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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Decoupling Responsibility from Power: The Case of Transocean in the BP Disaster

With much power comes implicit responsibility. Hence, on February 21, 2011, the world recoiled when Gaddafi violently turned on his own people--using his power sans responsibility in a selfish attempt to stay in power. So too, the world had been shocked in April, 2010 when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and that the Gulf itself was at risk. That a company could ruin something as big as the Gulf of Mexico came as a surprise to many. That a company, or three in this case, could have minimized such a risk by, for example, sending the U.S. Government contingency plans on Gulf clean up that included rescuing sea animals that actually live in the Artic, shocked the public just as much. How could people holding such power treat its use with such carelessness concerning any downside?  The defense of having followed company policy or having excuted business procedures pales in comparison with the societal demand that power, whether public or private, be handled responsibly.  In other words, people take it for granted that power is given to adults rather than to children.  I think we would be surprised how often this has not been the case.  The case of Transocean demonstrates this thesis.

BP and MMS: A Case of Regulatory Capture

In the U.S. Constitutional Convention, James Madison in particular stressed the nepharious quality of faction in relation to the public good. He argued that if a republic is extended in scope sufficently that there are more factions, none of them would be able to dominate and the public good would emerge. In a republic in which there are only a few major parties, the people's perspectives can become delimited by the parties' paradigms in an either-or dual macro-framework. That is to say, societal blind-spots can exist. To the extent that both BP and the relevant U.S. Government regulatory agency, MMS, were both culpable in the Deep Water Horizon rig explosion in 2010, both the Republican defense of business and the Democratic defense of government fall short. Even so, these respective defenses went on undaunted in the wake of the disaster and in the next year. To be sure, old paradigms die hard.

BP: Dividends to Stockholders Despite a Sordid Safety Record

As BP was wrestling with stopping the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and cleaning up the oil, a controversy broke out between the company’s stockholders and the  US Government on whether any dividends should be declared and paid before the company has taken care of the Gulf.  BP earned more than $16 billion in 2009. Based on higher oil prices, in the first quarter of 2010 the company’s profit more than doubled to $6.08 billion from $2.56 billion  in the first quarter of 2010.  BP’s dividend payment accounted for about £1 of every £8 handed out by British companies in 2009. Given the higher profit in the first quarter of 2010, stockholders were expecting more in dividends.

The full essay is at "BP Dividends."

Are Americans Indifferent to Europe?

Are Americans indifferent to what is happening in Europe unless there is some direct effect on them? If so, the news media would simply be catering to their tastes in focusing on other matters. One could ask whether such journalists have a social responsibility to provide the news that is intrinsically newsworthy even if customers do not think they need it.  Physicians, for example, do not prescribe what their patients need based on what the latter think they need. Two events in Europe can be cited as being newsworthy yet they went virtually uncovered in the American news media.

The full essay is at "American Indifference."

On U.S.Senators Being Elected

According to David Firestone of The New York Times, a “surprising number” of the Tea Party members were calling for the repeal of the 17th Amendment of the US Constitution during the election campaign season of 2010. That amendment, which was ratified in 1913, provides for direct election by the people of each state of US senators. According to Firestone, “allowing Americans to choose their own senators seems so obvious that it is hard to remember that the nation’s founders didn’t really trust voters with the job. The people were given the right to elect House members. But senators were supposed to be a check on popular rowdiness and factionalism. They were appointed by state legislatures.” That it may seem so obvious to us does not mean that we have it right. Yet Firestone presumes so in writing, “a  modern appreciation of democracy — not to mention a clear-eyed appraisal of today’s dysfunctional state legislatures — should make the idea unthinkable.” Should it really?  Firestone seems biased in his dogmatism.

The full essay is at "U.S. Senators: Elected by the People."

The BP Oil-Rig Explosion: Did the U.S. Government Over-Reach?

A month into the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, some commentators began to wonder out loud whether the US Government ought to take over for BP in stemming the leak. As frustrated as those commentators were at BP–after all, the oil company had shirked safety procedures and lied about having the technology to manage such a spill–they had to admit that the US Government did not have the technical expertise to divert or shut off the oil.  For better or worse, we had to rely on BP in capping the leaks.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Church Scandals in a Secularizing World

A religious institution can least afford scandal involving highly unethical and illegal activity when the world is secularizing; the headwind alone requires a lot of energy just to stay in place, let alone move forward. The trail of child-rape scandals and cover-ups had by 2018 made a dent in the number of Roman Catholics in Latin America, yet other factors also account for the declines. Perhaps the gravity of the sexual abuse by clergy warrants more than just being one of several factors.

The full essay is at "Church Scandals"

Hierarchy Hampered Down in American Business

Without going into either the labor or management camp, a person can viably critique the operation of hierarchy itself in business organizations. The notion is typically associated with the concentration of power at “the top,” rather than the relation of middle-level managers to “retail” managers and their subordinates. Efficiency of power at a corporate headquarters does not necessarily translate into “downward” efficiency at the level of middle management. I submit that precisely this efficiency is rather severely compromised in American business.

The full essay is at "Hierarchy Hampered."

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Executive Compensation (Part II): Paying Failure

In late September 2011, Léo Apotheker was fired after 11 months as CEO at Hewlett-Packard. As a reward, he walked with $13.2 million in cash and stock, in addition to a sign-on package worth about $10 million, according to the New York Times. A month earlier, Robert P. Kelly received severance worth $17.2 in cash and stock when he was fired as CEO of Bank of New York Mellon. Even his clashing with board members and senior managers did not obstruct his nice severance package. A few days later, Carol Bartz was let go as CEO of Yahoo with nearly $10 million in spite of the company’s poor performance. Back in April 2011, John Chidsey, the CEO of Burger King, had departed with a severance package worth almost $20 million in the fact that McDonalds had been outcompeting Burger King. Baxter Phillips, the CEO of Massey Energy, got a package worth over $34 million in spite of “presiding over a company barraged with accusations of reckless conduct and with legal claims stemming from one of the deadliest mining disasters in memory,” according to the New York Times. Unfortunately, the list goes on and on. Is this a system of pay-for-failure? Moreover, do chief executives, who seem to outward appearances to be almost exclusively motivated by what they can get in additional compensation, have too much leverage over boards, and thus over even the owners as well? If so, is corporate governance itself severely broken? I answer in the affirmative.

Eric Dash, “The Lucrative Fall from Grace,New York Times, September 30, 2011. 

Executive Compensation (Part I): Systemic Risk

In the wake of the financial crisis, according to the Huffington Post, “a number of the nation's largest banks were excused from the government's rescue program before they had returned to a position of complete financial security -- in part because they wanted to avoid restrictions on how much their executives would get paid, according to a new report from the program's government overseer. Citigroup, Wells Fargo, PNC and Bank of America successfully lobbied to leave the federal bailout program early in 2009, even though the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation had recommended they take additional steps to shore up their assets, according to a new report from the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Relief Asset Program, a government watchdog office. Regulators, including the Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board, eventually ‘relaxed’ their criteria for letting the banks out of the program, the report says, leaving questions about whether the banks had strengthened their holdings enough to be able to withstand another systemic crisis.”[1]

The full essay is at "Executive Compensation: Systemic Risk."

1. Alexander Eichler, “BofA, Wells Fargo, Citigroup Left TARP Early to Avoid Restrictions on Executive Pay,” The Huffington Post, September 30, 2011. 

The American City: A Police State in the Making

Crime in 2017 was down the 30 largest cities in the U.S, but police levels remained robust. Specifically, less crime did not result in fewer cops on the street. “In 2016, there were slightly more officers per capita than in 1991, when violent crime peaked,” according to the FBI.[1] American cities were on a trajectory toward becoming police states. A mentality of excessive dominance, I submit, lies behind the excessive show of force.

The full essay is at "The American City: A Police State"

1. Jose Del Real, “Crime Is Falling, But Police Levels Remain Robust,” The New York Times, January 8, 2018.

A Megachurch Pastor and Sexual Assault: A Compromised Christian Leader

“A Memphis megachurch pastor received standing ovation during a church service on Sunday after he admitted that he had engaged in a ‘sexual incident’ with a high school student 20 years ago in Texas.”[1] That the woman had made the man’s prior misdeeds public just days before throws into doubt whether the pastor deserved the ovation by his loyal flock. Prompted by the firing of Matt Lauer, the anchor of NBC’s “Today” show, the woman emailed the pastor more than a month before his public acknowledgement at his church; he had not responded to the woman’s email to apologize. Letting his flock in on the secret hardly added much value to the man’s character, for damage-control is not laudatory. The standing ovation connoted not only praise on the man and a revalidation of the pastor’s continuance as a religious leader. That a Christian leader could be validated as such, rather than invalidated and thus shown the door, throws into question the integrity of religious leadership itself.

1. Matthew Haag, “Megachurch Pastor Admits to Illicit ‘Sexual Incident’,” The New York Times, January 10, 2018.

The full essay is at "A Megachurch Pastor as a Christian Leader."

Thursday, January 4, 2018

CEO Pay: American and European Values

To what extent do inequalities in wealth accrue based on structural elements, such as tax deductions that only wealthy people can use, as distinct from factors pertaining to individuals, such as talent, sacrifice, and effort? The two clusters can build on each other, as people who have become rich primarily by exercising a talent and working hard use some of their accrued power to “reform” the system to their advantage at the expense of the poor and middle class. Such structural reforms in turn can make it easier for wealthy people to become even richer. In the context of a society in progress, structural and idiosyncratic factors doubtlessly interact—the trend being of an increasing chasm between the rich and poor. 

The full essay is at "CEO Pay in Europe and America."

Political Psychology: Syrian Human-Rights Abuses

According to the New York Times, “masked gunmen severely beat Syria’s best-known political cartoonist,” Ali Farzat, on August 25, 2011. The attack came days after he had published a cartoon showing Bashar Assad hitching a ride out of town with Qaddafi. To be sure, it seems foolhardy for the cartoonist to have published such a cartoon in Syria unless he meant it as an act of non-violent civil disobedience. If the latter, willingly taking the beating without hitting back would be of such moral fortitude that the injustice of the regime would be made transparent and discredited. How moral strength can overcome physical force is a point on which Gandhi had much faith.

The full essay is at "Syrian Human-Rights Abuses."

Banking on Buffett’s Bank

Beyond wondering what could Ken Lewis have been thinking when he ok’d Bank of America’s purchase of Countrywide, it might be worth pondering why the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Law of 2010 did not mandate splitting up banks such as Bank of America, which with over $1 trillion in assets are too big to fail. In other words, is simply increasing their reserve requirements tantamount to gambling with the financial system in a reckless manner? Should the elected representatives of the people and the states in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, respectively, have displayed more fortitude in resisting the banking lobbyists even when that industry was known to have been culpable in the 2008 credit crisis?

The full essay is at "Banking on Buffett."

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Royalty: Natural or Exaggerated?

On April 29, 2011, the world watched in utter fascination as a crown prince in one of the E.U. states married a wealthy commoner in London's Westminster Church--the same edifice in which Queen Elizabeth had married in 1947.  The prince is of course William, and his bride is Kate (or Catherine to the purists), who in one hour's time went from being the daughter of two wealthy commoners to royalty.  It is as though she leap-frogged from “the many” past “the few” to join “the one”--the firm. My question is whether these distinctions, involving birth as well as wealth, are natural in terms of human nature or exaggerated artifices borne of excessive privilege and power.

On the "Wedding of the Century": History Made or Manufactured?

In hyping the royal wedding of William and Kate in the E.U. state of Britain, the media even in other E.U. states applied the title, “The Wedding of the Century” in spite of the fact that the century was only in the second year of the second decade. It is rather presumptuous for people alive at such a time to claim so much for their time, and therefore for themselves. Lest our self-constructed bubble unexpectedly bursts, we might let some air out of our self-constructed balloon in a controlled manner such that our bloated egos can survive without too much bruising.

The full essay is at "Wedding of the Century."

See related essay: "On the 'Wedding of the Century': Royalty as Natural or Exaggerated?"

American Foreign Policy on Pakistan: Balancing Foreign Aid and Duplicity

Osama bin Laden “lived and died in a massive, fortified compound built in 2005 and located on the outskirts of Abbottabad, some 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad. It stood just a half-mile from the Kakul Military Academy . . . and close to various army regiments. . . . (C)ongressional Republicans and Democrats questioned whether bin Laden was hiding in plain sight, with Pakistani military and intelligence operatives either totally unaware of his location or willfully ignoring his presence to protect him."  Had it been smart of the U.S. to extend foreign aid to Pakistan?  That is, does this case point to the futility, even weakness, that attends foreign aid in general? 


East Asia and Latin America: Economy & State

In the fall of 2011, the economic troubles in the developed countries were starting to hit fast-growing developing economies like China, Brazil and Indonesia. The governments of the developing countries were “girding themselves,” according to the Wall Street Journal, “to offset any economic and financial damage.” China’s government, for example, increased the investment of its sovereign wealth fund in Chinese banks. In September, China’s exports to the E.U. grew at 10 percent, compared with 22% in August. China’s increase in imports was also weaker, which did not bode well for emerging markets in Latin America and elsewhere that supply commodities for China’s construction industry.  Yet IMF projections depicted an interesting distinction between the projected increase of real GNP in Latin America and the developing Asian economies. The projections for 2011 were 4.7% and 7.9 percent, respectively. For 2012, the projections were 4.0% and 7.7 percent, again respectively. What can explain this pattern wherein Asian newly industrialized economies (NICs) were expected to fare better?

The full essay is at "East Asia and Latin America."


Alex Frangos and Patrick McGroarty, “Troubles of West Take Toll on Emerging Economies,” The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2011. 

Federalism & Business: States in India Deregulating for Economic Growth

The gross domestic product in India for the year ended March 31, 2011 was estimated to have grown at a robust 8.6%. Gordon Chang at Forbes argues that besides Delhi’s own fiscal and monetary stimuli, competition between the states of India for business has been a formidable factor. Federalism, it turns out, can be good for business—yet at what cost? Chang omits this element, writing only that “As the states try to outdo each other, India’s investment climate improves.”

Automatic Standing: The American States in Federalism Cases

Unlike that of the E.U., the U.S. system of public governance is structurally biased toward  political consolidation at the expense of federalism. In fact, the bias extends to jurisprudence. This is evident in a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on September 8, 2011 against Virginia on the 2010 federal health-insurance reform law.

The full essay is at "Spending in American Federalism."