Friday, August 24, 2012

The Hazardous Morals of Bankers

Warning: You must forgive the writer for the exceptional length of this piece as a combination of rust that accumulated over months away from writing, a little too much time on his hands and what is feared to be the initial stages of ambiguphobia all contributed to the problem. 
- ed.

US federal debt will be more than $16 trillion by the time you read this. Student loan debt in the land of the free surpassed both credit card debt and the $trillion mark earlier this year. Greece teeters on the brink of bankruptcy while the other PIIGS wait their turn in the slaughterhouse. Three cities in California declared bankruptcy within a month this summer while nations have given up their sovereignty in order to avoid the same fate. Tens of millions have been thrown out of their homes in the past four years while even the Catholic Church battles to remain solvent. All of this was kicked off with the collapse of Lehmann Brothers four years ago triggering a crisis which forced governments and central banks around the world to pour trillions of dollars of bailouts into the financial system in order to stave off financial collapse and the threatened panic, chaos and disaster sure to follow. So, why are we here four years later staring over the US fiscal cliff, waiting for the eurozone to collapse and watching local sheriffs play the muscle for the mafioso banks repossessing all our neighbours possessions? The same reason the crisis seems perpetual. Debt and it's collector, moral hazard.

You have to choose between trusting to the natural stability of gold and the natural stability of the honesty and intelligence of the members of the Government. And, with due respect for these gentlemen, I advise you, as long as the Capitalist system lasts, to vote for gold.”
 - George Bernard Shaw

Like all good yarns, that of debt goes way back in time, before money, before barter, beginning with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago in fact, but we don't need to go back that far. No, forty-one years is enough for our purposes, when Richard Nixon ended the post war Bretton Woods International Monetary system by suspending the convertibility of the dollar into gold (then $35 to the ounce, today around $1600) on August 15th, 1971, effectively creating the current floating currency regimes: fiat money. No longer would the US dollar be convertible to gold; no longer would money creation and thus finance be constrained. Not only was the US fighting a war in Vietnam that had to be paid for but they were battling "international money speculators" as Tricky Dick dubbed them. Heck watch for yourself:

So it was that the casino known as the financialization of capital was built, in order to protect the average worker "because they [financial speculators] thrive on crisis, they help to create them". By no means was this the first time the world had used virtual money with nothing guaranteeing its value but our faith. According to David Graeber, there have been two such previous periods in the history of money and debt: The Age of the First Agrarian Empires (3500–800 BCE) and The Middle Ages (600 CE — 1500 CE). The key difference with today was that both those eras saw strong institutions and traditions which placed controls on the potentially catastrophic social consequences of debt from Mosaic jubilees (debt forgiveness every 50 years) to Christian and Muslim prohibitions on usury. Fast forward in time to go backward as the current era has seen protection turned on its head creating the first effective planetary debt enforcement system, operating through the IMF, World Bank, governments, corporations and other financial institutions. In the past we protected debtors; today we protect the interest(s) of creditors. Spot the doublethink involved here as the danger posed by financial speculators led to a policy which in turn empowered the threat leading to it's perpetuation becoming a necessity to maintain the status quo. The battle against the money speculators has been fought just like the war on terror.

Nixon's move had predictable results, a series of crises as wave after wave of speculation, manipulation and deregulation smashed against the economy. Predictably, with no physical limit to fiscal and monetary expansion, government debts ballooned leading to inflation which needed 22% interest rates to tame causing economic malaise that necessitated tax cuts (mostly for corporations and the rich) and deregulation to get the economy going again. The balance of power between rentiers and workers was shifted by slashing capital gains and opening investment loopholes so that in less than a generation the very group we had been warned about had been handed the keys to the Porsche and proceeded to drive us all over the edge. The process seemed almost planned, conspiratorial, but it was our own hubris that allowed it.

"There are compelling reasons for paying attention to this potential for catastrophe as, every debt crisis in history since Solon of Athens has ended in inflation, bankruptcy or war, and there is no cause to believe we’ve solved this one, even if it has been postponed." - Susan George; Fate Worse Than Debt, p. 196

The Cliff's Notes to the crisis reads like a tragedy. Steady erosion of the competitive advantage enjoyed by the US after WWII and the west as a whole to the east leads to policies which ensured wage stagnation for those working in industries losing employment and skyrocketing renumeration for the CEO's outsourcing those jobs and the financial industry which facilitates it. This creates a feedback loop in which those at the top enjoy more influence on legislation thanks to their enhanced financial position. Those at the bottom, seeing themselves falling further behind turn to debt in order to maintain the illusion of keeping up with the Joneses. Check out this interactive chart to see the machine in action. Meanwhile, the flood of money to the top leads to fewer and fewer available investment alternatives necessitating looser regulation on credit to lend to less and less credit worthy clients through the creation of creative, near magical, financial instruments. All the while, the growing inequality brought about by transferring wealth to the top slowly strangles the consumer driven economy (about 70%) as those who would spend have less while those who invest, at home or abroad, have more. A little more doublethink courtesy of trickle-down economics.

On the government side, though Reagan talked a fiscally conservative game, he walked a public spending splurge as debt tripled under his watch. Bush the elder didn't do much better and though Clinton managed to run a couple of surpluses late in his second term, Dubya and Congress managed to pass two successive $trillion plus tax cuts while fighting two separate $trillion plus wars along with passing a $trillion plus prescription drug plan. The Anglo-Saxon affinity saw the UK walking in near lockstep; just replace Reagan with Thatcher and Clinton with Blair at the head of the parade through the Corporation of the City of London instead of Wall Street. The financial sectors share of domestic US profits skyrocketed from below 16% to 41% making bankers more important than ever. The partial repeal of Glass Steagall, allowing banks to gamble grandma's pension with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act which ensured that the credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations at the heart of the 2007/8 crisis wouldn't be regulated were the finishing touches as the banksters had merged with government and rigged the economy for explosion.

The story that unfolded in continental Europe was somewhat different but had the same result. Overnight, countries such as Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy were expected to transform into Germany. Shockingly, it didn't happen and without their own currencies to debase in order to regain competitiveness, the peripheral, low-capital investment economies were crippled while German producers were given a boost. Not only did prices go up - in Spain a loaf of bread doubled in four years - but salaries stayed about the same, rising 14% in the ten years from the introduction of the euro January 1st, 2002 to the end of 2011. Throw in the additional enticement of suddenly being deemed nearly as credit worthy as their northern partners and you've got yourself the perfect debt bomb recipe. The explosion of Benzes, Beemers and Audis on the streets of Madrid and Dublin created a surplus that found its way back to German banks who had to lend this money to someone and were happy to find eurozone approved customers from Porto to Thessaloniki to buy more German cars or real estate developers to build beach resorts to take vacations in. Each country took their own path to purgatory, in Spain and Ireland it was more private bank debt while in Greece and Portugal it was more public (and Italy, well, they've always had too much debt).

As we know, our story doesn't end well, in fact, there doesn't seem to be an end as it's starting to feel like the neverending story. The total cost is incalculable  in dollars, euros or pounds, but it's the human cost that should remind us that economies are meant to serve people and not the other way around. When the crisis hit, we were told we had to bailout the banks or the world would end, so we did. Ever since it became clear that Greece wasn't going to be able to maintain its debt, the troika always manages to get the money to Athens on time. When the Irish banks couldn't keep afloat, their government threw them a lifeline and guaranteed their debt. Spanish banks were going under so once again the troika (IMF/ECB/European Commission) saved the day. Trillions of paper dollars, pounds and euros all to ensure the debt obligations continue to be paid, trillions the people will have to pay back. For what? The sums will never be paid off, everything has been done to keep interest payments flowing to the banks and to give them enough time to get their capital out. The price of paying off failed bankster bets is not only the sweat of our brows but becomes ever more demanding, framed in the Orwellian language of fiscal austerity/consolidation, structural adjustment/reform, labour flexibility, competitiveness, and growth.

In the 70's and 80's the IMF/World Bank became despised figures in the developing world. As global capital sought higher returns than could be found in the developed west, their sites settled on the poorer resource-rich nations of the south and east where they found dictators, anti-commie generals and corrupt legislators willing to sign over their people's futures in exchange for ready cash to build vanity projects, fund coups, suppress insurrections or simply pad their Swiss bank accounts. When the people of their nations found they couldn't pay, the men in black would arrive, preaching the 'free market' mantra of globalization, structural adjustment programs, which always had the effect of worsening life for the people while benefiting the foreign corporations. Eventually, the anti-globalization movement and debt cancellation voices became loud enough and democracy returned to many places and debt was in some cases even forgiven. The first part of the story is now playing itself out in the 'developed' world except this time the countries aren't even getting a hydroelectric dam, bombs or a statue in return. Debt is granted only to maintain existing debt in exchange for lowering spending on those things that help the people, shredding the social safety net, firing workers, lowering tariffs and taxes and eliminating workers rights in a duplicitous attempt to make the economy more competitive in order to grow and pay off the increased debt load. Unfortunately it has never worked, isn't working and never will. The only winner, for awhile at least, are the banks to whom the interest keeps flowing.

Ironically, many accept this punishment as atonement, self-flagellation to purify the soul. Debts are contracts that must be paid off, more than an obligation, as the threat of moral hazard would not only destroy our financial system but lead to anarchy (gasp!). Yet bank bailouts are a perfect example of moral hazard as the banksters have now learned that they will not pay the costs of their losses; their gains remain privatized while their losses are socialized. Morality should be the last thing they want to talk about as their lascivious behaviour has been highlighted this summer with a series of scandals that illustrate they have no intention of ever doing the right thing whenever there's a whiff of profit to be had. If they don't get caught, great, if they do, well, there will be newspaper headlines, an investigation and finally, at worst, a fine to pay, usually a fraction of what the illegal behaviour gained. Somehow, even though both Mitt Romney and the US Supreme Court have defined corporations as people, not only are the big banks Too Big To Fail, they've become Too Big To Jail (TBTF/J).

"Though the principles of the banking trade may appear somewhat abstruse, the practice is capable of being reduced to strict rules. To depart upon any occasion from these rules, in consequence of some flattering speculation of extraordinary gain, is almost always extremely dangerous, and frequently fatal to the banking company which attempts it." Adam Smith; The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter I, Part III, p.820

This summer has put the lie to Adam's words once and for all. Most recently it was Britain's Standard Chartered, who NY state regulators accused of hiding $250 billion of transactions with Iran despite sanctions. A person would be charged with terrorism and sent to Guantanamo, a bank simply pays a $340 million fine; it's up to the families of those killed in terrorist attacks facilitated by StanChar to sue the bank. The reaction of the British government was particularly instructive; when a British bank is threatened with the loss of its New York banking license, officials, from the mayor of London to the Bank of England governor to the Chancellor of the Exchequer rush to its defense. This, from the same country that would and has done everything in its power to get Julian Assange extradited to the US for torture and possible execution and done nothing to prevent its own citizen, Gary MacKinnon, who suffers from Asperger's syndrome, from being extradited to the US for exposing weaknesses in the defense department's computer security systems.

Just a few week before that came the revelations of the LIBOR rigging scandal. A story that is 'too complicated' to understand by the public was therefore ignored by the media. Besides, there was that whole Batman shooting and then the Olympics to worry about. Denver theater body counts and jingoistic medal counts are far more interesting than a bunch of bankers sending each other emails, right? Well, no, not really when mass shootings seem to have become monthly occurrences in the US (surprise! another one today), the Olympic medal count can be predicted based on population, per capita GDP, past performance, and host status while the bankster collusion earned them hundreds of billions (trillions?) in profits while costing the public an impossible to figure, er, figure. Wait, sounds a bit like the Olympics. Anyway, as usual it's not all that complicated.

LIBOR stands for the London Inter Bank Offered Rates and it's used in the setting of most other kinds of interest in the world, from credit cards, student loans and mortgages to the cost of government bonds. Seeing as we live in a 'free market', up until the scandal we all assumed this rate was set by the 'laws' of supply and demand but, as usual, our naivety cost us and profited them. Instead, the most important rate in the world is determined every morning by representatives of the 18 largest western banks who report on what they expect to pay to borrow funds from each other (Inter Bank) in the future. Under LIBOR rules, the four highest and four lowest estimates are eliminated, and the average of the rest becomes the official rate. Well, shockingly, banksters used this opportunity to artificially set rates everyday a bit higher or lower in order to profit from the positions they held in their portfolios. Barclays had their boss Bob Diamond resign and was fined £290 million by British authorities, who were involved in the racket, while seven banks including Barclays have been subpoenaed in the States. A few Italian families get together and we call them the mafia and charge them with racketeering but when banks do it we call it cooperation. It will take years of litigation to sort it all out but you can be assured, a few banks will have to pay a fraction of the profits earned in the scam.

Speaking of the mafia, seeing as interest rates aren't spicy enough to make headlines, the other summer scandal involved just that, Mexican drug lords who line headless bodies on highways. Once again the contrast between the justice meted out to the flesh and blood people and the corporate people is illuminating. A real person gets caught selling dime bags on the street corner trying to raise money to go to college, we go to jail for life; they get caught laundering the money from the profits earned on those bags, they say they're sorry and get a slap on the wrist. Europe's largest bank, HSBC, not only transported billions of dollars of cash in armoured vehicles, cleared suspicious travellers' cheques worth billions, and allowed Mexican drug lords to buy planes with money laundered through Cayman Islands accounts, they also moved money from Iran, Syria and other countries on US sanctions lists, helped a Saudi bank linked to al-Qaida shift money to the US and even cleared $290 million in "obviously suspicious travelers cheques" that benefitted Russians "who claimed to be in the used car business." Lucky we only have to worry about Iranian-American used car salesmen hiring Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador or this might sound like a conspiracy theory. Yep, all this was part of a report by a US senate committee which revealed HSBC failed to monitor $60 trillion in wire transfer and account activity, had a backlog of 17,000 unreviewed account alerts regarding potentially suspicious activity, and failed to conduct anti-money laundering due diligence before opening accounts for HSBC affiliates.

Each time new revelations come to light, bank executives line up to testify in front of an important sounding committee and explain how they are "horrified" by what has happened, that they couldn't have foreseen events, that measures have been put in place, that it was bad luck or a black swan or a rogue trader. Then it happens again. Just this spring, the last remaining 'good banker', Jamie Dimon had his bank JP Morgan victimized by one of those rogues as "the London whale" lost a bet on a position that could cost his bank $9 billion. Just the kind of gamble we were promised these banks would no longer make in exchange for bailing them out just four years ago. Just the kind that lost UBS $2 billion last September, Societe Generale $6 billion in January 2008, or Barings Bank $1.3 billion in 1995. Our always vigilant press is always sure to name them rogues, despite being the norm, performing unauthorized trades and justice is swiftly served on these lone scoundrels while pensioners and savers pay the price and the banks continue to promote the culture of short term profits in which psychopaths thrive, to inflate their quarterly earnings. Had enough yet? There's always the fattening of the PIIGS, the Magnetar trade, the Sentinel fraud, any of these, or ...

If these were people, as corporations such as banks have supposedly become, we'd execute, jail or banish them from our communities so how do you explain the social pressure to repay criminal enterprises that are slowly sucking the life from our economic system? In order to succeed in society, few would disagree that a university or college education is a prerequisite. Such a degree costs tens of thousands of dollars or pounds obliging many to take out student loans which become payable upon completion of their studies. In America, if you decide to head to Vegas and max out your credit card on hookers, blow and roulette only to find yourself unable to pay, one option is to declare bankruptcy, ruining your chances to obtain credit but clearing the debt off the books just as the hangover clears after a good, greasy breakfast. If you find yourself without a job (or only part-time or unpaid internship) once you finish school and unable to pay back a student loan, you don't have the bankruptcy option, it can't be cleared and will be with you until death or its paid. Heaven forbid if you're among the 25% of Americans without health coverage and you or a family member fall ill, the cost of which forces many into a debt spiral. This is nothing if not slavery. Even if you're a good client and you pay your debts, or the debts of your nation through your taxes, you are forced to work in order to earn the income. What else is forced labour but slavery?

Funny that we (or at least the Sumerians) had this all figured out 5000 years ago. Even then they recognized the need to protect those forced into debt from unforeseeable circumstances or the avaricious. Interest rates also seem to have first appeared in Sumer where most transactions were conducted on credit. Years with bad harvests resulted in peasants hopelessly indebted to the rich, forced to surrender their farms and, ultimately, family members, in debt bondage. Inevitably this would lead to a social crisis in which the masses were enslaved to the few. It soon became traditional for each new ruler to wipe the slate clean, cancel all debts, and declare a general amnesty or 'freedom', so that all bonded labourers could return to their families. Significantly, the first word for 'freedom' known in any human language, the Sumerian amarga, literally means 'return to mother' while in Sanskrit, Hebrew and Aramaic, debt, guilt, and sin are actually the same word. Julius Caesar became the hero of the Plebs, and was ultimately killed by the nobles, for introducing debt forgiveness schemes after he took power from the corrupt patrician oligarchy. Solon laid the foundation for Athenian democracy by "shaking off the burdens" of enslaving debt. Biblical prophets instituted a similar custom, the Jubilee, whereby after seven years all debts were similarly cancelled, the direct ancestor of the New Testament notion of ‘redemption’. Through some historical error, we inherited the institutions of lending at interest without the original checks and balances.

Instead, we live in a world where banks are bailed out while people are sold out. In which lenders making up details on credit applications became such a common practice it became known as liar loans but debtors get sent to jail for 30 years for lying on the same forms. It was after all many of those liar loans that were slapped together, sliced, diced and bundled into the CDO's that helped cause the crisis, but no one needs to be jailed for that. It's only those uncivilized countries that obviously need a good bombing where bankers are actually punished for fraud. Tax evasion is only for the rich and corporation kind of people not the 99%. It's jail for you or me if you screw the IRS but if you're HSBC or Credit Suisse, you just cut a deal in which you hand over email and telephone records of your staff to the US Department of Justice. Stealing from your clients is frowned upon unless your MF Global, an investment company run by the former governor of New Jersey Jon Corzine, then of course it's okay. It's usually fraud if I sell you something that I know is going to blow up, but if you're Goldman Sachs, where your clients are referred to as muppets, well, it's fine to sell your clients investment products that your bank is offloading as fast as possible on the open market because you know they're about to explode, even when there's emails to prove it.

It doesn't seem like banks have morals and they definitely don't learn their lesson from the punishments they receive. Bank of America’s securities unit has agreed four times since 2005 not to violate a major antifraud statute, and another four times not to violate a separate law. Merrill Lynch, which Bank of America acquired in 2008, has separately agreed not to violate the same two statutes seven times since 1999. They're just doing cost-benefit analysis, where their benefits are our costs as when Morgan Stanley entered into a complex swap agreement with the New York electricity provider KeySpan in 2006 that gave it a stake in the profits of a competitor enabling the two companies to push up the price of electricity. Price fixing is illegal, so Morgan Stanley had to pay a fine of $4.8 million for enabling it, but they got to keep the $21.6 million they made for handling the swap and didn't have to admit any wrongdoing. The cost to New Yorkers in higher utility bills? $300 million. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase came out smelling like roses converting human shit into billions of dollars in profits by financing a new sewer treatment plant for the people of Jefferson County. The people didn't come out smelling so pretty though as the financing cost forced them into the biggest municipality bankruptcy in US history. The same thinking probably went into Wells Fargo's alleged decision to fire an employee three days before his daughter was scheduled for surgery in order to avoid paying the bill. No cash, no cure for cancer as the hospital cancelled the surgery and the child was left to die.

What of finances role of market maker and facilitating transactions for investors and consumers, surely we owe them something for that? Well, thanks to the deregulation of the agricultural commodity market in 2000 Goldman Sachs earned £600m from food speculation in 2009 alone. While the bank's profits were boosted, the numbers dependent on food banks and aid were exacerbated thanks in part to the banksters. No one disagrees that their gambling pushes up prices, the only question is how much relative to other factors such as biofuels, changing consumption patterns and drought. The poor are disproportionately affected by a rise in food prices as they spend a higher percentage of their income for the basics, just as they do for debt. If you use anything made of plastic, drive a car or heat your home, you should know oil speculation adds $23.39 to the price of a barrel (around a quarter) which translates to about an 83-cent-per-gallon of gas premium and costing an average American family $82/month. And people we're angry when Bank of America introduced a $5/month debit card fee!?! Seems these financial behemoths need the cash though as they need to keep up with their competitors in the new world of flash trading. By spending billions on faster cables they can shave microseconds off the latency, or trading execution time, thus allowing themselves to peek at the orders of other traders before they're made. Not only does this destroy the idea of investing, especially by us flesh and blooders, but it opens up the markets to one of the newest perils, the flash crash. Hooray, more risk!

Perusing the comments under any number of stories of payday loan companies charging four to 5000% interest, distraught families being tossed on the street or students in the streets protesting their debt enslavement, one can always be sure to find defenders of the faith of finance. These moralizers are quick to point out that no one forces people to sign on the dotted line but never take into account the asymmetry of information and power between the parties or the corrupting influence of living in a society built on sating our short term desires no matter the cost. The tired refrain of taxation and representation is trotted out to rationalize paying the debts of our governments but loses all meaning when put in the context of the options faced by voters today: Bad or Worse, Red or Blue, vote wrong and it's a redo, either/or results in another IOU as the need for money to get elected forces politicians to prostate themselves before the FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate, one for all and all for one thanks to deregulation). Insisting people today make rational economic decisions seems ludicrous while our educational system is being sold off to the lowest bidder and converted into a propaganda factory where standardized test scores are more important than critical thinking. Arguing we have a choice when the information we receive is nothing but a toxic mix of cognition clogging updates in our Twitooglebook universe alongside stories from a media controlled by six corporations (down from 50 in 1983) offering 2,000 channels with the same message while selling an illusion of choice barraging us with a constant stream of crisis reports, crisis summits and near-crisis averted but never connecting the dots.

"When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid. The liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about at all, has always been brought about by bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretend payment." - Adam Smith; The Wealth of Nations, Book V, Chapter III, Part V, p. 481

To review. Forty years ago we entered a new era of fiat currency which untethered money and thus debt from any constraints in order to protect ourselves from "money speculators". The US in particular experienced a long economic boom for the wealthy with stagnation and even decline for the rest as taxes for the rich and corporations were cut, unions were gutted and jobs were outsourced. In the past 30 years, 96% of the growth of average incomes have gone to the richest 10% and in the past 10 years, the incomes of the other 90% have declined. In Europe, a new currency was introduced with supposed magical powers to turn the likes of Greece into Germany but only had the effect of causing them to diverge. On both sides of the Atlantic, the shortfall of the poor, the middle class and their governments was made up by increased borrowing. The "money speculators", whose ingenuity was unleashed by the deregulation that regulatory capture bought them, were more than happy to find more and more creative ways to eliminate risk and earn huge rewards. When the ponzi scheme faltered, we were told there was no alternative to saving the banks, transferring trillions from public hands to private with no consequences and next to no oversight. With nothing fixed and no lesson having been learned, the banks emerged bigger and more powerful than ever with the knowledge they can act with impunity while the public from Madrid to Manchester to Miami are forced to accept ever more stringent austerity measures in exchange for ever larger bailouts which continue right under our noses.

Oh, it continues. TARP was just the beginning of bank bailouts as the program has continued in stealth and shows no sign of being abandoned therefore changing the game is the new moral imperative and sustaining it a sin. Language is their most effective ruse, twisting meanings and changing expressions. Quantitative easing in the US and UK is nothing more than printing money electronically and using it to overpay banks for their financial assets or by lending to them on the cheap, minimizing their borrowing costs and lowering their reserve requirements in the hopes they will lend that money on to the real economy. Of course they don't, they just buy more bonds (gilts in the UK) to earn a risk free return (as long as the merry-go-round continues) and wait for the next round of easing (QE3 is rumored for a fall sailing). All this goes to pad the bottom line which they need to perpetually improve to keep increasing CEO salaries, keep the stock market happy and of course, give idiots like this something to babble about incoherently.

European sensibilities were a bit too sensitive for such blatant Zimbabwe/Weimar Republic-like behavior (at least until recently when they just up and gave Spanish banks €100 billion that the people will have to pay back), so the ECB basically did the same thing but called it LTRO, Long Term Refinancing Operation. Prohibited from giving money directly to countries, the ECB printing press is used to give money to banks ostensibly to buy bonds from countries having problems selling them (ie. Greece et al). More free money for the banks if the game continues as they can either put the cash into the riskier bonds at higher rates or play it safe and deposit it back at the ECB. Other Newspeak candidates include 'Growth friendly' policies, those which hand more power to foreign corporation and banks to continue their plunder while David Cameron's 'expansionary austerity' is more Orwellian than his Big Society and has driven the UK into a 'surprise' double-dip recession. Confused? Yep, you're meant to be, otherwise you'd wonder why they don't just give the money directly to the people instead of banks while artificially maintaining low interest rates in order to force the elderly to eat cat food or starve.

"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves" - Matthew 21:12

Just this past week US VP Joe Biden got in a little hot water for telling a half-truth:

People (well, right-wingnuts) went, well, nuts, as they tried to turn his words into an insensitive race play. The mistake he made though is that we're already in chains, slaves to greedy, immoral (amoral?), psychopathic bankers. It wouldn't be so bad if we at least we're being driven for a monumental purpose, I dunno, like building pyramids, the US capitol or White House instead of facilitating the worship of the Golden Calf. Up til now we've been complicit in their shakedown where debt is a sacred obligation only if it is owed by the poor and vulnerable to the rich and powerful who have used their gains to purchase political power or hidden them away in the Caymans. Yet debt is always negotiable or can even be written off when it's the other way around ensuring the wealth keeps flowing upwards. The growth in inequality seen before the crisis has been put on steroids since the bailout with more than 90% of the gains going exclusively to the richest 1% causing the middle class to slowly disappear and poverty to explode while Paul Ryan argues to cut their support. Regardless, much of the rabble will rally to the Romney/Ryan call to extend the Bush tax cuts and further cut taxes on the rich while making the rest pay for it. We used to ask "What's the Matter With Kansas?" but we need to ask "what's the matter with us?" today for doing nothing as the air raid sirens are sounding the next attack.

Alone, none of us can destroy the false idol of greed, there's no Moses amongst us, the only way is if enough people act together. Think and buy locally, plant a garden, ride your bike, vote for alternative parties and take your money out of the TBTF/J  banks (US, UK, Facebook) and put it in a credit union that puts profits back into communities are all simple ways to start. The more ambitious can talk to and teach others, join a protest, or even try to get out of the fiat economy altogether by investing in physical gold, silver or other metals. Of course if you're worried about all that extra weight in your pockets try using the alternative, electronic, secure Bitcoin currency. Finally, we have to shed the holier-than-thou shackles placed on us by those that would call people who walk away from underwater homes deadbeats, graduates unable to make their student loan payments slackers and governments tricked into a debt trap unable to meet their debt obligations lazy while bailed out banks behave beligerently, 'good' governments gut the promised social welfare state and corporations renege on obligations and commitments made to provide health care, pensions and other benefits to workers. The parasites may seem to have the power, they may have won the previous battles, but we, as flesh and blood people, have the real power, it's time to Strike Debt, stop paying what is no longer morally owed, a debt strike to stop the bankster shock doctrine takeover.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why Not Be Evil?

Can a corporation be evil? Seems these days the better question is "can a corporation not be evil?". From banks to camera companies, big oil to milk producers, one could be excused for mistaking the business page for a how-to crime wiki. Ask a hundred people to name a not-evil corporation and I'll bet many of them would come up with the name Google, the search engine that became a verb that became a $200 billion gorilla. Not only did they revolutionize search, they've changed the way we see the world through Google Maps, Google Earth and Youtube, all of which may one day pale in comparison if Project Glass does half they hope it does. We blog through them, read through them and may one day drive through them. We've all been pretty happy with the arrangement so far, people dream of working for them, stock holders have gotten rich and hey, so what if they've got more information about us than the CIA could dream of, their informal corporate motto is Don't Be Evil. So what happens when they suddenly become evil? Four stories hit my screen in quick succession today that tell me we might be about to find out.

Unless you live in Russia (Yandex) or China (Baidu), in all likelihood you rely on Google for your search results on the web. It's worldwide market share peaked at 86.3% in 2010 and is now probably somewhere around 80%. While it only controls two-thirds of the US market it has nearly the entire mobile market, 96.9%. Hooray for them and hooray for us, right? After all, we wouldn't use it if it weren't the best and with so many of us using Google, it's only getting better. Right? Yeah, it worries me too, in fact, I started worrying a little while ago after seeing this TED talk about how Google provides each user with different results for the same search. Innocuous at first blush, again, just making our web experience better by providing individual users with the hits they'll be interested in. Worrisome on second thought as we get trapped in a "filter bubble" and don't get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview. And now creepy on third after today's news that Google has joined the copyright police force.

Last Friday, Google SVP of engineering Amit Singhal informed us: "Starting next week, we will begin taking into account a new signal in our rankings: the number of valid copyright removal notices we receive for any given site. Sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results." If your Orwellian doublespeak sensors don't go off when a statement like this is followed by claims that "this ranking change should help users find legitimate, quality sources of content more easily", let me translate it for you: "Our censorship will help guide you more efficiently to our corporate sponsors". Copyright claims are known as DMCA takedown notices and are routinely abused as there is no downside to claiming ownership of content. This has led to many examples of content claims that turned out not to be owned or were defensible as fair use or worse yet, takedown notices are sometimes used to suppress free, lawful speech. Google should not circumvent the judicial process by passing judgment on websites just because someone complains. The legal system presumes innocence until guilt is proven; Google should make the same presumption. Imagine if the Google logo were replaced with the FBI emblem and the search button said, "See all government approved results." Would you use that search engine? Well, you might as well be, just replace 'government' with 'corporate advertisers'.

Well, at least they're not doing anything illegal, right? Not so fast. Part II of IV is the story of Google being hit with a record fine for violating the privacy of people who used Apple's Safari Web browser even after pledging it would not. A RECORD FINE! That'll keep'em honest. I'm sure they won't go about bypassing people's privacy settings to track them across the web anymore, especially after promising they won't. Well, why not? See, as the LA Times called it, the fine is "a drop in the bucket" that CNN said amounted to a "slap on the wrist": $22.5 million. Sure, a lot of money to you and me, a number your grandfather probably never even saw in his life, but in today's world of billions in profits and trillions in bailouts, mere pocket change. In fact, it's 0.1% of Google CEO Larry Page's net worth. It's equivalent to about five hours of sales. Wait though, here's the kicker: the penalty is less than the gain Google's stock saw the day it was announced last Thursday as Google added $39.2 million to its market capitalization! Yep, it's profitable being evil.

Even when they're not breaking the law, Google, just like any large multi-national company, is very adept at bending it to their advantage and our detriment. No one wants to pay more tax than they need to, Google included. In fact they have the same fiduciary duty as any corporation to their shareholders to maximize profits which means minimizing taxes. So, like any of us would do, they have a full-time stable of tax lawyers and accountants to dream up schemes such as the Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich. Yes, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle and IBM all play the same game, but Google plays it best, to the tune of a 2.4% tax rate. I know, I know, you thought the US corporate tax rate was 35% and the UK's 28% and this exorbitant rate was throttling business, suffocating innovation in order to pay for benefit cheats' heroine habits. Nope, by sending their earnings to Google Ireland, whose 12.5% tax rate isn't quite low enough but whose loose tax laws allow most of the revenue to be redirected through the Netherlands where the generous Dutch tax laws allow 99.8% of what the shell company (it has no employees) collects to be sent on to Bermuda (it's subsidiary there is an Irish company, thus the Double Irish) whose white sands have no corporate taxes at all, Google has saved $3.1 billion over three years. Yet if we remember that their saving is societies cost in the times of austerity, well, no wonder some in the UK are starting to question the legitimacy of such transactions. As Google is thought to be based in the US, it's strange that Americans with their $trillion deficits and $16 trillion debt don't seem concerned. They really would pay more if they had to, honest, plus it's still a great place to work, right?

Well, why don't pull out the last article of the Google is Evil day on the Internets: Google Cutting Motorola Staff By 20 Percent In Search Of Profits. In case you missed it, Google recently concluded a $12.5 billion takeover of Motorola Mobility in May. Those who didn't will pass this purge as Google's move to shake things up and return their new subsidiary to profitability. Yet, digging deeper reveals a fleck of evil, and not just any evil, the financial shenanigans kind, worse yet, the mergers and acquisitions kind. Google didn't appoint a consumer electronics guy to turn around a, well, consumer electronics company, instead they hired Danny Woodside, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer. In case you're unfamiliar with these types, just watch the original Wall Street movie or better yet, turn on your TV and you'll be sure to see Mitt Romney, a man whose business experience was earned at Bain Capital. They're not in the business of resurrecting money-losing companies but the opposite, killing them by breaking them up into pieces and selling the pieces off to make a profit. Yeah, the evil's in the details of a huge corporation but the lives of those who lose their jobs in the middle of a depression.

What's it all mean? Not much I'm sure. Billions will continue to turn to Google daily as they continue to build up an ever larger database of our habits in order to sell things to us more efficiently which will allow them to avoid more taxes on ever greater profits as they grind up smaller companies, keeping the tastier bits and selling off the scrap. Few will even know what's happening, the technology will keep getting deeper under our skin, Google and other corporations will continue to pour money into the political process to keep the tax laws as they are and their war chest of cash will continue to grow. What could go wrong, right? Ah, I think people were saying the same things about AIG et al just about five years ago if I remember correctly. If only we'd moved our money out of them...think I'll switch my default search engine to Duck Duck Go.

Here's an alternate vision to Google's Project Glass brought to you by Google's Youtube! (couldn't get Vimeo's embed to work, watch it here)