Friday, April 13, 2018

How a Chairman of the Federal Reserve Made Strategic Use of the Media

Just as the US Senate was to take up the matter of Ben Bernanke’s re-appointment as Chair of the Federal Reserve in 2010, Time magazine came out with its announcement that he is to be its person of the year.  According to the magazine, “when turbulence in U.S. housing markets metastasized into the worst global financial crisis in more than 75 years, he conjured up trillions of new dollars and blasted them into the economy; engineered massive public rescues of failing private companies; ratcheted down interest rates to zero; lent to mutual funds, hedge funds, foreign banks, investment banks, manufacturers, insurers and other borrowers who had never dreamed of receiving Fed cash; jump-started stalled credit markets in everything from car loans to corporate paper; revolutionized housing finance with a breathtaking shopping spree for mortgage bonds; blew up the Fed’s balance sheet to three times its previous size; and generally transformed the staid arena of central banking into a stage for desperate improvisation. He didn’t just reshape U.S. monetary policy; he led an effort to save the world economy.”  Not to be outdone in service to the Chairman, CNN furnished its own reporters, who gave credit to Bernanke for these measures.  Interestingly, however, even though one reporter admitted that Bernanke had said in 2007 that the subprime market and its derivatives would not threaten the financial market and the banks, she attributed the fault there to the imperfections in the market rather than to Bernanke himself in being wrong.   So, he gets credit for cleaning up the mess (ignoring the foreclosed homeowners) but not the blame for being wrong about the contagion (and not urging regulation of the derivatives).  He could have urged the regulation of derivatives (he is a smart person), and once the crisis occurred, he could have tailored his response to the homeowners facing foreclosures that could have been stopped. For example, the Fed could have created dollars to subsidize the inordinate rates on the variable rate subprime mortgages (i.e. those bank assets would not have been toxic and the banks’ balance sheets would have been fine…two birds with one stone…rather than doing the bidding of one of the parties).  To be sure, if the Fed is inordinately friendly to banks because of the power they have in selecting their regulators (the NY Fed Chair’s appointing committee consists of bankers), then Bernanke might have simply been playing the good politics for staying in office.   “Our ships must all sail in the same direction; otherwise who can tell how long you will…last…with us.” (The Godfather, part III)  Bernanke is a player from the perspective of the real power behind the throne: America’s financial elite.  That elite literally owns the media companies. So what I want to point out here is that the timing of Time’s announcement and the asymetry in CNN’s laudatory coverage of the Chairman just as the Senate was about to consider his re-appointment led me almost instinctually to  be convinced that coincidence was not the driver here.  The Chairman undoubtedly had some powerful friends in the media who were giving him a publicity offensive, or campaign, just in time for the Senate debate on whether to appoint him.

Through all the admiration of this person of 2009, it should be remembered that he did not urge the regulation of sub-prime derivatives issued or held by the banks regulated by the Fed.  He was wrong about the subprime housing bubble being contained.  And he failed to protect homeowners sufficiently.  If the media was being used by the Fed Chair in his re-appointment campaign, it could be that what we are fed by CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the main network newscasts is not really as neutral or beyond their control as we think.   News as a campaign.  News because it is in some powerful actor’s vested interests.  While there is certainly coincidence in life, an alignment such as I have outlined here is far too transparent—or at least it ought to be.

The subtext here is that we, the American people, have become too much the pawns even as we think we are not.  The illusion of popular sovereignty is that we are in control.   I don’t think we have any idea of the extent to which we are manipulated by the powers that transcend our elected representatives and their appointees.  It is no wonder that real change does not get beyond the interests of the real power in America, whose interest is in the status quo or at best in an incremental change.   Essentially, we have allowed the anti-democratic power to concentrate to a degree that is dangerous to a functioning republic (i.e., a representative democracy).  We should not be surprised to find that powerful actors are operating at a subterranean level where transparency is intentionally lacking.    How do we get it back, you ask?  Hah!   We would have to see it first—realize its extent and depth—and I’m not holding my breath that enough people will wake up to see the light.

Too many of us are ensconced in Plato’s cave, taking what the puppets say for reality.  As Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, “You want answers? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”    Even if we could stomach the emetic manipulation behind the scenes that is directed to us (and even our representatives—when they aren’t doing it themselves), we would have to be able to see it—and it is so well hidden.  We can only grasp at straws…confluences that seem like more than coincidences.  As a member of the black caucus of the US House (surprisingly) said to a reporter of Frontline on the TARP program passing the House just days after it had been voted down by that same body, “You have no idea how powerful the anti-democratic forces are here.”    You and I get only glimpses.  The puppets seem more real so we believe in them.   Please don’t take my thesis to be that there is one huge orchastrated conspiracy; rather, I’m simply suggesting that our system of representative democracy does not seem to be able to sufficiently constrain the invisible powers that are pulling strings without being accountable to the public power.  It is my ardent hope that the people will look beyond the status quo in voting for candidates—perhaps getting back to citizen representatives who do their duty then return to their preferred occupations—that we would elect people sufficiently principled and not desirous of a life in power to be willing to take on the financial power.   Do I think it will happen?  Sadly, no.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t think we have it in us…or we don’t have enough of what it would take to confront that which is in us that favors comfort and sleep.   In the story of the rise and fall of empires, the United States is not exempt.  The culprit, as with most things, lies within.   It is ultimately about what kind of people too many of us are.  Such a thing is very, very difficult to change, let alone see.  Decadence tends to be invisible to itself.

Note: A day after CNN covered the announcement, the Senate finance committee debated and voted on Bernanke’s re-appointment. See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34463144/ns/business-stocks_and_economy/

 Source: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1946375_1947251,00.html#ixzz0Zs8WgpV1

Obama's Meeting with Culpable Top Bankers

When he was running for US President, Barak Obama said that the financial crisis provided an opportunity for financial system reform beyond that which is in the interest of the big banks because the power of the latter is temporarily eclipsed and the US Government can take advantage of that.  His assumption is that during normal times, the banking industry essentially owns the Congress (Sen Dick Durbin’s statement just after the banking lobby defeated a foreclosure bill in the US Senate in 2009).  Sadly, the government did not use the eclipse; rather, it has been using the appearance of power and direction in the relumed post-crisis period to engage in window-dressing to assuage populist anger at the banks.

 Asserting that it “is among the strongest banks in the industry,” Citigroup announced in December, 2009 that it would soon repay $20 billion of federal bailout money. This from a bank that was in the red for most of the preceding two years, that was expected to limp through 2010 amid a torrent of loan losses, that saw its stock price close after the announcement at a measly $3.70 a share — and that, like other big banks, was still reluctant to lend. Citigroup’s planned exit from the bailout — like Bank of America’s earlier this month — would be welcome if the banks were the picture of health. But their main motive was to get out from under the bailout’s pay caps and other restraints. Perhaps the bankers were motivated to attract talent;  perhaps they were acting in their personal financial interests.  The Treasury Department’s approval was a grim reminder of the political power of the banks, even as the economy they did so much to damage continued at the time to struggle and the banks have benefited from taxpayer money.

Big bank profits, for instance, still came mostly courtesy of taxpayers. Their trading earnings were financed by more than a trillion dollars’ worth of cheap loans from the Federal Reserve, for which some of their most noxious assets were collateral. They benefitted from immense federal loan guarantees, but they were not lending much. Lending to business, notably, was very tight.  Barak Obama’s “urging” the banks to lend more to small business was not apt to be taken seriously by the big banks, given their financial power.   To exort banks to be good “corporate citizens” is only to twist “citzen” beyond its pale.

Let’s be clear. Organizations are not citizens.  For one thing, they can’t vote.  Exxon can’t mail in its ballot for president.  Nor can it be drafted to fight (rather, it can receive military contracts; its lobby knows how to procure those).  Moreover, they are designed (real citizens are not “designed”) to retain income without limit.  Extrinsic normative claims on the organizational machines do not register in the corporate calculus unless there is a financial cost.

Being called to the “woodshed” at a White House meeting is mere political theatre—something the bankers who bothered to attend in person must have known was something merely to sit through.  Some of the biggest recipients of taxpayers’ money, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, didn’t even bother making the extra effort to get there ahead of time to avoid the predictable winter weather that grounded their flights.  The acela train from NYC was running on time, yet the CEOs cited flight delays as making it impossible for them to attend in person.  Perhaps the CEOs correctly determined that Barak Obama’s meeting was mere political theatre.  The banking lobby was surely not being distracted from the financial reform legislation making its way through Congress.  That lobby has gained significant loopholes in the House’s passed bill (see my post on the House bill).  Aside from the loopholes (such as derivatives still not subject to regulation!), the apparently “strong” provisions of that bill are vulnerable to being gamed. The Senate, which is unlikely to pass its version of the deal until next year, should explore more direct measures, like banning banks beyond a certain size, measured by their liabilities. If we have learned anything over the last couple of years, it is that banks that are too big to fail pose too much of a risk to the economy. Any serious effort to reform the financial system must ensure that no such banks exist.  But can you imagine our elected officials having the guts to split up Goldman Sachs?  Can you imagine what that bank would do to avoid such a fate?  … and yet such private power is not a threat to a republic?   As voters, we are asleep at the wheel, too easily taken in by the theatrics of impotent politicians.

In general terms, it is ironic that the banks too big to fail may be even more of a risk after the financial crisis.  What profits the banks have been making have come mostly from trading. Many big banks were happy to depend on the lifeline from the Fed and hang onto their toxic assets hoping for a rebound in prices.  Crucially in terms of the systemic risk in “too big to fail,” the whole system has grown more concentrated since the crisis. Bank of America was considered too big to fail before the meltdown. Since then, it has acquired Merrill Lynch. Wells Fargo took over Wachovia. And JPMorgan Chase gobbled up Bear Stearns.  If the goal is to reduce the number of huge banks that taxpayers must rescue at any cost, the US Goverment has been moving in the wrong direction. The growth of the biggest banks ensures that the next bailout will have to be even bigger. These banks will be more likely to take on excessive risk because they have the implicit assurance of rescue.  In short, there is even more systemic risk after the financial crisis of 2008.  Creating a new consumer protection agency is a feckless attempt by the US Government to show some muscle to face entrenched (and even more powerful) financial interests on Wall St.  Even giving the government the power to deal with banks deemed too risky to the financial market itself does not guarantee that the power will be used.  Consider, for example, the lack of enforcement of anti-trust law.  For a comparison, look at the EU—not only in terms of going after big companies like Microsoft, but big banker bonuses.   In the US, we much face the fact that the big banks are on top.  If what is good for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup is not necessarily good for us, the American people, then there is a tremendous systemic risk for us in being appeased by Barak Obama’s public “scolding” of Wall Street and by the Swiss-cheeze financial reform bill making its way through Congress.  Neither branch is taking seriously the question of the existence itself of the banks too big to fail.  Moreover, the question of whether large concentrations of private power have become a threat to our republic—on account not only of the ability of a big bank to shaft its customers, but also of the relative power of the banks and their lobby over our government—has effectively been sidelined.   It as as though popular sovereignty here means charting a ship’s course without looking beyond the bow.   Some of the wealthy passenagers have told us: don’t look out there!  Don’t ask the real questions!  And we, being reduced to unconscious herd animals, happily comply and stiffle our anguish because we feel the big banks have already won.

Eleven Time Zones in Russia: A Problem of Consolidated Empire

As of 2011, Russia had 11 time zones, from the Polish border to near Alaska, a system so vast that a traveller could get a walloping case of jet lag from a domestic flight.  In 2009, Russia was considering shedding some of its time zones.  People running businesses in the far east were complaining because the regulators were typically in Moscow, which could be several hours behind.    The issue blossomed at the end of 2009 into an intense debate across the Russian Federation about how Russians saw themselves, about how the regions should relate to the center, and about how to address the age-old problem of creating a sense of unity in a diverse federation that had been consolidated politically.  In short, the issue concerned the challenges involved in a consolidated empire. 

The sheer amount of territory in an empire that is made up of republics that are on the scale of independent states or countries makes “one size fits all” from the center extremely difficult.  It might have been different when kingdoms and empires were smaller—such as the medieval sort (e.g. the Swiss confederation and the Netherlands—both empires on a medieval scale but states in modern terms).  For China, the US, the EU and Russia, the extent of geography is a limitation on how much centralized authority is possible.  The Chinese government maintains one time zone for China, when there could easily be four or five.  In the case of Russia, such consolidation would mean that people in some places would be getting up and having breakfast in the middle of the night!   Even reducing the number of zones could make it more difficult on some, given the short duration of daylight in the winter.   Consider, for example, the trouble of going to and from daylight savings time in the US and EU.  Eliminating a few time zones in Russia would be to act as though a few hours difference doesn’t matter much.  The far east may already be two hours off of the correct biological time—meaning the most fitting with the human biological clock. 

In the end, the problem is one of consolidating an empire-scale polity.  Given the inherent heterogenuity involved in such an expanse, there are limitations in what can be done centrally.  Moscow can’t simply issue an order and expect that every Russian city will be awake and thus able to reply immediately.  Resentment toward central control in such cases (i.e., empires) is quite natural.  Indeed, proposals to modify the time zones have stirred deep suspicions, especially in the Far East and Siberia, where people have long resented Moscow, much the way people in places like Idaho distrust the goings-on in Washington.  So the issue is not simply one of whether time zones should be adjusted.  The tensions come when an empire seeks an inordinate amount of centralized control—more than that which is consistent with natural differences.  A consolidated empire on the modern scale (i.e., early-modern kingdoms being the scale of the units) is an artificial construction.   The time zones, I submit, should be oriented to biological clocks, while the federal system is given greater weight (i.e., more autonomy for the republics and regions).  “We have to look at this from a biological standpoint, how it is going to affect health,” said Yekaterina Degtyareva, 27, a personnel manager who lives in Novosibirsk, the most populous city in Siberia, and often travels to the Far East and Moscow. “If it is going to be a centralized, so-called totalitarian decision, then nothing good will come of it.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/world/europe/07zones.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=russia%20time&st=cse

The Federal Reserve Expanded Its Turf in Spite of Having Come Up Short

Testifying before the US Senate Finance Committee on his re-appointment, Ben Bernanke volunteered that the Fed had been “slow” in protecting consumers from high-risk mortgages during the housing bubble and that it should have forced banks to hold more capital for all the risks they were taking on.  “In the area where we had responsibility, the bank holding companies, we should have done more.” he told lawmakers.  The hearing provided new evidence of doubt among lawmakers about the Federal Reserve’s  role as the nation’s guardian of the financial system. “In the face of rising home prices and risky mortgage underwriting, the Fed failed to act,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee. “Many of the Fed’s responses, in my view, greatly amplified the problem of moral hazard stemming from ‘too big to fail’ treatment of large financial institutions and activities.”  Accordingly, Senator Dodd proposed that the Fed’s powers as a bank regulator ought to be transferred to a new consolidated agency. Even though Bernanke admitted that the Fed made mistakes as a regulator of the bank holding companies, he and other top Fed officials adamantly opposed Dodd's proposal, arguing that the Fed has unique expertise nonetheless and that the Fed's ability to preserve financial stability depends on having the detailed information that only a regulator has about the inner workings of major institutions.

The Fed has “unique expertise," and yet, “In the area where we had responsibility, the bank holding companies, we should have done more.”   In other words, the Fed’s Chairman admitted that his agency had not done a satisfactory job of regulating banks during the housing bubble and yet his organization should be given even more power as a regulator anyway.  Were we to trust the Fed to regulate systemic risk, given the agency’s squalid record leading up to the financial crisis of 2008? Regardless of what qualms this question may have raised, the Dodd-Frank legislation charged the Fed with guarding the financial stability of the United States. It gave the central bank the power to oversee the largest financial institutions, even if they are not banks. Finally, it gave the Fed a prominent role on the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a body of regulators that will have the power to seize a systemically important company if it threatens the stability of the economy. Testifying before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on September 2, 2010, Bernanke signaled that the central bank was eager to embrace its strengthened role provided for in the Dodd-Frank law. This role ought to give us pause, given his remarks in 2007 in which he thought the subprime problems were “manageable.” To the Commission in 2010, he said, “What I did not recognize was the extent to which the system had flaws and weaknesses in it that were going to amplify the initial shock from subprime and make it into a much bigger crisis.”

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/business/economy/04fed.html?ref=business ; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/business/03commission.html?_r=1&ref=business

On the Police Power of Chinese Banks

In July, 2010, a few days after the Agricultural Bank in China went public in an IPO bringing in $22 billion, dozens of former bank employees stealthily gathered outside the headquarters of the country’s central bank. Like many other state-owned companies, the bank slashed its payroll and restructured in order to raise profitability and make the bank more financially attractive to outside investors. By Western standards, the bank was overstaffed, a legacy of its role as one of the pillars of China’s socialist financial system. The fired bankers had no legal redress. In 2000, the Supreme People’s Court had put an end to any hope that the legal system might adjudicate such disputes, saying that plaintiffs from state companies had no standing in Chinese courts. So the ex-bankers protest—at least they attempt to do so before being picked up by a coordinated police response. This dynamic should come as no surprise to anyone.  What might not be so apparent is the ability of the banks to use the police to go after recalcitrant ex-employees. The banks are so powerful that they can enlist the local police to keep an eye on the most troublesome employees, often following them to Beijing, where their protests and petitioning can prove embarrassing for executives back home. One ex-employee said, “The head of my branch said he would never give me my money and spend any amount to fight me to the end.”  I contend that it is troubling that the director of a bank branch whose mentality it is to spend any amount of money to fight an ex-employee has police-power at his beck and call.  Beyond the lack of an independent judiciary in China, the possibility that a banker in any country could have a police force at his or her ruddy fat hands is something that ought to be investigated.  While it might be tempting to relegate such a scenerio exclusively to China, European and American states are most likely not immune either.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/world/asia/16china.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&dbk

Monday, March 26, 2018

When an Unethical Corporate Culture Becomes Dangerous in a Primitive U.S. State: Uber’s Self-Driving Cars in Arizona

A company with a horrendous reputation for having an unethical, and harsh, company culture is likely to be attracted to places in which lax regulatory oversight exists. A governmental view that regulations should be minimized dovetails with such a company. The two are a match, though not exactly made in heaven. The nexus can be situated closer to the ground, in a desert in North America, in Arizona in particular. In the case of Uber, which was testing its self-driving cars there in 2018, the flashpoint came in March, when such a car hit a pedestrian who was crossing a street without a sustained sidewalk. Suddenly society took another look, a much more hesitant look, at self-driving technology. Missed, however, was the nexus between Uber’s squalid culture/mentality and Arizona—the culpability of both having led to a perfect storm.
“Uber’s robotic vehicle project was not living up to expectations months before” the accident.[1] Specifically, the cars “were having trouble driving through construction zones and next to tall vehicles, like big rigs,” and the company’s “human drivers had to intervene far more frequently than the drivers of competing autonomous car projects. Waymo, formerly the self-driving car project of Google, said that in tests on roads in California [in 2017], its cars went an average of nearly 5,600 miles before the driver had to take control from the computer to steer out of trouble. As of March, [2018] Uber was struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per ‘intervention’ in Arizona.”[2] So Uber’s technology was not as good. The company’s dysfunctional culture can be seen in  the fact that “Uber’s test drivers were being asked to do more—going on solo runs when they had [previously] worked in pairs.”[3]
When two employees had been in a self-driving car, one person sat behind the wheel ready to take over if the autonomous system failed, while the other person kept an eye on what the computers were detecting. “The second person,” in other words, “was responsible for keeping track of system performance as well as labeling data on a laptop computer.”[4] When Uber took out the second person in the self-driving cars, “some employees expressed safety concerns to managers.”[5] Although those concerns centered around whether a person alone could “remain alert during hours of monotonous driving,” the actual problems extended to solo stand-by drivers staying on task. Specifically, drivers would often annotate data onto an app mounted on an iPad in the car’s middle console to alert managers to problems. The drivers were to do so only when the car was at a traffic light or stop, “but many of the drivers did so while the car was moving.”[6] Other problems included drivers falling asleep at the self-driving wheel; one driver was spotted “air-drumming” through an intersection. This reminds me of the local (creeper) bus drivers in Tucson who contort internal mirrors so to be able to stare at riders even while turning the bus through intersections!
When the self-driving Uber car hit the pedestrian in Tempe at full speed, the solo “driver” was reportedly looking down. The extent of the waywardness among the solo “drivers” points to incompetent supervision, but also perhaps a culture in which doing the right thing both ethically and in terms of staying on task is not valued. Furthermore, the managerial decision to go from pairs to solo drivers even though the company had been struggling to meet its target of 13 miles per intervention in Arizona points to managerial incompetence (specifically, to bad judgment). That “there was pressure to live up to a goal to offer driverless car service by the end of the year and to impress top executives” suggests that the company’s dysfunctional culture had a role in the crash.[7] That Uber’s management had been trying to improve the company’s image since Khosrowshahi had replaced Kalanick as CEO could account for the bad substance “on the ground,” as well as a decision not to tackle the unethical climate inside the company, but, rather, to paint a glossy coat on top of it for the public to see.
Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman, stated after the crash, “As we develop self-driving technology, safety is our primary concern every step of the way.”[8] This was obviously a lie, given the switch to solo “drivers” even without any improvement in the intervention rate. Kallman felt the need to add, “We’re heartbroken by what happened.”[9] Another lie! The company’s culture was not known for sentimental feelings; in fact, managers were quite harsh on their subordinates, and thus without even ordinary empathy. Such lies are themselves indicative of a continuing sordid corporate culture, which combined with managerial, supervisory, and solo-driver incompetence (and bad attitude) goes a long way to explaining why the crash occurred. We can’t simply blame the technology, though it was also behind the loop relative to the technology being used by competitors.
That Uber’s management would seize on Arizona, which offered a relative dearth of regulatory oversight, makes perfect sense. States like Arizona that do not tend to view government regulation as instrumental in protecting the public interest even from companies such as Uber are actually like such companies. Uber got away with “testing its self-driving cars in a regulatory vacuum in Arizona,” whose government officials “had taken a hands-off approach to autonomous vehicles and did not require companies to disclose how their cars were performing.”[10] Uber’s solo drivers and Arizona’s legislators and regulators were all hands off. Let the chips fall where they may.
What might be missed is the congruence—the likeness—between the mentality of Uber’s people and Arizona’s political elite and its supporters. The mentality that looks the other way can find a match between an unethical company and a government that views even just regulatory oversight as too imposing, as noxious. In effect, Arizona was, at the time at least, like one of Uber’s self-driving cars, with government officials “air-drumming” through intersections. Such performances were particularly dangerous where municipal bus drivers, whose driving I was pathetic, felt entitled nonetheless to stare at particular riders inside the bus rather than look out ahead, even while driving through intersections.

See Cases of Unethical Business


[1] Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Were Struggling Before Arizona Crash,” The New York Times, March 23, 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Oligarchic Social Media Companies: Willowing the Internet Unethically

Too much power in a few hands is inherently dangerous. That goes for private as well as public, or governmental, power. In the world of social media, the companies that own and control the platforms are essentially governmental in nature in that the executives promulgate rules and, ideally, see that they are enforced. The downsides to too few platforms—each with an extraordinary amount of power—involve a constricting of ideas, or content, on the internet, and potentially unanswered violations of the rights of the social-networks’ respective users. The public policy repercussions, I submit, include applying anti-trust law to social media companies such that none gets to become as massively dominating as Facebook had been allowed to become.
In an open letter in March, 2018, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, proposed a regulatory framework to balance the interests of the social media companies and their users. In the wake of the Facebook scandal then involving the psychological-political manipulation of up to 50 million users by a third party, Cambridge Analytica, the obvious inference was that privacy rights were in dire need of being shored up by regulators as Facebook’s management had failed even to notify the users of the invasive  use of their data. Yet a single-minded focus on that problem risks missing a more subtle one.
Berners-Lee points in his letter to the “concentration of power” in a few social media companies that “creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.”[1] As a result, the “Web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms.”[2] The bloggers who can make good use of Facebook’s algorithm get to see their ideas (and blogs) popularized, whereas bloggers who eschew Facebook stand a greater chance of being relegated to a marginal position on the internet.
I am a case in point. I could have made use of Facebook for years to promote essays I have posted online, but I made a decision on principle not to use Facebook because of how that company had treated my attempts to create and use an account. On my first attempt, Facebook suspended my account because I had sent some text with a link to one of my academic articles to some scholars whom I actually knew. No one at Facebook bothered to ask me if my posts were spam. I was deemed to have sordid motives without much evidence to support the projection of distrust. I deleted the account. A few years later, I tried again. That time, Facebook demanded that I upload a clear facial picture of myself so I could be identified. Facebook had verified my phone number and email address, and thus my name, but strangely those were not enough. I had not yet even used the account and thus could not have violated any of the company’s use-policies, so the projection of distrust onto me was unacceptable to me. So I deleted that account rather than supply a picture of myself to be scanned. I was also concerned how the facial recognition software would be used, especially when combined with other basic information I had included in the profile. It turns out I had reason to be concerned, for even if my personality had not been construed and I had not been subject to political manipulation psychologically, the fact that Facebook failed to prevent the invasive actions by a political firm in 2015 means that other harvesting of data could have been going on without the users being informed. Even before that scandal broke, I did not trust Facebook’s staff.  
I suspect that the fact that I had written a booklet, Taking the Face off Facebook, had something to do with Facebook making it difficult for me to create and use an account. That the platform was at the time so huge means that keeping me off made it much more difficult for me to popularize my essays at The Worden Report. If so, Facebook was exploiting a conflict of interest by keeping off ideas critical of Facebook’s management. Although I made considerable use of LinkedIn and some use of Twitter, I felt as though I was swimming upstream in steering clear of Facebook as a possible means of publicizing my site. Even though business ethics was one of my areas of expertise, and thus of the essays on my site, I felt a strange feeling in actually making a stand ethically against my own use of Facebook even though I really could use the added publicity for my site.
A faculty member at the University of Chicago business school wrote me interestingly just after the Facebook scandal became public that if only I would get on Twitter and Facebook and attack the positions of other people, my essays would be picked up by the major media and I would no longer be making things harder on myself than need be. If only I “attack people.” Really? The University of Chicago must be quite a place! Another ethical line in the sand that I would not cross. Years earlier, I had stopped attending the Academy of Management “academic” conferences because the “scholars” had made a “blood sport” out of tearing apart scholars giving paper-presentations. I found that I could be helpful to the presenters by instead suggesting fruitful directions rather than trashing what had already been written. Any dead wood would eventually fall off from the tree anyway, whereas a useful insight would be sited and thus popularized. I had the same philosophy about my essays, sans any “facilitator” like Facebook. I suspect that Facebook’s culture might have been allowed to become akin to that of the Academy of Management. If so, vindictiveness could be added as a reason why the range of ideas on the internet has been narrowed, and why more attention was not devoted to enforcing policies on the third-party uses of user data. With great power comes great responsibility, so does the power remain when it has become clear that the responsibility has been lacking?
In short, social media companies like Google and Facebook had been allowed by the U.S. Government, and ultimately the American people, to get too big—too much coverage and control of the internet. There should have been another platform similar to Facebook’s that I could have used to reach more readers. Heather West of Mozilla stated at the SXSW conference in 2018 that people were “realizing the power that technology has in our lives and [were] asking technology companies to be more transparent and responsible.”[3] I doubt that, and, besides, I submit that something more than asking was needed. Social media companies like Facebook were clinging at the time to their mantra that they merely provide platforms rather than the content (or even curating it). That is similar to Goldman Sachs insisting in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 that the bank merely puts markets together, rather than acts also as a proprietary player in them. At the SXSW conference, Kara Swisher of Vox Media and Christiane Amanpour of CNN mocked Twitter and Facebook for insisting, “We’re a tech platform that facilitates media.”[4] A conflict of interest is in even just that, for which media is to be facilitated and which relegated as problematic? Clearly, fake political ads are problematic, but are the social critics whose range includes critiquing social media companies also problematic? Perhaps Facebook’s actual role is a blend of public and private—a private sector government, one might say. If so, democratic accountability, and even that by stockholders, is problematic and thus not to be relied on.
The answer is more government regulation of companies like Facebook, essentially meaning that the public governance functions of Facebook should be overseen at the very least by public policy rather than corporate governance and pressure from users. But government regulation has its limits. Regulators cannot be everywhere, and they cannot get at the problem of the willowing of the blogs on the internet due to factors controlled by the social media companies. For there to be a true democracy of ideas on the World Wide Web, alternative platforms of substantial but not dominating scale  must be viable without being snuffed out by a bloated platform like Facebook’s. Breaking up that company could mean that potential upstarts would get a chance to grow without being bought out and shelved by the giant. Oligopoly is not good for competition, and whether or not an industry is permitted to attain an oligarchic structure is a matter for governments to decide, and ultimately electorates.


For more on this topic, 


See also the booklet, Taking the Face off Facebook





[1] Rob Pegoraro, “SXSW Takes a Skeptical Look at Tech,” USA Today, March 13, 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3]Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

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

Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State fired by U.S. President Donald Trump and former CEO of Exxon, an international oil company based in the U.S., did not allow his difference with the president of tariffs on steel and aluminum to be a deal breaker. In this respect, the ex-CEO was not doing his company’s bidding. That is to say, he was not primarily in public service to serve the private interests of a multinational corporation. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of Gary Cohn, the ex-president of Goldman Sachs who quit as Trump’s chief economic advisor just after the tariffs were announced. Tariffs in general and especially to protect goods in another sector are not in the interests of a major American banks with substantial international business. If the former president of Goldman Sachs had taken the post in government to further Goldman’s interests, the question is whether public service is mere window-dressing at the highest levels of government—plutocracy being the real name of the game.
In a statement at the time of his resignation, Cohn wrote, “It has been an honour to serve my country and enact pro-growth economic policies to benefit the American people. In particular the passage of historic tax reform.”[1] That reform lowered the corporate tax rate and thus was a financial benefit to Goldman Sachs. Cohn left this point out and instead cited the benefit to the American people, which might thus have been a mere subterfuge designed to hide the possibility that the ex-president of Goldman Sachs was actually doing his firm’s bidding.
That Cohn was instrumental in getting the corporate tax rate reduced and that he resigned at least in part because President Trump acted aversely to Goldman Sachs’ interests in enacting tariffs—even just as a negotiating tactic in the trade negotiations then going on—suggests that Cohn had taken the governmental post to safeguard and promote the financial interests of Goldman Sachs. Perhaps President Trump had been obliged to fill the position with such a person in exchange for having accepted campaign contributions from the firm or even the financial industry more generally. It would then be no accident that the Secretary of the Treasury was also a Goldman alum.
The larger question regards whether the public interest can be served in a political economy in which large companies have substantial political leverage over aspiring candidates for office via campaign contributions. At the time of Tillerson’s firing, President Trump remarked that he was finally able to have a cabinet of his own—of his choosing. This statement implies that he had been obliged initially to hand over several cabinet positions to people not of his own choosing. Had Exxon purchased the de facto first chance to fill the Secretary of State position, and Goldman Sachs the U.S. Treasury and chief economic advisor positions? With public statements insisting on having served the American people, which would hardly be need to be said were it true, it should come as no surprise that the American people have been kept in the dark concerning the influence of “dark” money on “public” offices at the expense of the public good.

For more on this topic, see Institutional Conflicts of Interest



1. Kate Kelly, Maggie Haberman, and Peter Baker, “Gary Cohn to Resign as Trump’s Top Economic Advisor,” The New York  Times, March 6, 2018.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

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

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

For one, we can look back to Durbin’s comment that the banking lobby owns Congress.   The conflict of interest in the owner of Congress keeping Congress from legislating on the industry is a suffiicent basis for worry; that the lobby presumes itself to be in a position to advise or pressure on banking regulatory reform and that the lobby still has the muscle to see that it is still invited to the table strikes me as emetic.  It shows the arrogance of the corporate world and the corruption of the governing class.   The housing bubble and sub-prime mortgages were in the interest of both, and yet reform strangely is not.   I would add that any voter who goes on, business as usual, in voting for an incombant is contributing to the perpetuation of the  squalid system that we are now enjoying.

Imagine, just for a moment, that a friend or neighbor insults you.  You invite some other friends over to figure out how to deal with that friend or neighbor.  You are shocked when he or she walks in your front doorway (no need to hide) and sits down in your living room with the others.  Not only that, he or she presumes to advise the group, adding pressure or outright threats that the group had better come up with something that is good for him or her. Here’s what I’m getting at: focus for a moment on the attitude of the friend or neighbor.  In our normal interpersonal relations, we would rationally conclude that the person is delusional and excessively self-absorbed.  We tend to let positions or organizations keep us from viewing their people as other (flawed) human beings.   Arrogance built on presumption concerning a matter on which the person has screwed up and others are hurt  is or ought to be a huge red flag for the rest of us (and our representatives!).   I find this attitude to be far more difficult to understand and accept than the fact that industry lobbies have an inordinate amount of power in Washington. 

I find myself thinking about the nature of presumption that can manifest as an illness where it is beyond the pale. That the person involved probably doesn’t even see this suggests to me that a rather dysfunctional lot has congregated in the upper rafters of American banking.   What kind of a person pushes for his or her advantage in the efforts by others to clean up one’s mess?   That they are allowed in the room is alone a sad testament; that our representatives are actually succumbing to them is sordid indeed.   Of course, it is in the interest of big business that the political power be concentrated among the governing class in Washington.   We are mere bystanders as the dance unfolds. 

See related: Essays on the Financial Crisis

Sources:

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0409/21962.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/29/dick-durbin-banks-frankly_n_193010.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/29/dick-durbin-banks-frankly_n_193010.html  (“own the place” quote)
http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10302009/profile.html

Debating Federalism

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

In response, I would argue that the choice of a governance system should only partly be determined by the ease by which particular problems are solved.  In designing the U.S. Government to include a separation of power between the three branches, the delegates in the constitutional convention of 1787 were looking to thwart the solution of problems by the Union’s general government.  In addition to fearing tyranny from a consolidation of power into a few hands, they believed that the functions of that government should be limited because the state legislators are closer to the people, and thus better as republics.  Rather than being problematic,  differences between the States (generically), or republics (more specifically), are natural.  Given the scale involved in many of the States alone, how could a Union of many such republics be anything but inherently diverse?  To ignore the differences and impose one solution on all is artificial and likely to build up pressure for eventual dissolution.  Such pressure can unwittedly be built out of ignorance.   So “ease in solving problems” may actually be antithetical to the criteria we want for designing our system of governance spanning a continent. I would argue, moreover, that it is short-sighted to re-orient a system of governnance to the whims of what is best for handling particular problems of the day.  To subject long-term viability to the vissitudes of the day is to subject one’s posterity to ruin.

One could also point out that federalism is a historical means to forming the Union and is therefore antiquated (as the Union is now formed).  Some of the delegates to the constitutional convention would argue that they had to put up with the continued existence of the States simply due to the politics (i.e., the intractability of the delegates defending their respective States).   Certainly Hamilton would have preferred to do away with the States—replacing them with administrative districts of the federal government.  I believe that a significant number of Americans today share Hamilton’s view.  If this sentiment is dominant among the citizens, we should give serious thought to a constitutional convention for the purpose of replacing federalism with consolidation, officially through an amendment.  Even though I believe that this option is not compatible with having a republic at the Union level, if a super-majority wants to change our system of governance, it should be changed (assuming a “constitutional moment” of reflection and debate on the proposal).

I do not believe that federalism was merely used as a political means of achieving agreement on the creation of a general government.  As I have written in another post, the diversity spanning an empire-scale polity can be accommodated by federalism.  Some large States are sufficiently large in themselves that they have diversity that could justify a federal system.  Consider, for example, California and Illinois.  Each of these republics is sufficiently diverse in its provinces that federalism could accommodate the different cultures and bring legislation that is more fitting and less compromised for all concerned.   That new States have been added to the Union since its founding—some of the last of which being quite different culturally from the others (e.g., HI and AK)—means that there could be even more diversity within the Union today than when it was founded (assuming that transportation and communications technology has not totally overridden the diversity inherent in the territorial scale of empire).  Paradoxically, the need for federalism could be more pressing today.  I have already argued that republic principles may be stretched too thin at the empire scale.  This, plus the matter of accommodating diversity within the empire, strongly points to the utility of restoring federalism. 

Finally, someone could say something like,  ”I believe in the power of each State, but I have NO confidence in the people” running the State governments.”  This point may resonate with the extant condition of state government today in the United States. That is, the eclipse of the State governments has almost certainly had an impact on the quality of the representatives the State level.  Do the best and brightest really want to work in a legislature that has been reduced to considering by and large local government issues?  What sort of person would agree to campaign for a rather impotent position?   The situation now is markedly different than in the revolutionary period, when the preference of the best and brightest of the politicians was to serve their respective countries.   Even as late as 1860, General Lee felt obliged to fight for his native Virginia—turning down Lincoln’s request that he fight for the U.S. Government.   So presumably were a balance of power restored such that State governments would have real power over the issues that really concern us, we might find the quality of our State reps improve.  We might have better candidates to choose from, and we might take more interest in their campaigns.  So I would argue that the enervated conditon of State government today should not be taken as indicative of how such government would look were it restored to a balance of power with the U.S. Government. For example, were the National Governor's Association given a formal role in determining American foreign policy, we might see better candidates running for governor.

In closing, I want to note that being in a large Union that is inherently diverse does require a certain amount of tolerance for regional differences.  “Not trusting” a State’s people who have a different understanding of government or who feel a different way on a problem is not consistent with having a Union.  That is to say, we won’t last as a Union if a dominant faction in one region imposes its ideology on States in other regions spanning the continent.  A certain humility is necessary.  Of course,  a Union has certain bed-rock common principles (in our case, representative democracy, for example) that delimit certain behavior and laws (e.g., holding other races in slavery).   The problem is the slippery slope wherein one uses “common principles” to impose one’s own ideology and the natural diversity spanning a continental Union is not accommodated.   The people of a republic will naturally want out if their way of life is imposed upon without justification.   In short, being in a Union requires having a sufficient tolerance that can admit that not every State is going to solve your important problems in the way you want.   I suspect that this Union has lost too much of this tolerance (contributing to divisive partisanship at the federal level).   One size fits all over a polity spanning across a continent (and beyond!) is likely to involve bitter partisanship because people view the approach as all or none.   To be sure, there may not be sufficient tolerance anymore among Americans to allow for a viable system of federalism.  Moreover, federalism itself is not perfect, so debate on it could lead to a decision by the popular sovereign to make the United States officially consolidated.  In my view, however, such a debate is urgently needed, for otherwise the American people will continue to live a consolidated lie under the rubric of federalism on parchment.

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