Monday, November 30, 2009


Wall Street Journal:

As traders and investment bankers near the finish line of what looks like a boom year for pay, some are spending money like the financial crisis never happened. From $15,000-a-week Caribbean getaways to art auctions to $200,000 platinum wristwatches that automatically adjust for leap years, signs of the good life are returning.

In fairness to traders and investment bankers: What other industry had the ambition to run the economy into the ground, or the wherewithal to make of it an opportunity?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Economists think long-term

Al Gore, David Blood; Financial Times:

Why do investors and business leaders continue to focus on the short-term and ignore the fact that businesses that think long-term end up more competitive and profitable? Behavioural economists believe they have the answer: our brains are hard-wired to think short-term because evolution has rewarded serial short-term successes such as avoiding predators and other dangers that faced our ancestors. Their survival ensured our existence – but predisposed us to the same kind of short-term thinking. As a result, even though our world is very different from theirs, long-term decision-making remains the exception, not the rule.

Anyone who is interested in discovering why "investors and business leaders" behave a certain way would probably do well to begin their inquiry with a close examination of "investors and business leaders," not  humankind as a whole.  After all, investors and business leaders are distinguishable from other social groups, and can be compared in relation to them.  The fact that liberal economics -- "behavioral" or otherwise -- routinely ignores these distinctions in favor of categorical assumptions about "human nature," suggests an unwillingness to scrutinize particular groups in a socially meaningful way. 

Why are economists inclined to shift the focus from groups they are presumably tasked to understand to open-ended speculation about human evolution?  One might say it is in their "long-term interest" to do so!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A freedom to end all freedoms

Maurice Saatchi, Financial Times:

After 100 years of competition, the record seems to show that Marx was right – the end result of competition is the end of competition. Marx foresaw constant internecine warfare among capitalists, resulting in fewer and fewer controlling vaster and vaster empires. Any current description of the financial services sector can validate that.

If sporting events were structured in a way that allowed winning teams to claim the resources and personnel of the losers, and this process was carried on in perpetuity, fans would likely regard the outcome as unacceptable.

Of course, in matters that relate to our daily lives, this happens all the time -- and it goes by the name of "freedom!"

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Concerning those who don't give a damn about their bad reputation

New York Times:

Franz Paasche, a reputations specialist at Communications Consulting Worldwide in New York, argues that a bad reputation can also harm a company’s ability to fight for what it wants in Washington.
“Reputation has value and strong reputations create permissions to grow and prosper,” he said. As Wall Street banks’ reputations sink, “they are losing the more active seat at the table in discussions about policy.”

Spoken like a man who makes his living as a reputations specialist at Communications Consulting Worldwide in New York!

"Reputation has value."  Yes: especially when you are "reputed" to hold a proprietary claim on the financial life of the nation!  Imagine what would happen if Americans got a bad feeling about the banks who turned their money into a record year.  Why, they could stick it to Wall Street by never making a large purchase, saving for retirement, or requiring employment ever again!

On the other hand

Financial Times:

Although many governments and activist groups say landmines should be scrapped, to avoid endangering innocent people and children, the Pentagon has long argued that such a policy would tie US hands.

Yeah! How many landmine victims can relate to that?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Smells like syndicalist spirit

David Graeber, Direct Action:

[C]ertain strikes are better examples of direct action than others. [A] favorite example is a strike by transit workers in Melbourne in the 1980s in which, rather than walking off their jobs, bus drivers and train conductors stayed on, but stopped collecting fares -- effectively making mass transportation free until the action was over. Imagine...what would happen if, for just one day, workers in every branch of industry and service trade did the same. This alone could be a major step in showing how a capitalist economy could be transformed into an economy of freedom.

Isn't making life easier for everyone a small price to pay in the fight to make life easier for everyone?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Curious judgment

Michael Fullilove, Financial Times:

Both women have demonstrated curious judgment in the way they conduct themselves in public. If you were Ms Prejean, and knew an ex-boyfriend was lurking somewhere with a tape, would you publish a book advocating traditional values? If you were Ms Palin, nurturing presidential ambitions, would you give up your gubernatorial office and its political advantages before completing a single term?

Yes: and if I knew an ex-girlfriend was lurking somewhere with "a tape," would I publish a book advocating my values? What man wouldn't agonize over social repercussions of that?

The Feminine Mistake


Politics isn’t only that which has no immediate application to reality.  “Immediate concerns” like being able to feed your family are political.  It isn’t that women aren’t interested in politics.  It is that some people define politics so narrowly that it only applies to pseudo philosophers.

Sadly, it's always the men with the most fascinating penises who never understand why women don't share their interests.

Undo it yourself

Wall Street Journal:

Some lawmakers briefed Tuesday on the Fort Hood shooting said the suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was most likely a self-radicalized extremist.

Have you seen tuition rates for extremist school lately?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Big government thinks small

New York Times:

But the [Government Accountability Office] report cited several academic studies that found that [the Occupational Health and Safety Administration] data failed to include up to two-thirds of all workplace injuries and illnesses.

The report noted that because of OSHA's “sole reliance on employer-reported injury and illness data” in one of its major surveys, “some academic studies have reported that the survey may undercount the total number of workplace injuries and illnesses.”

Yeah, it pretty much never pays to take somebody's word for something they have a financial incentive to conceal -- unless, of course, it pays.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Toward a fairer distribution of the crumbs

Clive Crook, Financial Times:

The US social contract needs to be revised, so that the elderly, many of whom are comparatively well off, receive less so that the poor can get more.

Now here is a fine example of why we we need an economic civil rights movement, as well as the class consciousness which informs it: because diverting resources from people on fixed incomes, "so that the poor can get more," only makes sense if you want to preserve outlays for everything else.

Notably, this includes paying the Taliban to protect the US supply routes used for fighting the Taliban.  One could argue this is a poor use of taxpayer money -- to say nothing of meddling in the Middle East immediately after being attacked for meddling in the Middle East!

But insofar as defense expenditures have proven the most patriotic means of separating Americans from their tax money in the least transparent of ways, our desire for "national security" has grown accordingly -- and in tandem with our deficits!  No amount of debt is too great for securing "the homeland," but see if you can convince anyone at the Washington Post that the "homies" who live there deserve security in their daily lives -- or that this actually makes good economic sense.

Times have changed, and we're living in a completely different, post-feminist world.

The Existence Machine:

If the preponderance of women report that things are a certain way, then it would behoove men to fucking listen.

Or stop fucking, and listen, depending on the "conversation!"

This reminds me of talks I've had with people about reparations for slavery. Generally speaking, African-Americans are receptive to the idea, while others tend to be comically uninformed yet outspokenly opposed!

Richard at TEM does a nice job getting at the analogous tendency between men and women, even excavating the priceless "anti-male feminism" from an educated audience in the process.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pop culture

Jessica Valenti, New York Times:

The rape jokes on ‘‘Family Guy’’ make me nauseous. About three years ago, Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote this great piece called ‘‘Men Growing Up to Be Boys.’’ It’s about how the new model of masculinity is perpetual adolescence.

Every Family Guy episode I've seen featured male characters punching female characters. I understand it's a popular show!

A pro-retirement guide to retirement

Wall Street Journal:

Amid the tumult of the past year, financial advisers are telling us that the Great Recession has produced one invaluable benefit: an education.

We now know, for instance, that our nest eggs can lose almost half their value in a matter of months; that "diversifying" our holdings doesn't necessarily safeguard those holdings; and that our homes -- our one investment for later life that was supposed to be foolproof -- can make us look like, well, fools.

Here's something to keep in mind when it comes to retirement: unless you have a guarantee, you don't have a guarantee.

A guarantee might look like Social Security and Medicare, only better funded to ensure genuine "security" in old age.  If you spend your life working productively, then you should be able to retire without worrying about medical and other basic living expenses.

No one will contest the fairness of this -- but they sure will argue at length about how money managers are best suited to deliver it!  Unfortunately, I have eyes in my head, and what I see does not inspire confidence in any other option than a government-backed pension.  But that's only because I actually want to retire, so perhaps I am biased.

Of course, getting there will likely require another civil rights movement; but besides bad TV and junk purchases, what else do we have planned for the next 30-40 years?  It would be a cool gift for our kids and grandkids, too.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What you can do

People sometimes ask, "What can I do?" in response to weighty social problems. But I think the first questions should be: What are you already doing? What do you enjoy? What are you good at? Once we identify our interests and capabilities, orienting them toward a social purpose needn't require any great leaps. It can be as gradual as one likes, with confidence gained from even the smallest successes, often building toward bigger things.

Jumping headfirst into some stereotype of social activity -- whether it is soup kitchens or civil disobedience -- is rarely a prescription for long-term engagement. Often this ignores possibilities already present in our lives, and attempts to supplement what we are already doing with "something meaningful." But adding another all-consuming activity to the menagerie of obligations attending work and home life is unlikely to be sustained in the longer term -- with that which earns one's livelihood prevailing in the end.

Identifying the opportunities for social advocacy within "the matrix of the mundane," as I like to call it, has been in my experience the most fruitful. This means examining one's life and identifying those elements which conform to one's values, while segregating those that do not. And with this understanding, taking whatever steps needed to aid the former while undermining the latter. In the context of the workplace, for example, this might entail the conscious pursuit of that which is just in contrast to the prescribed pursuit of that which will earn one a promotion. Obviously, this implies a cost; and part of the benefit of doing things gradually is to prepare oneself to take risks in ways that can be sustained.

These are opportunities that daily go unanswered, but require little more than an understanding of one's skills and an eye for the vulnerabilities inherent in every unjust system.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Understanding poverty

"We, in civilized societies, are rich.  Why then are the many poor?  Why this painful drudgery for the masses?  Why, even to the best paid workman, this uncertainty for the morrow, in the midst of all the wealth inherited from the past, and in spite of the powerful means of production, which could ensure comfort to all in return for a few hours of daily toil?

The Socialists have said it and repeated it unwearyingly.   Daily they reiterate it, demonstrating it by arguments taken from all the sciences.  It is because all that is necessary for production -- the land, the mines, the highways, machinery, food, shelter, education, knowledge -- all have been seized by the few in the course of that long story of robbery, enforced migration or wars, of ignorance and oppression, which has been the life of the human race before it had learned to subdue the forces of Nature.  It is because, taking advantage of alleged rights acquired in the past, these few appropriate today two-thirds of the products of human labor, and then squander them in the most stupid and shameful way.  It is because, having reduced the masses to a point at which they have not the means of subsistence for a month, or even for a week in advance, the few only allow the many to work on condition of themselves receiving the lion's share.  It is because these few prevent the remainder of men from producing the things they need, and force them to produce, not the necessaries of life for all, but whatever offers the greatest profits to the monopolists.  In this is the substance of all Socialism." -- Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread; 1892

Class war in Honduras


Although Mr Micheletti is hardly an Augusto Pinochet or a Fidel Castro, his government has occasionally been heavy-handed. At least three people have been killed by the security forces.

Honduras recently had its elected administration overthrown by the military in collusion with the country's propertied interests, who objected to an increase in the minimum wage, among other popular initiatives.

An raise in the minimum wage would have encroached on the profit margins of Honduran exporters, or possibly increased the cost of Honduran products in US markets -- where Americans always have the option to buy cheaper undies from a more repressive regime -- thus undermining the "health" of the Honduran economy.

But besides this, the new government has only "occasionally been heavy-handed," and is therefore backed by the US in a power-sharing proposal with the deposed leadership.  After all, it is only fair that in the conflict between democratic and corporate preferences, diplomacy should prevail!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

No war but the class war

Dirk Bezemer, Financial Times:

In the 1980-2007 era of cheap credit and deregulation, banks had every incentive to move from real-economy projects, yielding a profit, towards lending against rising asset prices, yielding a capital gain. In the 1990s and 2000s, loan volumes rose to unprecedented levels, supporting global assets booms in property, derivatives and the carry trade. The share of lending by US banks to the US financial sector – instead of to the real economy – went from 60 per cent of the outstanding loan stock in 1980 (up from 50 per cent in the 1950s) to more than 80 per cent in 2007.

This underscores the idea that if we want banks to make loans for productive, rather than destructive purposes, the public will have to assert greater authority over the industry; and, in doing so, compel them to serve social needs.

A democratic scenario would likely see significant lending to community enterprise, "green" infrastructure development,  home mortgage refinancing -- all of which enjoy popular support in a way that our Rube Goldberg system of public debt-for-executive bonuses does not.

But insofar as these initiatives are merely "supported" while those of industry are imposed, we are in no more of a position to trace the outlines of New Deal regulation than we are to devise our own.  The public must be organized to understand its interests, and to defend them in a manner at least becoming of citizens, if not free individuals altogether.  

This presupposes a course of education that can only come from the now discredited practice of acting for oneself for the purpose of addressing shared concerns.  Whatever is discredited exacts a cost -- and to this must be added the price of daily living.  More than anything else, this is the disincentive which keeps enough of us from ever testing the limits of power, and puts off the project of confronting shared problems for which there are no commercial solutions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Top of the pops

Wall Street Journal:

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba's most prominent dissident blogger, was walking along a Havana street last Friday along with two other bloggers and a friend when two men she says were Cuban agents in civilian clothes forced her inside an unmarked black car and beat her, telling her to stop criticizing the government.

Yoani recently had a write up in The New York Times. Apparently, this is her police state's best attempt to keep her in the headlines! Let's grant their wish, and start paying a lot more attention to Yoani.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's the frequency, Kravchenko?

Slavoj Zizek, New York Times:

This brings to mind the life and death of Victor Kravchenko, the Soviet engineer who, in 1944, defected during a trade mission to Washington and then wrote a best-selling memoir, "I Chose Freedom." His first-person report on the horrors of Stalinism included a detailed account of the mass hunger in early-1930s Ukraine, where Kravchenko -- then still a true believer in the system -- helped enforce collectivization.
Kravchenko also became more and more obsessed with the inequalities of the Western world, and wrote a sequel to "I Chose Freedom" that was titled, significantly, "I Chose Justice." He devoted himself to finding less exploitative forms of collectivization and wound up in Bolivia, where he squandered all his money trying to organize poor farmers. Crushed by this failure, he withdrew into private life and shot himself in 1966 at his home in New York.

"I Chose Freedom" is one of my favorite memoirs.   It's the story of a Soviet industrial manager during Stalinism.  It reads like an insider's guide to corporate America -- except with gulags.  Which is basically the Russian equivalent of a business meeting, only more meaningful and for shorter durations.

My edition was published by a right-wing outfit called The Library of Conservative of Thought.  By their account, "There exists no conservative counterpart of Das Kapital, because conservatism is not a bundle of theories and exhortations got up by a closet philosopher."  That's right: conservatives get paid, and rarely is it for anything approaching "philosophy."  They don't bundle theories, they bundle debt -- the theory is that liberty is served just so long as their arrest warrants are not.  So it's a lot like Communism, except it collapses more frequently.

I never read Kravchenko's "I Chose Justice."  I'm sorry to hear it didn't work out for him.  He was a bright guy and an effective writer, even in translation; but suffice it to say, justice is hard to come by.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Choose your own adventure

Wall Street Journal:

First the bad news: The economy is weak. And now the good news: The economy is weak.

...[A]n ailing economy requires the Federal Reserve to keep its short-term interest-rate targets near zero and continue pumping billions of dollars into the financial system.

That is great for stocks because much of that money eventually finds its way into financial markets, and because cheap money keeps financing costs low and pushes corporate profits higher.

Which do you prefer?

[1] Your money>government>public services

[2] Your money>government>Wall St.>speculation>bonuses>asset bubbles>collapse>the bill>repeat

Lazy fare

Financial Times:

Unemployment in management and professional occupations is less than 5 per cent, about a third of the level in production jobs and a quarter of that in the construction sector. Those disparities, as well as record levels of long-term unemployment, leave scope for structural hangovers in the labour market even as a cyclical rebound takes hold. After all, the new world is familiar to some. The broadest measure of US unemployment, including those wanting work but not searching recently and those forced to work part-time, passed the 10 per cent mark 16 months ago.

The "broadest measure" of US unemployment is flawed, however, insofar as it accounts for popular, not political, preferences. For this reason, economists reject it in favor of a purely scientific approach.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Name that tune

Personal responsibility.

Tear down this Wall St.

"When brave citizens peacefully appeal for their rights, we must encourage them to endure. When they are seized and thrown in prison, we must call and work for their release. And when they face violence and intimidation, we must condemn it and remind the perpetrators that their crimes will not be forgotten."  -- John McCain, Financial Times

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Vexation without representation

Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times:

Democratic strategists say the president needs to be more energetic in pursuing his agenda – particularly his healthcare plan. But “special interests” are no longer the big obstacle here, if ever they were. The obstacle is that the public now disapproves of it. Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist, wrote in defence of the president: “What many progressives (including me) sometimes see as Obama’s temporising on issues ... might be sensible politics.” Mr Robinson mentioned public health funding and gays in the military. It is a wise insight. But it differs little from what Mr Obama’s harshest detractors say: that the president’s real political programme is something he dare not avow in public. If that is right, we can expect his support to erode further.

It seems to me Obama was elected so that he might "pursue his agenda," and his popularity has fallen to the degree that he hasn't.  If the public doesn't like his health care plan, that is probably because they didn't expect the health insurance industry to write it.   In many other ways, the CEO conception of executive power -- that the right person gets the job done -- has been scuttled on the proprietary shoals that lie always beneath its surface.  But because commercial claims to the White House "are no longer the big obstacle here, if ever they were," the question rests squarely on Obama's shoulders as to what kind of CEO he will become.

Much breath is wasted in these debates, so popular amongst enthusiasts of the state.  In fact, the only thing Mr. Obama needs to do is figure out how to exercise power on behalf of his constituency without too much revealing to his supporters that they are not it.  Politics is the art of remaining popular when you have no business being so.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Team member happiness


Employers may not fully grasp what it takes to retain good people. In its latest biannual survey, released in October, temp firm Spherion Staffing Solutions asked about 300 employers and about 2,500 workers to name the top "drivers of retention." As they did in 2007 and 2005, the bosses listed soft stuff: "management climate" and "supervisor relationship," for instance. Employees' top two in all three surveys? Benefits and compensation.

In my career, the sentiment was most poetically rendered above the urinal in the verse "Fuck you, pay me."

A brief guide to persuasion in the workplace

Michael Barone, Wall Street Journal:

[T]he union leaders have been frustrated on their No. 1 goal, the card check bill that would effectively abolish the secret ballot in unionization elections. A couple of bulky guys in varsity jackets visit your home and, um, persuade you to sign a card, and later the union -- with the help of a mandatory arbitration clause -- impose contracts on employees and rake in the dues money.

You see, the best way for any organization to thrive that is dependent on you for its existence is to bully and intimidate its way to your consent.  As Jehovah's Witnesses and college environmental campaigners have repeatedly shown, this approach always works.

On the other hand, any organization which knows you are dependent on it for your livelihood will work tirelessly to earn your approval, often through reasoning and persuasive argumentation, and only after a thorough fielding of one's concerns.  This is why "bosses" are universally admired.

This summarizes the important differences between unions and employers when it comes to soliciting support from members and employees.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Notes on the Philly transit strike

Willie Brown, President, Transport Workers Union Local 234 via Reuters:

SEPTA's board is demanding that TWU members pay for a greater share of their pension to make up for their mismanagement of the plan. Meanwhile SEPTA is increasing pension benefits for managers who make lower contributions -- which we find completely unfair.

Something I like to do when any workforce decides to strike is to familiarize myself with their concerns.  Because so many people in this category are already living paycheck to paycheck, it's usually safe to assume that whatever the sticking points of the negotiations, they are serious enough that those of limited means would forfeit income and stability in the hopes of arriving at an optimal resolution.

I seek out the perspectives of working people because, by and large, they do not have public relations departments; nor are their organizations integrated commercially with the regional media outlets that make such routine use of them.  Groups that have these things, or that otherwise enjoy vast resource advantages, generally get their point across.  Those that don't get slandered -- as weaker parties are always wont do.

What I often find in the case of local labor negotiations is a total lack of awareness of the union's position, out of which every variety of prejudicial nonsense subsequently takes flight.  Today I heard from a person who would do very well to have a city job that "Anybody who earns 50k a year just to drive a bus doesn't have a right to complain in today's economy."™  This is a perennial crowd pleaser, bemoaning as it does that the sort of soul to be found driving buses would ever presume to defend a job which, by some undisclosed formula of compensation, affords the means to a near-middle class existence for one's family!

Of course, in circumstances as pitiful as these, even claims made from the union side -- see above -- will present themselves to the average observer as something akin to a revelation, inasmuch as they are comprehended at all.  A simple trip to the local union's homepage will unearth concepts heretofore unimagined in the public arena, and transcend all investigative reporting on Channels 2-13.  Invariably, this elicits the response: "I hadn't heard that."  Of course, you didn't; as that is the entire point.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Top talent

Wall Street Journal:

Reaching a milestone birthday also can enhance an executive's pension. Altria Group Inc. CEO Michael E. Szymanczyk's pension rose when he turned 60 last year, triggering a subsidy built into the pension formula, boosting its total value to $23.5 million.

In all fairness to Altria Group Inc., if companies didn't implement policies like these, it would be very hard to attract other top performers who observe birthday anniversaries.


Andrew Hill, Financial Times:

Critics will say that businesses’ focus on ethical values is self-serving, superficial and likely to be shortlived. But self-interest can be a powerful agent of change, too. As the [Confederation of British Industry's] Richard Lambert pointed out last month: “If business is regarded as a pariah by the public and the politicians . . . there will be a price to be paid – probably in the form of regulation, higher taxes, or a combination of the two.” Morality: welcome back.

I'm fond of noting how businesses’ focus on ethical values is self-serving, superficial and likely to be shortlived.  But self-interest can be a powerful agent of change, too!  If business is regarded as a pariah by the public and the politicians there will be a price to be paid -- probably in the form of increased campaign and public relations spending!  Who does it best, if not the class with the cash?  Morality: get thee behind me!

Monday, November 02, 2009


Ken Costa, Financial Times:

That moral spirit is distilled in the simple principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The wording is biblical but the precept is echoed across religions, cultures and time. Its practical power is evident: if the purveyors of sometimes dishonest sub-prime mortgages had followed this golden rule a lot of misery would have been avoided.

Unfortunately they did not follow the golden rule. We are suffering the consequences, even though everyone in financial markets knew the rule and few would dispute it. The failure to act on a universally-recognised principle is not just down to the strong attraction of short-term gains, seductive as they are. A more profound reason is that we lack a way of embedding the rule in everyday actions.

Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen: Without morality, short-term gains are an empty achievement.  But as empty achievements go, they are among the best!

What feels good

Wall Street Journal:

... Mr. Eisenberg does eventually stumble onto the overarching argument inherent in his title: Shopping, in modern America, is fundamentally an optimistic activity. While our shopping habits are easily manipulated, they are not quite as irrational as critics like to believe. For most of us shopping, when done right, really does make us feel better. We buy because it "confers instant membership in a community."

"This worker, suddenly redeemed from the total contempt which is clearly shown him by all the varieties of organization and supervision of production, finds himself every day, outside of production and in the guise of a consumer, seemingly treated as an adult, with zealous politeness."

-- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle; "43"

Special thanks to Montag, who introduced me to this text.

On a personal note, a younger colleague once confessed that he didn't like having time off from work because it made him "want to spend money."  While he resented many aspects of "work," he was more distressed by the prospect of having nothing to do in the event he did not separate himself from his money in the course of his "free" time.