Ancient hustles and modern scams

by Brian Clarey

Ancient hustles and modern scams

It all comes back to Thales, that nifty pre-Socratic philosopher who stole my heart once I understood his ideas about water as the font of all life.

Thales took things the ancient Greeks attributed to the actions of the gods — magnetism, math and yes, even life itself — and tried to explain them in terms of the natural world, the reality in which he existed. He really blew everyone away when he accurately predicted a solar eclipse that took place during the Battle of Halys in 585 BC.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I want to refinance my traditional 30-year mortgage — my death pledge, according to the literal French translation. I want a refi because I feel my interest rate is inordinately high, because I’d like to shave some money off my monthly nut, because I haven’t made a late payment in more than three years.

With the banks on the ropes and Obama pledging relief, I figured it was my time. But I made the mistake of trying to deal with my existing mortgage service provider for a lower rate instead of jumping ship and going to another lender.

Now, six months later, after making five payments above the usual amount and a single one just $4 below, my mortgage service claims that I have been making reduced payments, which unbeknownst to me had been reflected in my credit report, causing problems when I did attempt to up and go to a new lender.

At some point in the last 10 years or so, American business has become an exercise in ripping people off, often those who can afford it the least.

It was no different in the time of Thales, I guess, though it should be noted that back then the Temple of Asclepius was open to all who needed healing — until the Romans came in and enslaved all the healing arts practitioners for service to wealthy elites. But that’s another story.

The story I’m thinking about today involves my man Thales and the wealthy olive merchants of Miletus, near what is now Turkey.

The olive merchants used to make fun of Thales and his scholarly ways. What good were the erudite practices of knowledge and speculation, they reasoned, when there was business to attend to, money to be made?

But then Thales, as the kids say, flipped the script.

As the story goes, the late-fall olive harvest had been down for several years and many farmers blamed the gods for losing their togas on their crops. But Thales thought it might have something to do with the weather, and he crunched several years’ worth of rainfall and sunshine data to predict the next bumper crop. Before it came in, Thales bought up all the olive presses in town from farmers who either needed the money to make it through the winter or feared that the gods had cursed their land.

And that is how Thales cornered the olive market, making him enough money to last the rest of his life and inventing both commodities market speculation and options trading — all this before pointedly retiring to his simple life of solitude and contemplation.

But it’s one thing when a guy uses wisdom, extrapolation and cunning to squeeze Big Olive Oil almost 3,000 years ago and quite another when a bunch of dumbasses at the bank wrack my credit rating for what amounts to $4.

Sure, Thales played upon the superstitions and greed of the olive merchants who had no way of knowing that a favorable growing season was coming their way. And, as the story goes, he did charge exorbitant rates for use of the olive presses, if only to rub it in to those who had ridiculed him. But Thales did it to prove a point. One version of the tale even has him giving the olive presses back to their owners after reaping his due.

But my mortgage provider relied on no shrewdness or acumen to get my business — just months after I signed the papers it was sold to them in a tranche with a bunch of other subprimes that eventually dealt such a punishing blow to the parent company that it was the recipient of $25 billion in bailout funds from tax coffers. I had absolutely no choice in either matter. And there was no greater principle at work here, unless it is the maxim that the people who can least afford it are ideal prey for unscrupulous lenders.

Now, in hindsight as I scroll through Google reading complaints about my mortgage service provider and their phony “loan modification” program, I am a bit wiser. And fortunately, this search engine is thoughtful enough to suggest other lenders who may be interested in a homeowner with a fair to middling credit score, a steady job and a real impetus to make a switch.

The thing is… there are more olive presses to be found around here these days.