"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, December 4, 2017

Advertisers Remove Ads on YouTube: Fair to YouTube and Video-Producers?

One day after Thanksgiving in 2017, “a fresh wave of advertisers suspended commercials on Youtube after their ads showed up next to videos that appeared to attract pedophile viewers.”[1] Youtube had removed ads from roughly 3 million videos, but the company’s use of human and AI checkers simply could not keep pace with the number of uploaded videos. Even so, Diageo, maker of Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker (alcohol drinks), announced it would hold off its ads until “appropriate safeguards are in place.”[2] Mars and Adidas took a similar line. The question is whether those advertisers were being fair to Youtube and even the producers of the videos.

After a similar revolt the previous March, YouTube and hired more human reviewers and furnished advertisers with new tools to control where their ads would appear. Did not those companies have some responsibility to keep tabs on their ads, especially given the incentive to do so.  “Advertisers don’t want their brands associated with objectionable content and as well can face criticism if their advertising money goes to support the videos’ creators.”[3] It would not have been prudent to leave it to YouTube to review the ads, especially if the advertisers knew that YouTube was short-staffed. Unlike the advertisers, YouTube’s management had little incentive; the pull-out of certain advertisers in March, 2017 had “little impact” on Alphabet’s (Google’s) overall business. In fact record profits were posted.

Of course, the ability and will to review ads, whether by the advertisers or YouTube, would not in itself have caught the cases in which the videos themselves were salubrious and yet received unsavory comments from viewers. An advertiser could hardly be blamed for placing an ad in such a video; neither would YouTube be culpable in having permitted the video in the first place. So even if sordid comments could be readily removed, the incentives would be lacking. To be sure, YouTube is responsible for removing such comments, and just because blame would not be justified concerning innocent videos does not necessarily mean that such blame would not be exacted anyway.

The nuances of responsibility suggest that the reaction of the advertisers was rather blunt and even impulsive, and not entirely fair to YouTube and the video-producers. Distinguishing between objectionable and proper videos, and then between the latter and disgusting comments would be part of a smarter, more refined approach.




[1] Stu Woo and Sam Schehner, “YouTube Deals With Another Advertiser Backlash,” The Wall Street Journal, November 25-26, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Customers Give Uber a Pass: A Lapsed Enforcement of Business Ethics

A letter from a former security employee at Uber claims that the company’s Marketplace Analytics department “exists expressly for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets, codebase and competitive intelligence.”[1] The letter caused the judge to delay the trial in which Uber stood accused of stealing trade secrets involving self-driving cars from Waymo. “I can no longer trust the words of the lawyers for Uber in this case,” Judge Alsup said.[2] Ouch! The question remained whether Uber customers would punish the company by turning to Lyft instead. Unfortunately, the typical customer may overlook unethical practices at a company if a good deal is to be had. Economizing monetarily serves self-interest, whereas “walking with your wallet” oftentimes does not. Standing on principle may simply not register when people have their consumer hats on.
After its systemic customer-fraud was exposed, Wells Fargo’s management simply offered sweeter terms to entice existing customers to stay put and even to attract new ones. Although the bank had to pay in the form of offering better rates, society at large may have expected more in the form of an exodus of customers from the sordid bank for such institutions in which fraud is so systemic should arguably not continue to exist.
Even before the revealing letter was read to Uber’s judge, the company had gotten the attention of its customers by “grabbing headlines for ignoring complaints about sexual harassment at its headquarters as well for a variety of corporate practices” that had piqued the interest of regulators.[3]  Even so, Uber had reported a 10% increase in second-quarter (2017) bookings over the first quarter, according to Bloomberg.[4] Uber hit 5 billion rides in more than 70 countries during the summer of 2017. This suggests that “for a majority of consumers, disgust over corporate misconduct doesn’t always translate to ditching a reliable service.”[5]  Managements can thus buy themselves out of trouble by retaining the vast majority of customers by offering better terms.
Lest it be decried that such self-rescues should not be allowed, we have only to look at the customers who look the other way as they single-mindedly pursue their self-interest. Admittedly, they could point to government regulators as being the proper instruments for holding wayward managements accountable. Unethical conduct is not always illegal, however, and where such conduct is widespread and ingrained in a company, nothing short of bankruptcy may be just. Of the latter point, justice at the hands of a court of justice or a regulatory agency may not go far enough to exact what is just ethically.
 To be sure, Lyft was making inroads on Uber’s turf. TXN Solutions reported in 2017 that Uber’s market share had slipped to 75% from 90% in 2015.[6] Uber’s valuation may have fallen from a high of nearly $70 billion to close to $50 billion.[7] Of course, these trends could be from improvements at Lyft rather than any ethical fallout at Uber. Put another way, Lyft should arguably have been able to make more of a dent, given the sordid culture and practices at Uber’s headquarters. The sad truth may be that consumers don’t really care if a company’s management is ethical unless the consumers themselves are gouged; everyone is out for oneself without concern for principle. I submit that such a mentality—such a culture—is not in a society’s interest; the good of the whole is not merely the aggregate of individual, self-seeking choices. Even Adam Smith saw a need for government, and, moreover, of moral sentiments as enveloping a free market. Hence his text, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, should be read along with The Wealth of Nations to give the economist’s full theory.   





[2] Ibid.
[3] Marco della Cava, “Underterred by Uber, Lyft Says It’s Destined to Be No. 1,” USA Today, November 29, 2019.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Uncovering the Root of Poverty: An Addictive Habit

Addictive pain-killers killed 64,000 residents in the U.S. in 2016, in part because physicians tended to rely on patients’ self-determined ratings of pain on a scale of 1 to 10.[1] Such subjective ratings were of course vulnerable to self-seeking motives willfully negligent or even reckless in terms of health. A habit or marked tendency in favor of choices at the expense of a person’s own long-term well-being stems, I submit, from weak impulse-control. This factor can explain a lot about why poverty exists and goes on. 
Poverty, it has been said, is the cruelest form of war, for such war can go on and on and wreck subtle though tremendous damage on the afflicted. Yet the mentality that can get a person into such a war and associated bad choices can be easily overlooked by elites that deign to study the problem of poverty.
Attempting to explain escalating rates of suicide, overdoses, and alcoholism among uneducated Americans, Angus Deaton and Anne Case, who spoke at the CEO Council sponsored by The Wall Street Journal in November, 2017, pointed to the diminishing number of jobs “with a ladder up, with on-the-job training, with benefits.”[2] With less incentive to focus on doing well at work and less opportunity to get involved in a union, a person can easily feel despondent, especially given the breakdown of the nuclear and extended family and the decline of mainline Christianity. Drugs, including nicotine and alcohol, and ultimately even suicide, can remove the resulting sense of nihilism.
The job/family/religion explanation strikes me as overly formalistic, even external, however. For example, the rise of individualistic evangelical Christianity, which Deaton and Case claimed does not allow for a sense of community because of the theological emphasis on an individual's relationship with Jesus, can nonetheless provide social opportunities for people. A visit to any megachurch can demonstrate that “extra-curricular activities” go on in spite of the individualistic theological bent. Megachurches typically have coffee shops and fitness rooms, and even put on plays (e.g., at Easter). 
Similarly, not being able to get involved in a union does not exhaust the things a person can do with others in a group; political activism, for example, is open to workers outside of the work context (e.g., working on a political campaign).
I also take issue with the claim that uneducated workers do drugs because a promotion into management is no longer as easy as it may have been in the past. The work ethic is not predicated on advancement; rather, hard work itself is valued as a virtue. To be sure, the technologically and off-shore based relative loss of manufacturing jobs and the lack of satisfaction from working in a fast-food restaurant, for instance, have made it more difficult for uneducated people to find fulfilling jobs or jobs at all. Faced with loads of empty time--rather than trying to start an enterprise (e.g., a site online) or volunteer--drugs and alcohol are easy apparent fixes, or fillers. Yet the decision to have empty time is a course of least resistance rather than a fait accompli. The willingness to be lazy is itself significant, for it gets us closer to the underlying problem, which is internal
I submit that drug use, including alcohol and nicotine, does not stem from having lots of time from being unemployed. Rather, people who succumb to drug addition can be said to have weak impulse control; they do not have or use the strength of will to resist the urge to take another hit, or to try some drug in the first place. I've never tried heroine or cocaine even just to see what they are like because I know they are highly addictive so I have resisted offers to try them. So I'm surprised when I hear people who use those drugs treat them so casually, so conveniently, without any hint of impulse control. 
The lack of a college education is a contributing factor, for a surprising phenomenon of ignorance is its presumption to not being able to be wrong with respect to itself. So presuming to know all about heroine or cocaine and being able to manage them as if a physician fits with being uneducated. In college, students think through critiques of theories rather than taking them at face value; the professors model this. Being accustomed to critiquing other people's theories can get a person in the thought-habit of critiquing even one's own, even implicit, theories. In contrast, the assumption of ignorance that it must be right goes unchallenged by the uneducated. Interestingly, the difference is not just cognitive, for attitude is impacted by whether or not a person turns reason on oneself. The arrogance of ignorance contrasts with the humility that is ideally in putting one's own assumptions and beliefs about oneself and the world under the proverbial knife. Such an orientation necessitates the use of impulse-control, which in turn implies valuing it rather than conveniently assuming that it is not worthwhile. 
I submit that the “Two Americas” are separated by two trajectories of habitual thinking and values that stem from whether or not a person values and has good impulse-control. People who value such control loathe being around people who don't. Put another way, evading impulse-control is acceptable in some quarters while looked down on in others. The two respective cultures are each self-reinforcing, and social distance between those cultures naturally widens and is not just a matter of being educated or not. Unfortunately, I have been exposed to three "ghetto" apartment complexes, complete with "ghetto property-managements" whose mentality goes beyond garden-variety incompetence to reflect the lack of impulse-control evinced by many of the residents with respect to each other (e.g., being inconsiderate with noise late at night, and having a tendency to lie--failing to resist to impulse to take the easy out).  
Speaking once with a security guard whose company covered one such “ghetto complex” in addition to other, “non-ghetto” complexes, I was struck by how he distinguished the “ghetto” residents. “They think they live in houses, playing their music as if people are not on the other side of the wall. We don't have this problem at the other complexes we handle. The people in that area of town are not so inconsiderate.” I could see why uneducated poor people live together and other people avoid them; the difference is not merely monetary. People who resist the urge to play music or movies loud at night so not to disturb neighbors also resist the urge to lie when doing so would get them off the hook. In apartment complexes populated by poor, uneducated people, the mentality is exactly the opposite, and such a sordid mentality based in a convenient refusal to engage in impulse-control (for selfish reasons) is anathema to other people, who thus keep their distance and even perhaps urge public policy that hurts the poor. Regardless of how sordid the attitude is, I contend that poor people's human rights to sustenance should be respected and protected. This is particularly so because of how intractable the attitude truly is. A person who is used to dismissing impulse-control (i.e., not valuing it) is not likely to go down the other track, unless the motive comes from sustained suffering. 
In terms of not being employable, the lack of a college education again does not tell the whole story. A low-level employee interacting regularly with customers gets heat from a manager if the attitude is, "I can't be wrong about X." Lying about the customer is also not acceptable. Impulse control is vital to virtually any vocation. 
A day after Thanksgiving in 2017, I faced a middle-aged cashier who insisted that people could refuse to recognize that it was Thanksgiving and instead validly select another holiday to celebrate that day, including Christmas and even July 4th.  I countered that Thanksgiving and the other two holidays are set by the U.S. Government, and so are on determined days.  She dismissed this out of hand, which was insulting, and repeated, "It can be any holiday you select." She refused to resist her impulse that she must be right even though she was wrong. "No, yesterday was Thanksgiving and this is Thanksgiving weekend--not another holiday," I insisted, but she rigidly held on to her ignorance as if it could be right. Rather than use self-discipline even to consider that she may have been wrong, she failed to resist the impulse of the presumption of being right and being dismissive.
I submit that a culture exists in the poor America that involves not only a difference in wealth and even education-level, but and most crucially in the attitude toward and practice of impulse-control. That is, being inconsiderate, lying, and feeling entitled in being infallible about what a person thinks one knows can become salient norms where enough uneducated poor live. The attitude thinks it receives confirmation because other people in a similar way also have it. The poor are very susceptible to being rude, lying, and using drugs because of ill-used or perhaps impaired impulse-control. Viewing such restraint as of nugatory value, it is easy to be inconsiderate, rude, even highly aggressive (given the overblown or even imagined slights or provocations).
Biking in poor areas near universities, I have noticed the extreme “road-rage” that is distinct among poor drivers. Today in fact, I witnessed one driver get out of his car to shout at the driver in front of him at a red light. The aggressor showed absolutely no impulse-control; his emotions were out of control. Similarly, I've seen poor drivers much, much more than other drivers lose complete control of themselves emotionally and because apparently I had no right to bike on the side of the roads along the curbs! The sheer aggressiveness, outstripping any rational basis in the context itself, has both amazed me and formed in my mind an image of the typical poor driver. My reaction in observing such drivers has been that such people must surely live in a very different world. I couldn't imagine anyone with such pathetic impulse control being in college or holding a job. Clearly, another America exists, with its own mores and values that retain the inhabitants from entering (and being accepted in!) polite society. Being in the habit of evading impulse-control is so different than valuing such internal control that “Two Americas” can be so explained. Both in terms of wealth and, if the stats on drug and alcohol abuse are correct, impulse-control, the America that is expanding is not the one that should be.
If I am correct in my analysis here, simply providing more and better jobs, creating labor unions and other ways for poor people to “get involved” or be in a group only touch the surface, and thus cannot get the job done in eliminating poverty. Even if "ghetto" apartment complexes are "broken up," with the very poor being disbursed such that they cannot form a culture of least resistance, the internal attitude with respect to impulse-control is surely very difficult to change. So study of precisely how such a feat may be accomplished is needed. 





[1] Gregory Korte, “U.S. Waging Tech War against Opioid Epidemic,” USA Today, November 24-26, 2017.
[2] Janet Adamy, “’Two Americas,’ Updated,” The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2017.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

On the Myopic Hyperbole of Wall Street: Overblowing Small Changes

I suppose that after looking at something closely for a long period of time, virtually anyone would perceive a small change in it as huge. This is reflected in how people formulate graphs. In particular, typically only a small interval is shown, the perceptual impact of which is that small changes look big. For example, msnbc.com reported on June 8, 2011 that the price of oil “soared” on that day “almost $2 to near $101 a barrel.” My reaction in reading the report was that the word “soared” indicates a lack of perspective on Wall Street and the media.

To be sure, a graph showing the price of oil with the y-axis running from $98 to $102 would show what looks like a huge increase, while a y-axis extending from $0 to $150 would show a barely noticeable change on June 8th.  The second graph would be more accurate in terms of the significance of the change.

The modest increase in price was momentary, caused by investors who had shorted oil and wanted to get out because of a bearish expectation. On June 8th, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) talks broke down without an agreement to raise output after Saudi Arabia failed to convince the cartel to lift production. Iran, Libya, Iraq and other oil-producing states wanted to hold production targets while Saudi Arabia sought to raise them so the price of oil would stabilize at between $70 and $80 a barrel. Wise, long-term-oriented Saudi government officials understood that stability rather than short-term windfalls is in the long-term best economic interest of oil exporters—especially if oil is the sole export. According to The Wall Street Journal, "In the wake of the failure to reach agreement, people familiar with the matter said the Saudis are now likely to unilaterally increase their own production by up to one million barrels a day, which would put them well above their stated quota of eight million barrels a day." The Saudi assurance that it would supply the needs of the oil market regardless of OPEC left investors bearish after the meeting, and short-sellers were simply unloading. To report that the price of oil “soared” by $2 after the meeting is utterly misleading. By the end of trading for the day, oil was up just $1.65 (at $100.74).

Even by Wall Street’s own mantra wherein investors tend to do well in the stock market by holding a well-diversified position for a long time, over-dramatic renderings of short-term changes are counter-productive because they can seduce long-term investors to react. If newscasters on CNBC are announcing that the sky is falling today because oil went up $2, the temptation is to do something Anything.  Acting at all would be at odds with taking a long-term position in the market, tweeking it only to maintain a diversified portfolio.

I suspect that cause of the hyperbole is tunnel-vision, which is caused by zeroing in on something too closely and for too long. At the very least, it might be a bad idea for Wall Streeters to develop some hobbies that have nothing to do with work. Also, analysts might avoid the temptation to pay so much attention to the talking heads on CNBC. Furthermore, analysts might resist orienting graphs to overplay small changes by artificially restricting the interval on the y-axis. Lastly, Wall Streeters might resist the fun in using overly-dramatic jargon or loose-fitting (at best) analogies.

If the stock market is “crashing,” for example, we had better be talking about thousands rather than hundreds of points lost on the Dow. A plane going from 12,000 to 11,500 feet is not crashing; it is probably just making way for another plane. If a company is getting “killed,” it better be in liquidation without anything going to equity or bond holders. Better still, analysts would gain credibility if they stayed away from the military jargon completely; at the very least, using the vocabulary is an insult to the brave men and women who really have put their lives on the line.

In short, Wall Street could do with a dose of perspective. Such a change would be in line not only with credibility and reputational capital, but also how Wall Streeters fare in the market. As one person might say to another who has been dumped romantically, don’t over-analyze it!


Sources:

Summer Said, Hassan Hafidh, and Benoit Faucon, "New Cracks in Oil Cartel," The Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2011, p. A1.

Oil Price Soars after OPEC Talks Yield No Agreement,” msnbc.com, June 8, 2011.

The Fiat 500: The American Taste for Convenience Revealed

One means of doing cross-cultural comparison is by contrasting consumer tastes; such proclivities tend to evince societal mores by which societies can be perceived to be distinctive. In the case of the E.U. and U.S., Fiat, a European auto company that controls Chrysler, an American company, is discovering some societal differences as it refashions the Fiat 500 for American customers.

For example, the pod of drink holders had to be enlarged to hold American-size “supersize” drinks. According to Fabio DiMuro, chief engineer of the 500, the in-car beverage concept is so foreign to Europeans that the workers didn’t understand his exhortations for more and bigger holders. The American taste for larger portions is known to restaurant owners and managers in the United States, but what does the preference say about the society and its people? Is it as simple as greed—a desire for more and to excess? Or is it simply a preference for convenience—filling up more so the next meal can be pushed back to make room for other activities? 

In terms of convenience, “Americans consider all-season tires a must,” whereas Europeans keep two sets (which must be changed with the advent of the snow season). Of course, this comparison over-generalizes, for we are talking about the Northern states in the E.U. and U.S. Even so, the northerners in America tend to be willing to sacrifice some traction in the snow for the convenience of not having to take the car to the garage to have the tires changed.

Furthermore, the fuel tank of the 500 was enlarged from 10.6 to 14.5 gallons “for longer distances typical in the U.S.”  The larger tank also enables American in-town drivers to drive more before having to fill up. The interstate highway system sports enough gas stations that the longer-distances rationale is perhaps specious; it probably comes from the European misconception of the U.S. being like one of the E.U.’s countries but with a larger territory. The U.S., an empire-level union of republics, is qualitatively as well as quantitatively distinct from a large state like Texas or France.

Returning to the matter of convenience, the comfort-factor may be a relevant difference. The U.S., having excelled in terms of material goods in the decades after World War II, may in the twenty-first century be more accustomed to comfort. Hence, the American 500 is to have an armrest added to the driver’s seat.

A stress on comfort may also explain why “lots more” insulation is needed in the American 500, “to keep it quiet enough for Americans.” This is a rather odd phrase, considering the growth of the car stereo industry in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, the notion of one’s car as a personal cocoon of sorts resonates. Might this be a manifestation of the individualism for which Americans are so well known? 

If one’s home is one’s castle, one’s car might be one’s bubble through which one passes through public space. Considering the “road rage” phenomenon and general impoliteness, the greater insulation might suggest that Americans are in general rather unfriendly when we are out and about. Hence there are “screening” devices such as fraternities and sororities, as well as country clubs and other private associations. The general American public may contain too many loud, pushing or boorish people to be palatable to the elite.

In general, James Healey’s article on the American Fiat 500 is not flattering to Americans, but perhaps Healey is pointing to indications of undesirable traits that we (for I am an American) should face about ourselves and our society. I for one have noticed that where strangers communicate without any purpose, such as in a store, politeness is the norm. However, as soon as a purpose is added, such as buying and selling a car, renting an apartment or room, or resolving a bill at a restaurant, presumptuous tends to raise its ugly head.

I don’t know if it is arrogance or a presumption that the worst is apt to be in others, but I would not disagree with a European assessment of American society in general as anti-social or antagonistic. It is perhaps no wonder that houses are castles and cars are insulated bubbles. Of course, I am over-generalizing, as the U.S. is composed of various cultures. Once flying from New York to Seattle, I was struck by the difference in how strangers treated each other; then I realized (aided by a few anti-New Yorker comments from Seattle airport employees) I had just flown over a continent! To render a continent as akin to a European state writ large is to miss the vital distinction between an empire and a kingdom politically and geographically.

Another possible source of my over-generalizing may be that modern society itself could be too much inclined to the road of most convenience.  Europeans may have their rankles as well, even as they differ from those of Americans. For example, the whole “peers/commoners” thing can be read as a matter of convenience by some at the expense of others. Such a matter of convenience is not apt to show up in an analysis of the Fiat 500. In general, we moderns may be too spoiled and too presumptuous when it comes to dealing with strangers. Humility, it seems, is out of fashion in modernity, at least in the public square. If so, my cultural critique goes well beyond the American shores. Although war and poverty are not to be wished for, it would be nice if greater human solidarity could be realized amid our lattes and 500s.


Source:

James Healey, “Fiat 500: Little Car Shoulders Huge Responsibility in U.S.,” USA Today, June 1, 2011, p. 5B.

Monday, October 23, 2017

On the Unfairness of the Bonus System on Wall Street

Craig A. Dubow, Gannett’s former chief executive, had a short six-year tenure that was, by most accounts according to The New York Times, “a disaster.” David Carr reports: “Gannett’s stock price declined to about $10 a share from a high of $75 the day after [Dubow] took over; the number of employees at Gannett plummeted to 32,000 from about 52,000, resulting in a remarkable diminution in journalistic boots on the ground at the 82 newspapers the company owns. . . .  the company strip-mined its newspapers in search of earnings, leaving many communities with far less original, serious reporting. . . . Not only did Mr. Dubow retire under his own power because of health reasons, he got a mash note from Marjorie Magner, a member of Gannett’s board, who said without irony that ‘Craig championed our consumers and their ever-changing needs for news and information.’ But the board gave him far more than undeserved plaudits. Mr. Dubow walked out the door with just under $37.1 million in retirement, health and disability benefits. That comes on top of a combined $16 million in salary and bonuses in the last two years.”

Besides the inherent unfairness in an incompetent manager getting millions of dollars in compensation (for championing incompetence?), it is morally problematic when, as Carr puts it, “the consequences of bad decisions land on everyone except those who made them.” As already pointed out above, in the midst of Dubow’s “championing” (this word is so broad it has scarce any real meaning), “the number of employees at Gannett plummeted to 32,000 from about 52,000.” One could just as easily point to Bank of America’s downsizing of its labor force in the wake of Ken Lewis’ shopping spree at Countrywide and Merrill Lynch. Lewis really did exemplify the “walmart” mentality applied to banking: an almost-complete indifference to quality in a desire to be everything to everyone. The “exporting” of bad consequences while exuberant rewards are retained indicates that the corporate executive compensation system in the United States is fundamentally broken. The fixation on aligning an executive’s incentives with the financial enrichment of the stockholders has not functioned as anticipated.

For one thing, the vesting of stock, which is meant to orient an executive to the longer term financial interest of the stockholders, is typically bypassed as an executive gets the equivalent in cash (or stock) from his or her new employer. An executive can thus discount having to look out for the eventual downside in his or her decisions.

Moreover, the sheer amount of the compensation cannot be justified on the basis of a competitive upper echelons labor market (which functions more like an oligarchy). Indeed, the degree of fixation on the bonus system alone has resulted in larger payouts (as executives make decisions primarily from the standpoint of the impact on their bonus). David Carr points to the excess as mentioned in a USA Today editorial: “The bonus system has gone beyond a means of rewarding talent and is now Wall Street’s primary business. Institutions take huge gambles because the short-term returns are a rationale for their rich payouts. But even when the consequences of their risky behavior come back to haunt them, they still pay huge bonuses.” Carr’s overall point is that this hypertrophy allies to corporate America—not just Wall Street, though certainly it is salient there too.

When John Thain of Merrill Lynch gave lip-service to serving the stockholders, even his own subordinates knew he was more concerned with having to play second fiddle to Ken Lewis at Bank of America than with keeping Merrill’s stockholders from losing everything (as Lehman Brothers’ stockholders did). Even as Fleming got $29 per share as a buyout price from Lewis, Thain preferred a line of credit of billions from Goldman Sachs in exchange for a 10% ownership that would keep Thain on top. That was Thain’s driving motivation: to remain CEO. Meanwhile, the general public assumed that CEOs, including Thain, were motivated to act in their stockholder interests—that boards of directors insisted on this agency. However, where a CEO is focused on his or her bonus (Thain insisted on $40 million cash bonus even as Merrill was losing billions) and position (and thus future bonuses) and the CEO controls “his or her” board, the stockholders are in actuality left unknowingly fluttering in the wind—relying on a system of executive compensation that supposedly aligns the executives’ motivation with the financial interests of the stockholders. Much too much is being assumed here, yet assumptions, like habits, are difficult to break.


Source:

 David Carr, “Why Not Occupy Newsrooms?” The New York Times, October 24, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/24/business/media/why-not-occupy-newsrooms.html

Monday, October 16, 2017

An Ethical Dilemma for Cell-Phone Companies? Drivers Who Text & Talk

Long before cellphones became ubiquitous, industry pioneers were aware of the risks of multitasking behind the wheel. Their hunches have been validated by many scientific studies showing the dangers of talking while driving and, in 2009, of texting. Despite the mounting evidence, the industry built itself into a $150 billion business in the United States largely by winning over a crucial customer: the driver. For years, it marketed the virtues of cellphones to drivers. Indeed, the industry originally called them car phones and extolled them as useful status symbols in ads, like one from 1984 showing an executive behind the wheel that asked: Can your secretary take dictation at 55 MPH? “That was the business,” said Kevin Roe, a telecommunications industry analyst since 1993. Wireless companies “designed everything to keep people talking in their cars.” The CTIA, the industry’s trade group, supported legislation banning texting while driving. It has also changed its stance on legislation to ban talking on phones while driving — for years, it opposed such laws; then it became neutral. “This was never something we anticipated,” Mr. Largent, head of the CTIA, said in 2009.  However, Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92, said he knew that drivers talking on cellphones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes. “If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,” said Mr. Lucky, now 73. “If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money.” One researcher who spoke up about his concerns was quickly shut down. In 1990, David Strayer, a junior researcher at GTE, which later became part of Verizon, noticed more drivers who seemed to be distracted by their phones, and it scared him. He asked a supervisor if the company should research the risks. “Why would we want to know that?” Mr. Strayer recalled being told. He said the message was clear: “Learning about distraction would not be very helpful to the overall business model.” So why did the industry lobby turn to neutral in 2009, when it had for years resisted any governmental regulation on cell phones? 

It is important to remember the rationale of the “overall business model” so we don’t project some sort of fuzzy corporate social responsibility motive.   The industry’s shift to neutral matches a trend in its bottom line:  in the 1980s and early ’90s, wireless companies got 75 percent or more of their revenue from drivers, a figure that fell below 50 percent by the mid-’90s and is by 2009 below 25 percent.  The negative publicity on cellphones from distracted drivers killing people could cost the industry more (in dollars and cents) than what it could otherwise make by selling phones to more drivers.     Public affairs offices and industry lobby groups are simply reflections of the financial interest of the “business model.”   We ought not be fooled, as if an industry suddenly sees the light and does what is right.  Of course, it is in the financial interest of an industry to have us view it as such, but this is of course just more of the same.   Remember that the cell phone industry had reason to know of the problem of distracted drivers but ignored it in following a single-minded profit trajectory.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/technology/07distracted.html?ref=business

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Google’s Philanthropy: $1 Billion to Tech-Train America’s Unemployed

In October 2017, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, announced that the company would give $1 billion over the next five years to nonprofit organizations that help people “adjust to the changing nature of work.”[1] The digital skills philanthropic venture would essentially help otherwise unemployed Americans get jobs that require high-tech skills. This would also enable more people to use the internet, and thus the company’s products. So a reporter at USA Today can be said to gild the lily a bit in claiming that the initiative “is a tacit acknowledgement from one of the world’s most valuable companies that it bears some responsibility for rapid advances in technology that are radically reshaping industries and eliminating jobs in the U.S. and around the world.”[2] I submit that it is highly unlikely that such an acknowledgement ever took place at Google, given the more likely scenario wherein the company’s management saw an opportunity to enlarge (and hopefully enrich) its labor pool and customer base.
In making the announcement from Pittsburgh, Pichai observed, “One-third of jobs in 2020 will require skills that aren’t common [in 2017]. It’s a big problem.”[3] Indeed. He may in fact have been understating it. Giving $10 million to Goodwill’s Digital Career Accelerator so it could “provide 1 million people with access to digital skills and career opportunities” does not necessarily mean that 1 million people would become proficient at such skills, which after all are not easy to master. There is also the matter of attitude, which can function as a wedge between digital skills and realized and sustained career opportunities. Chronic unemployment itself can test and even twist a person’s attitude, which can also be a factor in a person’s unemployment in the first place.
Generally speaking, funneling a society’s extant labor force and the unemployed through a skills-filter, in this case, digital skills, ignores the innate diversity that exists within any societal labor pool (and society itself). The heterogeneous nature of people vocationally is happily in line with the fact that a diversified economy is more stable than one that privileges a certain sector or even its skill-set.



[1] Jessica Lynn, “Google to Give $1 Billion to Nonprofits and Help Americans Get Jobs in the New Economy,” The New York Times, October 12, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Investment Bank Dinners with Corporate Executives and Hedge Fund Managers: The General Public Not Admitted

The Case Study:

“One day in early March [2011], the phone lines of hedge-fund traders around London and New York suddenly lit up. A stock that many of them had placed hefty bets on—Pride International Inc., an energy company in the process of being sold to a rival—was falling. The traders had no idea why. They soon figured it out: J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. had hosted a meeting that day between a handful of hedge-fund traders and executives from a company that was considered a prime candidate to start a bidding war for Pride. One of those executives had indicated they weren't likely to make a bid.”

“The prospect of a bidding war had lifted Pride's shares above where they likely would have traded in the absence of a potential interloper. . . . At the March 8 lunch, though, as the traders munched on scallops and fish, Seadrill vice president and board member Tor Olav Trøim splashed cold water on the idea of a bid. He recalls telling traders that the company's Feb. 24 statement was ‘not normally what you would say if you were interested in bidding yourself. His intended message, according to one person familiar with the matter, is that Seadrill was "very unlikely’ to launch a competing offer for Pride. The information was market-moving, traders say. In the hours after the lunch, some traders wagered that the odds of a bidding war had declined. Seadrill's shares rose more than 1% as it was viewed as less likely to pursue a costly acquisition. Pride's shares fell by about 0.5% in the minutes before markets closed.”


“The moves may seem small, but they were significant for ‘merger arbitrage’ traders, who make short-term bets on deal stocks. In the case of the Ensco-Pride deal, the movements translated into a sudden 64% spike in the deal's ‘spread.’ That arcane measure reflects the difference between a target company's stock price and the per-share value of the acquirer's offer. The spread is closely watched by hedge funds that focus on merger arbitrage, which stand to gain or lose large sums based on the spread's movement. As the shares moved, anxious investors bombarded Seadrill's investor-relations office with phone calls, trying to figure out whether the company had issued new guidance about its appetite for bidding on Pride, according to a person familiar with the matter. Company officials responded that they hadn't released any new information. . . . Trøim says Seadrill executives regularly meet with large and small investors and that it is appropriate to help them understand the company's strategy. ‘We cannot see that we in any way have crossed any lines for giving privileged information,’ he says.”

The Issues:

“Hedge funds are a big business for banks. U.S. and European hedge funds last year shelled out a total of about $3.7 billion in brokerage commissions to banks for equity trades, according to research firm Greenwich Associates. . . . Investment banks vie for business from elite hedge funds by offering traders at those funds special access to senior deal makers and corporate executives at dinners and other gatherings. The traders sometimes pick up valuable nuggets of information that aren't available to other investors, according to people who have attended such gatherings.”

“Representatives of the banks say their investment bankers aren't permitted to discuss material nonpublic information, and that the meetings serve a legitimate business purpose. In addition to helping the banks win trading business, the get-togethers allow the bankers and corporate executives to cultivate relationships with the hedge funds, the banks say. The funds often are major shareholders in multiple companies and frequently help determine the outcome of key corporate events that are subject to shareholder approval, such as mergers and acquisitions.”

“Amid intensified scrutiny of insider trading, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently warned some banks that they need to be careful that such meetings don't result in the improper exchange of privileged information, according to people familiar with the matter.”

“Under insider-trading laws, it is generally illegal to buy or sell securities based on ‘material,’ or significant, information that isn't publicly available. Securities lawyers say the appropriateness of the meetings banks set up with hedge-fund traders depends on whether such information changes hands and is subsequently traded upon.”

“It is unclear how often useful trading information is disseminated in the meetings. The meetings appear to have made some banks nervous. . . . ‘It made me congenitally nervous,’ said a banker who until recently worked at a top Wall Street investment bank. ‘It certainly should be on [regulators'] radar.’ . . . Goldman Sachs Group Inc.'s compliance department [in 2010] barred its brokers from arranging dinner meetings between Goldman's bankers and outside hedge-fund traders, say people familiar with the matter. Bank of America's investment-banking arm, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, [in 2011] cut down on the gatherings after the SEC expressed concern, although it still allows them in some circumstances, according to people familiar with the matter. Many banks nevertheless continue to hold closed-door meetings with hedge funds on a regular basis, according to traders, bankers and other industry officials. Banks try to differentiate themselves from rivals by dangling access to key players—coveted by hedge funds, for which incremental bits of information can be extremely valuable. The banks also set up lunches and other ‘corporate access’ meetings that give the traders the chance to grill top corporate executives about pending deals and other matters. Such opportunities are rarely available to individuals and other small investors.”

Analysis:

To keep participants within the world of business from speaking with each other in closer terms than are available to the general public strikes me as utterly fanciful and doomed to failure—especially if a profit relationship is involved. Intimating a company’s strategy alone can proffer hints of information not available to the public and yet useful for trading. Are the courts to become embroiled in interpreting every nuance at every meeting in which investment bankers bring together corporations and hedge funds so they may behave as though in public? Policing such meetings is at best an uphill battle, and more realistically like trying to keep the rising tide back from one’s sand castles. It is the castles that are artificial, not the water presumably to be held back by them.

In terms of prohibiting insider-trading more generally, what is really being reputiated or denied is the concentric nature of the respective circles of family, friendships and finally the general public identified by Cicero in his theory of justice wherein caritas naturalis (natural love) is limited to the circle of amicitia (friendship). It is just by nature that friends share a love that does not hold in the wider public. This theory of justice is more restricted than the caritas universalis (universal love)—extending even to strangers—preached by Augustine. That loving strangers is difficult while loving one's friends is easy attests to the qualitiative differences between the concentric circles that inform Cicero's theory of justice, which insider-trading laws contravene.

In any social context, friends are not going to behave as though all they know of each other is what the general public knows. Just as it is natural that people closer will exchange more information than people in the wider public, it is also natural for the latter to envy those who are closer except when they themselves are in close relation with their own friends and colleagues. Enforcing publically-available information on business practitioners having mutual dealings is to conflate the widest circle with narrower circles. It is to pretend that caritas naturalis seu amicitia simply does not exist—that everything is universal rather than natural love being of friendship.

Fueling resentment of insider-trading may be our natural distaste for exclusion. As a student at Yale, I felt exclusion when my political party in the Yale Political Union invited me and the other new members to a Friday night party in a room in the clock tower. The chairman told me that we would all be initiated into the party’s secret society because the party owned it; we were members of the party, after all. In actuality, only a few members—those who had new leadership positions in the party—were tapped by the older leadership; the rest of us were invited so there would be an excluded element heightening the feeling of inclusion. My resentment was a function of my illusion (facilitated by the chairman) that an inner circle would treat a wider circle as equivalent.

As much as I detest the “insider/outsider” diremption, I must admit that it is a part of the human social condition. As social animals, we naturally find ourselves in relations wherein some people are closer to us than others. We fool ourselves if we presume that people who are closer will somehow open their relations up to a wider circle as if there were no narrower circle. Some of us, however, relish exacerbating the natural distances by excluding others solely for the pleasure of being cruel. For example, I grew up in a family that broke up into two camps, both of which relished excluding a family member. Even though the betrayal in such exclusion was unnatural, I must admit that narrower and wider circles naturally develop as human beings interact.

To pretend that there is only a general public is to deny the human condition in its social setting. Insider-trading law may be predicated by a denial of relationships that go beyond the general public.
Furthermore, the “harm” from insider trading is largely one of opportunity cost, as the benefits obtained by insiders are not shared by the general public. In contrast, the harm from fraud is felt by the victims, who are outsiders. In a wider sense, the systemic risk of the failure of a financial system is shared by the general public. Legislation and enforcement ought to take into account the difference between an opportunity cost and direct harm.

Therefore, for the SEC to put resources into insider-trading at the expense of going after banks and other companies that evince systemic risk is something more than misplaced priorities. In terms of punishment, to treat a business practitioner who benefits financially from information overheard from a CEO as though he or she committed fraud by lying to investors or murdered someone is to conflate categories of different degrees of harm.

Lastly, human behavior is such that it cannot be totally regulated. Nor can human nature itself manifested socially be remade as though there were just a general public without caritas naturalis seu amicitia. Business practitioners cannot be held back from exchanging information that is not available to the general public. Like jelly in a hand, the harder you squeeze it the less of it you will have within your grip. The illusion of micro-managing regulation to every facet of business ignores this principle, which is based in human nature rather than artifice.



Source:

David Enrich and Dana Cimilluca, “Banks Woo Funds with Private Peeks,” The Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2011.





Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Capitalism and Caste: Artificial vs. Natural

Part I

Capitalism & Caste: Melting Untouchability in India

In what has become known as India, the caste system of Hinduism has for millennia served as the template for the socio-economic ordering of people into family-based groups. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the economic liberalization policy put in place in 1991 to replace the stagnant “import-substitution” domestic-favoring model of economic development had enabled some people in the lower castes to vault into social acceptability by virtue of what The New York Times calls “the newest god in the Indian pantheon: money.” Given the advent of the prosperity gospel in Christianity and the associated eclipse of the “camel getting through the eye of a needle” much-earlier-hegemonic association of wealth with greed, a similar statement could be made with regard to the Trinity (see “Godliness and Greed” and "God's Gold," both available at Amazon).
Gandhi is said to have remarked, “I used to think that truth was God. I have realized that God is truth.” This is a very profound statement, which must be unpacked to be understood and appreciated. “God” refers here to what in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is called revelation (God revealing itself through scripture). In Hinduism, the basic scriptures are known as the Vedas—the commentary thereof is known as the Upanisads (which are quite rich in terms of religious philosophy). The Vedas contain directions for social practices, such as concern widows (e.g., Sati (throwing oneself on the burning funeral pire of one’s husband) or going into a widows home, which often involved prostitution) and Dalits, or “untouchables” (e.g., not permitted to worship in the temple, or use public drinking fountains—sound familiar?).
Gandhi was saying that he used to accept all that was in revelation—including social practices concerning widows and untouchables—as truth (i.e., as unquestionably valid, or sacred). Observing the suffering of widows and untouchables, he came to realize that to be valid, revelation must itself “pass the truth test.” Suffering of the innocent (Christians may recall the suffering servant motif) as a direct and sole result of a directive in scripture could not be of truth, Gandhi concluded. Truth, in other words, has a higher calling than does revelation. In other words, what humans record as their revelations of the divine should be subject to truth itself, rather than defining (i.e., limiting) it. Even if what the religions record as revelation is informed by a divine source or field, the “informing” must pass through the imperfect (i.e., distortive) atmosphere of the human instruments that do the writing and copying. Therefore, “God is truth” means that truth is rightfully a criterion to be applied to revelation.  That which doesn’t pass the “smell test” can rightfully be ignored (I would include a conflict-of-interest criterion to the “smell test”).
The constitution of modern India forbids the old, rather sordid institutional prejudice against widows and the Dalit (which as of this writing number about 200 million). For example, the practice of physical untouchability, which confined Dalits to low-status jobs and social exclusion, is outlawed. Except in some remote areas, Dalits can walk on the same streets as upper-caste Indians, look them in the eye, and drink from the same wells and water fountains.
Even so, as anyone who has stayed in a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn Express owned or operated by a Patel knows, vocational groupings continue to reflect family groupings, or castes. According to the New York Times, “(s)ocial and economic mobility are limited, a product of India’s layers of cultural legacies: the Hindu caste system, the feudal and sometimes racial hierarchies . . ., and the imperial bureaucracy imposed by Britain.” For many Indians still, you do what your father did. The Times reports that “(k)nowledge-based businesses like information technology have attracted large numbers of Brahmins, the traditional learned caste. The business castes tended to focus more on retail and wholesale trade than manufacturing. Messy industries like construction are closer to the traditional occupations of the lowest castes.” That the historical caste of scholars and priests (i.e., the Brahmins) has turned to information technology reflects the new “high priests” in terms of modern Indian values, yet I doubt that contemporary Brahmin scholars and priests view a computer programmer as being at all equivalent. The caste system itself has been truncated by a certain reductionism to business (i.e., oriented to business), given the societal hegemony of business in modern India.
As a brief digression, I want to translate the Hindu caste system into Western society. A learned caste exists in the West, even if that caste has been eclipsed in popular culture by the “professional” sub-caste in the business caste. Even so, scholars and priests in the West correspond to the Indian Brahmin caste. The political caste contains (in decreasing order) imperial, kingdom/state, province/region/county, and local offices. This is so in both India and the West. The business caste in the West contains its own hierarchy, from professionals (physicians, CPA’s and lawyers) to the people who work in the financial services and information technology, and on down to retail managers and finally manufacturers. The worker caste (foreign farm workers being at its bottom) is below the “managerial” sub-caste of the business caste, and the “welfare” or “homeless” caste is perhaps the Western equivalent of the untouchables in India. As in India, the business caste—in particular the professional and managerial sub-castes—has in practice vaulted to being the de facto highest caste in terms of contemporary values. That the Brahmin caste, in having scriptures or treatises as referents that contradict or relativize whatever happens to be the flavor of the month (e.g., “being a professional”), self-consciously transcends or repudiates “professional” values suggests that a basic learned—politics—business order of status (and even class) exists in spite of the apparent societal hegemony of the professionals (in which, not coincidentally, the next-lower business sub-caste, that of the business executive/manager, has claimed membership). Indeed, practically every working adult American who is not a student claims to be a professional (just look at the housing postings on Craigslist). In the U.S., everyone gets to classify oneself as being in the highest sub-caste of business, which in turn is presumed to be the highest caste in the entire system. It is not simply because physicians, public accountants and lawyers can be wealthy; “professional” now conveys a high-class sort of status. So, it would appear there are two new gods in the American pantheon.
In modern India, the “Dalit problem” may reduce in a practical sense to the task of reducing a rather extreme economic inequality, which in itself is dangerous to a representative democracy. Thanks in part to an affirmative action program by the government, Dalits and tribal people have gained in getting an education and procuring government jobs. This is only part of the story, however. Although widening “the gulf between rich and poor,” the economic expansion brought about by the post-1991 liberalization policy allowing foreign direct investment and expanding trade has enabled some Dalits to become wealthy as business practitioners. As a result of both the affirmative action and liberalization policies, the wage gap between other castes and Dalits decreased from 36 percent in 1983 to 21 percent in 2011 (and the education gap has been halved). Twenty-one percent is less than the gap between Caucasian and Black men in the United States in 2011. The social status of Dalits has risen as well. “With their new wealth they have also won a measure of social acceptance,” according to the Times.
According to Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist and proponent of capitalism for untouchables, “(b)ecause of the new market economy, material markers are replacing social markers.” This can be generalized to include the self-vaunting of the business caste to the head of the line from third in terms of popular understanding both in India and the West. Prasad implicitly likens India to the West, in fact, by making the following observation: “India is moving from a caste-based to a class-based society, where if you have all the goodies in life and your bank account is booming, you are acceptable.” What of the Brahmin priest or scholar of philosophy who sees through all the vanities in life and appreciates timeless gems that don’t necessary pay a monetary dividend? Is the modern professional society in actuality without class, yet still very hierarchical and unequal? It is indeed part of the role of the scholar and priest to hold this mirror up to the “professionals,” whose niggardly caste does not permit donations to such “lost” causes as that of truth. Am I understood?
As Nietzsche theorizes, the strong can be hoodwinked by the weak who seek to dominate beyond their native pith and ken (e.g., those with an undergraduate degree in Law or Medicine claiming nonetheless a false entitlement to the doctorate—the J.S.D. or D.Sci.M. rather than the LLB/JD or MD prerequisite degrees). Pith, or strength, and ken, or knowledge, may come down in the end to character, out of which real castes naturally form in human relations. What physician is going to party with a scholar who reminds him that his MD is actually an undergraduate degree in a Medical school?—the doctorate being a terminal (highest possible, so not a prerequisite for another degree in the same school/discipline) degree that includes comprehensive (not board) exams and a dissertation-length defended body of original research. What scholar is going to respect a lawyer who cannot be wrong about the LLB (the JD is just another name for that degree) being a doctorate because he or she also has a BA in English? It was student dissatisfaction at around 1900 with the “two B’s” (LLB and BA) that prompted the three lawyers who started new University of Chicago Law School to re-label the LLB program as “JD” (this “D” does not stand for doctorate). In typically American fashion, the marketing gimmick was inexorably taken for substance (because of the convenience) and the misnomer quite understandably became the default rather than recognized as a stubborn category mistake. Substantively, a year or two of basic survey courses and the same time in senior seminars (without even a major!) in the discipline of law does not a doctorate make. Yet this misnomer, and the related one in American medical schools, helped fuel the ascendancy of the “professional” sub-caste of business to the top of the heap, aided by the perennial non-virgin goddess of money.
I contend that the self-vaunting of the “professional” sub-caste in the West is just as squalid (and without foundation) as the historical discrimination against the Dalit in what is now India. Both trajectories violate the ethical principle of desert (i.e., what is deserved) which is related to the principle of fairness. Both “mis-casteings” involve the presumption of knowing more than is actually known in the assigning (and enforcement) of roles. In other words, both are dogmatic, or arbitrary, relative to nature. Rather than looking to capitalism or democracy here, the real lesson is in terms of nature relative to human contrivance. The ancient Greek marble pillars might have been majestic in service to Athena or Poseidon, but green vines would have the last say, as per the painting of the Romantics in the nineteenth century.
Whereas governmental preference and capitalism have enabled an increasing number of Dalits to “join the club” of social acceptance, business and government in the West reinforce the hegemony of the “doctored” professionals who in actuality typically have one (Europe) or two (America) undergraduate degrees. Indeed, kings (raj) and businessmen (as well as Brahmin priests!) in historical India played salient roles in keeping the Dalit in their place as (literally) outcastes. So the value of capitalism and a preferential policy of government should not be over-esteemed in themselves simply because they contributed the upward mobility of some (or many) in the Dalit caste. In the end, above particular economic and political systems as well as historical and even modern societal caste or class systems in which some benefit unduly at the expense of others, lies human character, out of which a rather different, distinctly invisible order of castes naturally unfolds without relying on human intention.


Part II

Nature’s Caste System: Character-Based Clusters

Pushing good characters down for no good reason in a sort of “collective judgment” that applies to an entire group of people—as in the case of the untouchables in the caste system in India—and accepting the false entitlement of “professionals” to membership in the highest caste simply because they tend to be wealthy—as in the case of lawyers and physicians in America—violates the clusters that naturally cohere—like gases that form distinct planets having their own separated orbits—on the basis of character. Being “on one planet,” it is immediately obvious that someone else is on another. In this essay, I attempt to sketch some of the basic mechanisms by which nature’s caste system is sustained and articulate the nature of the differences that occasion there being appreciable distance between the clusters.
When a stranger is so rude or presumptuous that all you can do is turn and walk away in utter disbelief, for example, you have run into an alien from one of the outer planets. There are many such creatures communicating with us through Craigslist.
A quick read through the housing section (e.g., room shares, apartments for rent) and many “drama-free” private individuals—self-described “professionals”—can be found making demands right off the bat as they seek to attract (?) a future tenant. In actuality, such people are neither “drama-free” nor “professionals.” Both claims are immediately belied by the manner and content of the writing itself. Such people inhabit a sort of low-class society in which they presume themselves as the elite, or rulers. Astonishingly, the presumption is quite without any hint of second-guessing or shame. “YOU MUST . . . ” written in just this way as an advertisement points to the lack of control they have over their urge to dominate from weakness. Furthermore, they are convinced that they cannot be wrong. Some ask for age and others even bring up religion even though doing so is illegal. “No it’s not!” they would undoubtedly reply. They cannot be wrong. As if by sheer reflex, they must surely take any resistance to their presumption as an insult, even an attack, while they continue to hold themselves as blameless. How could they be otherwise? This rock-hard mentality naturally exists in its own “low class” caste in part because it is immune from being corrected or healed. The only thing a healthy person can do is keep reading—avoiding contact at any cost. This reaction is natural; it is thus one of the principal means by which nature enforces the clusters based on character.
Although I have met some really very nice people on twitter, that “universe” sometimes resembles a low-caste society of sorts that is populated, unfortunately, by creatures who seem dominated by an innate urge or proclivity to grant themselves the entitlement of being a self-certified expert. This seems particularly the case in religious or political topics. Opinions are routinely declared as if facts. “X is Y.” Seldom is it asked, “Perhaps X can be Y?” Although certainly not everyone who tweets on leadership does so, some of the so-called leadership “coaches” like to declare their opinions as if knowledge. It is like watching a little populist democracy of self-invented theory that presumes itself to be fully valid upon being tweeted!
I have in mind the “coaches” who declare as experts  that “Leadership is X” without even having bothered to read the academic (i.e. not “how to”) literature on the topic. In fact, these “coaches,” or cockroaches as they are otherwise known, even dismiss that literature, confusing their own self-informed (grade-wise?) declaration, “Leadership can’t be taught in a classroom!” (whereas leadership can be taught in a daylong “seminar” or “workshop” held in a hotel ballroom for a nice fee) with the fact that leadership can be understood. That was an actual tweet, by the way—by an “expert.” It does not matter that such “experts” are not scholars; they presume they know better what is possible in a classroom. Their presumption is thus of an encroaching nature, without any limit of restraint. Such creatures tend to presume on a regular basis that they 1) know what they actually do not know, and 2) cannot be wrong about it. They must be from a small, very rocky planet somewhere out past Neptune (a similar species populates my “small” hometown, including its little “professional” elite—an elite that is viewed as such only because a mere 21% of the adult population holds a college degree). Low caste, or class, it turns out, is not necessarily of a low socio-economic (or racial) demographic. This is where the historical Hindu caste system really got it wrong.
Worlds away from “low class” know-it-all attitude—which instantly (and naturally!) relegates a person to a low caste much more than does even the ignorance itself—are the more humble and genuine, flying at a much higher altitude. Such people are open to what they might not know and perhaps they are kind to strangers as a kind of natural default of politeness. If you have been fortunate to have been touched by such a person, you have been touched by a being from a planet closer to the sun. The rest of us do not deserve to be so touched, and we know this. Accordingly, as Nietzsche posits, there is a natural distance that arises between people who differ in terms of character-strength—what he calls noble strength. This is the power of a will that willingly takes on resistance, even and especially within—in self-overcoming.
In Nietzsche’s terms, having the will (and will-power!) to self-overcome one’s own most intransigent internal obstacle—a powerful instinct—proffers the most intense (or powerful) pleasure of power. Having the will and strength to perform such a task on a regular basis (i.e., self-overcoming) naturally builds character (noble strength). In so doing, it naturally separates one from people who take an easier path through life, whether through lack of will, or weakness. In other words, strength of character, an innate quality that I believe a person can strengthen or choose to compromise by will, differs among human beings (no doubt at least in part from upbringing). Such differences constitute the vacuums that inevitably exist between the natural castes that naturally form in the human condition. All other castes, or classes, are dogmatic in the sense that they are arbitrary to that condition.
In expunging the artificial sort such as the Hindu caste system, we should not ignore or dismiss the natural array of castes that we know on a daily basis by means of our natural sentiments of approbation and disapprobation. In fact, David Hume held that such sentiments constitute our recognition of “moral” and “immoral.” Perhaps these terms are but part of a more general sense we naturally have of the subjective distance that exists between natural, character-driven, castes or levels of being human, all too human. We moderns hate to think of humanity in such terms, yet I wager we know it on an all-too-daily basis, as we inexorably interact with others—realizing that some people are naturally closer while insisting that others acknowledge the distance that is—and must be—there.
Even a mere essay reflects and reinforces the natural affinities and distances that account for there being distinct clusters, or castes, in any given human social context. Nietzsche wrote in his Genealogy of Morals that it is not meant to be understood by everyone. Breaching the natural distance as if it were somehow “immoral” could sicken, or infect, the innately stronger. Many of the self-certified “coaches” (i.e., “experts” on leadership), for example, have already dismissed this essay in its entirety, mistaking disdain for disagreement (and ultimately weakness for strength). Sustaining that distance is not only the odious smell of arrogant ignorance; the cockroaches themselves fear being “outed” as phonies by a pest-control guy whom they sense can spray them with the disinfectant of (other-certified) knowledge. The arrogance of cockroaches does not permit them to scatter in the transparency of knowledge, so they tend to naturally keep their distance in the first place.
Far more interesting than the presumption of false entitlement by supercilious “professionals” and the ignorant opinion certifying itself as knowledge by the “coaches” is the notion that differences in the duration and timing of genes that trigger other genes can (along with environmental factors) eventuate in human interaction manifesting as distinct clusters based on something as intangible as character—and much of it without intention! We naturally cohere with some people as though in invisible stickiness were involved, and we just as naturally keep our distance from others as if doing so were simply by instinct. I must admit I have tended not to pay sufficient attention to natural distance and have wound up having to enforce what should have been natural. As imperfect as nature’s caste system is, the historical Hindu attempt to systematize it by group and presumably for all ages to come shows just how far ahead nature is to human intention. Try as we might, we cannot bottle it! For unlike the Hindu variety, natural law does not depend on religious, political and economic institutions for enforcement.


Sources:
Lydia Polgreen, “Scaling Caste Walls With Capitalism’s Ladders,” The New York Times, December 22, 2011. 

Friedrich Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Walter Kaufmann, trans. and ed. (New York: Modern Library, 2000).