April 2017
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Donald Trump's Poverty

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

When we speak of poverty, we usually mean a lack of money and all that brings. I discovered during a period of time when I was taking pro bono cases in housing court that there is an even more insidious, in some ways, form which I will call "information poverty".

My whole life in the white upper middle class, something I had taken for granted was that there were people in the environment, accessible to me, with knowledge about everything: as I confronted each life decision, choice of a school, a career, marriage, purchase of a home, there would be two types of information resources, people who had already been through the process, and beyond them and accessible through them, people who specialized: lawyers, accountants, doctors, businesspeople. If I needed advice on starting a business, the availability of a tax deduction, whether to buy or lease a car, I never had to make more than two or at most three hops, from someone I knew well, to the ultimate resource.

When I started to do pro bono work, about five years ago, the fact that I was meeting and representing people from different races and backgrounds concealed at first the fact that we all shared the same values, vocabulary and knowledge. A dedicated or professional activist by definition has acquired the skills to work with a variety of people, and knows, as I did my entire life, how to network to information resources. And the people I was defending in criminal court proceedings were by definition activists, who had been arrested in protests. Anywhere I traveled in that world, I knew how to talk to the people I found. In fact, most of them had networked to me the way I might have networked to the owner of a dealership when I wanted to buy a car.

Then I started to defend homeowners in foreclosure proceedings, and I discovered a world of deed fraud. Some people I represented had bought their very first house, and others had owned a home for twenty years. In either case they had been approached by a glossy banker, who told them they could have a huge loan based on very few requirements, and with a small monthly payment. They were either not told that the loan had an adjustable rate which could reset to an unaffordable amount in the future, or were persuaded that they could endlessly refinance for a lower mortgage rate when that happened. Then a $1200 monthly payment reset to $5000, there was no refinance available, and foreclosure papers were served after several months of nonpayment.

The next step in the tragedy was often a knock on the door, and another glossy stranger, often of one's own race, wearing an expensive suit. I am a banker, this person says, who can help you restore your credit and get out of foreclosure. All you have to do is put the deed of your house in my name, and in a year I will transfer it back to you. This is a classic form of fraud, and tens of thousands of New York homeowners fell for it. The con man, in a Wild West atmosphere where the real bankers knew he was a con man and did not care, obtained a mortgage twice the size of yours, pocketed the difference and vanished. When they foreclosed him, you, the defrauded homeowner, were a mere licensee in yor own home, no longer owner of the title; the bank took you to housing court to get you evicted.

When I became aware of the details of these frauds, I also learned what information poverty was; my knee jerk was that this could never happen to me; I would have known that there was something fishy about the request to put the deed in someone else's name; in twenty minutes of phone calls, I would have located a lawyer or broker who would have explained how the fraud worked. The tragedy of the circumstances of my defrauded clients is that they lived in an environment where those resources were not available, where there was no one they could network to and get an honest answer. That was partly because, unlike me,they didn't know a lot of doctors and lawyers. It was also because, again tragically, the professionals who worked in their world were themselves predatory, and did not believe that they owed my clients any obligation of truth. In my middle class world, most of the people I networked to would be ashamed to lie to me (there could be reputational consequences). In the black middle class neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, my foreclosure clients had almost all been cheated again, hiring an attorney who charged seven thousand dollars to do nothing, who never even brought a law suit to quiet title.

That issue of "obligation of truth" is a major but half-hidden element of information poverty. One thing I apparently was information-poor about was the methodology of getting a tattoo. I walked into a tattoo parlor in the Village and asked the "consultant" whether it would be better to place a tattoo on my hairy shoulder or my less hairy bicep, a question which has an immediate and obvious answer in that world (you never place a tattoo under hair). Likely because I was old and strange and very different from his usual clientele, he believed he owed me no obligation of truth, and therefore, information-poor, the consequence is that for the rest of my life, I will bear a tattoo in the wrong place. Bigotry, selfishness, superiority and competitiveness all can lead to the perverse withholding of information, even where there is no personal benefit. Think of being an outsider in a neighborhood and asking a local for directions, who will not even tell you the location of a popular restaurant.

Ultimately, I went even further into the impoverished world, volunteering for a few years to represent tenants in eviction proceedings. Now, for the first time, I met people who were so screwed, so used to being tricked and cheated, that they could not even trust me: there was no precedent in their world for a lawyer who worked for free. People routinely assumed I was bribed by the landlord, or seemed not to understand that I wasn't the landlord's attorney. In the end, with some shame, I triaged away this part of my practice, and returned to representing people who were capable of trusting me, whose vocabulary I shared.

It is not surprising to find information poverty among the financially poor and educationally deprived. But there is a remarkable American phenomenon, that today we have a President who, despite being fabulously wealthy by American standards, is perversely information-poor. Donald Trump grew up in a world, where, more even than in mine, any resource, any answer, could be instantly available. Apparently by virtue of being petted and pampered and taught at all times he was a superior life form, Trump has passed beyond information wealth to a whole new form of deprivation and poverty, through his willful attacks on expertise, his boasts that he knows more about ISIS than the generals, that he has learned all he needs to know on every topic, health care, taxation, warfare, by watching cable news shows. A man who perversely will not network or seek advice, who monstrously has been surrounded for a lifetime by people who will not tell him the truth, who (from assistants and lawyers to politicians and television executives) have encouraged him to think he has some kind of infallible bat-sense which trumps expertise. Whose campaign and administration specialized in attacking and undermining the experts; who reports as facts in a tweet or at a press conference, wild assertions heard minutes before on Fox News, without thinking to ask the CIA or the State or Justice Departments what support, if any, there is for them. The new owner of the hugest information and resource bank in the world who is capable, after 100 days, of statements like these:

I loved my previous life,
I loved my previous life.
I had so many things going,
I actually, this is more work than my previous life.
I thought it would be easier.
I do miss my old life. This -- I like to work. But this is actually more work.

I can understand the ignorance of those whom society has conspired at all levels to deprive of information resources. For an American president to be wilfully and so unnecessarily stupid is unforgiveable. And the fact that a sufficient number of voters were themselves too information-poor to see what he was, has the most dangerous implications for the future of democracy. Not to brag, but I have always known who Trump was, the same way my radar would have set off screaming alarms at the approach of a "banker" who wanted me to put the deed of my house in his name. In fact, Trump that con man, and we put the deed of the country in his name.