Friday, August 09, 2002


I've just finished reviewing a book about Haiti. Maybe for that reason, I am sensitive this morning to the more egregious gestures of little Caesar-ism to which our present benighted administration is addicted. So I read the WP story about Bush's "economic forum" with a lot of sour amusement. This forum is apparently based upon the premise that of any two or more points of view, one of them is right; the right one, of course, is Bush's. This is a law of nature in Crawford Texas, it appears. As such, it would surely be ratified by our Supreme Court -- which has always displayed a touching concern for George Bush's feelings -- should it be taken before those august vampires.

"Bush Economic Forum to Exclude Critics, Officials Say" by Mike Allen

Bush, who sounds more and more like a ventriloquist's dummy -- hearing him, for instance, commemorate the nine rescued miners, I seriously wondered if he'd been exploring the wonders of hooch that morning -- has billed this summit, at Baylor University in Waco, as a call to Americans in all walks of life. Especially favored are those whose walks have included contributions to the Republican party in amounts of 100,000 dollars or more. Just your average Joe or Jane, don't you see? It is almost Dylan-esque: "Come mothers and fathers, throughout the land/ and don't criticize what you don't understand..." Indeed, this is the message of the last graf of the story:

"A media guide says the participants on the eight panels will have "diverse points of view," but the White House official acknowledged that there are limits. "I don't think there's any point in picking someone who has the opposite point of view," the official said."

Why is it that the Bush administration always exudes this air of a cheap coup? Maybe it it because they came to power on a cheap coup.
No, that's not true. That's a cheap jab.
The coup was very, very expensive. In fact, we all seem to be paying for it.

Thursday, August 08, 2002


The career of a phrase.

Suppose, reader, that you are a brain surgeon. As you come into the operating theater, you lean over your patient, who is about to go under, and you tell him that, under the circumstances, if he pays you a fee on top of the fee you are getting to operate on him -- say about 100% of that fee -- he will promise to align his interests as a doctor with yours as a patient. Or suppose that you are a fireman. You mount the ladder, you meet the hollering woman in the fourth floor apartment, the flames are licking the curtains, and you tell her that for a fee -- say 100% of your current salary -- you will align your interests with her interest in being saved up to and including the promise to try not to drop her on the way down. Or say you work in an assembly line. You go to your foreman and propose that for a fee -- say 200% of your current salary -- you promise to align your interest with that of the company's, insofar as that involves making sure all the car parts are correctly fitted into place.

If you did that, you would lose your licence, as a surgeon, be fired and sued, as a fireman, or simply be dismissed, as a factory worker.

Ah, but if you are a CEO -- if you breathe and eat in that top level strata -- ah, then you are the type who might not really do anything for your salary. You might take your 2 mil a year and go to sleep behind your desk. Or you might take information you are privy to and give it to your competitors. Who knows with you CEOs? Marvelous, god like creatures, you rain and shine on all alike according to your inscrutable will. Or at least that seems to be the theory behind that supremely dumb phrase, "aligning the interests of management with those of the shareholders." If you read the business section, or even the front page of the newspaper, nowadays, you see that phrase thrown around with the utmost airiness, as if it is the most self evident thing in the world. The CEO, or CFO, or whatever, must be given stock options. Why? To align his interest with the shareholders. Here's an example of this kind of madness. It comes from my search for the phrase on Google. It comes from 1999. I wonder if Baxter International, or Deerfield Illinois, knows that they still have this announcement up on the web:

"DEERFIELD, Ill., May 4 -- Baxter International Inc. announced today that
142 senior managers have borrowed a total of $200 million in personal loans
to purchase 3.1 million shares of Baxter stock. The shares were purchased
at Baxter's closing price yesterday of $63.625 per share under a voluntary
plan that directly aligns the management team with Baxter's shareholders.
This shared investment plan was approved by Baxter's board of directors
earlier today.

This is the second time Baxter has implemented a shared investment plan.
In 1994 Baxter became one of the first companies in the world to use this
innovative approach to directly align management's interests with Baxter
In that plan, 63 senior managers participated. Since that time,
several companies have implemented similar plans."

I put the phrase in italics, for those of you whose eyes glaze over when perusing the PR of obscure corporations. Baxter, in the annus mirabilis of 1999, was innovating all kinds of alignments of interest between management and shareholders. Here, for instance, is what they did for outgoing CEO Vernon Locke:

"In 1999, as Baxter International Inc.'s Vernon Loucks relinquished his CEO duties after 18 years, directors handed him a special stock-option grant of 950,000 shares "for the specific purposes of motivating" him "to implement a smooth transition of his responsibilities."

Ah, Vernon's successor is a man of sterner ethical character. In a Business Week report on executive compensation for 2001, Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr, the current CEO, practically put himself on a diet of bread and water:

Harry M. Jansen Kraemer Jr., CEO of Baxter International (BAX ), voluntarily cut his bonus by 40%, even though his company's stock climbed by 20% in 2001. The reason: Defective Baxter dialysis machines were linked to the deaths of more than 50 people. Kraemer, who earned total cash compensation of $1.6 million plus a grant of 600,000 options, says somebody had to pay the price for the dialysis machine deaths: "Fifty people died. If you have a problem, the buck stops somewhere, and it stops here."

Cutting your bonus -- your bonus, mind you -- down by 40%, while you receive your grant of 600,000 options is practically Christ-like in the world of CEOs, apparently.

So, to sum this sad and shabby tale up: never has piracy, never has the discreet looting of publicly held entities, been so delicately handled as it was in the 90s, and as it still is today. See how Baxter -- that ambiguous entity, that ontological anomoly -- practically glows with satisfaction. Begging their execs, who are probably paid quite a bit more than I am, to borrow money from their cash reserves, no doubt at a very reduced interest rate, and no doubt with some expectation that, if things turn south, all will be forgiven these shareholder aligning managers. Isn't it great to be king? Isn't incentive a wonderful thing, and isn't it to be extolled in 2 million to 4 million dollar houses from the Long Island to the Redwood Forest, as the unfortunately dis-incentivized Woody G. once sang? AH, here at last, we have found what we have been sailing the sea for lo these many years. The thing Marx couldn't imagine. The thing that makes all the U. of Chicago econ department light up like a Christmas tree. The very reductio ad absurdam of managerial capitalism.

LI is thinking of trying to do a more extensive search for the phrase, and selling an essay on that search, to some magazine, thus aligning our interests with those of John Q. Public. If you want to loan us money in the process -- say 50 million dollars -- please write me at
Hey, I might just accept your loan if the terms are good enough.

Tuesday, August 06, 2002


In the seventies, Christopher Hill published an excellent book about the Protestant radicals who provided the ideological shock troops in the overthrow of Charles I in the English Civil War. The title of the book was World Turned Upside Down, which is the refrain in this ballad of the war:

"Old Christmas is kickt out of Town.

Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down.

Let's talk about Old Christmas being kickt out of Town, shall we? Or rather, let's talk about kicking the bejesus out of Old Christmas, the bill of rights, common sense, the spirit of dissent, the independence of the legislature, the standards of right action, and other assorted matters of spiritual and political import.

We've come to such a pretty pass in this country, re the warmongering attitude, the stripping away of Civil Service protections in place since Chester Allan Arthur's time, and other such trivial supports of the national polity, that LI is forced to turn to the business press for some measure of dissent. Business Week, of all papers, the old Taft Republican Business Week, publishes a column by their Washington correspondent, Howard Gleckman, that hectors congress for surrendering its perogatives, right and left, to the executive. Gleckman presents a list of abdications: the fast track legislation Bush will be signing tomorrow, for instance; or the astonishing anomolies written into the act to make Heimat security a cabinet post. The latter is a really bad piece of legislation anyway -- there is no need for this re-organization, there's no need to add this cabinet post at all, given the Department of Defense, and certainly the composition of the law is outrageous. The discussion of the provisions entitling appointed officials to hire and fire at will has remained at this low level: conservatives: this is just to get the guv'mint out of the grip of civil service unions; liberals: this is an insult to civil service unions. Without any seeming consciousness of the reason why civil service was given a measure of autonomy vis a vis the executive in the first place, i.e. corruption. That's right, when hiring and firing can be done at will by elected officials, guess what? You soon have a system in which hiriign and firing becomes a marketable service. If commentators think that Bush is too high minded, and has employed cabinet members who are too high minded, to engage in corrupt practices (oh my! not our Commander in Chief!), they might want to investigate Ken Lay's ability to get the old head of FERC replaced, in 2001, by a more Enron pliable figure of Pat Wood III -- who moved from his Texas post, the path to which had also been paved by the ubiquitous Lay, to the national post after Lay reportedly threatened the old FERC head, Curtis Herbert, over the issue of deregulating the California Electrical Power market. But this is an issue that goes beyond Bush. It goes back to U.S. Grant, and it is an endemic illness to which democracies are heir. But trust the right to have no consciousness of the political tradition going back to Montesquieu -- which used to be called, in fact, the Burkean tradition, since its font was Burke's suspicion about ideological schemes designed to improve society by way of the government. Burke would likely have been appalled at the Homeland Security re-organization, but then again -- what right winger is even aware of Burke anymore?

Ah, LI is getting into a temper. But to return to Gleckman's column. The juice in it is in the last three grafs, which are directed against the inevitable drift to war against Iraq. Here it is:

"But the real test will come in foreign affairs. The nation is already fighting an undeclared war against terrorism. Not only are U.S. forces at risk in Afghanistan, but they are also fighting in the Philippines and most likely other nations as well.

The need for formal congressional approval for such a shadow war is admittedly murky. But there should be no confusion when it comes to what the White House has led us all to believe is its next step: a war against Iraq. Congress has a responsibility to enact a declaration of war before such an operation begins. Bush's father was wise enough to seek a congressional OK for his 1991 attack on Iraq. Now, the current President Bush should do the same.

There is little sign, though, that he will do that. And, sadly, there is even less indication that Congress will insist upon it. If Bush's Iraqi invasion goes badly, we will all come to regret both the President's power grab and the Congress' acquiescence. And, like LBJ and FDR before him, Bush will learn a costly lesson about the limits of the Imperial Presidency. "

Well, he might learn a lesson. We don't care about Mr. Bush's education. It failed to make a mark on him in the impressionable years, obviously, and we doubt any imminent changes are in the offing. The man's level has been exposed for all of us to see for some time now. We are more concerned with the lack of any good reason for this war. There is no reason to think that war is the best way to accomplish disarming Saddam Hussein, if that is really what the U.S. wants to accomplish. And we are concerned about who will bear the brunt of the inevitable bad consequences of a war fought by the U.S. alone -- in spite of the American press' assurances, via no doubt unnamed sources in the administration, that Europe and several Middle Eastern allies will just be all tickled pink about the deal. We are concerned that the U.S. is following a visibly incompetent leader as he pursues a comic book foreign policy against the "axis of evil."

Sunday, August 04, 2002


We like the LA Times -- we love LA -- we don't subscribe to the dismissive La La land stereotype -- but it is difficult for defenders of Southern California seriousness (with our pistols a-blazin'!) to read about the Post-nomadic economy, as breathlessly revealed in the Sunday Times, without, uh, wondering who put the marijuana in the arugala.

First comes the bio -- which we have copied faithfully from on-line:

"Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape." He is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Pu"

PU is what you get in Mr. Kotkin and Ms. Susanne Trimbath's take on the new new economy, the one after that recent nasty spate of nomadism -- you remember, reader. There you were, out there with your spear, your seal coat, your tatooed cattle, wandering through desert sands and ice floes and such. Well, no more! Here's what is coming up:

The post-nomadic trend reflects changes that were building up before the stock
market's current turbulence and Sept. 11. As Americans have aged and
become ever more capable of settling where they wish, because of the rise of
digital technology and the dispersal of economic activity, fewer of them than
ever are willing to pick everything up and move in pursuit of quick riches.
Fewer than 15% of Americans change addresses in any given year, down from
a high of 20% in the 1970s. Contrary to popular reporting, most baby
boomers, suggests demographer William H. Frey, "age in place." That is, they
stay where they are. This development suggests that residential property may
be the "gold" of the emerging economy because the home has become more
important to people financially. [LI remark: that homes become the "gold" of an economy as people retain them longer must be a feature of this great new post nomadic paradigm. In the old, stinky paradigm, that houses are built and sold added value to them as investments. But no longer! Mr. Kotkin has discovered that a frozen market is a golden market. Is that great or what? We are all hoping that the Davenport Institute of PU puts him up for a Nobel Prize next year. If they can extract him from his rocking chair, that is -- the man doesn't want to contravene his own paradigm by acting all nomadic, you know).

But post-nomadism is also about values that place greater emphasis on family,
faith and community. At the height of the 1990s stock boom, according to the
Zogby International poll, only one in three Americans defined their "American
dream" in spiritual, as opposed to purely material, terms. By 2000, a spiritual definition was embraced by 42% of Americans. After Sept. 11, the percentage grew to 52% of adults."

When you get poll numbers like that opting for the spiritual, the game is up! Here I'd think that after September 11th, an increasing segment of the population would be reaching for their de La Mettrie, rejecting the afterlife, spewing contempt on the intellectual bankruptcy of the concept of "soul," throwing themselves into libertine lifestyles of finite sensuality, and ever more aware that man is doomed to a brief career of organic vicissitude, after which the worms will go in, and the worms will go out. And what do you know -- Americans start doing American dreamtime as a spiritually defined thing.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...