Corporate Power

Switching from Chase

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Andrew Leonard of Salon.com has written an article about switching from Chase to a local community bank, in response to HuffPo’s MoveYourMoney campaign.

I’ve written on this blog multiple times about my frustration with Chase bank, but it’s interesting to see someone with as big a readership as Andrew Leonard writing about it. Are commercial big banks’ days numbered?

JPMorgan Chase, “valid” $39 overlimit fees, and humanity

Friday, October 30th, 2009

In addition to running Parse.ly, I also run a small consulting business, Aleph Point, Inc. In the course of working on client jobs, I sometimes have to make business purchases, which I always pay in full at the end of every month. I have never carried a balance on my credit card and I never intend to.

When I signed up for a business checking account at Chase, the branch manager who I worked with (and who now no longer works there) encouraged me to sign up for a business credit card, as well. I thought, hey, why not — I’m just going to use it for small purchases like monthly hosting fees and the like.

Recently, I made a relatively large purchase at Best Buy for a client, which I was going to be reimbursed for. It was about $200. I already had a balance of $350 on my account, and a few days later my account was closing for the month.

When I looked over my account information a few days later, I found a strange charge. $39 OVERLIMIT FEE. What’s that, I thought?

Read the rest of this entry »

A video interview with John Kenneth Galbraith

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

I wrote about John Kenneth Galbraith earlier, but just recently found this video on YouTube. A reflective 1-hour interview with the man that discusses his long career as a professor, advisor, and economic theorist. Well worth a listen.

A Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith — April 27, 1986

The media blackout of Ralph Nader

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I haven’t done a formal analysis of this yet. Just an informal one using a NYTimes.com search for Ralph Nader.

On July 1, 2008, CNN published a poll that put Ralph Nader at 6%. On February 24, 2008, Ralph Nader formally announced his bid for presidency on “Meet the Press.” What happened in the intervening four months?

Not much, according to the ‘liberal’ NYTimes. In the days following Nader’s announcement, the NYTimes had a bit of activity. You can see the full details by looking at the newspaper’s Ralph Nader feed. Two articles were published immediately after the announcement, one merely rehashing the “Meet the Press” discussion. The second one was more interesting, as it appeared as an editorial and was called, “Ralph Nader: Going, Going, not Gone”. In it, Eleanor Randolph repeats the typical diatribe about Ralph Nader ‘spoiling’ the 2000 election, seemingly with detachment, but then points to Bush’s presidency as being a regrettable outcome. Here’s a select piece:

Many Democrats still believe, bitterly but without conclusive evidence, that Mr. Nader siphoned off a lot of Democratic votes in the 2000 presidential election. He argued that the main candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, were nothing more than “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” two peas in a pod, no daylight between them.

The Republican Tweedle won the presidency, and the Bush administration went on to gut, hobble or hamstring many of the safety agencies that Mr. Nader had fought so hard to create. Mr. Gore got a Nobel Peace Prize for raising concern about global warming.

If there is a stronger word for whoops, it certainly applies here. But that does not seem to cast a shadow on the Nader enthusiasms.

Bob Herbert’s Op-Ed, “A Driving Force”, published the same day, seems to recognize Nader’s ‘right to run,’ but also points out, somberly, how Democrats despise and Republicans will encourage his run to force another ‘spoiler’ outcome. This was followed by a couple of narrow-interest pieces, one on Nader supporters (entitled “Trying Times for Remaining Nader Faithful”) and one about Nader’s vice presidential pick, Matt Gonzales. This news activity all occurred at the end of February.

In the intervening 4 months, there hasn’t been a single news article covering Nader’s campaign in The New York Times. Not one. I think it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a day that has passed since February where there were any fewer than two or three articles on the other presidential candidates.

There have been a couple of Nader mentions buried deep within other articles, but no mention of the fact that Nader has secured access to quite a few state ballots. No background on his campaign or profile of his person. No interviews with him, his vice presidential pick, staffers, or anyone else involved with his campaign. And no mention of this remarkable number — 6% in a national opinion poll by CNN. That’s 6% despite no coverage in the NYTimes, and not much coverage elsewhere in the Mainstream Media.

Is this a media blackout? Well, there is no other way to classify it.

Related to my last post, who determines the content of the news: journalists and editors (and their masters), or we, the people? If the news really reflects our interest, why is it that 6% of the political news coverage of the last four months hasn’t been about Nader? I’m not asking for there to be equal news coverage as Obama or McCain. But why not at least an in-depth article or two? This is a presidential candidate making a serious run. Nader also has better credentials and deeper experience with Washington and politics than Obama or McCain. Why is it that the media continues to ignore him? I know there’s at least one explanation, but the effects still baffle me.

Is media slant determined by the market?

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

In “Lean Left? Lean Right? News media may take cues from customers” by Chicago School professor Austan Goolsbee, we are given yet another argument for market determinism, this time with regard to the slant of the media.

One of the most interesting things coming out of research on the economics of the media industry has been the notion that media slant may simply reflect business rather than politics.

The author then cites a few Chicago School studies that analyze the media in terms of slant of articles vs. readership. They find that readership is a stronger indicator of slant than ownership or big corporate donations. But then the dangerous conclusions begin.

[…] there is certainly good news in the finding. If slant comes from customers, then the views of the owners and the reporters do not matter. We do not need to fear that some partisan billionaire will buy up newspapers and use them for propaganda.”

This is a little presumptuous. Of course there is a fear of a partisan billionaire buying up all the newspapers. In history, we had William Randolph Hearst. In modern times, we have Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. He owned all the media in that country, slanted it, and then maintained control over it while presiding as Prime Minister. The market, for all its virtues, cannot solve these problems.

Let’s take one angle. Partisan billionaires can control the slant of their writing just by controlling the kinds of journalists they hire.

For example, let’s assume Rupert Murdoch would not hire very many bleeding-heart liberals to work as financial reporters in the WSJ. WSJ’s staff becomes more right-leaning, therefore there is a partisan slant. I’m not saying this is actually true, but it’s quite absurd to claim it isn’t likely, or that reporters only choose their slant based upon their readership’s expectations.

So although politicians from both sides tend to accuse the news media of partisanship and negativity, the data suggests that they ought to blame the public. The papers basically reflect what their readers want to hear.

Ick. This is the classic chicken and egg problem. It assumes that the public exists in a vacuum, and that the public’s opinions are not influenced by the media. Of course, this vacuum does not exist. The public may have views in alignment with the newspaper precisely because the newspaper shaped the views of the public. In other words, if I read the WSJ every morning on my way to work, I may very well start voting Republican. It’s not that the WSJ reflects my opinion: it’s that my opinion and the WSJ’s start to converge, since the WSJ is influencing my opinion.

The whole point of propaganda is that you don’t realize it’s propaganda while you’re reading it. Did Pravda just “represent what the worker’s wanted to hear”? According to this analysis, it certainly could have: I’m sure workers would have declared that their personal views were in line with Pravda’s slant.

As much as researchers of the Chicago School of Economics would love to believe the market can explain the media’s slant, I don’t buy it. That said, the market is certainly a factor — just not the only one, and IMO, not the primary one.

Joe Conason thinks Ralph Nader “loves” McCain

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

Conason writes for Salon,

… the evidence suggests another possible motive for Nader to run this year — namely, that he hopes to help his longtime ally John McCain, to whom he owes at least one big favor

I just did a search for Nader on Salon, and found this article in the old “Brilliant Careers” section. It was written in 1999. You know, before the Democrats pathetically lost the 2000 election, and then blamed it all on one of the greatest progressives to ever have lived.

I think we forget that in 2000, Nader’s reputation was essentially flushed down the toilet by the Democratic Party. We should all be outraged that the Democratic Party, and all of its members, blamed the loss of 2000 on Nader, rather than blaming it on itself. If the Democratic Party had blamed 2000 on itself, it might have had a chance at winning 2004, by realizing it wasn’t the party it should have been.

To suggest that Nader, after years of taking nothing short of principled stands on every issue, would run a presidential campaign just to “return a favor” to John McCain. C’mon, Joe, give me a break.

I guess all partisan Democrats — like Eric Alterman in “An Unreasonable Man” — just can’t get over the fact that they lost in 2000 and 2004. Admit it, the Democratic Party has become the spineless, least-worst party of American politics. In many ways, I have more respect for Republicans nowadays, who, despite being wrong on almost every issue, aren’t afraid of radical change, and can get people excited about the radical-ness of deregulation, tax cuts, and wedge issues. Nothing about the Democratic Party excites me nowadays, except that it isn’t the Republican party.

Could a modern “New Democrat” have implemented a progressive policy that was as sweeping/radical as the Republican “hollowing out of government” described in Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine”? At least the Republicans follow through on their ideology. What progressive reform did Bill Clinton get us? NAFTA? DMCA?

Do you think corporations would support Clinton and Obama if they were actually progressive? Take a look at articles like the following:

There you’ll see how it’s “politics as usual”, even for the Democrats. Sure, they rile you up with their health care plans. But do you think they’ll actually implement them, if they are not even considering any cuts to, say, the military budget?

In 2000, Al Gore ran a bland campaign that didn’t even mention global warming, even though it was supposedly the cause of his life. In 2004, Kerry tried to out-commander-in-chief George Bush, instead of pointing out his war crimes and calling the Iraq war a sham.

And, mark my words, it’ll happen again in 2008 if the Democrats don’t get their act together and stop apologizing for being liberal. Obama wants to expand the military by tens of thousands of troops. Clinton thinks she’s the fittest on day one to be commander-in-chief. I’m sorry, but if the Democrats don’t shape up, here is my prediction: McCain is perceived as a better commander-in-chief by average Joe Americans, Conservatives turn out their base against “Barack Hussein Obama,” true progressives stay home, and Democrats lose. Eight more years of Republicans. Are they going to blame 2008 on Nader, too? When will they ever take responsibility? You’re trying to tell me sixteen years of a paucity of progressive politics will be the fault of one man?

Update: A letter from Robert Franklin points out the paradox in “supporting progressive movements” while still voting Democratic:

…I voted Dem for years […] By 2000, I was fed up with the DLC and turned my back on the Democratic Party. It was a fascinating experience […] Once I stepped outside the Dem Party, it became obvious that they are as deeply in hock to big money interests as the Reps are and govern accordingly. All the things that are not part of the public debate but should be became obvious too. When looking at politics in America, don’t just think about what’s going on and ask why, think about what’s not going on and ask why not. When you do that, you realize just how narrow the range is of policies and discourse that are deemed appropriate by political elites. And “political elites” includes Dems.

[…] Look at the elections of 2006. The country overwhelmingly voted Reps out of – and Dems into – office. That was almost universally attributed to popular discontent with the Iraq War. So what did Dems do about that, given their enormous popular support? Not one damned thing. So now it’s two years later and your advice is Vote Democratic!

Your first prescription is to encourage grass roots support for progressive policies. Look at the platform of the Green Party and you’ll see that that’s exactly what that is – grass roots support for progressive policies. But for some reason you deem every sort of support for progressive policies to be appropriate except electoral support. Nader and the Greens are actually progressive, which I believe you think you are as well, but you adamantly refuse to vote that way. I just can’t buy that approach.

Your second prescription is to help the Dems win and then point out your contribution […] That’s naive. If you do that, as liberals have been doing all along, what you get from Dems is “Thank you very much. See you in two years.” You don’t get anyone in office to pay attention to you if they know that you will never penalize them for acting against your interests. It’s Politics 101, and liberals haven’t learned it. Again, the Christian Right is far smarter than liberals on this subject, which is why the Reps give them a lot more stroke than Dems give liberals.

Finally you say what Democrats say every single election year – “not this year!” Here’s another election and Dems are telling liberals that, once again, we can’t vote our principles. I’ve been hearing that from Dems every election year for the past 8 years. You say “for the time being,” we must vote for Dems so that Reps don’t win. The problem is that, by that logic, it’s never time. According to that reasoning, the time is never right for liberals to vote liberal. And if you never vote liberal, what does that make you?

The real solution to this problem has nothing to do with voting your conscious. It’s called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), and is described in 3 minutes by this video.

What is Libertarianism?

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

From an interesting thread on /.

My definition of “libertarianism” stands from a firm principle of “live and let live”. That is, everyone is free to do what they want as long as they are not doing any direct harm to others against their will.

I put in the phrase “direct harm” because it is all to easy to declare anything you want as an “indirect harm” without any justification. When I say “direct harm”, there has to be actual clearly identifiable victims of that harm, and also clear, identifiable harm. Alas, much of what in politics and the law today that is declared “harm” isn’t really.

So, in essence, unless you see me actually doing something that is clearly harming someone else, you are to leave me alone. And I, of course, will do likewise.

I have lost count of how many times in my own life, for instance, someone has phoned the police on me simply because they *thought* I was dangerous, regardless of the fact that I had not done anything wrong nor had any intentions of doing so. And that has caused much damage — much harm — to me and my family, and yet no one learns from this. Police still encourages the public to phone everything in at the drop of a hat. Then they go out and harass innocent individuals, doing harm to them.

If I were libertarian-leaning before, such experiences have firmly pushed me into that camp.

My response:

You’re conflating social libertarianism and economic libertarianism. Not your fault, so is everyone else on this forum.

“Live and let live” is social libertarianism. You’re saying, “personal / private freedoms must not be infringed”. Economic libertarianism says, “there should not be ANY government regulation on the ‘free’ market”. Someone who buys into both of these ideas (or, more commonly, conflates them) is a social/economic libertarian. In other words, a modern libertarian.

Most American-style liberals (i.e., people who believe in the power of government to help society) are also social libertarians, just not economic ones. An example of a policy offensive to an economic libertarian but not a liberal is the minimum wage, or the 40-hour work-week. Interestingly, most American-style conservatives are economic libertarians, but NOT social ones. They don’t mind eliminating the minimum wage, but they do want to tell you what you can and can’t do in your bedroom with your consenting adult partner.

You would think that modern libertarians would hate both parties, and some do, but you find many more of them supporting Republicans than Democrats.

The reason? Modern-day libertarianism really has more to do with Milton Friedman than it does with the ACLU. Many are just brainwashed Chicago school amateur economists. They think that the “invisible hand of the market” will fix everything, while they benefit from the fruits of a century of progressive policies that are only recently being dismantled.

They conflate social and economic libertarianism because it is convenient to do so; the latter is so vulgar that if presented alone to most compassionate human beings, it would seem completely insane. No 40-hour work week? No controls on foods and substances? No safety labels on medicines? No nutrition labels on food? No seatbelts in cars? No environmental regulations on dumping and pollution? Yep — that’s economic libertarianism. The “market” will sort things out. Just let the invisible hand do its work, and all these things will magically be taken care of. [You often hear economic libertarians making the mistake of applying Darwin’s principle of natural selection to the market — those with the most money and skills are “selected”, and the rest should be left in the dust.]

Social libertarianism, on the other hand, jives with American sensibilities and our Constitution. And so, through the sheep’s clothing of social and personal freedoms, comes the wolf of the business-run “free” market.

Update: A Wikipedia article on the Nolan Chart, as well as the chart itself, elaborates this distinction. If I were producing the chart today, instead of making the x-axis “economic freedom,” I’d label it “opposition to government regulation of the market.” Certainly less succinct, but more accurate.

Another Update: I was revisiting the /. thread, and found a particularly good description of the difference between economic liberals and economic libertarians:

[…] the question fundamentally comes down to, “What do you fear the most?”

1. An inefficient government running roughshod over you (taxation, interference in property rights, tyranny of the majority, etc).
2. Powerful, unaccountable private entities running roughshod over you (monopolies, externalities, inequity of power, etc).

Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification (as is the notion that most people fit into these little political boxes), but it mostly suffices. I find that most libertarian and most liberal points of view come down to concerns that their favorite bogeyman will ruin everything if left unchecked and powerless. More nuanced views come from realizing that they both are pretty bad and that you have to make a choice how to balance them (even if you tend to throw the balance almost entirely one way or the other). The crazy ideologues you see here on Slashdot and elsewhere are the people who seem to never acknowledge that the other side’s feared enemy is a problem too.

I love this explanation. My personal belief, as elaborated in earlier posts in this blog, is that careful government regulation of business is a good thing. But the modern US administrations strip away regulation of businesses, while growing the government in its ability to censor, to control social and personal behavior, to use the national purse for foreign wars, etc. In other words, the worst of both worlds!

Double-header for Friedman

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

To be honest, I’ve completely ignored the “Thomas Friedman phenomenon” going on in this country. If I had a nickel for every time I saw someone reading The World is Flat on the train…

For some reason, people are in love with globalization and outsourcing as “the great leveler.” I have a different take on this. And precisely because The World is Flat was the most popular book about globalization, I never bothered to read it.

But the other day, someone came over and saw the book in my bookshelf. This person was definitely no fan of globalization. Mind you, I’m no Friedman fan — I only own the book to try to understand what the fuss is about. I haven’t turned a page yet. Yet, this person sat there and stared at this book. And I knew what she was thinking. “Another one of these schmucks? Another cheerleader?”

Well, it’ll take more research and time for me to declare my overall opinion of Friedman.

But today, by pure chance, I encountered two hilarious pieces on Friedman:

One, a cartoon by Tom Tomorrow: M is for Moustache.

Two, a review of The World is Flat by Matt Taibbi of New York Press.

A select excerpt from the review:

On an ideological level, Friedman’s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country. It is a tale of a man who walks 10 feet in front of his house armed with a late-model Blackberry and comes back home five minutes later to gush to his wife that hospitals now use the internet to outsource the reading of CAT scans. Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism, says we’re not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we’re not in Kansas anymore.) That’s the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that’s all there is.

Oh my…

The Divine Right of Capital

Friday, March 30th, 2007

A playful paragraph from the book by Majorie Kelly, which I’ve lately been re-reading:

We might note that while employees in the community are left to the protection of the invisible hand, wealth is protected by the visible hand of government and corporations. But this is something, it is hoped, that will be overlooked.

To help us begin to see it, we might, for a moment, imagine a different arrangement of institutional power. Picture a free market in which labor rights are enthroned in law, and property rights are left to the invisible hand. This would be a world in which we believe employees are the corporation. They are, after all, the ones running the place. Hence only employees could vote for the board of directors, and the purpose of the corporation would be to maximize income for employees. In theory, stockholders would receive income they negotiated through contracts. In practice the corporation would dictate those contracts with little real negotiation and stockholders could accept the terms or go elsewhere, only to find other corporations offering nearly identical and dismal terms.

In this world, stock would be sold in a manner controlled entirely by the corporation, much as wages are set today. Stockholders would appear alone at the company where they would be taken into a room and made an offer. There would be no reliable way to compare current stock price to pass price, the return one person receives to what others receive, or to compare returns from one corporation to another. Wage and benefit data, on the other hand, would be published daily in “The Main Street Journal”, and the movement of the Dow Jones wage index would of course be tracked nightly on the news. But returns to shareholders would be considered proprietary information and would not be given out.

If stockholders tried to improve their negotiating position by organizing into mutual funds, corporations would threaten to cut off payments altogether. The companies would talk about replacing stockholder money with funds from people overseas were willing to accept lower returns.

And, of course, overseas, stockholders would have seen even less power. Although free trade agreements would provide intricate protections for labor and environmental rights, they would offer capital no protections. “What does capital have to do with trade?” pundits might ask. “Trade is about goods and services and the people who create them, it’s not about capital.”

More on Internet Radio: NPR Takes Action

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

From TFA:

This is a stunning, damaging decision for public radio and its commitment to music discovery and education, which has been part of our tradition for more than half a century. Public radio’s agreements on royalties with all such organizations, including the RIAA, have always taken into account our public service mission and non-profit status. These new rates, at least 20 times more than what stations have paid in the past, treat us as if we were commercial radio – although by its nature, public radio cannot increase revenue from more listeners or more content, the factors that set this new rate. Also, we are being required to pay an internet royalty fee that is vastly more expensive than what we pay for over-the-air use of music, although for a fraction of the over-the-air audience.