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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mario Monti: Succumbing to Power?

He was supposed to have been reluctantly pushed into briefly stepping in as prime minister in Italy to push austerity measures through the state legislature.  According to Deutche Welle, “The 69-year-old former European Commissioner was appointed to lead Italy’s government . . . to restore Italy’s finances following Berlusconi’s departure.” The technocrat was not supposed to so interested in power that he would want to stay on. At the end of December 2012, Mario Monti announced that he would lead a centrist group of politicians against the Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party in the upcoming election.  Had the former bureaucrat “found religion” in some political cause, or had he developed a taste for power? If the latter, we might ascribe the motive to the human propensity to resist giving up power willingly.
  Mario Monti at the European Commission. A launching point for Italian politics?    source: nytimes
The full essay is at Essays on the E.U. Political Economy, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Averting the "Fiscal Cliff": A Solution Overlooked

With just days to avert the beginning of automatic, across-the-board cuts in the U.S. federal budget and the end of the Bush tax cuts and payroll tax reductions, President Obama met with Congressional leaders at the White House following a brief respite over Christmas. The discussion was doubtless on what could pass Congress in time. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury was also attending, so the upcoming debt-limit could also have been part of the discussion. It could be argued that the perspective itself at the meeting must have been too narrow—too small—even though the crisis demanded leadership.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook. 

Speaking after meeting with Congressional leaders, President Obama could have used the crisis to propose a seismic shift in American federalism in line with reducing the federal debt. Getty Images

José Manuel Barroso: Picking Romania’s Government?

On December 9, 2012, Romanian voters approved of the coalition of the then-current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, by a two-thirds majority. However, because Ponta had been in a bitter political feud with President Traian Basescu—Ponta’s coalition tried and failed to impeach the president—it was not clear that the president would nominate Ponta for prime minister even though that post must be approved by the parliament. Basescu did wind up nominating Ponta. The interesting point here is that President Barroso of the European Commission publicly waded into the choice on behalf of Ponta. 
 Prime Minister Ponta of Romania: Propped up by Barroso?           exclusivnews.ro

The full essay is at Essays on the E.U. Political Economy, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pot in Colorado: Getting High on American Federalism

On November 6, 2012, Colorado’s citizens approved with a 55% majority a marijuana-legalization measure that allows residents over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce. The measure also allows for the commercial growing and selling of pot. More than a month later, the government of Douglas county in Colorado passed a law prohibiting companies from growing or selling cannabis. Meanwhile, the U.S. law continued to make the growth, sale, possession or use of pot illegal. Over all, it would seem to be a case of federalism as a pretzel of sorts, all twisted up into itself. This case study can be used to point to a more perfect union in terms of federalism.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

The pot leaf.   source: Mother Jones (who else)

Friday, December 21, 2012

John Kerry as U.S. Secretary of State

Just after President Barak Obama announced that he would nominate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to be the U.S. Secretary of State, the occupant of the corresponding office in the E.U., Catherine Ashton, welcomed the prospect of working with Kerry.
"I am delighted by the nomination of Senator John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State. I have had the privilege of meeting Senator Kerry on a number of occasions. His considerable experience, not least as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes him an ideal candidate for this crucial position. Pending Congressional confirmation, I look forward very much to working closely with him, and continuing the excellent cestablished with Secretary Clinton."
I, too, have had the privilege of meeting Senator Kerry. He struck me as a warm yet very ambitious man. At the time, I was on a deficit-reduction kick, so I asked him how his “big government” ideology was consistent with reducing the federal deficit. “I’m a fiscal conservative!” he insisted as he put his arm around my shoulder and smiled. “Oh, come on,” I countered in rather obvious disbelief. “I believe that government programs should be run efficiently,” he explained. “That’s good, but I don’t think that’s fiscal conservativism,” I said, “and it doesn’t necessarily make a dent in the deficit because you could simply add more programs that are efficiently run.” Perhaps Kerry as the U.S. Secretary of State might put his arm on Katherine Ashton’s shoulder and mollify her with something like, “Of course the E.U. is not a federal system,” or “the U.S. is firmly in support of the E.U. and ready to help.” Bill Clinton could even provide background music by playing his sax. Would the European succumb to the “I’m essentially whatever you want me to be”?

                                              U.S. President Obama nominates U.S. Sen. John Kerry to be U.S. Secretary of State.    Reuters
I would like to think that at least behind closed doors, politicians are capable of real talk rather than appearance and manipulation. What is the essential nature of a person who would make his or life that of politics? Do we ever really know them? Is there substance under the shells? Moreover, are the best people ruling? Does the democratic process proffer the best or merely the most pleasing appearance? As the E.U. struggles with the appearance of suffering from a democratic deficit, Europeans might want to reflect a bit on whether “technocrats” are really so bad. At least they don’t have quite the skill to conflate themselves into chameleons. Ashton might indeed have had Kerry’s number, yet no one would ever glimpse this from her glowing statement. Are she and Kerry two of a kind—both politicians managing appearances? How would the rest of us ever know? And yet we are the ones who are tasked with pulling the levers on election-day.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is a Stronger E.U. in America’s Interest?

Is a stronger E.U. necessarily in the interest of the U.S.? According to Ed West of the Telegraph, “it’s not clear whether a united Europe would necessarily be more pro-American, automatically siding with the US against the rest. European countries have their own interests with regards the Middle East, Africa and China, which often don’t coincide with America’s, and on a range of world issues European public opinion is fairly hostile to America, decades of American military protection having inspired not gratitude, but resentment. Britain is something of an anomaly in Europe, popular opinion being unusually hostile to the EU and warm to America.” This passage can be taken to task on at least two points.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires, which is available at Amazon in print and as an ebook.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Honeywell’s David Cote: Carrying the Water in Washington

In the midst of the talks in Washington to obviate the so-called fiscal “cliff” with a bipartisan deal, the Wall Street Journal reported that David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell, a $48 billion “industrial giant,” was at the time “the business executive most in the middle of the fiscal-cliff debate.” The Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) said, "People on both sides of the aisle are sending messages through Dave. He's become an active participant.” For a sitting CEO to have ensconced himself so deeply among the power-players in Washington did not come controversy-free. Even though his company had a vested interest that a deal be reached, the matter of his involvement raises larger implications, positive as well as negative.
                                             David Cote, CEO of Honeywell. Civic duty or getting "his people" back in line in Washington?       Bloomberg News
 "I'm being accused of all kinds of nefarious motives just because I'm a CEO," Cote claimed. He also conceded his cause diverts a lot of time from his job but says he tries to make it up from his personal time. In any case, "the best for my shareholders is a robust economy," he explained, "which can't happen if the country is gridlocked over debt." True enough—a rising tide benefits all boats. However, as the Wall Street Journal points out, “Cote's efforts could benefit his business. Absent a cliff deal, deep cuts in federal spending on defense and many other programs will kick in. Success in averting them could help Honeywell, an aerospace and defense contractor that draws 10% of its $38 billion in annual sales from the government.” This point could not have been lost on the CEO. Honeywell’s stockholders were not volunteering their CEO in a sort of civic duty or good “corporate citizenship.”
Moreover, that the CEO of a major defense contractor was spending so much of his time as a go-between in Washington so a deal that would obviate automatic cuts including defense spending might have a better chance of being reached by Republican and Democratic leaders points to the depth of interest by the military-industrial complex in the task. I would not be surprised to learn that various government officials, including the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, were not themselves “carrying the water” for the government-dependent sector in stirring up doomsday predictions lest a deal not be reached in time to avoid “falling off the cliff.” Besides influencing the debate itself through ads and other, less transparent means, the sector with the most to lose was “bucking up” to keep the defense contracts coming. From this standpoint, it is surprising that Washington’s political elite had not fallen into line and come up with a deal by November.
“We’re not confident that our guys can govern anymore,” Cote observed as he was carrying messages between Republican Congressional leaders and the White House. While this observation could be oriented to the lack of responsiveness to the “sway” of the military-industrial complex in the halls of power, he said his role as political-deal-facilitator has been a "revelation” on how dysfunctional Washington had become simply in terms of being able to get along. "I meet people on both sides I like and find reasonable,” he said, “but they aren't working together." This is particularly significant, given the interest of the complex that a deal be reached. Might it be that ideological differences on government (or even immaturity) can actually bristle at, or even resist the power of money in Washington?
For instance, has ideology in the Republican Party on the role of government in the economy gone against the interests of Wall Street or corporate America, or is the ideology effectively a reflection of the whatever that base determines is its rightful interest? I suspect that there was no way that Republican leaders were going to let a deal slip by, even given the appearances to the contrary in the meantime as the leaders sought to get better terms by waiting until the last possible moment to seal a deal. However, were such a resolution “in the cards” given the underlying “marching orders,” why would Honeywell’s CEO have been spending so much time “carrying the water” in Washington?
That there might have actually even been a chance that the military-industrial complex could be subject to budget cuts is amazing, considering the power of money in the United States. Put another way, why would a man whose total direct compensation in 2011 was $25 million and whose retirement package assets were at $78 million feel the need to carry anyone’s water—especially given that his “Fix the Debt” non-profit had raised $43 by mid-December 2012 and could unleash television ads against “dysfunctional” elected officials who had not “gotten the message.” Something is really up when a real insider feels compelled to get so explicitly and personally involved—even given Honeywell’s financial interest that a deal be reached.
In short, there are wider implications for David Cote’s involvement amid the political class in Washington. His own, his company’s, and his sector’s financial interests notwithstanding, that a person of his stature would roll up his sleeves and get to work in “dysfunctional” Washington suggests that he is exactly the sort of person to who the American Founders would have called on to serve his country out of a sense of civic duty. Even as Obama was being urged to put Cote in his cabinet as Treasury or Commerce secretary, the CEO was saying, "I can't wait to get out of here and back to my day job." This sentiment, rather than a desire to run for office, should be “just the ticket” needed for admission to a fixed term of “duty” in Washington—then freedom. This is what citizenship means—realistically in the context of even vested interests. Even as Cote doubtless had his in mind, he was also going beyond the pale as a CEO actively working to craft a deal in at the highest level of the U.S. Government.
To be sure, David Cote could have been a rare snapshot of the military-industrial complex getting  "its people" back into line in a Washington "unhinged" from its real principals. However, it could also be that the man deserves a lot of credit for stepping up to the plate in a ballpark not typically frequented by CEOs not only to protect his company, but also to tackle the systemic imbalance evinced in a public federal debt of over $16 trillion at the time. If so, the President would have been well advised to use him well—rather than too much—out of respect for the man’s public service. A restoration of the civic duty of citizenship can indeed be distinguished from the threat of plutocracy to a republic.


Monica Langley, “Honeywell CEO in the Middleof Fiscal Cliff Standoff,” The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2012.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A British Referendum on the E.U.

Legislators can make the task of getting instructions from the popular sovereign, the people, unduly difficult. In November 2012, the Florida legislature confronted its people with several proposed constitutional amendments written in legalese that even some lawyers found difficult to navigate through. The next month, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox of Britain pressured their state’s legislature to put forth a referendum that, unlike that of Florida, would present the people with a clear choice.

The flags of Florida and Britain             Source: allposters.com
The full essay is at "Essays on the E.U. Political Economy," available at Amazon.

Bernanke on the U.S. Economy “Going Over the Cliff”

As the U.S. Government faced down its own deadline before the Bush tax cuts would expire and across-the-board budget cuts would commence, the Federal Reserve, which had been struggling to prop up the economy by buying bonds and keeping interest rates low, would, according to the Chairman, Ben Bernanke, be largely powerless to do more in the face of a recessionary policy on taxes and spending. "We cannot offset the full impact of the fiscal cliff," he said of the Fed. "It's just too big." That he had written a doctoral dissertation on the Great Depression and had specialized on it as a professor at Princeton lends a lot of weight to his judgment on the matter. However, he had also managed to be re-appointed to the Fed and thus knew how to play the game. In the case of the automatic budget cuts, major power-brokers, specifically in the military industrial complex, had a lot riding on Congress and the White House making a deal that would obviate the cuts in defense spending. The chairman of the Fed could have been carrying their water.
Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, in front of the lights.   Reuters
In September 2012, Bernanke had announced an open-ended mortgage-backed-security purchasing program that would put $40 billion a month into the economy. At the time, he said, “If we do not see substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market, we will continue the MBS purchase program, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ our policy tools as appropriate until we do. We will be looking for the sort of broad-based growth in jobs and economic activity that generally signal sustained improvement in labor market conditions and declining unemployment.” Presumably the Fed would continue the mortgage-bond purchases were the automatic budget cuts and end of the Bush tax breaks to forestall a “broad-based growth in jobs and economic activity.”
In terms of economic impact, a stimulus of $40 billion a month, or $480 billion annually, would just about match the anticipated $500 billion hit from the “cliff.” How is it then, that the latter is “just too big”? Were the $480 billion insufficient, the Fed would be free to increase its purchases.  Time magazine describes the stimulus mechanism as follows: “Open-ended purchases of mortgages will have the effect of lowering interest rates, helping more people qualify for mortgages or refinance. But more importantly it will — in theory — have the effect of creating an expectation of generally higher asset prices in the future, which will motivate people to get off their duffs and spend money now. If companies and individuals are indeed convinced that prices will rise in the future, that would encourage them to spend, hire, and jump-start the economy out of its chronic underperformance.” Whereas monetary policy was contracted in response to the Great Depression, the scholar of that mistake could presumably do the opposite should we—in his words, “go over the cliff.” His $480 billion mountain of money could turn his $500 billion cliff into a mere bump.
To be sure, purchasing mortgage-bonds can only do so much. As David Dayen of Firedoglake argues, there’s only so much the lifting of asset prices can do without appropriate fiscal policy to accompany it: “(Y)ou have to question the role of monetary actions by themselves to generate an economic boost, especially at this time. Lower mortgage rates may or may not prove helpful . . . without fiscal stimulus and a reversal of the current trajectory of deficit reduction, we will never get to the desired trend for growth.” However, the Fed could presumably buy up more than mortgage-bonds, freeing banks up to lend more in the process.
Most telling is Bernanke’s claim that the Fed could not increase its stimulus enough to counter the anticipated $500 billion hit from sequestration and the end of the Bush tax breaks—and yet the Fed was already on record that it would spend $480 billion in 2013 unless the economy improved in the meantime. His inflexibility seems arbitrary, or dogmatic, in other words, given what the Fed can do, and this leads me to the alternative explanation that the chairman was actually doing someone else’s bidding rather than proffering a judgment steeped in decades of study. The real task would be one of locating the real power-brokers whose financial interests were so threatened.
Whereas the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and cutting entitlement programs had been perennially on the block for years, the sacred-cow of defense spending was all of a sudden susceptible as well. Hence, I believe, all the dire doomsday warnings coming out of Washington to the contrary, the pressure on a political deal was oriented to protecting the status quo of the military-industrial complex rather than obviating certain economic collapse. That is, even more fundamental than the interest of politicians and the media to over-dramatize “going over the cliff” in order to gain attention, the subterranean financial interest of the American military-industrial complex may have been pulling many strings—many puppets—to veer the debate toward a deal. Even as the major players on stage were posturing, a two-step could have been going on behind the scenes—dancing around the sacred cows. Perhaps the real news behind the Bernanke’s warning is that even the “non-politicized” central bank was “doing the dance.”

John Cushman, “To Bernanke, ‘Cliff’ Says It AllThe New York Times, December 12, 2012.

ECB as Bank Supervisor: States in the Driver's Seat

Although the establishment of a federal regulator of major banks in the E.U. was as yet not approved by the European Parliament or ratified by the governments of states using the euro as well as any other states opting in, the European Council of Ministers signed off in December 2012 on an amendment that would give the European Central Bank authority over banks that have at least €30 billion in assets, make up more than 20% of their state’s economic output, or operate in at least two states (i.e., interstate banking). At the very least, three banks per state would come under the central bank’s oversight. Other banks would remain the responsibility of state regulators. This is an interesting “working out” of federalism, distinctively European-style.
For one thing, that the Council of state finance ministers—representing their respective governments—formulated the proposal while the representatives of E.U. citizens would then presumably have only an “up or down” say on the matter reflects the salience of the state governments at the E.U. level relative to the elected representatives of the people. That is, appointees of elected representatives at the state level have more power at the federal level than do the federal legislators who directly represent the people (i.e., without respect to state).
                                                            German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble at the E.U. Council of Ministers discussing the bank supervisor amendment.             WSJ
One implication of the imbalance of the “confederal” chamber based on international principles over the federal chamber based on national principles (i.e., representing citizens rather than states) is that the interests of the whole can be held up by the vested interests of a particular state government (e.g., Germany).
Another implication is that of a democracy deficit because the directly elected federal legislators are essentially in the back seat. To be sure, the state leaders who are driving the union are elected too, but to state office. Put another way, the legislators elected specifically to the E.U. level are playing second fiddle to officials elected to act in the interest of their particular state. This mismatch is a deficit in democratic terms.
Therefore, rather than focusing only on the substantive powers proposed for the ECB, attention might be given to the process by which the amendment to the E.U.’s basic law (i.e., constitutional) was formulated and sent through to be officially proposed and ratified. At a fundamental level, the states both designed and would ratify the proposal—a conflict of interest due to the relative subordination of the E.U. Commission and Parliament. It is as if the state legislatures would sit in judgment of what they themselves designed, effectively patting themselves on the back while the people’s federal representatives merely nod as though a footnote.


Gabriele Steinhauser and Laurence Norman, “EU Reaches Deal on Bank Supervisor,” The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2012.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How to Beat the Rap, HSBC Style

In HSBC’s settlement with the U.S. Government, the bank has to pay $1.9 billion—about half a quarter’s profit—but avoids criminal charges. The New York Times quotes government officials who said they were hesitant to indict the bank because formal charges could mean bankruptcy, which in turn could roil the financial system itself owing to the bank being too big to fail. That is to say, one of the advantages of being TBTF is apparently that of effective immunity from criminal charges.
 The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, which is available at Amazon.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Luring Business: “Job Creators” in Texas

As of December 2012, Texas was giving out more financial incentives—mainly in the form of tax breaks and subsidies—to business than was any other American state. The government was handing out around $19 billion annually, while at least $80 million was being spent in the U.S. overall, according to the New York Times. Although at the time Texas had half of all the private-sector jobs created in the U.S. during the preceding decade, the Times points to “a more complicated reality behind the flood of incentives.” It cannot simply be assumed that good jobs will be created.
For example, Texas had the third-highest proportion of hourly jobs paying at or below minimum wage. In fact, Texas had the 11th-highest poverty rate in the union. “While economic development is the mantra of most officials, there’s a question of when does economic development end and corporate welfare begin,” Dale Craymer of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association said. In other words, one might ask how much the benefits from the financial incentive extend beyond the recipients themselves to the general public and Texas. Even though businesses cite “job creation” as a benefit of government help, one might ask what kind of job as well as how many?
That the government may have been relying on the businesses themselves or their “consultants” even as they would stand to gain suggests that a conflict of interest may have blurred the line between decision-maker and beneficiary. Indeed, political contributions from companies to re-election campaigns may have exacerbated the problem.
For example, Brint Ryan, a tax consultant specializing in finding incentives for large companies, was “a familiar presence at the state comptroller’s office . . . which must sign off on many tax breaks”—potentially blurring the line between beneficiary (agent) and decision-maker. He also donated $250,000 to Gov. Rick Perry’s ill-fated run for the White House. Texas had been largely bereft of financial incentives for big business when Perry became the head of state in 2001. He had smarted when Texas lost out to Illinois on a new Boeing plant and he was not going to repeat that mistake. Years later, he could point to expansions by Facebook, eBay and Apple in Texas. “They’re coming because it is given, it is covenant, in these boardrooms across America, that our tax structure, regulatory climate and legal environment are very positive to those businesses,” he said. This does not mean, however, that they deliver on well-paying jobs for Texans. There is also the opportunity cost to the government. As Texas spent more to lure big business, the education budget took a hit. Brint Ryan may have had Gov. Perry’s ear when students and even the poor probably did not.
In short, government officials engaged in industrial policy would be wise to distinguish corporate welfare from “economic stimulus.” The influence of money in the American political system doubtless created a conflict of interest blurring the line between the beneficiaries and the decision-makers. The temptation for policy makers might therefore be to lapse into corporate welfare at the expense of basic services. CEOs who are looking for financial incentives from the government as a way to make more money may claim that their respective companies are “job creators,” but the reality is that those companies are “profit creators” with jobs being a byproduct of sorts. The case of Texas suggests that market equilibrium may naturally be well short of full-employment. If so, government officials should not go overboard with the financial incentives in the mistaken belief that some full-employment market utopia is possible, even if providing corporate welfare does not hurt their own political welfare either.


Louise Story, “Lines Blur as Texas Gives Industries a Bonanza,” The New York Times, December 3, 2012.  

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Preparing For the U.S. Presidency: Building a Resume

How should an aspiring candidate for President of the United States go about attaining that esteemed office?—an office whose occupant was regularly referred to as “the leader of the free world” when part of that world was behind an iron curtain. Mitt Romney spent six years of his life campaigning for the job only to lose it to an incumbent whose record on “pocket-book issues: was mixed at best. Perhaps it is possible to want something too much. Fortunately, a more substantive alternative is also possible.

                                                                                                              Hillary Clinton as U.S. Secretary of State.           
As Hillary Clinton was nearing the end of her tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, Michael Bloomberg, who was nearing the end of his own mayoralty in New York City, encouraged her to run for his office. Being every bit “New York,” the New York Times refers to the option as “trading international diplomacy for municipal management on the grandest scale.” In case anyone misses my sarcasm here, I should add that being mayor of New York City is not merely executive experience on a grand scale. Being chief executive of The City could be comparable to being governor of some states. Accordingly, becoming mayor of the city that never sleeps could give the former legislator and chief diplomat significant experience as a chief executive. Ironically, the latter could be most essential to the presidency.
Alternatively, were Hillary Clinton really intent at the time on running for presidency, political consultants might have been whispering in her other ear, “you need to get up to New Hampshire and over to Iowa.” However, early and regular visits to those states do not, as the case of Mitt Romney suggests, necessarily translate into winning come election day. This is not to say that a third alternative, such as taking a well-deserved break—maybe writing a book—might not be preferable to being mayor of New York City. Nevertheless, in the choice between never-ending campaigning and governing, it would be nice to think that the American people would reward substance over excess eagerness. The people have not exactly demanded of a president that he (or she) be a senior statesman when it comes to governmental experience. John Adams had been U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain (besides having had a hand in the writing of the U.S. Constitution) before being elected president. Thomas Jefferson had been the U.S. Secretary of State (besides having had a hand in, well…you know). Had he lived, James Hamilton might have been president after having served as Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury. Experience can even be ex post facto, as when President Taft joined the U.S. Supreme Court after serving as president.
From the perspective of having several substantive governmental offices, an occupant of the office of U.S. president can have both wisdom and perspective. That is, such a person would be more likely to discern instinctively the forest from those particular trees that demand too much attention. Such a person would be more oriented to the system as a whole, as President Jackson was when he opposed funding the Second National Bank of the U.S. even as he opposed South Carolina’s nullification act (by which the state legislature could invalidate U.S. laws detrimental to the state’s interest). That is to say, the president was oriented to protecting what he saw as a balance in the federal system. His perspective was systemic and thus not primarily partisan or even bureaucratic in nature.
To be sure, putting someone in the office who might be suspected of sporting a suitable countenance is ultimately up to the American people—whether we value it enough. Lest it be pointed out that few candidates could be found, it is also up to the candidates themselves—whether they are willing to substitute more governmental experience for the seemingly endless parade of chicken dinners. To those candidates, I would say: focus on the knitting and the campaigning will take care of itself; focus on the campaigning, however, and the sweater could slowly unravel from all the waving and handshakes. In short: have faith that investing in governing now will pay off later. This could mean trusting in the judgment of the American electorate, or being a leader (hence gaining leadership experience!) by providing a higher example of real presidential material. Of course, the people may not be wise or virtuous enough of character to grasp such leadership, in which case the republic itself will decline even in spite of the suitable candidates.

Michael Barbaro, “Clinton for Mayor in ’13?Bloomberg Asked Her to Consider Succeeding Him,” The New York Times, December 4, 2012.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SEC Goes After Chinese CPA Firms: Beyond Diplomacy

The Securities and Exchange Commission brought an administrative proceeding against the Chinese affiliates of five major CPA firms, including the “Big Four,” in 2012. Chinese companies had raised billions of dollars on American (and Canadian) exchanges only for the share prices of the companies to plummet due to questions about bookkeeping and disclosures. The SEC alleged that the CPA firms in China refused to hand over documents in connection with the investigation of alleged accounting frauds at nine Chinese companies. The SEC maintained that firms that audit U.S.-traded companies must follow U.S. law, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires foreign audit firms to hand over documents about U.S.-listed clients at the SEC’s request. SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar said that the investigations “have been hampered by the lack of access to relevant documents.” For their part, the CPA firms in China (affiliates of American-based CPA firms) pointed out that their audit papers are treated like state secrets in mercantilist China, and that the auditors could therefore be imprisoned for handing the material over a foreign government without permission from the Chinese state. 

The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.com.  

Oceans Arising on Edifices of Arrogance

A study published in late November 2012 in the journal Science estimates that the melting of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland had raised global sea levels by 11.1 millimeters (0.43 inch) since 1992. That represents one-fifth of the total sea-level rise increase in that period. Other contributors include the expansion of the sea water from warming, and the melting of glaciers, as for instance on mountains. In the 1990s, melting of the polar ice sheets in the Antarctica and Greenland was responsible for about 10 percent of the global sea-level rise, but by 2012 the effect had risen to 30 percent.[1] The study does not, however, uncover the underlying cause, or association, lying in a complexity in human nature itself. Our species has vaunted to the top of the food chain and leveraged a brain capable of engineering technological advances that would have seemed magical even just in the nineteenth century, and yet we seem hard-wired to accelerate our course to a self-destructive extinction. This lack of balance is reflected in the increasing extremes in the global climate. In this essay, I begin with the study and steadily work toward uncovering the underlying, subterranean culprit.

The entire essay is at "Oceans Arising on Edifices of Arrogance"

[1] Gautam Naik, “Polar Ice Melt Is Accelerating,” The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2012.

Bailouts Without Stimulus: E.U. Policy on Spanish Banks

Directly and indirectly, the housing bust that began in 2007 put “the bailout” on the map in the lexicon of industrial policy both in Europe and North America. Whereas in the U.S., few restrictions were placed on the recipients, the E.U.’s first €37 billion ($47.9 billion) for Spain’s banking sector required the four major state banks “to make sharp cuts in their balance sheets and payrolls,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Bankia, the largest of the banks to be bailed out, planned to cut its number of employees by more than 6,000, close more than 1,000 branches, pass on any further real-estate lending, and reduce its assets by €50 billion as the bank focuses on retail banking—getting back to the knitting, as it were. Presumably the bankers were not allowed to grant themselves bonuses as a condition of the bailout. If so, it would differ appreciably from the U.S. bailout of Wall Street banks.

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

China or USA: Which Will Rule Trade?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) announced at its meeting in November 2012 that it would host negotiations among its members on “a sweeping trade pact that,” according to the New York Times, “would include China.” The trade agreement would include not only the ten countries that are in the association, but also six other countries that have free-trade agreements with the association. In addition to China, those countries include Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Half of the world’s population would be included in the pact. Notably absent is the United States. This is no accident, as the Obama administration’s own proposal for an eleven-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership excludes China. In other words, the contending proposals may be more about a “control battle” between two contending empires—the United States and China—than anything else. Moreover, which proposal succeeds could say something about whether China succeeds the United States as the hegemonic super-power of the twenty-first century.
                                                    Barack Obama and Wen Jiabao: A contest of wills at the East Asia Summit in 2012.   Jason Reed/Reuters
That the immediate issue was that of China’s inclusion or exclusion can be gleamed from Barak Obama’s statement during one of the presidential debates in 2012. “We’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards.” The inclusion of basic can be read as a slight against China. However, that protecting state-run enterprises as done by China would continue to be allowed under ASEAN’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership suggests that what the U.S. takes to be settled in terms of what constitutes the basics of international trade may not have been so settled after all. China could point to U.S. companies being able to deduct expenses on their income tax forms as a form of government aid to the home team. Since at least the mercantilist era in the seventeenth century, governments have carried out industrial policies designed to profit domestic companies and increase tax revenue. Laissez-faire-based trade may not be realistic, considering the myriad ways in which governments interact with business. Regulation itself, in being of a strategic to some firms more than others, could have a differential impact on domestic and foreign firms. It is unrealistic to assume that governments would stop regulating just so the trade is “fair” as well as “free.”
As the twenty-first century was coming into its own, two major economic powers in the world were contending not only for economic dominance, but political hegemony as well. Would it be another American century, or would power follow economic growth over to Asia? The “control battle” itself ostensibly about ordering trade alliances could be an indication that power was about to shift on a massive scale in terms of which economic power would become the definitive superpower.


Jane Perlez, “Asian Nations Plan Trade Bloc That, Unlike U.S.’s, Invites China,” The New York Times, November 21, 2012.  

Constructing a Constitution: Egypt

Concerning a new constitution, which is more important, the process or the content? In Egypt, that most secularists and the Coptic Christian representatives walked out of the assembly working on a document suggests that the final product would not have legitimacy for all of Egypt. To be sure, it is possible for a partisan group to design a system of basic law that is not overtly self-serving at others’ expense. The document emerging from the assembly weakens the presidency and strengthens the parliament in line with the popular protest in “the Arab Spring.” However, the assembly left in place a “longstanding article” grounding Egyptian law in the principles of one religion. Furthermore, a provision on women’s equality was left out, and the military generals would keep their existing power. Moreover, anticipating dissolution from Mubarak-appointed judges, the assembly began its work from the last Egyptian constitution.
                                                                           Do the members of the constitutional assembly look liberal or conservative?  Reuters
Basing deliberations on the status quo works against the process needed to arrive at a new constitution, especially if the last constitution had been constructed in a very different time. The Wall Street Journal reports legal experts as indicating that the assembly’s final document is “almost identical to the 1971 constitution written by former President Anwar Sadat”—hardly a democratic standpoint.
The construction of a new constitution from scratch has particular value in allowing a political system to “catch up” to the contemporary context, even if ancient political theories are drawn on. The default in a constitutional assembly’s deliberations should not be based in the status quo. This point is easily missed, particularly when the other weakness of a partisan group dominating the assembly is also the case.
In the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz’s expression), delegates from all of the principal segments of society should be included in a constitutional assembly, with no group having a majority. Where such a majority is the case, a certain percentage of the minority should be required for an article to be adopted. Second, rather than being based on the last constitution, the starting point could be based on a new blue-print formulated in very basic terms by a committee (composed of delegates from the major segments of society). In the case of Egypt, delegates favoring particular major religions as well as secular society should have been on such a committee, and, moreover, active in the deliberations of the committee of the whole—the assembly itself.
A constitutional assembly should be a microcosm of the macro society, and thus inclusive of the powers and the non-so-powerful. Ideally, Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” should apply, wherein no delegate knows which segment he or she is in. Hence, no segment is apt to be left out or expunged. The veil would apply as well to the existing or prior constitution, so ever its assumptions would not serve as the default for deliberation. In short, a constitutional assembly should “reinvent the wheel” in the context of where a society is, rather than was. This does not mean that the resulting document would necessarily be progressive, particularly if a given society is traditionally-oriented.
In the case of Egypt, the “new” constitution drafted by the assembly, unlike the constitution that had been written by Anwar Sadat, includes a reference to the laws of a particular religion. In fact, both the state and “society” are given the authority to “ensure public morality.” Lest it be supposed that Egyptian society had become more traditionalist and religious in terms of a particular religion since 1971, the changes from the status quo document could simply be a reflection of the partisan make-up of the assembly. The point is that it is impossible to know unless it is the living—representing all of society rather than one party or segment—rather than the already-dead as the force behind the construction of the edifice by which public governance is to run its course.
Accordingly, all major segments of society must ratify a proposed document of basic law for it to have legitimacy operationally. Absent such approval of a super-majority or of all of the major elements of society, a proposal should be read as partial or incomplete. Rather than returning to it, a new assembly of delegates should “start from scratch” so a document can be crafted with presuppositions freed from the tyranny of the status quo and any major faction.


David Kirkpatrick, “Islamists Rush Through Egyptian Constitution and Prepare to Vote on It,” The New York Times, November 30, 2012.

Sam Dagher and Matt Bradley, “Egypt Adds Islamic Influence to Constitution,” The Wall Street Journal, November 30, 2012.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bad PR and Bad Banking: BOA

How to do bad PR: Announce plans to raise fees effecting low-income customers, then pull back, wait a year, then announce such plans again, then pull back yet again. This sort of PR strategy gives rise to headlines such as, “Bank of America Backs Down on New Fees.” The Wall Street Journal could have added, “yet again.” Besides the obvious PR downside to announcing unpopular fees—and on one’s least well-off customers—is the implication of weakness or vulnerability in repeatedly backing down. In the animal kingdom, Bank of America would not exactly be the alpha male lion. Rather, the bank would be one of the other males, which may or may not get to reproduce.
The full essay is in Cases of Unethical Business, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.com.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Filibuster: States' Rights or a Partisan Ploy?

Before 1917, senators could filibuster only by talking continuously on the U.S. Senate floor. There was no mechanism to stop them. Such filibusters were rare until entering World War I was debated. In 1917, the Senate passed its first “cloture” rule, whereby two-thirds of the Senate could cut off debate and force a final vote. Between that year and 1971, no two-year session of Congress had more than 10 such votes. Even so, in 1971 the rules were changed to allow other legislation to be taken up during a filibuster—relieving a senator of having to continuously talk to maintain one. Making it easier to filibuster quickly led to the predictable result of more filibusters. In the 93rd Congress (1973-74), the number of cloture motions jumped to 31, from an average in the 1917-1971 period of two per Congressional session. In 1975, the number of votes needed to stop a filibuster was lowered from 67 to 60. However, this change did not curtail the use of the device, as it is rare for a party to control 60 votes out of 100 in the U.S. Senate. By 2010, the average number of cloture motions per two-year session had risen to 129, which suggests that the filibuster had become more typical in how senate business was to be conducted. In effect, legislation and even executive business, such as confirming presidential nominations, needed a supermajority (60 out of 100) in the upper chamber of Congress.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Non-Tariff Barriers to Trans-Atlantic Trade

Karel De Gucht, the E.U. trade commissioner, said in late November 2012, “There is now, for the first time in years, a serious drive towards an E.U.-U.S. free-trade agreement.” The office of his counterpart, Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative, indicated that a high-level working-group consisting of Europeans and Americans was working on “how best to increase U.S.-E.U. trade and investment.” The sticking point concerned non-tariff barriers, such as different regulatory standards.
Karel De Gucht, the E.U. Trade Commissioner, advocating a free-trade pact with the U.S.  (Reuters).

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.