Never having to say you’re sorry

bull's eye view photo

For Wall Street, that’s what it means apparently. Torn over whether a Biden win brings joy or misery. Really.

Those with the rosier outlook point to Biden’s mostly pro-business inner circle, his significant campaign contributions from the financial industry and his longtime support of credit card companies located in his home state of Delaware. Plus, a Biden victory would likely be driven by U.S. voters seeking change because they believe the country is a mess. Wall Street thinks it has a strong argument to make that reining in lenders would be a fatal mistake when unemployment is sky-high and the economy remains ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

The enthusiasm, however, is tempered by fears over how much sway Biden will give progressives and their firebrand leaders, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. That’s especially true when it comes to picking appointees to run the powerful agencies that police banks and securities firms, jobs that the activists are mobilizing to fill with industry critics. At a minimum, progressives want to ensure that the days are long over when Democrats appointed officials like Robert Rubin, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who is a key Biden adviser.

The stakes for Wall Street couldn’t be higher. Centrist regulators would be less likely to overturn rule rollbacks approved under Trump that have saved financial firms tens of billions of dollars. Progressive agency heads, on the other hand, could pursue what the C-suite calls the “shame and investigation agenda.” Policies like taxes on trading, curbs on executive pay and even breaking up behemoth banks would be back on the table.

To wonder whether ‘Wall Street’ has some understanding of our current morass, much less the words ‘joy’ or ‘ misery,’ is to weep. Of course they do. Always check the business press if you’re wondering at all about the soul of a consumer society. Mantra for post-2016 world: it’s always worse than you think.

Image: Replica golden calf. Subtlety is NOT their strong point.

On Bigging, and Failing

Everyone loves an end-of-year top ten list, and we can pick from this Biggest Tech Lies of 2018 almost at random:

5. If we’re bigger, it will create more competition. – Everyone who runs a pseudo-monopoly

The most devastating merger of the year was AT&T and Time-Warner’s unholy union into a media machine with a telecom background operating under an FCC with seemingly no interest in policing anti-competitive practices. We still don’t know what the worst of the consequences will be, but we’ve already seen it strong-arm rival cable providers into paying more for HBO and the shut down of a beloved streaming service that wasn’t too big to fail. When AT&T argued that it needed to be bigger in order to create more competition, no one thought that would mean it just wants to plan a bunch of streaming services that will compete with each other and line AT&T’s pockets no matter which one you choose.

We can argue the legality of big companies merging with big companies until we’re blue in the face, but bigness is one of the biggest problems in the world today. The bigger companies are, the more power they acquire and the more difficult it becomes to hold them accountable. Current antitrust regulations have proven inadequate, and they are even more useless when the FTC is so bad at enforcing them.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are too big to enforce their own policies, Amazon is too big for small businesses to compete against, and telecoms are so big they write laws prohibiting your city from building its own network. Venture capitalists now want to feel that your startup can become either accomplish the impossible feat of toppling one of these giants or that you at least have a solid plan to be acquired by one of the big boys. Bigness doesn’t create competition, it pulls everything into a black hole that’s hostile to consumers and citizens around the world.

It’s practically every problem incarnate, joined as one: Giant companies. By existential ethos, they cannot care about workers, conditions or any negative externalities of the doing of their business. Even the construct ‘big problem’ is itself a kind exacerbated by terminology. In this way, the supposed empirical challenges of capitalism should have actually been understood as a roadmap, as they have been by some, no doubt. But these roads are a leading to a fundamental weakness, a dysfunction in the system itself. It could have been that this way of organizing an economy would work if and only if monopolies and all other rule violations were avoided and all participants observed the rules for the health of the system, if not for the board itself. But the entire endeavor has been predicated instead on getting away with as much transgression as possible. “Tie it up in court for years, damn the torpedoes.” There’s some corollary with ‘Ships being safer kept in the harbor,’ but, we’ll work on that.

Image: Battle of Mobile Bay, by Louis Prang

The Conquest of Russell

This (misspellings and all) is from Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness (1930), specifically Chapter Three: Competition.

If you ask any man in America, or any man in business in England,what it is that most interferes with his enjoyment of existence, he will say: ‘The struggle for life.’ He will say this in all sincerity; he will believe it. In a certain sense it is true; yet in another, and that a very important sense, it is profoundly false. The struggle for life is a thing which does, of course, occur. It may occur to any of us if we are unfortunate. It occurred, for example, to Conrad’s hero Falk, who found himself on a derelict ship, one of the two men among the crewwho were possessed of fire-arms, with nothing to eat but the other men, When the two men had finished the meals upon which they could agree, a true struggle for life began. Falk won, but was ever after a vegetarian.
Now that is not what the businessman means when he speaks of the ‘struggle for life’. It is an inaccurate phrase which he has picked up in order to give dignity to something essentially trivial. Ask him how many men he has known in his class of life who have died of hunger. Ask him what happened to his friends after they had been ruined. Everybody knows that a businessman who has been ruined is better offso far as material comforts are concerned than a man who has never been rich enough to have the chance of being ruined. What people mean, therefore, by the struggle for life is really the struggle for success. What people fear when they engage in the struggle is not that they will fail to get their breakfast next morning, but that they will fail to outshine their neighbours.

It is very singular how little men seem to realise that they are not caught in the grip of a mechanism from which there is no escape, but that the treadmill is one upon which they remain merely because they have not noticed that it fails to take them up to a higher level. I am thinking, of course, of men in higher walks of business, men who already have a good income and could, if they chose, live on what they have. To do so would seem to them shameful, likedeserting from the army in the face of the enemy, though if you ask them what public cause they are serving by their work, they will be at a loss to reply as soon as they have run through the platitudes to be found in the adverdsements of the strenuous life.
Consider the life of such a man. He has, we may suppose, a charming house, a charming wife, and charming children. He wakes up early in the morning while they are still asleep and hurries off to his office. There it is his duty to display the qualities of a great executive; he cultivates a firm jaw, a decisive manner of speech, and an air of sagacious reserve calculated to impress everybody except the office boy. He dictates letters, converses with various important persons on the ‘phone, studies the market, and presently has lunch with some person with whom he is conducting or hoping to conduct a deal. The same sort of thing goes on all the afternoon. He arrives home, tired, just in time to dress for dinner. At dinner he and a number of other tired men have to pretend to enjoy the company of ladies who have no occasion to feel tired yet. How many hours it may take the poor man to escape it is impossible to foresee. At last he sleeps, and for a few hours the tension is relaxed.