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Monday, May 20, 2019

NASA and Its Contractors: The Challenger Disaster

Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at a NASA contractor, Morton Thiokol. Boisjoly blew the whistle both within the company and to NASA regarding the danger of the rubber in the o-rings, which seal the connections in the shuttle’s rockets, being insufficiently elastic in cold weather. Although The Challenger Disaster (2019) is not a documentary, the film’s narrative, which centers on Roger, or "Adam," is oriented to understanding why the Challenger space shuttle exploded after being launched on January 28, 1986. In other words, although some names are different and the conversations are not verbatim in the film, the factors that contributed to the actual explosion are presented. In fact, the film leans too much on technical details before the disaster and legal arguments afterwards without adequate entertaining elements to make the film enjoyable. However, the film's political function in informing a mass market of why part of the government-business system was broken is valuable. In fact, this mission demonstrates that the medium of motion pictures is capable of aiding in social, political, economic, and religious awareness and education, and thus development.

The full essay is at "The Challenger Disaster."

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Buddhist Mindfulness and the Self: Milton's Secret

On the surface, Milton's Secret (2016) is a story about a financially-stressed family getting a visit from grandpa, who brings something unusual with him (besides his tea). Because Donald Sutherland really liked the character,  he agreed to play Grandpa Howard. Grandpa has a secret, which he shares with his grandson, Milton. It fundamentally changes not only him, but also his parents. Howard brings Zen Buddhism and alchemy to his family.  That the fictional (narrative) film explains and relates the two and renders both so transparent for the audience says something about the potential of the medium itself to handle abstractions and relate them to life.

The full essay is at "Milton's Secret."

Friday, May 17, 2019

Israel and the United States on Palestinian Democracy

I contend that the furtherance of democracy in general and more specifically in the Middle East can be regarded as a strategic pathway toward regional peace. The philosopher Kant wrote a treatise on a global federation as a means toward achieving world peace. The founders of the United States reckoned that all the republics within that regional federation must be democratic for the Union itself to be sustained. A United States of the Middle East would also stand a better chance were it's states republics in form. It follows that especially when democratic bystanders put short-term tactical and strategic advantage above furthering or just permitting the development of a young, unstable democracy, the hypocrisy puts off rather than furthers peace. The reactions of Israel and the United States to a Palestinian achievement in 2011 are a case in point. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Facebook: Holding User Accounts Hostage

A Facebook “challenge” asking users to post a current photo and one from a decade earlier went viral in early 2019. Even though it is unlikely that the company was behind the “challenge” going viral, that the company had been working on facial recognition technology had users being suspicious on the motive behind the “challenge.”[1] A writer for Wired wrote at the time, “Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g., how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years.”[2] Why would Facebook want to track how a person is likely to look years later? Some users may put up an old picture of themselves or simply not update the existing photo, but why would Facebook want to know what those users are likely to look currently? Perhaps Facebook wanted to be able to identify those users in current pictures uploaded by others. So why did the company deny using the “challenge” for such a legitimate purpose as connecting people socially? Nonetheless, the company insisted that it had no benefit from the “challenge” going viral. This statement seems suspicious, especially given the company’s earlier lapses on user privacy. I contend that an even more toxic subterfuge existed at the time at Facebook—a cloak that held user accounts hostage until a clear facial picture could be supplied.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Russian Meddling in the U.S. Election of 2016: Intrusiveness as Disrespect

Russian hackers compromised the voter databases in two counties in Florida. According to Gov. Ron DeSantis, “Two Florida counties experienced intrusion into the supervisor of election networks. . . . There was no manipulation . . . it did not affect voting or anything like that.”[1] I submit that intrusion is the operative word here, for even if voting tallies were not affected, the mentality behind intruding is itself sordid. In other words, the source of the unethical conduct does not just lie in the consequences, though they could admittedly be significant in the future.

The full essay is at "Russian Meddling in a U.S. Election."

1. Dustin Votz, “Russians Breached Voter Data in Two Florida Counties in 2016,” The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2019.

The FAA Deferred to Boeing on the 737 MAX Jet

After a misfiring-prone automatic stall-prevention device on the 737 MAX jet had caused two accidents in which 346 people died, an internal review at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, a regulatory agency, found that the regulators had relied too much on Boeing employees to conduct the safety inspections of the planes. Incredibly, Congress expanded the industry-reliance practice of the agency in 2018. Both the FAA and Congress were admittedly motivated by the added efficiency that such “sub-contracting” could bring. However, to focus on the economic benefit while ignoring the inherent (and obvious) conflict of interest in “sub-contracting” to the very companies that are regulated by the FAA is itself a red flag. A subservient or over-reliant regulatory agency cannot be a check on a company’s claims of not having sacrificed safety or even safety checks in order to focus more on profitability.  Of course, the political influence of a large company such as Boeing may have played a role in the FAA’s “back-seat” approach, but in this case the government’s own interest in stretching the coverage of its human resources may have been dominant. That such an interest could involve minimizing or ignoring outright such a blatant conflict of interest may point to a wider culture in which institutional conflicts of interest are presumed to be innocuous or even benign rather than too toxic to permit even if they have not been actively exploited.  

The full essay is at "FAA Deferred to a Regulatee."

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Before Infiltrating American Democracy, the Kremlin Had Curtailed Democracy (and Federalism) in Russia

Officials in the Russian government may have ordered computer hackers to infiltrate the U.S. presidential election in 2016 not only in order to influence the outcome to be more favorable to Russia, but also because those officials did not respect federalism and democracy, which, after all, had been so weak in Russia. 

The full essay is at "Russia's Kremlin: Disvaluing Democracy."  

Friday, May 10, 2019

President Obama and Goldman Sachs: A Quid Pro Quo?

Wall Street and the White House may be closer than the typical American thinks. One way this is accomplished is for a bank to contribute heavily to both presidential campaigns so as to be able to hedge political risk by getting ex-managers into strategic posts in the executive arm of the U.S. Government. This can be the case even when one of the candidates has campaigned on holding Wall Street accountable, such as after the financial crisis of 2008. There is the campaign slogan, and there is the political-economic reality underneath. 

The full essay is at "Obama and Wall Street."

Thursday, May 9, 2019

General Electric: Tax Avoidance with Former IRS Employees In-House

The name of the game in all too many corporate tax departments is to minimize the tax due as much as possible. No countervailing notion of “corporate citizenship” or even “fair share” exists in that economic world of single-minded minimization of what is to be paid out. Put another way, responsibility does not compute in the business calculus. Advocates of corporate social responsibility got this wrong for decades by naively assuming that people who work in management roles cannot compartmentalize. Whether due to the strictures of a job description or financial pressures on a company, managers themselves may regret having to compartmentalize in order to keep their respective jobs. Sadly, all too often, a manager faces internal and external pressure to sign off on something that is admittedly unfair or too greedy. That the playing field itself may be slanted in the financial interests of large businesses goes beyond a manager's pay-grade, and even that of a corporation itself. For one to speak out in order to make the tilt explicit in society would deny the operative role of compartmentalization. Managers, even CEO's, may personally want a level playing field wherein corporations cannot yield an undue amount of wealth at the expense of other entities or persons, such a desire is outside of the business calculus. 
One manifestation of the tilted field is the ability of companies to bring IRS agents in-house as employees. In the debate on whether to end the George W. Bush Tax Cuts, the nominal (or statue) tax rates were salient. Much less was said of the effective rates, which are calculated by dividing the actual tax paid by total income (individuals) or net income (corporations). The New York Times reported in 2011: Although “the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less.”[1] Although perfectly legal, the undue advantage means that the U.S. Government has had to look for other sources of revenue to make up for the lost revenue or do without the revenue, using debt to compensate. The "perfectly legal" aspect points back to the tax laws, and, more particularly, at the undue or even improper influence of the business sector in Congress. In fact, lest it be concluded that the business calculus is the reason for the tax avoidance (which is legal, unlike tax evasion), the financial power of business tilts the field not only by having too much influence in the crafting of tax legislation, but also in being able to hire ex-IRS employees to get "the inside scoop" on avoidance tactics. I now turn to the case of General Electric (GE) in 2010. 

The full essay is at "General Electric."

1. David Kocieniewski, “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether,” The New York Times, March 24, 2011.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns

Films are commonly known to have two or three dimensions in terms of perspective. Animated films were for decades in the twentieth century in two dimensions—a flat story-world—until the advent of animated films made to show depth, hence three dimensions. Still another, third or fourth respectively, dimension is the element of time in the story-world. Literally, as the still frames are moved one to the next, changes can be perceived in the story-world; you won’t see any change by looking at a frame. Then we get to the dimensions that extend outside of the story-world. One possible dimension is how the narrative or the story-world in a film relates to the book upon which the particular film is based. This dimension becomes visible in terms of meaning particularly when similarities exist, but differences too can prompt attention the dimension itself. In this essay, using Mary Poppins Returns (2018), I discuss another dimension that involves the content in a film but extends out into the world of the audience. When made manifest, this dimension can carry significant meaning for the audience, for this dimension involves both a society’s “social reality” and what is shown in a film.

The full essay is at "Mary Poppins Returns."

Monday, May 6, 2019

The U.S. Department of Justice: Big Banks May Legitimately Be above the Law

The Financial Times reported in 2013 that lawmakers in the U.S. Congress were claiming that the Department of Justice had been “too soft on big banks and their executives by failing to bring criminal cases related to the financial crisis.”[1] In the five years following the financial crisis of 2008, no Wall Street executive was criminally charged with fraud. The U.S. Justice Department chose not to go after the bankers for their lack of due diligence regarding their purchases of sub-prime mortgages from mortgage originators. This in spite of the fact that at Citibank, for example, a manager in the bank’s due diligence department estimated that 50% to 80% of the approved mortgages did not meet the bank’s credit policy, and yet Robert Rubin, the CEO at the time, did not act on the manager’s email. This suggests that a criminal complaint could have been lodged against the bank itself, but then what would be the implications for the financial system should Citibank had gone under after being found criminally guilty? Does it even hold that a guilty verdict would mean bankruptcy? Simply stated, a company can be so large that its failure due to a guilty verdict could harm innocent third parties, including stockholders, employees, suppliers, and even the general public if the bankruptcy triggers a systemic collapse of the financial system. Such concerns are called collateral consequences. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, systemic risk became a particularly salient concern for criminal prosecutors at the U.S. Department of Justice. Swayed by a desire to minimize the potential disproportionate harm to innocent parties from a verdict-triggered major bankruptcy, the prosecutors believed they were obligated to consider collateral consequences even if that meant that the really big banks would be immune from criminal prosecution. To such banks, this could be used as a competitive advantage because keeping within the constraints of law in making money would not apply. I contend, therefore, that the U.S. Government should not have taken collateral consequences into consideration. 

The full essay is "Big Banks above the Law."

 Mythili Raman testifying before Congress. mainjustice.com

1. Shahien Nasiripour and Kara Schannell, “Holder Says Some Banks Are ‘Too Large,” The Financial Times, March 7, 2013.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Big Bankers and the U.S. Government: A Coalition Circumventing Accountability on Wall Street

It is interesting that the U.S. Department of Justice did not pursue the fraudulent bankers on Wall Street not only during the Bush presidency, but also the following presidency, that of Barak Obama.  Not coincidentally, Goldman Sachs was the single biggest campaign contributor to Obama’s 2008 candidacy for president. It would seem that Wall Street had both political parties in a net by the time of the financial crisis in September, 2008. A sector of the economy being able to control both major parties is bad for not only industrial policy (i.e., favoritism), but also democracy. In short, a government should have enough strength to constrain a business sector, rather than being subject to it. The latter condition implies continued vulnerability should greed again get ahead of itself on Wall Street. By nature, greed, if allowed to go on running on its own steam, accumulates more and more momentum.

The full essay is at "Wall Street and the U.S. Government."

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Case for a Presiding President in Russia

On December 31, 2010, a Russian judge sentenced Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian tycoon who had been imprisoned in 2003 after defying Vladimir Putin, to an additional six years in prison. According to The New York Times, "It was a politically tinged decision that undermined President Dmitri Medvodev."[1] Leonid Goman of the Right Cause Party in Russia agreed. "It was obviously a political, not a judicial, decision." He went on to say that in general terms, "corruption is endemic, government power is often abused and senior politicians are rarely, if ever, held accountable for misdeeds."[2]  Clearly, Prime Minister Putin was still very much in control in Russia.  His message was that wealthy businessmen should not interfere in Russian politics. What a contrast to American politics, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United case!  Khodorkovsky was at one time the richest person in Russia, having been one of the oligarchs who bought government assets at bargain prices after the fall of the USSR, but he financed opposition parties in a political system that was anything but democratic.

1. Clifford Levy, "Russia Extends Prison Sentence of Tycoon 6 Years,” The New York Times, December 31, 2010, p. A1.
2. Ibid. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Glimpsing behind the Curtain: Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Assassination

Robert Ross interviewed Lyndon Johnson’s mistress, Madeleine Duncan Brown what Ross titled, “The Clint Murchison Meeting in Dallas November 21, 1963.” The interview took place sometime before her death on June 22, 2002. The content is revealing, and she comes across as very credible as it is obvious she still had feelings even then for the late president. She also had a credible motive for opening up to the American people. So in watching the interview, I did not view it as just another conspiracy theory; I paid attention. Sometimes the truth finally emerges in plain sight, rather than through complicated theories as in Oliver Stone’s film, JFK (1991). The most revealing facts to emerge from the interview are that Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald just two days after the assassination, had been at the meeting at Murchison’s mansion on the night before the assassination, and that LBJ told Madeleine while leaving Murchison’s house after the meeting, “After tomorrow, those SOB’s will never embarrass me again.” That the official narrative from the Warren Commission would still carry weight as the default account at least in the first two decades of the next century astounded me. At the very least, all of Madeleine’s knowledge of the players should have caused at least a tremor when the interview was made public. The status quo has that much inertia. Even so, the American public can gleam from Brown’s account just how different the reality of the power-brokers in (and outside of) the U.S. Government can be from what the public knows. Unfortunately, the patina or gloss even of acting can have incredible staying-power even in the face of the facts revealed. Members of the political elite and their companions may want to protect their legacies in old age, or want the freedom of conscience that comes from the impunity that can only come with death. The resulting piecemeal facts must justify themselves, however, whereas the long-standing official version often has the benefits of not only protective power and entrenchment that comes with having been the default for so long, but also a coherent (i.e., contrived) narrative. 

The full essay is at "On President Lyndon Johnson: The Man."

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Star Is Born

The film, A Star Is Born (2018), has the narrative structure chiefly of two intersecting character arcs. They are multi-level in the sense that both interior emotional states and exterior vocational popularity change for both Jackson and Ally. Each of them must deal with feelings of insecurity at some point and both are singers. The antagonist is interesting as well, as it is a character that plays a small but decisive role in how the narrative ends.

The full essay is at "A Star Is Born."