Category: economy

How Did We Come To Consider Corporations to Be Natural Persons? – What To Do Next?

This week’s decision by the US Supreme Court to allow corporations, including unions, to hold full rights to free speech and political action under the First Amendment to the Constitution once again reminds me of the strange practical and ethical relationship we have with corporations. In the 1886 ruling, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company1, the court reporter wrote in a summary: “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”  I have not read very much at all about the history of how corporations came to be persons and I will not enter into the disputes about how this came to be. It is clearly a well established fact in our laws that corporations are people.

With this new policy handed down by the Supreme Court,  corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money carrying out political activities. The are many troubling aspects of this situation.  Besides the obvious fact that an artificial socio-economic artifact like a corporation can not possibly be a natural person, there are numerous features of corporations that make them particularly dangerous to us human beings. Corporations never die, excepting the rare death by dissolution. Corporations act globally with many agents in place to carry out policies that favor the corporation wherever and whenever required. Through the wonders of contracts and financialization of assets corporations can appear and disappear from any locality at will. One can observe an example of this phenomenon several years ago when corporations like Tyco International moved its headquarters to an off-shore island to avoid US corporate taxes. This, despite the fact that Tyco had dozens of manufacturing facilities and other operations employing thousands here in the US.

Controlling Gambling by Wall St. and the Big Banks – Bad for Business?

Anti-Wall St Does Not Mean Anti-Business

President Obama’s proposals to break up the “too large to fail” mega banks and otherwise reapply the Glass Steagall Act to the financial sector has predictably brought loud complaints that this is populist and anti-business. Even the rhetoric of the reporters and expert talking heads reflects a general bias that anything that we might do to prevent a re-occurrence of last year’s global financial meltdown is anti-business.

How Is It Anti-Business To…. or

Is the New Rule of Banking, “Privatize profits, but socialize losses (risk)”?

As a business person and a citizen I have to point out that having a sector of our economy that caused so much damage to the rest of the economy and citizens continue to conduct themselves in a fashion that is likely to cause a repeat breakdown is not a good state of affairs. How is it anti-business to want to control the gambling addictions of the financial services sector? How is it anti-business to prevent banks and other financial firms to become so large that they can place another call on the the nation’s treasury to bail them out because they indulge another round of gambling with other people’s money through dangerous leveraging? How is it anti-business to want the banking system to perform their primary function that is necessary to make the economy run, that is to take in deposits and make loans? Or, to capture this in a current diddy, we have an economy where for the financial services sector they follow this unique rule of crony capitalism, “Privatize profits, but socialize losses (risk)”.

How Is Gambling With Other People’s Money Good For Us?

Book Review: Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises by Kindleberger

Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises, fourth edition by Charles P. Kindleberger (New York: Wiley 2000)

Manias,Panics,and Crashes by KindlebergerA recent Wall St Journal article described this book as a “must read” classic for anyone involved in financial markets. I have been involved directly in financial markets in two ways recently. First, I spent a year chasing around chasing angel investors and venture capitalists during the DotCom boom to fund Valuedge (the software company I co-founded in 1999 and left in 2004, though I still hold a large ownership interest).  Second, I receive quarterly statements for my 401K retirement investments. Primarily driven by my experiences with Valuedge and the phenomenal boom time of the DotCom era, I read through Kindleberger’s durable book (originally published in 1978 and never out of print since).

Although I have come to refer to the year 2000 as the Tulip Phase of Valuedge after the well-known Dutch tulipmania in the 1630s. Little did I know that financial bubbles, booms, and the inevitable crashes and depressions are a very common feature of capitalism. The first couple of chapters describe or mention dozens of bubbles and booms located around an amazing array of geopolitical centers. These have been focused on anything and everything: the well-known tulips in the 1630s; railroads; copper; English country houses; agricultural land; private companies going public (Britain 1888, US 1928 and IPOs 1998-2000); and many others.

The first lesson, then, is that booms and speculative bubbles are a commonplace feature of the capitalist world.

So, why do these bubbles and speculative manias occur? The answers are complex, involving human psychology, malfeasance, regulation (or lack), banks, and government. Read Kindleberger .

An important explicit message from Kindleberger is that economists’ models of “homo economicus” and “the market” are far from a useful mirror of what actually goes on. People are not even vaguely rational in their economic behavior and markets never constructively approach the model of a market found in Econ 101 or for that matter anywhere else that I have ever heard of.

This is not just an academic concern. In recent years our politics has displayed a dominant rhetoric that calls for the application of “market solutions” to almost every area of our lives, particularly those where traditionally we expect government to provide services, regulations, etc. Instead, we now reflexively think that “market solutions” are inherently more efficient and effective than government services. Liberals, trapped in their abandonment of even the moderate criticism of capitalism that the Catholic Church, for instance, engages, have provided no useful critique of “market solutions” as a universal policy approach.

At a practical level, this public policy fixation on “market solutions” combined with a generalized attack on all government spending, is driving a generalized impoverishment of the public infrastructure of our civil society and not coincidentally an enrichment of the wealthy and particularly the super-rich.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the day-to-day political and economic life of the world.

Enron, Trust and Malfeasance

January 23, 2002 (revised 1/29/02)

The collapse of energy giant Enron over the last six months has produced a surprising level of outrage especially for a cynic like me.

As this drama continues to unfold, I have been trying to understand how Enron structured their business and made money. Until just last night I was operating on the belief that the cleverness and sophistication of Enron’s managers simply outstripped my analytical skills. But, as I have been following the writing in the NY Times and Wall St. Journal, slowly it has come to me that they don’t understand the maze of structures and deals employed by Enron for years either.

Then, last night, on the Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS, Paul Solman, one of the regular financial reporters, gave his analysis of what has been going on. After listening to Solman’s report, it is clear that Enron has been engaging in massive deceit, deception, and downright criminal activity for years.

Now, I must admit to some familiarity with the habits and attitudes of managers. I am used to the aggressive behavior of managers trying to stretch the accounting systems to make the most recent quarter look good. In fact, I have participated in such activities. But, Enron has engaged in a long-term shell game aided and abetted by its accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, LLC. The failure of the government (the SEC) and more importantly, the audit companies, to provide oversight, transparency, basic facts, and above all the application simple commonsense ethics to a huge company’s activities is outrageous. It undermines the credibility of the economy. If Arthur Andersen, one of the oldest and most prestigious audit firms can be so blind over so many years, what are we to make of their, and other audit firms’ reliability for oversight of all the other firms so many of us hold in our 401K funds?

It will be interesting to see how the government and the financial institutions of capitalism react to this. It is a basic tenant of the capital and equity markets that timely, transparent information is essential not only to the best and highest use of our capital resources, but also to the maintenance of trust in a reasonably fair play space.

You can see the Solman report on the PBS web site (opens in a separate window)

And, from Friday January 25, 2002, here is more Solman on Enron (opens in a separate window)