Sunday, November 9, 2014

Warren Anderson: A Portrait Of A Corporate Predator?

This New York Times obituary for Warren Anderson, the former chair and chief executive of Union Carbide Corporation, made me reflect on the life and times of his former corporation, some of which is (of course) is related in the obituary.

The obituary goes into considerable detail about the Union Carbide chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India.  The tragedy, in addition to the horrific Indian loss in lives, turned Mr. Anderson effectively into a fugitive from Indian justice for the rest of his life, while the financial toll from the settlement with Indian authorities and the public relations toll from the accusations made by Indian officials, employees and residents eventually took Carbide from the top of the Fortune 500 ranks to its current status as a subsidiary of Dow Chemical.

I can't say that anyone foresaw the Bhopal tragedy.  Certainly, I didn't.  But I can't say that I was completely shocked by it.  By the loss of life, yes.  But not by Carbide's evasive manner of dealing with it.

Union Carbide came on my radar (apart from Eveready commercials) during the 1970s, when my fascination with New York City, which began with the World's Fair, led to an obsession with media stories about the city's decline and near-fall.  On the economic side, a major part of that decline was the departure of corporate headquarters to the suburbs or the Sunbelt.  When Carbide announced, in 1976, that it was moving its world headquarters from New York City to Danbury, Connecticut, it was an especially devastating blow, as 3,500 employees were leaving the city with the headquarters.  Pleas from city and state officials were to no avail, as Carbide officials cited "quality of life" considerations (i.e., getting away from the city's soaring crime rate, but also easing the commute for top-ranking executives who lived in the suburbs).

At the time, departures such as Carbide's were considered to exemplify the superior wisdom of nimble private-enterprise management, compared to the bureaucratic, tax-hungry perspective of public officials.  But corporate relocations--and the public incentives that often fuel them--have nothing to do with capitalism.  If anything, they reflect the laziness of both public and private officials who would rather play games than do the hard work of thinking about new and creative ways to make their companies, cities or states better.  Capitalism shouldn't be fueled by public-sector bribes, and governments shouldn't play favorites with their treatment of businesses.  Both practices are breeding grounds for corruption.

I'm not saying that, had Union Carbide remained in New York, the Bhopal disaster would never have occurred.  I am saying that the basic, looking-out-for-Number-One mentality that fuels these decisions, and the assistance provided in making them by public officials charged with looking out for the public interest, can be seen as the start of a slippery slope that begins in Danbury and ends in Bhopal.  If you are treated like a God, over and over again, you will be tempted to think you are infallible.  And, because you are not, that mindset makes you an inevitable, if not willing, agent of tragedy.

Perhaps Warren Anderson took to his grave the answer to question of what happened in Bhopal, and why.  Maybe it had nothing to do with the mindset that took Carbide to Connecticut.  But he was in upper management at the time both decisions were made.  It might have been his greatest gift if he could have found a way to share some insights into the Carbide mentality.  The corporation began its death spiral on his watch.  What he knew, or didn't know, might help other corporations, or public officials, from making the same mistakes.

A Little Advice By Way Of John Wanamaker

... you STILL are the change you seek.

I'm talking to progressives everywhere when I say that.  But I'm specifically talking to you, millennials.

This guy is partially right.  Obama and the Democrats need to offer you more to earn your vote.  But here's a little hint about the way in which democracy works:  you don't have to wait for them to do it.

And I'd like to offer a little inspiration from an unexpected source:  a one-percenter from an earlier century by the name of John Wanamaker.

If you're from Philadelphia, you already know who Wanamaker was.  The founder of what is believed to be the first department store in the United States, Wanamaker also was a major philanthropist in his home town of Philadelphia, and served as Postmaster General under President Benjamin Harrison.  In spite of those facts, his memorial at Philadelphia's City Hall has a simple inscription:

(Photo taken from http://www.panoramio.com/photo/95213334)

CITIZEN.  That's what John Wanamaker was to the people of Philadelphia, after he died.  More than a merchant, a government official or a philanthropist, he was a citizen.  He was involved in all aspects of his city's life.  "Citizen" was, as a consequence, the greatest title he could have been given.

Those of you who are experts on Wanamaker know that he was not a point-by-point progressive.  But that is not the point.  Rather, it is what his life meant to Philadelphians, and how they chose to honor him.

To be truly a citizen, one must be involved in all aspects of the life of your city, your county, your state and your country.  Not once in a while, and certainly not just every two years.  Or, for that matter, every four years, when the presidential elections show up.

You don't have to wait for Obama.  Or, for that matter, the next Obama.  And you certainly don't have to wait for the next opportunity to vote.  Why not decide to be the next Obama?  Run for office.  Follow the example of the GOP, and seize control of the Democratic Party at the local level.  Get yourself elected to local and state positions in government.  And run for Congress as well.

And, if you're not comfortable with being in the public eye, get involved anyway, and stay involved.  Organize.  Donate.  Register voters.  And never lose sight of the fact that Obama would never have happened in the first place, without you.  And someone like him will never happen again, without you.

Whatever you do, don't despair and drop out.  That simply guarantees the outcome the other guys want.  And it is never guaranteed.  They don't have to be in charge.  You're the ones who get to decide whether or not that happens.

So take this guy's advice.  And this one's.  And be a citizen.  Today, tomorrow, and the rest of your life.  You won't regret it.  And neither will your children and grandchildren.

Unsolitcited Advice For The President And His Party

President Obama's post-election news conference was a relief, after last week's disastrous election.  And, I have to admit, I wasn't expecting that.  Especially in the run-up to it, before he appeared at the podium, with reporters debating amongst themselves how far the President would go to offer terms of surrender.  Would he crawl in on his hands and needs?  Would he offer up a singed copy of the ACA on a silver platter?  You get the idea.

And, while there were a few moments of platitudes about cooperation, which is about all the similar GOP platitudes deserve, I was, for the most part, pleasantly surprised.

He didn't back off on his willingness to take executive action, especially with regard to immigration reform.  He didn't offer an apology for any of his accomplishments to date.  And he rebuffed the attempts of a reporter (from Fox, of course) to goad him into surrendering the last two years of his presidency to Congressional Republicans.

As Politico reported, there was no Clinton-style "pivot" designed to make Republicans or their supporters happy.  And that's exactly the right thing to do, after an election where two-thirds of the voters stayed home, and most of those people are your supporters.  And props to Obama for acknowledging that fact.

Like many of you, I have long been frustrated with the president's seemingly bottomless desire to start out on his knees in facing his opponents, and work his way down from there.  I'm taking the post-election news conference as a sign that those days are over.

They should be.  For him, and his party.  This is the essence of my advice to Obama and the Democrats:  break out of the "bipartisan" urge to surrender, and acknowledge what you are:  liberals.  Especially after an election in which liberalism won

Here are a few reasons why:

This election was not an anomaly.  It was the sixth year of a Democratic Presidency with a large number of red states in play.  There's nothing unusual when the party out of the White House loses seats after six years in power.  It happened in 1966, in 1974, in 1986 and in 2006.  Only the media, with its vested interest in being seen or read, says otherwise.  And it's high time for Democrats to stop worrying about whether the media likes them or not.  They don't.  So get over it, and get on with it.

You can win in a tough electoral environment for your party, if you don't apologize for who you are.  Going into this election, Republicans moved heaven and earth to make the Michigan Senate race a potential pick-up opportunity for them.  It didn't happen, because Gary Peters refused to run away from Obama.  Of course, it also helped that his opponent proved to have a talent for wackiness.  But so did other Senate Republican candidates, and they won.  Peters' willingness to stand up for his president and his party's values made the difference.  When 2016 rolls around, Democrats, and their patrons and voters, should look for more candidates like him.  Which leads me to this:

The 2016 electorate will not look like the 2014 version.  It will be bigger.  And younger.  The Republican base is essentially a dying base, that will diminish with each successive election.  President Obama and his allies in Congress need to remember that.  I expect that the president will remember that; I'm not so sure about his allies.  But I hope that I'm wrong.

The GOP controls Congress, but not the issues.  They spent the entire election running away from the issues.  Climate change is perhaps the biggest example; in fact, climate change cost them an election in this cycle, in deep-red Nebraska.  And it's not the only issue that going to haunt them over the next two years; with the expiration of the PATRIOT Act, the Republicans (to say nothing of the Democrats) will have to weigh the public's concerns about privacy in deciding whether or not to renew it, and to make changes in it.  This is one huge area where Obama and Democrats can take the lead, and recapture the loyalty of younger voters.  Students loans represent another.  As for the ACA, Republicans should be careful what they wish for; in its present form, the law has the potential to help people in states they control.  How far do they want to go in disrupting that potential?

It's no wonder that The National Review is telling the GOP not to govern.  The GOP has the election results.  Not the issues, not the majority of the people, and not the future.  Just a short-term election win in the long-haul struggles to make the greatest nation on earth even better.

Obama and the Democrats should not lose sight of any of this.  And neither should you, because ...

Liberals Lost, But Liberalism Won

If you're reading this, you are probably alternating between anger and depression.  As am I.  I've been doing that for most of the past five days.  How do I overcome it?

Simple.  By coming back to facts.  And this is the most important one about last Tuesday.  Other than the determination by the people of Kansas that they're going to experiment with economic suicide (and a senator who will continue to live in a La-Z-Boy in Virginia).

Liberals lost.  But liberalism won.  All over the country, in fact.

Start with what should have been the signature issue for Democrats in this election:  the minimum wage.  In referendums to increase it in four red states--three of which elected Republican senators the same day, with a fourth likely to follow suit--voters supported increasing it, as the also did in San Francisco and Illinois.

And it gets better from there.  Voters also rejected ballot initiatives restricting abortion, and approved ones to legalize marijuana.  And, in several instances, approved paid sick leave.

And fracking?  It lost.  In Texas, in the town that invented it, despite proponents outspending opponents by a 10-to-1 margin.  This is like a successful effort to ban tanning in California.

And where were the Republicans, the nominal big winners on Tuesday night?  What did they think of all of this?  We won't find out, I guess, until they take office next January.  Because they were too busy doing what they do best--deceiving the public--by trying hard to sound like Democrats, rather than the Tea Party.

What about the Democrats who sounded like Democrats?  Well, I have to admit there weren't a lot of them, because of bullying from the GOP and its media allies.  But they were there, and they won.  In Florida, and in Michigan (where the Democratic Senate candidate was the only Senate candidate not to run from President Obama).

So, unlike the media, and the Republicans, who have jointly concluded that conservatives have been given a century-long lease on life, what conclusions should we draw from the election disaster?

That it was about anger.  And GOP gimmicks.

The New York Times has described it as "The Tornado Election," saying that voters were simply so angry as to flatten everything in sight, without regard for who or what it was.  If that's the case, however, it's impossible to read this as an election whose outcome favors either party.  As I've said many times, anger isn't a philosophy, a policy or a program.  It's just anger, and it destroys everything it touches.

And if the Republican future now really depends on a combination of dark money, gerrymandering and voter restrictions, the party has effectively forfeited any claim it might otherwise have had to holding the hearts and minds of the American people.  The ballot initiative results forfeits it for them.

People, especially politicians come and go.  Issues are what ultimately drive politics, and dictate the outcomes.  The issues are clearly on our side.  It only remains for the Democrats and their supporters to remind people of that fact.  Every day.  From now until we're back in the saddle by November of 2016.

Which leads me to my next point ...

Friday, October 31, 2014

And, For My Last, Pre-Election Post ...

a true miracle:  a conservative commentator praising Obama.

May there be more than a few miracles on November 4.  VOTE!

An Airplane Without Walls?

Well, not really, but the next best thing, and an interesting approach to making flying better, cheaper and greener.  What do you think?  I like it.

The Ultimate Proof That Some People Will Say Anything For Money

An African-American defending slavery.  Need I say more?

"We Will Continue"

Yes, we will, in spite of the Antares explosion.  Exploration is in our wiring, and our destiny.  I'm glad to see this piece affirm that.

Think That the Media Aren't Driving An Election-Year Narrative?

Think again.  Obama's popularity "hasn't plummeted," except to the reporters (and their bosses) with an ax to grind.

And Don't Forget ...

... that the Supreme Court, and the possibility of reversing and correcting decades of horrible jurisprudence, is directly at stake.  If you fail to raise your voice when it is needed, you will be responsible for the results.

How Efficient Is "Shareholder Capitalism"?

As further grist for the mill of your thinking as Tuesday's election approaches, I offer the following, from Robert Reich by way of Bill Moyers.  It's an interesting analysis of a movement that Reich characterizes as "stakeholder capitalism," as distinguished from what he calls "shareholder capitalism."

Stakeholder capitalism, as described in the examples Reich provides, may not seem all that unique or even special to most of you.  It simply refers to the practices of companies that essentially view themselves as "partners" with other related constituencies--their clients/customers, their employees, the communities in which they operate, and so on.  At its heart, it requires the capitalists who practice this approach to understand that they do not operate and make money in a vacuum--that how much they make, and how they make it, have an impact on people both internal and external to the enterprise who depend on it in one form or another, and has a concomitant effect on the enterprise's ability to exist.

To me, this is not something that requires a special label such as stakeholder capitalism.  I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm pretty sure that there was a time in the not-too-distant past where this basic philosophy would have resided neatly under the label of common sense.  If John Dunne knew all the way back in 1623 that no man is an island, why should the rest of us not know it, too?

The problem, unfortunately, is that the so-called "Reagan Revolution" launched the beginning of the idea, promoted heavily by Milton Friedman, that the proper application of capitalist principles to an enterprise meant the naked pursuit of the business' fair market value in dollars.  Nothing else mattered, and every constituency that could be shafted to create more of that value, by any means necessary, could and should be shafted.  And, to create that "value," at least for a limited time, shaft they did.  They bought out competitors.  They laid off millions of employees.  They devastated, in the process, the economies of thousands of cities and towns, dozens of states and, ultimately, the nation as a whole.

And they did all of this through so-called "leveraged buyouts" of what were in many cases perfectly viable businesses.  Thus, even the "value" that they were creating was little more than an accounting illusion, one that left the liabilities being created for the future to sort out.  We are living in that "future" now, and we are sorting it out by devoting the lion's share of our productive resources to paying down the debt that was created.

In light of all this, it seems fair to question whether shareholder capitalism can truly be justified on the grounds of efficiency, the grounds that, as Reich notes, are often cited by its defenders.  Where is the efficiency in depriving the marketplace of competition?  In depriving consumers of meaningful choices, not only of where to spend but also of where to earn?  In saddling our economy with massive amounts of debt that, as was the case in 2008, threaten to destroy the entire country and required massive government intervention to stop (which in turn, deprived the government of resources needed to fulfill its own obligations)?

Shareholder capitalism has, in fact, no justification by way of efficiency.  Nor does it have any justification in morality.  If capitalism has any morality at all, it is the morality of failure.  Honest work and service are rewarded; dishonest, inefficient or corrupt conduct is punished.  At least, in theory, that's the way it should be.  That's the morality of Adam Smith, not Milton Friedman.  But how is the morality of failure even possible in a world that encourages a handful of sharks to borrow their way into seemingly uncontested control of the economy, with the politicians they've bought along the way backstopping them at every turn?

On the other hand, stakeholder capitalism, by virtue of its design, restrains corruption, enriches everyone, and ensures a world of honest competition in which everyone, to varying degrees is empowered.  Thus, it is actually the more efficient approach.  And, certainly, the more moral one.

Again, when it comes to a partisan analysis of which party is aligned to which approach, the choice could not be clearer.  And staying at home isn't one of them.

And, Just In Case You Need Yet Another Reason To Get Out And Vote On Tuesday ...

... here's an incredibly important one:  there's a very good chance that the election will be a stolen one.

Because Republicans steal elections.  Especially presidential ones.

Yes, I said elections, not an election.  Everyone knows about 2000.  Bush, Gore, the hanging chads and the recount that was aborted by the Supreme Court, with the decision that began the Court's long decline into injustice.  I have no intention of re-hashing all of that here.  It's far too painful for me to even think about, especially since it almost certainly led to the 9/11 attacks, the loss of thousands of lives here and overseas, and a corrupting of our civil liberties that may never be reversed.

But here's something you may not know:  It wasn't the first time.

In 1980, the month before the presidential election that launched the current Reign of Error (and Terror), Jimmy Carter had an agreement with the Iranian government to bring home the hostages being held in the American embassy in Tehran.  There were rumors about it in the media, but it was in fact a done deal.  As a consequence, Carter's re-election prospects were strengthened.  Until suddenly, mysteriously, the deal fell apart, and the election momentum shifted in the direction of the Great Dissembler, Ronald Reagan.  The rest, as the say, is sadly irreversible history.

Except that the collapse of the deal, while sudden, was no mystery.  Rather, it was a blatant act of treason on the part of Reagan's campaign--and, for that matter, Reagan himself, assuming that he was in charge of his own campaign.  A covert deal between Republican operatives and the Iranians scuttled the deal that Carter had negotiated, with the promise that Tehran would get a better deal form a Reagan-led administration.  The Iranians agreed, the deal was scuttled, a good and decent man and the country he led were both betrayed, and we began our nightmare descent into nineteenth-century politics.

Oh, yes, and the Iranians got their better deal, It was called Iran-Contra.  Enough said.

Don't believe me?  Take a look here.  And then, once you've done that, take a look here, and realize that even Reagan's perfidy was not the first time.  In fact, it was a perverse case of history repeating itself.  And, both times, with all due respect to Tolstoy, tragedy rather than farce was the result.

How much additional suffering did the embassy hostages, their families and friends have to endure needlessly?  How much additional suffering did the people of Indochina have to endure needlessly?  Is it even possible to calculate the cost of this treachery to the American people?  In ruined lives?  In bankrupted businesses and governments?  In the very processes that give the word "democracy" whatever real meaning it has for us?

Remember this when you see video of Nixon declaring that he's not a crook.  Or Reagan, telling you that America is back.  Or Dubya, declaring "Mission Accomplished."

This election is not simply a debate between clashing philosophies.  It is a debate between one party that still recognizes philosophical differences and values democracy's ability to sort them out, and a party that has become a monster devoid of anything except an appetite for more power.

The choice is yours.  God help us all if you make the wrong one.  And, by "wrong one," I'm including staying at home.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Time Is Not On The GOP's Side

No matter what happens next Tuesday, it may be as good as it gets for the Republicans.  As I've said before, politics is more generational than it is local.  And the generational tide runs against everything conservatism now stands for.  No amount of gerrymandering, "dark money," and screaming heads on Fox can change that.

Ranking By Body Count?

An interesting way of appraising U.S. presidents, with some surprising results.

If You Think They're "Illegal" ...

... then don't accept the money they pay into the Social Security system.  That, of course, would be the money they'll never get to collect.