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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Banks Guilty of Colluding to Set Euro-Dollar Exchange-Rate Fix: Toward a Competitive Market

In May 2015, Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, and the Royal Bank of Scotland both acknowledged colluding to set the “fix” rate in foreign exchange markets, and agreed both to change their internal cultures and pay criminal fines of over $2.5 billion.[1] The U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, stated that her department would “vigorously prosecute all those who tilt the economic system in their favor; who subvert our marketplaces; and who enrich themselves at the expense of American customers.”[2] I submit that this does not go far enough, given the size and power of the banks and the condition of the sector.

The full essay is at “Banks Guilty.”

[1] Loretta Lynch, “Attorney General Lynch Delivers Remarks at a Press Conference on Foreign Exchange Spot Market Manipulation,” The U.S. Department of Justice, May 20-, 2015.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, May 18, 2015

President Obama Overreaching on Trade

Throughout the twentieth century, the U.S. Government grabbed more and more power from the governments of the member-states. Even within the U.S. Government, presidents have tended to over-reach. Specifically, they have put their role in proposing legislation and treaties above their role as that government’s chief executive in enforcing existing laws. In May 2015, Sen. Elizabeth Warren issued a report whose thesis is that presidents of both parties had failed to enforce the labor-provisions in the existing trade treaties. That the current president, Barak Obama, was in the midst of negotiating yet another trade treaty said to have labor provisions included opens him up to the charge of over-reaching. That is to say, rather than focusing first on enforcing existing trade arrangements to which the U.S. was then a party, he was going beyond—that is, over-reaching—to negotiate yet another deal. Such over-reaching is akin to going beyond the negative legislative power in vetoing legislation to spend a lot of time proposing legislation at the expense of devoting time to running the executive branch as its chief executive and conferring with members of Congress on ways to improve the administration of existing law. In this essay, I use Warren’s report as a means into answering why the overreaching habit has become so ubiquitous among American presidents that the electorate barely recognizes it as such.

The full essay is at "Overreacting on Trade."

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Beyond Facebook’s Impact on Political Polarization in the U.S.

Any time “scientists” at a company purport to have done a study involving said company in any way, the public has good reason to be suspicious of the reported conclusions. Were the folks running the company really intent on providing credible information, they would use independent scholars (i.e., not being compensated by the company). Such a management would want to obviate even the appearance of a conflict of interest—their desire to provide the public with an answer being so strong. So the management at Facebook may not have been very invested in providing the public an answer to the question: how much influence do users actually have over the content in their feeds? In May 2015, three “Facebook data scientists” published a peer-reviewed study in Science Magazine on how often Facebook users had been “exposed to political views different from their own.”[1] The “scientists” concluded that if users “mostly see news and updates from friends who support their own political ideology, it’s primarily because of their own choices—not the company’s algorithm.”[2] Academic scholars criticized the study’s methodology and cautioned that the risk of polarized “echo chambers” on Facebook was nonetheless significant.[3] I was in academia long enough to know that methodological criticism by more than one scholar is enough to put an empirical study’s findings in doubt. Nowadays, I am more oriented to the broader implications of the “echo-chamber” criticism.

The entire essay is at “Beyond Facebook’s Impact.”

[i] Alexander B. Howard, “Facebook Study Says Users Control What They See, But Critics Disagree,” The Huffington Post, May 12, 2015.
[ii] Ibid. I put the quotes around “scientists” to make the point that the conflict of interest renders the label itself controversial in being applied to the study’s investigators.
[iii] See, for example, Christian Sandvig, “The Facebook ‘It’s Not Our Fault’ Study,” Multicast, Harvard Law School Blogs, May 7, 2015.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Taking the Face off Facebook

In testing out its search feature as a mobile app, Facebook's priority was still on mobile-ad revenue even in 2015. The stress on that revenue stream in turn resulted due to pressure from Wall Street analysts during Facebook's IPO. Was this simply a quarterly vs. long-term difference in perspective? Did Facebook cave too much, leaving its users with a sense of being exploited? In Taking the Face off Facebook, a collection of my essays, I analyze Facebook's strategic and ethical choices in the wake of the company's initian public-stock offering (IPO).

Friday, May 8, 2015

British Colonies Forge an American Empire: A Basis for Equitable Trans-Atlantic Relations

By the end of twenty-first century, Americans typically took it for granted that the United States constitute a nation equivalent to France or Spain.  That the Union could have been referred to as the New Empire in its early days would seem nonsensical or flatly erroneous.  Claims that the constitutional convention delegates could have differed on whether they were designing a national or international government would likely get blank stares.  Well into the 2010s, the American and European political and media elites were lock-step agreement: the E.U. was not to be portrayed as equivalent to the U.S.; rather the E.U. was a “supranational organization.” Hence, The New York Times consistently referred to the European Commission as the E.U.’s executive arm rather than branch. Meanwhile, European politicians and journalists were falling over themselves to stress that France, Germany, the U.K., Italy, and other states are member-states, lest anyone confuse an E.U. state with a U.S. state. Referring to an American state as a member-state simply was not done. That in being represented in the U.S. Senate made the American states members of the U.S. was not enough to get them “member state” status. That the U.S. Senate is founded in international principles, wherein each polity gets the same number of votes, whereas the European Council adjusts how many votes a state gets according to population (roughly) was simply ignored or even unknown. The axis of proper comparison was etched in stone, or it appeared to the general public.

That the default reflexively used for trans-Atlantic comparisons might itself be a category mistake—for instance, in treating one Union as commensurate with a State in another Union—would not have been questioned strikes me as bizarre, given the founding and early history of the United States as an international alliance, confederation, and only then was a federal government (and of limited governmental sovereignty) added. 

Access the book here.

In this book, I go back to the colonial period to argue that the United Colonies and subsequent United States were (and are) properly regarded as constituting an empire—using this term both as a political type and a territorial scale distinct from those of (member) states.

Accordingly, I argue that the American colonies and the subsequent individual generically-termed States were commensurate with European kingdoms of the time (and thus with European countries in the twentieth century). In other words, the British colonies in North America were colonies in the Greek rather than Roman sense; the Greek city-states colonized to replicate themselves whereas Roman colonies were designed to be a part of a Roman city rather than eventually cities in their own right. My argument turns on the following point: a Greek city-state would create a colony to become a city-state rather than a part of the founding city-state, and the British created colonies in North America with this model (rather than that of the ancient Romans) in mind. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Is the E.U. a Federal System? Comparing the E.U. and U.S.

The United States and the European Union are not typically thought of on either side of the Atlantic Ocean as commensurate, and thus comparable, at least as of 2015 as I compile the essays in this text. Nevertheless, I contend that both polities are empire-level federal systems—federal in the modern sense, wherein the states and the federal level government share governmental sovereignty. If I’m correct in my categorization, we could evade the mistaken prescriptions that naturally ensue from category mistakes by comparing France, for example, with Texas rather than the entire U.S., and California not with the E.U. but, rather, with Italy. Useful lessons for the E.U. would come from looking at the U.S., and vice versa. Keeping the (member) states distinct from their respective federal levels is rarely if even done in making trans-Atlantic comparisons.

Accordingly, I present this collection of my essays on federalism applied to the E.U. and U.S. so the ubiquitous category-mistakes might finally be viewed as antiquated and useful lessons may be drawn on both sides of the Atlantic to fortify the respective federal empires of (member) states. The essays in Part I emphasize EU-US comparisons. The second and third parts focus respectively on the European Union and the United States, with comparisons and contrasts brought in as needed. I contend generally that both federal systems are in need of improvements to be viable over time. Whereas the E.U.’s risk is dissolution, consolidation at the expense of federalism is the danger facing the U.S. as of 2015. Ideally, a federal system has in its design structures and processes that tend the system itself into having a balance of power between the states and the federal-level governmental institutions. Only thusly can the states provide a check on federal encroachment, and the federal institutions check wayward states. In seeking to realize this benefit, Europeans and Americans could do worse than draw comparisons without committing a category-mistake. 

A Related Audio:  http://www.blogtalkradio.com/thewordenreport/2013/07/08/the-eu-and-us

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Conflict of Interest at the U.S. Department of Education Keeps Students on the Hook

A conflict of interest can be viewed as two conflicting roles, wherein the one entailing more public responsibility is compromised or eclipsed by the other. The ongoing temptation itself may be sufficient grounds ethically to end or transfer the potentially exploitive role. In other words, sometimes the solution is as simple as ending the potentially encroaching task or role. When the institution is a governmental agency, selecting or creating another agency to perform the task is one alternative; privatizing it is another. Either way, deconstructing an institutional conflict of interest by separating problematic role-combinations is advisable even in cases in which the more private-benefits role has not corrupted the more public-benefits role. The U.S. Department of Education provides a useful case in point.

The complete essay is at “U.S. Department of Education.”

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Dalai Lama’s Reincarnation: By Government Fiat?

Reincarnation is a difficult gig for Buddhists. Being reborn for yet another life is not a good thing; bad karma (i.e., residue from bad choices in life) keeps a soul on the wheel of samsara. Because life-after-life involves suffering, a Buddhist strives for Nirvana, or enlightenment, which releases a soul from the cycle of being reborn yet again. Reincarnation is a difficult gig for Buddhists also because unlike Hinduism, Buddhism denies the very existence of a soul (atman) as an entity. How, then, can something that does not exist go on to be re-clothed in another body for another life? Yet another problem for the devout Buddhist concerns government officials who claim that they can decide whether a certain soul reincarnates, and if so, into which body. In 2014, for example, the Chinese government made it known that it would pick the next reincarnated Dalai Lama—the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

The full essay is at “Dalai Lama’s Reincarnation.”

Saturday, April 25, 2015

On the Southwest American Drought: Looking to China

Lake Mead, a reservoir outside Las Vegas serving 40 million people in Nevada, Arizona, Southern California, and Northern Mexico, was at its lowest level (i.e., below 1,080 feet) in April 2015 since it was formed with the Hoover Dam.[1] Particularly for California, whose snow-melt would again be minimal, the continued draught was quickly turning dire. With a surplus of rain-water coming down on western Washington and Oregon, the U.S. Government could have dusted off FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to activate the long-term unemployed (and the imprisoned) to assist the Army’s Corps of Engineers in constructing aqueducts and digging canals that would hook up with the extant canals running from the delta area north of Sacramento to southern California. It is not as though the Oregonians and Washingtonians would miss the water, and the Californian farmers could see to it that their best produce finds itself up north. Yet as easy as such a large-scale governmental project seems, the devil is in the details, which can actually be rather huge in themselves. China provides a useful case study that the Americans could, conceivably at least, benefit from—should they endeavor on a truly large-scale governmental project.

The full essay is at “The Southwest Drought and China.”

[1] Reuters, “Lake Mead on Track for Record Low Water Level Amid Drought,” The Huffington Post, April 24, 2015.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Democracy as an Anti-Trust Criterion: The Comcast Time-Warner Merger

As the U.S. Department of Justice and the SEC were reviewing the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner in April 2015, six U.S. senators signed a joint letter opposing the $45 billion deal. Comcast would control about 30 percent of the pay-television subscribers in the U.S. and an estimated 35 to 50 percent of the American broadband internet service.[1] That more senators had not signed on is telling with respect to how business-oriented American society had become.

The full essay is at “Democracy and Anti-Trust Law.”

[1] Emily Steel, “6 Senators Urge Rejection of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Deal,” The New York Times, April 21, 2015.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Anti-trust Enforcement in the E.U. and U.S.: Business, Government and Society

In 2014, the E.U. depended on Gazprom, a state-controlled Russian gas company, for one-third of the natural gas used in Europe. Meanwhile, Russia depended on the company for export-earnings. Moreover, both the E.U. and Russia view Gazprom from not only commercial vantage-points, but geopolitical ones as well. Both dimensions were in the mix as the European Commission weighed bringing anti-trust charges against the company in April 2015. At the time, the E.U.’s executive branch was already formally pursuing Google on anti-trust grounds. Relative to anti-trust enforcement in the U.S., the E.U.’s own represents a formidable attempt to open up competitive markets. We can generalize, in fact, to posit a more balanced “check and balance” between business and government in Europe.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

BuzzFeed’s Internal Firewall Falls to a Conflict of Interest

In spite of the fact that public-accounting firms rely on their respective audit clients’ decisions to be retained to perform the next year’s audit, society deems an unqualified audit-opinion to be independent. The assumption is that the audit firms can police themselves, keeping their financial pressures from influencing the audit opinions. The ongoing temptation is of course to produce a clean opinion so as to be retained as the client’s public accountants. Unfortunately, someone at a given CPA firm must have authority requiring attention both to audit opinions and the firm’s own financial performance; internal policies separating pressure from the latter from reaching the former can thus be easily overcome from the vantage point of that authority. This vulnerability was on display in 2015 in the “dot-com” industry in BuzzFeed.

The full essay is at “BuzzFeed’s Internal Firewalls.”

Electric Utilities Thwart Solar Applications: A Conflict of Interest Rewarding the Status Quo

Considering the contribution of coal-burning power-plants to atmospheric carbon-emissions and thus global warming, governments around the world should be encouraging rather than discouraging home-owners to install solar panels. That is to say, we ought not privilege the status quo when it has contributed so much already to an uncomfortable or even uninhabitable Earth for mankind. So it is unfortunate that energy officials in Hawaii’s government had to step in to pressure—no, order—the Hawaiian Electric Company to approve its “lengthy backlog” of solar applications.[1] I submit that the officials should have gone further in correcting for the conflict of interest in the utility. Put in the vernacular, electric companies tended at the time to screw customers who could sell back “home-grown” solar power. The root problem here is in the utilities’s dual roles of seller and consumer of power.

The full essay is at “Electric Utilities and Solar Power.”

[1] Diane Cardwell, “Utilities See Solar Panels as Threat to Bottom Line,” The New York Times, April 19, 2015.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hollywood’s Conflict of Interest in Trade Negotiations

At the intersection of business and government, a conflict of interest can be indicative of plutocracy, the rule of wealth, at the expense both of balanced public policy and democracy. That is to say, where the regulated have disproportionate influence over regulators and said influence places the regulated in a conflict of interest, the unethical dimension is dwarfed by the distortive impact on the political system. The disproportionate influence of the content industry (i.e., Hollywood) in the U.S. position on the Pacific Trade negotiations in 2014 is a case in point.

The full essay is at “Hollywood and Trade.” 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Breaking Up the Biggest Banks: The Impact on Moral Hazard

Citing the “slap on the wrist” culture at the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren called on Congress in April 2015 to break up the big banks such as Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs.[1] She coupled the ‘break-up” approach to reducing the systemic risk with limiting the Fed’s ability to bailout individual banks. The synergy in Warren’s approach is worthy of further analysis.

The full essay is at "Breaking Up the Biggest Banks."

1. Reuters, “Elizabeth Warren Calls on Congress to Break Up the Big Banks, Change Tax Rules,” The Huffington Post, April 15, 2015.