Tag Archives: Mark Zuckerberg

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Do Not Be Impressed by Mark Zuckerberg’s Phony Generosity

pt_1904_1111_o            CEO Mark Zuckerberg promises to give 99% of his Facebook shares to charity — eventually.

Exact phrasing: the stock, currently worth $45 billion, will be donated “during [he and his wife’s] lives.” He’s 31 and she’s 30, so actuarial tables being what they are, by approximately the year 2065.

If Facebook or the Internet or the earth still exist.

Whoop de doo.

I would be far more impressed if Facebook would put some money into the American economy. How? By hiring more workers — a lot more workers. Facebook’s market cap is $300 billion — almost ten times more than GM. GM has 216,000 employees. I’m not sure Facebook could find work for 2 million workers — but 12,000 is pathetic. They might start by hiring a few thousand 24-7 customer service reps so they could respond quickly when some antisocial pig posts your nude photo.

The part of the “ain’t Zuck nicephilanthropist suck-uppery that really has me annoyed is the “charity” bit.

Disclosure: I’m on record as being not at all into charity. If something is important enough to require funding — helping hurricane victims, sending doctors to war zones, poetry — it ought to be paid for by society as a whole, out of our taxes. We shouldn’t allow billionaires to aggregate enough wealth to billionaires in the first place. Partly, this is because it’s unfair. No one can work hard enough to earn one billion dollars. Also because it gives too much control to individuals at the expense of the 99.99% of everyone else.

Unfortunately, we await the revolution. So we still have billionaires running around pretending to be nice (as opposed to where they belong, hanging from a lamppost).

Even by our current dismal standards, however, Zuck is full of crap.

Point one: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a charity. It’s a limited liability corporation (LLC) that, like any other company, can donate to actual charities but can also invest in for-profit companies.

Point two: this is all about control.

A donation to an independent, classic 501(c) charity can come with strings attached — the money is only for a children’s wing of the hospital, no adults — but it’s ultimately spent by the charity based on its directors’ decisions. Under the LLC structure Zuckerberg will maintain nearly dictatorial control over the funds he’s “donating” to “charity.”

It’s the difference between you giving a hundred bucks to the United Way, and taking a hundred bucks out of your wallet and dropping into a coffee can in your kitchen. Maybe the C-spot in the coffee can will go to the poor. Maybe not. It certainly isn’t accurate to claim you gave it to charity.

If Zuck wants a “gives 99% of his stock to charity” headline, he ought to earn it — by giving 99% of his stock to actual charities. Charities that aren’t named after him. Charities he doesn’t control.

“Zuckerberg To Maybe Eventually Do Things He Deems Good With Some Of His Fortune” would be more accurate.

The vagueness of the Zuckerbergs’ announcement highlights how little anyone should be impressed. “Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities,” they said.

Sound familiar?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was founded in 2000 with billions of dollars Microsoft extracted from American consumers via price gouging and gangster-style monopolistic tactics so ugly the feds almost broke up the company. The charity’s (it’s charted as a 501(c)) mission sounds remarkably similar to those of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “Our foundation is teaming up with partners around the world to take on some tough challenges: extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries, and the failures of America’s education system.”

Which, right out of the gate, meant donating PCs to schools so that fewer kids would grow up using Macs.

If you’re a conservative who thinks government can’t do anything right, let me show you a charity that’s worse. The Gates Foundation wants to destroy teachers’ unions to take away their benefits and drive down their wages — hardly a way to attract the best and brightest young college graduates into the profession. And it has poured millions into the disastrous Common Core, which has created today’s “teach to the test” culture in public schools. Given Zuckerberg’s previous involvement in public schools, a $100 million fiasco in Newark, New Jersey that declared war on teachers, fetishized standardized testing and led to so many school closures that kids wound up walking miles through gang territory to new schools chosen for them by, really, an algorithm — it isn’t a stretch to guess that Chan Zuckerberg will look a lot like Bill and Melinda Gates.

I wouldn’t expect much — much good, anyway — from Zuckerberg on the poverty front, either. After all, Facebook is spreading poverty among American STEM workers by pushing Congress for more H1C visas for foreign workers hired by big tech companies to replace better-paid Americans. Odds are that, here too, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s approach will be similar to the Gateses.

Too young and too rich to have a clue — and the only people they know are over-privileged corporate pigs. How do you think this will turn out?

In 2010, for example, Bill and Melinda drew fire for subsidizing African projects by agribusiness conglomerates Cargill and Monsanto, both notorious for crushing small farmers, to the tune of $23 million. They’re way into sketchy genetically-modified foods. They wind up propping up authoritarian and dictatorial political regimes by focusing on technocratic short-term “quick fix” projects that don’t address the underlying causes of poverty (psst — capitalism). It’s a safe bet Zuck’s anti-poverty stuff will make more people poorer.

It’s Zuckerberg’s billions. He can do what he wants with his money. But let’s not make the mistake of calling him a charitable giver, much less a great guy.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and the cartoonist for ANewDomain.net, is the author of the new book “Snowden,” the biography of the NSA whistleblower. Want to support independent journalism? You can subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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ANewDomain.net Essay: Don’t Hire Anyone Over 30: Ageism in Silicon Valley

Originally published at ANewDomain.net:

Most people know that Silicon Valley has a diversity problem. Women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in Big Tech. Racist and sexist job discrimination are obviously unfair. They also shape a toxic, insular white male “bro” culture that generates periodic frat-boy eruptions (see, for example, the recent wine-fueled rant of an Uber executive who mused — to journalists — that he’d like to pay journalists to dig up dirt on journalists who criticize Uber. What could go wrong?)

After years of criticism, tech executives are finally starting to pay attention — and some are promising to recruit more women, blacks and Latinos.

This is progress, but it still leaves Silicon Valley with its biggest dirty secret: rampant, brazen age discrimination.

“Walk into any hot tech company and you’ll find disproportionate representation of young Caucasian and Asian males,” University of Washington computer scientist Ed Lazowska told The San Francisco Chronicle. “All forms of diversity are important, for the same reasons: workforce demand, equality of opportunity and quality of end product.”

Overt bigotry against older workers — we’re talking about anyone over 30 here — has been baked into the Valley’s infantile attitudes since the dot-com crash 14 years ago.

Life may begin at 50 elsewhere, but in the tech biz the only thing certain about middle age is unemployment.

The tone is set by the industry’s top CEOs. “When Mark Zuckerberg was 22, he said five words that might haunt him forever. ‘Younger people are just smarter,’ the Facebook wunderkind told his audience at a Y Combinator event at Stanford University in 2007. If the merits of youth were celebrated in Silicon Valley at the time, they have become even more enshrined since,” Alison Griswold writes in Slate.

It’s illegal, under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, to pass up a potential employee for hire, or to fail to promote, or to fire a worker, for being too old. But don’t bother telling that to a tech executive. What used to be a meritocracy has become a don’t-hire-anyone-over-30 (certainly not over 40) — right under the nose of the tech media.

Which isn’t surprising. The supposed watchdogs of the Fourth Estate are wearing the same blinders as their supposed prey. The staffs of news sites like Valleywag and Techcrunch skew as young as the companies they cover.

A 2013 BuzzFeed piece titled ” What It’s Like Being The Oldest BuzzFeed Employee” (subhead: “I am so, so lost, every workday.”) by a 53-year-old BuzzFeed editor “old enough to be the father of nearly every other editorial employee” (average age: late 20s) reads like a repentant landlord-class sandwich-board confession during China’s Cultural Revolution: “These whiz-kids completely baffle me, daily. I am in a constant state of bafflement at BF HQ. In fact, I’ve never been more confused, day-in and day-out, in my life.” It’s the most pathetic attempt at self-deprecation I’ve read since the transcripts of Stalin’s show trials.

A few months later, the dude got fired by his boss (15 years younger): “This is just not working out, your stuff. Let’s just say, it’s ‘creative differences.’”

Big companies are on notice that they’re on the wrong side of employment law. They just don’t care.

Slate reports: “In 2011, Google reached a multimillion-dollar settlement in a…suit with computer scientist Brian Reid, who was fired from the company in 2004 at age 54. Reid claimed that Google employees made derogatory comments about his age, telling him he was ‘obsolete,’ ‘sluggish,’ and an ‘old fuddy-duddy’ whose ideas were ‘too old to matter.’ Other companies—including Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo—have gotten themselves in hot water by posting job listings with ‘new grad‘ in the description. In 2013, Facebook settled a case with California’s Fair Employment and Housing Department over a job listing for an attorney that noted ‘Class of 2007 or 2008 preferred.’”

Because the fines and settlements have been mere slaps on the wrist, the cult of the Youth Bro is still going strong.

To walk the streets of Austin during tech’s biggest annual confab, South by Southwest Interactive, is to experience a society where Boomers and Gen Xers have vanished into a black hole. Photos of those open-space offices favored by start-ups document workplaces where people over 35 are as scarce as women on the streets of Kandahar. From Menlo Park to Palo Alto, token fortysomethings wear the nervous shrew-like expressions of creatures in constant danger of getting eaten — dressed a little too young, heads down, no eye contact, hoping not to be noticed.

“Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America,” Noam Scheiber reported in a New Republic feature that describes tech workers as young as 26 seeking plastic surgery in order to stave off the early signs of male pattern baldness and minor skin splotches on their faces.

Whatever you do, don’t look your age — unless your age is 22.

“Robert Withers, a counselor who helps Silicon Valley workers over 40 with their job searches, told me he recommends that older applicants have a professional snap the photo they post on their LinkedIn page to ensure that it exudes energy and vigor, not fatigue,” Scheiber writes. “He also advises them to spend time in the parking lot of a company where they will be interviewing so they can scope out how people dress.”

The head of the most prominent start-up incubator told The New York Times that most venture capitalists in the Valley won’t take a pitch from anyone over 32.

In early November, VCs handed over several hundred thousand bucks to a 13-year-old.

Aside from the legal and ethical considerations, does Big Tech’s cult of youth matter? Scheiber says hell yes:  “In the one corner of the American economy defined by its relentless optimism, where the spirit of invention and reinvention reigns supreme, we now have a large and growing class of highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers who are shunted to the margins, doomed to haunt corporate parking lots and medical waiting rooms, for reasons no one can rationally explain. The consequences are downright depressing.”

One result of ageism that jumps to the top of my mind is brain drain. Youthful vigor is vital to success in business. So is seasoned experience. The closer an organization reflects society at large, the smarter it is.

A female colleague recently called to inform me that she was about to get laid off from her job as an editor and writer for a major tech news site. (She was, of course, the oldest employee at the company.) Naturally caffeinated, addicted to the Internet and pop culture, she’s usually the smartest person in the room. I see lots of tech journalism openings for which she’d be a perfect fit, yet she’s at her wit’s end. “I’m going to jump off a bridge,” she threatened. “What else can I do? I’m 45. No one’s ever going to hire me.” Though I urged her not to take the plunge, I couldn’t argue with her pessimism. Objectively, though, I think the employers who won’t talk to her are idiots. For their own sakes.

Just a month before, I’d met with an executive of a major tech news site who told me I wouldn’t be considered for a position due to my age. “Aside from being stupid,” I replied, “you do know that’s illegal, right?”

“No one enforces it,” he shrugged. He’s right. The feds don’t even keep national statistics on hiring by age.

The median American worker is age 42. The median age at Facebook, Google, AOL and Zynga, on the other hand, is 30 or younger. Twitter, which recently got hosed in an age discrimination lawsuit, has a median age of 28.

Big Tech doesn’t want you to know they don’t hire middle-aged Americans. Age data was intentionally omitted from the recent spate of “we can do better” mea culpa reports on company diversity.

It’s easy to suss out why: they prefer to hire cheaper, more disposable, more flexible (willing to work longer hours) younger workers. Apple and Facebook recently made news by offering to freeze its female workers’ eggs so they can delay parenthood in order to devote their 20s and 30s to the company.

The dirty secret is not so secret when you scour online want ads. “Many tech companies post openings exclusively for new or recent college graduates, a pool of candidates that is overwhelmingly in its early twenties,” Verne Kopytoff writes in Fortune.

“It’s nothing short of rampant,” said UC David comp sci professor Norm Matloff, about age discrimination against older software developers. Adding to the grim irony for Gen Xers: today’s fortysomethings suffered reverse age discrimination — old people in power screwing the young — at the hands of Boomers in charge when they were entering the workforce.

Once too young to be trusted, now too old to get hired.

Ageist hiring practices are so over-the-top illegal, you have to wonder: do these jerks have in-house counsel?

Kopytoff: “Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Dropbox, and video game maker Electronic Arts all recently listed openings with ‘new grad’ in the title. Some companies say that recent college graduates will also be considered and then go on to specify which graduating classes—2011 or 2012, for instance—are acceptable.”

The feds take a dim view of these ads.

“In our view, it’s illegal,” Raymond Peeler, senior attorney advisor at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, told Kopytoff. “We think it deters older applicants from applying.” Gee, you think? But the EEOC has yet to smack a tech company with a big fine.

The job market is supposed to eliminate efficiencies like this, where companies that need experienced reporters fire them while retaining writers who are so wet behind the ears you want to check for moss. But ageism is so ingrained into tech culture that it’s part of the scenery, a cultural signifier like choosing an iPhone over Android. Everyone takes it for granted.

Scheiber describes a file storage company’s annual Hack Week, which might as well be scientifically designed in order to make adults with kids and a mortgage run away screaming: “Dropbox headquarters turns into the world’s best-capitalized rumpus room. Employees ride around on skateboards and scooters, play with Legos at all hours, and generally tool around with whatever happens to interest them, other than work, which they are encouraged to set aside.”

No matter how cool a 55-year-old you are, you’re going to feel left out. Which, one suspects, is the point.

It’s impossible to overstate how ageist many tech outfits are.

Electronic Arts contacted Kopytoff to defend its “new grad” employment ads, only to confirm their bigotry. The company “defended its ads by saying that it hires people of all ages into its new grad program. To prove the point, the company said those accepted into the program range in age from 21 to 35. But the company soon had second thoughts about releasing such information, which shows a total absence of middle-aged hires in the grad program, and asked Fortune to withhold that detail from publication. (Fortune declined.)”

EA’s idea of age diversity is zero workers over 35.

Here is one case where an experienced, forty- or fifty- or even sixtysomething in-house lawyer or publicist might have saved them some embarrassment — and legal exposure.

In the big picture, Silicon Valley is hardly an engine of job growth; they haven’t added a single net new job since 1998. “Big” companies like Facebook and Twitter only hire a few thousand workers each. Instagram famously only had 13 when it went public. They have little interest in contributing to the commonweal. Nevertheless, tech ageism in the tiny tech sector has a disproportionately high influence on workplace practices in other workspaces. If it is allowed to continue, it will spread to other fields.

It’s hard to see how anything short of a massive class-action lawsuit — one that dings tech giants for billions of dollars — will make Big Tech hire Xers, much less Boomers.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Immigration Reform is Treason

Unemployment is High. Why Are We Importing Foreign Workers?

Unemployment is sky-high. Sustained long-term unemployment is at record levels. So why the hell are we importing foreign workers?

The immigration reform bill moving through Congress will throw open the door to millions of new foreigners — people who aren’t here yet — to enter the United States to work. And we’re not talking about crappy fruit-picking gigs Americans supposedly don’t want (more on that below).

“American” (you have to wonder about their loyalties) lawmakers want foreigner nationals to fill America’s high-paying tech jobs. While Americans are out of work.

At the risk of sounding like Pat Buchanan: WTF?

For at least 20 years, the U.S. economy has been replacing good manufacturing jobs with bad service jobs. Salaries have fallen. Which has depressed demand. As things stand, there’s one bright spot: the potential for the IT sector to lift us out of the rut. To paraphrase George Orwell’s “1984”: If there is hope for America’s unemployed, it lies with tech.

Make that: “lied.” Because America’s tech companies — which makes most of its money selling its crap to Americans — are hell-bent on hiring just about anyone who is not an American citizen.

Economists say jobs aren’t a zero-sum game. But unemployment would certainly be lower if employers were forced to hire Americans who were qualified, or train them. But they’re not. So they don’t. Companies “want people to hit the ground running,” Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli, author of Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs, told USA Today. “They don’t want to train anybody.”

Bosses say they just want to fill positions. But that’s just not true.

What bosses want is flexible — i.e. compliant, uncomplaining — indentured labor. Foreign workers fit the bill perfectly. If foreigners get fired, they lose their visas and have to go back home. How likely are they to ask for a raise, much less gripe about long hours or unpaid overtime, with the boss’ sword raised over their heads?

And so, even as born-in-the-USA Americans — many of them experienced programmers with fancy “STEM” degrees from the nation’s top engineering schools — languish without jobs, sinking into poverty and getting evicted from their homes, Big Tech is passing them over in favor of indentured workers from India and other foreign countries.

“As drafted,” reports FoxNews, the bill would raise the current cap on so-called H-1B visas for highly skilled workers… The legislation also included new protections designed to ensure American workers get the first shot at jobs, and high-tech firms objected to some of those constraints.”

Re-read that last phrase.

“High-tech firms objected” to “new protections designed to ensure American workers get the first shot at jobs.” Thanks to the Gap-shirt-wearing “revolutionary” “pioneer” billionaires of Silicon Valley, those common-sense protections — which didn’t say you can’t hire foreign workers, only that you have to search for Americans before you do — have been cut out of the bill. Nevertheless the number of indentured foreign workers likely to be authorized by the new law has shot up to at least 300,000 annually.

That means millions of new foreign workers taking our best new jobs.

Which firms are spending big bucks to screw unemployed American tech workers? Unbeknown to most Internet users, Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is the tip of the spear of an anti-American worker, D.C. multi-million-dollar lobbying juggernaut. Facebook and their insanely rich right-wing corporate allies claim they need foreigners because they can’t find enough qualified U.S. citizens. “Microsoft has 3,500 high-tech jobs that they cannot fill. Intel has 1,700. I mean, you can go on and on,” Dan Turrentine of the trade group TechNet told NPR. Good thing it was radio; smirks look awful on TV.

The tech giants are lying. There are plenty of unemployed IT workers right here in the USA.

Officially, tech sector unemployment is a relatively low 3.7%. Of course, there’s still that question: why hire any foreigners as long as there’s one single American who needs a job?

Anyway, that number is deceiving. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, colleges and universities graduate 50% more students with degrees in computer and information science and engineering than get hired into those fields each year. Most of these bright young grads are forced into other professions, or simply remain unemployed. “The supply of high-tech workers,” concludes  EPI vice president Ross Eisenbrey, is “a problem we don’t have.”

Millions of tech-savvy Americans are out there looking for jobs. Yet big tech doesn’t want them.

“If anything, we have too many high-tech workers: more than 9 million people have degrees in a science, technology, engineering or math field, but only about 3 million have a job in one,” Eisenbrey wrote in The New York Times. “That’s largely because pay levels don’t reward their skills. Salaries in computer- and math-related fields for workers with a college degree rose only 4.5% between 2000 and 2011. If these skills are so valuable and in such short supply, salaries should at least keep pace with the tech companies’ profits, which have exploded.”

On average, the typical unemployed U.S. tech worker is better trained than the foreign workers who are taking their jobs.

We’re also seeing this import-foreigners-to-hell-with-Americans phenomenon on the low end of the employment ladder.

Like Zuckerberg, large-scale farms claim they can’t find Americans willing to work for them. In their case, it’s hard, low-paying field work: picking fruits and vegetables.

Once again, it turns out that there are lots of Americans willing to do the job — but the big farms pass them by. Agribusiness prefers compliant slave labor. “When Jose gets on the bus to come here from Mexico he is committed to the work,” Jon Schwalls, director of operations at Southern Valley farm in Georgia, said. “It’s like going into the military. He leaves his family at home. The work is hard, but he’s ready. A domestic [American citizen] wants to know: What’s the pay? What are the conditions?” Such gall.

Southern Valley is one of numerous farm operations being sued by “Americans, mostly black, who live near the farms and say they want the field work but cannot get it because it is going to Mexicans. They contend that they are illegally discouraged from applying for work and treated shabbily by farmers who prefer the foreigners for their malleability,” reports The Times.

We know Americans are willing to do field work because, until the 1970s, two-thirds of farm workers were U.S. citizens and a third were foreigners. Now it’s the other way around. Many are undocumented. Farms were recently forced to concede that their legally required efforts to recruit Americans for field work “had not been made or had been intentionally not serious.” Nevertheless, even as Americans who want these jobs get rejected (because they ask about pay and conditions), the U.S. continues to issue 85,000 H-2A visas to foreign field workers.

No wonder the immigration bill has bipartisan support. Both the Democrats and the Republicans work for their big corporate donors, not for us. Business wants salaries low, labor weak. There’s only one reason to import foreign labor: to depress wages.

If the supporters of import-more-foreigners immigration reform weren’t trying out to screw over American workers, they’d grant permanent resident status (“green cards”) to foreign workers so that they could stay legally, join unions, and negotiate on an equal footing with employers. But that would defeat the purpose.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Customer Service is a Right

Congress Should Mandate Minimum Number of Phone Reps

I don’t know if Mark Zuckerberg suffers from agoraphobia, but his company seems to have missed the jet age.

If you’re like me, you travel a lot. And if you’re on Facebook, odds are that you’ve been locked out of your account—even though you entered the correct password—because you logged in from an “unfamiliar location.”

Facebook’s test to make you prove you are who you say you are is bizarre: they show you randomly selected pictures of your Facebook “friends” and ask you to identify them. But most of my “friends” are readers and fans of my cartoons and books. I don’t know their faces. Moreover, not all of my “friends'” photos are of themselves. One Facebook test—I kept failing—presented me with pictures of potted plants.

It’s an idiotic test, one that trips up a lot of people. David Segal, who writes The Haggler consumer advocacy column for The New York Times, quotes Bryan Dale of Toronto: “Given that I use Facebook for networking and had never met most of my ‘friends,’ [Facebook’s ID test] was difficult. It was made impossible, however, because most of my Facebook friends are connected with pit bull advocacy and many of their pictures presented to me were actually pictures of their dogs.”

Why does Facebook freak out when I log in from San Diego while Citibank allows me to move thousands of dollars using no more than a password—from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan?

During my third week of Facebook Lockout Month I tried to call the company to ask that question and plead my case.

I couldn’t.

Facebook doesn’t have a customer service telephone number.

This, incredibly, is normal in the technology sector. A transnational corporation valued at tens of billions of dollars, with hundreds of millions of customers, has no way to get in touch with them in a hurry. Even if you’re a would-be zillionaire investor, you can’t call. You have to know someone inside.

What if someone is posting pornographic photos of your child via Twitter? What if someone has hacked into your account? What if you’re in San Diego and can’t figure out which of your Facebook “friends” owns that white pit bull with the black spot?

Some tech companies have phone numbers, but there’s no way to talk to a live human being. “Twitter’s system hangs up after providing Web or e-mail addresses three times,” Amy O’Leary reports in The Times. “At the end of a long phone tree, Facebook’s system explains it is, in fact, ‘an Internet-based company.’ Try e-mail, it suggests.”

Tried it. Repeatedly. Never heard back.

This is standard practice with tech companies. I’ve left customer service request messages for Apple, Adobe, Google and countless other firms over the years. I heard back maybe one time out of ten.

“LinkedIn’s mail lists an alternate customer service number. Dial it, and the caller is trapped in a telephonic version of the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ forced to work through the original phone tree again and again until the lesson is clear: stop calling,” writes O’Leary.

It was easier to get in touch with Osama bin Laden. Still is, probably.

This screw-the-customers crap began in the 1970s, when America began falling apart. First they made us pump our own gas. Then they made us bag our own groceries. The Better Business Bureau stopped accepting complaints. Finally, corporations started charging us for services—the phone company’s automated 411 information, automatic teller machines, electronic airline tickets—that, even before fees, had saved them money, increased their profits, and put thousands of workers out of work.

Still, when tech companies worth $10 billion don’t have a working phone number, you know they’ve taken “drop dead” to a whole new level.

“A lot of these companies don’t have enough employees to talk to,” Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Silicon Valley, told The Times. “Facebook, for example, has just one employee for every 300,000 users. Its online systems process more than two million customer requests a day.”

Indeed, one of the more troubling aspects of the Internet revolution is that the new tech sector employs far fewer workers per dollar of capitalization than the older industries, such as manufacturing, that it is replacing. Big banks like Goldman Sachs may be profit-sucking vampire squids bleeding American dry, yet they’re not nearly as destructive as high-valuation, low-payroll leeches like Twitter and Facebook.

General Motors, a company with $39 billion in equity value, directly employs 207,000 people, plus many more indirectly through its suppliers. Facebook has nearly twice the market capitalization ($67 billion) but employs a miserly 1,400 workers. On Wall Street, Facebook is worth more than GM. On Main Street, GM is worth 250 Facebooks.

It should be obvious to everyone that companies have a moral obligation to be responsive to the public, and that their duty to provide high-quality customer service increases exponentially as they grow in size. It should be equally obvious that companies that extract billions of dollars in profits from the American public have a moral responsibility to hire members of the American public. We’re not talking “make work”—but the minimum number of employees needed to conduct business in a responsible, professional manner.

Clearly the big tech companies are refusing to meet these minimum standards.

We should demand, Congress should pass, and the President should sign a law that sets clear standards for customer service by large corporations. For every x number of customers and/or every y million dollars of capitalization, there should be one U.S.-based, native English-speaking, professional customer service rep waiting to take our calls and help us.

Right away.

No phone tree.

No waiting.

It isn’t free speech, or habeas corpus, yet surely the Founding Fathers would agree: hard-working Americans have the right not to be driven crazy because boy billionaires are too cheap to hire some help.

(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com.)

(C) 2012 TED RALL, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Another Obama Sellout

Mortgage Settlement a Sad Joke

Joe Nocera, the columnist currently challenging Tom Friedman for the title of Hackiest Militant Centrist Hack—it’s a tough job that just about everyone on The New York Times op-ed page has to do—loves the robo-signing settlement announced last week between the Obama Administration, 49 states and the five biggest mortgage banks. “Two cheers!” shouts Nocera.

Too busy to follow the news? Read Nocera. If he likes something, it’s probably stupid, evil, or both.

As penance for their sins—securitizing fraudulent mortgages, using forged deeds to foreclose on millions of Americans and oh, yeah, borking the entire world economy—Ally Financial, Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have agreed to fork over $5 billion in cash. Under the terms of the new agreement they’re supposed to reduce the principal of loans to homeowners who are “underwater” on their mortgages—i.e. they owe more than their house is worth—by $17 billion.

Some homeowners will qualify for $3 billion in interest refinancing, something the banks have resisted since the ongoing depression began in late 2008.

What about those who got kicked out of their homes illegally? They split a pool of $1.5 billion.

Sounds impressive. It’s not. Mark Zuckerberg is worth $45 billion.

“That probably nets out to less than $2,000 a person,” notes The Times. “There’s no doubt that the banks are happy with this deal. You would be, too, if your bill for lying to courts and end-running the law came to less than $2,000 per loan file.”

Readers will recall that I paid more than that for a speeding ticket. 68 in a 55.

This is the latest sellout by a corrupt system that would rather line the pockets of felonious bankers than put them where they belong: prison.

Remember TARP, the initial bailout? Democrats and Republicans, George W. Bush and Barack Obama agreed to dole out $700 billion in public—plus $7.7 trillion funneled secretly through the Fed—to the big banks so they could “increase their lending in order to loosen credit markets,” in the words of Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican.

Never happened.

Three years after TARP “tight home loan credit is affecting everything from home sales to household finances,” USA Today reported. “Many borrowers are struggling to qualify for loans to buy homes…Those who can get loans need higher credit scores and bigger down payments than they would have in recent years. They face more demands to prove their incomes, verify assets, show steady employment and explain things such as new credit cards and small bank account deposits. Even then, they may not qualify for the lowest interest rates.”

Financial experts aren’t surprised. TARP was a no-strings-attached deal devoid of any requirement that banks increase lending. You can hardly blame the bankers for taking advantage. They used the cash—money that might have been used to help distressed homeowners—to grow income on their overnight “float” and issue record raises to their CEOs.

Next came Obama’s “Home Affordable Modification Program” farce. Another toothless “voluntary” program, HAMP asked banks to do the same things they’ve just agreed to under the robo-signing settlement: allow homeowners who are struggling to refinance and possibly reduce their principals to reflect the collapse of housing prices in most markets.

Voluntary = worthless.

CNN reported on January 24th: “The HAMP program, which was designed to lower troubled borrowers’ mortgage rates to no more than 31% of their monthly income, ran into problems almost immediately. Many lenders lost documents, and many borrowers didn’t qualify. Three years later, it has helped a scant 910,000 homeowners—a far cry from the promised 4 million.”

Or the 15 million who needed help.

As usual, state-controlled media is too kind. Banks didn’t “lose” documents. They threw them away.

One hopes they recycled.

I wrote about my experience with HAMP: Chase Home Mortgage repeatedly asked for, received, confirmed receiving, then requested the same documents. They elevated the runaround to an art. My favorite part was how Chase wouldn’t respond to queries for a month, then request the bank statement for that month. They did this over and over. The final result: losing half my income “did not represent income loss.”

It’s simple math: in 67 percent of cases, banks make more money through foreclosure than working to keep families in their homes.

This time is different, claims the White House. “No more lost paperwork, no more excuses, no more runaround,” HUD secretary Shaun Donovan said February 9th. The new standards will “force the banks to clean up their acts.”

Don’t bet on it. The Administration promises “a robust enforcement mechanism”—i.e. an independent monitor. Such an agency, which would supervise the handling of million of distressed homeowners, won’t be able to handle the workload according to mortgage experts. Anyway, it’s not like there isn’t already a law. Law Professor Alan White of Valparaiso University notes: “Much of this [agreement] is restating obligations loan servicers already have.”

Finally, there’s the issue of fairness. “Underwater” is a scary, headline-grabbing word. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Tens of millions of homeowners have seen the value of their homes plummet since the housing crash. (The average home price fell from $270,000 in 2006 to $165,000 in 2011.) Those who are underwater tended not to have had much equity in their homes in the first place, having put down low downpayments. Why single them out for special assistance? Shouldn’t people who owned their homes free and clear and those who had significant equity at the beginning of crisis get as much help as those who lost less in the first place? What about renters? Why should people who were well-off enough to afford to buy a home get a payoff ahead of poor renters?

The biggest fairness issue of all, of course, is one of simple justice. If you steal someone’s house, you should go to jail. If your crimes are company policy, that company should be nationalized or forced out of business.

Your victim should get his or her house back, plus interest and penalties.

You shouldn’t pay less than a speeding ticket for stealing a house.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

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