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Thursday, March 10, 2011

The General Welfare Clause: Is the Power of Congress Constitutionally Unlimited?

Art. 1, Sec. 8. of the US Constitution: Congress “shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”
Does this clause mean that the US Government can legislate in any way that benefits the Union? According to Thomas Woods, the general welfare clause “was a restriction on the power of the federal government: it had to exercise the powers delegated to it with an eye to the welfare of the country as a whole, not to the particular advantage of one state or section.”[i] That is to say, the Congress could provide for the general welfare of the United States only within its delimited powers listed in the US Constitution.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Worst Buy or Best Buy: Corporate Apology as Corporate-Speak to Sell Still More

As I was entering a “Bestbuy” store one summer day wearing shorts and a tee shirt and carrying my ubiquitous book bag (as you might expect), the security person, whom the manager later told me also works at a prison, walked after me as though stalking me, practially yelling “Sir! Sir!” Reaching me as I was talking to a salesperson who was treating me as though I were a customer, the lineback demanded to look in my book bag immediately. I stated matter of factly that I had had no opportunity to stash anything from the store in my bag while walking in the front door (after which he saw my every move).  Nevertheless, I opened my pouch for him and he was satisifed. After I left the salesperson, I reported the incident to a manager, whose “company apologizes” was belied by his curtness and fake politieness. Can a company even apologize? 

The full essay has been incorporated into On the Arrogance of False Entitlement: A Nietzschean Critique of Business Ethics and Management, which is available in print and as an ebook at Amazon. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Regulatory Capture Realized: The Oil Industry and the MMS Regulatory Agency

On May 11, 2010,  U.S. Dept. of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that he would separate the public safety and environmental enforcement side of the Minerals Management Services (M.M.S.) agency from its leasing and revenue collection function. While this move eliminateed the structural conflict of interest in the agency, it might not do enough to protect the regulatory function of the agency’s public safety and environmental enforcement roles.  The regulator can all too easily be coopted, or captured, by the firms it is regulating.

The full essay is at Institutional Conflicts of Interest, available in print and as an ebook at Amazon.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Business & Society: BP Clipped Societal Norms

In Senate testimony on May 11th, 2010,  the three companies did their best to point the finger at each other, with the result that neither BP, Transocean or Halliburton would admit, undoubtedly for liability purposes, any contributory role. In the midst of such liability evasion, those of us in the wider society want to get to the bottom of the accident so future such accidents can be prevented. In pointing the finger at the other guy while ignoring one’s own role, the managers of the three companies are added insult to injury.  The BP executive did not mention that several days before the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, BP officials chose, partly for financial reasons, to use a type of casing for the well that the company knew was the riskier of two options, according to a BP document. Specifically, BP managers opted for a “long string” pipe for the well rather than a liner tieback that would have cost $7 million to $10 million but would have added barriers to prevent gas from reaching the surface.  BP managers were not unaware of this risk. The concern with the method BP chose, the document said, was that if the cement around the casing pipe did not seal properly, gases could leak all the way to the wellhead, where only a single seal would serve as a barrier. As another instance of cutting corners to save time and money, BP engineers used just six “centralizers,” rather than twenty-one as recommended by Halliburton, to stabilize the well before cementing it. According to an April 16, 2010 email from BP’s well team leader, the problem was that the extra centralizers would have taken ten hours to install. Another official wrote of the decision: “Who cares, it’s done, end of story, will probably be fine.”   BP managers also decided not to take twelve hours to completely circulate the heavy drilling fluid in the well that would have enabled detection and removal of any leaking gas. BP also skipped a test to determine if the cement had properly bonded to the well and rock formations. A petroleum engineer independent of BP told a congressional committee that the decision was “horribly negligent.”

Workers from the rig and company officials said that hours before the explosion, gases were leaking through the cement, which had been set in place by the oil services contractor, Halliburton, which Dick Cheney once ran. But it was not merely the casing and cement that were problematic. On 60 Minutes on May 16, 2010, a worker who was on the rig when the accident happened spoke of a BP manager overruling a Transocean manager to cut corners, such as beginning to drain the pressure fluid from the well before the third “cork” was installed.  The methane was able to reach the rig’s engines because there was insufficient pressure to keep the gas down in the well.  Also, a BP manager had earlier ignored the worker’s warning that there were shreds of rubber coming up in the drilling–the rubber being from the device that was supposed to take pressure readings (e.g., whether there is gas in the well).  Nevertheless, the BP manager who testified before the Senate blamed Transocean and Halliburton managers, and on the morning after the 60 Minutes interview BP’s COO said he was just focused on the clean-up and knew nothing of such “details” even though his specialty was in development and exploration. Both in cutting corners and in ignoring his job description, BP’s COO demonstrates a willful disregard for societal norms wherein society itself is protected and accountability is accepted.  Sadly, this attitude is not uncommon in the business world.

Perhaps as business operations expand in businesses too big to fail, the societal dangers in the attitude are magnified because more damage can result. In other words, it becomes increasingly dangerous to a society to allow such an attitude to exist.  Where societal norms are ignored by business managers, perhaps the societal norm that allows for their authority should be rescinded as well. This is a social contract reading of society, wherein if one side of the norms are broken, the other side is deemed invalid as well.  The problem is that social contracts unravel rather slowly or incrementally, such that a dangerous attitude can be allowed to remain in a position of authority.  It is worth investigating whether violating societal norms is actually detrimental to a company’s bottom line. 

To the extent that a social contract has a certain inertia, it may be that the bottom line can survive long enough to allow the attitude to survive and perhaps even prosper.   These matters are distinct from questions of justification, which lie in the field of business ethics, and from those of whether more government regulation is needed, which lie in the field of business and government. We can define corporate social responsibility as meeting the general expectation in a society that people admit to their wrong-doing or mistakes and make amends.  This is different from the ethical question of whether people should admit to their wrong-doing or mistakes and if so why.  It is also distinct from the question of the proper relationship between business and government.  Business and society involves the relationship of business interest and societal norms.  To treat the latter (or the former, for that matter) as ethical requires ethical justification, which is more than simply aligning business and societal norms.  In other words, a societal norm is not in itself ethically justifying (consider Nazi Germany as a case in point).  With these distinctions in mind, I turn now to the field of business and society.

I contend that the people at BP (and Halliburton) admitting to their role and paying for economic damages incurred by third parties would be more important than BP’s charitable giving, even if some people in the wider society may have let BP off the hook for the accident if the company’s managers had decided to announce a new philanthropical project unrelated to the accident. Working on another society problem does not make up for having not admitted to BP managers' negligence.  Culpability, on other words. cannot be obviated or transferred so easily.

Too often, business managers use the term “responsibility” even as they are evading it for financial reasons. BP initially estimated the daily output of the leaks at between one and fourteen thousand barrels a day; BP picked the low end-point because the amount of fines the company would pay was tied to the volume. That the company managers were misleading the wider society didn’t seem to factor into their financial decision. As a result, the anticipated damage to the Gulf (and the world) was not sufficiently appreciated in the wider society. The convenient use of  the term “responsibility” can be gleemed from the Senate testamony of Lamar McKay of BP.  “As a responsible party under the Oil Pollution Act,” he said, ”we will carry out our responsibilities.” But he quickly added that Transocean “had responsibility for the safety of the drilling operations.”  That is to say, he acknowledged the obligation to be responsible for his mistakes while conveniently ignoring the mistakes made at his company. By pointing the finger at people at another company, McKay was contradicting his own asseveration on being responsible.  It is like he was lying even as he insisted that people shouldn’t lie.

Pointing the finger is childish, even if it is done for financial reasons. Steven L. Newman, president and chief executive of Transocean, did no better that the BP executive when he said that the accident had to have arisen from elements of the work done by other companies. “Were all appropriate tests run on the cement and the casing?” he asked, apparently implicating Halliburton. Tim Probert of Halliburton said in turn that all work on the casing by his company was carried out “as directed by the well owner,” meaning BP.  Suggesting that the men act like adults and take responsibility for what their coworkers had done (or failed to d0), the ranking Republican minority member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, told them to stop the finger-pointing. “I would suggest to all three of you that we are all in this together,” she said. Notice that she is pointing to a societal norm, rather than using an ethical rationale. She is essentially asking the executives to step up to societal standards. Unfortunately, there was no sign that the three boys would take responsibility for their actions, as they continued on, still oriented to the other guy.  The cost to society includes a more difficult route to uncovering the cause of the accident and possible accidents to come from BP. The company’s clean-up efforts do not address the cause of the accident; the spending does not go far enough. In other words, BP can’t spend its way out of it…or can it?  Are there societal norms that allow it to suffice?  My question is this: why hasn’t the social contract unravelled that has allowed the managers at BP to continue to hold their jobs (and BP to remain in business)?  Is economic liberty at play here–society saying that there is room in such liberty for a shirking attitude?

“Congress Says BP Crew Focused on Costs,” The Wall Street Journal,  June 15, 2010, p. A5.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rand Paul on Civil Rights and the BP Explosion: A Case Study on the Will to Power

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), was the Tea Party candidate who challenged the Republican establishment to win the party’s Senate nomination in Kentucky on May 18, 2010. A day later, he publically criticized a plank of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Specifically, he said in an interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC television that he supported the sections of the Civil Rights Act that applied to public accommodations but had concerns when it came to its applicability to private business. He had raised similar concerns earlier in the day about the Americans with Disabilities Act in an interview on National Public Radio. Asked by Maddow if a private business had the right to refuse to serve black people, Mr. Paul replied, “Yes.”

In citing the rights inherent in private property, Mr. Paul, an eye surgeon, was refusing to recognize the “publicness” in a business being open to the public, as distinct from someone’s house, which is not open to the public. In other words, Mr. Paul was ignoring the qualification to private property that comes into play as soon as said property is opened to the public.  Such property is quasi-public precisely because it is open to the public.  Hence, society, through its government, has a right to dictate the obligations going with that element of publicness.  Mr. Paul would have been on firmer ground had he limited his statement to private clubs, such as country clubs, which do not receive public money and are not open to the public.  However, even here, if people associate in a way that hurts others by intentionally excluding them, there might be an argument in favor of subjecting them to the Act, though such an argument seems weaker than those for freedom of association and on private property not open to the public.

Rand Paul also said on ABC TV that President Barack Obama’s criticism of BP in the wake of the Gulf oil debacle sounds “really un-American.”  Paul said that the president’s response is part of the “blame game” that’s played in the United States. The game, he argued, leads to the thinking that tragic incidents are “always someone’s fault” when sometimes accidents just happen. Sen. Paul was ignoring that BP overrode Transocean in directing its employees not to use “mud” to maintain pressure in the well as cement “corks” were being inserted.  Also, managers at BP claimed to have the technology to stop any leak or spill when no such technology existed. In short, the managers at BP put the Gulf at risk in order to cut corners so as to earn more profit (as if $2 billion a month was not sufficient).  Rather than go after the mentality of shirking amid a “more, more, more” mentality wherein nothing is ever enough, Paul went after the representative of the victim–society as a whole.  That is to say, he added insult to injury by going after the victim rather than the culprit.  In so doing, he ignored key elements of the culpability.

Listening to the candidate the Maddow show on MSNBC, I was more concerned by the way he chose to evade questions than by his failure to take “being open to the public” into account in his view on civil rights law. At one point, Rachel Maddow asked him, “yes or no,”  on whether he would exclude private businesses from the Civil Rights law.  He replied that he was against the violence that took place in the 1960s in association with Walgreen’s lunch-counters. Beyond not answering the question, Mr. Paul seemed to be continuing with what he wanted to say–ignoring the question entirely as a mere interruption to be dismissed. I noticed a few times that after Maddow did indeed interrupt him, he simply picked up with what he had been saying.  Could his ignoring the questions be related to his ignoring the “open to the public” qualification and the risky shirking of BP?  In other words, might it be that Mr. Paul simply does not see what is inconvenient to his world view?  If so, I contend that this character trait is far more alarming than even his evasions and his over-simplified view on private property and the oil spill.  If you have ever tried repeatedly to tell someone something only to have your statement ignored as the other person continues on with what he or she was saying, you know what I mean. Sadly, I suspect that Rand Paul didn't notice it. This character flaw is by no means limited to him. Nor is this an invitation for partisan aspersions on the Republican Party.

Rather, I suspect that not answering questions--even asking one's own instead of given any answer to a question outstanding--is a growing attitude in modern America. I have witnessed it myself in emailing people I don't know on matters involving an actual or potential commercial transation. Does the computer come with Office 2007? Reply: When you would like to come by to look at it?  But what about Office 2007?  Or take apartment hunting:  Are utilities included in the rent? Reply: Call me to make an appointment to see the unit. Nietzsche would have a field day with such a mentality that vaunts itself as superior by "virtue" of its own assumed dominance. The basis of Rand Paul's non-answer, in other words, could have been an attempt to dominate beyond his place on Maddow's show. In other words, his non-answers could have been refusals rooted in a will to power that was biting off more than it could chew on someone else's show.

In terms of having a will to power based on strength, many of the stations or offices in modern society that we view as being entitled to dominate are in fact weak.  Nietzsche points to the modern moralist's thou shalt not as an attempt by the weak to dominate beyond their innate weak constitution. He also points to the attempts of the modern manager to dominate in such terms (and the priest as well). In watching various personalities giving non-answers while being interviewed on television, I find myself wondering if they know they are doing it. If they do, they are indeed rascals; if they do not, their stygian pathology is much deeper than I am equipped to investigate. Perhaps the modern illness is malignant narcissism to such an extent in a personality that the delimited perspective eclipses even awareness of what oneself is doing.

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/21/us/politics/21paul.html?ref=politics   http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37273085/ns/politics-decision_2010/

On the Differential Impact of Pro-Business Cultural Values on Financial Regulation in the EU and US

On May 18, 2010, the German state legislature banned naked short-selling of certain euro-debt and credit-default swaps, as well as some financial stocks because it was believed that “excessive price movements” could endanger the stability of the financial system. In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Wolfgang Schauble, the Finance Minister at the time, said that the “financial market is only concerned with itself, instead of fulfilling its purpose and financing sensible, sustainable economic growth.” The legislation runs counter to a race to the bottom in which governments relax financial regulation to entice the banking sector. At the same time, however, the American state governments and that of their union seemed like apologists for the industry they are supposed to be regulating.  In fact, Tim Geithner, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, did not waste any time in criticizing the E.U. state for the legislation. While doing so, he dismissed the German Chancellor's proposal for a global financial transactions tax (the proceeds of which would go into an emergency fund to divert a collapse of the financial system). To be sure, while the European proposals were a healthy sign of government not enslaved by the money and power of big business, the problem of banks too big to fail still existing was not tackled. Furthermore, whereas Americans may be too insular, the Europeans may be unrealistic in their visions for global regulation. Indeed, many tend to conflate their own union with an international organization.

The full essay is at "E.U. & U.S."