Feb 6 2011

Letter to the Editor: Corporate Personhood

For the one year anniversary of the Citizens United v FEC decision. I wrote my first Letter-to-the-Editor and sent it to several local and national papers.

I found it very difficult to make a cogent and insightful point in 150-200 words which is what the majority of papers dictated. In the end, even though I wasn’t completely happy with my efforts, I thought it was still worth sending (to add my voice to the others that editors are hopefully receiving). Since I didn’t hear back from any of the papers I assumed that it just hadn’t been selected, but I noticed today that at least a few did print it. So you can see my freshman attempt at letter to the editor writing here:

Statesman Journal (Salem, OR)

The Columbian (Vancouver, WA)

Jan 17 2011

Drummajor Instinct

Today I took to heart the concept of “a day on” instead of “a day off” and volunteered my time on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Portland-area universities coordinated a day of service with more than forty projects going on throughout the region. Stasia and I helped paint, clean and decorate a school for very high needs children. It was a fulfilling day and hopefully sets the tone (for myself and the other 1200 participants) not just for a single day of service, but for a year of service, and then a lifetime of service.

There’s a lot of good energy around the holidays and then on MLK day for volunteering to help others, but the risk with playing it up so much as an event is that it deemphasizes the important work that always exists. For people in the Portland area who are interested in service, check out Hands on Portland which is a searchable database to connect volunteers with opportunities to help in the Portland area. You can search by schedule, location, or type of opportunity. It’s a very nice tool for connecting up distinct community needs with people’s skills, resources or labor.

The best part of the opening session was one of Martin Luther King Junior’s speeches that I had never heard before, called the Drummajor Instinct. They played a recording of Dr. King delivering the following (the end of the sermon) and it set exactly the right tone for the day:

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.

I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to live his life serving others.

I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.

I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.

And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.

I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.

I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.

The full sermon text can be found here along with an audio recording of Dr. King delivering this sermon on February 4, 1968 just two months before his death. The excerpt above is from the very end of the piece (starting at 35:07 on the audio recording).

I agree with Dr. King, that a better thing could not be said about any of us than that we lived a life committed to serving others. I’m sure working on it.

Now off to the Portland Plan workshop for a different kind of engagement (far less direct, but hopefully not less meaningful).

Jan 16 2011

Biking: You can do it!

Honestly, I don’t have them very often, but today was one of those days that I just did not want to get back on my bike. I assume all bike commuters have these from time to time. I had already done an hour long ride through the rain complete with all manner of road debris (on account of people using snow tires when there isn’t any snow) to get here. Now that it was several hours later and my event was over, I was finally feeling dry and did not look forward to getting back into my rain gear and doing another hour in the rain, this time also in the dark. I had even been offered a ride home, which I was very close to taking.

As it got closer and closer to leaving time though, I kept thinking about this presentation that Stasia and I saw yesterday by Tara Goddard on biking in Sangju (a city in South Korea)(presentation can be found here). The main thing I was left with at the end of the presentation, was how even the elderly biked in South Korea. By Tara’s recounting, biking was the primary form of transportation for nearly everyone over 55 in Sangju. We had even seen slides of 75 year old women on their bikes zipping through town. How could I not be willing to do what little old ladies in Sangju had been doing for their whole lives?

The other part that I was thinking about was the whole “be the change you want to see in the world” piece. Many people in the U.S. don’t think of biking as a viable form of transportation because they can’t picture themselves out there doing it. Showing people that they can do it (and that it’s not that big of a deal) is inherently valuable. If we want to create a society where biking replaces other more resource-intensive forms of transportation (and we would certainly like all of the economic, environmental and human health benefits that come along with that) then it’s up to each of us to be riding whenever possible.

So I finally sucked it up and got on my bike. As always, it wasn’t that bad once I got started. I made it home a little wet, but with my principles intact. Bikes are not a lesser form of transportation!

Dec 13 2010

Inside Job Part 3: Regulation

The previous two posts have been abstracted from the actual content of the film and have instead focused on its impact on me and its methods. But wait! I also had thoughts on the actual content of the film!

Many aspects of The Inside Job were compelling, especially to the layperson such as myself who has only a cursory knowledge of the events precipitating the recent worldwide financial troubles. Beyond its interest as a history lesson however, the film sharply advocates for greater regulation of the financial services industry (in a variety of capacities (kinds of derivatives allowed, conflict of interests, executive pay, etc.)).

It’s also a topic that is moderately interesting to me as I often find myself thinking about regulation prompted by the near constant stream of examples of businesses’ inability to self regulate.

On some level it’s difficult for me to understand what people are envisioning when they advocate for complete deregulation. Without wanting to pose a straw man, I think the basic argument is that the market can sort out any troubles (or questionable practices) that may arise in industry.

There are many things that aren’t clear to me about this position. I just don’t see how in a completely deregulated system we would avoid monopolies, worker exploitation, and environmental exploitation to name just a few things that we all agree are negative. If the answer on how these are avoided is that ‘consumers of the end-good will decide to buy something different,’ I think that the laissez-faire viewpoint is extremely naive about the modern consumer world.

In order for this kind of choice to occur there are several important prerequisites:

  1. Consumers must be informed. Especially as the production chain lengthens, it seems like it’s increasingly difficult for consumers to know what companies (and business practices) have gone into the making of a particular product. When I look at labels of pre-packaged food I’m often even unsure what all the ‘ingredients’ are, since I don’t have extensive knowledge of the chemistry that goes into modern food production and preservation. (Although, I’m extremely happy that thanks to regulation I can count on there being a list of ingredients and that they have been tested for negative health impacts on humans.) So if I don’t understand even for one package of teriyaki tofu, what all is going into it, I’m not sure how the free market camp expects that I will know enough about the tens of thousands of parts that go into a computer to make an informed decision. Especially if the manufacturer is not required to tell me what the parts are, where they came from, who made them and under what circumstances (thanks again Regulation!). In order for consumers to determine the kinds of things that we tend to regulate, using only their purchase decision, consumers would need to have access to the necessary information, which in my experience manufacturers are reticent to provide unless legally compelled.

    (On a small tangent, it seems like using the purchasing decision as the mechanism to approve or disapprove of company practices is a very blunt tool.

    Ok, so this person bought our competitor’s product instead of ours, what was it that they didn’t like about our product? Was it the size? Shape? Cost? Aspects of our worker compensation plan? Did they not like our environmental practices?

    This is similar to the line I investigated in my post on Winner Take All Politics a few weeks ago. Broadly taken, I believe that for preferences, a yes/no method of communication will rarely yield very accurate representation of the preference.)

  2. Commensurate options must exist for purchase. If the consumer choices are to be the only thing that drives company policy, that presupposes that there will be a variety of companies (with varying internal policies) who all produce a similar product. As a consumer, I can then purchase the item from the company I most support (theoretically communicating to competitors that they should change their policies if they want me to buy their option in the future). This does not match with the world that I observe currently. Maybe I’m a hapless casualty of ‘product differentiation,’ but when I’m in a store, I think that I rarely see two exactly equal products. Undoubtedly the world would look very different under a completely free market system, but I can’t imagine even in an idealized market that for every product there would be a bunch of vendors with the same basic item who I could then select between based on my moral compass. (I’m asserting here that regulation generally represents a society’s collective moral will (eg, “we don’t want child laborers,” “we do want a minimum wage for all workers,” “we don’t want toxic chemicals spewed into our public spaces for private gain,” etc.)) That also makes me wonder about what the truly free market advocate has to say about intellectual property rights at all. Isn’t copyright enforcement by the government a form of regulation on an industry?

I’m sure there are many other prerequisites to a perfectly functioning free market that are lacking in our current society, but those are the two that jump out at me most immediately.

So in my mind, regulation seems to a necessary aspect of modern commerce. We cannot expect that every consumer will be informed about the morally-relevant aspects of every company, nor can we assume that without regulation there will always exist an option for each product that concurs with our collective ethic.

I do think that in modern day America, there are plenty of bad regulations. Ones that serve to protect a special interest at the expense of the general tax payer, or regulations that are simply outdated/obsolete. But for me, these are cases to have better regulation, not remove all of it.

As I alluded to above, I conceive of contemporary commerce as being immensely complex; a delicate balance of hundreds of companies in dozens of countries with thousands of workers conspiring to bring a computer to my local store. This complexity creates increased opportunities for people (and institutions) to skirt regulations (and thus defy our collective moral will) and also leads to a so-called “revolving door” between regulators and industry members. This phenomena in the financial services sector is highlighted throughout the film and is sickening to watch. (Who better to regulate the banks than one of their biggest CEO’s?)

After the film, I started to think about a broader definition of “conflict of interest” where it’s not individuals that benefit, but targeted groups more broadly. I have a sketch of what I’m thinking about, but it’s not fully fleshed out yet.

Class-conflict of interest
Imagine a society where a small minority has a belief (ala Ayn Rand) that the best thing for everyone is for them (as a group, not necessarily as individuals) to have all of the society’s wealth. Now imagine that for historical reasons, Group A is actually the minority that is in charge of that society’s public policies.* This seems like a conflict of interest to me. Even though a particular individual policy maker may not be enriched directly by a decision that s/he participates in, by virtue of her philosophy and her membership in the group that she believes should be enriched it seems that this would be an unideal situation for a just society.

The situation described above is basically the picture that is painted in the film of top-level economists and economic advisers (even in academia). Where suggestions are made and policies are advocated for that serve to continue the Reaganomics idea of trickle down wealth (make the wealthy as absolutely rich as possible, and (the theory goes), the worst off will have their income raised as well). Maybe trickle-down economics works, and maybe it doesn’t, but regardless, do we really want to have a cadre of the wealthy as the principle advisers on the issue? As the category of people who will benefit most directly from the decision, it seems like we should be more suspect of their advice to adopt policies that will enrich them disproportionately but are described as being “for the good of society.”

Well, that’s probably enough for now on regulation, though I’m sure I’ll return to it in the future. These were originally designed as a trifecta of posts regarding The Inside Job with decreasingly removed levels of connection to the content. So now I’m done with that. Next on to something else!

*There an interesting series called The Trap (link is to the first of three parts) by filmmaker Adam Curtis, which has an intriguing thread about the shift in government attitude in the UK under Margaret Thatcher when civil servants started to be characterized as evil/selfish actors who were (and should be) only out for their own self-interest. The response is then to limit the extent of government, completely ignoring the idea that civil servants may actually have been altruistic from the beginning. I’m vastly oversimplifying even this one small aspect of Curtis’ film, but it’s worth the one hour investment if you’re interested…

Dec 6 2010

Inside Job Part 2: Short term journalism gains vs. long term societal gains

The first thoughts I had after leaving The Inside Job were about the style of journalism that it was and the implications for public knowledge about our policy decision makers. The film has elements of Michael Moore-style aggressive interviews (although the interviewer was not on camera and not an identified presence in the film), where the interviewee would be interrupted, contradicted, and often made to look uninformed.

At one point Glen Hubbard (currently Dean of the Columbia Business School, formerly Chief Economic Advisor to the George W. Bush administration) specifically tells the interviewer that it was foolish of him to have agreed to be interviewed and that he will only speak for another three minutes. It’s apparent that several other subjects mirror Glen Hubbard’s sentiments and at least one interviewee tells the crew to turn the camera off prematurely.

In watching these interactions, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s sweet justice (however small) for these former “public servants” who made disastrous choices while serving “our best interests” to be made uncomfortable and to be called out for the impact of their decisions. Concurrently though, I was thinking “wow, that person will probably never agree to be interviewed about this again.”

This lead me to start thinking about the much heralded decline of professional journalism and the sustainability of what is replacing it. I’m not an expert on this by any means, but my understanding is that historically there were journalists who spent their lifetimes developing personal and professional relationships with the important decision and policy makers in the public sector. These journalists could then call on these relationships and also on the general history of what they’d published, or maybe on the credibility of their editors to give politicians and other public servants confidence that they would be treated fairly if interviewed. Under this system journalists are incentivized to be judicious in their treatment of decision makers because they may compromise their ability to interview them in the future.

As full-time professional journalists decline, it seems like more and more of the one-off sensational bloggers, book authors and documentarians are jockeying to take their place.* Many of these media-creators are not fully paid professionals who are limited to any one particular area of coverage. This means that in many ways they have less need for continued access than their predecessors. I was thinking about this as a slash and burn model of interviewing. It’s not a big deal to Michael Moore (and I presume Charles Ferguson) if their interview goes so negatively that the subject (eg Charleton Heston) will never speak to them again, because they’ve already extracted what they wanted (which is often the emotional reaction that their tactics create). To clarify, I do think there are cases where these methods may be in society’s best interest. If a scandal is being exposed, if it’s possible to illicit a confession, or other important discovery during the course of the interview, then it seems better to have done so than not, even if it means the subject will never grant another interview.

What does this mean for society? Well sadly, as this film demonstrates I think that it means that future interviewers will enjoy far less access to public policy and decision makers. (The recurrence of those officials who had declined to be interviewed for the film featured prominently and they also maintain this extensive list on their website).

It may also mean that politicians and public figures will increasingly grant access only to those entities that they believe will portray them positively, such as Sarah Palin’s refusal to appear on any major news network other than the highly conservative Fox News.

In my ideal world part of being a public servant would be that you would need to be available to the public both during and after your tenure, for those decisions that you made which shaped public policy. I’m not sure exactly what form this would take, because I understand that as an official (or afterwards) one has more to do that just answer questions from journalists all the time. But if there’s one message that comes through most clearly in the film, it’s that when you allow people to make decisions that benefit them (or others) in the short term and remove the possibility (or likelihood) that they will be held accountable if the long term effects of those decisions are bad, then you will end up with a system that incentivizes people to take short term risks. This is not what we want our public servants to be doing (or our business leaders if they are receiving or controlling public funds).

Although I agree that exposés and uncomfortable interviews can be entertaining to watch, I worry that the proliferation of this form of reporting will serve in the long run to make public officials less open to the public and this is a result that hurts us all.

*Another unfortunate aspect of the decline of print journalism is the assault on the value of content and most specifically the well researched and documented journalism that’s most important for public understanding of the complex legislation and policies that impact them. I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s interesting manifesto You Are Not a Gadget that discusses this more in depth (kind of).