You know about the robosigners, right? The middle manager types who work at large mortgage loan companies and sign papers all day that say they’ve personally reviewed a lot of other papers which they don’t have time to have reviewed, because they’re busy signing the papers saying they reviewed them. Best to quote the Wall Street Journal:
They are called robo-signers, putting their names on thousands of documents tied to mortgages facing foreclosure….
Until now, Mr. Stephan was an anonymous middle manager whose job is to sign affidavits, assignments of mortgages and other documents that establish a bank’s ownership of a mortgage, thus giving the bank the right to foreclose….
In two sworn depositions given by Mr. Stephan over the last 10 months, he said that assistants brought as many as 500 documents a day to this desk at GMAC’s office in Fort Washington, Pa. Some months, he would sign more than 10,000 documents related to home foreclosures. By signing the documents, he was stating that he had personally reviewed the details of each case….
Ice Legal… took a sworn deposition from… another robo-signer. Working as an operations specialist for Chase Home Mortgage, a division of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., she said she regularly signed off on about 18,000 foreclosure affidavits and other documents each month, without ever personally reviewing the files associated with the loans. [original article]
Bank of America Corp. and OneWest Bank have also been found to have robosigners.
Here’s the thing. These “middle management” guys (what were they “managing”, a 1hr lunch to stretch their fingers after doing the human equivalent of machine work?) – these guys and gals were basically set up to violate the law, trained to be indifferent to the law, and set to work flaunting the law. But more important than the question of legality is the morality of it. It’s not that they were immoral, but that they were amoral. Soulless. Sure, when you’re ordered to break the law, you’re supposed to say no. These guys didn’t. I’ve been there. In my first job as a clerk, I was ordered to fudge documents (I said no), and even once to sign documents as someone else (we call that ‘forgery’ and I said no to that too). And yeah, I wasn’t well liked after that, and I was making waves. But what about all the stuff that’s wrong but isn’t technically illegal, or skirts the edge of the law? A person that’ll simply bow his or her head and do what they’re told about the law, will certainly do it when the law doesn’t account for something.
It’s like the Milgrim experiments, based on Kohlberg’s theory of moral stages – they give a stronger group of people (let’s call them middle managers) power over a weaker group of people (let’s call them people with financial trouble). In Milgrim’s labs it was people with buttons that administer pain and people who receive that pain. Then an authoritative figure orders the pain administered regardless of the cries of the victims. You can decide who we’re talking about there. I don’t fear the malevolent goon as much as I fear the amoral nobody – the latter is capable of anything – they are the machine people – the robosigners of a culture. In the words of the song from Sesame Street, they’re “the people in your neighborhood”. Amorality is the truest evil. As Hannah Arendt pointed out, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: the Banality of Evil, evil is ordinary – it’s the stuff most people are capable of. Which makes it all the more apropos that Ohio Attorney General Richard Corday said that to claim they were just following orders is “the Nuremburg Defense”. He’s been falsely characterized as comparing the simple mutts we call robosigners to the Nazis, but that’s not what he said – he correctly identified a well known argument (like “fire in a crowded theatre”) that any attorney would be familiar with, precisely because it was the famous plea of all the middle managers at Nuremburg, those “faceless” underlings who were simply amoral, compliant, loyal, and did what the authority figure told them to do.
We all know that the phrase “middle management” is so nebulous, refers to just about anything or anyone who is ‘less’ than an executive and more than a mere corporate tool – the office version of a line worker, that often times what we mean by it is simply “hack”. It can be anyone who is given a title with a word like ‘manager’ in it and a decent salary in exchange for loyalty and for quietly going about what they are instructed to do, quite amorally. Simply put, middle managers are often just the mercenary grunts of corporate life – mercenary because they do more or less whatever you like for money, and grunts because the work can even be something as repetitive as mindlessly sitting in one spot scribbling their names over and over for 8hrs per day. How they “manage” to think of themselves as still human is the real question.
Come on, how would you like that job? Imagine that’s your life, sitting there scribbling John Doe over and over, all day, every day, not knowing or caring whether what you’re signing your own personal, individual, human name to is true or not, real or not, right or not. Each scribble bleeding any integrity you have out on the page, disconnecting your identity from you as an individual and making it just part of a company program, your mind drifting off into meaninglessness, your words and reality never touching, your work accounting for nothing. The daily endeavours of your hands, the summit of your activity, of the most lively hours of the bulk of your days in the most productive years of your life, accounting for absolutely nothing. How would you like that to be your job? We can’t call it “your work”, because work is more dignified than that. The key question is not “was it fraud?” but “Is that what work has come to in contemporary corporate life?”, “How can anyone accept such a fate?”, “Is most of it, most of what passes for work in the corporate marketplace, from the cubicle to the warehouse, really just a more elaborate form of robosigning?” I don’t know, but I’m willing to ask the question.
There are good, decent people who work in chicken factories, doing the same repetitive, menial tasks all day. And it can be dehumanizing work. One line worker in such a factory said ‘I’m not thinking about anything at all. I have to work so quickly. I’m exhausted, emotionally if not physically. And if I think, I’ll think about the pain of this being my life.” Good people turned into robo-somethings by consumer gluttony and corporate greed. But when those repetitive, menial tasks involve stamping out someone’s life, in a depersonalized atmosphere of mass processing, it really wouldn’t be that far off to compare it to some of the jobs defended at Nuremburg, in principle, if not in degree.
I always wonder about guys like Mr. S. He pleads that he didn’t have enough training. For what? And do you really need training to know that what you’re doing is so banal and empty, that it must be some form of evil, despite what it’s doing to other people, if for no other reason than what it’s doing to you. I’m sure, in some ways, Mr. S. is very “nice”, is a ‘nice guy’. But frankly, I think nice guys suck. Nice guys are the enablers that allow the world to trod down a lot of its inhabitants quietly and easily and most of all efficiently with a minimum of fuss. Nice guys are the machine parts that don’t just serve good will or evil will – they serve any kind of will, without asking questions – they don’t make waves – they offend no one – they don’t ask uncomfortable questions – everyone is happy with them – most people they affect don’t even know them – they cause no problems, seemingly, for anyone – because they’re so ‘nice’. Nice guys either stand by while the big eat the small, using their salaries to buy nice houses and fill them with nice things, so they can invite over nice people, or they help turn the crank, because helping is what nice guys do. Niceness is nothing. Niceness is compliance, unquestioning, meaningless. Nice guys follow their orders. Nice is what I think of as evil. Nice is amoral. Ethical – not nice – belongs to the good.
So here’s the question this piece comes down to: are you a robosigner? In your life, in your work, in your relationships? Are you a nice person or an ethical person? Nice people can’t stand people who ask questions like this, you know. Nice people find this to be just too caustic, too dangerous, to apt to create conflict and uncomfortable feelings like guilt (which, if you’re guilty, is the first sign that you have human feelings). Nice people feel guilty if they offend anyone; ethical people feel guilty if they’re guilty. Are you… a robosigner? There’s not much more I can say past that question, because there’s nothing I can say to a robosigner that I haven’t said already in this blog and that wouldn’t get reprocessed, anyway, into the system of self-congratulation and acceptance that enables a robosigner to think of himself as a nice person in the first place. Nice people are nice to themselves. Ethical people ask the questions, even if it smarts to do so. So this has been my stab at all the news traffic over the foreclosure freezes and the spectre of fraud in taking people’s homes away.