Ruffling the kleptocracy

In other news – just started a subscription to the FT and wow, there ARE other stories out there. Boring, significant. Anyway, the U.S. is about to ban anonymous shell companies:

The Biden administration’s focus on corruption and money laundering may so far have attracted less notice than its other big policy decisions. But it is the most meaningful manifestation of the US president’s argument that making the economy work for ordinary Americans is intimately connected to US national security and foreign policy interests.

There are many reasons to cheer this turn in policy. First, it is an all-too-rare example of relative bipartisanship in a deeply polarised country. Days before the January 6 attack on the Capitol, the Corporate Transparency Act was passed by overwhelming majorities of the US Congress as part of the annual defence spending authorisation bill. This law will, when implemented, in effect ban anonymous shell companies in the US — a favoured conduit for the world’s corrupt to launder dirty money, as Yellen referred to in her remarks.

Second, the administration means it seriously. The Treasury has issued an implementation rule for the shell company ban. Too often, in the US or elsewhere, good laws on paper have been dead letters in practice, because of loopholes or a failure to put enough resources and political support behind enforcement. This time looks different.

So weird, and not to get/stay meta all the time, but this story even hits the mythical ‘bipartisan’ note somehow, and yet still never rises to the level of the local news. Sure, it was drowned out by a coup attempt, but as the article points out, corrupted government institutions are the very things that abet anti-democratic movements. So, striking back at corruption also strikes a blow in support of liberal democracy. Sounds so quaint, but that’s where we are.

Image: Nicobar spindle shell, typically not itself a threat to democracy.

Abundance of scarcity

That’s where we are now, or one of the places, so sayeth Matt Levine:

Basically it is easy, using blockchain technology, to create scarce claims. You could I suppose use this technology to create scarce claims to scarce resources: You could put, like, housing deeds or shares of corporate ownership or cargo-container manifests on the blockchain. This would — people have argued for years — have benefits in terms of efficiency and legibility and tradability. It would create value by improving the processes by which real-world assets are transferred and allocated. Classic financial-services stuff. Nobody talks that much about this anymore.

Instead, people like to use blockchain technology to create scarce claims to abundant, or infinite, resources. There is absolutely no shortage of JPEGs, they are infinitely reproducible more or less for free, but that means — or meant — that you couldn’t become a millionaire by having good taste in JPEGs. But now people can create a unique non-fungible token representing ownership of a JPEG and use it as a status symbol or a speculative asset. Nobody will pay you for a number in your computer’s memory, but people will pay you for a scarce number in your computer’s memory.

Stop shaking your head – it’ll hurt your neck. Or just wait.

Theoretical normal person: If you could do a thing that wasn’t just bad for but ruinous to your country’s political system – but it was very good for your profits, would you do it?
Our actual media: Do what?

Such is our national media paralyzed on the question of how to cover Biden, how to normalize authoritarian white nationalism and get Trump back. Ratings are down and they’re in a bad way, which means they’ll gladly put us [all] in a worse one to keep the eyeballs rolling in and the clicks coming.

It’s really something.

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.

The meaning of ‘Tribalism’

Adam Serwer offers a corrective on a corrosive: the use of tribalism. You mean racism:

It’s fashionable in the Donald Trump era to decry political “tribalism,” especially if you’re a conservative attempting to criticize Trump without incurring the wrath of his supporters. House Speaker Paul Ryan has lamented the “tribalism” of American politics. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has said that “tribalism is ruining us.” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has written a book warning that “partisan tribalism is statistically higher than at any point since the Civil War.”

In the fallout from Tuesday’s midterm elections, many political analysts have concluded that blue America and red America are ever more divided, ever more at each other’s throats. But calling this “tribalism” is misleading, because only one side of this divide remotely resembles a coalition based on ethnic and religious lines, and only one side has committed itself to a political strategy that relies on stoking hatred and fear of the other. By diagnosing America’s problem as tribalism, chin-stroking pundits and their sorrowful semi-Trumpist counterparts in Congress have hidden the actual problem in American politics behind a weird euphemism.

Take Tuesday’s midterm elections. In New York’s Nineteenth Congressional District, the Democrat Antonio Delgado, a Harvard-educated, African American Rhodes scholar, defeated the incumbent Republican John Faso in a district that is 84 percent white, despite Faso caricaturing Delgado as a “big-city rapper.” In Georgia, the Republican Brian Kemp appears to have defeated the Democrat Stacey Abrams after using his position as secretary of state to weaken the power of the black vote in the state and tying his opponent to the New Black Panther Party. In Florida, the Republican Ron DeSantis defeated the Democrat Andrew Gillum after a campaign in which DeSantis’s supporters made racist remarks about Gillum. The Republican Duncan Hunter, who is under indictment, won after running a campaign falsely tying his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is of Latino and Arab descent, to terrorism. In North Dakota, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp lost reelection after Republicans adopted a voter-ID law designed to disenfranchise the Native American voters who powered her upset win in 2012. President Trump spent weeks claiming that a caravan of migrants in Latin America headed for the United States poses a grave threat to national security, an assessment the Pentagon disagrees with. In Illinois on Tuesday, thousands of Republicans voted for a longtime Nazi who now prefers to describe himself as a “white racialist”; in Virginia, more than a million cast ballots for a neo-Confederate running for Senate.

A large number of Republican candidates, led by the president, ran racist or bigoted campaigns against their opponents. But those opponents cannot be said to belong to a “tribe.” No common ethnic or religious ties bind Heitkamp, Campa-Najjar, Delgado, or the constituencies that elected them. It was their Republican opponents who turned to “tribalism,” painting them as scary or dangerous, and working to disenfranchise their supporters.

Nul ne peut soupçonner.

Image: tribal art of indigenous Warlis of the mountainous and coastal areas of Maharashtra/Gujarat border.

Currency

Typically characterized as hard, or cold. This, too, is one of the loaded meanings of green, of course, and not keeping some handle on it would be not only remiss but cause the other meanings to crash into a field of mere literal connotations. In that spirit, this article in the Times on the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles caught my, um, eye.

So first thing, the headline, Soaring in Art, Museum Trips over Finances, doesn’t past the smell test. You should know something is awry when art and finance are used in the same phrase in a newspaper. And not because anything is sacred, fer chrissakes. But finance in newspapers always means shareholders and art, alas, can’t even get its mouthpiece in before the first haymaker.

And sure enough, a couple of graphs in, the MOCA is in trouble – and has been for years. Bad management, shrinking endowment used for operational expenses, big donors bolting the board… I’m being redundant.

Yet by putting art ahead of the bottom line, the Museum of Contemporary Art has nearly killed itself. The museum has operated at a deficit in six of the last eight years, and its endowment has shrunk to about $6 million from nearly $50 million in 1999, according to people who have been briefed on the finances.

So, contemporary art… what have they been showing? Their permanent collection boasts Rauschenberg and Ruscha, but money problems at museums make me think of much more complexicated™ interstices of art, marketing and commodity than mere paintings, printmaking or collage. What’s the word… oh yes… Installation. And sure enough they get to it.

And at times the museum has secured financing for exhibitions in ways that many other museums would shun. To help pay for last year’s Takashi Murakami exhibition, the museum solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from art galleries that represented the artist and therefore stood to gain from any related career boost.

Fair enough, I actually see little wrong with this supposedly nefarious ploy, as if our shackles should rise merely on the cross-branding. I mean, where is the lost innocence? No, I’m much more interested in who and what is Takashi Murakami. And a .0002567-second interweb search brings video of the Times coverage of his exib at the Brooklyn Museum last year. Murakami, a Japanese pop artist likened by the video reporter to Andy Warhol because “he works at the intersection of pop art, mass design and high fashion.” Excellent.

He’s known for his work – there’s that word again – with Louis Vuitton; in fact there was a functioning LV boutique inside the museum. What’s that game? Oh yeah. Keno!

But let’s go to the man himself. Reporter: do you think a purse with a logo on it can be considered art work? (Don’t answer that. She’s trying to trick…)

Murakami: I think so.

Okay, okay. LV creative director Marc Jacobs makes the point that art is fundamentally unnecessary, that “with art, there is no right or wrong, only opinions.” The extent to which he actually believes this confirms the self-fulfilling nature of his point.

So back to the financial problems at the LA museum. Alternately, there could have been some sort of foundational flaw in the building itself to cause it to physically collapse and everyone would stand around the pile of rubble lamenting the decision to go with the architect who fathered the structural  imperfection, signed off on the drawings that ultimately destroyed what they were designed to protect. “People deserve better!” the elegantly appointed mob might chant.

Instead, it is teetering on the verge of a similar collapse because of what? Some design flaw that reinforces how unnecessary it is? In the post-judgment judgment environment, if art or ecology can be mixed with commerce, then they must be. It seems to be the only rule. So let’s no kid ourselves about the consequences.

But discerning what it is and is not necessary is all about one of these. Can you guess which?