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Friday, March 23, 2018

Corporate Social Responsibility Is Not Altruistic: The Case of Amazon Prime

In a doctoral seminar on corporate social responsibility (CSR), the professor turned to me, perhaps because by then I was also taking courses in the religious studies department, and asked, “What is enlightened self-interest?” In my answer, I argued that such self-interest is distinctly oriented to the long-term, rather than, for example, immediate profits. Alternatively, I could have stressed the ethical connotation of the word, enlightened, but the self-interest component would seem to invalidate an ethical basis. In line with the notion of love as caritas, which is human love (eros) sublimated up directed to God, as distinct from agape, which excludes lower, self-interest inclusive, love, doing good can go along with long-term self-interest. In other words, doing good has value because good is done even if self-interest is salient in the motive. In regard to CSR, the self-interest that coincides is long-term-oriented. Amazon, for instance, giving the poor (i.e., Medicaid recipients) 50 percent off on the monthly charge for Amazon Prime is in line with gaining full-paying customers eventually, for it usually takes a while for poor people to move up the economic ladder.

The full essay is at "CSR at Amazon."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Is Scientology a Religion?

I contend that other domains have encroached on religion, or religion on them, such that the native fauna in religion’s own garden is scarcely recognizable. In this essay, I distinguish psychology from religion using Scientology as a case in which the two domains have been obfuscated. In other words, I want to remove the troublesome category mistake that allows psychological matters to be reckoned as religious. 

The full essay is at "Is Scientology a Religion?" For more on weeding category mistakes out of religion, see the booklet,  Spiritual Leadership in Business.

Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook’s Unjust Strategic Leader in a Crisis

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook (and Instagram) “remained silent” during the two days after the data-breach scandal broke in March, 2018 as E.U. and U.S. lawmakers “pummeled Facebook and its stock price” dropped 9 percent.[1] The company lost $50 billion in market value in just those two days![2] Beyond the self-interested investors and the demoralized employees, the company’s 2 billion users—the suppliers of the raw content (to be mined as well as shared)—and the world (i.e., societal level) looked for ethical (i.e., atoning as well as protective) leadership from the company’s CEO. To be just, I submit, the leadership could not have been a mere reflection of Zuckerberg’s or Facebook’s immediate self-interests.

The full essay is at "Leadership Lacking at Facebook."

Employees look for leadership in the midst of a demoralizing crisis. (USA Today)

See also the booklet, Taking the Face off Facebook

1. Jessica Guynn, “As Facebook Reels from ‘Catastrophic Moment’ in Cambridge Analytica Crisis,” Mark Zuckerberg Is Silent,” USA Today, March 21, 2018.
2. Kevin Roose and Sheera Frenkel, “Missing From Facebook’s Crisis: Mark Zuckerberg,” The New York Times, March 21, 2018.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Oligarchic Social Media Companies: Willowing the Internet Unethically

Too much power in a few hands is inherently dangerous. That goes for private as well as public, or governmental, power. In the world of social media, the companies that own and control the platforms are essentially governmental in nature in that the executives promulgate rules and, ideally, see that they are enforced. The downsides to too few platforms—each with an extraordinary amount of power—involve a constricting of ideas, or content, on the internet, and potentially unanswered violations of the rights of the social-networks’ respective users. The public policy repercussions, I submit, include applying anti-trust law to social media companies such that none gets to become as massively dominating as Facebook had been allowed to become.

For more on this topic, 

See the essay, "Facebook: A Distrustful Company."

See also the booklet, Taking the Face off Facebook

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Founder of Theranos: A Flawed Charismatic Vision and Leader

“Theranos rose quickly from being a college dropout’s idea to revolutionize the blood analysis industry to a hot tech bet that accrued $700 million in funding and many famous names for its board.”[1] Elizabeth Holmes, the company’s founder, was stripped of her position at the company in 2018 after the SEC discovered her deep involvement with the fraud at the company. Her “smarts, fierce determination and Steve Jobs-inspired look . . . were critical” to her being able to perpetuate the lie that the company had a device that could do blood tests with just a scant amount of blood, obviating the unpleasant experience of having blood drawn by needle.[2] Although Jack Welsh, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs accomplished enough to warrant their fame, I submit that companies are too prone to create “champions”—even strangely calling them “rock stars.” In other words, even though charismatic vision is of value to a business, neither such a leader nor his or her vision itself should be overplayed. Business, I submit, has a marked tendency to do just that, and often with impunity.

On leadership vision, see Skip Worden, The Essence of Leadership: A Cross-Cultural Foundation

[1] Marco della Cava, “Behind the Scenes of Theranos’ Dramatic Rise, Fall,” USA Today, March 16, 2018.
[2] Ibid.

Facebook: A Distrustful Company Projecting Distrust

Cambridge Analytica, political data firm founded by Stephen Bannon and Robert Mercer, and with ties to U.S. President Trump’s 2016 campaign, “was able to harvest private information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without the social network’s alerting users.”[1] The firm had purchased the data from a developer (a psychology professor at Cambridge University in the E.U.) who had developed a personality test that Facebook users could take, and whose purpose was supposedly academic. The developer violated Facebook’s policy on how user data could be used by third parties. The data firm “used the Facebook data to develop methods that [the firm] claimed could identify the personalities of individual American voters and influence their behavior.”[2] In other words, Cambridge Analytica used the purchased data to manipulate users to vote for Donald Trump for U.S. president in 2016 by sending pro-Trump messages. Although Facebook had not known of the sale of the data to Cambridge Analytica at the time, the social network, upon learning Cambridge Analytica’s political use of the data in 2015, failed to notify its users whose data had been compromised. Although 270,000 Facebook users took the developer’s personality test, “the data of some 50 million  users . . . was harvested without their explicit consent via their friend networks.”[3] It bears noting here that those of the 50 million users who had not taken the personality test should definitely have been informed. At the very least, Facebook’s management could not be trusted to not only  keep users informed, but also protect users in the first place by adequately enforcing the third-party-use policy. So it is ironic that Facebook’s untrustworthy management could be unduly distrustful of ordinary users.

The full essay is at "Facebook: A Distrustful Company."

For more on Facebook, see Taking the Face off Facebook

1. Matthew Rosenberg and Sheera Frenkel, “Facebook Role In Data Misuse Sets Off Storm,” The New York Times, March 19, 2018.
2, Ibid.
3.Cambridge Analytica: Facebook ‘being investigated by FTC,’” BBC News ( accessed March 20, 2018).

Thursday, March 15, 2018

President Trump as a “Neutral Guy” in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: On the Conflict of Interest

In the absence of an international arbitrator with teeth, the nations of the world must at times have recourse to others in service to the resolution of disputes—even longstanding ones. This, I submit, is a major drawback to a world of sovereign nation-states, for rare is one that can genuinely serve as an honest broker, hence with credibility to the disputants rather than just one side.  Conflicts of interest all thus allowed, and even ignored as if they had no bearing. In the context of the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the United States has been plagued with having to surmount the conflict between the interest of being an ally of Israel and a neutral peacemaking with credible standing as such to both sides. 

The full essay is at "President Trump as a 'Neutral Guy."

For more on conflicts of interest, see Institutional Conflicts of Interest.

Gary Cohn of Goldman Sachs in the White House: A Hidden Agenda?

Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State fired by U.S. President Donald Trump and former CEO of Exxon, an international oil company based in the U.S., did not allow his difference with the president of tariffs on steel and aluminum to be a deal breaker. In this respect, the ex-CEO was not doing his company’s bidding. That is to say, he was not primarily in public service to serve the private interests of a multinational corporation. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of Gary Cohn, the ex-president of Goldman Sachs who quit as Trump’s chief economic advisor just after the tariffs were announced. Tariffs in general and especially to protect goods in another sector are not in the interests of a major American banks with substantial international business. If the former president of Goldman Sachs had taken the post in government to further Goldman’s interests, the question is whether public service is mere window-dressing at the highest levels of government—plutocracy being the real name of the game.

The full essay is at "Gary Cohn of Goldman Sachs."

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

On the Presumptuousness of Power: Does Wall Street Own Congress?

At the end of April, 2009, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin blamed the powerful banking lobby for the defeat of legislation that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify some troubled mortgages.  Even as mortgage servers were claiming to be overwhelmed with requests from distressed borrowers for readjustments to the adjustable-rate mortgages (ARM), the banks and mortgage companies felt the need to stop the US Senate from enabling judges to relieve the backlog. Durban later said in an interview, “And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place,” he said on WJJG 1530 AM radio's  “Mornings with Ray Hanania.” On October 30, 2009,  James K. Galbraith spoke on the Bill Moyers Journal on the bank lobby changing the financial system regulation reforms now being discussed in Congress.  That that lobby feels itself to be in a position to advise the Congress on a matter in which the banks were part of the problem is something that blows Galbraith away.   They should realize among themselves, or at the very least BE TOLD that their involvement is not helpful or appropriate.   Galbraith pointed out that we have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done governmentally to stave off another financial crisis—such as separating the commerical banking and investment trading (on the bank’s equity even!) functions and reducing the scale of the banks too big to fail.  However, there are a hundred reasons why the governing class will not follow through. 

Debating Federalism

It could be maintained that federalism gets in the way of solving problems that are simply too important to go unsolved.  In short, the argument is that federalism impedes progress on important issues. State to state differences should not be tolerated, he argues, where important needs are involved. “Resources and die-hard beliefs in the role of local government vary too much from state to state” for us to trust State government to deal satisfactorily with grave problems.   I suspect this view is widely held today.

The full essay is at "Debating Federalism."

For more on this topic, see: Two Federal Empires and American and European Federalism

Consolidation in Russia: Federalism and Democracy at Risk

United Russia, the party led by Prime Minister Putin, decided in August, 2010 not to submit the name of the governor of Kaliningrad, Georgy V. Boos, for reappointment. The decision appeared to put pressure on governors to do more to ensure the satisfaction of those they govern, or to at least keep a lid on dissent. Governors had been popularly elected in Russia until a 2004 decree by Mr. Putin, then Russia’s president, that gave the president responsibility for appointing them. In that decree, the president is to select governors from a list of candidates drawn up by the governing party. Critics have said that the practice has made governors beholden to the Kremlin and insensitive to the popular sentiments. This can be problematic on two grounds.

The full essay is at "Consolidation in Russia."

Federalism 101: Does Power Naturally Consolidate?

Consolidated power seems, at least in theory, to be contrary to American political culture.   The financial consolidation even after the financial bailouts of 2008, can be deemed dangerous economically and even politically, given the unlimited campaign contributions made possible by the Citizens United case in 2010. Such consolidation complements the political consolidation at the federal level in the U.S.  Is the consolidation, which has occurred since 1865, and especially from FDR's New Deal onward, natural or contrived? That is to say, will the E.U., when it is over 200 years old, suffer the same plight? If so, federalism itself, which I submit must include a balance of power, given the checks and balances feature, between the federal level and that of the states, may be a temporary system inherently. 

The full essay is at "Does Power Naturally Consolidate?"

For more on this topic, see: Two Federal Empires and American and European Federalism

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Critique of Corporate Political Risk Analysis and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Case of Libya

Even though people the world over instinctively recoiled as reports came in of Gadhafi's violent retaliation against Libyan protests on February 21, 2011, the official reaction from the US Government was muted at best. The refusal to act on an intuitive response to immediately remove the Libyan dictator's ability to wantonly kill people resisting his right to rule may have come from concerns that the mounting tumult of a change of government in a major oil-producing region of North Africa could cause even just a disruption in the supply of crude. Indeed, even the mere possibility was prompting a spike in the price of oil (and gas)--what one might call a risk premium. Even the prospect of an ensuing nasty electoral backlash from consumers having to face a possible increase in their largely non-discretionary gas expense was not lost on their elected representative in chief at the White House. 

The full essay is at "The Case of Libya."

Political Black Holes: On the Power Behind the Throne

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has a black hole. If this is news to you, there is no need to go hide under a rock. It turns out our black hole is not the biggest by far, and it doesn't spew out a lot of excess energy that falls into it. Even so, it is ours, and we can be glad that we have one of our very own even if it isn't the biggest one on the block. In case you are interested in seeing it’s baleful look in a picture, I’ve got bad news for you; it is invisible. No light can bounce off it.  You are probably wondering how the scientists found it.  Well, they knew that black holes are in the center of galaxies, so the crafty lab coats used invisible light to find our center because there is too much gas there for much there to be visible to us.  The scientists noticed that the speed of stars speeds up around a certain point and posited the existence of a highly-dense black hole.

The full essay is at "Political Black Holes."

The American News Media: A Case of Over-Reaching?

During the summer of 2010, as commentators at Fox, CNN, and MSNBC were arguing, they referred to their own arguments as “trench warfare” and “hand-to-hand fighting.”  Real soldiers would doubtless dismiss such descriptors as attempts by children to count as adults—as something more.  The soldiers would be correct, of course. Insulting or criticizing another person does not constitute fighting in the sense of warfare. Someone at MSNBC calling someone at Fox a racist does not come close to shooting someone with a rifle or even slugging someone with one’s fist.  The protesters in Libya who were being shot at by their own government in February, 2011, would shake their heads in disbelief in hearing of the "war" among media personalities.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Downfall of MF Global: Implications for Banks Too Big To Fail

Here is an alphabet-soup of regulatory agencies that let MF Global, a financial services company that specialized in futures-trading, engage in much, too much, risk: SEC, CME, CFTC and FINRA. On one level, regulators will never be able to stop practitioners from making risky or simply bad decisions; a business system populated only by firms above average is by definition impossible. As long as their managers have any freedom of movement at all, some firms, including some in the financial sector, will inevitably fail. The question I want to pose is whether this means that firms too big to fail (TBTF) should be allowed to exist at all. In short, although MF Global itself was not TBTF, the risk Corzine (who had been chairman of Goldman Sachs) permitted suggests that human nature might be insufficiently disposed to support mammoth concentrations of private capital whose fall could mean the collapse of the financial system itself. Ultimately, I suppose, human nature can only go so far, organizationally speaking.

The full essay is at "The Downfall of MF Global."

Having It Both Ways: American Culture or Merely Congress?

Under the terms of the debt-ceiling budget agreement enacted during the summer in 2011, members of a joint Congressional committee, evenly divided between the parties as well as between the two chambers, had until Nov. 23 of that year to recommend ways to reduce budget deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Both houses had to vote on the package by Dec. 23, 2011. If no legislation is enacted, the government would automatically cut almost $500 billion from military spending, with an equal amount from nonmilitary programs, between 2013 and 2021.

The full essay is at "Congress Reflecting American Society."


In Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate on 11/11/11 in 2011, costumes were the norm in the evening as revelers celebrated the numeric convergence. I suspect that unlike the Chinese, the Europeans were struck by the convergence itself, rather by any good luck attached to the numerology. I myself was struck by the convergence alone. Both at 11:11am and 11:11pm, I was surprised that other Americans around me seemed to be either ignorant of the alignment or utterly indifferent to it. It occurred to me that just as a given time-date system is artificial, so too are human cultures—which include political and economic values that are stitched together by leaders who peddle meaning to the masses. Both our systems and our ideologies are all too limiting, yet we can find meaning in them. Perhaps this is ultimately why we have them and the leaders that trumpet them or suggest new ones. I contend that 11/11/11 too plays into the human instinct for sense-making, especially in terms of visual and cognitive symmetries.

The full essay is at "11/11/11"

Contagion Beyond the Headlines in the E.U.

The E.U. states of Greece and Italy were grabbing headlines during the first two weeks of November 2011, given the dramatic resignations of Papandreou and Berlusconi. The only other state to get some attention was France. The Wall Street Journal noted on November 12th that concerns had been quietly building about France. According to the paper,“French bond yields rose to four-month highs, one day after Standard & Poor's Ratings Services erroneously issued a message saying it had cut France's triple-A credit rating. The yield on France's benchmark 10-year bond climbed 0.02 percentage point to 3.46%. That was 1.66 percentage points over yields on comparable German government bonds. France now has the highest government bond yields among its triple-A-rated peers in the region.” However, it seems overly dramatic to say that a .02 percent increase evinces a climb. Moreover, 3.46% is well under 7 percent, which is the level that was presumed at the time to signify the need for a bailout. Relative to the changes in the Italian yield, those of the French bonds could be viewed as relatively moderate, The French yield was still closer to that of Germany. Although not a red herring, the concern over France masked some real sleepers that were poised to take a hit in 2012. 

The full essay is at "Debt Contagion in the E.U."

For more on this topic, see Essays on the E.U. Political Economy

On the Allure of Popular Suffrage

In the European singing contest/show in which Susan Boyle competed, she lost the top spot to a teenage rap group. The method of selection made all the difference. Rather than having a three-judge panel of experts on singing determine the winner, the general public could “text” via cell phone or other device to vote. That one of the judges explicitly advocated for Boyle after her final performance (just before the voting) was no never mind to the general public that submitted a majority of the votes. To be sure, there were certainly non-music reasons to vote against her. Most notably, the suggestive comments she made on stage just before her first performance, including, “I’m 48, and that’s not my other half” (as she was swinging her hips as if she were sexy), were downright emetic, if not utterly bizarre. So it is possible that the voters put her personality defect above her excellent singing. It is also possible that the “texters” responsible for a majority of the votes simply preferred rap music. I do not like rap “songs” that include shouting and swearing; I do not even regard such “songs” as music. Otherwise, I could sing a song simply by yelling at you. From what I saw, the rap group in the competition was not swearing, but the “singing” did sound at times like shouting to me. Moreover, the group members seemed more oriented to dancing than singing. It is possible that the votes for that group went for any of the fads being represented rather than to singing per se.

The full essay is at "Popular Suffrage in Democracy."

Monday, February 26, 2018

Liturgical Vestments as Doorways into the Divine: On the Importance of Transcendence

In the Book of Genesis, God makes garments of skin for Adam and Eve and clothes them. Gianfranco Ravasi, a Roman Catholic Cardinal and de facto cultural minister of the Vatican, reflected on the meaning of liturgical vestments while he was in New York with prominent designers to preview the upcoming exhibit, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That fashion could point to the transcendent would seem to go against the ostensibly fundamental  dichotomy between the superficial and the significant.  The religious quest can be understood in such terms as transcending the image to the underlying ineffable mystery that must characterize the transcendent.

The full essay is at "Liturgical Vestments as Doorways."

The University of Arizona: A Case of Sordid Sports Reflecting Dysfunctional Administration

Ethically dysfunctional organizational cultures can be found in not only for-profit corporations, but also universities—especially in those whose managements are business-oriented rather than academic. The University of Arizona is a case in point. That managerial incompetence and sheer bad judgment could exist even at the “highest” levels points to how dysfunctional organization can perpetuate itself, and be extremely hard to correct.

The full essay is at "The University of Arizona."

For more on unethical business, see Cases of Unethical Business

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Novartis Invested for Bribery in the E.U.: On the Ethics of Suffering

Two former prime ministers, the central bank governor, and the federal commissioner for migration stood accused by prosecutors in the E.U. state of Greece of receiving bribes from Novatis “in exchange for fixing the price of its medicines at artificially high levels and increasing” the company’s access in the state.[1] The state legislature voted in February, 2018 to investigate the accusations and to vote by secret ballot at the conclusion of the investigation on whether to revoke immunity, which would be necessary for any of the accused to be indicted. The prime minister at the time, Alexis Tsipras, said, “Those who enriched themselves from human pain must suffer the consequences.”[2] This statement reveals an ethical truism of sorts—namely, that people who knowingly cause others pain should suffer.  It is right, in other words, that they suffer.

The full essay is at "Novartis and Politicians: On the Ethics of Suffering."

For more on unethical business, see Cases of Unethical Business

1. Nici Kitsantonis, “Did Novartis Bribe 10 Politicians? Greece Approves an Investigation,” The New York Times, February 23, 2018.
2. Ibid.

Constricting Debate in the Public Square: The Case of Gun Control

The managements of large corporations attempt and, I submit, often succeed at keeping the most financially threatening alternatives in public policy off the public’s radar by pressuring media and using public relations campaigns. As U.S. president Obama’s health-insurance proposal was being debated in Congress, health insurance companies deftly either kept the single-payer proposal off the media’s discussion or relegated the policy as radical. This term, if stuck to a proposed policy, is the kiss of death in a society of incremental change. Such change, if the only game in town, can unfortunately come to be viewed as constituting major change. The gun-control debate in February, 2018 after the shooting of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida is a case in point.

The full essay is at "The Constricted Debate on Gun Control."

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

Barak Obama had 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). 

The full essay is at "Obama: The First Multi-racial U.S. President."

The Commercial Media as Gate-Keepers 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.”

The full essay is at "Bloggers as Journalists."

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.

The full essay is at "UN Court on Kosovo: Avoiding War."

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.

The full essay is at "Corporate Governance at AIG."

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.

The full essay is at "Strategic Use of Financial Regulation."

Presidential Leadership

In the wake of the failure of the joint congressional committee that was tasked with coming up with a proposal to reduce federal deficits over a decade by $1.2 trillion, Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, said at a news conference, “It’s the chief executive’s job to bring people together and to provide leadership. I don’t see that happening.” The mayor may have been wrong. Take the word executive: literally it is to execute, or implement, which implies management rather than leadership. Put another way, implementation depends on a goal already established, presumably by a leader. To lead is to formulate a vision of social reality that is an ideal, and thus consisting of goals rather than actualities, and then to persuade others to accept that social reality. Once the directionality is established, the means, or strategies, can be executed by managers (i.e., those who manage the implementation).

The full essay is at "Presidential Leadership."

Saturday, February 17, 2018

On Educated Representatives and Large Districts: A Critique of Democracy

Democrat Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson said during an Armed Services Committee hearing in late March, 2010 that Guam would be in danger were more US troops sent there. “My fear that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize,” he said in all seriousness. “We don’t anticipate that,” responded Adm. Robert Willard. Did Hank Johnson's constituents want their representative in the U.S. House of Representatives to be at least nominally educated?  Lest one replies with "of course," it could also be that people may want their representatives to be like them, or at least to reflect what they value. 

God's Gold on Wall St.: A Vaunted Self-Assessment of God's Work

A year after the financial crisis of 2008, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs,  found himself vilified for his firm’s quick return to risky trading in spite of its new bank holding company status. Populist resentment at the time was especially pitted against the hefty bonuses from the trades. Also, people were upset about the benefits that the bank had obtained from the decisions of its alums in the U.S. Government—specifically, in the U.S. Department of the Treatury. For instance, Goldman Sachs and other AIG counterparties got a the dollar-for-dollar payout from AIG thanks to an infusion of funds for that specific purpose by Treasury. Regardless, in an interview with the London Times, the highest-paid CEO (at least in the financial sector) dismissed such talk and defended his money-making machine and its compensation.  In addition to being the engine of economic recovery, according to Blankfein, Goldman Sachs provides a social function in making capital available to companies so they can expand. Stunningly, he adds, “I’m doing God’s work.”[1]  Such a claim is a far cry indeed from Thomas Jefferson’s warning that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.[2]  Perhaps God intends to undo our liberties by bailing out the banks.

The full essay is at "God's Gold on Wall St."
See related books: God's Gold and Essays on the Financial Crisis

[1] John Arlidge, I’m doing ‘God’s work. Meet Mr. Goldman Sachs, The Sunday Times, 11/9/09.
[2] Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, Monticello, May 28, 1816, in Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99),  XI, 533.

Physicians and Lawyers: On the Presumption of Ignorance

It would surprise virtually every American (but only a few Europeans) to know that neither the JD nor the MD degree is a doctorate.   Each one is the first degree in its school, or discipline.  Yet we presume them to evince advanced knowledge, even allowing people with two undergraduate degrees to be "professors" (really instructors) in American law and medical schools. In the school of law, the sequence of degrees is: JD (same as the LLB), LLM (hint: M...Masters), and JSD (Doctorate in Juridical Science). The JSD degree includes advance study, a comprensive exam (an academic exam graded by faculty--not a industry-qualifying exam like the bar), and a defended dissertation. A doctoral degree must be the terminal degree of a field, contain a comprehensive exam, and include significant original research in a defended dissertation. The JD misses on all three points. The title of the first degree in law, the LLB (bachalors in letters of law) was replaced with "JD" largely for marketing purposes in 1901 in the founding of the U of Chicago law school (by three Harvard professors) because prospective students were complaining about having two "B" degrees after seven years of school.  People don't like to think they have gone to school for seven or eight years for two undergraduate degrees, but this is precisely what they have done. Nevertheless, the new law school in need of students complied with the "customer" complaint with a feat of mirrored marketing that was perhaps intentionally ambiguous.  To eviscerate the ambiguity in  Juris Doctor and a doctorate, one must look beyond the mere words.

The full essay is at "Professionals Over the Top." 

Corporate America's Apathy toward Federalism

In October of 2009, the U.S. House Financial Services Committee voted to give the federal government the power to block the states from regulating large national banks in some circumstances. The compromise approved by the House allows the Comptroller of the Currency to override the states, but only if that office found that the state law “significantly” interfered with federal regulatory policies.  This clears the way for a new federal agency to protect consumers from abusive or deceptive credit cards, mortgages and other loans.  Adoption of the compromise was a partial setback for the banking industry, which would have preferred to avoid having to comply with state laws that are sometimes stricter than federal rules.  Barak Obama and Barney Frank were pushing in the other direction—for subjecting banks to the relatively strict state laws with no chance of appeal to the US. Government.

The full essay is at "Apathy toward Federalism."

Off Target: Corporate Spending as "Speech" against Gay Rights

In a 5-4 decision on January 21, 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that federal restrictions on corporate spending in elections constituted a violation of free speech. Critics called it wrong to equate corporate “speech” with individual speech and said the ruling would allow special-interest money to flood election campaigns. The bipartisan nature of the opposition to this ruling is striking in these largely partisan times. The court’s ruling is opposed, respectively, by 76, 81 and 85 percent of Republicans, independents and Democrats; and by 73, 85 and 86 percent of conservatives, moderates and liberals. Majorities in all these groups, ranging from 58 to 73 percent, not only oppose the ruling but feel strongly about it. Even among people who agree at least somewhat with the Tea Party movement, which advocates less government regulation, 73 percent oppose the high court’s rejection of this particular law. In addition to overwhelming opposition to the decision, there’s also bipartisan support for Congress to try to reinstate restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and unions.

The full essay is at "Target's 'Free Speech'." 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Instant Gratification Rules in American Fiscal Policy

With an expected deficit of $1.2 trillion for 2018-2019, the U.S. Government in December, 2017 enacted a tax cut with an expected revenue loss of nearly $1 trillion over a decade (assuming some growth from the tax stimulus) and, two months later, a budget deal passed adding $300 billion to federal spending in the next fiscal year.[1] All this was done with the U.S. debt at over $20 trillion—higher than the annual GDP at the time. With the  economy humming along with a low unemployment rate, the prospect for any fiscal discipline was bleak. Put another way, if budget surpluses could not come at the boom end of an economic cycle, then deficits would be likely in good times and bad. Behind the structural imbalance of contiguous deficits and an ever-growing debt is the all-too-human preference for instant gratification without a corresponding value being placed on self-discipline.

The full essay is at "$20 Trillion in Debt!"

[1] Neil Irwin, “Austerity Era Comes to End,” The New York Times, February 10, 2018.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

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.

The full essay is at "BP Conducted Foreign Policy."

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 trillion of U.S. Government debt in 2010, the dollar was losing out at the time in percentage terms to other currencies as the global reserve currency. To be sure, in absolute terms, there were still more dollars being held abroad than twenty or thirty years earlier, but as a report from Emma Lawson of Morgan Stanley showed, other currencies were taking on more of a relative presence. The lesson concerning excessive public debt was not grasped at least through the 2010's, as the debt continued to increase trillions of dollars more.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Wealth as a Societal Value in the E.U. and U.S.: The Case of Financial Reform

The E.U. and U.S 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 societally in favor of business in the U.S. tilts the political playing-field excessively in the direction of the financial interests at the expense of the public good, which I take to be well represented generally by a full, equally-weighted spectrum of views. I further contend that influence is easier for financial-sector lobbyists in the United States than in the European  Union because the societal values in the former lean more in their favor. By analogy,  it is easier to run downhill than even on a flat surface.

The full essay is at "Wealth as a Societal Value."

On the Influence of Wall Street in Congress: The Proposal to Distinguish Financial and Commercial 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 derivative 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 counter-parties 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.

The full essay is at "Wall Street's Influence in Congress."

Westboro Church's Anti-Gay and John Galliano's Anti-Semitic Opinions: The U.S. and E.U. Contrasted

The First Amendment protects free speech in the U.S. 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 anti-gay 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 statement, 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 vengeance 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 vengeance?  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-Semitic 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 vengeance or retribution against a disliked opinion. 

The full essay is at "Anti-Gay and Anti-Semetic Statements."

Friday, January 26, 2018

Lessons Learned from the Arab Spring: Reforming International Organizations and Invoking Principled Leadership in Defense of Human Rights

"When a leader's only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now." The White House issued this written statement five days after Qaddafi had turned in violence on his own people who were protesting unarmed in the street. Nearly three weeks after the first day that Qaddafi had lost legitimacy, President Obama tried to raise the pressure on the Libyan dictator further by talking about “a range of potential options, including potential military options."  Yet by then the politics of such intervention were getting more complicated by the day, according to the New York Times. The paper reported that critics were contending that the White House was too much concerned about perceptions, and that the administration was too squeamish on the military options on account of the preceding administration's invasion of Iraq based on a claim of danger to the United States from Saddam's access to WMD.
Even the critics acknowledged that the best outcome militarily would be for the United States to join other nations or international organizations rather than go it alone. About a week after the president's hint of military options, the E.U. decided not to impose a No Fly Zone. A few days later, the Arab League, which, according to the Huffington Post, had already barred Libya's government from taking part in League meetings, issued a statement that Qaddafi's government had "lost its sovereignty." The League decided to establish contacts with the rebels' interim government, the National Libyan Council, and to call on the Security Council of the U.N. to impose a No Fly Zone on Libya. 
In a statement, the Arab League asked the "United Nations to shoulder its responsibility ... to impose a no-fly zone over the movement of Libyan military planes and to create safe zones in the places vulnerable to airstrikes." It would not be until March 18th, nearly a month after Qaddafi had first had weapons used against the protesters, that the Security Council would act. According to The New York Times, "After days of often acrimonious debate, played out against a desperate clock, as Colonel Qaddafi’s troops advanced to within 100 miles of the rebel capital of Benghazi, Libya, the Security Council authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, diplomatic code words calling for military action." Within days, according to the New York Times, "American and European forces began a broad campaign of strikes against the government of . . . Qaddafi, unleashing warplanes and missiles in the first round of the largest international military intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq.

The analysis is at "Lessons Learned from the Arab Spring."

The Banking Lobby Amid Goldman Sachs' Culpability: A Danger to the Republic?

To simplify how Goldman Sachs got into trouble with the SEC: According to Annie Lowrey, the hedge fund Paulson & Co. handpicked mortgage-backed securities that were doomed to stop performing, being backed with subprime mortgages, and Goldman packaged them into a kind of bond. Paulson & Co. bet against the bond by buying short-sales, with Goldman acting as the broker. At the same time, Goldman sold the bond to other clients without disclosing that Paulson had engineered the bond to fail. The SEC filing notes that those other clients lost $1 billion. Goldman had no direct stake in the success or failure of the CDO. It made money either way. “This litigation exposes the cynical, savage culture of Wall Street that allows a dealer to commit fraud on one customer to benefit another,” Chris Whalen, a bank analyst at Institutional Risk Analytics, said in a note to clients on April 16, 2010. Someone at Goldman said on the same day that “the SEC’s charges are completely unfounded in law and fact.” If the SEC charges hold up (and it is doubtful that the agency would bring such charges without supporting documentation; it is more apt to miss something than go overboard), I am astonished that the people at Goldman simply dismissed the matter out of hand. It might make sense as their legal defense, but if the bankers are convicted, those lying ought to be fired even if they were not a party to the scheme. It also appears that the bankers lied about whether they made money in betting against the housing market. “The 2009 Goldman Sachs annual report stated that the firm ‘did not generate enormous net revenues by betting against residential related products,’ ” Senator Levin, chairman of the US Senate’s committee on investigations, said in a statement in April, 2010. “These e-mails show that, in fact, Goldman made a lot of money by betting against the mortgage market.” When a spokesperson for the bank says something in the future, a rational person will be wont not to trust him or her. Lying has (or ought to have) consequences rather than being dismissed as harmless PR or a legal defense. The bank’s credibility is at issue here. The SEC has accused Goldman of outright lying to customers in order to make money both ways on a deal. Even though this ought to reflect negatively on Goldman’s future business, bigger issues involved that ought to consume more of our attention than how Goldman fares.

The full essay is at "The Banking Lobby and Goldman Sachs."

The Increasing Decadence in American Business (and Society): The Case of On-Screen Distractions during Television Programs

While watching Lord of the Rings on TBS in 2010, I noticed that the network was posting not only its logo on the bottom right of the screen, but also advertising for its programming on the bottom left. Also, “more movie, less commercials” was written to accompany the logo. What really got to me during the movie was when pictures advertising a television show were shown. They took up almost an eighth of the screen and thus could not but distract the viewer from watching the movie. I decided I would not watch movies on networks that compromise or prostitute their own programing in order to sell themselves while "in progress." It is like sitting down at a restaurant and having the waitor sell me on other dishes while I am trying to enjoy the one that I'm eating. “I just want to enjoy this fine meal, thank you,” any discerning customer would be wont to say. Once at Starbucks, the customer in front of me at the register was paying $25 for a variety of products.  As I was thinking that the store had made a good sale, the clerk tried to sell the customer on a certain food item for the next visit--as if the present sale was not enough.  The same propensity wherein nothing is ever enough is evinced by the television networks that can't seem to restrain themselves from adding more and more self-promotions onto the screen during their own programming.  These networks are playing off the mitigated nature of the additions being incremental, and thus not objectionable to the average viewer. 

The full essay is at "Business Over-Reaching."

The Volcker Rule: Taking in Water on Proprietary Trading

Under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law of 2010, Goldman Sachs had to break up its principal strategies group, the trading unit that had been very profitable. Goldman was considering several options, including moving the traders to another division or shutting the unit altogether. Morgan Stanley was considering ceding control of its $7 billion hedge fund firm, FrontPoint Partners. At Citigroup, executives had sold hedge fund and private equity businesses and were discussing reducing proprietary trading, which relies on a bank’s own capital to make bets in the financial markets. JPMorgan Chase had already begun dismantling its stand-alone proprietary trading desk and was modifying the structure of some investments of One Equity Partners, its internal private equity business. “This is the real stuff,” said Brad Hintz, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. “It shows that if you squeeze Wall Street, like a balloon it will come out somewhere else, and we really are squeezing Wall Street. Their business models are changing.”

The complete essay is at "The Volcker Rule."

The U.S. Supreme Court as Decider: A Conflict of Interest in Federalism Cases?

As to whether the supreme courts of particular American states, or republics, should be able to declare the general (U.S.) government’s health-insurance mandate unconstitutional in the sense of being an encroachment of the government of the union beyond its enumerated powers, it is typically presumed that the U.S. Supreme Court is the rightful and proper umpire--the court of last resort on disputes on federalism applied to particular legislation. Forgotten is the argument made by Thomas Jefferson against that court’s suitability owing to its institutional conflict of interest in contests between the U.S. Government, of which the U.S. Supreme Court is a branch, and a government of one of the several states.  Typically, we do not consider how the conflict of interest can be solved. We do not “think outside the box.” Rather, we feel resigned to have branch of one of the parties of the dispute act as the final decider short of a constitutional amendment.

The full essay is at "The U.S. Supreme Court as Decider."

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Balancing Company Rights and Worker Security through Public Policy

It would be a cruel joke were an airline to keep the extendable corridor back as the plane’s front door is opened and passengers are pushed out. Not even having a safety net below would neither be sufficient nor fair. When a government gives companies the flexibility to fire workers without yet having in place vocational safety nets, said government acts negligently and perhaps even with partiality to one side of the labor-management duality. At the very least, the flexibility to fire should be held off until the matter of economic security is finalized. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Strength of the Euro Bespeaks Normalcy for the E.U.

As 2018 was beginning its climb in the northern hemisphere toward eventually warmer days, the prospect for the E.U. through and after the secession of one of its largest states was perhaps brighter than commonly thought at the time. When the days are short, it is perhaps all too easy to be pessimistic. Signs of strength in the euro implicitly sent the message in January, 2018 that the E.U. would be just fine without its foremost euro-skeptic state.

The full essay is at "The Euro and Secession."