By James Kwak
Charles Koch recently made headlines by saying that it is “possible another Clinton could be better than another Republican” in this year’s presidential race. Some people find this surprising: how could the Koch brothers sit by and let another Democrat be elected to the White House? But that’s a reflection less of the Kochs’ political acumen than of our collective quadrennial fixation on the presidential election.
I find it unlikely that the Kochs would actually support Hillary Clinton—it’s more likely Charles was taking the occasion to signal his displeasure with both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz—but it’s quite possible that they will simply sit out the battle for the White House. Unlike, oh, just about everyone in the Democratic Party, the Kochs have never panicked at the thought of losing any particular election. Instead, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson put it:
When conservative business leaders such as Charles and David Koch invested in Cato, Heritage, the American Enterprise Institute, and all the other intellectual weapons of the right, they were playing the long game. When Republican political leaders like Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell developed new strategies for tearing down American government to build up GOP power, they were playing the long game.
That’s from the conclusion of their new book, American Amnesia (p. 369).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.