January 2010

[I can’t help myself, but don’t expect regular posting. For the record, one of the reasons I gave up on America is the fact that, relatively speaking and in terms of the people who count, Collender really is one of the good guys. There’s no hope.]

Stan Collender:

An interesting article opinion piece in today’s New York Times Magazine says that it’s okay for a homeowner to walk away from a mortgage if his or her home is underwater.  His reasoning is that it’s okay for homeowners to walk away from their financial obligations because financial institutions routinely walk away from theirs.

Putting aside the obviously infantile excuse that it’s okay to do something because everyone else is doing it, I have some real problems with the idea that a mortgage is a disposable legal and financial obligation that ceases to exist whenever a homeowner deems it to be in their personal interest to leave it behind.

(Via Brad Delong; more recent Collender here)

This just enforces the double standard that more or less defines American life: corporate persons have legal rights and responsibilities, but no moral obligations, whereas human persons have both (though their rights are dependent on the legal help they have available).

Any well-run corporation will do whatever the legal and economic conditions in place make it rational to do. To do otherwise would be a failure to exercise fiduciary responsibility on the part of management and might be actionable. When wretched and pitiful human persons sue a corporate person, if fighting the suits to the bitter end is more profitable than either paying off the victims or fixing the problem, then the problem won’t be fixed and the victims won’t be paid off.  Two thirty-something women I know are still waiting for their late father’s settlement from the Exxon Valdez case. (Perhaps their children will inherit the settlement; perhaps it will be passed down in the family forever like a lapsed medieval title.)

We human persons are better than that. We have ethics. We wouldn’t want to be like them. Sure, corporate persons rule our lives, and human persons who put themselves at the service of corporate persons live much better than the rest of us. But we are above that. We’re good and pure, and will be rewarded in Heaven.

Now, there are those who say that, if you’re contending with an amoral entity like a bank, any ethics you happen to have is dead weight and can only work against you. But this conclusion is horribly wrong and immoral, and all decent people should condemn it, as Collender just did.


I’m taking an indefinite break from political blogging, effective immediately. Too much grief, too little accomplished, future dim. Culture blogging at Haquelebac will continue. My archive is at Idiocentrism.

Why is Michael Steele the head of the Republican National Committee? Because Steele is Putney Swope.

In the movie, Putney Swope (the token black) becomes the director of an advertising agency by secret ballot because he’s everyone’s second choice — everyone on the board voted for himself first and put Swope second as the least threatening competitor.

Steele is a highly unrepresentative Republican, he hasn’t done anything constructive or useful during his tenure, he screws up all the time, he does personal work on company time, and no one has any respect for him. But neither of the two factions of the party (the crazy wingers and the crazier wingers) trusts the other, and there’s no middle, so Steele’s the man.  The Republican Party is a wreck.

This (along with the RNC’s financial problems)  would be very good for the Democrats if Obama hadn’t spend his first year demoralizing the Democratic base. As it is, keeping the financial crash and the bankrupt state governments in mind, American politics seems headed for multi-system failure, and we might see President Palin yet. (It’s been an OK life. I feel sorry for young people.)

“Putney Swope” was made by Robert Downey Sr, whose other movies were of the art-house type. It hasn’t even attained cult status, but it should. To like it you have to be willing to accept low comedy, bad taste, and sterotyping, but forty years ago those were all fine with me. The movie has been admired by  Jane Fonda (Hanoi Jane era), Paul Thomas Anderson,  Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle, and the Coen brothers (who  modeled the board room scene in their flop “The Hudsucker Proxy” on Swope).

The most memorable line for me was the  motivational consultant’s profound $28,000 insight: “On the surface beer may seem like a cool refreshing drink, but in reality it is peepee dicky“. (You had to of been there.)

Buy now

Michael Steele: the Putney Swope of the GP

The Guardian reviews “Putney Swope”

Hal Astell review

Peepee-dicky scene

Department chiefs from the Industrial Bank of Japan’s headquarters would take the bullet train down from Tokyo to Osaka in order to attend a weekly ceremony presided over by the toad. On arriving at Nui’s house, the IBJ bankers would join the elite stockbrokers from Yamaichi Securities and other trading houses in a midnight vigil. First they would pat the head of the toad. Then they would recite prayers in front of a set of Buddhist statues in Nui’s garder. Finally Madame Nui would seat herself in front of the toad, go into a trance, and deliver the oracle — which stocks to buy and which to sell. The financial markets in Tokyo trembled at the verdict. At his peak in 1990, the toad controlled more than $10 billion in financial investments, making its owner the world’s largest individual stock investor.

Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons,

Hill and Wang, 2001, p. 78

On the Ed Schultz Show Austin Goolsbee just relayed Bill Gates’ opinion that the biggest single thing that Obama can do to get the economy going again is to authorize more H1B visas for skilled workers.

That makes no sense at all. Gates was just asking for his own little plum. Why was Goolsbee being his mouthpiece? Did Gates buy the Presidency without telling us?

Michelle Bachmann might lose her seat otherwise.

I’m torn between Wobegon loyalties and partisan hatred.

Christianity: the religion for rich whoremongers. That will bring in the well-heeled, high-quality converts!

I’m surprised that Britt didn’t recommend DC’s C Street Family. They’ve already successfully rehabbed several famous scum, and I’m sure that Tiger can afford their rates.

True on this side of the Pyrenees, false on the other. — Pascal

Relativism has been institutionalized. Multinationalism, federalism, secularism, liberalism, limited government, the doctrine of ” innocent until proven guilty”, the rights of private property, the right to remain silent, and limited liability all favor relativism and disfavor the enforcement of ethical principles. As far as policy-making goes, realism, pragmatism, and tough-mindedness are in the saddle, and anyone who thinks it should be otherwise is ridiculed.

There are those who believe that there are authoritative ethical principles beyond the principles written into law, but this is a purely personal belief (albeit one which is very widely held). It’s really hard to understand what authority unenforced principles have, and in any case, there’s little agreement about specifically what these ethical obligations are. Relativism is so securely institutionalized that if you shun or denigrate someone whose behavior is unethical but not illegal, you run the very real risk of being punished by the law.

Economic rationality is supremely relativistic. Within the limits of law, the market, and prudence, the rational actor is allowed to do anything; in fact, if he has a corporate fiduciary responsibility, he has an obligation to ignore ethical principles. Corporations are persons with all the rights of persons, but by definition without ethics, and corporations dominate American life. Even ethical, non-corporate, flesh and blood persons often spend the best part of their days working to satisfy corporate needs, and can only behave ethically after work as a sort of hobby.

Theorists of economic rationality assume that behavior is constrained by the market and by the law, but not even the theorists claim that rational actors behave ethically. Rational actors profit if they have a reputation for ethical behavior, and when others behave ethically toward them, and when competitors handicap themselves with ethical scruples, but otherwise the rational actor’s optimum ethical commitment is none. (And rational actors want their agents to behave ethically towards them, but amorally with regard to everyone else in the world).

As for the constraints of law and the market, it is for others to ensure that they’re there. The rational actor will do what he can to evade and nullify these constraints any way he can, and in fact, he often has a fiduciary duty to do so. “The law, the market, and prudence” really just boil down to prudence: whatever works.

The rational actor is not an amusingly unrealistic theoretical fiction. You run into rational actors all the time, above all in advertising, public relations, politics, resource exploration, strategic planning, finance, and of course crime, but also in the most surprising places. Rational actors run the show. Ethical behavior only flourishes in a few restricted areas, and under rules set by rational actors: face-to-face relationships, handwaving reform politics, and academia.

In practice, we live in a post-ethical society. Academic theoretical ethics is a fifth-wheel dog and pony show that has nothing to do with anything except personal career advancement.

A response to #5 here, in which two relativists make the ludicrous claim that there are no relativists anywhere, except maybe Alisdair Macintyre.