and immigrants. They loved learning and being told that they could do it, and they did.
Now, you tell me that I should just curl up and die?—?without Medicare, Social Security, or even a pension. I went to school for many years, got a Master’s degree and far more than thirty credits beyond so that I could keep my job. I started to work at age 16.
I did not worship the Golden Calf. Otherwise, I would never have become a teacher. My ability to respect myself and my contribution to the world are priceless. I deserve to keep what I worked long and hard for.
Do you deserve your huge compensation? Can you look me in the eye and say that you respect yourself and your contribution? Are you only leaving behind a destroyed environment and spiritual bankruptcy?
New York, NY 10001
Nick Werle and Mark Greif, Municipal Bond Reinvestment Bid-Rigging—read by Nick Werle, Coeditor of The Trouble is the Banks
JP Morgan Securities, Wells Fargo, GE Capital, UBS Financial Services, and Bank of America Securities have agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to settle charges brought by the SEC, IRS, Department of Justice, Federal Reserve, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and a collection of States Attorneys General that they engaged in a massive interbank conspiracy to fix prices in the lucrative municipal bond reinvestment market, worth $3.7 trillion annually. When tax-exempt entities—including state and local governments, school districts, libraries, and hospitals—float a public bond issue to finance a capital project (the construction of a new school, for example), they get a large lump sum up front, even though they might not need to spend the cash for several years. IRS regulations require that the municipality invest that money at fair market value in the interim. The return on capital from that reinvestment can help defray the cost of borrowing, reducing costs to the taxpayers, who are ultimately responsible for repaying the municipality’s bonds. To determine “fair market value,” municipalities hire bidding agents to solicit “competitive” bids from large banks to reinvest the money on the municipality’s behalf; the bank offering the highest return wins the business.
From at least 1997 through 2005, the banks operated as a cartel, directly stealing billions of dollars from taxpayers in all fifty states by reducing the rate of return that municipalities received on their reinvested capital. Working alongside their supposed competitors and the bidding agents—who were hired to represent the municipal borrower’s interests but received kickbacks from participating banks—traders on the banks’ municipal derivatives desks would participate in three forms of bid rigging. Sometimes bidding agents would give traders “last looks,” or inside information, on the highest competing bid so they could reduce their own to the bare minimum necessary to win the business. In other auctions, the bidding agents and banks would decide ahead of time which traders would win the auction, soliciting under-priced “set up” bids from other banks to depress the rate of return the winning bank would have to pay the municipality. Each bank both received “set ups” from other members of the group and submitted unreasonably low “set up” bids when it was another bank’s turn to win some business. In addition to the settlements agreed to by the banks, at least eighteen traders and bank executives have been convicted of criminal conspiracy for their roles in the bid rigging scheme.
Fernando, Student Loan—read by Ben, our volunteer from the audience
I’m writing you as I am waiting to be heard in a courtroom in Queens, New York. I’m here fighting an eviction. I get $200 a month taken out of my paycheck because I am in default in my loans. I take home $1,500 after taxes and my rent is $1,200, which is considered cheap in NYC. Those $200 would allow me to pay my rent. Thanks.
Kew Gardens, NY 11415
Ian Gaida, Hey Lloyd!—read by Moira
To: Lloyd C. Blankfein, Goldman Sachs
I work in financial services, and I understand that you’ve had a tough past few years. Why not retire? You have plenty of money and millions of people hate your guts.
What I don’t get is that Goldman, under your leadership, essentially became insolvent, and because of a bailout from our government, the firm continues to exist. Granted, I was for the bailout, and I’m happy that you paid it all back. The part that I am confused about is why you’re still there. I’ve been a shareholder in Goldman, and the way I see it, if the person driving my car puts it into a ditch and needs a tow, that person shouldn’t drive the car anymore. But that’s neither here nor there.
I am looking out for you. Our business is a miserable one. Most of it (except for you because you are the boss) is sitting in front of an Excel worksheet for ten to eighteen hours a day thinking about what life would be if you weren’t wasting away. You aren’t old, but you aren’t young either. Maybe you should enjoy some of life. When you are on your deathbed, you will wish that you’d spent some time with your family or went on that trip that you’d always wanted to take or whatnot. Perhaps you could become an advocate of the 99%. I doubt you would, but Buffett (the guy who saved your ass) did. History would look more favorably on you at least. Life is short, you can’t buy time, and you have plenty of money to enjoy the rest of yours.
If you ever want to talk, just reply to this message and I’ll send you my phone info. Have a good night.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Stephanie Brandt, You Should Take a Pay Cut and Donate Part of Your Salary—read by Dayna Tortorici, Coeditor of The Trouble is the Banks
My name is Stephanie and I am a single mom with a teen and a baby and we live in NYC in a shelter. It’s been two years that I have been homeless. I am homeless not because I didn’t pay my bills, not because of drugs. . . . I am homeless because both my parents died and I was living in their co-op and was kicked out by the church.
I am angry that there are no jobs. I am angry that there are no housing programs. I am angry that I have no help. I am angry that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. Look around and see all the homeless people. The hungry people. Look and see how many homeless kids there are. Something must be done!
New York, NY 10025
Heather Duke, My Neighbor Tried to Work It Out with Bank of America, but Couldn‘t—read by herself
To: Joe L. Price, Bank of America
My name’s Heather and I live in Olympia, Washington. I lost my house last year. Kind of fair and square, really, because I had no way to pay the mortgage. I had run myself $120,000 in debt after having a brain injury and losing my ability to work. So I knew what was coming and had to prepare for it. My doctor told me to stop talking to the collections people because conversations with them were making me feel suicidal. He said that my best option was to focus on getting medically stable so that moving wouldn’t kill me.
My neighbor Heather was also losing her house, and it made me curious because she was actually making money at the time. Maybe not enough money to pay the entire mortgage, but some. She had tried to negotiate with Bank of America, but they weren’t able to deal with her and kept sending people out to threaten her. She started drinking a lot. At the time I had accepted my fate and I was feeling a lot calmer about it. So I talked to her to console her and help her through it. She finally did lose her house in December 2010. I did too.
Now the two houses from the two Heathers sit empty. Mine was bought by a real estate investor. He is trying to fix it up to make it into a rental property, but it’s taking more time than he anticipated. Hers is still for sale. That’s right. B of A could have collected some portion of a mortgage from my neighbor, but didn’t want to.
I don’t understand the logic of your employer, Joe. You all had a chance to have my neighbor try to pay her mortgage, but you didn’t take it. That seems weird. In my case, I was just some lady with brain damage and huge medical debt who might die, so I can see how the bank might want to get me out of the way so they could move forward and get a mortgage payment going as soon as they could. But you all really could have had a mortgage payment from my neighbor who had her mortgage with you.
I’m wondering, Joe, if you are seeing where all this foreclosure activity is getting us. For me, it has given me a somewhat macabre sense of humor. If your only priority over at B of A is your bottom line, such practices aren’t panning out from a fiscal standpoint, and you might want to take a look at them.
To buy or donate a copy of The Trouble is the Banks, visit our shop. We’ve broken even, so all sales from here on out go directly to organizations fighting for economic justice.