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Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Recipe for Regulatory Recidivism: the MMS and FAA

In 2010, the Inspector General of the US Interior Department made public a report on the federal Minerals Management Service, which regulates the oil industry and profits from leases to it.  In addition to this glaring conflict of interest, MMS has apparently not only been “cozy” with the industry it is regulating, the two have been as one.   One inspector said, “We are all the oil industry.” 

The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Bicycle Principle of Business Ethics: Walmart as Mediocre

I once bought a bike at Walmart.  To my chagrin, the bike had very little coasting ability. After riding down into a valley, I looked forward to some momentum on the up side. However, there was very little upside. Shortly after passing the lowest point, I would have to begin pedaling again.  In fact, if the down-hill was not steep, I had to pedal so as not to de-accelerate while going down hill.  In regard to Walmart, it could be concluded that not every product fits into a low-cost strategy (to say “cost-leadership” would gild the lily, besides engage in fad-jargon). While pedaling from the bottom of a hill just after having come down another, I constructed a young theory of business ethics.  Namely, that it was unethical for Walmart to sell the bicycle-brand (which I do not recall) because I deserved some coasting credit. You might say that if I didn’t have to pedal going down hill, I don’t deserve any “credit” in going up hill; the ease going down is paid for by the effort going up. However, even if I had not had to pedal while going downhill, I still would have believed that I deserved some “credit” on the up side. Why should I be exempted from benefiting from the laws of nature?  It is not fair if I am excluded from the phenomenon of mometentum through no fault of my own. Walmart had unwittingly put a wrench between me and momentum by essentially “spending” it by releasing it. So I was left with the impression of an asymetry that was unnatural. Of course, gravity and friction take their toll, so one can not expect to go without any effort on the up side.  But where a product eviscerates the benefits ensuing from a natural law, the product can be reckoned as inferior from the standpoint not only of quality, but as undeserved by any buyer.  There is thus a bicycle principle of ethics, which is a sort of naturalistic ethical theory based on the principles of fairness and desert–namely, that it is unfair to deprive certain people of public goods such as momentum while others indulge. An inferior product can be reckoned in such terms.

America and Europe Contrasted: How We Reacted to Westboro Church's Anti-Gay and John Galliano's Anti-Semitic Opinions

The First Amendment protects free speech even if it is as hurtful as signs at a Marine funeral proclaiming "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 2, 2011. The Westboro Baptist Church celebrated the death of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder in Iraq with signs such as "God Hates You," along with antigay messages at his funeral in Maryland in 2006.

The late Marine's father sought damages for emotional distress. An appellate court had reversed the $5 million award granted by a district court, and the U.S. Supreme Court concurred with the appellate court's decision.  The Wall Street Journal notes that "Chief Justice Roberts nodded to the wrenching set of facts in the case, writing that 'the applicable legal term— 'emotional distress'—fails to capture fully the anguish Westboro's choice added to Mr. Snyder's already incalculable grief.'"  Crucially, however, the justices of the majority opinion would not fall to the temptation of acting on the emotion that naturally follows hearing of such harm.

Interestingly, on the same day as the American high court's decision, the designer John Galliano was being fired by Dior's CEO and investigated by the French police (for inciting racial hatred with anti-semitic statementsm, which is illegal in at least the French and German states of the EU) for having made anti-semitic insults to a couple with whom he was arguing late at night in a trendy bar (cafe) in Paris. There, the emotions got the best of both the designer and those who reacted to the video posted of his comments (albeit showing only a part of the argument). Perhaps a grieving father at his son's funeral reading signs that thank God for dead American soldiers can be likened to a Jewish couple at a bar hearing that they are lucky their grandparents or parents were not exterminated by the Nazis. It is difficult for the rest of us to know how either feels, or how to compare the pain.

In any case, that any human being would want to hurt another so much is truly a sad commentary on our species that otherwise vaunts itself as being in the image of God. Perhaps the question is what kind of God is being envisioned here. A vengence is mine, sayth the Lord sort, which Nietzsche condemns in his writings as already discredited on account of having such a sordid divine attribute as vengence?  The deed is done, according to Nietzsche.  So too, the pain has already been inflicted on the grieving parents and the Jewish couple.  The rest is merely mopping up. 

I contend that the impulsive reaction in Europe to the fashion designer's drunken anti-semetic slurs is inferior to the majority opinion of the American court in the Westboro case because the tolerance of reason is more in keeping with a free society than is vengence or retribution against a disliked opinion. Chief Justice Roberts emphasized that speech on public issues (of which gays in the military is one) "cannot be restricted simply because it is upsetting or arouses contempt," USA Today reports. Roberts pointed out that the jury at the district court level of the case had been told that Westboro could be held liable for the intentional infliction of emotional distresss if the picketing was "outrageous." The chief justice argues that that test is "highly malleable," which is to say, it can change according to what a given person happens to think is outrageous. An old man might think noice in an apartment hallway at midnight is outrageous while a few college students down the hall might simply assume that the party has begun. In such a case, outrageous may have a physiological determinant and thus be innately different depending on the person. Quoting the 1988 case of Histler Magazine v. Fallwell, Roberts said that liability cannot be imposed on "the basis of jurors' tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression." Rather, reason must trump passion in such matters. Regarding the Synder case, Roberts said that the small Topeka-based church's messages "may fall short of refined social or political commentary," but discussed "matters of public import," such as the nation's morality and gays in the military and thus are protected by the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech.  A free society is only really free to the extent that we protect even the opinions of those we loath. Otherwise, society reduces to a primitive matter of excluding those we don't like. Such banal convenience is too decadent for a vibrant republic and society. Reason tells us this. The question is whether we have sufficient impulse-control to proffer the degree of tolerance that is requisite. So actually, the matter pivots on us--Americans and European generally--rather than on Westboro and Galliano. They can make us stronger in spite of themselves if we permit ourselves to rise to the occasion rather than satisfy our immediate gratification.  In the end, it is up to us, not them, what kind of societies we have.

In terms of federalism, the chief justice noted that states can regulate the time and place of the protests, and the church was already contesting some as too restrictive. As of the date of the court's decision, forty six states had enacted laws to minimize picketing near cemetaries during funerals. In terms of federalism, it might be that the states' respective Supreme Courts might have been the proper venue in interpreting the U.S. Constitution in such cases. Generally speaking, if there can be fifty different sets of regulations on protests, there can be fifty different decisions interpreting free speech. It would not be like fifty different foreign policies. As it is, even with fifty different regulations, the final decider is centralized in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Joan Biskupic and Kevin Johnson, "Westboro free-speech ruling has its limits," USA Today, March 3, 2011, p. 2A.

On the reaction to John Galliano in Europe, see the essay in this blog at: http://thewordenreport.blogspot.com/2011/03/on-march-1-2011-sidney-toledano-ceo-of.html

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

BP's CEO notes delete edit Tony Hayward: A Golden Parachute Despite Failing on Safety

In terms of corporate governance setting executive compensation to align the employee's incentives to the financial interests of the company even beyond his or her term of employment, it is apparently quite easy to go overboard. This can include severance packages for top managers--packages that may not reflect the performance of the executive. At the very least, it would appear that corporate lawyers are not writing very good contracts. Worst yet, insider board-management friendships may mean that the gap between achievement and severance pay may be intentionally wide. Sadly, the innocent non-management investors whose interests are not adequately represented in the board room pay the price, even if they don't perceive it on an individual level.  Even so, the lack of fairness alone calls for an end to the insider luxuriating.  The case of BP, whose rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, provides a good case study.

The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, which is available at Amazon.

The ECJ Decision on Gender-Based Insurance: Political, Philosophical and Business Implications

On March 1, 2011, the European Court of Justice, the EU's Supreme Court, declared illegal the widespread practice of charging men and women different rates for insurance, setting in motion an overhaul of how life, auto and health policies are written across Europe. Although tied to commerce, the ruling involves non-economic elements as per the high court's citation of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which enumerates 14 categories on which discrimination is prohibited; sex is the first. A separate provision states that "equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas." Because fundamental rights go to the core of what a political domain stands for, at least in the case of a republic, an implication is that the EU is indeed a political federal state, rather than simply a WTO for Europe. The fact that the states of the EU must abide by the ECJ's ruling on the fundamental rights means that some governmental sovereignty has indeed shifted from the state governments (and their respective constitutions) to the EU.  Like the US, the EU is a federal system of governance characterized at its core by dual governmental sovereignty, which in turn is sourced in popular sovereignty.  Other, less fundamental, implications can also be drawn from an analysis of the ruling.

The full essay is at Essays on the E.U. Political Economy, available at Amazon. 

The Influence of Wall Street on the Hill: A Case Study of the Proposal to Distinguish Financial and Commerical Derivatives

In the process whereby financial reform legislation made its way through Congress after the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. House and Senate had different approaches concerning who would be required to go through a clearing house to buy or sell deriviative securities. According to Michael Masters, "The clearing house would stand in the middle of the transaction and guarantee both sides of the trade. If one counterparty to the transaction fails, then the central counterparty absorbs those losses, protecting the system as a whole from collapse."  Masters claims that "Wall Street firms hate this idea because their prodigious profits will dwindle when derivatives are traded in the light of day, letting their counterparties see the true costs. So Wall Street is pushing hard to exempt as many transactions as possible."  Given the culpability of Wall Street in the financial crisis, they were in no position to "push hard." That they did nonetheless is a telling sign of the underlying character, or lack thereof, "on the street."  Furthermore, that the representatives and senators were listening to them ought to cause the voters some concern.  Yet because of the reality of the banks' muscle on the hill, the power of the banks to exploit any loopholes in the final legislation should have been salient as the legislation made its way through Congress. This can be seen in whether to favor the House or Senate version.

According to Masters, "The Senate version of the clearing house requirement, which is currently the base text for the bill, includes a narrow, well-defined exemption that allows commercial end-users a complete exemption from clearing, while denying this exemption to financial players. The House language, however, would exempt anyone hedging "balance sheet risk." Since every financial player has a balance sheet, it is estimated that more than 50% of the outstanding derivatives would go uncleared under the House plan, compared to just 10% under the Senate version."  One might say: Ah, 50% is a pretty wide door--better go with the Senate version (assuming it could resist threats and favors from the banking lobby).

Masters explains the rationale for the Senate's version. There "is a critical policy distinction that must be made between commercial end-users like airlines, and financial entities like hedge funds. For a commercial end-user, risk arises naturally out of the ordinary conduct of business. For a financial entity, pricing and managing risk is their core business. As an example, an airline cannot fly without incurring the risk of wildly gyrating jet fuel prices. Allowing them to hedge their jet fuel exposure without a clearing requirement would provide stability for the airline, confidence for airline investors and ensure that the broad U.S. economy benefits from reliable airline service. A hedge fund, however, starts with no inherent risk. Its mission is to evaluate investment options, balancing risk and reward. If a hedge fund enters into a jet fuel derivatives contract on a bet that prices will increase, then it's nonsense to say that they are "hedging" when they subsequently enter into an offsetting deal to reduce the risk they voluntarily took on in the first place. These semantic charades can easily be carried to such extremes that every transaction a hedge fund enters is "hedging" something. An exemption for hedge funds serves no social purpose and, in fact, it puts our entire financial system at risk."  In other words, there are good business reasons for non-financial companies to be able to use derivatives to hedge for risk related to price volitility even if the companies cannot meet the clearing requirements. Of course, it could be asked what proportion of commercial use should but would not occur were such use subject to the clearing house requirements.  I don't know the answer to this question. I contend, however, that even if it is significant, the danger that the loophole would be exploited such that the financial system would once again be at risk outweighs any such inconvenience.  In other words, in reaching too far for perfect efficiency, we could unwittingly be inviting the irrational exuberance of the market to destroy the market mechanism itself.  We ought not fly too close to the sun or we might get burnt and fall to the ground. Masters concludes that the Senate language is "superior to the House's simply because it forces far more derivatives into the open." This may be so, but what would prevent a financial player from using a commercial user as a front to bypass the clearing requirements? Furthermore, there might be legislative language in the exemption that allows financial firms to obviate the clearing houses without even needing such a front.

In short, I contend that having any loopholes, or exeptions, is an unwise practice when we know (as Sen. Dick Durbin said) that the banking lobby owns Congress. We also know that managers and their lawyers are oriented to exploiting loopholes.  To expect otherwise is to tell a shark that it should not be a feeding machine.  That is, we must accept the nature of business for what it is, and not do what can reasonably be assumed to be taken advantage of.  It is like saying to sharks: those of you who do not eat any swimmers can go through the hole in the net and into the shore area.  It is just too dangerous to have a hole in the first place, even if there are some benefits to having it.

Source: http://money.cnn.com/2010/06/23/news/economy/congress_derivatives/index.htm

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Immigration and Federalism in the U.S.: Should States like Arisona Participate?

On July 1, 2010, on the precipice of another July 4th celebration, President Obama told an audience that immigration was, in sum, “broken.” Furthermore, “everybody knows it.”  Yet neither he nor the Democratic leadership in Congress had any expectation of passing an immigration law in 2010.  Into this void, Arizona had months earlier passed its own law aimed at tightening enforcement. The New York Times reported that in his speech in July, Obama “used the opportunity to repeat his opposition to Arizona’s new law requiring law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of anyone they stop for other reasons if they suspect that they are in the country illegally, calling it ‘ill conceived’ and ‘divisive’.” The President said, “We face the prospect that different rules for immigration will apply in different parts of the country, a patchwork of different immigration rules where we all know one clear national standard is needed… . Our task then is to make our national laws actually work, to shape a system that reflects our values as a nation of laws and as a nation of immigrants.”  Different rules sounds like different immigration policies—as in who can enter the US.  If the President meant this, then he had a point. However, if he was arguing that tailoring different enforcement mechanisms to different regions, it could be argued counterwise that e pluribus union in a federal system not only allows for it, but thrives by it. In other words, the empire-scale of the US warrants a diversity of approaches. Furthermore, a federal system enables and indeed is strengthened by it.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Wealth Being Valued Differently in American and European Society: The Case of Financial Reform

The EU and US can be seen to differ markedly in the degree to which the interests of big business are etched in the respective societies and polities.  That is to say, the difference goes beyond the question of the relative influences of the lobbyists. I contend that the relative proclivity toward business in the American states tilts the political playing field in the direction of the financial interests. This difference reflects a more basic subterranean difference on how much wealth and its manifestation as business are valued.  That is to say, it is easier for financial sector lobbyists in the United States because the societal values lean in their favor. This can be seen from the respective financial reforms in the EU and US after the financial crisis of 2008. This case bears strongly on my thesis because in both economies the financial sector was viewed as culpable. So one would expect the ensuing laws to come down on the banks rather than be conducive to their interests, unless a societal value on the profit-motive were still in force.

On March 10, 2010, the EU Parliament adopted a Resolution (536 votes in favour to 80 against) calling for the financial sector to contribute fairly towards economic recovery since the costs of the crisis are being borne by taxpayers. On 25 March, Members of Parliament’s special “Financial, Economic and Social Crisis Committee” debated the rationale behind a possible financial transaction tax. Stephan Schulmeister of the Austrian Institute for Economic Research in Vienna said short-term financial transactions can make short-term prices of currencies and other financial products such as derivatives and shares vary wildly. Schulmeister claimed that a tax on financial transactions of just 0.05% would eliminate these short-term transactions, bring greater stability and bring €300 billion of additional revenues to the EU. While the tax would undoubtedly bring in revenue, it is not clear to me that short-term transactions would be eliminated, as they can be worthwhile even with such a tax. Moreover, the financial crisis of 2008 shows us that the volitility can come from the market mechanism itself (in so far as it magnifies irrational exuberance). At any rate, even as there has been division on the matter of such a tax in the parliament, that the proposal has been made distiguishes the legislative body of the EU from the Congress in the US, where such a proposal would undoubted by blocked. Indeed, the EU Parliament has gone ever further.

On July 7, 2010, the EU Parliament approved some of the strictest rules in the world on bankers’ bonuses.  In the legislation, caps are imposed on upfront cash bonuses and at least half of any bonus will have to be paid in contingent capital and shares. MEPs also toughened rules on the capital reserves that banks must hold to guard against any risks from their trading activities and from their exposure to highly complex securities. “Two years on from the global financial crisis, these tough new rules on bonuses will transform the bonus culture and end incentives for excessive risk-taking. A high-risk and short-term bonus culture wrought havoc with the global economy and taxpayers paid the price. Since banks have failed to reform we are now doing the job for them”, said British MEP Arlene McCarthy. Upfront cash bonuses are capped at 30% of the total bonus and to 20% for particularly large bonuses.  Between 40 and 60% of any bonus must be deferred for at least three years and can be recovered if investments do not perform as expected. Moreover at least 50% of the total bonus would be paid as “contingent capital” (funds to be called upon first in case of bank difficulties) and shares. Bonuses also have to be capped as a proportion of salary. Each bank must establish limits on bonuses related to salaries, on the basis of EU wide guidelines, to help bring down the overall, disproportionate, role played by bonuses in the financial sector. Finally, bonus-like pensions are also covered. Exceptional pension payments must be held back in instruments such as contingent capital that link their final value to the overall strength of the bank. This is to avoid situations, similar to those experienced in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 in which some bankers retired with substantial pensions unaffected by the crisis their bank was facing. The rules apply to foreign banks operating in the EU and to subsidiaries of EU banks operating abroad. The law gives state regulators in the 27 EU states binding powers to take action against banks that fail to comply with the new rules (contrast this with the US Gov’t going after Arizona for trying to enforce US immigration law).

Clearly, the US financial reform does not go this far. Notably, it does not put much of a crimp in the American bankers’ life. This is no accident. The feeling among big bankers in the US is that they dodged a bullet concerning what could have been in the bill. That is to say, there was no “too big to fail” limit put on a bank’s capital or size generally speaking, or on the bankers’ compensation. The American media and President Obama have been strangely silent on why.  Perhaps it is as in the case of the health reform, where the President removed his objection to an insurance mandate and dropped his desire for a public option after the lobbyist for the American health insurance companies told him that her support was contingent on these changes. My point is simply this: Were not American society leaning in a pro-business direction (e.g., economic liberty being salient in how liberty itself is viewed), the President might not have felt the need to be bent in the lobbyist’s direction. That is to say, the lobbyist would not have had so much leverage. Wall Street no doubt had massive influence in the crafting of the financial reform as it was making its way through Congress (even though the banks were culpable in the financial crisis—which is itself telling). I submit that the reasons go beyond the sheer power of money. Fortunately, we can look across the pond for a better look at ourselves.

Sources: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/public/story_page/044-71441-088-03-14-907-20100329STO71433-2010-29-03-2010/default_en.htm

On the Danger to the United States of Living off Government Debt: The Case of the Dollar as World Reserve in 2010

Given the $13 tillion amassed in US Treasury debt plus all the debt amassed by the American states, the US dollar was losing out in percentage terms to other currencies as the global reserve currency in 2010. To be sure, in absolute terms, there were still more dollars being held abroad than twenty or thirty years ago, but as a report from Emma Lawson of Morgan Stanley shows, other currencies were taking on more of a relative presence.

The Euro had been making the greatest strides in percentage terms, particularly in 2002. The slight downturn in 2009 might have reflected the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 in Europe, though the Greek debt issue had not yet reached a boil (it would be interesting to see the figures from 2010).  In any case, the dramatic drop in the dollar’s percentage terms also came in 2002, before the Iraq war and the bank bailout spending (i.e., the $13 tillion dollar debt). The drop could have been in reaction to September 11, 2001, though it would seem an exaggeration even then to say that the US financial system would be undone by the attack.  Even so, as we know from 2008, irrational exuberance can take hold in even a global market. We ought nevertheless not lose sight of the fact that the number of dollars held in reserves around the world increased. The pie got bigger, and even though the dollar piece became larger, it was a smaller proportion of the pie in 2010.  Even so, the $13 tillion in US Treasury debt, the decision of the Chinese to allow their currency to appreciate to a limited extent, Russia’s call for a mix of global reserve currencies, and the EU’s bailout of the Greek bonds all pointed to trouble for the US dollar as “the” reserve currency. Also troubling was the UN report at the end of June, 2010, which urged that the US dollar is no longer stable enough to be the world’s reserve currency. Ouch! The dollar slid %5 in June. Fortune reports that central banks had been preferring gold to the greenback.

Lawson believed that  ”over time we anticipate that reserve managers may reduce their holdings further.” She is looking at the significance of small percent changes over a short time—and this I see as perhaps susceptable to overblowing small trends. For example, she found that central banks had dropped their allocation to U.S. dollars by nearly a full percentage point to 57.3% from 58.1%, and calls this “unexpected given the global environment.” But was such a change, relative to those shown in the chart, really significant? She argued that other dollars - the kind that come from Australia and Canada - had been benefiting from skiddishness on the dollar. The allocation to those currencies, which fall under “other” in the data, rose by a full percentage point to 8.5%, accounting almost exactly for the drop in the U.S. dollar allocation. She was undoubtedly assuming that the trend would continue, but a look at the chart can demonstrate that even the dramatic changes in 2002 had not continued at such a rate (e.g., for the euro and the US dollar). 

Even so, Treasury’s huge debt could not but undermine the US dollar over the long term. This point ought not to be minimized or ignored under the fiscal pressure to push the US economy out of recession. Even if the US did not admit that the debtload was too high to be paid down one day (the debt then approaching the annual GNP of the US), the market rendered its verdict. Relative the huge debt facing the US dollar (and remember there are huge state debts, such as in California, Illinois and Florida!), the “crisis” facing the euro in 2010 paled in comparison.  As of mid 2010, the euro was still over $1.20. Years earlier, it had been at parity. The media frenzy on Greece's debt in 2010 ought therefore to be put into some kind of perspective, and the impact of the dollar’s public debt not be lost. 

It’s not clear to me that the human mind can conceptualize a trillion, not to mention thirteen of them. Yet we glide over the public debts in the US as though they were sustainable. If the US falls, it will be from within--from consolidation at the empire-level.  Such a fall will likely come as a surprise to most Americans, who in being oriented to external threats tend to miss the gravity of the black hole amassing under our very noses.  To be sure, the additional debt enables us to live beyond our means as a society, and such a condition can be very addictive.  Perhaps the parallel question for us to reflect on is whether Rome fell from within or simply from the Goths.


FIFA Improving the World Cup: A Matter of Thinking Outside the Goal

Two things stood out for me in the wake of the World Cup of 2010: the sheer number of low-scoring games and the number of bad calls. The latter is the easier to fix. FIFA can relax its opposition to instant replay even though it is not feasible technologically or financially for every game in the world.  FIFA could simply state that every game in the World Cup is subject to instant replay. The problem of low-scoring games is seemingly more intractable, but actually quite easy to solve.  One possible solution would be to elongate the goal area so it is more difficult to defend.  If that doesn’t work, the area could be heightened—then it would be a matter of skill in kicking the ball in the added area above the defending players’ reach.  The problem lies in the status quo. Even though low-scoring games are more boring, some people would object that too much scoring would get to be boring as well.  There would be a solution for that too, as the goal area could be retracted a bit. In fact, a twenty-first century way of approaching the problem would be to have the goal parameters movable according to a computer program that enlarges the area if there is little or no scoring and retracts it if there has been too much.  Such changes would presumably only be made when the score is tied so not to disadvantage the losing side.  My main point is that we are woefully slow in thinking in terms of the twenty-first century.

 Of course, the stats-oriented fans would object to the problems terms of the consistency of records. To be sure, there is a downside to every improvement.  I contend that improving the enjoyment of the game is worth the interference with comparisons with prior years.  Particularly with regard to sports as a past-time, the primary concern should be the present time. Sadly, the forces of the status quo give today short thrift.  Moreover, change itself, even to improve something, often faces and up-hill battle.  Perhaps this is partly because most people in a position to make changes are old, and thus too used to the way things have been.  The road for change seems to be uphill, with the status quo enjoying hegemony.  My reaction to this is: life is too short. We ought to do what we can to enjoy it more.  With its constant action, soccer, or football, could become a very exciting game.

Related on the World Cup: http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/38190556/ns/sports-world_cup/

Who Should Get the Trophy--the Team Captain or Owner? On the Value of Wealth in American and European Society

Just after winning the World Cup of 2010, FIFA officials handed the trophy to the team captain of the Spanish team rather than to the coach or a team owner (in this case, an official of Spain).  In contrast, at the Kentucky Derby, the honors went to the horse’s owner, rather than to the jockey. The distinctively American value on wealth could not be more evident, and the contrast with the World Cup confirms it.  

The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, which is available at Amazon.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Foreign Policy in International Business: BP Trading a Libyan Terrorist for Libyan Oil

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, claimed in July of 2010 that the UK government should investigate what role BP played in Britain’s decision to free Abdel Baset al-Megrahi in August 2009. Al-Megrahi is the only person convicted of carrying out the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner in which 270 people were killed over Lockerbie, Scotland. This is not to say that he acted alone. In February, 2011, Gadhafi's justice minster, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who resigned in protest against Gadhafi's massacre of unarmed protesters, told a Swedish newspaper that Gadhafi had ordered the attack. Abdel-Jalil also claimed that Megrahi threatened to "spill the beans" unless his return to Libya were secured. It would appear that BP, a publically-traded stock corporation, played a vital role between Gadhafi and the British government. If so, then aside from Gadhafi's sordid role, this case presents us with an issue of business ethics. Specifically, does a corporation, which is essentially private wealth but with responsibility befitting the power that comes with such wealth, cross a line when its employees engage in foreign policy? The ethical problem inherent in interfering in a juridical sentence is troubling enough; if an unelected corporation becomes so powerful that it can affect international relations between (and foreign policies of) countries, then the issue involves not only business ethics, but also democratic governance. As the line between private and public blurs, the respective bases of legitimacy can become conflated or transposed.

In May 2007, BP signed a $900 million exploration agreement with Libya. Also that month, Britain and Libya signed an agreement that paved the way for al-Megrahi’s release from a Scottish prison. A spokesman for BP has admitted that people at the company lobbied the British government over the prisoner transfer deal with Libya in late 2007, but the company’s spokesman denied that the lobbying played any role in the government’s decision to release al-Megrahi nearly two years later. Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., argued that ”the whole thing has deep circumstantial evidence that points to the fact that there was a trade-off — release the terrorist in exchange for an oil contract.” Schumer and three other US senators — Kirsten Gillibrand, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg — wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking that the State Department investigate whether BP had a hand in the release. “Evidence in the Deepwater Horizon disaster seems to suggest that BP would put profit ahead of people — its attention to safety was negligible and it routinely underestimated the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf,” they wrote. “The question we now have to answer is, was this corporation willing to trade justice in the murder of 270 innocent people for oil profits?” The answer appears to be “yes.”

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph (September 4, 2009), Jack Straw admits that when he was considering in 2007 whether the bomber should be included in a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) with Libya, Britain’s trade interests were a crucial factor. When asked in the interview if trade and BP were factors, Mr Straw admits: “Yes, [it was] a very big part of that. I’m unapologetic about that … Libya was a rogue state… . We wanted to bring it back into the fold. And yes, that included trade because trade is an essential part of it and subsequently there was the BP deal.” In short, BP employees have admitted to the lobbying and Jack Straw has admitted that BP’s contract was a factor—the two sides meet and the knot is tied.


Even BP’s lobbying effort was not decisive in the exchange agreement, the involvement of BP managers even as they and BP stood to gain from an oil exploration contract evinces a conflict of interest that should have been barred by ethics guidelines at the company. Moreover, the company had no standing in the prisoner exchange matter such that it had any business in lobbying. At most, the legal person legal doctrine and the associated “money as free speech” doctrine pertain to a company’s main business. The doctrines ought not give a company all rights of citizens because corporate charters are delimited to particular domains or functions. Furthermore, to expect a company to put ethics ahead of profits is to conflate a firm with a human being.  To be sure, a company is made of people (and capital). However, the association is focused rather pointedly on one thing: maximizing shareholder value through profits. Accordingly, managers know legal requirements, whereas ought and should are more difficult to translate into cost-benefit analyses. In other words, a company is like a shark in that both are single-minded feeding machines. To expect a machine to obviate its next feeding because of an ought is to treat it as something other than what it is.  I suspect that as onlookers we tend to project our own values onto company managements—even companies themselves—instead of coming to terms with what a company is.  It is a feeding machine with one directionality and an expansive appetite, which includes venturing into other domains such as (hypothetically)  lobbying for an exchange of prisoners in exchange for a lucrative oil contract. In other words, companies are designed to transgress even their own charters. They are like Hal in the film 2001—the computer that took on a life of its own. Ideally, a company would convert anything in a given society into a commodity, with price being the universal measure. The US senators are objecting, in effect, to the commodization of the prisoner exchange, and to the “boundary issues” of BP.

The “so what” of this analysis is the following: it is particularly dangerous for a company or industry to be so powerful that it can unduly influence a government both in terms of a judicial sentence and in relation to other countries. Given the expansive nature of a company, society must have a means of keeping corporations within their proper domain of providing goods and services.  In a plutocracy (rule by wealth),  private wealth is the basis of government. This is not the case in republics, which are characterized by representative democracy.


Related (on BP): http://euandus3.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/business-society-bp-clips-societal-norms/
 http://euandus3.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/tony-hayward-sticking-to-script-safety-is-bps-priority/ http://euandus3.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/bp-dividends-to-stockholders/  http://mole45.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/jack-straw-admits-lockerbie-bombers-release-was-linked-to-oil-well-thats-a-shock-if-we-can-go-to-war-for-it/

On the Strategic Use of Regulation: Financial Reform at the Bequest of Wall Street

According to The New York Times, Wall Street bankers were busy working on how to weaken the regulations or otherwise profit from them before the ink was dry on the financial reform law of 2010 . First, regarding trying to profit from the new regulations, BOA, Wells Fargo and other big banks that were faced with new limits on fees associated with debit cards were imposing fees on checking accounts. Compelled to trade derivatives in the daylight of closely regulated clearinghouses rather than in murky over-the-counter markets, titans like J.P. Morgan Investment Bank and Goldman Sachs were building up their derivatives brokerage operations. Their goal was to make up any lost profits — and perhaps make even more money than before — by becoming matchmakers in the vast market for these instruments. That critics were pointing to them as a principal cause of the financial crisis made no difference to those bankers. Even when it comes to what is perhaps the biggest new rule — barring banks from making bets with their own money — banks found what they thought was a solution: allowing some traders to continue making those wagers as long as they also work with clients.

Lest one conclude from the banks’ stretegic responses that the new law passed in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 goes strongly against their interests, it is important to remember that the reform is more geared to giving government officials adequate power to mop up a future mess than to enabling them to prevent one in the first place by clamping down on the banks. The devil is in the details. This in itself can be an opportunity for banking lobbyists to work over regulators who depend on information from the industry and can be swayed by legislators who have received campaign contributions and fund-raisers from the bankers. Regulators are tasked under the new law with writing the specific rules of the road governing limits on risk-taking by financial firms and previously unregulated trading. By leaving so much to the discretion of existing regulators, the new law is “a boon to Wall Street lobbyists, who will now be working behind the scenes to influence the regulators,” according to John Taylor, president & CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Furthermore, in enforcement, there is evidence that regulators are apt to look the other way. The wave of predatory lending that sank the housing market, for example, could have been largely prevented if the Federal Reserve had enforced existing rules on mortgage lending, according to Cornelius Hurley, director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University.

Under the financial reform law of 2010, banks and other financial institutions are overseen by a council of  regulators. That group is charged with identifying the kinds of “systemic” risks that spun out of control in the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. in the financial panic of September 2008. But there’s little to be gained by entrusting that task to the same regulators who failed to spot the causes of the panic the first time, said Isaac, the former FDIC head. “If a bank went to the regulators and said, ‘We’ve got a good idea: we’re going to put our lending officers in charge of risk management,’ that bank would be put out of its misery immediately,” said Isaac. “That’s what the government just did. It put the regulators in charge of assessing their own performance. It’s a very bad system.” While the law creates a separate agency with a single consumer mandate, even it remains beholden to those regulators, who retain the power to veto its regulations and enforcement actions. That setup, said Taylor, could seriously hamper the board’s effectiveness. “That club of regulators is very insular, and usually in agreement,” he said. “They can kill serious reform, and the financial lobby remains much more influential with regulators than consumer advocates.”

The problem can be broadened by considering that President Obama brought to head his economic team people like Larry Summers, who while in the Clinton Administration lobbied against regulating derivatives, and Tim Geithner, who had been appointed as President of the New York Federal Reserve at the urging of Citigroup and its major stockholder. In other words, it is not just a matter of relying on the same regulators; the construction of the law involved the same advisors.  Indeed, that members of Congress listened to the banking lobby at all even as the banks were complicit in the financial crisis of 2008 can be viewed as going back to the same. At a fundamental level, the banking industry may have too much leverage over top government offiicals, whether legislators or regulators.

Sadly, according to Newsweek, “the bill does more to help regulators detect and defuse the next financial crisis than to actually stop it from happening. In that way, it’s like the difference between improving public health and improving medicine: The bill focuses on helping the doctors who figure out when you’re sick and how to get you better rather than on the conditions (sewer systems and air quality and hygiene standards and so on) that contribute to whether you get sick in the first place.” This might be because it is in the big bankers’ interest that the government come in and clean up, but not restrict them in the meantime.  In the 1980s, the financial sector’s share of total corporate profits ranged from about 10 to 20 percent. By 2004, it was about 35 percent. According to Newsweek, “What you get for that money is favors. The last financial crisis fades from memory and the public begins to focus on other things. Then the finance guys begin nudging. They hold some fundraisers for politicians, make some friends, explain how the regulations they’re under are onerous and unfair. And slowly, surely, those regulations come undone.”

In the wake of the financial crisis, the American people had a chance to brake up the banks too big for our republics, but even then the bankers were able to quietly get this option off the airwaves. I contend that the too big to fail systemic risk is actually greater with respect to the viability of the US than to the financial system. That is to say, the ability of Wall Street to dodge the bullet even when it was culpable for a near melt-down of the financial markets may mean that we are living in a plutocracy rather than a democracy—the latter being mere window-dressing. Even when Wall Street is “bad,” it owns Congress, according to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.  This ought to tell us that the game is over, yet with regard to the regulators I suspect the games will go on for some time.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38266914/ns/business-eye_on_the_economy/  http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/15/five-problems-financial-reform-doesn-t-fix.html  http://www.cnbc.com/id/38272518

See Related:

Upside-Down Corporate Governance at AIG

I contend that Robert Benmosche, CEO of AIG, had an incorrect understanding of corporate governance when he told Harvey Golub, then-chairman of the board, on July 14, 2010, “One of us should stay and one of us should go.” He should have, “Please let me know if the board would like me to go.” Put bluntly, the CEO works for the board, not vice versa. The previous May, Benmosche told Golub, “We can’t work together. I need a partner who I can bounce ideas off and give me advice.” However,a CEO and a chairman do not work together as partners. Rather, the chairman—and the board more generally—act on behalf of the stockholders to oversee the management, which the board has hired. In other words, a CEO is an employee whereas a chairman is not. Benmosche’s comment is actually rather presumptuous.

Benmosche’s upside-down approach to corporate governance is evident from the way he went about trying to sell AIG’s biggest overseas life insurer, AIA, to Prudential. Rather than being surprised that Golub did not support the sale, he should have taken note of Golub’s surprise that he had not informed the board earlier. As another example, rather than being annoyed that the board didn’t push Treasury’s pay czar harder to sign off on his $10 million pay package, Benmosche might have asked the board if they supported the proposed compensation.

One of the principal jobs of a corporate board is to assess the CEO (and hence the management) and to fire him or her if the board decides it would be in the stockholders’ interest. The CEO works for the board, not vice versa. It is not a partnership arrangement. It is the CEO’s responsibility to act within the support of the board, rather than to threaten its chair for not playing ball. Benmosche illustrates the arrogance that come occur when an employee is over-compensated and spoiled.  Benmosche should have been grateful to the AIG board for having agreed to a compensation package of $10 million rather than critizicing them for not essentially working for him in pressuring the Treasury.

From this case, we can extract the following lesson. A CEO should not chair the board whose task it is to assess him or her. Such duality is a contradiction in terms—effectively attempting to interiorize within the CEO accountability that is external (i.e., interpersonal). As Benmosche had already turned to Robert Miller, who replaced Golub, for advice and found him to be supportive, AIG may have essentially installed a puppet—hence compromising the board’s role in overseeing the CEO.

I once asked Armstrong when he was both CEO and chairman of ATT whether he saw any conflict of interest in his chairing of the body tasked with assessing him. He replied that the buck stopped with him—that he needed the authority to integrate cable, computer and telephone technologies into broad-band. However, in hiring him, the board should have signed off on his strategy, hence giving him all the authority he needed to implement it. In effect, Armstrong was over-reaching in claiming that such authority was not sufficient. When his strategy failed, the external accountability function of the board was compromised.

In general terms, CEOs are too powerful with respect to “their” boards.  In being an enabling partner rather than a parent, too many boards are unwittingly undercutting their raison d’etre. To the extent that the managements of banks contributed to the crisis in September, 2008, corporate governance with real accountability can be seen as critical not only to our financial system, but to the economy itself. We can ill-afford too many spoiled adult-children.

Source: Joann S. Lubin and Serena Ng, “Battle at AIG Board: You Go, or I Do.” The Wall Street Journal (July 16, 2010), pp. C1, C4.

The UN Court Obviating War: The Ruling on Kosovo's Independence

The UN’s highest court ruled in 2010 that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia did not break international law. President Hisashi Owada of the International Court of Justice said international law contains no ”prohibition on declarations of independence” and therefore Kosovo’s declaration ”did not violate general international law.” Kosovo’s statehood had been recognized by all of the United States and most of the States of the EU.

Critically, the court’s ruling is nonbinding.  Hence China and Russia are under no obligation to recognize it, though as both states are members of the UN one might suppose that the UN’s ruling is binding on them as members of the UN. What sanctions, one might surmise, could the UN issue against its members that do not recognize the rulings of its court? Short of cancelling their memberships, what could the UN assess that it could enforce?  Perhaps the UN could effectively withhold their voting privilege in the UN while maintaining their membership (and fees).  I contend that such “teeth” is necessary if the UN is to be an honest broker concerning questions of declarations of independence such that war is obviated. In The Least Dangerous Branch, Alexander Bickel argues that the judiciary is the least dangerous branch because it does not have control of the purse or an army.  A court whose rulings are nonbinding is to render it nearly impotent—nearly because just being a court carries with it some legitimacy and thus influence. Even so, as an improvement on the alternative (i.e., war), the UN’s court needs something more binding. To tout an absolutist theory of sovereignty of the nation-state as an obstacle to recognizing the UN court as binding would be enervate a possible improvement of mankind with respect to conflict in international relations.  Particularly in an age in which mass  human destructiveness is possible, we can ill-afford a Bodinean theory of sovereignty. In spite of the dangers in continuing the status quo in international conflict resolution, we advance at a snail’s pace—particularly as compared to technological development. I contend that it is high time for political development in international relations. Yet for this to occur it seems that human nature itself—particularly, its intractability—would have to be overcome, which might render the original problem moot.  Even so, it is worth a try. We may be closer than we think to being able to give the UN’s highest court a bindingness sufficient to reduce the likelihood of war appreciably.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/07/22/world/europe/AP-EU-World-Court-Kosovo.html?_r=1

Gate-Keepers in the Commerical Media: Looking Down on Bloggers as "Non-Journalists"

In a few days during July in 2010, the American media was obsessed with Shirley Sherrod, who in a tightly edited video clip had made apparently-racist statements about not helping a caucasion farmer because he was caucasion. She was quickly fired by Tom Vilsak, the US Secretary of Agriculture, who, like the journalists and the NAACP, had failed to look at the full video.  The day after Sherrod was fired, the NAACP looked at the full video and realized that she was actually a racial healer rather than racist.  In the fuller video, she said, “I have come to realize that we have to work together … we have to overcome the divisions we have.”  Even as she used questionable language, such as “his own kind,” it should not be forgotten that the clan killed her father.  In other words, she deserves some slack.  At any rate, it was not long after the NAACP’s about-face that the agriculture department and the media were doing also doing an about-face. According to the NYT, “the White House and Mr. Vilsack offered their profuse apologies to her for the way she had been humiliated and forced to resign after a conservative blogger put out a misleading video clip that seemed to show her admitting antipathy toward a white farmer.”

Bill O’Reilly of Fox apologized—though while suggesting that Sherrod “very well could have seen things through a racial prism” and had been “blatantly partisan” on the job possibly in violation of the Hatch Act so she should not work in government.  O’Reilly was apologizing for not having done due diligence in “reporting” the story by watching the entire video before making a judgement. Like so many other journalists, he lept at the story without adequately checking the source—the video or Sherrod herself.  Even as the journalists were apologizing for their bad work, they wanted to distinguish themselves as journalists from the “blogger” or “activist” who had posted the edited video clip in the first place. O’Reilly promised his viewers that they could still come to him for good journalism even as he had gotten the story wrong.

Beyond the momentary obsession that the media enjoyed at Sherrod’s expense—the obsession itself being a problem missed by the journalists themselves—this case allows us to glimpse how journalism changed so much in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The case put journalists in the position of distinguishing themselves from bloggers when both had engaged in bad judgment. Hence Bill O’Reilly’s statement that his viewers could come to him for good reporting (rather than have to rely on bloggers) in spite of the fact that he had just engaged in bad journalism and may have done Sherrod another injustice even in his apology. To be sure, the blogger had erred in posting such an edited video clip without providing the context.  However, given the opining of many mainstream journalists who work for media companies and the actual news provided on blogs, the line between “journalist” and blogger are blurred.  Hence the journalists working for media companies were sure to distance themselves from the blogger, who they said was not a real journalist, even though they had all made the same mistake. Were there a clear distinction to be made between the journalists and the bloggers, the former would have done better work—but they didn’t.

Back in 1984 when Daniel Schorr was working at CNN, he objected to the network’s plan to couple him with John Connally, who had been the Governor of Texas and a Secretary of the Treasury, to cover the Republican Convention. It was improper, Mr. Schorr said, to mix a politician with a journalist. In 2010, journalists were saying that it was improper to mix a journalist with a blogger. By then, many television journalists were giving opinions, and were thus closer being politicians, while many bloggers were providing news even before the networks. Lest the journalists point to their educational credentials from schools of journalism, how many American journalists in the nineteenth or even the twentieth century majored in journalism?  Is learning on the job at a newspaper so much different than the entrepreneurs who free lance at their own blogs to provide news?  If these are so different, why didn’t the “journalists” in the Sherrod case catch rather than perpetuate the blogger’s mistake? The proof is in the pudding.

The fact is that many bloggers are able to provide news because a person does not have to study journalism to have access to some information that is new. As a blogger myself, I have not found myself in this position—hence I confine myself to providing analysis based on my years of formal education and on the news provided by others—bloggers or “journalists.”  I must admit that I am more apt to trust the news from a company simply because there are institutional requirements for verifying stories, though as the Sherrod case shows, a media company’s procedures are not always sufficient. The difference between a news company and a blogger is perhaps in the checking or verification function, rather than so much in the getting of news (though the companies have more resources).  Even so, news can come from a variety of sources—not just from people who have a BA in journalism.  As a consequence, there is more of a need for verification—precisely because there are so many blogger/entrepreneurs operating. To dismiss them by saying they are not really journalists is an over-reaction and ill-founded. However, to insist on due diligence and verification on any report is even more pressing. Perhaps rather than have their journalists invoke artificial diremptions, news organizations could hire or contract per piece with many of the bloggers who are providing news so the latter could have access to the organizational wherewithal to verify stories.  These bloggers would then have the advantages of being entrepreneurs and of having the wherewithal to do due diligence.

Daniel Schorr, a protégé of Edward R. Murrow at CBS News and an aggressive reporter who got into conflict with censors, the Nixon administration and network superiors would likely see the advantages that bloggers have in terms of freedom, while being worried (as I am as well) concerning the due diligence limitations faced by the entrepreneurs. He got his first scoop, which earned him $5, when he was 12. A woman fell or jumped from the roof of the apartment house where he lived, and he called the police, interviewed them about the victim and then called The Bronx Home News, which paid for news tips.  Had there been an internet, he likely would have been a blogger. Would that have made a difference?

While good to a point, a profession’s gate-keeping can be readily subverted into simply keeping people out who are otherwise doing good work. In spite of the Sherrod blogger, other bloggers have been providing news—otherwise, the media companies would not be citing them as sources. Rather than fighting the bloggers, the “journalists” who got the Sherrod story wrong might offer a hand; they might just find that they will be helped in return. News is like water in a stream—there are many feeder streams.  Moreover, the nature of news is freedom,which is inherently broad rather than circumscribed.  This is particularly so in a high-tech world where the internet has had a democratizing effect in expanding the sources of news and analysis.  In this context, we might be wise to remember Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson concerning the need for an educated electorate rather than try to monopolize information-getting to those in the club.

Source on Schoor: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/24/business/media/24schorr.html?_r=1&hp
Source on Sherrod: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/us/politics/22sherrod.html?scp=1&sq=sherrod&st=cse

The First Multiracial U.S. President: Leadership as Personified Symbol over Political Advantage

Barak Obama has a tendency to modify his manner of speaking, and even his dialect, to fit with his audience. Listening to his speech to the National Urban League, I was stunned; early on, he pivoted off from his ordinary manner of speaking to speak in what was surely a more familiar way to much of his audience. The crowd loved it. The audience must have been looking at him as the first black US President. It occurred to me while listening to him and observing his strategy to connect to his audience that although there would be less political advantage in it, he could have run for president by presenting himself as multi-racial (technically, mulatto). To be sure, there are less multi-racial Americans who would identify with him, but is that even the point? The multi-racial segment of the US population is small, but growing.  It points to what most states will look like in fifty or a hundred years from 2010, when I heard the multi-racial US President speak. Were Barak Obama to make explicit his multi-racial identity (his mother was caucasion and his dad was black), he could personify the leading edge of what America will become, and thus serve innately as a leader.  That is to say, he will have led through his person—as a symbol personified—as the a sign of things to come.  The USA  is finally becoming a real melting pot, transcending “black vs. white.”  Nature’s integration will solve the artificial problem of racism far more than any government program or even a US President who identifies himself with one “side.”

Perhaps it is the tacit duplicity in a multiracial man permitting himself to be labeled as black, presumably for political expediency, that lies at the core of why some people do not trust him (e.g., the “birthers”).  Such duplicity is like a subterranean fault-line undergirding the tension between campaigning for real change and then stocking people of the old guard, such as Larry Summers, in his administration.  The duplicity of promising systemic change then dropping his insistence on a public option and no mandate for health coverage—essentially guaranteeing a new mass market to the same health insurance companies that actively purged people with pre-existing conditions—finds a resonance in the multi-racial man using the term “black.”  Were it to be said that the “one drop” criterion still applies so he really is black, we would need to start calling a whole lot of caucasions black as well. Moreover, to use an antiquated and faulty criterion as though it justified Barak’s practice is itself a mark of duplicity.  Barak Obama is as much white as he is black.  Were he to “run with this,” he would instantiate a leader on the forefront even though there is little political capital to be made on it.  However, the US Presidency is an office that is geared to representing the people of the US—the office does this most tangably when functioning abroad. As an explicit multi-racial symbol, President Obama would show to the world where America is headed, and that we are facing that future with our heads held high and with  pride. While perhaps not helpful in elections here at home, such a function, which can only be done by the US President, is sorely needed, given America’s image abroad. We are finally becoming the melting pot that has been proclaimed for so long—finally getting past the need for duplicity.  President Obama can symbolize this in his person, and thus do America a service far more valuable than any legislation.

Regulating Commerce by Mandate: The Death of American Federalism?

The mandate to buy health-insurance may be an unconstitutional encroachment of the U.S. Government onto the liberty of its citizens. Furthermore, the rigid federal rules in the health-insurance reform law of 2010 may represent yet another way by which the state governments have been rendered servile in begging Washington for breathing room--and in a domain that may be rightly theirs, constitutionally (i.e., extrinsic to the enumerated powers assigned to the U.S. Government). The bigger story in this jurdical piece on health care is perhaps whether American federalism itself was finally being extirpated and expunged in favor of consolidation. 

The full essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Weening Businesses off Debt: A Difficult Recovery?

The near credit-freeze that came to a head in September of 2008 meant that even in the ensuing recovery, managers at American companies would be hesitant to spend their companies’ cash reserves. $838 billion for S & P’s 500 Index in March, 2010, was up 26% from March, 2009. Accordingly, managers have been hesitant to hire. From late 2007 to late 2009, payroll employment dropped by nearly 8.4 million by July, 2010; only 11% of the lost jobs were regained. Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, points to the shift in executive compensation more in the direction of stock options. This arrangement gives managers more incentive to cut costs more in recessions and hold off in hiring in recoveries so that profits might surge first. However, one could point to the mandatory delay stipulated in some executive’s options to buy stock as giving them an incentive to look to the longer term.  Lynn Reaser, another economist, points to the lack of available external credit even more than a year after the financial crisis of 2008. She argues that managers conserved cash because they couldn’t rely on outside financing. However, firms like Apple, Yahoo, and Google are debtless and doing very well, so I would question the premise that outside credit is something to be desired.  Managers betting on leverage typically allow their irrational exuberance to distort their debt-to-assets and debt-to-profit benchmarks. If managers have become more averse to debt, maintaining higher cash reserves is not a bad thing, even when little interest is made on the cash. Once the new level is achieved, then only replenishments would be needed, so the diminishment of a firm’s investing in equipment or new hires would be temporary—to build the reserves and then to keep them stocked.  Drawing on their firm’s cash reserves rather than asking a bank for a loan or selling bonds proffers more freedom and self-reliance—qualities that are valuable even though they are difficult to quantify.  So we might view the recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 as a systemic correction in which managers were weened off their reliance (i.e., addition) on debt. Of course, the key lies in holding to the correction rather than falling off the wagon. Perhaps there should be an AA for debt-ridden businesses.

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, “The Big Hiring-Freeze,” Newsweek (August 2, 2010), p. 26.