"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Monday, February 19, 2018

How Much Economic Distance Is Justified?


The median household income in the U.S. in 2016 was about $60,000. The following year, Citibank’s CEO, Mike Corbat, received a 48% increase in compensation--$23 million. Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein enjoyed a 9% rise, to $24 million. JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon received $29.5 million.[1] The sheer distance between the median and bank CEOs’ incomes not only begs the question—were the executive compensations justified?—but also raises the question—is such distance itself justified?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

God's Gold on Wall St.: A Vaunted Self-Assessment of God's Work

A year after the financial crisis of 2008, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs,  found himself vilified for his firm’s quick return to risky trading in spite of its new bank holding company status. Populist resentment at the time was especially pitted against the hefty bonuses from the trades. Also, people were upset about the benefits that the bank had obtained from the decisions of its alums in the U.S. Government—specifically, in the U.S. Department of the Treatury. For instance, Goldman Sachs and other AIG counterparties got a the dollar-for-dollar payout from AIG thanks to an infusion of funds for that specific purpose by Treasury. Regardless, in an interview with the London Times, the highest-paid CEO (at least in the financial sector) dismissed such talk and defended his money-making machine and its compensation.  In addition to being the engine of economic recovery, according to Blankfein, Goldman Sachs provides a social function in making capital available to companies so they can expand. Stunningly, he adds, “I’m doing God’s work.”[1]  Such a claim is a far cry indeed from Thomas Jefferson’s warning that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.[2]  Perhaps God intends to undo our liberties by bailing out the banks.

Besides these rather obvious problems with Blankfein's religious claim is his presumption to know what God's work is, and, furthermore, that he is doing it.   Even though a feckless system of corporate governance can enable a CEO to essentially function as his or her own boss, including doing the board's job of evaluating his or her own performance, it is a tall order for a human being to be able to evaluate his performance as God's work.   To be sure, it is possible that God is an intelligent being that bestows favor on his golden stewards for doing His work.

Lloyd Blankfein may have been involved in two conflicts of interest: 1) that of having excessive power over the board whose principal task it is to oversee him, 2) having communicated with GS alums in high posts in the U.S. Government (e.g., Hank Paulson) and perhaps having them enact policies on GS's behalf.   It may be that institutional and personal conflicts of interests can become so ubiquitous that they are simply not seen by the culprits. Furthermore, it could be that the denial enabled by a tacit presumptuousness is like a white movie screen on which even doing God's work can be projected. How ironic it is, that sordid proprietary interest could operate not merely under the subterfuge of being a neutral "market-maker," but also as God's work. Such work is two degrees of freedom away from squalid greed. So it is remarkable that the two could become conflated in a mind.

[1] John Arlidge, I’m doing ‘God’s work. Meet Mr. Goldman Sachs, The Sunday Times, 11/9/09.
[2] Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, Monticello, May 28, 1816, in Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892-99),  XI, 533.

See related book: God's Gold and Essays on the Financial Crisis

Off Target: Corporate Spending as "Speech" against Gay Rights

In a 5-4 decision on January 21, 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that federal restrictions on corporate spending in elections constituted a violation of free speech. Critics called it wrong to equate corporate “speech” with individual speech and said the ruling would allow special-interest money to flood election campaigns. The bipartisan nature of the opposition to this ruling is striking in these largely partisan times. The court’s ruling is opposed, respectively, by 76, 81 and 85 percent of Republicans, independents and Democrats; and by 73, 85 and 86 percent of conservatives, moderates and liberals. Majorities in all these groups, ranging from 58 to 73 percent, not only oppose the ruling but feel strongly about it. Even among people who agree at least somewhat with the Tea Party movement, which advocates less government regulation, 73 percent oppose the high court’s rejection of this particular law. In addition to overwhelming opposition to the decision, there’s also bipartisan support for Congress to try to reinstate restrictions on campaign spending by corporations and unions.

So when Target sent a check for $150,000 to MN Forward, a Minnesota-based political group backing a gubernatorial candidate with penchant for opposing gay rights, people wondered what business Target has in taking sides on that issue, even if the group was also pro-business. MN Forward endorsed and was paying for ads for the Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. On Emmer’s website he defines marriage as a “union between one man and one woman” and he has come under fire for his $250 contribution to a Christian rockband that has been known to speak harshly of gays. Emmer told the Minnesota Star Tribune that the controversial rock band “You Can Run But You Cannot Hide,” were “nice people,” following band member Bradlee Dean’s reported comments that Muslim countries that support execution of gays are “more moral than even the American Christians.” To be sure, the managers of Target were not spending their companies’ “free speech” in defense of such a view, but that the wealth qua free speech was nonetheless being spent on a candidate who had made such a comment makes the Target CEO an unwitting accomplice.
Rather than viewing Target managers distancing themselves from Emmer’s view of gays as corporate social responsibility, I contend that the problem lies in taking spending as speech. Put another way, Target would have better stores if it sticked to its knitting, as it were.

Diverting money even to political campaign groups that further a pro-business agenda is off from the business’s main business, which in the case of Target is to sell retail. Besides the collateral damage from unwittingly helping campaigns on issues that are not even pro-business, diverting cash reserves to political campaigns puts corporations in the business of electoral politics, which is another sort of retail. In the case of Target, it is not as though the stores could not be improved from a business standpoint.  Once I accompanied a foreign friend of mine to a Target to return the coat he had given his wife for Christmas. Because he had paid by check, he had only the option, according to the “customer service” employee, of exchanging it. He could not get his money back—though he could have had he paid cash or by credit card. The “reasoning” of Target’s managers was that a check is “like kind” to an exchange voucher.  My friend and I left the store committed not to return, and I have not. Even in terms of influencing electoral politics in a pro-business general direction, Target’s management has plenty else to do closer to home—if indeed it is a home.  Rather than being socially responsible, a company ought to focus on its knitting.  That—doing business well—is the responsible thing to do because it is what a business’s owners expect from the managers of their property. Rather than being able to influence electoral politics beyond their expertise, managers ought to be restrained more by stronger corporate governance. To be sure, managers have a tendency to over-reach. Treating their spending decisions as “speech” only enbles them.

Sources:

http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenumbers/2010/02/in-supreme-court-ruling-on-campaign-finance-the-public-dissents.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Business/target-best-buy-fire-campaign-contributions-minnesota-candidate/story?id=11270194

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Wealth as a Societal Value in the E.U. and U.S.: The Case of Financial Reform

The E.U. and U.S differ markedly in the degree to which the interests of big business are etched in the respective societies and polities. That is to say, the difference goes beyond the question of the relative influences of the lobbyists. I contend that the relative proclivity societally in favor of business in the U.S. tilts the political playing-field excessively in the direction of the financial interests at the expense of the public good, which I take to be well represented generally by a full, equally-weighted spectrum of views. I further contend that influence is easier for financial-sector lobbyists in the United States than in the European  Union because the societal values in the former lean more in their favor. By analogy,  it is easier to run downhill than even on a flat surface.
These points can be discerned from the respective financial reforms in the E.U. and U.S. in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. Because the financial sector was viewed as culpable in both societies, the ensuing respective financial reforms would be expected to be at the expense of the banks rather than conducive to their interests.
On March 10, 2010, the E.U. Parliament adopted a Resolution (536 votes in favour to 80 against) calling for the financial sector to contribute fairly towards economic recovery since the costs of the crisis are being borne by taxpayers. On 25 March, Members of Parliament’s special “Financial, Economic and Social Crisis Committee” debated the rationale behind a possible financial transaction tax. Stephan Schulmeister of the Austrian Institute for Economic Research in Vienna said short-term financial transactions can make short-term prices of currencies and other financial products such as derivatives and shares vary wildly. Schulmeister claimed that a tax on financial transactions of just 0.05% would eliminate these short-term transactions, bring greater stability and bring €300 billion of additional revenues to the E.U. While the tax would undoubtedly bring in revenue, it is not clear to me that short-term transactions would be eliminated, as they can be worthwhile even with such a tax. Moreover, the financial crisis of 2008 shows us that the volitility can come from the market mechanism itself (in so far as it magnifies irrational exuberance). At any rate, even as there was division on the matter of such a tax in the parliament, that the proposal had been made distiguishes the legislative body of the E.U. from the Congress in the U.S., where such a proposal would undoubted have been blocked. Indeed, the E.U. Parliament went ever further.
On July 7, 2010, the EU Parliament approved some of the strictest rules in the world on bankers’ bonuses. In the legislation, caps were imposed on upfront cash bonuses and at least half of any bonus had  to be paid in contingent capital and shares. The legislative chamber also toughened rules on the capital reserves that banks had to hold to guard against any risks from their trading activities and from their exposure to highly complex securities. “Two years on from the global financial crisis, these tough new rules on bonuses will transform the bonus culture and end incentives for excessive risk-taking. A high-risk and short-term bonus culture wrought havoc with the global economy and taxpayers paid the price. Since banks have failed to reform we are now doing the job for them,” said MEP Arlene McCarthy. Upfront cash bonuses were capped at 30% of the total bonus and to 20% for particularly large bonuses. Between 40% and 60% of any bonus had to be deferred for at least three years and could be recovered if investments did not perform as expected. Moreover at least 50% of the total bonus had to be paid as “contingent capital” (funds to be called upon first in case of bank difficulties) and shares. Bonuses also had to be capped as a proportion of salary. Each bank had to establish limits on bonuses related to salaries, on the basis of E.U.-wide guidelines, to help bring down the overall, disproportionate, role played by bonuses in the financial sector. Finally, bonus-like pensions were also covered. Exceptional pension payments had to be held back in instruments such as contingent capital that link their final value to the overall strength of the bank. This was to avoid situations similar to those experienced in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 in which some bankers retired with substantial pensions unaffected by the crisis their bank was facing. The rules applied to foreign banks operating in the E.U.and to subsidiaries of E.U. banks operating abroad. The law gave state regulators binding powers to take action against banks that failed to comply with the new rules. In contrast, the U.S. went after Arizona for trying to enforce US immigration law.
Clearly, the U.S. financial reform did not go nearly as far; it did not put nearly as much crimp in the American banks. This is no accident. The feeling among big bankers in the US was that they dodged a bullet concerning what could have been in the American bill. No “too big to fail” limit was put on a bank’s capital or size , or on the bankers’ compensation. The American media and President Obama were strangely silent on why. In the case of the health reform, the President silently removed his objection to an insurance mandate and dropped his desire for a public option after the lobbyist for the American health insurance companies told him that her support was contingent on these changes. 
My point is simply this: Were not American society leaning in a pro-business direction (e.g., economic liberty being salient in how liberty itself is viewed), the President might not have felt the need, or pressure without a sufficient countervailing wind, to bend in the banking lobbyists' direction. That is to say, the lobbyist would not have had so much leverage. Wall Street no doubt had massive influence in the crafting of the financial reform as it was making its way through Congress (even though the banks were culpable in the financial crisis—which is itself telling). I submit that the reasons go beyond the sheer power of money to unquestioned societal values.

Sources:
http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/public/story_page/044-71441-088-03-14-907-20100329STO71433-2010-29-03-2010/default_en.htm

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/public/focus_page/008-76988-176-06-26-901-20100625FCS76850-25-06-2010-2010/default_p001c011_en.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Increasing Decadence in American Business (and Society): The Case of On-Screen Distractions during Television Programs

While watching Lord of the Rings on TBS in 2010, I noticed that the network was posting not only its logo on the bottom right of the screen, but also advertising for its programming on the bottom left. Also, “more movie, less commercials” was written to accompany the logo. What really got to me during the movie was when pictures advertising a television show were shown. They took up almost an eighth of the screen and thus could not but distract the viewer from watching the movie. I decided I would not watch movies on networks that compromise or prostitute their own programing in order to sell themselves while "in progress." It is like sitting down at a restaurant and having the waitor sell me on other dishes while I am trying to enjoy the one that I'm eating. “I just want to enjoy this fine meal, thank you,” any discerning customer would be wont to say. Once at Starbucks, the customer in front of me at the register was paying $25 for a variety of products.  As I was thinking that the store had made a good sale, the clerk tried to sell the customer on a certain food item for the next visit--as if the present sale was not enough.  The same propensity wherein nothing is ever enough is evinced by the television networks that can't seem to restrain themselves from adding more and more self-promotions onto the screen during their own programming.  These networks are playing off the mitigated nature of the additions being incremental, and thus not objectionable to the average viewer. 

It is simply bad business to interfere with a customer’s enjoyment of a product by trying to promote the business or another product. The over-reaching has the bad smell of self-indulgence knowingly at others’ expense. It is impossible to enjoy a movie while animated characters run around the bottom of the screen to get the viewers' attention. The perpetrators ought to be regarded as children wherein if we give them an inch, they will indeed take a mile. Sadly, too many of us allow ourselves to be strung along the slippery slope--perhaps some viewers don't even notice the incremental intrusions. The smell of the network managers' over-reaching ought to be emetic, but perhaps the stench is so ubiquitous that we as a soceity are innoculated against even smelling it.  One can hope that one day, we shall wake up to the decadence and "smell the coffee." Perhaps only the loss of a significant viewership would mean that the sordid managers will be out of their jobs–unable to earn their high salaries for trying to manipulate us in new subterfuges. That, ladies and gentlemen, would be justice and a more salubrious society.  In the meantime, American television will increasingly come to reflect the lowest common denominator in the viewership because that is where the numbers are. In fact, perhaps it could be said that this nature of television reflects the values that are taking hold in American society.

Do we as a society value mutual respect and self-restraint, or are we too tolerant of selfishness and manipulatory behavior? Do we not value strength, but instead enable weakness? Are the stars of reality shows famous for fifteen minutes because they evince our society's actual values?  In other words, have we become a self-absorbed, petty people without realizing it?  If so, the television networks may simply be us taking advantage because it is condoned.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Decoupling Responsibility from Power: The Case of Transocean in the BP Disaster

With much power comes implicit responsibility. Hence, on February 21, 2011, the world recoiled when Gaddafi violently turned on his own people--using his power sans responsibility in a selfish attempt to stay in power. So too, the world had been shocked in April, 2010 when BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and that the Gulf itself was at risk. That a company could ruin something as big as the Gulf of Mexico came as a surprise to many. That a company, or three in this case, could have minimized such a risk by, for example, sending the U.S. Government contingency plans on Gulf clean up that included rescuing sea animals that actually live in the Arctic, shocked the public just as much. How could people holding such power treat its use with such carelessness concerning any downside?  The defense of having followed company policy or having excuted business procedures pales in comparison with the societal demand that power, whether public or private, be handled responsibly.  In other words, people take it for granted that power is given to adults rather than to children.  I think we would be surprised how often this has not been the case.  The case of Transocean demonstrates this thesis.

Transocean, which owned the Deep Water Horizon oil rig that exploded in April of 2010,  was the subject of a criminal investigation into possible tax fraud in Norway. The company indicated in S.E.C. filings that Norwegian officials could assess it about $840 million in taxes and penalties. The filings also contended that a final ruling against Transocean could have a “material impact” on the company. The company was also the target of tax inquiries in the United States and Brazil. Furthermore, drilling equipment from Transocean was shipped by a forwarder through Iran and until 2009 the company had held a stake in a company that did business in Syria. The State Department claimed at the time that Syria and Iran sponsor terrorism.

In reaction to these charges,  a Transocean statement simply claimed that the managers at the company had always acted appropriately and that they would prevail in any investigations. This is interesting, for “always” is quite an accomplishment.  Once I took a self-inventory and one question was “I always tell the truth.”  Of course, no one always tells the truth, so the question was geared to assessing how truthful one is in taking the test.  Had I answered yes, I would have been lying. The transocean statement, taken by itself, indicates a proclivity to lie, for no human being always acts appropriately. Transocean's statement evinces a certain arrogance, as if to say, "We are above reproach."  Such an attitude is dangerous where there is sufficient power at one's disposal that one's actions can do real damage to the planet.

Transocean, which drilled in some 30 countries and employed more than 18,000 people, owned nearly half of the 50 or so deepwater platforms in the world in 2010. “These people are capable and considered the gold standard of deepwater drilling,” said Peter Vig, managing director at RoundRock Capital Management, an energy hedge fund in Dallas.  I contend that expertise in drilling does not sufficiently counter the kind of charges that were brought against the company. To focus only on expertise in operating machinery or in managing a company as though they were all that matters in business is to hold an extremely narrow perspective on what counts. Furthermore, to let blantantly false asseverations stand (such as of always acting appropriately) is to enable a pattern that can literally destroy a major marine ecosystem.

Source:

Barry Meier, "Owner of Exploded Rig Is Known for Testing Rules," The New York Times, July 7, 2010.

Related material is in Cases of Unethical Business, which is available at Amazon.

BP: Dividends to Stockholders Despite a Sordid Safety Record

As BP was wrestling with stopping the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico and cleaning up the oil, a controversy broke out between the company’s stockholders and the  US Government on whether any dividends should be declared and paid before the company has taken care of the Gulf.  BP earned more than $16 billion in 2009. Based on higher oil prices, in the first quarter of 2010 the company’s profit more than doubled to $6.08 billion from $2.56 billion  in the first quarter of 2010.  BP’s dividend payment accounted for about £1 of every £8 handed out by British companies in 2009. Given the higher profit in the first quarter of 2010, stockholders were expecting more in dividends.

The question was how much the company’s costs in regard to the Gulf would or should cut into the dividends; the political question was whether any surplus wealth should be paid to investors before the company’s legal and moral obligations were taken care of in the Gulf region.  Although not suggesting that their company was not obligated to stop the rupsure and fund the clean up, BP officials claimed that their company had already paid in other ways.

Already by mid June, 2010, BP shares had fallen more than 40 percent since the fatal explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in April, wiping more than £50 billion, or $73 billion, from the company’s market value. The drop came after lawmakers in Washington called on BP to suspend its dividend and advertising campaign to pay for the cleanup, and a senior official said the Justice Department was “planning to take action.” Most shareholders rejected concerns that the costs of a cleanup and possible damages could force BP into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and said the drop in the share price is not justified by the value of BP’s assets.  BP officials indicated the company’s executives would decide in July whether to keep the quarterly dividend at 14 cents a share for the second quarter. In 2009, the company paid about $10.5 billion in dividends.

By June 10 2010, the company’s cost in regard to the oil spill had reached about $1.43 billion. A BP official said it was “too earlier to quantify other potential costs and liabilities associated with the incident.”  Earlier in June, BP officials told investors that the company had $5 billion cash on hand and that it was generating “significant additional cash flow” as the price of oil remained above $60 a barrel. BP had 18 billion barrels of proved reserves and 63 billion barrels of resources at the end of 2009 that it could draw on.

Iain Armstrong, an analyst at investment manager Brewin Dolphin in London agreed with BP that the company had enough money to pay for the cleanup efforts and also rejected any potential concern that the company might not be able to pay for its debt. “It’s gotten completely out of hand,” Mr. Armstrong said. “It’s a totally overpoliticized situation. There is a disconnect between reality and BP being totally lambasted… . Ironically, by being extremely strong financially, BP has become a target here,” he said. I contend, however, that BP became a target because of its atrocious safety record and its culpability at Deepwater Horizon.

BP falsified regulatory documents by indicating that there was zero percent risk of an off-shore rig accident creating a rupsure and that the company had the technology to stop and clean up such a problem.  Tony Hayward admitted after the explosion that BP lacked the “tools you would want in your tool kit” to close a blown deep-water well.  In other words, the earlier claim to have had the technology was a lie (which MMS never bothered to disconver, as the agency had been captured).  Lest it be said that no group of people is perfect, BP’s history attests to justifiable blame.

In 2005, a blowdown drum overfilled with liquid hydrocarbons at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 and wounded 170.  BP was cited for old equipment, overworked and unsupervised employees and contractors, and managerial inattention to safety. The US Chemical Safety Board put the cause as “organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels.”  Meanwhile, a shoddy ballast system was found at BP’s offshore platform Thunder Horse.  In 2006, a corroded pipeline in BP’s Purdhoe Bay field in Alaska leaked thousands of barrels. In the following year, Tony Hayward became the CEO. He promised to make safety his priority. Yet in 2009, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP a record $87.4 million for more than 700 safety violations at the Texas City refinery. Nonetheless, David Nicholas, a BP spokesman, wrote, “Safe, reliable operations have been and continue to be our number one priority.”  Not only has this not been the case, BP managers (and lawyers) have been more interested in minimizing liability than being responsible for the consequences of the lapses.

At Deepwater Horizon, when an employee discovered that one pod of the blow-out preventer was leaking, a manager simply shut it down and used the other pod (rather than fixing the leak). Another worker found such low hydrolic pressure in the device that he knew it was time to leave.  In Congressional testimony, Tony Hayward said BP regarded the equipment as the fail-safe mechanism, even as blow-out preventers in general have a 44% failure rate and the device at Deepwater Horizon was known to have a broken pod. Furthermore, after the well fire, the company low-balled the estimated volume of oil going into the Gulf in order to minimize its future liability.  During the first week after the explosion, the company’s estimate was 1000 barrels per day.  During the second week, the company estimated 5000.  Meanwhile, company documents show an estimate of 100,000 per day as a worse-case scenerio. That the wider society would not be sufficiently informed of the magnitude of the clean-up required did not seem to bother the managers at BP, whose concern was mainly to minimize the company’s liability (and thus maximize their stockholders dividends).  Selfishness among the culpable is telling. At the very least, responsibility can be defined as paying for the harm consequent to one’s mistake.  Satisfying such responsibility has priority over dividends, which are residual, after all. In making the protection of dividends (and the stock price) a priority, BP’s managers evinced a reversal of priorities that was ahistoric for the modern corporation.

It is for these reasons, not because BP is a giant corporation or is British, that BP was the target of such scathing rebuke by the American public and the American governments. Mr. Armstrong said that President Obama should not forget that 40 percent of BP shares are owned by United States shareholders. “So he’s not doing them any favors either,” he said. Again, I beg to differ. Acting in the public interest, Barak Obama is doing us all a favor.  Of course, the politics of this matter were no doubt different in Europe.

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, said Thursday that the drop in BP’s shares was slowly becoming a political issue in Britain. “When you consider the huge exposure of British pension funds to BP and the BP share price and the vital importance of BP then I do think it starts to become a matter of national concern if a great British company is being continually beaten up on international airwaves,” he told BBC Radio on June 10th. However, Reuters quoted Prime Minister David Cameron as saying, “This is an environmental catastrophe. BP needs to do everything it can to deal with the situation, and the U.K. government stands ready to help. I completely understand the U.S. government’s frustration.”

In a general sense, the governments are relatively oriented to the public interest, whereas BP, as a private corporation, has a fiduciary obligation to its stockholders.  Robert Reich referred to this obligation as a company’s “corporate social responsibility” on the Countdown with Keith Obermann show on MSNBC on June 14, 2010.  “Social” can admittedly be in reference to stockholders’ social concerns (though “social concerns” is rather vague); however, the term can also refer to society, which is larger than any group of stockholders. To BP’s management, it makes perfect sense in terms of corporate governance to declare and pay dividends as long as the company has enough resources to cover its actual and contingent liabilities related to the gulf.  Considering the billions that the company has in oil reserves, it could satisfy both. In an economic sense, the dichotomy may not make sense.  However, politically, there is resistance to the declaration and payment of dividends, and this “irrational” element is ignored by BP to its economic peril.  Essentially, the political reaction is challenging the right of the company to continue to exist. At the very least, the objection is that the company should not be run as normal.  In other words, the political claim is ultimately that BP has broken the social contract that legitimates its right to conduct business within the US.

Lest we have become too ahistoric, it might be worth our while to study the history of the modern corporation.  Originally, the modern joint-holding company was delegated a function to do for the public by a government.  If the company had enough left over after performing the function, it could give the surplus to the stockholders.  Through the twentieth century, the interests of the stockholders became increasingly central, eclipsing even the “delegated public function” aspect of the charters.  Essentially, a society gives a group of people permission to do a function. This implies that doing the function, and taking care of any adverse consequences caused by the company, are primary.  The political demand of the American governments is that dividends not be declared or paid until BP has rectified the Gulf region as required by law, societal norms, and ethical standards. From the standpoint of BP having been granted permission to operate in the US (leaving aside the billions in contracts from the US Government), the demand is not so much the product of irrational exuberance.

In effect, BP’s managers ignored systemic risk.  In being the closest we have to anyone able to solve the problem, BP is too big to fail. Managers at the company lied about being able to handle a major rupture. The MMS regulatory agency went along, having been coopted by the industry it was to regulate.  This is a failure of business as well as government.  All the emphasis on BP taking orders from the US Government in the wake of the rupture can be interpreted as “reaction formation” given the powerlessness felt in government having been so dominated by private interests ahistorically oriented to their stock price.  If the Gulf of Mexico seemed broken, this condition could be read as a symptom of a political-economic rupture.  I suspect that big business has gotten too big—taking too big risks, capturing governments, and acting with impunity.  As if the financial crisis of 2008 was not enough of a warning call, the oil spill of 2010 depicts too big to fail in very concrete terms.  Whether governments have sufficient power to reassume the driver’s seat in delegating public functions to private commercial associations depends on whether legislators have enough backbone to limit the size and wealth of big business.

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/11/business/11bp.html?hp
Countdown with Keith Obermann, MSNBC TV, June 21, 2010; Byran Walsh, “The Spreading Stain,” Time (June 21, 2010), pp. 51-59.


Related material is in Cases of Unethical Business, which is available at Amazon.