23 July 2009

This One Was That One or That One Was This One

People know that Dr. Seuss viewed Yertle the Turtle as a metaphor for Hitler (who'd been dead for a decade before the book appeared). The Lorax is a heavy-handed environmental fable. Horton the elephant and Bartholomew Cubbins are heroes, each in his own way, and the Cat in the Hat a figure of misrule. But the Dr. Seuss story that has long struck me as holding the most lessons for the real world is “The Sneetches.”

Some of the story's morals are pretty clear: caste systems are powerful but ultimately pointless, fashion is merely a way to enforce caste systems, and we're all the same under our furry (or is it feathery?) skins.

But underneath those unimpeachable bromides is a more useful and frightening message: A salesman like Sylvester McMonkey McBean will sell you anything. His sales pitch for one product will contradict his sales pitch for another. He'll sell you product A to solve one problem, and then product B to solve a problem created by product A. Despite his patter, McBean doesn't care about you; he cares about the sale.

For a long time, my favorite example of this behavior in the real world came from the telephone companies. They sold us telephone directories, and then they sold us unlisted numbers. They sold us caller ID, and they sold us caller-ID blocking.

The mortgage-industry meltdown has brought even better examples. Executives from companies that plugged subprime mortgages to homeowners who couldn't afford them are now making money by promising to help clean up the messes those loans produced.

In the Wall Street Journal:

The number of former mortgage lenders and brokers finding ways to make a living from the foreclosure crisis continues to mount.

Andrew "Drew" Gissinger III, formerly an executive managing director of Countrywide Financial Corp., has formed a firm in San Diego to act as a broker for banks selling foreclosed homes.
In the New York Times:
From the ninth floor of a downtown office building on Wilshire Boulevard, Jack Soussana delivered staggering numbers of mortgages to homeowners during the real estate boom, amassing a fortune.

By Mr. Soussana’s own account, his customers fared less happily. He specialized in the exotic mortgages that have proved most prone to sliding into foreclosure, leaving many now scrambling to save their homes.

Yet the dangers assailing Mr. Soussana’s clients have yielded fresh business for him: Late last year, he and his team — ensconced in the same office where they used to broker mortgages — began working for a loan modification company. For fees reaching $3,495, with most of the money collected upfront, they promised to negotiate with lenders to lower payments on the now-delinquent mortgages they and their counterparts had sprinkled liberally across Southern California.

“We just changed the script and changed the product we were selling,” said Mr. Soussana...
The Times article reports that Soussana's company is now being sued by the FTC for false claims.

In “The Sneetches,” McBean departs with all the sneetches' money, convinced that the creatures will never learn anything.

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