Tag Archives: politics

Who’s Afraid of Larry Lessig?

By James Kwak

Larry Lessig is running for the Democratic presidential nomination on a single issue — political equality — and a promise to resign as soon as Congress passes a bill that would help level the electoral playing field, end partisan gerrymandering, make it easier for working people to vote, and reduce the power of money in politics. As I’ve said before, he has my vote(and my money).

The funny thing is, the Democratic establishment seems intent on making Lessig’s point for him by keeping him out of the upcoming debates. To participate in the first debate, candidates have to get at least 1% support in three national polls. Lessig so far has only been included in one qualifying poll — in which he got 1% — but not in any subsequent ones. It’s not entirely clear why, but one factor is that the Democratic National Committee has not officially welcomed him to the race — and the DNC certainly isn’t lifting a finger to help him.

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The Only Two Things That Matter: Why I’m Supporting Larry Lessig

By James Kwak

We have lots of problems: Expensive yet mediocre health care. Lack of retirement security. Out-of-control megabanks. Inequality of opportunity. And, of course, climate change.

At the end of the day, though, there are only two things that matter: early childhood education and electoral reform.

We need smart, motivated, knowledgeable voters. And we need a political system in which all people have an equal say. Without those ingredients, no amount of well-meaning, reasoned, fact-based argument is going to do much good.

Just think about climate change, for example. It’s abundantly clear that the planet is getting warmer because of our greenhouse gas emissions, the process is irreversible at this point, and the downside risks to billions of people are enormous. Yet, in the country that won World War Two, rebuilt Europe and Japan, won the Cold War, and exported most of the technology that makes the modern world modern, we are incapable of doing anything about climate change. Why?

Because our political system is blocked by the fossil fuel industry, politicians dependent on the fossil fuel industry, and ignorant zealots who oppose a carbon tax because it is a “tax” and a cap-and-trade system because it is “regulation.”

That’s why I’m supporting Larry Lessig for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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Corporate Political Contributions and Bad Faith, Whatever That Is

By James Kwak

In an earlier paper (blog post here), I argued that corporate political contributions can in many cases be challenged by shareholders as conflicted transactions that further insiders’ personal interests (e.g., lower individual income taxes) rather than the best interests of the corporation. The argument (to simplify) was that if a political contribution is in the CEO’s individual interests, the resulting conflict of interest should make the business judgment rule inapplicable, placing on the CEO the burden of proving that the contribution was actually in the best interests of the corporation.

In a new paper, law professor Joseph Leahy has outlined a new theory under which shareholders can contest corporate political contributions. He argues that such contributions in many cases will constitute bad faith, since they have a motivation other than serving the best interests of the corporation. This line of reasoning exploits the vagueness of the concept of good faith as it has been established by the Delaware courts in Disney (the case over Michael Ovitz’s $140 million severance package) and later cases. Of course, that is only what the Delaware courts deserve for making such a hash out of the concept. In effect, they first said that any action not motivated by the best interests of the corporation constitutes bad faith, but then in specific cases tried to absolve any actual board of directors of ever actually acting in bad faith.

It is far from clear that a lawsuit brought on these grounds would have much chance of success in court. But by the letter of the case law, they should have a chance. And the more that plaintiffs contest corporate political contributions, the more likely it is that companies will decide that they aren’t worth the trouble. Or, even better, they will decide that they should only make contributions that are actually good for the bottom line and for shareholders—which is the way things should be.

Czars, Kings, and Presidents

By James Kwak

Over the years, Tim Geithner has come in for a lot of well-deserved criticism: for putting banks before homeowners, for lobbying for Citigroup when it wanted to buy Wachovia, for denying even the possibility of taking over failed banks, and so on. The release of his book, whatever it’s called, has revived these various debates. Geithner is certainly not the man I would want making crucial decisions for our country. But it’s also important to remember that he was only an upper manager. The man who called the shots was his boss: Barack Obama.

That’s the theme of Jesse Eisinger’s column this week. I’m on Eisinger’s email list, and he described the tendency to focus on Tim Geithner—while ignoring the role of the president—as “If only the Tsar knew what the Cossacks are doing!” I wasn’t familiar with the Russian version, but I’ve always been fond of the seventeenth-century French version. In September 2009, for example, Simon and I wrote this about the financial reform debate: 

“During the reign of Louis XIV, when the common people complained of some oppressive government policy, they would say, ‘If only the king knew . . . .’ Occasionally people will make similar statements about Barack Obama, blaming the policies they don’t like on his lieutenants.

“But Barack Obama, like Louis XIV before him, knows exactly what is going on.”

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What Is Social Insurance? Take Two

By James Kwak

More than a year ago I wrote a post titled “What Is Social Insurance?” about a passage in President Obama’s second inaugural address defending “the commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security.” In that post, I more or less took the mainstream progressive view: programs like Social Security are risk-spreading programs that provide insurance against common risks like disability, living too long, poor health in old age, and so on.

Since then, I undertook to write a chapter on social insurance for a forthcoming Research Handbook in the Law and Economics of Insurance, edited by Dan Schwarcz and Peter Siegelman. In writing the chapter, I decided that things were somewhat more complicated.

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Finance and Democracy

By James Kwak

Roger Myerson, he of the 2007 Nobel Prize, wrote a glowing review of The Banker’s New Clothes, by Admati and Hellwig, for the Journal of Economic Perspectives a while back. Considering the reviewer, the journal, and the content of the review (which describes the book as “worthy of such global attention as Keynes’s General Theory received in 1936″), it’s about the highest endorsement you can imagine.

Myerson succinctly summarizes Admati and Hellwig’s key arguments, so if you haven’t read the book it’s a decent place to start. To recap, the central argument is that under Modigliani-Miller, the debt-to-equity ratio doesn’t affect the cost of capital and therefore doesn’t affect banks’ willingness to extend credit; the real-world factors that make Modigliani-Miller untrue (deposit insurance, taxes, etc.) rely on a transfer of value from another party that makes society no better off.

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More Pseudo-Contrarianism

By James Kwak

I accidentally glanced at the link to David Brooks’s recent column and—oh my god, is it stupid. You may want to stop reading right here to avoid being exposed to it.

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