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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Some Higher Degrees Are Not So High

American higher education contains its own erroneous nomenclature. Most notably, people having earned one degree in law or medicine presume that they have doctorates in those academic disciplines simply because having a prior bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite.

The full essay is at "Some Higher Degrees."

Sunday, July 7, 2019

On the Political Power of Capitalism in American Society

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.

The full essay is at "On the Political Power of Capitalism."

“USA!” at Ryder Cup 2012: Silent “EU!” Wins

The Ryder Cup of 2012, held in Illinois, can be read as payback for the European team at the expense of the Americans because the latter had come back from the same 10-6 deficit to win at the previous Cup.  The Associated Press reported that the European team’s “rally was even more remarkable, carried out before a raucous American crowd that began their chants of "USA!" some three hours before the first match got under way.” I can just imagine the looks on the Europeans’ faces amid the primal shouts some three hours before play. “Why are they doing that now? Should we get our few people in the crowd to start pumping their fists in the air while shouting “EU! EU! EU! EU!”? I can just hear a German on the team (if there was one) ask, “But what purpose would that serve?” A Brit would interrupt to make his observation known, that he cannot take part in such a cheer as it diverts from “hip hip!” and thus may interfere with being proud to be British, as Maggie used to say. A Belgian of Flemish and Walloon parentage (if such a thing exists) would try to split the difference in proposing that the small crowd of European groupies chant “hip hip EU!” The Brit would undoubtedly veto that one in a split second and the European team would be left with having to listen to the primal chants of the Americans. Of course, the warlike chant has no meaning in itself. Even a patriotic American would wonder why in the midst of a fireworks show on July 4th young men (16-25ish) suddenly feel the need to aggressively shout “USA!

                                     Europe's Martin Kaymer celebrates Europe's win at the Ryder Cup.     Reuters

USA!” as if the exploding bombs (i.e., fireworks) were some signal known only to them that we were about to invade another country. I witnessed this at a Fourth-of-July fireworks at an upscale golf course in 2012. The chants seemed so out of place, coming out of nowhere, that I could not help but wonder what was behind the impulsive act.

The full essay is at "USA!, Silent EU!"

Starbucks Apologizes in spite of Overzealous Police Presence in a Store

On July 4, 2019, six police employees staggered by twos into a Starbucks store in Tempe, Arizona (which borders Phoenix to the west). Because they did not come in together, customers had a prolonged sense of a police presence throughout the store. Eventually, the police huddled near the bar where drinks were left for customers to pick up. Even as the police huddled, they did so with eyes strategically perched so as to maintain visuals on the customers. Yet this was apparently lost on the police themselves, who felt it was disrespectful for an employee to ask them to leave after a customer complained about feeling uncomfortable. It could not be assumed that the customer had had bad experiences with police in the past, for any customer would understandably feel uncomfortable with so many visible guns passing back and forth. Indeed, for the police to treated the customers to the display can be reckoned as disrespectful!  Unfortunately, the police probably had no recognition of having too many at once in the store because intimidation as a deterrent by a very visible, ubiquitous presence in the public (and apparently in restaurants) was at the time the standard tactic. In short, customers could be expected to feel uncomfortable, or at least to want some relief from the ubiquitous police presence. Even so, Starbucks apologized because an employee acted on behalf of a customer, whose complaint was valid given the overwhelming police presence in the store. Yet according to the Tempe Association of police, the customer and employee should have known that some of the cops were veterans so the errant conclusion is zero respect for vets.[1] The association was so busy feeling disrespected that no thought at all went into why customers could rightly feel uncomfortable with so many police in a small store.

The full essay is at "Overzealous Police Presence."

1. Amir Vera, “Starbucks Apologizes after Six Officers Say They Were Asked to Leave a Store in Arizona,” cnn.com July 6, 2019.

Interestingly (or tellingly), the police chose to leave rather than move away from where customers pick up drinks, and yet the police chief felt that Starbucks had disrespected the police in the store. 

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Presidential Authority and Bureaucracy: Regulatory Agencies

Circulating in Congress in the fall of 2012 was a bill that would have allowed "the White House to second-guess major rules and mandate that agencies carefully study the economic effects of new regulation. The change could, in effect, delay a number of rules for the financial industry. Those who support preserving the status quo where Wall Street regulates itself will find much to like in this legislation," said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy advocate at Public Citizen, a nonprofit government watchdog group.[1] President Obama had received $1 million from Goldman Sachs as a campaign contribution in 2008. Yet of how much value to Wall Street is a mere delay in regulation? Some, surely, but not enough to make this the decisive issue here. Rather, I submit that the president's control as chief executive of the regulatory agencies and the added bureaucracy are more salient in this case study. 

The full essay is at "Presidential Authority and Bureaucracy." 

1. Ben Protess, “Lawmakers Push to Increase WhiteHouse Oversight of Financial Regulators,” The New York Times, September 10, 2012. 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

President Obama's Justification for Limited Military Intervention in Libya: Driving a Wedge between the Bushes

In the early evening of March 28, 2011, President Obama addressed the American people and the world to explain his administration’s involvement in the international coalition that had been implementing a no fly zone over Libya while protecting Libyan civilians from their own ruler. He sounded much more like the first President Bush than the second in terms of foreign policy.  Similar to how the elder Bush had restrained himself from going all the way to Baghdad after he had joined an international coalition in removing the Iraqis from Kuwait, Obama said that directing American troops to forcibly remove Colonel Qaddafi from power would be a step too far, and would “splinter” the international coalition that had imposed the no fly zone and protected civilians in rebel areas of Libya. Interestingly, in taking the elder Bush’s route, Obama came out strongly against that of Bush II. Referring to the alternative of extending the U.S. mission to include regime change, Obama stated, “To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq . . . regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”[1] In effect, Obama was exposing a fundamental difference between George H.W. Bush and his son by saying essentially the same thing as the elder Bush had done while excoriating the foreign invasion of his son. Yet Obama did not stop there. He added a theoretical framework that the elder Bush could well have used.

[1] Helene Cooper, “Obama Cites Limits of U.S. Role in Libya,” The New York Times, March 28, 2011.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Speculators and Price Volatility: The Case of Gasoline

According to The Huffington Post, “Oil prices took a nosedive [on May 5, 2011] in a historic selloff, erasing weeks of gains and indicating that the months-long climb in energy prices may have hit a ceiling. Crude oil plunged 10 percent as startled investors unloaded their positions and a weeklong decline accelerated into an outright freefall. The price of U.S. crude went from triple digits to double digits, falling below $100 after opening at close to $110. Brent crude, a European benchmark, lost $12 at one point in a sell-off that exceeded the one following Lehman Brothers' collapse.”[1]  The question, for course, is why, the answer of which can lead us to consider some public policy recommendations. Understanding the previous price rise is a first step both to answering this question and for evaluating public policy solutions.

The full essay is at "Speculators and Price Volatility."

1. William Alden, “Oil Prices Plunge in Record Sell-Off,” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2011.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Sexual Harassment at Yale: A Wider Picture of Intolerance in Political Correctness

In his commentary on “Sex and the College Dean” in The Wall Street Journal, William McGurn bemoans what he calls the “surrender [of] what little moral authority [deans and college presidents] have left to their in-house counsel and off-campus government authorities.”[1] McGurn points in particular to the rising influence of lawyers in college administrations. “Today deans have given way to lawyers. The consequence has been endless gestures to raise ‘awareness,’ constant upgrading of procedures and the proliferation of committees—all designed primarily to limit the institution's civil liability. Thus Rutgers says it is working on making the school ‘more inclusive’” after a gay student killed himself after his roommate had posted video secretly shot of the gay student having sex in the dorm room. Not to completely dispute McGurn’s “lawyer thesis,” I do, however, want to broaden the explanation based on material provided by McGurn himself. Specifically, the “more inclusive” language McGurn cites is the signature of the political-correctness movement that had swept college campuses in the United States since the late 1980's. McGurn claims that deans of students have gone from being adults to legalists in seeking to minimize their school’s liability; I want to add that those deans went from being adults to ideologues as well.

The full essay is at "Sexual Harassment at Yale."  

1. William McGurn, “Sex and the College Dean,” The Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2011, p. A15.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Ownership and Compensation Conflated: The Case of Bill Gates and Paul Allen at Microsoft

Paul Allen claims in his memoir that Bill Gates tried on more than one occasion to reduce Allen’s relative ownership interest in Microsoft. Of course, the veracity of Allen’s explanation can be questioned even if the ownership changes in percentage terms are a matter of public record. Whereas The Wall Street Journal focused on Allen's credibility in making his claim, I see a case study on the difference between ownership and compensation for labor.

The full essay is at "Ownership and Compensation."

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Anna Hazare: A Modern Incarnation of Gandhi?

On August 21, 2011 in New Delhi, India, tens of thousands marched in support of Anna Hazare, then in the sixth day of his hunger strike in support of the Jan Lokpal anti-corruption bill. He told the crowd, “Even if the prime minister comes, I will not withdraw my hunger strike until the [bill] is passed in the Parliament. I can die but I will not bend.”[1] What a unique and intriguing statement! To be sure, the man's “professed unwillingness to compromise,” as well as his “occasionally belligerent tone, . . . attracted criticism.”[2] Even so, he inspired mainly hope, particularly from the young. His main constituency, however, was the middle class, who felt alienated and unfairly treated. Hazare self-consciously embraced the model of Gandhi. That model, including the principled unbending, is no stranger in India, yet I am surprised that it took until 2011 for a societal figure so Gandhi-like to emerge and galvanize a mass protest using Gandhi’s methods. Of course, the likeness between the two men could be overstated. How much like Gandhi was Hazare and his political action? For example, would Gandhi have stopped eating simply out of preference for one of two bills before the Parliament? Putting a stop to widespread violence is arguably much more significant than reducing corruption. Also, the demand that conduct be changed is more direct than that a law be enacted unless to abolish an unjust one. 
                              Associated Press

The full essay is at "Hazare and Gandhi."

1. Jim Yardley, “Thousands Back Antigraft Hunger Strike in New Delhi,” New York Times (August 22, 2011). 
2. Ibid.

On the United Technologies-Raytheon Merger: The Macro Level of Analysis

In analyzing a merger, incorporating the macro context is vital. For very large mergers, for instance, public policy concerns inevitably surface even if they are typically ignored not only in merger analyses, but also by in societal and even governmental public discourse. Analysis at this level takes a societal standpoint, including on the relationship of business and government. This does not diminish the salience of firm-level analysis, for even how the respective organizational cultures would mesh is very important to a functional merged company. This is even true regarding the respective business-ethics climates, for it is not a given that a healthy organizational culture dominates an unethical one.

Monday, June 24, 2019

So You Want to Become an Excellent Writer?

A good writer writes well. This truism maintains that a good writer is has mastered the craft of writing. Unfortunately, this feat does not come without considerable effort, for takes some good old-fashioned study in grammar and spelling. Unfortunately, the linguistic mechanics furnish only the means of entry, though this point seems to be lost on the American English teachers who slighted grammar pedagogically in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. Perhaps the novelists who have felt immune from being grammatical for the sake of style have been the interlarded culprits behind the trend of grammar be viewed as relative or an elective. To be sure, style has right of exception, but the problem is when the exceptions become the norm and even an excuse for bad grammar. This is all just foundational stuff; the quality distinguishing the excellent writer from even a good one is passion-fueled insight. The writer who writes out of a strong urge, or instinct, to express an insight publicly naturally finds his or her own voice, and thus identity, as a writer.  In this sense, a writer is like an entrepreneur whose passion breaks through the confines of an organizational structure like lava pushes through the tough shell of a lava dome.

The full essay is at "Excellent Writing Is More than Grammar."

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Is Blogging a Marxist Activity?

In writing posts on a blog, is a blogger alienated, or estranged, from his or her own labor and the product (i.e., the posts)? If not, would Karl Marx say that both the blogging activity and any resulting content exemplify his ideal? In short, are bloggers de facto Marxists? Or are we entrepreneurs better suited to Capitalism? In this respect, we can distinguish the free-standing blogger from the blogger who works on a blog owned by a company (i.e., others). In answering these questions, I look first at Marx’s criticism of labor that is alienated from the worker. Marx argues that a worker laboring on another’s product is estranged from both the worker’s own labor and the product. In both respects, clues of the sort of labor that Marx advocates can be found. From these inferences, I turn to Marx’s positive characterization of labor that is natural for the sapiens species, drawing also on Maslow, Locke, and the erasable Nietzsche for additional support.
The full essay is at "Blogging from a Marxist Perspective."

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Ethics in Blogging: A Normative Constraint on Excessive Economizing and Power-Aggrandizement

Blogs are interesting creatures. Like humans, they seek not merely self-preservation, but also the expansion of their domain on the internet. The empire-building does not have power-aggrandizement as its goal; rather, bloggers use what power they have to maximize the reach of their words. To be heard by as many people as possible—as if quantity were more important than quality—is a still more intermediate means, with the end being to bring one's words to the world-at-large. At the extreme, a blogger wants to see a world that has become a projection of his or her own words. Less extreme, a blogger wants to be a significant player in societal discussions even beyond the internet. Toward such ends, bloggers economize in the sense of seeking to minimize what they incorporate of other blogs beyond what they view as being useful to themselves, while attempting to maximize that of themselves that is incorporated on other blogs by power or moral suasion. For example, a blogger might say to another blogger, “I’ll blogroll you if you blogroll me.” This is a variant of “I’ll follow you if you follow me” on Twitter. As Susan Gunelius, an expert on blog marketing, observes in Blogging for Dummies, such reciprocity is no longer a normative practice in blogging. Indeed, the “I’ll follow you if you follow me” mentality is questionable at best. It implies that one person follows another not because of any value perceived on the followed’s account, but, rather, solely so he or she can be followed by yet another person. In other words, the apparent reciprocity is actually egoist. 

The full essay is at "Ethics in Blogging."

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Caves in on a Proposed Extradition Law: Yielded to the Street, Business, or Beijing?

Facing huge violent protests, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China, decided on June 15, to indefinitely suspend her proposal to open extradition to mainland China and Taiwan. As the Chinese government demonstrated during the protests at Tiananmen Square decades earlier, holding a mass protest in China was not among the ways to impeded proposed legislation. Why, then, did Lam seem to cave into the popular protests in Hong Kong?

The full essay is at "Hong Kong's Chief Executive."

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Impact of Federalism on Corporate Power in American Legislatures: The Case of Health-Insurance Reform

Florida, like about a dozen other states, debated in 2009 a proposed amendment to its state constitution that would have blocked, at least symbolically, much of the federal health-care insurance overhaul on the grounds that it tramples individual liberty. Behind the amendments was an industry with a vested interest—an industry that made substantial campaign contributions to the supporters of the amendment. An ethical conflict of interest lurks here, even if it is constitutional (assuming that wealth constitutes free speech, which itself is a problematic assumption), but the main issue here is how the blockage of federal law applying in Florida (and other states) would have affected federalism. What would have been better for the American federal system: federal or state legislation, or perhaps a combination? 

The full essay is at "Federalism, Corporate Power, and Legislation."

Friday, May 31, 2019

Encroaching Political Consolidation: The Weakening of the U.S. Federal System

It is much easier to point out the sliver in the other person's eye than the plank in one’s own. Regarding the gradual political consolidation of power at the federal level in the U.S. at the expense of not only the member-state governments, but also the federal system itself, it is easier for a political party to dismiss its own contribution than to take a wider stance including the continued viability of the federal system, or federalism, itself. As a result, both of the major parties has contributed to the increasing political consolidation at the expense of the check-and-balance feature that a balanced federal system has.

The full essay is at "Encroaching Political Consolidation in the U.S."

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg: Power beyond Corporate Governance

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg did not attend a committee hearing at Canada’s Parliament on May 28, 2019 in spite of having received summons from Bob Zimmer MP, the committee’s chair. Instead, Facebook sent its director of public policy and its head of public policy for Facebook Canada. “Shame on Mark Zuckerberg and shame on Sheryl Sandberg for not showing up today,” Zimmer said toward the end of the hearing.[1] For sending two representatives rather than themselves, Zuckerberg and Sandberg faced the possibility of being held in contempt. They had testified before the U.S. Congress, so by sending two representatives the two leaders of Facebook may have acted rather dismissively concerning Canada’s federal legislature. At the time, Zuckerberg had virtually unchecked power at Facebook, including over the other stockholders. From his perch, the power may have been going to his head; even after two years of user-privacy scandals, Facebook’s CEO and Chairman of the Board may have determined that summons from legislatures where the company was operating were beneath him. Such a mentality is dangerous for a person with autocratic control of such a large company.

1. Donie O’Sullivan and Paula Newton, “Zuckerberg and Sandberg Ignore Canadian Subpoena, Face Possible Contempt Vote,” CNN.com, May 28, 2019.

President Obama Took Care of Wall Street below a Public Persona of Reform

In April, 2010, President Obama gave a speech in New York City to counter what he called “the furious efforts of industry lobbyists” geared to weakening or stopping the new financial regulations that Obama claimed would be needed to stave off a second Great Depression.[1]  It is telling that the banks that had contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 were trying to diminish or block any new regulation. The very legitimacy of industry calls for deregulation in the wake of a market failure caused in part by the industry flies in the face of the rationale for regulation. In short, the rationale for government regulation has to do with market failures, which includes fraud and over-zealous profit-taking at the expense of the public good. The root of the rationale is the difference between the interests of an organization and society (i.e., the public good). 

The full essay is at "Obama Took Care of Wall Street."

1. Peter Baker, "Obama Issues Sharp Call for Reforms on Wall Street," The New York Times, April 22, 2010.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

On Fiat-Chrysler’s Merger Proposal to Renault: Too Broad?

As Renault was considering Fiat Chrysler’s proposal to merge, industry executives and analysts believed “that car makers must link up to share the cost of a transition from internal combustion engines to avoid being run over by fast-moving tech industry challengers like Tesla or Uber.”[1] To be sure, (b)y purchasing parts together, combining their manufacturing operations and sharing the cost of research and development,” the merger could “eventually save 5 billion euros per year,” according to Fiat.[2] The R & D would include funds spent on developing new models as well as on high tech oriented to the future. Although significant efficiency could be achieved due to under-used factories and all the money going into product development, the basic problem was one of insufficient scale (i.e., revenue) to support (i.e., finance) the very costly research and development needed on electric and/or self-diving cars. In its statement, Fiat Chrysler pointed to “the need to take bold decisions to capture at scale the opportunities created by the transformation of the auto industry in areas like connectivity, electrification, and autonomous driving.”[3] The insufficient scale was particularly troubling given the declining E.U. auto market at a time when Tesla, Google and Uber were making progress on electric and self-driving cars. Fiat Chrysler could really use the expertise at Renault and Nissan on electric cars. However, I'm not sure a merger was the optimal route forward.

The full essay is at "Fiat-Chrysler's Merger Proposal."

[1] Jack Ewing et al, “Renault Considering Fiat’s Offer to Merge Into a New Auto Giant,” The New York Times, May 27, 2019
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Democracy Impaired in the E.U.: The State-Level Vortex

In interpreting exit polls released on May 26, 2019 on the E.U.’s Parliament election, The New York Times pointed to two issues, only one of which pertained to the federal level. “Observers looked to [the election] to gauge the popularity of the various anti-immigration, anti-elite, Euroskeptic parties across the union.”[i] Had the E.U. electorate focused on such a matter so central to the European Union itself, democracy at the federal level would have been nearly perfect. However, the encroachment of state-level politics in the federal election, the other point, contributed to the democratic deficit at the federal level. This takes away from the viability of the federal system itself.

1. Steven Erlanger, “European Election Results: The Mainstream Loses Ground,” The New York Times, May 26, 2019.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Executive Compensation Tied to Firm Performance: A Critique

With robust economies in America boosting companies’ sales, corporate tax cuts, and an increase in stock buybacks lifting stock prices in 2018, the default mantra in executive compensation circles that high CEO pay is justified if it is tied to firm performance could be questioned. Similarly, the typical assumption that high pay would have to get higher for a CEO to be motivated to do the basics of the job, including overseeing mergers and acquisitions, (or that doing the basics warrants a raise) could be questioned. Particularly in 2018, the comfortable, self-serving ways of the business elite in the U.S. were ripe for critique.

An Institutional Conflict of Interest in Corporate Governance: The Case of Goldman Sachs

In September 2011, a pension fund representing U.S. government employees filed a shareholder proposal to strip Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein of his other post as chairman of the board. According to Reuters, “The pension plan of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees said on Wednesday an independent chairman would provide checks and balances in the power structure at the largest U.S. investment bank. AFSCME said splitting the roles of CEO and chairman might have prevented Goldman from getting into trouble for its actions leading up to the financial crisis and will improve its stock performance going forward. ‘A strong, independent Board chair would focus Goldman on generating long-term value for its shareholders,’ AFSCME President Gerald McEntee said in a statement.” Goldman spokesman Stephen Cohen responded, “We think we have a robust governance structure in place, with a very effective independent lead director. We always listen to our shareholders, so it is disappointing that AFSCME decided to go to the media before raising the issue with us.”[1]

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A Far-Right "States' Rights" Ideological Depiction of the European Union Critiqued

Roughly a month before the 2019 elections of the representatives in the E.U.’s Parliament, Matteo Salvini, the leader of an anti-immigrant party at the state level in the state of Italy, announced the formation of a far-right party—also anti-immigrant—at the federal level. Because far-right parties at the state level are dubbed “nationalist,” at least by The New York Times, that paper suggested at the time that such nationalist parties federalized can seem “incompatible with a transnational body.”[1] I submit that any such thought of even apparent incompatibility stems at least in part from a lack of understanding of the E.U. itself, as well as federalism and thus the place of states from the perspective of the federal system rather than a state. In short, the paper implicitly took the perspective of the states in writing about the upcoming election. The paradigm chosen by the paper reflects the far-right ideology in the E.U., and is thus not neutral. In fact, the slant is inherently helpful to the Euroskeptic and anti-immigration political agendas.

The full essay is at "A Euroskeptic Depiction of the E.U."

1. Megan Specia, “European Elections 2019: How the System Works and Why It Matters,” The New York Times, May 21, 2019.

Monday, May 20, 2019

NASA and Its Contractors: The Challenger Disaster

Roger Boisjoly was a booster rocket engineer at a NASA contractor, Morton Thiokol. Boisjoly blew the whistle both within the company and to NASA regarding the danger of the rubber in the o-rings, which seal the connections in the shuttle’s rockets, being insufficiently elastic in cold weather. Although The Challenger Disaster (2019) is not a documentary, the film’s narrative, which centers on Roger, or "Adam," is oriented to understanding why the Challenger space shuttle exploded after being launched on January 28, 1986. In other words, although some names are different and the conversations are not verbatim in the film, the factors that contributed to the actual explosion are presented. In fact, the film leans too much on technical details before the disaster and legal arguments afterwards without adequate entertaining elements to make the film enjoyable. However, the film's political function in informing a mass market of why part of the government-business system was broken is valuable. In fact, this mission demonstrates that the medium of motion pictures is capable of aiding in social, political, economic, and religious awareness and education, and thus development.

The full essay is at "The Challenger Disaster."

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Buddhist Mindfulness and the Self: Milton's Secret

On the surface, Milton's Secret (2016) is a story about a financially-stressed family getting a visit from grandpa, who brings something unusual with him (besides his tea). Because Donald Sutherland really liked the character,  he agreed to play Grandpa Howard. Grandpa has a secret, which he shares with his grandson, Milton. It fundamentally changes not only him, but also his parents. Howard brings Zen Buddhism and alchemy to his family.  That the fictional (narrative) film explains and relates the two and renders both so transparent for the audience says something about the potential of the medium itself to handle abstractions and relate them to life.

The full essay is at "Milton's Secret."

Friday, May 17, 2019

Israel and the United States on Palestinian Democracy

I contend that the furtherance of democracy in general and more specifically in the Middle East can be regarded as a strategic pathway toward regional peace. The philosopher Kant wrote a treatise on a global federation as a means toward achieving world peace. The founders of the United States reckoned that all the republics within that regional federation must be democratic for the Union itself to be sustained. A United States of the Middle East would also stand a better chance were it's states republics in form. It follows that especially when democratic bystanders put short-term tactical and strategic advantage above furthering or just permitting the development of a young, unstable democracy, the hypocrisy puts off rather than furthers peace. The reactions of Israel and the United States to a Palestinian achievement in 2011 are a case in point. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Facebook: Holding User Accounts Hostage

A Facebook “challenge” asking users to post a current photo and one from a decade earlier went viral in early 2019. Even though it is unlikely that the company was behind the “challenge” going viral, that the company had been working on facial recognition technology had users being suspicious on the motive behind the “challenge.”[1] A writer for Wired wrote at the time, “Imagine that you wanted to train a facial recognition algorithm on age-related characteristics and, more specifically, on age progression (e.g., how people are likely to look as they get older). Ideally, you’d want a broad and rigorous dataset with lots of people’s pictures. It would help if you knew they were taken a fixed number of years apart—say, 10 years.”[2] Why would Facebook want to track how a person is likely to look years later? Some users may put up an old picture of themselves or simply not update the existing photo, but why would Facebook want to know what those users are likely to look currently? Perhaps Facebook wanted to be able to identify those users in current pictures uploaded by others. So why did the company deny using the “challenge” for such a legitimate purpose as connecting people socially? Nonetheless, the company insisted that it had no benefit from the “challenge” going viral. This statement seems suspicious, especially given the company’s earlier lapses on user privacy. I contend that an even more toxic subterfuge existed at the time at Facebook—a cloak that held user accounts hostage until a clear facial picture could be supplied.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Russian Meddling in the U.S. Election of 2016: Intrusiveness as Disrespect

Russian hackers compromised the voter databases in two counties in Florida. According to Gov. Ron DeSantis, “Two Florida counties experienced intrusion into the supervisor of election networks. . . . There was no manipulation . . . it did not affect voting or anything like that.”[1] I submit that intrusion is the operative word here, for even if voting tallies were not affected, the mentality behind intruding is itself sordid. In other words, the source of the unethical conduct does not just lie in the consequences, though they could admittedly be significant in the future.

The full essay is at "Russian Meddling in a U.S. Election."

1. Dustin Votz, “Russians Breached Voter Data in Two Florida Counties in 2016,” The Wall Street Journal, May 15, 2019.

The FAA Deferred to Boeing on the 737 MAX Jet

After a misfiring-prone automatic stall-prevention device on the 737 MAX jet had caused two accidents in which 346 people died, an internal review at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, a regulatory agency, found that the regulators had relied too much on Boeing employees to conduct the safety inspections of the planes. Incredibly, Congress expanded the industry-reliance practice of the agency in 2018. Both the FAA and Congress were admittedly motivated by the added efficiency that such “sub-contracting” could bring. However, to focus on the economic benefit while ignoring the inherent (and obvious) conflict of interest in “sub-contracting” to the very companies that are regulated by the FAA is itself a red flag. A subservient or over-reliant regulatory agency cannot be a check on a company’s claims of not having sacrificed safety or even safety checks in order to focus more on profitability.  Of course, the political influence of a large company such as Boeing may have played a role in the FAA’s “back-seat” approach, but in this case the government’s own interest in stretching the coverage of its human resources may have been dominant. That such an interest could involve minimizing or ignoring outright such a blatant conflict of interest may point to a wider culture in which institutional conflicts of interest are presumed to be innocuous or even benign rather than too toxic to permit even if they have not been actively exploited.  

The full essay is at "FAA Deferred to a Regulatee."

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Before Infiltrating American Democracy, the Kremlin Had Curtailed Democracy (and Federalism) in Russia

Officials in the Russian government may have ordered computer hackers to infiltrate the U.S. presidential election in 2016 not only in order to influence the outcome to be more favorable to Russia, but also because those officials did not respect federalism and democracy, which, after all, had been so weak in Russia. 

The full essay is at "Russia's Kremlin: Disvaluing Democracy."  

Friday, May 10, 2019

President Obama and Goldman Sachs: A Quid Pro Quo?

Wall Street and the White House may be closer than the typical American thinks. One way this is accomplished is for a bank to contribute heavily to both presidential campaigns so as to be able to hedge political risk by getting ex-managers into strategic posts in the executive arm of the U.S. Government. This can be the case even when one of the candidates has campaigned on holding Wall Street accountable, such as after the financial crisis of 2008. There is the campaign slogan, and there is the political-economic reality underneath. 

The full essay is at "Obama and Wall Street."

Thursday, May 9, 2019

General Electric: Tax Avoidance with Former IRS Employees In-House

The name of the game in all too many corporate tax departments is to minimize the tax due as much as possible. No countervailing notion of “corporate citizenship” or even “fair share” exists in that economic world of single-minded minimization of what is to be paid out. Put another way, responsibility does not compute in the business calculus. Advocates of corporate social responsibility got this wrong for decades by naively assuming that people who work in management roles cannot compartmentalize. Whether due to the strictures of a job description or financial pressures on a company, managers themselves may regret having to compartmentalize in order to keep their respective jobs. Sadly, all too often, a manager faces internal and external pressure to sign off on something that is admittedly unfair or too greedy. That the playing field itself may be slanted in the financial interests of large businesses goes beyond a manager's pay-grade, and even that of a corporation itself. For one to speak out in order to make the tilt explicit in society would deny the operative role of compartmentalization. Managers, even CEO's, may personally want a level playing field wherein corporations cannot yield an undue amount of wealth at the expense of other entities or persons, such a desire is outside of the business calculus. 
One manifestation of the tilted field is the ability of companies to bring IRS agents in-house as employees. In the debate on whether to end the George W. Bush Tax Cuts, the nominal (or statue) tax rates were salient. Much less was said of the effective rates, which are calculated by dividing the actual tax paid by total income (individuals) or net income (corporations). The New York Times reported in 2011: Although “the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less.”[1] Although perfectly legal, the undue advantage means that the U.S. Government has had to look for other sources of revenue to make up for the lost revenue or do without the revenue, using debt to compensate. The "perfectly legal" aspect points back to the tax laws, and, more particularly, at the undue or even improper influence of the business sector in Congress. In fact, lest it be concluded that the business calculus is the reason for the tax avoidance (which is legal, unlike tax evasion), the financial power of business tilts the field not only by having too much influence in the crafting of tax legislation, but also in being able to hire ex-IRS employees to get "the inside scoop" on avoidance tactics. I now turn to the case of General Electric (GE) in 2010. 

The full essay is at "General Electric."

1. David Kocieniewski, “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether,” The New York Times, March 24, 2011.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns

Films are commonly known to have two or three dimensions in terms of perspective. Animated films were for decades in the twentieth century in two dimensions—a flat story-world—until the advent of animated films made to show depth, hence three dimensions. Still another, third or fourth respectively, dimension is the element of time in the story-world. Literally, as the still frames are moved one to the next, changes can be perceived in the story-world; you won’t see any change by looking at a frame. Then we get to the dimensions that extend outside of the story-world. One possible dimension is how the narrative or the story-world in a film relates to the book upon which the particular film is based. This dimension becomes visible in terms of meaning particularly when similarities exist, but differences too can prompt attention the dimension itself. In this essay, using Mary Poppins Returns (2018), I discuss another dimension that involves the content in a film but extends out into the world of the audience. When made manifest, this dimension can carry significant meaning for the audience, for this dimension involves both a society’s “social reality” and what is shown in a film.

The full essay is at "Mary Poppins Returns."

Monday, May 6, 2019

The U.S. Department of Justice: Big Banks May Legitimately Be above the Law

The Financial Times reported in 2013 that lawmakers in the U.S. Congress were claiming that the Department of Justice had been “too soft on big banks and their executives by failing to bring criminal cases related to the financial crisis.”[1] In the five years following the financial crisis of 2008, no Wall Street executive was criminally charged with fraud. The U.S. Justice Department chose not to go after the bankers for their lack of due diligence regarding their purchases of sub-prime mortgages from mortgage originators. This in spite of the fact that at Citibank, for example, a manager in the bank’s due diligence department estimated that 50% to 80% of the approved mortgages did not meet the bank’s credit policy, and yet Robert Rubin, the CEO at the time, did not act on the manager’s email. This suggests that a criminal complaint could have been lodged against the bank itself, but then what would be the implications for the financial system should Citibank had gone under after being found criminally guilty? Does it even hold that a guilty verdict would mean bankruptcy? Simply stated, a company can be so large that its failure due to a guilty verdict could harm innocent third parties, including stockholders, employees, suppliers, and even the general public if the bankruptcy triggers a systemic collapse of the financial system. Such concerns are called collateral consequences. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, systemic risk became a particularly salient concern for criminal prosecutors at the U.S. Department of Justice. Swayed by a desire to minimize the potential disproportionate harm to innocent parties from a verdict-triggered major bankruptcy, the prosecutors believed they were obligated to consider collateral consequences even if that meant that the really big banks would be immune from criminal prosecution. To such banks, this could be used as a competitive advantage because keeping within the constraints of law in making money would not apply. I contend, therefore, that the U.S. Government should not have taken collateral consequences into consideration. 

The full essay is "Big Banks above the Law."

 Mythili Raman testifying before Congress. mainjustice.com

1. Shahien Nasiripour and Kara Schannell, “Holder Says Some Banks Are ‘Too Large,” The Financial Times, March 7, 2013.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Big Bankers and the U.S. Government: A Coalition Circumventing Accountability on Wall Street

It is interesting that the U.S. Department of Justice did not pursue the fraudulent bankers on Wall Street not only during the Bush presidency, but also the following presidency, that of Barak Obama.  Not coincidentally, Goldman Sachs was the single biggest campaign contributor to Obama’s 2008 candidacy for president. It would seem that Wall Street had both political parties in a net by the time of the financial crisis in September, 2008. A sector of the economy being able to control both major parties is bad for not only industrial policy (i.e., favoritism), but also democracy. In short, a government should have enough strength to constrain a business sector, rather than being subject to it. The latter condition implies continued vulnerability should greed again get ahead of itself on Wall Street. By nature, greed, if allowed to go on running on its own steam, accumulates more and more momentum.

The full essay is at "Wall Street and the U.S. Government."

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Case for a Presiding President in Russia

On December 31, 2010, a Russian judge sentenced Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian tycoon who had been imprisoned in 2003 after defying Vladimir Putin, to an additional six years in prison. According to The New York Times, "It was a politically tinged decision that undermined President Dmitri Medvodev."[1] Leonid Goman of the Right Cause Party in Russia agreed. "It was obviously a political, not a judicial, decision." He went on to say that in general terms, "corruption is endemic, government power is often abused and senior politicians are rarely, if ever, held accountable for misdeeds."[2]  Clearly, Prime Minister Putin was still very much in control in Russia.  His message was that wealthy businessmen should not interfere in Russian politics. What a contrast to American politics, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United case!  Khodorkovsky was at one time the richest person in Russia, having been one of the oligarchs who bought government assets at bargain prices after the fall of the USSR, but he financed opposition parties in a political system that was anything but democratic.

1. Clifford Levy, "Russia Extends Prison Sentence of Tycoon 6 Years,” The New York Times, December 31, 2010, p. A1.
2. Ibid. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Glimpsing behind the Curtain: Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Assassination

Robert Ross interviewed Lyndon Johnson’s mistress, Madeleine Duncan Brown what Ross titled, “The Clint Murchison Meeting in Dallas November 21, 1963.” The interview took place sometime before her death on June 22, 2002. The content is revealing, and she comes across as very credible as it is obvious she still had feelings even then for the late president. She also had a credible motive for opening up to the American people. So in watching the interview, I did not view it as just another conspiracy theory; I paid attention. Sometimes the truth finally emerges in plain sight, rather than through complicated theories as in Oliver Stone’s film, JFK (1991). The most revealing facts to emerge from the interview are that Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald just two days after the assassination, had been at the meeting at Murchison’s mansion on the night before the assassination, and that LBJ told Madeleine while leaving Murchison’s house after the meeting, “After tomorrow, those SOB’s will never embarrass me again.” That the official narrative from the Warren Commission would still carry weight as the default account at least in the first two decades of the next century astounded me. At the very least, all of Madeleine’s knowledge of the players should have caused at least a tremor when the interview was made public. The status quo has that much inertia. Even so, the American public can gleam from Brown’s account just how different the reality of the power-brokers in (and outside of) the U.S. Government can be from what the public knows. Unfortunately, the patina or gloss even of acting can have incredible staying-power even in the face of the facts revealed. Members of the political elite and their companions may want to protect their legacies in old age, or want the freedom of conscience that comes from the impunity that can only come with death. The resulting piecemeal facts must justify themselves, however, whereas the long-standing official version often has the benefits of not only protective power and entrenchment that comes with having been the default for so long, but also a coherent (i.e., contrived) narrative. 

The full essay is at "On President Lyndon Johnson: The Man."

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Star Is Born

The film, A Star Is Born (2018), has the narrative structure chiefly of two intersecting character arcs. They are multi-level in the sense that both interior emotional states and exterior vocational popularity change for both Jackson and Ally. Each of them must deal with feelings of insecurity at some point and both are singers. The antagonist is interesting as well, as it is a character that plays a small but decisive role in how the narrative ends.

The full essay is at "A Star Is Born."

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Eight Good Behaviors of Managers: Googled by Google

In early 2009 at Google, "statisticians . . . embarked on a plan code-named Project Oxygen. The 'people analytics' teams at the company produced what might be called the Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers. 'My first reaction was, that’s it?' says Laszlo Bock, Google’s vice president . . .  for human resources. 'The starting point was that our best managers have teams that perform better, are retained better, are happier — they do everything better,' Mr. Bock says. 'So the biggest controllable factor that we could see was the quality of the manager, and how they sort of made things happen. The question we then asked was: What if every manager was that good? And then you start saying: Well, what makes them that good? And how do you do it?' He tells the story of one manager whose employees seemed to despise him. He was driving them too hard. They found him bossy, arrogant, political, secretive. They wanted to quit his team. 'He’s brilliant, but he did everything wrong when it came to leading a team,' Mr. Bock recalls. Because of that heavy hand, this manager was denied a promotion he wanted, and was told that his style was the reason. But Google gave him one-on-one coaching — the company has coaches on staff, rather than hiring from the outside. Six months later, team members were grudgingly acknowledging in surveys that the manager had improved." (1)

The full essay is at "Good Behaviors of Managers."
1. Adam Bryant, "Google's Quest to Build a Better Boss," The New York Times, March 12, 2011.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Savage Beatings in a Government's Toolkit: A Case of Pathology Writ Large

The psychology of someone acting on behalf of or in line with a government in beating another person who has not done or said anything personally against the beater is perplexing. The transmission of anger towards what a group stands for onto a particular human being who may be just walking has not been uncommon in human rights lore; even so, the component of strong emotion in the beating itself is bizarre; it may evince a pathology affecting some people when they think about, or engage in, the political domain. So considering violence against the nonviolent as a government tool that depends on the pathology is also problematic.

The full essay is at "Savage Political Beatings: Pathology Writ Large."