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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Democracy as an Anti-Trust Criterion: The Comcast Time-Warner Merger

As the U.S. Department of Justice and the SEC were reviewing the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner in April 2015, six U.S. senators signed a joint letter opposing the $45 billion deal. Comcast would control about 30 percent of the pay-television subscribers in the U.S. and an estimated 35 to 50 percent of the American broadband internet service.[1] That more senators had not signed on is telling with respect to how business-oriented American society had become.

The full essay is at “Democracy and Anti-Trust Law.”

[1] Emily Steel, “6 Senators Urge Rejection of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Deal,” The New York Times, April 21, 2015.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Anti-trust Enforcement in the E.U. and U.S.: Business, Government and Society

In 2014, the E.U. depended on Gazprom, a state-controlled Russian gas company, for one-third of the natural gas used in Europe. Meanwhile, Russia depended on the company for export-earnings. Moreover, both the E.U. and Russia view Gazprom from not only commercial vantage-points, but geopolitical ones as well. Both dimensions were in the mix as the European Commission weighed bringing anti-trust charges against the company in April 2015. At the time, the E.U.’s executive branch was already formally pursuing Google on anti-trust grounds. Relative to anti-trust enforcement in the U.S., the E.U.’s own represents a formidable attempt to open up competitive markets. We can generalize, in fact, to posit a more balanced “check and balance” between business and government in Europe.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

BuzzFeed’s Internal Firewall Falls to a Conflict of Interest

In spite of the fact that public-accounting firms rely on their respective audit clients’ decisions to be retained to perform the next year’s audit, society deems an unqualified audit-opinion to be independent. The assumption is that the audit firms can police themselves, keeping their financial pressures from influencing the audit opinions. The ongoing temptation is of course to produce a clean opinion so as to be retained as the client’s public accountants. Unfortunately, someone at a given CPA firm must have authority requiring attention both to audit opinions and the firm’s own financial performance; internal policies separating pressure from the latter from reaching the former can thus be easily overcome from the vantage point of that authority. This vulnerability was on display in 2015 in the “dot-com” industry in BuzzFeed.

The full essay is at “BuzzFeed’s Internal Firewalls.”

Electric Utilities Thwart Solar Applications: A Conflict of Interest Rewarding the Status Quo

Considering the contribution of coal-burning power-plants to atmospheric carbon-emissions and thus global warming, governments around the world should be encouraging rather than discouraging home-owners to install solar panels. That is to say, we ought not privilege the status quo when it has contributed so much already to an uncomfortable or even uninhabitable Earth for mankind. So it is unfortunate that energy officials in Hawaii’s government had to step in to pressure—no, order—the Hawaiian Electric Company to approve its “lengthy backlog” of solar applications.[1] I submit that the officials should have gone further in correcting for the conflict of interest in the utility. Put in the vernacular, electric companies tended at the time to screw customers who could sell back “home-grown” solar power. The root problem here is in the utilities’s dual roles of seller and consumer of power.

The full essay is at “Electric Utilities and Solar Power.”

[1] Diane Cardwell, “Utilities See Solar Panels as Threat to Bottom Line,” The New York Times, April 19, 2015.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hollywood’s Conflict of Interest in Trade Negotiations

At the intersection of business and government, a conflict of interest can be indicative of plutocracy, the rule of wealth, at the expense both of balanced public policy and democracy. That is to say, where the regulated have disproportionate influence over regulators and said influence places the regulated in a conflict of interest, the unethical dimension is dwarfed by the distortive impact on the political system. The disproportionate influence of the content industry (i.e., Hollywood) in the U.S. position on the Pacific Trade negotiations in 2014 is a case in point.

The full essay is at “Hollywood and Trade.” 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Breaking Up the Biggest Banks: The Impact on Moral Hazard

Citing the “slap on the wrist” culture at the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren called on Congress in April 2015 to break up the big banks such as Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs.[1] She coupled the ‘break-up” approach to reducing the systemic risk with limiting the Fed’s ability to bailout individual banks. The synergy in Warren’s approach is worthy of further analysis.

The full essay is at "Breaking Up the Biggest Banks."

1. Reuters, “Elizabeth Warren Calls on Congress to Break Up the Big Banks, Change Tax Rules,” The Huffington Post, April 15, 2015.

God's Gold: Banking and Monopoly

A decade or so into the twenty-first century, a typical business practitioner might suppose that godliness and greed live in two utterly different universes—Wall Street and Main Street both being subject to the sway of greed rather than the bliss of the heavenly hosts. The world is profane, while the sacred lives in some other shoebox. Even so, the oil and water have been allowed to mix, though of course without fusing into one compound. For example, God has been invoked to justify profit-seeking and wealth, and even love of gain, or greed. The relationship between greed and what we take to be the divine is actually more complex than meets the eye.

The full essay is at "Banking and Monopoly."

Monday, April 6, 2015

Wall Street CEOs Suffering with Lower Pay: Self-Preservation or Greed?

As much as the titans on Wall Street pull in during a year, they still want more. It must be human nature. If so, nature may be at odds with narrowing economic inequality. Even as 2014's compensation figures show such a narrowing, I suspect that such a case is an exception rather than being indicative of a fundamental shift.

The complete essay is at “Wall Street CEOs” 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Pope Francis: A Poor Church Rich in Humility

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Pope Francis set about implementing the spirit of the letter after the two last popes had concentrated on holding the Roman Catholic Church in check lest it lose itself in accommodating itself too much to the modern world. On the surface, the pope’s “vision of Vatican II has translated into a dramatic shift in priorities, with an emphasis on social justice over controversial moral teachings” such as on abortion and gay marriage.[1] Calling out the clerical obsession on the “social issues,” the pope sought as he assumed the papacy to provide his colleagues with a dose of perspective. To be sure, the pope did not alter the Church’s position on those issues or on whether divorced Catholics should be allowed to take Communion. Nor did he act on his demand for a “poor church for the poor.”[2] Rather, his main concern was directed against the “theological narcissism,” as he put it, that imposes rather than proposes to the larger secular society.[3] I submit that the pope's primary objective was to change a problematic clerical attitude rather than to rid the Church of its wealth or drastically change the Church's moral stances.

The full essay is at “Pope Francis.”

[1] Francis X. Bocca, “The New Rome,” The Wall Street Journal, April 4-5, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

God's Gold

As promised, I have stepped away from the obtuse academic writing to write a book geared to people "in the real world" who are interested in the topic of Christian ethics on money, profit-seeking, and wealth. People keep telling the topic is "hot" now (as if I should have a clue). I would think the interest will have died down since 2008 during the financial crisis. 

Anyway, I've been trying to come up with a book that a Christian and/or business practitioner could pick up and read without the aid of a dictionary every other line. This is not to say that the book is bereft of substantive ideas; in fact, I did additional research since Godliness and Greed came out. Also, I was able to build on some ideas and toss others after chewing the cud on the original content. Therefore, I think God's Gold is better even academically-speaking. Let me know what you think; after you have read the book, post a review at Amazon. 

The book traces the historical shift in Christian attitudes toward profit-seeking and wealth. Through the centuries, the dominant position shifted from anti-wealth to pro-wealth, meaning that the coupling of greed to profiting and accumulating wealth was at first thought to be very tight, but then loosened--eventually to the extent that a camel could get through the eye of the needle. With both anti-wealth Luther and pro-wealth Calvin living in the same economic context, the commercialization of Europe cannot fully explain the shift. As one possibility, a bias in a core theological doctrine may have been subtly tilting the ground in the pro-wealth direction. If so, the implications for Christianity, and for religion more generally as a phenomenon, would be nothing short of earth-shaking.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Fixing Federalism Sidestepped in Opposing E.P.A. Coal Regulations

In his letter to every state governor in March 2015, Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the U.S. Senate, urged the state officials to ignore the E.P.A.’s regulations that when implemented would reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. In his letter, the senator complained that President Obama was “allowing the E.P.A. to wrest control of a state’s energy policy.”[1] Were McConnell the chair of the E.U.’ s European Council rather than the U.S.’s Senate, he would doubtlessly have pointed to the worsening “democracy deficit,” wherein regulators in the European Commission take power away from state legislatures. Yet, surprisingly (or many not), the majority leader did not frame the issue in terms of federalism. Why?

The full essay is at “Fixing Federalism Sidestepped.”

[1] Coral Davenport, “McConnell Urges States to Help Thwart Obama’s ‘War on Coal,’” The New York Times, March 20, 2015.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Conflicts of Interest in Europe’s Greek-Austerity Impasse

At the conclusion of the European Council session in March 2015, all 19 of the state governors in attendance still wanted the state of Greece to remain with the euro. As for whether Greece should continue its austerity program and reform its economy as per the ongoing agreement on continued bailout funds, the tally was 18 to 1. Although both federal and state officials in the E.U. overwhelming believed that the austerity program had been behind the growth in the Greek economy in 2014, the Greek finance minister and most Keynesian economists disagreed, pointing to the fact that the state had lost a quarter of its GDP under the austerity. Besides this honest difference of opinion on the effectiveness of the strategy, conflicts-of-interest compromise the “club of 18” and thus its position.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

American Students View College as Job-Training: Forsaking Education?

“What is your major?” is a mantra (and undoubtedly a pick-up line too) on college campuses. In giving students some exposure to a variety of academic disciplines, distribution requirements are meant in part to help students make more informed decisions of what to major in. According to an analysis of twelve randomly-chosen American colleges and universities in 2015, an increasing percentage of students since the recession of 2009 were circumventing this help by declaring their respective majors during their freshman year.[1] The reason, according to the business newspaper, is pragmatism, student debt-loads, and a difficult job market. “In 2012, nearly half of college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed or had jobs that didn’t use their degrees.”[2] In response, a higher proportion of students were going to college to get a job. Although The Wall Street Journal lauds the reduction of education to vocation, even more striking is how even academic administrators mischaracterize the intellectual mission of colleges and universities. 

The full essay is at “College as Job-Training.”

[1] Douglas Belkin, “Freshman Are Picking Their Majors Earlier,” The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 2015.
[2] A 2014 paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Quote taken from Belkin, “Freshman.” 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

California’s Elongated Drought: Warming to a Changing Status-Quo

With the winter of 2014-2015 failing to deliver much of a snowpack to California, Californians entered a fourth year of drought. The measurement on March 3rd of the snowpack was the water equivalent of five inches, or 19% of the average for that date.[1] The drought’s extension ran counter to the conventional wisdom that droughts last three years in California. Such “wisdom” is problematic not only for its specific content in this case, but also because of the underlying presumption of epistemological infallibility. Ok, I’ll unpack this bit of creative verbosity. Without being aware of it, we tend to assume that we can’t be wrong about things we have not studied. In fact, we even dismiss the knowledge of those who are learned in a given subject in favor of our own belief that we can’t be wrong about what we suppose we know. This tendency of the human brain gets our species in a lot of trouble, yet we as a species are nearly blind to underlying drought.

The full essay is at “California’s Elongated Drought.”

[1] Adam Nagourney, “Alarm Rises For a State Withered By Drought,” The New York Times, March 18, 2015.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Affordable Care Act: Healthcare as a Human Right?

Did the Americans who were in favor of passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 believe that access to healthcare is a human right? Did the Americans who opposed “Obamacare” reject that assumption and thus favor treating health insurance as a commodity? We can look at political and economic indications to reach an answer.

The full essay is at “Healthcare in Obamacare: A Human Right?”