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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Political Power: An Element in Corporate Strategy

In his confidential memorandum, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System,” Lewis Powell, later to be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in 1971 that the “leftists” were launching a frontal assault on the “free enterprise system,” “capitalism,” or the “profit system.” Powell saw this as an attack on rather than a defending of the “American political system of democracy under the rule of law.” That the corporate profit-interest might be a threat to “one person one vote” apparently did not occur to the future Justice. Rather, what is good for GM he presumed must be good for American democracy. Moreover, both, he presumes, are consistent with, or perhaps even foundational for, American values.
Powell goes on to write, “A visiting professor from England at Rockford College gave a series of lectures entitled ‘The Ideological War Against Western Society,’ in which he documents the extent to which members of the intellectual community are waging ideological warfare against the enterprise system and the values of western society.” Decades later, another scholar visiting that Nixonian college reportedly found himself the target of suspicion simply because he was pulling academic journals in the conduct of academic research. The reference librarian and a guard reportedly closely eyed the "suspicious" activity, as such activity as research was apparently so unusual at that local college that it was regarded as something to be flagged. Perhaps it was a case of mediocrity not being able to recognize something higher. One of the librarians reportedly went so far as to force open the locked bathroom stall to see what the scholar was doing when he was in the bathroom!—the research activity of pulling journal volumes being so suspicious to those small, antiquated minds who unwittingly wage war against higher learning itself even as they hypocritically present themselves as academics. In actuality, they are business practitioners engulfed in the ideology of free enterprise as the whole of society. In other words, "academia" being in the ideological grips of private enterprise at the expense of higher learning may be the real threat to continued progress in Western civilization.
Such is the arrogance of ignorance, which fully manifested in prejudice even under the apparent auspices of an academic institution is the true danger to the American empire and its contribution to civilization.
Powell notes in his report that almost half of the students on twelve representative college campuses favored socialization of basic U.S. industries. He cites Stewart Alsop, who had written that “Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of ‘the politics of despair.’ These young men despise the American political and economic system.” It is strange, therefore, that, forty years later, the American political and economic system would be so well-undisturbed—having been so un-molested by the minions of educated young voters who had gone on to become leaders in that system. Yale, after all, contains in its mission the intent to educate the future leaders of America (and perhaps the world as well). There must have been a giant collective change-of-mind among the myriads of socialists before the Reagan landslide of 1980.
Powell goes on to suggest that business managers (including executives) “have not been trained or equipped to conduct guerrilla warfare with those who propagandize against the [business] system. . . . The traditional role of business executives has been to manage, to produce, to sell, to create jobs, to make profits, to improve the standard of living, to be community leaders, to serve on charitable and educational boards, and generally to be good citizens.” The practitioners here are the citizens; Powell is not pointing to what would come to be called “corporate citizenship,” a marketing slogan designed to get customers to feel better about buying more widgets. Nor is Powell pointing to the related notion of “corporate social responsibility,” which was invented by businessmen (rather than by “socialists” adding to corporate obligations) in the late 1950s.
Absent from Powell’s description of the businessman is the role of corporations even in 1971 in lobbying Congress for favorable legislation and/or regulation that would translate into higher profits. Powell would be hard-pressed to account for the role of the banking lobby in getting the U.S. Senate to vote down Senator Durbin’s amendment that would have given bankruptcy judges the authority to modify mortgages in foreclosure. This is how the “free enterprise system” has fought back “attacks” from “socialists.” After the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (2010), corporate money in unlimited amounts could go toward political advertising—including for or against a candidate—anonymously through “social welfare” non-profits. This is how corporate America has gone after its “attackers.”
Generally speaking, corporate American knows very well how to shut down its opposition in the halls of Congress. Powell’s memo pushes beyond the need for “public relations” and “governmental affairs” to urge a “scale of financing available only through joint effort” and related “political power” through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Business must learn the lesson “that political power is necessary…it must be used aggressively and with determination.” The corporation—created by the government—must, one might say—become the government, necessarily from within—through the system—rather than via revolution.
This sally into the political arena includes funding a highly competent staff of lawyers at the U.S. Chamber to argue before the courts in line with corporate interests. In the 2011 term, the Chamber’s ensuing legal defense department batted 100% on U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Powell could well have added that business’s lobbying and campaign dollars could be directed to not only defeating threatening legislation and regulations, but also influencing the nomination and confirmation of justices to federal (and state) courts. The astonishingly high success rate was therefore no accident.
In short, the threat to American democracy and even to the American principle of market competition may come not from “socialists” in academia and the media, but rather from the supposition that political power oriented to the corporate good rather than the public good is itself a good. That is to say, Powell’s memo may have the story turned around. His antagonists may have been oriented to saving the American system, whereas his proponents would actually subvert it in line with their narrow self-interest.


Lewis Powell, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” Memorandum, 1971. See pdf download at page-bottom of: http://billmoyers.com/content/the-powell-memo-a-call-to-arms-for-corporations/2/


Stock Market Efficiency: Regulating Speed Trades

By the fall of 2012, a flurry of international activity aimed at putting limitations on computer-based speed-trading was striking because regulators had been slow to act in the United States. Typically, the NYSE has been viewed by the world as the Mecca of efficient investment markets. Paradoxically, however, efficiency may be improved by restricting—meaning regulating—the masses of computer-enabled quick trades that take advantage of momentary microscopic arbitrage opportunities that are too quick for the human hand. The American conventional wisdom seems to be that regulation and market-efficiency are inversely related, rather than complementary. This assumption might be overly simplistic, coming from an inherited ideology. Fortunately, the rest of the world has not been following the SEC.

                                                                                                 A trader on the floor of the NYSE.   Getty Images
The broadest and fastest changes to unfettered speed-trading as of September 2012 were in Canada, where regulators had began increasing the fees charged to firms that flood the market with orders back in the spring of that year. According to the research and trading firm ITG, the change made trading more rather than less efficient because the crush of data burdening the market’s computer systems was reduced. Too much information coming all at once can be distinguished from perfect information, and can even overwhelm a market’s very infrastructure, eviscerating any possible gain from the additional information. For computer science folks, all this can be pretty sexy language; for the rest of us, the mundane fact of the matter is that more information does not always make a market more efficient. Exploiting small increments of arbitrage at a high volume so as to make a quick fortune may not actually improve a stock market’s efficiency because the market itself might crash. Regardless, any increase in the micro efficiency of the stock prices may not be significant, which is perhaps why such volume must be thrown at the problem to make enough money at the macro level.
Nevertheless, the SEC was proposing nothing to hamper the unfettered wild-west of computer trading. Meanwhile, Canadian trading desks were preparing for rules coming into effect on October 15, 2012 that would curtail the growth of the sophisticated trading venues known as dark pools, which the U.S. Government had allowed them to proliferate in the United States. To be sure, the Canadian rules had been hotly debated, but many Canadian bankers and investors determined that they did not want to go any further down the road that has taken the United States from having one major exchange in 2002 to having 13 official exchanges and dozens of dark pools in 2012. In the interim, trading firms and investors on Wall Street were hardest hit by a series of market disruptions, including the flash crash of 2010 and the runaway trading in August 2012 by Knight Capital that cost it $440 million in just hours.
What is striking about Canada is not so much that it was not following the SEC; rather, even the rules going into effect in mid-October were seen by some banks there as insufficient. “We don’t want to look like the U.S., but we have to do it better than we are now,” said Greg Mills, the head of stock trading at Canada’s largest bank, Royal Bank of Canada. Major market participants urging the state to better protect the viability of the market itself through more regulation is a case of statesmanship, or a sort of enlightened self-interest that fuels principled leadership over opportunism in the short-run. To be sure, legislators and regulators should not depend on such “industry self-regulation,” but it is quite beneficial as a supplement. That is to say, the cart should not lead the horse, but it is nice when the cart voluntarily lessens the load.
In American “theory of regulation” literature, market participants urging more regulation are typically presumed to be invoking the comparative advantage of regulation. A bank that would benefit over its rivals if computer-trades were not allowed in such time-volume as they were in the U.S. as of 2012 is typically assumed to be the only player willing to advocate for more government. Admittedly, the strategic use of regulation is not lost on businesses invested in the profit-motive. Nevertheless, this motivation does not exclude the possibility that market participants may urge more regulation out of a realization that if the market freezes up or collapses even for a time, every participant suffers financially.
Perhaps business practitioners in the U.S. are missing not only the forest for the trees, but also the trees for the branches, and the legislators and regulators are following in suit—in part due to the shared perspective (as it is so subtle being everywhere) and in part due to the corporate campaign contributions and intense lobbying. That is to say, the limiting nature of a perspective, unknown to the holders, is as it were a common denominator that tacitly supports a corrosive plutocratic (i.e., rule by wealth) symbiotic relationship between business and government that undermines the system itself. That there are other systems, such as Canada, that are founded on a different set of assumptions can mean that the basic form of the American perspective, which would otherwise be invisible or taken as a given, can be seen, or at least finally glimpsed. From this transparency, the assumptions taken for granted can be put as a problem to be solved rather than as truth to be set apart from the appetite of reason.

Nathaniel Popper, “Beyond Wall St., Curbs on High Speed Trades Proceed,” The New York Times, September 28, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/business/beyond-wall-st-curbs-on-high-speed-trading-advance.html?_r=0


Google Execs Evade Brazilian Jail Time

In late September 2012, the Brazilian state police detained the head of Google’s operations in the state after the company’s management failed to act on an electoral judge’s order to remove videos from its YouTube site criticizing a candidate in a rural county election. Separately, a judge ordered Google to remove a religiously-offensive video, which had sparked riots in the Middle East, within ten days or face fines. Google’s lawyers claim that the company is not responsible for what users upload. Earlier in the year, Brazil’s government threatened the head of Chevron’s operations there with arrest and passport-confiscation after a small leak occurred in the company.

                                                                                                         Brazil, the largest state in South America.   World Atlas 
The Wall Street Journal goes on to note the opinion of legal analysts that no executive at Google or Chevron was likely to “set foot in jail.” Brazil’s appeals process is long, and companies like Google and Chevron have deep pockets for legal defense. Consequently, even business practitioners convicted of major white-collar crimes are rarely, if ever, jailed in Brazil. Even so, the threats could thwart the South American state from being able to attract foreign direct investment. In other words, competition for foreign companies gives governments an incentive to look the other way in enforcing state law. Put another way, the lowest common denominator in terms of holding corporations accountable on the constraint of law and order could be one of the consequences of the spread of capitalism around the world. No public official wants to risk turning a potential “job creator” away.
Especially with the separation of ownership and control in the modern corporation, managerial accountability is crucial to ensuring that corporations abide by judicial orders. In many cases, senior managers can get away with making corporate-policy decisions that essentially ignore the constraints manifesting as judicial orders because deep corporate pockets can pay any resulting fines. Senior executives can be rather “free-wheeling” on corporate policies because the officials themselves—as citizens—are not subject to fines or imprisonment.
Corporations are not citizens; rather, the associations are creatures of the state created for particular purposes. Therefore, it can be said that the citizens operating the associations can and indeed should be held criminally liable for any “corporate” wrong-doing. Put another way, the actual decision-makers should be held accountable criminally for any decisions that violate a law or a judicial order. Otherwise, “corporations” can evade the law while their managers have little incentive to treat it as a constraint on profit-seeking.
Corporations do not act apart from the human beings within. An association just is its members. The people responsible for a “corporate” decision that violates the law can at least in many cases be identified, even if as scratched initials on the margins of a policy proposal. In fact, the police could charge a corporate official whose role the offending policy falls under even if that official had been negligent in not having kept up on the decision made by his or her subordinates. So coverage of responsibility is something that can be applied to particular people within the management of a company. Such coverage, if resulting in real jail time, would doubtless get managers’ attention rather quickly, as opposed to merely fining a company’s treasury. Unfortunately, Brazilian officials had a disincentive to implement such coverage with consequences with teeth, due to the countering pressure to attract businesses rather than repel their decision-makers.
Lest it be thought that creating an international body with the power to imprison executives of MNCs for crimes against an international code, the problem of how to enforce Brazil’s law on an international organization (e.g., Google) would go unanswered. One “consensus” global code would not touch on the regional and local specificities in criminal law. That people in Brazil were offended by a video does not mean that a global consensus would necessarily emerge in favor of criminalizing the video. For one thing, some governments support free speech even on opinions that are offensive to a majority.
The problem can be said to be that of cultural particularity vs. economic globalization. Both are viable and thus must be recognized. Multinational corporations must legally at least be multi-domestic in responding to cultural-legal particulars even while being the instruments of efficient international competition. Both values are legitimate, and yet they are in conflict at least in terms of the enforcement of local law. Statesmanship on behalf of such law even at the risk of losing a potential foreign business investing in local jobs is unfortunately all too rare, given the countervailing greed involved in attracting suitors away from other potential hosts.
All too often, leadership is gloss for greed rather than based on standards and principle. Put another way, the “principle” of efficient comparative advantage is often used by self-promoting governments as a means of obfuscating the real selling-out of the country’s own laws, which in turn ideally reflect moral values that are held by society. The question is perhaps whether governance structures geared to real accountability for business practitioners can be designed to counter the hegemony of greed over principled leadership. The political influence of the practitioners and their respective corporate treasuries over the governance itself—the creature coming to dominate its Creator—compounds the difficulty and suggests that it is no accident that corporate executives rarely see jail time.


Jeff Fick and John Lyons, “Google’s Brazil ChiefDetained; Court Bans Anti-Islam Video,” The Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2012.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Poor States in the U.S. and E.U.: A Drawback of Federalism

The state-debt crisis in the E.U. has had the unfortunate effect of exacerbating the prejudice in the northern states against the poorer southern states. The people in the latter states are purportedly lazier or more corrupt (e.g., Greece’s patronage system). Historically, it has even been thought that the warmer climate makes people less industriousness. Faced with this long history of prejudice, it is difficult to assume that shifting more governmental sovereignty from the states to the Union will somehow make Europe one big happy family. In other words, federalizing more competencies is unlikely to make every state economically on par with Germany.

The complete essay is at "Is the E.U. a Federal System?"

Members of Congress Secretly Lobby the Fed

According to the New York Times, as of late September 2012, more than one hundred members of Congress had lobbied the Federal Reserve and other regulatory agencies on the Volcker Rule, which is the part of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act of 2010 that prohibits banks from operating like casinos (e.g., trading with proprietary funds, rather than those of customers). The rule stems from the importance of banks in our financial system. In September 2008, the world nearly witnessed the collapse of that system when banks stopped trusting each other (e.g., via commercial paper market) because of the risks that some of the big ones had been taking with mortgage-backed derivative securities and the related insurance swap securities. Awash in healthy-seeming fees, the banks purchased risky subprime mortgages and bundled them into bond-like securities that could be sold to investors.
Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act, so it makes sense, and indeed is positive from the standpoint of accountability, that lawmakers remain involve as the relevant regulators (who are not elected) translate the broad legislative language into specific rules for banks. However, the newspaper’s report points to a less-than-salubrious practice wherein members of Congress contact regulatory agencies in private and before even the period for public comment. This raises the possibility that Wall Street was using its connections in Congress to weaken the public safeguards in the bill—essentially putting a narrow private interest in front of the public interest that the bill was designed to protect.

The access purchased comes not only from having information that the regulatory agencies need; banks (and American corporations in general) could contribute unlimited amounts of money from the corporate treasury (rather than from contributions from executives and employees) to “social welfare” non-profit organizations that can spend money on political ads in support of friendly candidates (and against their opponents) without having to divulge the identities of the donors. So Wall Street banks can furtively promote U.S. Senate candidates who support the repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act without any of us knowing it. In fact, the “social welfare” (54c) groups can in turn contribute directly to a candidate’s campaign without divulging the names of the donors. Not even the IRS, which has been concerned about whether the donors pay the required gift tax, bothers the “social welfare” organizations for donor lists after complaints from several U.S. Senators. Nor has the SEC pushed corporations to divulge to their respective stockholders how the political donations have been spent. I suspect that senatorial influence lies behind this inaction too.
It is not as though there were some uncertainty regarding the need for disclosure in a democracy. Even though eight of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices in Citizens United stress in their opinions the necessity of disclosure, corporations, no doubt well-connected in the halls of power in Washington from the donations already given, have a way to evade the transparency. Political and corporate democracy are both undercut as banks and business corporations can spend unlimited amounts (out of their respective profits) to help “pro-business” candidates for public office. Rather than being speech itself (and thus subject to free-speech constitutional protection), money is power that can be used to skew or otherwise limit the contours of public debate. After the election, the continued influence of the money is also stealth, such as when members of Congress lobby the Federal Reserve to weaken regulation meant to safeguard our financial system from a repeat of the near-collapse in 2008. For deregulation to be urged so soon after a near-depression gives us an indication of how dangerous “money as invisible speech” is to the public good, even if such influence is in the corporate interest.
As creatures of the state, corporations should not have a share in governance, for that function subverts the causal relationship between Creator and creature. That is to say, a corporate management (or board) presuming to influence members of Congress can be likened to the self-idolatry of a creature supposing itself to be God. Interestingly, as going concerns, corporations are immortal, legally speaking. As for us mere mortals, Rousseau reminds us that we are born free but live in chains—only we are under the delusion that we are still free because the confining elements are subterranean qua the furtive influence of great concentrations of private wealth. I suppose one question is whether finite bundles of subjectivity can somehow become aware of that which has been designed to be outside of our awareness, and, if so, whether a society can so move to protect its good in a viable republic.

Ben Protess, “Behind the Scenes, a Lawmaker Pushes to Curb the Volcker Rule,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012.