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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.