Diary of a Financier

W(h)ither the American way

In Existential, Idiosyncrasy, Politics on Mon 11 Nov 2013 at 06:18

“Excuse me, let me tell you something… When America opened up the floodgates and let all us Italians in, what do you think they were doing it for? ‘Cause they were trying to save us from poverty? No, they did it because they needed us. They needed us to build their cities and dig their subways, and to make them richer.

“The Carnegies and The Rockerfellers: they needed worker bees and there we were. But some of us didn’t want to swarm around their hive and lose who we were. We wanted to stay Italian and preserve the things that meant something to us: honor and family and loyalty… and some of us wanted a piece of the action. Now we weren’t educated like the Americans, but we had the balls to take what we wanted! And those other folks, those other… the, the JP Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was the business right? The American Way.”

–Anthony “Tony” Soprano | The Sopranos (Season 2, Episode 9)

~~~~

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

–“The New Colossus” | Emma Lazarus (from The Statue of Liberty)

~~~~

Well, which is it? Whither [or wither] “the American Way”?

I should just leave it there–end with an open-ended question–but I like to talk about solutions, not just problems… so I can’t help myself….

America the entity and Americans the people are not broken machines.  There’s nothing grossly wrong here.  I don’t buy into the blanket conspiratorial kicking and screaming of many usual suspects. However, there are things we can do better, things that need fixing, and things that are heading down the wrong path.

Frequently, you hear the defense, ‘that could never happen here’ or ‘fear-mongerers have never been right.’  Sometimes that’s accurate; othertimes it’s a bias.  For example, the Cassandras often shed light on looming catastrophe, allowing powers-that-be to preempt crises with fixes–let’s call it a self-fulfilling-fix. Therein lay the difference between a black and grey swan.

It scares me when proletariat tactics assimilate to the stuff of politicians and terrorists. American Redefinition Movement  (See: US Congress’ debt ceiling/government shutdown debates)  Their realization–that you have to be an extremist speaking superlative threats to attract attention–starts shouting matches that escalate into social upheaval.  Why do bloodless civil appeals never affect circumstances?  Why must it always degenerate to bloody revolt?

I must agree with the underlying irritant that compels the complaints, though. Our devolving, strong-form capitalism–ruthless profiteering with money and growth held above all else–cannot be America’s trademark. Surely there’s a happier medium?

I’m not as naive as to bemoan these defects as something uniquely rampant in modern America. I need only look back upon history to find similar bouts with avarice in the wake of the Panic of 1907, the Crash of 1929, the Savings & Loan Crisis, etc.

In fact, such depravities are everpresent in any society; the rumbling of distress just accentuates the faultlines, presenting an opportunity for us to work toward a more perfect union.

Can’t a man resolve his own ambition with his social and moral compass? Is his legacy not dependent on the durability and sustainability of his fruits?  Surely the ends don’t justify the means…

~~~~

Very quickly, I put together the following, potential solutions, prescriptions, and proscriptions¹:

  1. Restore true democracy
    • Eliminate monied lobbyists- the interests of citizens cannot be represented in a plutocratic cock fight among proxies, who unravel the progress achieved by equal voting rights
    • Overhaul Congress- leverage technology to host more referendums, soliciting a more democratic opinion,  policing representatives better & returning power to the people; decentralize the House & Senate by having representatives headquartered in their constituencies (saves a lot of money too)
  2. End the reign of corporations
    • Partnerships- eliminate corporate legal structure in favor of partnerships; businesses should be employee owned & run
    • Accountability- businesses are not people, they’re run by people, and those individuals should be held responsible for wrongdoing
  3. Reduce myopic incentives
    • Increase the scope of clawbacks & statutes of limitations
    • Modify pay packages- At least 50% of stock-based incentives should take the form of mandatory reverse convertible hybrids (equity to debt) that fund an IRA/401k and start paying income upon the employee’s retirement with a minimum 5-year vesting schedule
    • Refine language about fiduciary responsibilities- include better definition around resolving executives’/boardmembers’ sometimes competing responsibilities to shareholders vs. long term sustainability vs. moral/social duty
    • Revise patent law- rethink the world’s worst patent system to at least eliminate patent trolls, a major drag on American innovation, ingenuity & competitiveness
  4. Refocus on social wellbeing, rather than material wealth
    • Transition to value-added tax (VAT)- tax consumption rather than income; a [potentially] dynamic economy like the US’s can and should be managed more toward a balance of C+I+G+NX, whereas right now the consumption-led economy begets debt supercyles
    • Create tax awards based on net social impact- deferred payouts are triggered a la social impact bonds, taking unintended consequences and net effects into consideration; funded by regulatory savings
  5. Revert back from globalization
    • Incentivize local economies- derive consumption from as close to home as possible, when and where practicable; the aggregate costs of outsourcing are higher than meets the eye (e.g. managerial & regulatory friction) and economic benefits are offset by the reality of a beggar-thy-neighbor zero-sum; quality standards are compromised by predatory, inferior goods

This is not an exhaustive list of problems/fixes, so what have I missed?  Where have I erred?

~~~~

Our past and present is no justification of our future. Our Founding Fathers had not the foresight to light our way into eternity. Their gospel can’t/shouldn’t/doesn’t have the durability to guide us always, nor everywhere.  We cannot keep using them as arbitrators for asinine arguments; we must evolve with the times or face steady obsolescence.

What’s incontrovertible is the underlying American identity, a founding principle, an ideology–as communicated by the Lazarus sonnet above. In sum, on this Veteran’s Day, I want to pay homage to those who have fought/fight for our Freedom by making sure we’re safeguarding that Freedom here at home. The US Navy’s tagline is “A Global Force for Good.” I’ve tried to keep that in mind throughout this exercise and in all my affairs.

–Romeo

¹I plan on making these solutions a working-post, incorporating new ideas as they arise–from my own intuition as well as the comments section herein.

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  1. I like the idea of ending the reign of corporations (or at least putting some checks and balances on them), but can they really be replaced by parterships and employee-owned structures? What would happen the all the existing corporations and their non-employee shareholders?

    And some related questions: would there be any way for individuals to invest in companies that they are not employed by? What would pension funds invest in if not equities, bonds, REITs?

  2. editing that last question:
    What would pension funds invest in if not equities? bonds and REITs?

    • I can discuss more if you’d like, but you have Limited Partnerships (LPs) as a viable alternative, which still allows for a General Partnership (GP) stake to be held by employees. (i.e. The Blackstone Group LP, $BX)

      As long as you pierce/lift the corporate veil to treat underlying persons (“alter egos”) with legal accountability, I think you’ve accomplished a lot. That’s the real thrust of corporate entity reform, but from a (mis)incentive standpoint, employee ownership is valuable too.

  3. […] W(h)ither the American way (Buttonwood Tree)** […]

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  5. […] Apostolic exhortation: “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) | Pope Francis (Roman Catholic Church) The religious leader attacked the global economic system,  critiquing trickledown economics for exacerbating weath gaps & calling unfettered capitalism “a new tyranny”: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” He put the onus on the rich, but asked politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare,” saying thou shall not enable an economy of exclusion, inequality, poverty & the “idolatry of money.” He also encouraged cooperation among religions, mentioning Jewish & Muslim faiths. [Previously] […]

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