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Invaders from Mars

"Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win." 'Twas not always so, but I'm hearing variations on that theme a lot these days, and not just in the UK.

Why do we feel so politically powerless? Why is the world so obviously going to hell in a handbasket? Why can't anyone fix it?

Here's my (admittedly whimsical) working hypothesis ...

The rot set in back in the 19th century, when the US legal system began recognizing corporations as de facto people. Fast forward past the collapse of the ancien regime, and into modern second-wave colonialism: once the USA grabbed the mantle of global hegemon from the bankrupt British empire in 1945, they naturally exported their corporate model worldwide, as US diplomatic (and military) muscle was used to promote access to markets on behalf of US corporations.

Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.)

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

Collectively, corporate groups lobby international trade treaty negotiations for operating conditions more conducive to pursuing their three goals. They bully individual lawmakers through overt channels (with the ever-present threat of unfavourable news coverage) and covert channels (political campaign donations). The general agreements on tariffs and trade, and subsequent treaties defining new propertarian realms, once implemented in law, define the macroeconomic climate: national level politicians thus no longer control their domestic economies.

Corporations, not being human, lack patriotic loyalty; with a free trade regime in place they are free to move wherever taxes and wages are low and profits are high. We have seen this recently in Ireland where, despite a brutal austerity budget, corporation tax is not to be raised lest multinationals desert for warmer climes.

For a while the Communist system held this at bay by offering a rival paradigm, however faulty, for how we might live: but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 — and the adoption of state corporatism by China as an engine for development — large scale opposition to the corporate system withered.

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don't bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

523 Comments

1:

When does economics 2.0 kick in?

2:

This idea disgust me a lot. Not that you are not right, but ... its really disgusting because it is just a BAD excuse.

Corporations dont exist as people. Even with the law saying so, there is no mind behind them that has this thoughts and then communicate it to its minions.

We people make the decisions. So ok, they are not tied directly with anybody in particular... but all their sins are somebody sins. Somebody, not an alien hive mind, decided to buy into the Nuremberg defense of "I just follow the corporation orders" to approve those unethical decisions. Somebody, no matter for how short of a time or in what limited capacity, decided to hide under the collective non-morality of the corporation. Somebody, even if it was not the owner and just as interchangeable as everybody else, decided to discard morality and embrace greed by the convenient excuse of duty to the "shareholder".

And in creating the enviroment to have this convenient and absurd lie around somebody knew what they were getting, for all of us. Again, the particular somebody may not matter, but the culture we got as a result is one where its easy to be an hypocrite and pretend you dont have anything to do with the awful decisions you are making.

3:

I'm not trying to justify it; I'm trying to analyse it.

(The first step any physician needs to take along the way to healing a sick patient is to identify the nature of the illness.)

4:

ALSO: Once you realize that you are a citizen of a nation that has been invaded by aliens, you can understand why you feel so helpless -- and start to plan what to do about it.

5:

I know, I know. The analysis is true, but still. It irritates me that that fiction has become so ingrained that is true; that we as society have, basically, found a way to do the evil we want to do and at the same time wash our hands of responsibility over it, by inventing this awful fiction of meta-creatures that only understand hunger, when the reality is that we shaped them that way on purpose, like some sublimation of ourselves that lets us have the cake (greed is all that matters) and eat it too (but I'm just a human like you!)

6:

Or may be the other way around (eating the cake qouel be greed) would be a better image but now I cant edit :-P

7:

This is only part of the explanation. Corporations could be and were restrained by laws until they bought the system. In such a case it's perfectly accurate to say that voting changes nothing. From their own point of view, however, their behaviour is quite rational - loot what you can and destroy the rest. Just as Welles's Martians were an allegory of colonialism, so corporations are the new invaders from beyond, like the European slave traders in West Africa.

8:

I want to emphasize this is not an apology for corporatism, just further explanimification: what if the current order exists because of evolutionary pressures? Countries/cultures that did not adopt this form end up at the short end of the stick and over time either eventually adopt the strategy or are consumed by those who have or left at the wayside. That does not mean this is morally right, "natural" or bound to persist. And I realize that this viewpoint tends to justify fatalism and inertia. But I would love to hear any brilliant plans for changing course. That cannot be evaded by money voting with its tiny pixelated feet.

9:

I like the imagery. Maybe now we know what the shoggoths really were.

10:


I've often wondered if corporations are yet another stage of social evolution: tribes, fiefdoms, nations, and now corporations, which will obliterate nations as we know them.

This may seem gloomy, but it also means corporations are as fated to be replaced as everything that came before.

The fun part is, can we imagine a successor system? It can't be that hard - corporations are not democracies, and can be as highly dysfunctional as dictatorships. All major decision-making is bottlenecked at the top.

What about a sheep-in-wolves' clothing approach, where you build the kind of society you want and then make it look like a corporation to the outside world, a la Naomi Klein's 'The Take'?

11:


Dang, I blew my italics formatting. It was just supposed to be "It can't be that hard " etc.

12:

I've always assigned the corporation the role of AI in the singularity, rather that of an alien. People can naysay the singularity easily on grounds that AI isn't possible, but much less easily when you point out that there are already people and organizations treated as people which are, frankly, not driven by human intellect.

And that's the point I'd like to argue with Latro. A corporation has a set of incentive structures that are distinctly not human, and it subverts business people into regrettable positions that they can't see the longterm effects of (and the corporation has no incentive to even check) at threat of their livelyhoods. If anyone is to blame, the entire hive structure of the corporation is to blame, and trying to get a group of, as you call them, sinning humans to put on the breaks for the greater good largely at the risk of their jobs would be quite an amazing organizing act, and there's the key to my argument. We've designed organisms which force their component users to stick with the team or get tossed out. Furthermore, organizing the group to resist has to be done very quickly, else the organizers get tossed out.
Corporations don't get slowed by human compassion because the humans in a corporation need to risk their livelyhood to do it, and furthermore, need to organize brilliantly in a manner that corporations have evolved to squash.

Just because we built them and run them doesn't mean we have any hold on their moral stance. The system is too large, and is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

13:

It is not entirely wrong to view corporations as legal people. It's been carried to ridiculous extents (especially when it's determined that money and speech are the same things). But it's not wrong.

Corporations can enter into contracts. They can be held legally liable for actions (even when no person in the corporation is itself liable).

The issue is that corporations aren't full people. At the risk of being off-color, we really need a 3/5th compromise for corporations. They should not be guaranteed the full rights of physical people.

Which does nothing to detract from your key point: we are the victims of an alien invasion.

14:

Well, I'd agree if it wasn't for the fact that we had the same kind of thing in the late 19th/early 20th century - and the aliens went away for some time.

It rather seems like some kind of infection to me, that the human organism is adapting to and will eventually defeat ... although the condition humanity found itself in after the last time around wasn't exactly the best. (Cue WWI and WWII.)

We're not dealing with fully autonomous, intelligent limited liability companies - but slumbering, fully predictable zombies that scare the shit out of far more people than they ought to.

Did you see what happened to Iceland? They had a bit of a fever, the most exploitative companies died, and society is recovering. Which is quite a contrast to Ireland that, in trying to avoid the fever, is getting more and more ill. (By nationalizing junk debt of non-Irish banks; whose demise would supposedly lead to something *much* worse than the apocalypse, if you believe the scaremongers.)

15:

what if the current order exists because of evolutionary pressures?

There's no such thing as "evolutionary pressure" -- evolution is a random process of mutation, with a filter function that reaps less viable mutants. Re-run the tape and you get a different program every time, as Stephen Jay Gould used to put it.

(Also, "evolution made me do it" is no excuse for being a dick.)

I'm thinking hard about how it might be possible to change the current system (emphasis: I'm looking for non-violent, beneficial change) but I'm going to keep my ideas to myself for now while I test the waters.

16:

Hi Charlie, reading this I thought of emergence. Corporations act intelligently, often by their own guiding rules instead of human opinions. In how they react to each other I could almost think of a corporation as being sentient. It's less of a perspective change than I expected - simply zoom out a bit and a corporation would no more engage with us, than we would talk to our own blood-cells. Props for another thought-provoking post.

17:

(There, I fixed it for you.)

The question is not how to envisage a better system, but how to get there from here without experiencing violent push-back.

18:

I've had similar thoughts, but in my version the role of the alien invader is played the free market as a whole - a thoroughly alien quasi-intelligence (just look at it solve all those difficult resource-allocation problems! For some value of "solve") to which we have unwittingly yoked ourselves.

19:

Are corporations sentient? How could we tell?

Communicating with a corporation on its own level might be a rather interesting exercise in alien communications. It would be fascinating to try and analyse how a corporation perceived the world, if indeed they do --- quite possibly the corporations we've currently got are the equivalent of bacteria, mere bundles of reflexes.

If that is the case, then it ought to be possible to work around the problem caused by corporations by outthinking them. By producing a fake corporation that interfaced with the naturally evolved ones but was actually just a front for reasoning humans, we may be able to influence the corporate ecosystem and steer them towards more human-friendly behaviour. This would be very much like a nanomachine using tailored protein complexes on its walls to pretend to be a cell in order to interact with a host organism.

(Does this kind of life have a name? The only other reference I've come across to entities that existing in wholly abstract environments is Greg Egan's Wang's Carpets. It makes it really hard to talk about without a handy label...)

20:

I feel like blaming corporations is an easy out, a way to avoid taking the blame ourselves. For all their power, corporations still don't get to nominate our MPs and prime ministers and presidents; we do it ourselves and we tend to do a pretty bad job at it, from supporting the guy who looks good on TV to blaming the guy in power for hurricanes and oil spills and whatnot.

The human mind just isn't built for careful, reasonable analysis and rational decision making.

21:

It recently occured to me that we need to revisit Asimovs three laws of robotics.

The laws are not really about robotics, but about human-engineered autonomously acting entities.

... such as robots and corporations.

Poul-Henning

22:

I will say: the largest advantage corporations offer is their predictability. Predictably evil is better than unpredictable. At least you know what you're dealing with.

/* Which is why Lawful Evil characters can fit in a Chaotic Good party, but Chaotic Evil almost never does. Yes, I play too much D&D. */

23:

The analysis of the corporation as a "hive mind" misses something: most workers aren't part of the corporation; they're more like symbiotes. The best analogy would be gut fauna (which isn't intended here to have the negative conotations it might have!)

It's also shortsighted to focus on corporations, simply because of the concept of legal personality. Anything that has a corporate identity gives rise to the same issues. Law firms are usually partnerships, but they too can be conceptualised as multi-cellular organisms, even down to growing replacement cells.

Interestingly, you can identify points where human society has taken steps to rein in the corporations. The UK's Companies Act 2003 restricted the use of corporate directors (where a company's board was itself composed of companies). This means it would be more difficult to have "automatic" companies outside human control (similar to the expert trading systems used by financial institutions).

Conversely, things like Sarbannes-Oxley - which are ostensibly about controlling corporations - actually serve to create an environment which encourages other, different non-human organisations to thrive.

Recall the origins of cell nuclei and mitochondria - what starts as symbiosis might end as something else.

24:

They don't? It may be very different in the UK, but in the states, your average politician is generally more loyal to their corporate sponsors than their own party.

You don't get anywhere in politics without corporate money.

25:

I agree with the point, but not the alien metaphor. Corporate entities, specifically industrial ones, originally acted as a beneficial mutation that helped the United States and western countries exert dominance over the globe. But in recent years the market pressure for continuous growth (brought on in part by the World Wide Web and increased amounts of capital in the stock exchanges) has caused corporations to metastasize into cancerous bodies that are causing significant harm to the organism as a whole, that is society. At the same time they are suppressing normal immune responses (regulation) in order to promote their own growth, allowing other societal ills to take root.

(Gosh it's fun to do metaphors on the fly!)

So of course, as cancer patients we either feel resigned to our fate, or we seek out increasingly radical treatments of dubious effectiveness, all the while terrified that the best option might be to cut out the growths entirely and pray the surgery isn't fatal. And it's very likely to be fatal, since the worst growths are firmly rooted in our financial nervous system.

26:

Exactly. That is why I think that some sort of capitalism and a measure of corporatism is a really good thing to have in any society. But it has to be controlled by the political system and not vice versa.

27:

I agree with everything you say about the corporations. More might be said about the connections between them, the international banking system, and concrete decisions of successive US governments since the Spanish American War at the latest. During that conflict the philosopher William James wrote with regret that the USA had apparantly decided to become an Imperialistic power, or words to that effect.

Although there were major variations in internal American affairs-desegregation springs to mind-the Imperialistic foreign policy has, one can hold, been quite constant, despite all changes of the party with Presidential power. Precisely this latter point was argued for by Noam Chomsky, in his "Hegemony or Survival," (Metropolitan Books, 2003, Penguin Reissue, 2007). I owe a lot to this book and hope that it has received the large readership it deserves.

28:

Which returns us to the need for some sort of a corporate "3/5ths compromise". There are good reasons to treat corporations as people- but there are also very vital limitations on the rights of a corporate "person". Starting with their right to speech.

29:

This feeling of living in the aftermath of an alien invasion (nice catch, Charlie!) is exactly what Marx described, spookily enough, as alienation.

30:

Is it just me, or is more than a coincidence that I misread:

Marx -> Macx -> MacX

Charlie?

31:

Taking your metaphor to its Wellsian conclusion, we need a virus (aka meme) that these aliens are not-immune to. We've thrown nearly our whole arsenal of weapons, short of those that would assure mutual self-destruction, at them.

For so it had come about, as indeed I and many men might have foreseen had not terror and disaster blinded our minds. These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things--taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many--those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance--our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.

Can there be something out there that will make cause humans to act in their self-interest for long-term preservation (I know those may actually conflict in the short term) and dismantle corporate personhood?

32:

Actually, a corporation doesn't need it's own mind as such, it only needs it's own decision making strategy. Which it has, at least in America, where ceos are required to pursue the financial best interests of the stockholders by law. That is, if they raise wages without necessity, they can be prosecuted.

33:

I think you've written an accurate take on what's going on. I've had many variants of the same conversation with friends who are shocked and appalled at the actions of corporations, and are amazed that they do such mean, evil and cruel things. I find myself repeating "They don't have to be moral, they only have to make money for their shareholders and avoid damaging litigation."

Corporations are people - completely amoral bastards, fixated on the profit margin to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. They're designed that way! Why is anybody so surprised?

A few years ago, I noticed that my generation (I was a student in Britain in the nineties) didn't have the political motivations or interest that seemed to be present in the seventies or eighties.

I wondered where my apathy for politics came from, and I traced it back to a perception of complete lack of accountability for politicians.

They say whatever they damn well please to get the votes, and once they're in power, they can drop the promises. What's the penalty for reneging on your manifesto commitments? If you can weather a bit of bad press, pretty much nothing.

Start with making politicians accountable. When that's done, start making heads of corporations personally liable for losses.

Oh what the hell am I saying? I want world peace! Lollipops for everyone! I'll get my coat....

34:

I don't understand the timing - multinational corporations directly influenced international politics before the modern nation even existed (Virginia & Dutch East India Companies, for example, predated nationalist movements of the mid-to-late 1800s). Why did things change in the post-War environment? And how does this gel with how the populace has been able to bring industries to their knees, such as the record industry? Aren't consumers gaining more sovereignty over time?

I think the real cause of 'politicians always win' thinking is simple confirmation-bias. Or was there something more concrete in mind that decided this post?

35:

While there's some truth to your argument about corporations, there are also some benefits to society for recognizing corporations as essentially people legally. I don't think that you've sufficiently connected what that legal idea has to do with people feeling helpless. Blaming corporations for people feeling politically powerless seems a bit too much like the typically left "large corporations evil, blah blah blah".

I think instead, there are some simpler explanations available:

One is simply bureaucratic growth. Both the U.S. and U.K. have been around for quite a while at this point. For good or not, their institutions have aged and grown in all sorts of ways, and have countless legacy rules and systems in place that make them bureaucratic dinosaurs. Even if you get an entire faction of politicians who want to reform and revitalize one component of the system, they rarely have the power long enough to actually institute real change. And most of the time politicians aren't running on a platform of reforming existing institutions anyway.

The other simpler explanation (which doesn't conflict with my first), is the centralization of power, alongside the simultaneous explosion of population. Both Britain and the U.S. have trended away from localized power. City governments, County governments, and in America, state governments used to have much more power in people's lives relative to the central government. Telecommunications, better travel, (and in America, the loss of Federalism in the civil war) have combined to make the central government the most dominant in the policies that affect people's lives. At the same time, the populations of both nations have risen dramatically in the past ~hundred years. Since you're voting alongside the entire rest of the nation on central governments' issues, no, you don't have much power in this space.

36:

@2
“Corporations dont exist as people. Even with the law saying so, there is no mind behind them that has this thoughts and then communicate it to its minions.”


Well, they do actually. In a certain way at least. As the French sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out in 1895. Here is his definition of social facts:

A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Durkheim#Social_facts)

In short: Given a person in a certain society, at a certain position, is expected to act in a certain way. And so is his successor and so on. The same is true for corporations. Event tough they are not real people, they work a certain way and it’s hard to act against these tendencies

I could now go on and talk some gibberish about their internal logic and power structure or I could just link to a man who sais it much better then I could. Follow this link to a very nice example of the financial market’s internal logic by Jean Ziegler (Former professor of sociology at the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyDHKVkzpTg&feature=related

(Hint: This is form the film “We feed the world” and the part I’m talking about is at minute 5:00.)

If you look at the world with this perspective, you might find things a lot less confusint (maybe) and a lot more frustrating (surely). Because, we still can’t answer the following question: How can we influence the corporate/marketing/alien logic in order to lead us to the new Utopia?

37:

If we're going to have coporate personhood, we really need a corporate death penalty. If a corporation is found guilty of a sufficiently grave crime, all of its assets are stripped and sold solely as raw materials. It's IP goes public domain. It's cash goes into the public coffer. All of it's bondholders are wiped out. It's shareholders are wiped out and the corporate-veil is pierced so that they lose their own assets, jointly and severally, to the extent necessary to make any restitution of the corporate entity.

As for the non-violent thing, I'm hoping that's how it shakes out. But I don't see how.

38:

What has always troubled me with the fact that corporations have all the same rights as people is the fact that corporations can be bought and sold, yet people cannot be.

39:

So Cthulhu is already here and eating our brains?

I guess Anonymous' Operation Payback attacks on Visa and MasterCard could be the beginnings of an immune reaction to these entities, but they're a bit of a blunt-object approach.

40:

Is the problem primarily large, for-profit corporations? Or do the invaders include small closely held corporations like The Kilimanjaro Corporation (agent for service of process: Harlan Ellison) non-profit corporations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Inc.? I ask because it might affect the preferred solutions.

41:

Corporations (and most organizations of any significant size) indeed behave very much like hive minds, especially the enduring ones. Read Good to Great by Jim Collins to get an idea of what factors influence corporate longevity: among them is cult-like culture. What is that beyond intensive norming, accumulating people around a mean value of corporate culture and discarding those outside some threshold? Further, the "business cycle" and the personnel churn associated with the M&A game can serve to reinforce that culture (largely by shedding "redundant" employees). The result is an organization over which the individual has very little control, though the illusion of control is preserved through wide apparent individual latitude (here's a rope, we hope you don't hang yourself with it). In that environment, one's actual set of options is limited to what is culturally acceptable, and the sum of those actions forms the hive mind.

42:

Hi Charlie -

Good article, though I wouldn't use the Soviet system as an "alternative" - philosophically it may have been an alternative (state owned capital vs. shareholder), but in practice the large state owned firms were in a lot of ways similar inside this "collective."

There was a small political/documentary film called "The Corporation" that came to mind whilst reading this. Worth a watch if you can find it.

Cheers,
B

43:

Yes there are aliens, but they are not from Mars. They used to live with the mankind through all of our history (and some of them was here even before us).

Replicators 1.0 (e.g the DNA) was here long before Homo Sapiens species emerged. And they never cared about the life of an individual primate as far as the entire population was breeding faster then dieing.

Replicators 2.0 (e.g. memes) live in our groupminds and shape us into grouporganisms - all those tribes, churches, states, bureaucracies etc from earlier beginning of humanity.

Corporations are indeed relatively young and they are most recognizably human-like among other group organisms. We even able to make direct deals with them! (one may just try to bargain with his/her DNA to feel the difference...) May be we so often blame corporations not because they are alien but because they are not too alien so we can judge them in the same way we judge people.

So may be the legal system that recognizes corporations as de facto people is good thing. Because if we recognize something as the human we can negotiate with it, enter into contract with it, bring it to courtroom, etc.

And these laws may become the base for the AGI legislation that we will need some day in the future.

44:

@34--I'm no expert here, but I have obe comment. I'm assuming you mean American nationalist movements. If so, there's a blur. The Dutch East India Company was formed by the opportunity opened by the growth of the Dutch Republic as a colonial power. Perhaps that can be considered as a sort of nationalist move, since the Dutch powers (especially Johan de Witt) were out to secure the country from invasion by (among other things) expanding its commercial influence while improving the internal structures of the Republic (De Witt might have been murdered for attempting this. We don't know). I see no reason why the notion of nationalism must be intrinsically connected to ideas like an emphasis on language and a strong notion of belonging to a populace of some specific type.

Again, I'm no historian, and am sticking my neck out here.

45:

Hey I been asking about Economics 2.0 ever since I read Accelerando.
Heck I think we are already there.

46:

It's somewhat different in the UK: there are strict caps on election spending and serious penalties for misconduct during an election. (In entire general election campaign -- think in terms of the entirety of Congress plus a Presidential election on top, in US terms -- the total spend by all parties is rather less than the spend by a single congressional candidate in the US.)

47:

I think that most people feel they have a high degree of indivudual control ofver their actions and choices in life. When only the opposite is true. You get to pick from a list of menu items that has been pre-selected for you. Your choice is no real choice at all.

Trying to get folks to understand this is difficult and contributes to people buying into Nuremberg defenses and such.

48:

Corporate entities, specifically industrial ones, originally acted as a beneficial mutation that helped the United States and western countries exert dominance over the globe.

I find it fascinating that you say that like it's a good thing.

49:

"There was a small political/documentary film called "The Corporation" that came to mind whilst reading this. Worth a watch if you can find it"

My thoughts exactly. The austrian documentary "We feed the world" might be worth a look as well. Same idea, but with a focus on the consequences of profit maximization in industrialized food production.

And while we're at it, there is a multitude of writers (some more, some less credible) out there, analyzing the issue from different viewpoints. Nassim Taleb explains the shortcomings of investment banking (which accelerated the process leading to the current crisis) in his books and his homepage is worth a look.

Another interesting read is "Life Inc." by Douglas Rushkoff.

50:

Not a bad analysis start - but I think the specialness of the "Limited Liability Corporation" is another large concentration of power.

Large concentrations of money and power tend to breed arrogance and corruption - I think this is how the Soviet system went so bad so quickly - the solution to "Capitalism" (if one views this as a problem) wouldn't be having the means of production concentrated in a government - it quickly begins to disregard its subjects and behaves like an ultra-large collective.

And as the US corporations could accumulate capital with the limited liability laws (if you were personally responsible/liable for the profit and loss of companies in which you own shares ... you can bet Corporate governance would be much different and corporate size would be much smaller) - they became larger and larger, and started becoming extremely influential in the politcal process. And not much interested in the "Free Market"just maximizing shareholder value by any means necessary.

But for me, I think the issue isn't the unique nature of Corporations as "legal entities" - it is the concentrations of power and money that is the problem.

One of my favorite quotes by Robert Anton Wilson ( I paraphrase ): "The Left dislikes corporate power, the Right dislikes government power, both are correct."

It is concentrations of money and power that are the issue, I feel.

51:

I don't understand the timing - multinational corporations directly influenced international politics before the modern nation even existed (Virginia & Dutch East India Companies, for example, predated nationalist movements of the mid-to-late 1800s). Why did things change in the post-War environment?

Look at the conditions of incorporation back then and you'll notice that it was much harder to establish a company -- it took a royal charter or act of parliament or the like to authorize one, and the financial instruments used to capitalize them were a lot less sophisticated (and less volatile).

I'm no expert on the field, but I think the germs of our current mess lie in the business practices of the big American trusts of the gilded age. They were designed as work-arounds to laws designed to restrict ownership, and their descendants seem to have worked too well.

52:

One thing to keep in mind ... is what are the corporations trying to DO?

They are killing themselves and willing to sweep aside all else to give you what you are asking for. It may not be so much "Alien invasion" but a sociopath who desperately wants to sell you things.

If you refused to buy something unless it had feature X, they would do whatever it took to put in feature X if they knew how. It is only when the government or someone they deem not a source of revenue demands feature X that their claws come out.

It is a complex psychology. Perhaps the :Alien: characterization is too simplistic.

53:

I have "The Corporation". Other obligatory background reading? "No Logo" and "The Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein, "Defending Democracy" (and anything else) by Noam Chomsky, and "The Economist" every week.

54:

Hmmmm ....

I know I am posting a ton of comments, but this is really good food for thought.

For most companies ... they are single-mindedly dedicated to their customers (source of revenue - lifeblood). If as a customer you want feature X, the collective will do whatever it takes to put feature X in their product or service provided the profits are there (or at some point).

It is only when people or collectives that are not sources of revenue get involved and tell them to put feature X that the claws come out.

The other mitigating factor is their lifeblood comes eventually form us - and in general it isn't taken forcibly, we pay them for goods and services. TO describe it as "looting" is a mischaracterization.

The collective morality may be alien to us, but we feed them. We support them, and we join those collectives.

It is almost as if you had a wealthy-but-sociopathic relative who wanted desperately to please you, and due to a raging case of Asberger's had little idea of the consequences of fulfilling your wishes, and while most of the time it worked out all right, once in awhile it caused as much damage as good.

55:

Now we're talking ;-) I'll be looking into "No Logo" during the holidays.

I was wondering if you considered looking into some psychological and sociological theory to understand the inner logic of corporations? I'm thinking about Luhmann and his theory of social systems in particular.

56:

If you want to read German (I don't suppose you want to ...), leftist Christoph Spehr's book "Die Aliens sind unter uns" from 1999 goes somewhat in the same direction (the alien in his book is not the corporation, but the alienated corporate man/woman).

On the other hand, speaking as a sociologist, I'm not that convinced of the alien invasion metaphor, especially not if you link it monocausally to corporate personhood in the US. Coming from Simmel (1920s) and Luhmann (1980s) etc, what you describe as forming the global state for the benefit of the corporation could also be described in terms of functional systems with their own logic (Eigenlogik) forming the world society, with human beings as mere processing points in the communication of these functional systems. Or, for a somewhat diametral view, on could start with Foucault and power relations ...

Or, to put it another way: is there a reason why corporations became somewhat alien to the human condition - and is there a reason behind that?

57:

Yes! That was an excellent book!

58:

""Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win." 'Twas not always so, but I'm hearing variations on that theme a lot these days, and not just in the UK.""

The problem with this analysis is you've begun the discussion with the statement "back in the good old days, things were different".

What good old days? What empirical evidence do we have for this statement? I haven't read Noam Chomsky, but from what I know of him, I get the impression he would have a rigorous critique of pretty much any historical period.

In other words, hasn't the world always been messed up?

59:

In the film I mentioned - We feed the world - is an excellent example of the financial market’s internal logic by Jean Ziegler (Former professor of sociology at the University of Geneva and the Sorbonne):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyDHKVkzpTg&feature=related

(The part I’m talking about is at minute 5:00.)

60:

Yes, but different bits of the world have been messed up differently. This seems to be the first time that we've had a global problem, as opposed to a bunch of different little local problems.

61:

I like John Atkeson's "Wolf In Sheep's Clothing" idea. (If I understand him correctly - I haven't read "The Take.)

You could structure a corporation to have humanist leanings and be a self-sustaining, growing nonprofit -- nonprofit in that the profits are fed back into the system. It would be a hack on top of corporate law in the same way the GPL is a hack on top of copyright law. As corporate law strengthens harmful corporations, so it strengthens your beneficial one.

62:

@2: the inherent wrongness of 'I was only following orders'

I think that issue of personal moral responsibility, mostly comes up when a corporation is acting unusually badly _by the standards of other corporations_. This is pretty much directly equivalent to the Nazis being unusually bad _by the standard of other contemporary states_.

In contrast WWI, if not WWII, was mostly a matter of states working the way you would expect them to work. By those standards, 'I was following orders' _is_ generally accepted as an excuse when your orders are 'shoot those men in uniform who are shooting back at us'.

And I would say that a lot of the problems of the current status quo are more like WWI than WWII: more tied up in the nature of the details of standards of expected behaviour than in the deviations of the worst cases.

63:

Charlie @15
Wikileaks is doing a suprisingly good job on guvmints and some corporations, and they aren't even trying hard, as far as I can tell .....

@19
"Communicating with corporations"
Otherwise known as in the company/corp I then worked for as: "fighting the 500-foot Yellow Jelly"
( Given that their main products came in Yellow boxes, and used "jelly" as a medium, you can probably guess who they were ... )

Charlie @ 53
I was under the impression that Chomsky was/is a loon?
Or is that just his take on language and communications?

@ 56
Corporations become alien(ated) from the human condition.
Well, yes - look at the longest-running, most successful, and easily the most corrupt corporation on the planet: the Roman Church - and the communist party, modelled on the same church.
Now that really IS scary!

64:

This is a very interesting metaphor, and it certainly touches on many essential points, but there's something that creeps me out about it - you've absolved the population from any political responsability.

You see, voter apathy can be explained by lack of political education (note: NOT political indoctrination - I'm talking about classical humanist studies - philosophy, sociology and political science; that is, the basic theory on democracy and politics, that ranges from, say, Aristotle to Habermas) - and this is something that is specially true regarding the USA: from my interactions with US citizens on the net, I can say that they've been trained from childhood to be good little sheeple, believe in the TeeVee and NEVER confront authority - whereas people on continental Europe tend to be more critical and a lot less susceptible to the bullshit that the media throws at us (which is why Fox News is an essentially north-american phenomenon: no other nation has been sufficiently trained to believe in this kind of bullshit)

The notion of Political Responsibility has been utterly extracted from the collective conscience: growing up, we're told that our only responsibilites are to indulge in our every whim and to The Family, the Most Important Thing on Earth. We've been told that voting, once every two years in avarage, is All That We Can Do to influence the res publica .

And here's the problem with representative democracy: it creates a class of scapegoats - the devilishly Evil, the politicians - on whom we can pin every single problem of the nation. You see, contrary to popular belief, politicians are human, and as such, tend to become corrupted when they hold unrestricted power; I'm not making a point for anarchy, though: watch them very closely, put restrictions on how they can exercise their power and make them responsible for the illegal decisions they make (like, say, putting in jail an ex-president that lied to his country for the sake of starting a war...) and suddenly they're not so evil.

This is getting very long, so I should get to the point: get organised and push for your rights, because no one else will. The politician you voted for WILL NOT give you anything if an organised group does not pressure him. Look at the "tea party": yes, they are a bunch of nutjobs ("please, let the corporations rule us! guvmint is EEVIL"), but they organised and imposed their agenda on the coutry.

Ultimately, this is why corporations are so succesful in getting what they want: they're simply more organized

65:

So with this idea taxes = antibiotics?
if the tax settings were right you could prevent the growth of these fungoidal horrors from beyond.
tricky, the mental profit philosophy is tied up with the 'greed is good' philosophy of thatcher and her ilk.
maybe a limit on personal income - with a 100% tax rate after that.?
I know that then youll get the whining 'but we would lose the best managers 'tripe, I call bullcrap - no way is a guy in an office worth more than a surgeon

66:

@Igor: Which brings us to the question what the "evil" politicians/corporation managers do. Scheming for world domination? I don't think so - here Luhmann's idea of different communication codes for different social subsystems is helpful. Which would suggest that politicians - as politicians - just do, what politicians do (that is to further their power), and that corporate managers - as managers - just do, what managers do (that is to further their profits). Organisational structures and the eigenlogic of social systems allow them to do this effectively and without concern for the "outside world", which, as side effect, slides into crisis. This is different form "just follow orders", because there is nobody giving orders. Politicians/managers do what is to be done - often in very creative ways. They just are not interested in the consequences, as long as these are not given in terms of power resp. money.

67:

I'd say a huge part of the problem is that corporations are, by human standards, psychopaths.

Maximizing shareholder value has been interpreted to mean maximizing money flow per quarter, even though (as I understand it) this is not written into the law. Many (most?) humans who operate this way are insane and often criminal.

But I think the corporations have already been hijacked themselves, and I can demonstrate that by one simple question:

How many of you make a living on shareholder dividends? In fact, how many of you have seen these dividends go down in the last 10 years?

Really? You do know that corporations have gotten richer in that period, right? Where did your money go?

This is the old journalistic trick of following the money: While I don't actively support Wikileaks, I think Assange & Co. are on the right track. There are a relative handful of rich people pulling the strings on most of these corporations, and they're working with each other, not with us.

The problem here is twofold: even when our overlords are smarter than we are, they're not that much smarter, and even when they have strong controls in place, they're not that efficient or effective. The system is sufficient to insure that the rich, on average, get richer (at present), but they do so with tremendous waste and inefficiency.

One analogy I'd use is that it's like controlling a marionette that in turn controls another marionette. That second marionette's going to be jerking all over the place, even if the top puppeteer is dexterous. That's where the waste and inefficiency come from.

But the more apt analogy is cancer. Cancer pursues a goal of growth at all costs, and if left unchecked, it kills its host. There's a reason why we have an immune system that kills cancerous cells if it can see them.

Unfortunately, I think cancer-like behavior and out-of-control growth may be an inherent problem of complex, self-reproducing systems. We may never be able to get rid of it entirely. The positive key to controlling corporations is for the people at the top to realize that too much unregulated growth will kill them along with the system, and for them to set limits on the growth of their corporations and control. The negative key is something like wikileaks, which is the corporate equivalent of a schizogenic neurotoxin.

68:

""Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win." 'Twas not always so, but I'm hearing variations on that theme a lot these days, and not just in the UK."

I agree with pallas that this analysis is unsubstantiated. When exactly was this better age when the plebeians could influence their society?

While Friedman's famous dictum "No countries with McDonalds wages war on each other" (paraphrased) has proven false, I think there is a good case to be made that this is generally true, because business success for most corporations is disrupted by war. Since [publicly quoted] corporations need to grow, as a collective, they need economic growth and this is disrupted by war.

Unlike current national states, or the old city states, it is much easier to change your affiliation by changing jobs to a new corporation more to your liking. That would, on it's face, suggest that corporatism is a better model for human groups where freedom to choose is important.

So I am not prepared to accept the claim that corporations are bad, or worse than other social forms, without a lot more analysis.

69:

Not sure about this- there's a lot of good points in your analysis, but it requires corporations to be significantly different from, and worse than, old school individual human robber baron capitalists, and I'm not sure whether they really are.

70:

I think George Carlin put it best when he said: "There's no conspiracy, only similar interests"

Managers - in their role as managers - do realize that lobbying governments for less regulation and more privatization helps their agenda of maximizing profits. And politicians - in their role as politicians - realize that friends with money are good for financing PR (for them or against their opponents) and therefore help them to stay in power.

As more and more managers and politicians joint the dance, we end up with a system that is completely detached from it's idealistic idea.

71:

War holds no promise for McDonald's, but it's a great boon for Halliburton, Blackwater, Boeing, and other military suppliers and contractors, and companies for whom war might open up a new or more favorable market.

72:

Isn't that essentially what happened to Worldcom and Enron though?

73:

With respect to the sociopathic nature of corporations, in the US at least, this has gotten worse relatively recently. Relatively recently, we have a new branch of corporate ethics (that seems to have legal bite), holding that the only responsibility of corporate leadership is to shareholders. This replaces an earlier, somewhat more benevolent model, that held that corporate leadership was responsible to all stakeholders, including not just the shareholders, but the community, and the employees.

For whatever reason (collapse of communism?), we have seen what seems to me an increasing hardness in capitalism. E.g., layoffs are now something routinely done to increase stock value, rather than a last resort in times of poor business, off-shoring is done with no concern for in-country employees, etc., etc.

USians will know what I mean when I say we are all living in Potterville now...

74:

The only way to win is not to play?

Citing, as example, Japanese youths who aren't enamored with buying anything.

Though I have no idea what kind of desperate actions a starving hive mind might devise.

75:

I would recommend "Systems of Survival" and "Dark Age Ahead" by Jane Jacobs, along with "Voltaire's Bastards" and "The Unconscious Civilization" by John Ralston Saul.

76:

"Plebians could influence their society" well within living memory, and can still do so in many ways and in many places. To give just one example, the Beveridge Report followed by the 1945 UK national elections changed the country for the better, peacefully, as a direct result of the popular vote. (And as permanently as any social change can ever be permanent.)

Cynicism is not a realistic worldview anymore than Panglossianism is.

77:

Greg: Chomsky's take on language and communications is out of favour and/or obsolescent these days, but that doesn't qualify him as a "loon" unless you're also going to dismiss Sigmund Freud as a "loon" because his variety of psychoanalysis has been superseded. (If he came up with an idea like that today he'd be a crank, but back then, it was pioneering work.) As for Chomsky's political analysis ... right or wrong, it would be very convenient for people with a vested interest in the current system if he could be discredited or dismissed. I tend to think that he's wrong in places, but where he's right he's very right indeed, and in general he's more right than wrong.

78:

I would dearly love to hear a debate on this subject between you and Russ Roberts of the EconTalk podcast. Just sayin'.

79:

One aspect of the 'money is speech' issue that we've gotten into here in the US is that is seems to suggest that bribery is protected speech. I am constitutionally permitted to petition the government to get them to do something I personally think is important. That involves 'speech' with a government representative that is intended to cause them to act in the manner I want them to act. Money is speech, thus giving them money as a way of getting them to do what I want done must be protected speech and so a bribe is just a form of exercising the first amendment (at least here in the US...Britain may be saner...)

80:

Re: Chomsky
I've always thought of him as a brilliant asshole. Freud is a nice comparison, (hell, look at everything Newton got wrong.) But definitely, definitely not a loon.

81:

Whimsical? That's downright dystopian!

And also... well... more or less factually accurate. It's a pretty pickle, it is.

82:

Bromo @54: you're forgetting something, and that's marketing. If you really want Feature X, most corporations will try their damnedest to convince you that you really want Feature Y instead, where Feature Y is easier for them to produce. They are extremely good at this.

83:

I think, more than not being human, the difficulty in "dealing" with corporations is that they lack sentience. Are endogenous retroviruses bad? Are plasmids? Compared with humans and our 3x10^9 base pair instruction manual, corporations are dead simple.
We might have been invaded by Martians, but we haven't been invaded by the little green ones with centurion helmets--we've been invaded by Martian gray goo.

84:

I was just thinking of the gray goo example scenario where a paperclip factory transforms the whole world and all its inhabitants into paperclips.

85:

Preach it, brother! Valentina: Soul in Sapphire, written by a programmer and a lawyer who pointed this out decades ago: Corporations are the posthuman artificial intelligences who threaten to take over the world.

86:

I think I'll add to this though. Corporations are not wholly mindless entities. You hint at their function and purpose, but it's really a lot simpler.

They exist to keep a shadow aristocracy in power. I mean that not in the conspiracy theory sense, but in the sense that corporations are controled by and enrich their existence a class of people who are already wealthy and influential and largely who have inherrited that wealth over multiple generations. So, this same time period also happens to coincide with a drastic, historic decrease in the Estate Tax, at least here stateside.

87:

heh. Ok, I'm just thinking about a specific passage in Blindsight when I read this post, and seeing vampires instead of aliens. You may know the bit I mean.

In my fanboy dreams, you and Peter Watts collaborate on a book in which the vampire alien corporations go down screaming. Call it a triple wish-fulfillment fantasy marginally less immature than the ones I gratified seeing Spider run amok in Transmetropolitan when I was younger and dumber.

88:

This idea is not new, but I like the humorous spin you put on it. Corporate entities are part of the general phenomenon of totalitarianism that's a product of the 20th century. (Following Michael Flynn, I will not define a century by the first two digits of the year but rather by the qualitative change in the societal trends.)

Political positions also have their own wants and needs, which they always try to impose on the people currently occupying them. Some resist better, some worse.

Leo

89:

"This is a very interesting metaphor, and it certainly touches on many essential points, but there's something that creeps me out about it - you've absolved the population from any political responsibility."

Agreed. When the USA first lowered the national voting age to 18, some observers were predicting the political center to lurch leftward, and the real battle to become between the mainstream democratic party and something more socialist. The main flaw with this scheme is that young, less conservative citizens have also been less reliable voters. And then, asked to explain their lack of participation, it's rationalized with "voting doesn't change anything."

Bullshit. If voters don't change anything, how has Texas elected extreme libertarian Ron Paul and Vermont has elected avowed socialist Bernie Sanders? Could you have the candidates switch states and come up with the same results, as expected if voters don't change anything? The AARP wields substantial money, but its real strength is its members who will express a desire to pollsters or whoever and THEN ACTUALLY FOLLOW THROUGH BY VOTING. Compare with young people who (e.g.) say they want legal gay marriage but won't cast a ballot to that effect (or any effect at all, because they don't vote).

If "didn't vote" were a political party it would be the largest in the USA. Shifting the blame to political advertising, funded by business dollars, is also an abdication of responsibility. No matter how many times someone says that eating broken glass will improve the economy, thwart terrorists, and make you healthier, you can and should realize it's ridiculous. You should realize it's ridiculous even if they are attractive, confident, and on television. You don't need any specialized education, just the basic ability to look, listen, remember, and criticize what you've seen and heard. There's also no Santa Claus and shampoo cannot actually "nourish" hair. The average American spends 4 hours a day watching television. Spending an hour every couple of years to read the voter's pamphlet and actually vote afterward is not too much to ask, no matter how many times advertising encourages less informed and less frequent civic participation.

I realize that I'm not saying anything new. Blaming voters for the sorry state of democracy is at least as old a tradition as blaming moneyed interests. Sadly, assigning blame doesn't actually seem to improve outcomes.

90:

So that's where the Borg came from.

91:

By the way, the "rival paradigm" offered by the Soviet Union also is a form of totalitarianism. I know; I lived it.

92:

This has been discussed in an extensive DVD and book, _The Corporation_.

The Corporation
https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/The_Corporation

Topics addressed include the Business Plot, where in 1933, the popular General Smedley Butler exposed a corporate plot against then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt; the tragedy of the commons; Dwight D. Eisenhower's warning people to beware of the rising military-industrial complex; economic externalities; suppression of an investigative news story about Bovine Growth Hormone on a Fox News Channel affiliate television station; the invention of the soft drink Fanta by the Coca-Cola Company due to the trade embargo on Nazi Germany; the alleged role of IBM in the Nazi holocaust (see IBM and the Holocaust); the Cochabamba protests of 2000 brought on by the privatization of Bolivia's municipal water supply by the Bechtel Corporation; and in general themes of corporate social responsibility, the notion of limited liability, the corporation as a psychopath, and the corporation as a person.

The video is available as a download.
http://www.archive.org/details/The_Corporation_

93:

For me this connects to two thoughts - Jaron Lanier's suggestion that computers passed the Turing test when we started taking their opinions into account, for example when we do strange things to improve our credit rating.

Secondly, John Hagel's Big Shift model showing that corporations' return on assets has been declining steadily for decades, as the value is extracted by both customers and employees.

The Coasian theory of the firm that being within the organisation reduces transaction costs compared to negotiating in a market or govenment direction, is undermined by networked communication, which reduces he transaction costs so much further that it is easier to communicate with everyone in the world than with just your colleagues. If there is hope, it lies in this transformation.

94:

I recently heard a lecture by Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry's) about the trend he says he's seeing in businesses adopting a "second bottom-line", being a social responsibility one.
He says that Ben & Jerry's (notably, a Unilever company nowadays), has always judged themselves by these two bottom lines. They participate in a variety of charities and social justice activities, employing recently-incarcerated and "at risk" kids at their parlors, free cone day, etc.

This is of course very fitting for two aging hippies with their own company, but I have to wonder, has the recent economic crisis brought about by clear moral hazards, caused some kind of shift in corporate behavior? Is this trend a reality?
Is it possible that corporations will no longer be sociopaths, but actually .. grow a conscience ?
An interesting idea.

95:

I think the problem is institutions in general, not simply corporations. Do you really contend that corporations are more inhuman than governments, universities, samurai clans, or the medieval Church?

Also, what you call a "filter function" and what PrivateIron calls "evolutionary pressures" are really the same thing.

96:

I think there are two interlocking problems:

1.)In the worst-case scenario, even one generation of having real wealth is enough to turn a family into a production line for spoiled sociopaths. Generally it take 3 or more generations for this transition to take place, but that's still too short a time period. When spoiled sociopaths with money attempt to get what they want from the government, you have an ugly system in very short order, regardless of the "real" laws of the nation.

2.) The fundamental decisions about how corporations will be governed should not take place at the "application layer" where application_layer=ordinary_law. These decisions should be placed into the "operating system" where operating_system=the_constitution. I don't know how much longer it would take spoiled sociopaths to dismantle a society down to the "operating system" level, but I suspect it would be much harder in any marginally sane country.

97:

In answer to Shay @92:

Sadly, no. Because the net result of the economic crisis has been an increase in the wealth, assets, and power of exactly some of the most egregious offenders. It was only those corporations that were not quite powerful enough that ultimately failed, and they were absorbed wholesale into other entities, creating larger and yet even more sociopathic institutions in the wake of their fall.

98:

Google's "do no evil" motto seems to come from an awareness of this. I think the shine went off them when they kowtowed to China, but the recent tiff may have restored their bona fides somewhat? I'm not up to date on whether I should hate them or not :=)

99:

Leonid: I'm not a fan of the USSR -- or indeed of any form of totalitarianism. However it is noteworthy for having had an ideological rationalist framework that made testable claims about how to organize a human society along an alternative model. (Most dictatorships don't, or they jury-rig an ad-hoc ideology to justify their machtpolitik.)

100:

Evolution is not only a biological phenomenon. It just takes different form in different situations. Random actions by individuals drive the evolutionary process in society. By the way, revolution is not something opposed to evolution. Revolution is the singularity aspect of evolution, the qualitative jump, like the formation of a new species in biology.

More generally, open systems far from equilibrium statistically tend to reduce their entropy--the spontaneous self-organization process, discovered by Prigogine. Also known by other names, like emergent properties, self-organized criticality, and the like.

101:

ever read much cybernetics? It's a view of the world that tends to clearly see systems as entities to be judged by the effect they have, and some of it's proponents have given some thought to human freedom in a world of systems.

It's an old and largely forgotten subject, so tends to look mistaken but fascinatingly so from a modern perspective. I particularly like Stafford Beer, though often more for his diagnosis than his prescription.

102:

Charlie, but that is exactly what totalitarianism IS: the idea that the state can totally control society--the rational design versus evolutionary process.

103:

Google are doing extremely well compared to the prevailing standard of corporate ethics -- except that (a) that standard is rather low to begin with, and (b) Google is fundamentally an advertising company (and I have a very low opinion of the ethics of the advertising industry).

104:

Discussing the precise nature of corporations is the same as arguing about angels dancing on the head of a pin and misses the point. The real question here lies in recognising the way in which corporate interests have subverted democracies, especially the US and increasingly in the UK. The issue then, is waht to do about it. How do individuals and organisations ameliorate corporate influence on the body politic? Because at the moment UK govt seems far more interested in running the country in the interests of the multi-nationals rather than the majority of the population.

105:

:) Reminds me of this great book called Accelerando...

Seriously though, reading it is what first made me aware how odd the "corporations as people" idea was. The Corporation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Corporation) helped expand that view.

106:

Corporate entities, specifically industrial ones, originally acted as a beneficial mutation that helped the United States and western countries exert dominance over the globe.

I find it fascinating that you say that like it's a good thing.

Well, from the point of view of the United States and western countries, it was. :-P

107:

I think poster #10 is onto something. I think we should react to corporations subverting the public by having the public subvert corporations. Maybe found a GNU Public Corporation as a front for regular people. :)

I know there are such things as employee-owned corporations, but I have had no experience with them, and clearly they haven't taken over the world. Is it because a democratic structure is inherently less efficient than a hierarchy, or have we yet to stumble upon the magic formula that allow them to outperform traditional corporations?

108:

But was it?

Even if you take a -- sociopathic, corporatist -- view of the spread of western hegemony over the global trade system, you must consider the possibility that this outcome wasn't for the best. I can't easily produce a counterfactual showing that things would definitely have been better had we chosen another road, but we certainly can't be sure that the current outcome is the best possible one.

(Contemplate what might have happened had Archduke Ferdinand survived in 1914, or some other event that might have aborted the bloodbath that brought down the ancien regime. Or what might have happened if that bogus opinion that got tagged onto a certain US supreme court judgement -- asserting corporate personhood -- had been queried and overturned before it became the foundation of a significant body of case law. Or if Trotsky's flu had prevented him throwing his lot in with Lenin's putsch, thus avoiding the stimulus for the Red Scares of 1918-19, or leaving room for a successful Sparticist coup in Germany. Pick any of these pivotal events and we'd have a significantly different outcome by now, for better or worse.)

109:

Stuart, you might find the John Lewis Partnership interesting. (An employee-owned retailer that happens to be the third largest privately-held British company, with turnover well over US $10Bn/year.)

110:

Saying that people make decisions rather misses the point with corporations. I think it was Jeremy Rifkin who discussed that notion; anyone working for a corporation, he pointed out, is restrained by *legal obligations* to behave in a particular way. There's a rule set that defines how the company operates, and all the desires and moral urges of the individuals who work there are necessarily overridden by these rules. The argument was made that corporations are therefore machines. If we expect moral behavior from corporations we're going to be disappointed.

111:

For whatever reason (collapse of communism?), we have seen what seems to me an increasing hardness in capitalism. E.g., layoffs are now something routinely done to increase stock value, rather than a last resort in times of poor business, off-shoring is done with no concern for in-country employees, etc., etc.

There's a school of thought that blames computers for this. Networked computers led to computer-aided stock-trading, which led to massively greater amounts of people investing in stocks and a much larger market that could be tracked in real-time. At the same time more and more CEOs and corporate officers found themselves rewarded with shares of stock, rather than higher salaries.

Wall Street doesn't reward consistent performance, but rewards consistently rapid growth year after year very well. Therefore corporations adjusted their business models to maximize their own stock's value through rapid growth which was not necessarily sustainable.

Lawsuits over ethical issues became a business expense, especially when they could be settled quietly out of court - it takes a truly massive crime to generate an Enron scenario that actually destroys the stock price. Similarly, concern for the community is no longer an issue, except for P.R. purposes, when a corporation is distributed across several geographical locations - it can damage any one community very badly without suffering too many ill effects, just as long as its kept out of the public eye.

112:

I think corporate behavior, far from being actively malevolent (most of the time), is mostly the results of terminal short term focus and a lack of a broad long term plan by anyone. Quarterly profits and the next election is as far ahead as anyone bothers to plan anything.

As an example, I know fosil fuels are limited and going to run out, but I still filled my car with gas this morning because I need to go to work to pay my mortgage. Long term I know it is not sustainable, but its still the cheapest option available to me today, and therefore a rational short term choice. I think the frustraction with the current situation in the US, if not the world (I live in the midwest US) is that most people realize our countries finances and corporate funded model is really flawed, but we all have to much skin in the game to really think of any really viable alternatives? It makes me wonder if that kind of earnest pondering is why Fight Club seemed like a treatise on spirituality when i read it the first time. We all spend lots of time working jobs we hate to buy stuff we don't really need. not sure what the next step should be though?

113:

I think you've hit the proverbial nail on the head this time around...I think they've already taken over the UK's government, and were, at least until the midterm elections, well on their way to taking over the US's as well. But seeing as we conservative-leaning Americans are just too stupid to be affected by their insidious mind rays...well you get the picture.

After all, I think there would be riots across the US if this came to pass:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-11968437
Petrol prices have hit a record average level of 121.76p for a litre of unleaded petrol, according to the monitors Experian Catalist.
It is expected that fuel prices will rise further in January once increased fuel duties and the higher VAT rate come into play.
Experian Catalist estimates that higher VAT will add 2.5p and fuel duties will add a further 1p a litre to prices.
The diesel price of 125.73p a litre is 8p away from its record of July 2008.
The records referred to do not take account of inflation.

I do have some hope, as it would appear those Brits too young yet to be fitted with the skull cap, are up-in-arms over the expected increase in tuition fees.

114:

The question is not how to envisage a better system, but how to get there from here without experiencing violent push-back.

Without knowing what better system you envision, it is a bit difficult to craft a plan to prevent violent push-back when dismantling rule by world-wide corporations. Let me take a swing at it though. I'll make a few assumptions and see what pops out.

A1: It is ok to retain corporations as entities after the transition as long as their enormous power has been reduced, controlled or made largely irrelevant.

A2: The replacing entity or entities provide greater advantages to individuals and groups than the corporate system does currently, with fewer negative impacts. (no system is perfect)

A3: Corporations and their puppets will vigorously push back using every means necessary, including mass abrogation of rights and physical violence, against perceived or real short-term threats. This will be done even if it works against their medium and long term interests or their ultimate survival. However, they will shy away from direct violence as much as possible.

Given their nature and these assumptions, the following approaches occur to me:

1. The Darwin Option. Change their operating environment so that only the corporations who adapt to the new conditions will survive. Make this new environment hostile to psychotic dominating corporations, then only "kinder gentler" corps will survive the selection pressure. In this case changing their environment means a substitute mechanism for providing the same goods and services that corps currently provide. A combination of dynamic socially networked organizations "jamming" how the coporations work (ala Wikileaks and other culture jamming groups) and development of small-scale manufacturing (3d fabs, robotic greenhouses, etc). Use a combination of active and passive economic and legal environment change.

2. Mannacorp. Create an "Australia Project"-like corporate state (see Marshall Brain's novela MANNA http://www.marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm) Use it to shield its shareholder-citizens from the worst aspects of immoral external corporations and governments. Use the corporation to directly and indirectly alter the balance of power between other corporations, governments, and their people.

3. The Angel Corporation. Create or take control of a megacorp and turn it sane. Use it to fight for sanity in governments and corporate culture. Use it to alter their corporate objectives and put limits on the personhood of corporations. The irony of this solution is that the more successfull it is, the less power the Angel Corporation will have.

4. The Santa Claus Machine. A technocentric version of the Darwin Option. Push development of game-changing technologies (AI, 3D fabs, personal biotech, nanotech, etc) that empower individuals and transient human networks over centralized bureaucracies. Emphasize tech developments that allow individuals and dynamicly organized small groups to out-innovate large corporations. This may work best in areas with weaker governments or with semi-nomadic "tribes" of makers.

I could probably come up with more approaches, but this post is long enough.

Interesting topic. Thanks Charlie!

115:

...and with strange eons even death may die.

Sounds like an immortal, many-angled corporation to me. Lovecraft wasn't writing fiction, he was halfway to pundit.

116:

"For all their power, corporations still don't get to nominate our MPs and prime ministers and presidents;"

that's pretty amusing.

117:

>no way is a guy in an office worth more than a surgeon

But a union toll collector in New Jersey pulling down $100K surely deserves that much...

Yes, the system is completely screwed up.

118:
We people make the decisions. So ok, they are not tied directly with anybody in particular... but all their sins are somebody sins. Somebody, not an alien hive mind, decided to buy into the Nuremberg defense of "I just follow the corporation orders" to approve those unethical decisions. Somebody, no matter for how short of a time or in what limited capacity, decided to hide under the collective non-morality of the corporation. Somebody, even if it was not the owner and just as interchangeable as everybody else, decided to discard morality and embrace greed by the convenient excuse of duty to the "shareholder".

While what you say is certainly true, if those people failed to make those decisions, they would be replaced with someone who would. Given that the decision they take will not change the (long term) outcome, can they, rather than the corporate rule-system, really be said to be making the decision? Rather I'd argue that people are simply the substrate on which the corporation runs. If they cease to correctly execute the code, they get replaced like a failing chip.

119:

Well, about subverting corporations, I have wondered what you could do with all us ordinary people's pension money. In the agregate it adds up to enough to buy corporations, the problem being how to then control such corporations for our good as opposed to the good of the managers and short term shareholders.
There's no doubt several ways to fight back, the problem is how to gain ownership of the means of production, as recognised a wee while ago. If enough business's could be owned by their workers, that would at least swing some of the power back towards the general population.
But on the other hand things are so skewed right now that I am not sure such changes could take place, except under several possible sets of circumstances:
1) revolution
2) major economic downturn, so bad that the main predators fuck off elsewhere, lifting enough pressure that we can rebuild before they return and start doing a Chile on us.
3) Umm, not sure. I hate leaving binary options, and I'm sure there are others ways of doing it that I can't think of.

Re Stuart #106 - I think a hiaerarchical setup is intrisically more effective at certain things, including beating up the opposition in a capitalist oligopoly. Given the way the playing field is right now, it will almost always outperform 'nicer' companies. (Although said 'nicer' companies can usually find a niche market for themselves)

I suppose you could always make sure that the public knew completely what each corporation was doing, ie total transparency for all business transactions. Then the public can make up their minds and not use your business for anything, and a boycott would make a difference. The only slight problem (he said sarcastically) is that it would only work in a situation with a nearly true and effective market, not in an oligopoly or monopsony or whatever we have right now in the UK in many things. You can switch your newsagents without too much trouble, but if you want to change your washing powder manufacturer there's only 2 or 3 to choose from.

120:
While what you say is certainly true, if those people failed to make those decisions, they would be replaced with someone who would. Given that the decision they take will not change the (long term) outcome, can they, rather than the corporate rule-system, really be said to be making the decision? Rather I'd argue that people are simply the substrate on which the corporation runs. If they cease to correctly execute the code, they get replaced like a failing chip.

Yes, they can be said to be making the decision.

121:

Charlie said:>"Re-run the tape and you get a different program every time, as Stephen Jay Gould used to put it."

That seems to be the popular opinion among biologists, but it is an unproven assumption. I vacillate between this assumption and another explanation that, as implausible as it may seem, has the biosphere looking very similar most of the time it is re-run, due to ergodic attractors in the phase space. More work needs to be done if a definitive answer is sought.

122:

Chance is an inherent feature of evolutionary process.

123:

John: If current trends continue, networks will be the entities that displace corporations in next stage of social evolution. Being connected will become more powerful than controlling all the resources yourself.

124:

It's pretty obvious that government - democratic or otherwise - cannot control corporations. The relationship is symbiotic whether you are a democracy, a fascist state, or communist (they didn't shut down obsolete or inefficient factories or industries, it was just as if not more influenced by political considerations as anything in the west, even if they weren't strictly corporations). The only mechanism I can see to control their influence is the competition of a free market. I'm not saying no regulation whatsoever (you of course need some environmental, labor, and safety regs), but much, much less than what we have currently.

Neither corporatists nor politicians like the idea of that. It's been literally decades (yikes!) since I read Kolko's The Triumph of Conservatism, but he goes into great detail on how corporations subverted the Progressive impulses of the early 20th century to destroy their competitors. As one example, he discusses how Hormel used its influence to insert the requirement for meat packing facilities to pay for the presence of a government inspector. They knew they could easily afford this, given their economies of scale, but that the added cost would drive most of their smaller competitors out of business, thus reducing alot of the downward pressure on prices.

I should probably find a different example to support my case, because everybody knows those packing plants were grody, but still, you get the point.

I just find it interesting that the proposed solution to this problem always seems to involve more government, when it's obvious that the enormous governments we have now are part and parcel of the problem.

As an aside to the free speech issue in the US - the First Amendment applies to nobody except the US
Congress. It is a negative right - "Congress shall make no law" - not a positive right - "the people have the right of free speech." Which is a good thing. The thought of those clowns getting to decide who gets to say what gives me the willies.

125:

@Haig - That's very interesting. Now that you mention it, I had always assumed you'd get a radically different result. Can you elaborate a bit?

126:

Certainly, there's a very wide gap between beneficial and optimal, and I don't think there's any conclusive way to say that the current outcome is the best one possible. All I have to do is go back to the 1990s and imagine that the Clinton administration didn't embrace deregulation with the same zeal, and several better outcomes spring to mind. On the other hand, I can't conclusively state that the current outcome is the worst one, either, or even a quantifiably negative one in the grand spectrum of possibilities.

I suspect it's not, but I don't have the background in late 19th to early 20th century economics to argue the point very strongly. And I'm beginning to realize I made my original post with the benefits of industrialization in mind, rather than the political and trade impacts of corporate entities.

You listed some good sources for modern corporate fraud and malfeasance; got anything for the earlier days?

127:

But that is a bug, not a feature. The reason we have global problems today is the network is global. All economies are networks. How big, how fast they operate is a function of technology. We use to have lots of small, slow local networks (economies) now we have enormous global very, very fast networks.

Mandelbrots work in economics shows the real danger in this (his initial studies in non-linear systems involved cotton markets). Markets are non-linear, chaotic systems. It is a 100% certainty that given enough time a market will fail. The more connected the market is, the bigger the failure. The faster transactions occur in a market, the faster the collapse will happen. Before with lots of small, slow local markets, collapse in one meant local disruption only. Now? not so local.

This is why I am not convinced that corporations are the problem. The whole corp as a person is asinine and needs to change but it is the failure of people to understand the nature of markets and economics that is real problem.

And dont tell me planned economies are the answer to non-linear markets. Planned economies ARE markets, just with different characteristics. They are non-linear and they fail spectacularly just like unplanned markets. In fact they are more tightly coupled than pre-computer unplanned markets which is part of why places like the USSR went tits up instead of just into a really bad recession.

128:

* Rolls eyes *

So your solution to regulations not working to control corporate excesses is less regulation?

That's. Just. Nuts.

I will concede your implicit point about the danger of regulatory capture by the very corporations the regulators are intended to control -- but that's not an argument against regulation, it's an argument for better regulation.

129:

Note to the peanut gallery: this topic is really drawing out the cranks, in volumes I can't easily respond to. Please do not assume that my failure to disagree with any individual posting implies tacit agreement.

130:

As you might guess, Charlie, I'm in complete agreement with you on the nature of corporations1, but I wouldn't go so far as to call them alien invaders. I think of them as comparable to the "hyperparasites" that frequently evolve in runs of the Tierra evolution simulator. Similarly, corporations evolved right here on earth.

Corporations are not particularly complex organisms, though: they're not very intelligent, and they tend to remain fairly special purpose until they start aggregating via mergers and acquisitions. And after awhile the giant conglomerates that result become like dinosaurs in the speed at which perception of the world reaches their brains and motor impulses go back to effectors.

What can we do about them? I think the limitations that make them so damaging to the societies they parasitize are also weaknesses. Their focus on the extreme short-term future should make them vulnerable to organizations (and maybe even individuals) who take the longer-term into account in their planning, just like a chess master can operate deeper into the game than a novice can.

I'm not sure that building predator organizations to eat corporations is a good idea, though, because it's not clear what the predators would do once they've removed all the sociopathic corporations they were initially aimed at2. A couple of comments upthread suggested a memetic virus. I think we need something like a retrovirus that hides itself in the corporation's operating rules and modifies them. Damned if I can think of how to implement such a thing, but we got a lot of very bright people out there who might be able to come up with something.


1. You may remember my New Year's wish here a couple of years ago that the law defining corporations as people would be modified to give them the status of domestic animals.
2. ObSFReference: Robert Sheckley's short story "Watchbird" has a lovely description of how not to introduce organisms (artificial entities) into a biome (society).

131:

I think Tim's on to something with the Santa Claus Machine. Personal fabrication has the potential to massively disrupt most corporate structures, in ways that even the internet hasn't been able to do yet. The reasons are these: 1) the internet trades in types of information (ideas to bits and bits to ideas), so its effect was only on what could easily be digitized; 2) the moment we can translate ATOMS to bits and back reliably, with the ability to manufacture in a useful range of materials (including electronics), physical goods will be subject to the same kind of disintermediation effects that regular information has been subjected to. The difference here is that IP laws in many countries don't currently cover exact reproduction of physical objects, at least not well. See http://www.publicknowledge.org/it-will-be-awesome-if-they-dont-screw-it-up for a primer.

132:

I think corporations are akin to religion, in fact I believe they are religions, of a secular kind. First, just like religions; corporations are social structures that function for their own benefit and not for the benefit of their practitioners. Religions can make individuals act against their self interest, corporations do the same. The institution survives because is the health of the system that matters, not of its components. Individuals act against their interest because they have internalized a system of logic that is self referential. Catholics do not use birth control because even though it is beneficial, it is sinful and leads to hell. We, in the U.S., want corporations to run our health care system, not because they are more efficient, they are not, but because it leads to more free market activity. In other words, it is the method that is important, not the results. Corporations, just like religion, provide a moral system. CEOs believe capitalism is moral, not because it produces better results, but because the belief correlates to an abstract moral framework that exists for the benefit of, and was created by, corporate culture. Religions have entire language of symbols that are self referential. We pray to God (a Meme) to be forgiven for a sin (another meme), in other words, it is entirely self referential. If I do not believe in god neither prayer nor sin make a lot of sense. Corporations have the same, like Wall Street, a secular Vatican of sorts. They have concepts like derivatives that are self referential, like praying, and only make sense if one accepts the systems as is.

133:

Incidentally, one of the problems with corporate governance currently is that the directors and the executive officers (who are often the same people, a very bad idea) are very often not working for the benefit of the shareholders, but for their own enrichment, even if that results in damage or lost profit to the corporation. They get away with it usually because in day-to-day operations they support each other in their decisions, and it takes awhile for the issues to bubble up into accusations at shareholder meetings, and the execs have long since bailed to go to other corporations with their loot in golden parachutes (often even if they've left massive losses behind them).

134:

Paul Krugman thinks you are amusingly retro...

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/hive-minds-and-kleptocrats/

135:

Most of the wealth in the US and the EU seems to be in the hands of financial corporations which manufacture nothing and provide little or no necessary services to the rest of society. I don't see a change in the manufacturing or distribution paradigms affecting them.

136:

I don't understand the controversy about alleged corporate personhood. They are merely property, and act on the owner's behalf. Thus they are just vehicles for the rights of the owners.

Now, *limited liability* is something that might be considered more closely. It allows people acting in groups to have protections they would not as individuals. Of course, it is one of the foundations of the success of the modern system so people are reluctant to mess with it.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if proportional liability rather than limited liability had become the standard...

137:

Leaked memos from big banks and investment firms (hard to tell the two apart these days) reveal that their upper echelons are quite aware of what they're doing. It's more accurate to say that corporations reward sociopathic behavior among their members. That's why we used to have regulations and law enforcement (before Reagan and Thatcher came along) to limit that kind of nonsense.

These laws came about because back in the time before things like the FDA and USDA there were companies like Radithor, which sold a cure all soda that had the curative power of radium in it. When they damn well knew it would kill your ass dead. A few horrific deaths of some of the rich and famous had everyone clamoring for the government to protect them from the greedy bastards.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radithor

Those memos from the big banks I mentioned? They basically crow about how the average American voter is a big stupid doofus who's easily led by Fox news. It also warns that if those voters ever got their shit together it'd be FDR all over again, and none of them want anything like THAT!

Banishing corporations would hardly protect us from clever sociopaths, as the failures of Communism well show. A democracy with a well informed and well educated public seems to be the only way forward for the greater good. And would you look at that? The sociopaths are opposed to education spending, science policy, and a fair and balanced media!

138:

This means that North Korea is the last hold out from the alien invaders....

139:

This is an interesting analysis. We must remember, though, that it is only people who take action. No group can accomplish anything except through the actions of individuals. Thus, the ultimate responsibility for every act must fall on one individual or another, and not on any group.

140:

So the rapaciousness of C19th corporations means that:

a. 1945 was a good as it ever got, then went downhill?
b. that modern times are better than past times?

Corporations today are far more benign than they used to be. Despite the influence of corporations on government today, it is not dissimilar to their influence in the past, and then it was a lot more secret.

141:

Funny though, that countries with lots of corporations and a minimum of fetters do better than those without as many and more restrictions.

On the balance corporations have been a good thing for humanity.

142:

What's more nuts - thinking that this time, unlike all the others, the regulations will be good, and work, and not be written by folks who are not honest brokers? Or that the fix is in on the whole regulatory shooting match from the beginning, so maybe we should consider different alternatives? Which is really the radical solution here?

The fact that both the corporatists and the politicians would be against a more free market approach should tell you all you need to know on that score. They both love a strong regulatory environment - it allows corporate interests to seek rents and quash competitors, and allows politicians to trade legislative favors for money and influence.

Hoping for better regulations is a pipe dream. It has never happened, it will never happen.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over blah blah blah...

143:

Regulations do work most of the time, in that they avert more damage than they cause. If you want to live in a state run like Somalia, well, ok. I doubt they have the regulatory infrastructure to stop you from moving there.

144:

@Bruce: Eventually in this pyramid scheme, either physical goods or ideas have to change hands or be used to make physical good change hands. If all economies were pure information economies, there wouldn't be anyone making our clothes or growing our food. Even if we magically upload ourselves to dense memory crystals, something (or someone), somewhere, has to make the objects that keep the system powered and running.

145:

Last time I looked, Germany was a hotbed of regulation, paperwork and general bureaucracy, as well as being about the only country not totally in the shit.

146:

I agree with PK on this.

A more interesting analysis would be on just how much any social system works like a hive-mind and can we determine how mind-like it is?

147:

Compare it to Africa, South America, India....

148:

his time, unlike all the others, the regulations will be good, and work, and not be written by folks who are not honest brokers?

You seem to have missed the man behind the curtain: the financial crisis we had two years ago arose following the systematic gutting of the previous financial regulatory system, which had been imposed during the 1930s precisely to stop a speculative bubble similar to one that ended in the Great Depression arising again.

I find your certainty that improvement is impossible to be disturbingly self-defeating. Let the beatings continue until morale improves!

149:

Given that Somalia lacks a structure that promotes corporations, I think it is an example of how a lack of corporations hurts people. Most of the world was like Somalia before corporations.

150:

"Chomsky's take on language and communications is out of favour and/or obsolescent these days..."

Can you clarify what you mean a bit? :) Linguistics, or particularly syntax, is still very heavily dominated by Chomskyan theories - even those who disagree with him (and many of us do) still operate within his notion of 'generative grammar' and his aim of a combinatorial, rule-based approach to language. It would only be a little over the top to call him the father of modern linguistics, and he's still highly influential.

It's just the particular, current, theoretical approach (The Minimalist Program: Language is a perfect, optimal system that is not actually 'for' communication, did not evolve by natural selection, etc...) he has that the more empirically-inclined of us find a wee bit dodgy in certain of it aims. It's had some successes, but still doesn't (I think) have the explanatory adequacy of earlier 'machines' of syntactic theory.

151:

Can I recommend a program created by ad agency people for the CBC?

http://www.cbc.ca/ageofpersuasion/

The people who've been putting this show together strike me as the sort whom you'd want running an ad agency, with sane and sensible goals and rules for getting the job done in an honourable fashion. They may be putting together that industry's equivalent of Asimov's Laws of Robotics, partly by design and partly by accident. Hoping that - if the theory fits - it benefits us all.

152:

I dont think that is true anymore. China is the case in point.

It was only true for a short period as the socialist economies behind the iron curtain unwound. During the first half of the 20th century the economic growth of the USSR was much better than the USA. As late as 1974 East Germany was growing at a faster rate than Western Europe was. The Warsaw pack economies never recovered from the global industrial recession of the early 70's. It was a very painful transition for western economies but the more decentralized western economies adjusted. In the process, lots of corporations got smaller or went out of biz.

Of course, we dont let corporations go out of biz any more, not the big ones any way. And we dont restrict the size of corps like we use to. So we have now lost the one of the main advantage the economy of many corporations has, the ability to restructure itself.

153:

don't blame me, i voted for kodos

154:

Nope, distractions won't work: your core argument is invalidated by the fact that Germany is currently the #1-performing economy. Despite or because it's heavily-regulated? That is the question.

155:

Personally, I think the cries of "more regulation!" versus "less regulation!" to be a bit of a smokescreen. We need more of certain kinds of regulation, and less of others.

Specifically, I feel that antitrust laws have become unfashionable to enforce, and really ought to be looked at. Perhaps allowing private citizens or, if that's a step too far, municipalities to bring antitrust suits?

156:

Nobody here is arguing for no government whatsoever, which is pretty much what Somalia is. So if we can put that canard to rest, that'd be great, m'kay?

157:

That is completely and utterly false. In the US the financial regulations put in place during the New Deal were very well done and contributed significantly to the great post WW2 boom in America.

One of the great (and unsung) accomplishments of post-ww2 America was avoiding the depression that had always followed every major war before. Largest war in history, largest amount of debt every created to fight a war and yet, this one time, no debt driven depression after the war. Putting Wall Street in a cage and locking the door and wrapping it in chains and padlocking the chains with New Deal regulation is the reason this depression never happened.

It is not an accident that within 10 years of the repeal of those financial regulations that we got a debt driven economic collapse. Only by socializing the private debts of the rogue financial corps have we avoided a depression, although we are not done yet so we may still get one.

158:

Wonderful, so you acknowledge that regulation in general is good and needed.

159:

What gutting was that? The repeal of Glass-Steagall? Investment banks were slaughtered doing investment banky things (trading securities), and traditional banks got nailed doing traditional banky things (mortgages), so I don't think you can hold that up as the sole or even the main culprit of the crisis.

I'll concede that was certainly a contributing factor, but it's only one of many. Others of which include government meddling in the home mortgage business. Don't forget, the Government Service Enterprises Fannie-Mae and Freddie-Mac were bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions for the subprime mortgages they held, also. And are going to cost the US taxpayer much more before all of this is over.

In any case, doesn't your point actually support my argument - government can't and won't get regulation right! The most heavily regulated industry in the US had a complete bonkers, global economy ruining meltdown, and you think more regulation is the answer?

That's. Just. Nvts.

160:

(Am going to bed. Play nice.)

161:

Glass-Steagall was in place for over 70 years. When it was removed we get a debt driven recession, the first one we have got since Glass-Steagall was put in place. And this is evidence that govt can not get regulations right? It worked for over 70 years! the problems it was meant to prevent only occurred after it was repealed. How is this not an example of regulation done well?

Seriously, what are you talking about?

162:

Some is, undoubtedly. I'm not suggesting there are no tragedies of the commons, or externalities to be dealt with. To quote myself from post #124:

"I'm not saying no regulation whatsoever (you of course need some environmental, labor, and safety regs), but much, much less than what we have currently."

I'm just saying the belief that we can control the scope and influence of corporations by smart regulations is an irrational pipe dream with no basis in historical reality whatsoever. Free market competition is much more effective, much better for consumers, and we should move the pendulum in that direction.

163:

Haig wrote:

"I vacillate between this assumption and another explanation that, as implausible as it may seem, has the biosphere looking very similar most of the time it is re-run, due to ergodic attractors in the phase space. More work needs to be done if a definitive answer is sought."

To which Leonid Korogodski presumably replied:

"Chance is an inherent feature of evolutionary process."

Surely you are aware that this doesn't in the least refute Haig's argument? I can flip a coin once and the result is as likely to be heads as it is tails. But a million coin flips will produce very close to the same proportion of heads to tails every time. That chance operates at almost all evolutionary scales does not in any way guarantee that "if you replay the tape you'll get a different result".

Furthermore, all genetic changes are not equally probable—and path dependencies often mean that adaptive space shrinks, not infrequently producing convergent evolution.

Charlie is a super-bright and well-informed guy; but when non-biologists quote Gould as an authority on evolutionary theory, their assertions should be taken with a wheelbarrow full of salt.

164:

But does everyone? Back when I was an under-graduate linguistics/AI student (over ten years ago now) I remember being impressed by this line of argument http://www.ling.ed.ac.uk/~simon/talks/evolang2008/plenary.pdf which seemed to better explain how grammatical structures emerge than what I took Chomskyan theory to be.

165:
But a million coin flips will produce very close to the same proportion of heads to tails every time.

But it's not the proportion that controls contingencies in the history of evolution, but rather the precise values of the series of flips. It matters which organisms die before reproducing, not just how many.

166:

@JohnW

Fair enough. Market forces can be a useful tool. We should just be wary of people who want to use it for every problem, even where it fails to achieve the desired result.

We also need to remember that government is not the only actor capable of imposing regulation on a market. Large corporations are almost as (and sometimes more) capable of imposing regulation than governments in many cases. Where that is true, government regulation baring them from doing so can actually result in a freer market.

@kmellis

The sum total of coin flips would be similar, but the sequence would be wildly different.

167:

Check out the documentary called The Corporation (http://www.netflix.com/Movie/The-Corporation/60034810). The part that sticks with me the most is a psychological analysis of the Corporation as specificed in the DSM. Scary shit, especially considering all the power that corporations have in our lives.

168:

So: how do we kill a corporation?
- starve it (of income). requires a mass coordinated effort by normal humans.
- hit it with something stronger (a government or another corporation (essentially the same thing)).
- force it to commit suicide (by infiltration?).
All of these are difficult. Can anyone thing of any better methods?

169:

I like to compare the Market to a huge, powerful, but mindless animal. It can do a lot of useful work if it's properly harnessed and kept under control, but it should never be allowed to run free, or it will start trampling people underfoot and eating them out of house and home.

170:

There's some ugly history that maybe people haven't noticed. The US corporate response to unions, a century ago, amounted to open war, with machine guns and armoured cars.

You wouldn't be far wrong if you thought of Pinkertons as being the Blackwater of the time, but acting within the USA.

That's the environment where modern corporatism has its roots.

171:

Returning to Charlie's original question:-

Why do we feel so politically powerless? Why is the world so obviously going to hell in a handbasket? Why can't anyone fix it?

This feeling always emerges in bad economic times. The social facts governing corporate behaviour and national politics are not significantly different now compared to how they were in, say, 2006. We are politically no less powerless than then, and no more able to fix the world. We were just more able to distract ourselves with meaningless consumption. It's when the party stops that we start feeling the hangover. The power has been gone for a long time.

172:

Corporations devour the entire environment, rather like the giants in 1 Enoch (Come across it? It's a brilliant myth; they're near the beginning of the book). They also devour each other. I suspect we're drifting towards some sort of globalised laissez-faire monopoly capitalism; imagine Tesco as the last grocer standing, worldwide, allowed to do as it pleased.

If I'm right, conditions for the workers are going to be back to 19th-Century levels, and the reaction may well be a sort of globalised neo-Marxism. If the corporations don't to so much environmental damage they knock us back to medieval times first of course.

In which case, where are we going to find the blacksmith, the wheelright, and all the other skilled craftsmen who kept the wheels of the village economy turning?

173:

Overall, I agree entirely.

Except they're not alien at all. We MADE them. And, like a berserk computer, we can UNmake them. It's difficult, but there is nothing stopping us from saying "okay, that was stupid; companies ARE NOT people, and have no rights of people."

The question of feeling powerless, however, has little to do with the corporations. It DOESN'T MATTER whether the corporations have power or not; it's the fact that each one of us has our own opinions, but know that -- for the vast majority of us -- those opinions will only be heard by a tiny, tiny, TINY fraction of the population, and thus unless we just happen to agree with the vast majority, our vote will not matter. It will disappear into the huge morass of a hundred million votes, and there isn't even any way for us to register displeasure with this state of the world.

One of my pet proposals is to add "None of the Above" to all ballots, and -- if None of the Above wins -- the election must be held again, and NONE OF THE PRIOR CANDIDATES ARE ELIGIBLE, having been given a vote of "no, we don't want ANY of you". This would allow the disenfranchised who are excluded because they don't want ANY of the current alternatives to register their existence, rather than either (A) not voting, which means you aren't counted, or counted as not giving a damn, or (B) voting for whichever side you view as the slightly-lesser evil, and thus being counted as FAVORING the lesser evil, which is not the case.

174:

jib - Can you explain to me how the repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the sub prime mortgage crisis and subsequent financial meltdown?

@brog (168) - Come up with a better product or service and put it out of business?

175:

For background reading, I think David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism is pretty nearly indispensable as a look at how, exactly, corporations (or, only slightly more broadly, the ruling class) have been restructuring society for their benefit and their very non-human goals.

176:

Just read Charlie's initial post, so sorry if someone else has quoted the below:


Neuromancer
by William Gibson

Power, in Case's world, meant corporate power. The zaibatsus, the multinationals that shaped the course of human history, had transcended old barriers. Viewed as organisms, they had attained a kind of immortality. You couldn't kill a zaibatsu by assassinating a dozen key executives; there were others waiting to step up the ladder, assume the vacated position, access the vast banks of corporate memory.

Red Star, Winter Orbit
by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson

Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who's come here
to identify the planet's dominant form of intelligence.
The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think
he picks? I probably shrugged.
The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form.


177:

The logic that leads to corporations being defined as (sentient non-human) organisms, surely similarly leads to nation states (or formerly empires) being defined as such. The world has already been occupied (for thousands of years) by 'aliens', with the national govts now forced to defend their control against a new wave of invaders. Capitalism can be seen as a (somewhat) successful attempt to form a symbiotic relation with the newcomers, and communism as a completely unsuccessful attempt to resist them. Apologies if this suggestion has already been made in the comments.

178:

Yes: it's even drawn the attention of that shrill socialist at the NYT:

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/hive-minds-and-kleptocrats/

He observes that your analysis is a few decades out of date.

179:

It can't be that hard - corporations are not democracies, and can be as highly dysfunctional as dictatorships.

There are some feedback circuits that are much stronger for corporations (and any other market operating agency) than for a government of any form from the democracy to the dictatorship
1) The dependency on customers - the corporation have to produce some useful stuff that people would want to buy
2) The dependency on suppliers - the corporation have to buy labor, materials and equipment to be able to produce that useful stuff
3) The dependency on investors - the corporation have to be profitable or nobody wants to put money into it.
All these feedbacks together put the corporation to a very narrow margin. Failing to fit this margin will render it to bankruptcy.

Under the democracy you just have to convince citizens that you are better then that other party once each four or five years. The dictatorship have not even such loose restriction.

(OK, may be I exaggerate, but I feel someone have to counterweight a bit all that socialism in comments :)

180:

"I suspect we're drifting towards some sort of globalized laissez-faire monopoly capitalism".

That was what was being thought in the 1960's and it proved quite wrong then. If anything, we see behemoth corporations disintegrating faster than before. We're seeing the rise of new forms of business organization which may compete successfully.

181:

"There's no such thing as evolutionary pressure."

Terminology aside, there's still a point here: what if the corporation-dominated system has a competitive advantage under current conditions? It does become harder to change things then. Consider the effects of the Soviet Union's long-term economic competitive disadvantages...

But I'm not sure this is the case: consider that Friedman-style corporate profit-maximizing policies are NOT economic growth-maximizing policies. They've often failed dismally that way.

The real growth-maximizing policy seems to be East Asian-style state coordination of corporations for national development ends, basically. No less corporate, but less bent on maximizing inequality.

So...maybe politics has more to do with it than simple economics.

Economists do point out that the struggle to control mineral resources and some other assets can continue until the costs of the struggle rise to equal the spoils to be gained...that may also apply to machinations to profit from the state budget.

182:

Hmm... where to begin.

Question 1 - Is what's wrong with corporations wrong with the idea of large, cooperative, organized economic activity?

Question 2 - ...and/or, is it wrong with the particular economic / legal / social structures corporations have become?

I have seen people advance a "Yes" to question 1, a little here and a lot elsewhere in far-left regions, but they seem to be woefully ignorant of how much economic cooperative structure is required to build modern society.

If you merely assert a "Yes" to question 2, then I encourage speculation about what alternate forms of structure might be that could accomplish the goals of cooperative economic activity on corporate scales.

(Ps - I read Krugman's analysis before coming here, and I agree with him that a lot of individual greed was the root cause of recent problems, rather than structural issues in the corporate system per se).

183:

Alex Tolley wrote:
"A more interesting analysis would be on just how much any social system works like a hive-mind and can we determine how mind-like it is?"

Applause !

The problem being pointed out here - humans making decisions in their self-interest that harm others - is a general problem that started roughly 12,000 when tribal life changed to civilization.

Primates – esp. humans and chimpanzees – live in small groups, and over millions of years have evolved Status Competition as a means of improving survivability. This means that they have an instinctual desire to compete for status.

Chimpanzees in the wild have been observed to make war on other groups of chimpanzees (Goodall and Wrangham, 1973). Other primates in the wild have been observed to campaign for leadership positions, including kissing babies in order to court the female vote.

Thus, war, politics, democracy, and even female suffrage are all natural, instinctual and not particularly advanced (in the sense that they have existed for millions of years).

The fly in the ointment is Civilization. Humans naturally live in groups of roughly 150, where everyone knows everyone else personally. As pointed out by British historian Richard Miles, civilization is simply where people live in larger groups – thus with strangers.

All primates have a natural survival instinct to mistrust strangers (currently expressed in global Anti-Immigrant sentiment). Chiefs of tribes become rulers of civilizations and thereby gain power and wealth by the economies of scale of large cities and agriculture. In order to do so, they have to portray strangers as “us”, members of our tribe.

However, this trust is shaky at best, as it flies in the face of instinctual mistrust of strangers. On the one hand, the King and his royal family is known to all, and thus trustworthy, while the average citizen remains unknown.

The critical result of this change from a small group of personally known people to a large group of strangers (headed by a trusted personally known ruler), is that all of the constraints vanish that are normally found in a tribe where everyone knows everyone else.

Millions of years living in such tribes means that we have instincts against committing crimes against our “friends and family” – our tribe members – because this negatively impacts our survival chances.

But in a city of strangers, all constraints are gone, and the status competition instinct – previously just present to pair the fittest male with the fittest female – now has free reign.

Even worse is the creation of a “unit of status” called money, that is the exact same unit used by everyone to acquire survival necessities.

The result is that the status competition instinct is expressed directly by accumulating what other people need to survive. And in civilization, all those people are unknown to us, as the competition becomes an abstract mathematical accumulation of money.

But, money is just the half of it, as primates are naturally hierarchical, and status competition instinct is also expressed through the accumulation of power by rising to the top of a hierarchy. (This is why you often see the same sort of “sharks” at the head of non-profits, corporations, unions or government, and the same sort of back-stabbing and favor-trading involved.)

In other words, if you evenly divided all the world’s money and power equally amongst the 6 billion, in 100 years, you would be back to plutocracy and aristocracy.

People are always trying to fix the systems of human organizations, but all problems are due to human nature itself. The truth is that all human activities are driven by these instincts - even when we think they are not.

PS Concering the Glass-Steagall example... the fact that regulation did work for several decades, does not trump the fact that special interests were able to have it repealed, and that led to benefits for the special interests and harm to everyone else.

184:

And my contention is that Germany is less heavily regulated than most countries in the world. Yes, more heavily regulated than the US and doing better. Which may argue for a certain level of regulation being key.

I think Germany is notable because their corporate system developed separately though with influences from the Anglo-American system.

Also, the US is weighed down by conflicting interests and spending on things like the military which are not really productive after they have done the job of ensuring security.

You're more familiar with the weaknesses of the UK than I, but with the US that seems to be one of the problems.

185:

Wow, that's the first time I've agreed with Krugman in years.

186:

@ 163:

Charlie is a super-bright and well-informed guy; but when non-biologists quote Gould as an authority on evolutionary theory, their assertions should be taken with a wheelbarrow full of salt.

And when somebody makes trite observations about probability that aren't particularly relevant and shows that they don't understand the theory or the formulation very well, whatever they say should be taken with a dump truck of salt.

Particularly if they think Gould wasn't some sort of authority, or that particular observation isn't currently widely accepted. At least, to the extent that the terms are well-defined.

187:

An excellent analysis. Except, this is not the first such "alien invasion". The social orders that corporations are replacing were just as unnatural, just as inhuman, at least as inhumane, if not more so, and if anything, they had an even deeper and stronger hunger for human sweat, tears, and blood.

188:

This is pretty close to my own analysis of the situation, although I'm more inclined to describe a corporation as a machine - they're machines for accumulating money. They're very successful machines, despite an interesting design decision which makes humans part of the workings. The most interesting part of it is that by making humans part of the workings of the machine, it's possible to make humans freely choose to relinquish their humanity in exchange for the things the machine can give them (job security, a regular wage or salary, a feeling of belonging somewhere, a way of feeling valuable in society etc). Yes, they're vastly more successful at it than ordinary humans are, but that's the case with all machines (machines for lifting can lift more than ordinary humans, or higher than ordinary humans; machines for moving can move faster than ordinary humans etc).

The point being, they're our machines, and effectively they're controlled by the people who own them (the shareholders). Unfortunately, one of the things which hasn't carried through from the old laws on animal ownership is the idea of an owner being responsible for the actions of his property. Used to be, if your bull broke down the fence, you were liable for any damage caused (so you either bought a tractable bull, or you built good fences). For corporations, there doesn't seem to be any personal liability for anyone - yes, there's liability for the corporation, but as the saying goes, corporations have neither bodies to be hanged nor souls to be damned, so corporate liability is effectively useless.

My main ideas for reining in corporate power tend to consist of the following:

1) The lifeblood of corporations is money. So the way to change the behaviour of a corporation is to stop it from being able to make money quite as effectively. My notion of how to do this is fines which are levied on a percentage of gross corporate income - say 1% per offence. Fines are levied for each instance of an offence, and are cumulative (that is, ten instances of an offence would result in a total fine of 10% of gross corporate income). Note that I'm using gross income there - this is the money they make before any deductions are taken out, and before the accountants can play merry hob with the figures to make any profits seem either marvellously large, or marvellously small. If corporate behaviour is so poor as to require fines of 100% or more of their gross income in a particular year, the shareholders are going to notice.

2) Go to the root of the problem: the shareholders. Make them liable for the behaviour of the corporations they own. If a corporation is doing something which would result in imprisonment, imprison the shareholders. If it's doing something which would result in a fine, fine the shareholders. Make them responsible for the actions of their corporation, and make them responsible for the actions of the corporation's board.

I realise both of these would require political action from the largely disenfranchised group of people who are not corporate shareholders and/or persons who are willing to fight ideological battles. It would mean convincing both corporations and their political pawns of our serious intent, and it would ideally require action on a global scale (because otherwise they'll pick up and move on to more comfortable conditions). To be honest, the only thing which could convincingly argue the corporations into submission is the "One World Government" of right-wingnut myth, and that isn't likely to happen any time soon.

189:

Minor comment -

Very few people aren't corporate shareholders.

Do you have a 401K or IRA account? Where do you think those investments are?...

Some people do without and keep cash or bank savings accounts, but that's very rare now.

In 2006 there were 70 million people in the US with 401Ks; add in family members and that comes out to most of the population in a family with one.

190:

There's always the Aussie solution: require people to turn up and receive their ballot papers.

191:

Well, yes, but Germany is also successfully neo-mercantilist.

192:

Krugman commenting on Stross. That was too awesome!

193:

@ 134:

Paul Krugman thinks you are amusingly retro...

Commentary on the history and significance of the corporation abounds throughout the ages. When I clicked on the link, I thought for sure Krugman was going to say something about Whyte's once highly influential work The Organization Man. Ah here's another bit with some commentary on:

Among the sillier effects of wooly-headed borrowing from science that Whyte notes is the then-current tendency to turn the mathematical notion of equilibrium into a cultural axiom, and derive from it a justification for collectivism in terms of ‘social equilibrium.’ Here’s Whyte’s summary critique of Scientism:

The more things change the more they stay the same.

194:

Stross' dating is wrong. The following quotation from William Findley (an anti-Federalist) dates from 1786, with regard to the rechartering of the Bank of North America, the first major American business corporation:


Enormous wealth, possessed by individuals, has always had its influence and danger in free states. Thus, even in Rome, where patriotism seems to have pervaded every mind, and all her measures to have been conducted with republican vigour, yet even there, the patricians always had their clients—their dependents—by the assistance of whom they often convulsed the counsels, and distracted the operations of the state, and finally overturned the government itself. But the Romans had no chartered institutions for the sole purposes of gain. They chartered no banks.
Wealth in many hands operates as many checks: for in numberless instances, one wealthy man has a control over another. Every man in the disposal of his own wealth, will act upon his own principles. His virtue, his honour, his sympathy, and generosity, will influence his disposals and designs; and he is in a state of personal responsibility. But when such an unlimited institution is erected with such a capital, for the sole purpose of increasing wealth, it must operate according to its principle; and being in the hands of many, having only one point in view, and being put in trust, the personal responsibility arising from the principles of honour, generosity, &c. can have no place. The special temper of the institution pervades all its operations: and thus, like a snow ball perpetually rolled, it must continually increase its dimensions and influence.
This institution having no principle but that of avarice, which dries and shrivels up all the manly—all the generous feelings of the human soul, will never be varied in its object: and, if continued, will accomplish its end, viz. to engross all the wealth, power and influence of the state.
The human soul is affected by wealth, in almost all its faculties. It is affected by its present interest, by its expectations, and by its fears. And must not, therefore, every thinking man see what advantage this institution has on the human feelings, above that of wealth held by many individuals? If our wealth is less equal than our kind of government seems to require—and if agrarian [i.e., redistributionist] laws are unjust in our present situation, how absurd must it be for government to lend its special aid in so partial a manner, to wealth, to give it that additional force and spring, which it must derive from an almost unlimited charter? Can any gentleman avoid seeing this to be eventually and effectually overturning our government? Democracy must fall before it. Wealth is its foundation, and gain its object and design.

195:

This hypothesis may be true, but within the context of SF, it's not very "whimsical". In the decades since Gibson, Stephenson, etc, it's practically become a cliche.

196:

And what about consumer or worker-owned co-ops? In Canada, I'm a shareholder _and_ customer at Mountain Equipment Co-op, which sells me lovely outdoor gear, and the portion of who's profits those not reinvested for expansion, are donated to various environmental projects.

Then there are coop grocery chains (The Co-op in Calgary), agricultural co-operatives, residential co-ops, industrial workshop co-ops, etc. All smaller scale, all competing in the marketplace with for profit entities and all surviving quite nicely, thank you very much.

From my own involvement in both for profit and non-profit/co-op (and other ventures) I can tell you that the banks prefer lending to the for-profit entities, as it's a structure that most lending officers know well. They're a little suspicious of companies with less-well-known governance structures.

Get too exotic on them and they won't given you money when you need a bit extra to grow in a timely manner.

197:

Very few shareholders matter. Most large blocks of shares are held by other corporations, "institutional investors". According to Pensions and Investments Daily (Sept. 2, 2008) by the end of 2007 institutional investors held 76.4% of the outstanding shares in the 1000 largest US companies, up from 46.6% in 1987. Even that understates the matter - there is a great deal of indirect ownership.

Whether even these big corporations technically own the stock they hold is in question since nearly all such transactions are only on the computers of the big clearinghouse firms such as LCH.Clearnet and The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC); the bookkeeping for voting rights is very sloppy (Fortune magazine this month estimates a 10% margin of error.) Clearinghouses are immensely powerful - the DTCC's nominee, Cede & Co. (!) holds about $40 trillion in securities in its name. They have at times lent more shares to short sellers than actually existed - and those shares may be voted.

Also, even shareholders with 0.1-1% or even more of the outstanding shares rarely have any influence on the agendas of meetings, executive compensation or slates of candidates for directors. Often any shares that are not voted by shareholders through broker proxy are voted by the management. It doesn't take much of that to throw a vote. If 1/3 of the shares aren't voted by shareholders but rather by management, that means that 75% of the shares voted by shareholders must be against a management-sponsored resolution for it to fail. In some cases such as Google, the management holds super-voting stock with 10 or more votes per share. Shareholder control of large public companies is usually a fiction concealing near-dictatorial management power. Even if it weren't a sham, the shareholders are nearly all big institutional investors. The percentage of the population at large that has any influence over major corporations' decisions is less than minuscule.

What to do? Charters, corporate and securities law, accounting rules, rules of contract interpretation, regulatory barriers to entry and nearly everything else that corporations exploit to achieve power come from appropriating the power of the government and law and twisting it to their advantage.

If the lawmakers, regulators and judges no longer served the corporate interests, then corporate power would fail. The question then is essentially a psychological one: how can the lawmakers, regulators and judges be convinced to change the rules favoring corporations to instead favor the public at large? What specific changes in the law and judicial system are needed? What is a viable strategy of incremental changes to achieve this overall goal?

198:

Comment on this posted at Paul Krugman's blog:
Glad to see you and Charlie on the same page with "Creatures of the Market." Charlie has the more common source: Adam Smith's "Lectures on Justice, Police Revenue and Arms," (1762) a.k.a. as "Jurisprudence" at oll.libertyfund.org. “... Such are monopolies and all privileges of corporations, which, though they might once be conducive to the interest of the country, are now prejudicial to it. The riches of a country consist in the plenty and cheapness of provisions, but their effect is to make everything dear.”
Paul points to corporate advantages that were diverted from their proper owners through control fraud. As I recall there was a lot of sharkskin in the Merchant Princes, so respectfully leaving the Charlie's question open, though it is millennia older than he suggests, as are scale economies. I gather neither of you much trusts the FBI.

199:

I'm surprised nobody's brought up George Foy's series of near-future books. Hawkleyism seems to be the way to go: organize into small groups, make what you can for the others in your group, and *step away from the machine* as much as possible.

200:

Here's the recipe for "aliens".

Take the limbic system; slather on a thin layer of neo-cortex and then bring to a boil for around 170,000 or more years; then let simmer for 10,000 or more years - starting with the establishment of agricultural settlements. Turn off the burner and remove the lid at the end of the 18th century; let cool for 100 years until "instrumental reason" has fully merged with greed and fear ... and you've got huge, predatory multinational corporations ... er, aliens.

201:

I think there is some pretty deep wisdom in this little piece thank you soo much Charlie Stross. I too am concerned that we as a global population are not on a very sustainable path but the powers that be are too comfortable with the status quo and thus we have a hard time diverting from the direction we are taking.

Corporate interests have zero care about the gap between haves and have nots in society, what system should we consider best for the total human sum of the world rather than the consumption sum or corporate sum of the world? For corporations the only healthy paradigm is growth. Right now the “great recession of 2009/10” is supposedly crippling us as a nation since we are not growing fast. Zero growth could be a healthy state if everyone is still putting their mind to good use and creating wealth. Uncontrolled growth, degenerate growth, rapid growth, something ultimately starving the local region of resources isn’t good, it is called cancer!

Take what you need from the world, but perhaps we could all take a moment to think -- how can I make the world better today for the long, long term? My take is politics isnt it, but I am still wondering what is. What can we do to force the persistent ruling entities in society care about the long term. Long term being 10^2 or 10^3 or even 10^4 years? Makes me thing of my other favorite author's book – Anathem. Long term, what is good for us humans? Not sure these multinational corporations and the degenerate democracy we have today is it. Clearly Sophia and my family are my top concern, but I am also puzzling the longer term. Thanks for the thought provoking read. I would be very interested in your conclusions on what to actually do.

202:

.We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals.

Hey, I once read a Warren Ellis comic about this -- it had ravers and Tesla coils in it.

203:

I disagree with the assertion that corporations are necessarily non-sentient. I don't necessarily think they are, either; I'm not sure whether we're equipped to recognize sentience in an egregore distributed across thousands of individuals.

Governments are egregores as well, and in theory they're supposed to defend the rights and interests of their citizens. How well this reduces to practice is, of course, debatable. One could make a pretty strong argument that in the United States, the federal egregore has concluded that allying with corporations is more conducive to its survival than following its original mandate, with predictable effects: regulations have become more corporate-friendly and individual-hostile over time. This is arguably even a rational act on the part of the government-egregore; its goals and ideals are no more aligned with citizens' interests than corporations' are, and if a government egregore and a corporate egregore find some course of action to be of mutual benefit, well, there you go.

In the United States, the allegiance between corporations and government has come quite easily thanks to the government's vulnerability to regulatory capture. The first step toward the kind of nonviolent change that Charlie's talking about is to patch that bug in the legal code. (Unfucking the electoral system to discourage degeneration into a two-party system -- which can all too easily turn into a front for a silent single party -- is another patch that needs to be applied, but that affects more than just the relationship between corporations and government.) Such a change will be difficult to bring about, since corporations will resist it as hard as they can, with help from co-opted members of the body politic. But it can be done, perhaps in the guise of campaign finance reform to start with.

I've been looking for examples of a system that (so far, at least) displays immunity to regulatory capture, but I haven't found anything yet. I'd love to hear of some. Maybe eliminating rent-seeking behavior would be enough; much bad corporate behavior stems from the expectation that consumers owe them something more than simple honest dealing.

Along these lines, it's been interesting to watch the genesis of acephalous distributed egregores over the last few years, from the Cloudmakers to Anonymous. The US media in particular seem to have a serious cognitive blind spot when it comes to organizations that not only have no leader, but actively don't want one.

204:

indeed, like al queda, according to the media its a james bond villain type affair with secret cave-bases and everything
if that were so we'd have won that one by now, reality doesnt match what they claim

205:

The bit about non-human entities reminds me of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan. If I remember correctly it's a worm that has to keep eating people because it has no life of its own.


Also, if you want to modify a corporation without it resisting, buyouts converting them to employee cooperatives may be a good model. You need to both make sure the employees aren't afraid of losing their jobs, and avoid reducing the share value while the shares are still tradeable.

206:

Egregores are an excellent conception of hive-minds.

I have been trying to create a unifying conception of psychology and mythology using linear algebra as a model - the space of all minds must be spanned by a set of orthogonal basis vectors, some of which are familiar everyday minds or mental attributes, others of which are closer to archetypal and mythic entities, and some are alien directions of mind which may only sometimes become evident here in the collective action of groups. The gross mental vectors of the participants may sometimes cancel, while smaller components which would in individuals be unnoticed add up in the egregore, revealing aspects from forgotten or unsuspected dimensions of the mindspace.

These basis vectors are like platonic prototypes, actual minds are weighted mixtures of the eigenminds, never fully orthogonal to one another. Human minds form a relatively narrow sheaf within the greater mindspace. The alien dimensions of mind are more numerous than the human and thus those intellects within them - particularly those that are vast, cold and unsympathetic - could be named "the many-angled ones".

207:

Or, rather: "money-angled ones"...
(Ia! Ia! Coca-Cola fthagn!)

208:

An example of the labour-organisations in Europe which may be unknown to North American readers

Wikipedia, of course, can be biased. Richard B. Mellon is notorious for saying that "You could not run a coal company without machine guns," in 1925. But that aspect of his life isn't even mentioned in his Wikipedia entry. By that time, Britain had had a Labour government.

Since I've mentioned the CNT in Spain, it's also worth remembering that anarchism, of various sorts, was part of the reaction to the extreme wealth of the ruling class in Spain. Both Franco and the Communists who came to dominate the dying Second Republic tried to kill Anarchism. Anarcho-Syndicalism, in particular, looks to fit well with the ideas of co-operative ownership and control.

The big problem of all this is that both corporations and governments are ways of organising resources to deal with problems too big for an individual. British corporatism can be said to have started with the need to maintain an effective Royal Navy, combining the administrative developments which Pepys started with the financial revolution that was the Bank of England.

And the next stage would be the canals and railways: big and non-local projects which couldn't be funded just by a web of acquaintances.

I find myself thinking that we'll always have companies such as Intel, because they can't be replaced by a small organisation. Not when the manufacturing plant is an investment measured in billions of currency units. But is Microsoft the same sort of necessity? The existence of Linux suggests not.

209:

Those places seem to be short on corporate regulation, and in financial shit.

210:

I'm entirely aware of Gould having picked the losing side in the punctuated equilibrium/continuous change battle during the 1980s; he was, nevertheless, an interesting author with interesting things to say, many of which remain valid to this day (notably "The Mismeasure of Man") and a neat turn of phrase.

211:

You have seen the film THE CORPORATION (www.thecorporation.com). The film puts the corporation on the psychiatrist's couch to ask "What kind of person is it?" The Corporation includes interviews with 40 corporate insiders and critics

212:

heteromeles @ 67 & others:
psychopaths? Maybe, but, erm, what about those countries and systems that ARE NOT controlled by corporations or don't have them?
These are as varied, and as both rich and poor as China, Somalia, & N.Korea.
Now what?
Unless you claim that China IS a corporation?
Um.

Regulation.
It is obvious, some libertarian loons notwithstanding that regulation is the way to go.
BUT
That regulation itself has to be fair, and open and reasonable.
It is a very old problem, the one that is usually stated as quis custodies...?
Now what?

Charlie @ 77
I take your point on Chomsky, with suspicion. But Sigmund Fraud? Peter Medawar did the most wonderful trashing job on Freud ever seen, over 30 years ago. And it SHOULD have been obvious from day one, that he was off his head. The followers of Sig. F. are STILL denying that physical events have physical causes - to the detriment of many physically ill people (Think M.E.)

@ 79
It's illegal here - IF you can catch them.
See also CHarlie's comments on US and Brit election spending.

@95
I agree.
Almost nothing is more sociopathic then the Church.

@ 98
“Do no evil” isn’t enough – remember?
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph, is that good men do nothing”
Oops.

Charlie @ 99
Yes, it’s a RELIGION. And wrong, needless to say.
& 103
Remember what Dorothy L. Sayers said about advertising?
“Telling plausible lies in public, for money”
Anyone told Saatchi’s yet? Exploiting bastards that they are – they used my image, and didn’t pay me.

@113
No, corporations are REGAINING their power at current US mid-terms, since the rethuglicans made gains – they ARE the corporate big business party, after all?

@ 141
WRONG
Germany and the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries are MUCH BETTER places to live than the USA.
At least partly because they have better regulation.
Please not the qualifier: BETTER.
A counter-example is a recent one from the EU, banning a couple of traditional fungicides – supposedly for environmental elf reasons. Actually, it is so that the Big Pharma corps can sell their new shiny EXPENSIVE fungicides.
Feorag @ 145 also supports this, I note….
@ 147 S. Africa? Surely you are joking! India is increasing its regulations – ever heard of Bhopal?

@ 152
Yes, but where were the communist-religion states starting from?
OF COURSE their growth rate was higher – they were less developed, and were racing to catch up.
Stupid.

@ 155 yes
BETTER regulation. See also above.

@ 188
Interesting: corporations as machines?
">http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-secret-of-the-machines/”> Try this from the old master of SF, and many other things, a great story-teller!

@ 189
Translate that into ENGLISH, please?

@ 197
See Charlie’s comment on John Lewis – a mutual-worker-owned corporation, and BIG.

213:

Greg, you might want to bear in mind that I bring my own special cognitive biases to bear on this question.

1. My job is to tell entertaining lies for money. (Note that this does not preclude polemic: the key point is that it has to be entertaining polemic.)

2. I'm a self-employed businessman running a one-person (and a bit) business. I can outsource some of the work, but the core business process -- telling entertaining lies -- is impossible to delegate without risking brand dilution. Worse, it's non-scalable, and highly dependent on the cognitive functioning of a single employee (who has not, in previous jobs, proven himself to be terribly stable). So I'm your original, classic, defined-by-Marx-accept-take-no-substitutes petit-bourgeois.

3. My business's ability to sell its produce depends on the existence of a supply chain. Abolish the publishing multinationals? Fine, I'll sell over the internet. But the internet is itself maintained by large corporate entities.

214:

You can't change anything by voting. All the options are bad.

In order to change something you need to get voted.
But you can't get that either. the big corrupt parties won't let you get to the top unless you sing their song you you can't get voted independently because the media won't allow you to be heard by the general population (if they manage to hear you between the lunatics with weird plans and realise that you have figured it all out, in the first place).

Nobody can chance anything! No single person. There is only one solution: We need to start a global secret society NOW. Move into key positions of power (without getting corrupted by it ourselves, this will be the hardest part) and then, when everybody is ready, we can take over and establish a new era of humanity for mankind.

215:

I'd argue, like some others, that corporations are just a modern example of the old style clans. But mostly less oriented towards genocide and gang rapes.

My image of societies/countries is as a large set of interest groups that are more or less organized.

The present democratic system makes it harder for those groups to kidnap the state, steal everything and live with (more or less formal) harems and castles. As long as Best Democratic Practices are followed, anyway.

And, flawed as they are, the present system is the only thing that works without having free money (aka as "oil").

(I don't really have that much insight into the Chomsky "corporations as psychopaths" thing, my reading of him stopped with the first thing I checked -- he argued that the bombing of Serbia was some conspiracy to show power etc. Now, states don't waste billions, create diplomatic problems and risk presidential elections out of good hearts, but please...)

216:

Congratulations: you've re-invented post-Trotsky Trotskyism.

217:

I read the criticism first, so I'm never going to read the Shock Doctrine... :-)

http://www.cato.org/pubs/bp/bp102.pdf

Is there a good criticism of that analysis of quotations etc?

218:

Apropos Chomsky on the bombing of Serbia, two points: (a) it was the classic example of Disaster Capitalism (as Klein points out, if you follow the money trail it leads directly to the huge reconstruction contracts, awarded to western multinationals and paid for by loans guaranteed by the Serbian state, that followed the war), and (b) a state may go to war in direct opposition to its own best interests if a subset of that state's diplomatic/foreign affairs elite benefit from the war: in the case of the USA, it appears that there's a fast track to Secretary of State for Defense that is open to hawks, and starting and managing a small overseas war is a necessary checkpoint on the resumé, sort of like a doctoral thesis in academia.

You dismiss Chomsky's analysis of US foreign affairs at your peril. It's incomplete and sometimes wrong, but as I've said elsewhere, when he's right he's very right.

219:

Arguably they (Being the richest part of society) have indeed managed to steal everything, kidnap the state and living in castles with harems. What do you think the distribution of wealth is these days in the USA and UK?

221:

Only got one of two links into #220 :-)

The answer to the attack:
http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9626

Wars are started by companies that want rebuilding contracts!? Quite extreme conspiracy theories.

I guess I'll have to get the Shock Doctrine and verify the claims of Cato. They are damning.

222:

>>What do you think the distribution of wealth is these days in the USA and UK?

I'd say that, even in the US, the controlling groups are incompetent thieves. :-)

Check the Gini index, etc.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality

223:

Greg @ 63,
I saw Chomsky interviewed live (as avatar) on Metanomics in Second Life recently. Setting politics aside, he was clearly someone who has spent many decades paying close attention to what is going on in the world, reflecting on it, and thinking about how to craft intelligent responses. The interview is still available on the show's archives. It was astonishing to see him in action, especially in this format. As a volunteer with the show, I've seen a lot of interviews there, but that one was simply amazing. The guy is in his 80s and more intellectually alive than many people on this planet.

224:

One of the interesting things about 21st Century military planning is that attacks can be precise. Ever since that smart bomb went through that door in Iraq, and we're never told what was really behind it, we've been sold the idea that a precise attack can greatly disrupt a nation's ability to fight wars.

It's not crazy.

But what's the point of disrupting industry when the wars today are fought with stockpiles, not from current production?

Take one example: electricity grids. They're definitely worth attacking for the effect on industry, and some quite specialised weapons have been devised. But how many companies, world-wide, can supply the parts to repair the damage? Remember, industrial production doesn't matter in a war of a few weeks. Oh, shock and awe? The people of the enemy's country will rebel and welcome the liberators?

I don't see much sign of that succeeding, looking through the history. You'd have to go nuclear to match the destructive potential of RAF Bomber Command or the USAAF, and they didn't manage it.

There might be other reasons, but I can't make the reconstruction contracts vanish as a reason.


225:

In the United States, corporate personhood is derived via the Fourteenth Amendment, passed after the Civil War. Section 1 reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
So you see why most people of goodwill don't want to mess with it directly. It's the one keeping the more retrograde parts of the country from establishing their own little apartheid regimes: and we know that's the likely outcome in dismantling it because we know what happened the last time the United States didn't take the Fourteenth Amendment seriously.

Corporate rights and governance are still strongly determined by the underlying nation-state, but it doesn't surprise me that the English-speaking world has tended to follow the United States in this development.

Two tangential points related to the discussion in the comments:

1) The other word for alienation is entitlement. The aging white extremists in the United States who bleat about "wanting their country back" are alienated too. Setting the Hegelian weirdness of species-essence aside, most people would not like the society in which these people would not feel alienated. It's not a scalar but a vector. In other words, alienation is not a simple bad thing, and some of the alienated can go screw themselves.

2) Gould made his tape analogy as part of his ideological program against the idea that ecology exerts directional influence in evolution. I say ideology, because it was close to being an article of faith for Gould -- and those who held opposing views, heretics. He was smart enough to come up with alternate (though more elaborate) explanations for any single piece of contradictory evidence, and he was obnoxious enough to spackle the work of scientists he knew were opposed to his ideology into his framework.

He was almost certainly wrong.

226:

You have it backwards -- corporations do not exist without protection from the state. That's why the successful countries are the ones that foster corporate development.

227:

Gould's "The mismeasure of man" seemed to get a lot of criticism from the relevant research community. (Note that Gould was writing outside his own area.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mismeasure_of_Man#Criticisms

But maybe that is just part of the racist conspiracy... :-)

That criticism is strangely similar to the criticism from evolutionary psychology researchers, i.e. that Gould argues dishonestly with strawmen etc -- for ideological reasons:

http://cogweb.ucla.edu/Debate/CEP_Gould.html

228:

IRO Freud and Medawar: I think Peter Medawar's essay Further Comments On Psychoanalysis, collected at least twice in The Hope Of Progress (1972) and Pluto's Republic (1982) is the most obvious bit of writing to point people at, although there are several others. Nearer 40 years ago than 30!

229:

The funny thing about Somalia is that it doing better both than about a half of its neighbors which have governments and than Somalia itself before it lost its government. Though this is not the case pro anarchy and against regulations - they have regulations in Somalia, some traditional form of law, judges, trials, etc, which are not unlike those ancient Jews had at Moses time, I think.

This is more the case for "one should compare comparable things". Comparing Somalia to USA or EU in the discussion about right amount of regulations is just wrong. They have toooo many differences so that particular difference in regulations means nothing. Comparing Germany to Britain and Somalia to some other sub-Sharian state would be better and there are two almost perfect cases for comparison - GDR and FRG in Europe and Southern and Northern Koreas in Asia (both are against overregulation, incidentally).

230:

Gould gets some criticism. This should not be a surprise, that's how science works: scientists critique each other. However, this isn't the same as saying that he got everything wrong. Gould is an authority, and if you want to disagree with him, you need to pick apart what you disagree with, not just say he was wrong about one thing (or two) therefore he must be wrong about this. Critique the ideas, not the man.

231:

Charlie:
Writing fiction may not be "telling the truth|", but sdvertisers LIE - I hope you can see the difference....
Chomsky - actions by a state contrary to its own interests.
Well, there's a ">http://www.stoneschool.com/Reviews/MarchOfFolly.html"> classic history text all about that. By Barbara Tuchman.

@ 224
Oddly enough, one trick used in bombing Serbia was to drop air-burst devices, loaded with Carbon-black, over power stations ans switch-gear fields ... which promptly shorted out, spectacularly.
Rinse and repeat, until Serbia grovels, because: NO ELECTRICITY. Very neat, and no-one killed (I think)

232:

In other words, The Singularity already occurred and we weren't paying attention....

233:

Is there anything in here that you're saying about corporations that couldn't also be said about governments?

I'd offer a slightly different take on the "rot": The nineteenth century was the point at which there was enough information and capital sloshing around so that it was possible to build uncoerced, scale-free networks of people. Before that, you had villages, for which humans are more-or-less evolved, and despotic governments, which were uniformly rapacious.

The problem isn't corporations; the problem is that there is no biologically-driven morality for any group of more than about 150 individuals. As a result, the legal treatment for any of these groups, or groups of groups, or groups of groups of groups, feels somehow wrong to us.

Furthermore, it's not at all clear that the biological morality is scale-free; when you apply personal morals to big groups, the results are likely to be a bit odd. Corporations as people is a good existence proof of this. I have no idea what's likely to work better, though. Maybe when we figure that out, we can apply it to governing bodies as well.

234:

Individual self-determination put a long way second to the requirements of the social organism is surely not something unique to modern corporations ... it's probably been around since the emergence of individual consciousness in hunter-gatherer hominid bands back on the African savannah?

235:

Punctuated equilibrium is said to be broadly accepted by paleontologists, at least according to citations in the WP article. Richard Dawkins may sneer at it but that is an honor few scientific ideas of the last 50 years escape.

"The Mismeasure of Man" is a fine bit of rhetoric and polemic, but not valid reasoning, and Gould knew better - it was a deliberate attempt on his part to deceive the reader for political ends. Taken at its face his argument against "reification" no individual or collective psychological characteristics exist per se or can be measured. Gould simply found it convenient to argue this way because he had a political preconception at odds with reality that people are born essentially biologically and mentally equal (and that mental faculties are not biological, or at least are not inherited.)

As Arthur Jensen wrote in his 1982 review "The Debunking of Scientific Fossils and Straw Persons":

"The Mismeasure of Man attempts to debunk, and, as far as I can make out, attempts to do nothing else. Of course, debunking can be a useful activity in the scientific enterprise, provided the specific objects of attack are real and present issues. The disappointment of this book is its failure really to debunk anything currently regarded as important by scientists in the relevant fields. Because of Gould's peculiar selection of flawed scientific relics as targets for attack, it is hard for me to imagine that this work will impress any but those unfamiliar with current research in these fields, despite the author's evident intelligence and keen literary style. I believe he has succeeded brilliantly in obfuscating all the important open questions that actually concern today's scientists. Instead of taking on the real issues of contemporary research in these fields, paleontologist Gould tilts at a museum collection of scientific fossils and at many a straw person of his own making." ....

"In his references to my own work, Gould includes at least nine citations that involve more than just an expression of Gould's opinion; in these citations Gould purportedly paraphrases my views. Yet in eight of the nine cases, Gould's representation of these views is false, misleading, or grossly caricatured. Nonspecialists could have no way of knowing any of this without reading the cited sources. While an author can occasionally make an inadvertent mistake in paraphrasing another, it appears Gould's paraphrases are consistently slanted to serve his own message."

Jensen has a good deal more to say (the review ran nearly 14 print pages), all conspicuously more evidence-based and quantifiable than Gould's popular pontification, but these two quotes give the kernel of Jensen's objections without being too long or off topic, I hope.

Harvard, Gould's overrated employer, seems to have a continuing and violent corporate aversion to facts related to intelligence, as shown by the faculty's expulsion of Larry Summers based on his citing what should be uncontroversial research showing male-female differences in the size of standard deviations in math tests (as only a small part of a talk on how to get more women into science). There were many valid reasons to ditch Summers (looting Russia?, deregulating derivatives?), but it's telling that this was the one most often cited.

236:

Charlie, please rent or buy "They Live," one of the great political sci-fi films of all time. It dovetails into your argument quite nicely and of course, the film also remains timely...

237:

The corporation-as-alien metaphor applies equally well to the family as power structure. Think of the families in the mafia for example. Only, families as power structures have been around for millennia, and are clearly not from Mars.

I guess what you are really trying to say is that the Kantian free individual (free because only limited by laws), who slowly and painfully emerged during the 19th century, has been slowly perishing for the last century or so.

"Kantian" individuals, who refused tradition and superstition to embrace freedom and rationality, are what modern legal systems are built upon. The same way they had to fight against obscurantism in the past, they now need to fight against corporate-fueled groupthink.

It is not an invasion from Mars, it is just the final death of the Enlightenment.

238:

BerntB - you do know that gini coefficient and wealth are different things, right?
And that the gini coefficient in the USA and UK have been rising for the last 30 years of the class war by rich against poor? And my point was specifically about these countries, not globally?
Moreover, gini is rendered less relevant simply by the less developed state of many of the countries in question, countries in which the majority of people appear to have very little income. The ultra rich have already won in a number of countries around the world, judging purely by gini coefficient.

On the topic of wealth, in the USA the top 1% own a third of it, the next 9% own about 37%, and the bottom 50% own 2.5%.
http://www.businessinsider.com/15-charts-about-wealth-and-inequality-in-america-2010-4#half-of-america-has-25-of-the-wealth-2

239:

Having read 236 comments, my brain is pretty full. Charlie, you said corporations

...are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance.

Most people and organizations conflate value with money, most of the time. As far as I can tell, value can be generated in two forms, and is realized by individuals, and by organizations:

  • Something You Can Do: This type of value is called utility, and is generated by features. In a product like an iPod, these are the product specifications, like "1000 songs in your pocket"; in an organization, these are things like the ability to perform transactions with distant customers.

  • Something You Are: This type of value related to generatives[1], and is realized by characteristics and experiences. In a product like an car, these are things like displaying your status or visiting places that are otherwise remote and inaccessible; in an organization, these are things like credibility and first access to an event.
Value can be exchanged for value (transaction), or given (gift). Some types of value can be exchanged for money; transactions destroy gifts, so they can't be purchased. For examples, try pulling out your wallet after your mom feeds you Christmas dinner (turning home into a restaurant), or paying your life-partner for bedroom behaviour (turning lovemaking into prostitution).

Money, in itself, has very narrow value, in that it can be exchanged for some kinds of value (features, characteristics and experiences), stored, and is fungible. It does not directly confer characteristics or experiences to a person. Money is so useful because it facilitates the exchange of value between people and other entities.

Some of the comments talk about 'ethical corporations'. I certainly think this is possible to achieve, but it's a hard slog. We have a vast infrastructure focussed on tracking and increasing a poor proxy for some kinds of value, instead of tracking and increasing value itself. I think we can make changes to corporations from within them by shifting the meaning of profitability from 'more money with less investment' to 'more value with less investment'. I'm working on practical ways to do this, by (for example) developing methods to track and report on value, not just account for dollars, and by incorporating value generation and exchange into business cases, alongside ROI (Return On Investment). There are other interesting experiments out there taking other approaches to similar ends, like Gross National Happiness (GNH).

In the biological metaphor, altering the way we do business cases is akin to genetic engineering yeast; GNH looks like altering the agar to direct evolution in a desired direction—or domesticating an animal.

Great, thought provoking post and discussion, Charlie. Not a brand new idea (what is?) but definitely presented in a compelling, entertaining way.
___
[1] See Kevin Kelly's article "Better that free" at http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/01/better_than_fre.php

240:

Is it possible that we're developing a counter agent to these invaders? Something like B Corporations may change the landscape if they gain traction.

241:

Yes, "They Live" is a must see about the Incorporation of Dead Labor read as an alien invasion.

242:

If you had not adduced that example, I would have.

I think partnerships have some virtues compared to corporations.

243:

we used to work for a corporation, and they sent us into really see what was going on, at one of their companies, what we found was a mass psychosis, literally of these people, and when the corporation found out we could see this as well as actually see them, well things of course took a turn for the worst thats why we love reading sci fi
its really closer to home than one thinks. reminds me of a book about scotland yard sending someone to another one of their countries to see waht was going on and when he delivered his report they literally tried to destroy his reputation and career for doing the job they told him to do.

244:

Thank you for giving voice to my own experiences in the corporate banking and finance world. We need this dialog and talking points to raise awareness of unrestrained corporate power. Even those of us less gifted with the pen may participate in this discussion through our own circles of influence.

245:

@ 210:

I'm entirely aware of Gould having picked the losing side in the punctuated equilibrium/continuous change battle during the 1980s; he was, nevertheless, an interesting author with interesting things to say, many of which remain valid to this day (notably "The Mismeasure of Man") and a neat turn of phrase.

I thought the conventional wisdom was that he won. And further that this quickly became, ". . . but this is just what people were saying all along."

246:

Money is most useful because it's easy to measure. That's also what makes it so deceptive.

I've seen companies destroyed or made wildly successful just by changing one set of policies: the incentives given to the sales force. A salesperson will preferentially sell that part of the product line that returns the most compensation to that salesperson. If the incentives are setup to maximize sales of product that returns little or not profit to the company, that's a bad thing for the company.

So perhaps the best way to change the behavior of corporations is to control how their profits are maximized.

247:

Hm. Looking at the anti-Gould comments, it looks like many people reject Gould because they reject The Mismeasure of Man. But of course you don't need Gould to reach the same conclusion.

Personally, I find Gould to be so tendentious in his arguments that even when I agree with him I avoid citing him. Someone else has usually come to the same conclusion without the baggage. Trivers once said to E.O. Wilson that come the Revolution, Lewontin would be shot, Levins would pull the trigger, but Gould would become a midlevel apparatchik, because he could rationalize anything. (It's even funnier if you know their political sympathies.)

248:

He over-egged the pudding a lot with his book about the Burgess shale/Cambrian explosion, IIRC.

249:

Carlos, I'm always very wary of getting into discussions of any aspect of biological determinism (especially intelligence variation between ethnic groups) with Americans because, well ... to be blunt, the USA is my biggest export market, and about 60% of the natives seem to be young-earth creationists, or racists, or otherwise bugfuck crazy, and it's never a good idea to alienate your market by telling them what you really think.

Which is by way of saying that we've driven off the rails of a discussion of my charmingly quaint and 1960s-ish denunciation of corporatism and into a swamp containing a non-zero number of opinionated attention alligators, and can we not go there, please?

250:

@ 227:

Gould's "The mismeasure of man" seemed to get a lot of criticism from the relevant research community. (Note that Gould was writing outside his own area.)

Funny, but on the stuff like factor analysis, he was exactly right. Here's something I've kept bookmarked for a while on the basis of it's readability (among other things, I teach statistics), g, a statistical myth:

To summarize what follows below ("shorter sloth", as it were), the case for g rests on a statistical technique, factor analysis, which works solely on correlations between tests. Factor analysis is handy for summarizing data, but can't tell us where the correlations came from; it always says that there is a general factor whenever there are only positive correlations. The appearance of g is a trivial reflection of that correlation structure. A clear example, known since 1916, shows that factor analysis can give the appearance of a general factor when there are actually many thousands of completely independent and equally strong causes at work. Heritability doesn't distinguish these alternatives either. Exploratory factor analysis being no good at discovering causal structure, it provides no support for the reality of g.

A nice little essay, and all quite true and easily verified, as the worked examples demonstrate. And what Gould says in The Mismeasure of Man sans the nice computer-age examples. He understands factor analysis quite well, thank you very much. The part where people criticize Gould for "not understanding factor analysis"? Funny thing:

These purely methodological points don't, themselves, give reason to doubt the reality and importance of g, but do show that a certain line of argument is invalid and some supposed evidence is irrelevant. Since that's about the only case which anyone does advance for g, however, which accords very poorly with other evidence, from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, about the structure of the mind, it is very hard for me to find any reason to believe in the importance of g, and many to reject it. These are all pretty elementary points, and the persistence of the debates, and in particular the fossilized invocation of ancient statistical methods, is really pretty damn depressing.

What happens here is that certain people chastising Gould for "not understanding" factor analysis are really complaining that this is not the way they're using it in their research, so Gould must be off somehow, comptence-wise or politically. But as Cosma points out in the bolded part above, those aren't the people whose work he is objecting to; it's the ones who are improperly using factor analysis, the ones who are making public pronouncements on behalf of "science" that he is addressing.

In sum, you need to pay more attention to what your sources say. If you did that, you wouldn't be citing Cato as an authority. Most everybody except brain-dead libertarians and Republicans stopped taking them seriously ages ago, and currently regard them as a rather low-grade propaganda mill.

251:

@ 248:

He over-egged the pudding a lot with his book about the Burgess shale/Cambrian explosion, IIRC.

Here's something from the usual source on this subject:

Sterelny (2007) claimed that Eldredge and Gould's "hypothesis has been misunderstood in two important ways. In some early discussions of the idea, the contrast between geological and ecological time was blurred. Hence, Gould and Eldredge were interpreted as making a very radical claim: species originate more or less overnight, in a single step. (But) Gould and Eldredge agree that the new structures are almost always assembled over a number of generations, rather than all at once by macromutation...So by 'rapidly', they mean rapidly by geologist's standards". So with a coarse and incomplete fossil record, "a speciation that took 50,000 years would seem instantaneous", relative to the several million years of a species' existence.[17] Sterelny notes that "in recent work, they have clarified a second misunderstanding. In claiming that species typically undergo no further evolutionary change once speciation is complete, they are not claiming that there is no change at all between one generation and the next. Lineages do change. But the change between generations does not accumulate. Instead, over time, the species wobbles about its phenotypic mean. Jonathan Weiner's The Beak of the Finch describes this very process".[18]

Like I said, this seems to be the reasonable mainstream view today. And here's a concise little summary about the debate came to look like to outsiders:

Punctuated equilibrium is often confused with George Gaylord Simpson's quantum evolution,[19] Richard Goldschmidt's saltationism,[20] pre-Lyellian catastrophism, and the phenomenon of mass extinction. Punctuated equilibrium is therefore mistakenly thought to oppose the concept of gradualism, when it is actually a form of gradualism, in the ecological sense of biological continuity.[2]

I suspect a great many people had the idea that punctuated equilibrium and gradualism were opposing theories, and not debates on the slope of the curve (and hence my ". . . but this is what we've always said" rejoinder.)

252:

No worries.

Getting back on track, Krugman's point about kleptocrats is strong, but perhaps it can be extended a little further. It strikes me as a plausible strategy for individual kleptocrats to focus resentment on institutions as diversions. In the paranoid style of American politics, this has traditionally been the banking system, and we're seeing some of that again, both from the left and the right.

More recently, the decoy seems to be the multinational corporation -- although I'm sure you remember the fear of the zaibatsu and specifically Japanese corporate culture in the 1980s that was stage-managed by nativists. Before that, there was oil sheik bashing, very different from the anti-Muslim sentiment that's been so carefully stoked for use as a convenient scapegoat at present.

When the target changes from decade to decade, but the underlying problem still remains, one begins to wonder if targeting is the right strategy at all.

I suspect the real problem is related to "superstar" compensation slowly becoming the norm. This could be considered a form of alienation (entitlement), I suppose. Does anyone really believe the CEO of a firm adds that much more value to a firm, like some magic Dumbledore of business? But it drives income inequality, and the growth of income inequality in the US has kept middle class wages almost stagnant.

And superstar levels of compensation make it easier for kleptocrats to hide or, more brazenly, to justify themselves.

253:

Addendum: there's a relatively new statistic in baseball studies/sabermetrics called "value over replacement player", or VORP. Basically, it tries to quantify how much better a name baseball player is over some random player off the street.

I'd love to see this applied to other jobs which have "superstar" incomes.

254:

@ 246:

Money is most useful because it's easy to measure. That's also what makes it so deceptive.

I had the background cerebration that the money in Economics 2.0 was based upon complex numbers, maybe quaternions or octonians. Does 7-i come before or after 5+5i? If you can't do that on the same automatic level that you would making change on a fiver for $2.67, then Economics 2.0 is not for you :-)

255:

[and in reply to the GP comment">http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/12/invaders-from-mars.html#comment-67972">comment from Julian Sammy]

Charlie also touches on the measurement and incentive problem: "...[corporations] live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future...".

Bad metrics and perverse incentives are a huge part of the problem. I have seen this in electronics retailing, where whether the sales bonus was 0.5% or 2% of sales depended mostly on whether the clerk pushed enough extended warranties, regardless of whether they were appropriate for the customer or the type of goods being sold. That large company is now gone after about 50 years in business.

Another egregious case was in the regional phone company which imposed "six sigma" in every department. This meant hiring clueless consultants from Accenture - sort of latter-day Taylorists with stopwatches - to come up with all sorts of random measurements, none of which measured anything that mattered, combining them in a ridiculously mathematically invalid way and coming up with a number that employees had to improve to stay employed. Leaving out many gruesome details, the effect in the DSL service repair and configuration department was to make it personally costly to employees to actually fix the lines - instead, to get high marks one had to mechanically follow an ineffective linear checklist concocted by the aforesaid Accenture imbeciles, and get the ISP techs off the phone as quickly as possible. Service went to hell, DSL growth fell, existing customers left, employees alternated between rage and despondency and the best techs quit. Within two years the company was acquired by AT&T. (Better than sliding into oblivion, but you'd have to squint to tell the difference, really.)

Other examples of bad accounting, bad metrics and ill-conceived goals killing or severely damaging corporate entities abound - Enron, Bear Sterns (etc.), HP, state school systems, and so on. Every corporate entity could do a lot better (if measured on a decent metric, heh) if it reliably recognized and proportionately rewarded positive actions.

The problem is that most of these actions aren't measurable, comparable, attributable or sufficiently simple, separable and immediate in their effects to ever be formally measured. This any system of metrics will leave out most of what is really important, the less important things will receive all the focus, the metrics will be gamed, and the more important but less measurable things will suffer as will the enterprise as a whole. The only good alternative to metrics that I can see is a prevalence of individuals with a combination of clear thinking, clear perception of systemic behaviors and specific circumstances, and the ability to act on and persuade others to act on the implications of those clear thoughts and perceptions.

Setting up detailed rules and metrics can't work as well as human intelligence in adapting to variable and unstructured reality. What is needed then is a way of identifying and empowering those people more likely to exhibit the clear thinking, perception, and persuasive ability needed. Measurement of these kinds of abilities is possible, as is training them and even estimating candidates capacity for improving them. Such a plan does run the risk of favoring more intelligent people, though, so it is likely to be controversial.

(apologies for yet another long post)

256:

Ha ha, Don Boudreaux totally pwned you.

257:

That chance operates at almost all evolutionary scales does not in any way guarantee that "if you replay the tape you'll get a different result".

It often, but not always, does. You should step out of the field of biology to look at it from a more general perspective of the study of complex non-linear systems. In any complex non-linear system, there is a "butterfly effect": for a certain set of initial conditions, an arbitrarily small change of initial conditions results in a behavior that is guaranteed to diverge over time.

258:

Putting complex numbers into the e^x equation for compound interest results in sinusoidal solutions. Given the observed business cycle, perhaps money does have an implicit imaginary component.

Personally I do all my accounting in 8 dimensional / 256 component Geometric Algebra multivectors. By appropriate choice of metric signature I can make the scalar norm to come out in a wide variety of convenient ways.

(If any big firms are looking for some truly creative accounting, I'm open to offers paying at least:
[ $200000 + {8 vectors}*$25000 + {28 bivectors}*$447 + {56 trivectors}*$58 + {70 quadvectors}* $21 + (56 pentavectors}*$11.50 + {28 hexavectors}*$7.65 + {8 heptavectors*$5.72 + {pseudoscalar}*$4.60 ]/26, per sidereal fortnight - calculated in a (++++++++) signature, of course. Or the scalar-equivalent norm.)

259:

Actually that is not true Leonid, for two reasons.

The first reason is that the reproducibility depends on the fieldstrength of the attractors/solutions in the evolutionary system.

If you ask an evolutionary system to come up with integer multiplication, there is only one solution to find and it will always find it.

The second reason is that you need to be really careful with your definition of "same".

For the current context, it would not make any difference what color hair Marx had, nor for that matter what the normal number of fingers on his species was.

It is indeed a very interesting question what would happen if we "played the tape again" on this biosphere, because that would give us much better parameters for SETI research. But to venture forth with a prediction based on our current knowledge is pure guess-work.

Poul-Henning

260:

>>BerntB - you do know that gini coefficient and wealth are different things, right?

Sure, inequality of income is a bit different.

Sorry for being sloppy, this was just irrelevant to my original point (i.e. the majority of GNP isn't stolen and the population enslaved), so I lacked energy to think i through.

Wealth is harder to talk/think/read about than income. It depends to a large part on how people live their lives. E.g. the US has a large immigration, with poor people coming in, lacking resources. Many of those immigrants even give their earned money away, to family back home. (-: That choice should be forbidden, to reach better wealth equality...? :-)

261:

If you ask an evolutionary system to come up with integer multiplication, there is only one solution to find and it will always find it.

No. Multiplication of integers, as mathematics in general, is the abstraction created by our minds. It does not have an independent existence in the platonic-like world of ideas. Not only is its specific realization via the certain activity patterns of our neurons NOT set in stone, but there is no guarantee that an intelligent species will even be arrived at by any particular biosphere.

As discovered by Prigogine, the open complex non-linear systems far from equilibrium statistically decrease their entropy. This is the process that creates complexity in the universe, from the formation of galaxies to stars to planets and geological processes, to life to consciousness to society and culture to technosphere and etc. ad infinitum.

Please note that in this spiral of self-organization, we get smaller and smaller, and fewer between, the higher we climb. That is because in order to increase order even further, the open systems need to increase exchange of energy with their environment. A smaller, more complex system within a bigger, less complex system can sustain that, not vice versa. Thus, not every planet has life, and I would have to guess (but with high confidence) that not every planet with life produces intelligence. Moreover, those that do are likely very very far from each other, since the more complex systems are more rare. And this explains the Fermi paradox quite simply and elegantly.

262:

I am just going to note (again) that some of the foremost researchers in multiple research areas accused Gould of straw men attacks, etc... (And that Gould's position seems to demand racist conspiracies and/or complete idiocy amongst the researchers.)

See links in previous comment.

>>In sum, you need to pay more attention to what your sources say. If you did that, you wouldn't be citing Cato as an authority.

I note your long list of references to support that? :-)

I don't really know about Cato. I do know quite a bit about Johan Norberg, which wrote that for Cato. (-: And to hit below the belt, afaik there has not been frequent accusations about his integrity, like Gould. :-)

The claims are quite specific and should be easily verified. Again:
http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9626

(Re Punctuated equilibrium, didn't Dawkins note somewhere that already Darwin wrote that speed of evolution probably would differ quite a lot over time for most species?)

263:

The real way to sort out corporations is to create some new way of doing cooperation that recursively makes people out of people.

That sounds mad I'm sure, but think about it; the basic problem is that the dominant decision making organism on the planet doesn't think like us, or more specifically, put people in a large enough organisation to be able to get something done, and they start producing mental decisions!

What we need is to work out how people can cooperate in such a way that the overall decision they make is at least as empathic, forward looking and aware of side effects as the average member of the group if you gave him a lot of time and asked him to make the decision himself.

We need ways of working together that amplify our mental flexibility not diminish it, and end up with a result that can be recognised as something close to a human being. Then you repeat, with these synthetic "people" working together in the same way, because they are similar enough to people for this still to be a good way to do it, and so on and so up.

Until you have everyone acting simultaneously as a responsible and creative human being, a part of responsible and creative workgroup, and up to part of a responsible and creative human race.

Sounds lovely, sounds impractical, not least because (as you might say) why on earth would we have a standard pattern of cooperation that goes all the way from individual people to groups of thousands of people? Don't ask me, I didn't invent contracts! :P

264:

"Ha ha, Don Boudreaux totally pwned you."

Don Boudreaux is published at Cafe Hayek (that's Fritz "Road to Serfdom" to-the-right-of-John-Birch-and-Genghis-Khan Hayek). Boudreaux's "open letter" is typical of his blinkered, doctrinare type, beating his chest and hooting "Governments bad! So corporations good!".

In the real world there isn't a lot of difference between the people and the structures in different types of bureaucracy. Those who defend corporations are no less anti-individual collectivists than the most bony-browed Soviet apparatchik.

265:

What I am not sure if I made clear enough was that my view, and perhaps also that of many others on here, is that you might say that democracy has a restraining effect upon the looters/ wannabe feudalists, but the evidence of increasing inequality in the societies most directly involved with corporations suggests that they have indeed managed to subvert the government and are currently pushing things as far as they can in their favour. Which is I suppose what you admit in best democratic practises being followed, the point being that they are all too often not followed.

266:

I think it's pretty clear that the kleptocrats have been able to loot the US and UK over the last generation or so by gaming the system. Their strategies have also left the rest of us largely powerless to stop them because their gaming was specifically designed to extract power from the rest of society and concentrate it in themselves.

267:

One of the things that fascinates me about Singapore is that it's an unabashed business haven *with* a notion of the long-term. The Chinese think a lot further than 90 days ahead.

268:

>>but the evidence of increasing inequality in the societies most directly involved with corporations suggests that they have indeed managed to subvert the government and are currently pushing things as far as they can in their favour.

Consider what you wish for -- societies without corporations. Those are places you have to lock people in, or they will run away. I might describe them as having ONE corporation, that owns the citizens, bodies and souls.

By definition all interest groups in societies will push their agenda as far as they can. If there are no checks and counterbalances to regulatory capture, you're f-ed -- disregarding how those interest groups are organized.

A more general discussion:

Humans in organized groups have never been particularly nice to be around, for outsiders. (Hell, often not even for group members.)

Consider all the muscles in our faces and our complex speech organs (brain and in throat) -- there has been a heavy evolutionary pressure for communication and almost certainly for organization of groups...

I think it is easy to make an argument that corporations are just old clans/countries/etc in a new shape. Don't expect to love the concept, but they are what _we_ are; a part of us.

Damn, I'm arguing us both into misanthropy. :-)

269:

As for a fix (pace Charlie @15), clearly we can't dismantle the whole global economy in order to replace it with something new (and untested). We'd have to work with the existing system.

Proposed solution: monetize the parameters. Better regulation is key. If it is part of a corporation profit/loss equation, then they would have to pay attention to it. An example is carbon credits. Sure, there are any number of problems with its implementation, but I think the core idea is sound.

I see hopeful signs of it working in some industries. More local wine companies are signing up to carbon zero programmes to minimise or mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

In general, the results have been:
1. Savings in costs due to improved efficiencies.
2. A building movement as participants in carbon zero schemes preferentially trade with corporations up & down the chain who are likewise committed to reducing emissions.
3. Opportunities to market to consumers who are like-minded.
4. Profit!

Related, "triple bottom line" accounting (as alluded to by Shay @94), where corporations measure performance not solely by profit & loss but also include an ecological & social dimension, is another good step.

If corporations are a pathogen, the solution isn't to eradicate them but to modify them into something beneficial (or at least benign).

270:

Pay no attention to the elephant in the room.

271:

Was that at my direction?

I was suggesting that rather than a top-down solution, a grass-roots solution might be more achievable by targetting corporate DNA. If profit is the driver, make it profitable to behave in a more socially responsible manner by preferentially buying from socially responsible corporations.

272:

Perhaps we need to reconsider this whole namby-pamby liberal notion of not shooting corporate executives in the fucking head.
(Signed, A. Quaker)

273:

The notion that we share our planet with a corporate life form is developed at: corporate metabolism. The author invokes the Nyquist theorem to explain why we fail to perceive their march.

274:

I TOTALLY buy this argument about corporations being non-human entities that have taken over. I have often thought that if I had the power the first thing I would do is change the law to ensure that corporations can not be treated as "persons" in any form. As an American I've always been disgusted with the reverence and deference with which corporations are treated in my country.I'm okay with limited liability for a private sector organisation's personnel -- otherwise it would be too risky for anyone to run a large organisation. But the liability has to be against the people running the organisation or within the organisation, not for the organisation itself.

I like what Kim Stanley Robinson said in one of his books (I'm really paraphrasing as it was years ago that I read this): "We fight and die to enjoy political liberty but we meekly give up economic liberty every day we step into an office".

275:

[ DRIVE BY FLAME DELETED BY MODERATOR. For future reference, saying "My advice to all of you is to grow up" is a guaranteed way to get your ass kicked out of here. -- C.]

276:

While not excusing individual responsibility, I think its totally appropriate to consider corporations as non-human entities. Corporatism is a systemic problem, an ideological one. Race and gender biases have also been treated as systemic problems, i.e. Affirmative Action exists (I think) because of systemic, not individual, racism.

And systems, ideologies, cultures, or whatever you want to call them, aren't under the control of an individual - we can't help when, where, or how we were raised, and those things affect us one way or another for our entire lives.

Again I want to emphasize I'm not pushing some sort of cultural determinism here.

Also - the other alien invaders: Automobiles. That's right. Parasites using us to evolve and propagate themselves. We ruin our landscape to make it convenient for them, and adopt self-destructive ways of living in order for automobiles to complete their life-cycles :)

277:

If the left hit an iceberg in 1917, I would say that it was because the captain got drunk in 1914 when Karl Kautsky and the German socialists sent the German workers off to die for the Kaiser.
I appreciate the point about Utopias. Perhaps the awareness of this is spreading somehow. It had occurred to me this summer that the defining feature of the past decades in the West has been the absence of hope for some truly better society.
And yes, Utopias make for poor fiction. I am wrestling with that myself in the books I am writing.
The drama is in the creation of the Utopia and in its meeting something a bit less Utopian.

278:

Charlie, as an American, I'm pretty sure you're numbers are off. While I'm not precisely sure what you mean by "young-earth creationists" (though I figure I understand it well enough to get a rough count), once you start counting up racists and folk who are bugfuck crazy, I think we're easily over your 60% estimate. Maybe you were just being nice, eh?

Kensai

279:

The fictional legal personhood of corporations goes back to Roman law (Timur Kuran nows argues that Islamic inheritance law impeding such corporations is what has held back such parts of the world). The same concept is seen later on with the "two persons of the king", although the the application of the idea to the state was partly in imitation of the Catholic Church's conception of itself and sub-units as corporations. The story is best told in Berman's "Law and Revolution", for a more recent discussion of the transition to peronalized to organization identities you can read North, Wallis & Weingast's "Violence and Social Order". A "corporation" was a fairly broad concept at the time not as associated with profit-making as now (even though non-profits are often technically speaking corporations). The real question is what we allow or prohibit corporations from doing.

Robin Hanson has also used the analogy of corporations to scary aliens, though he does so to deride it (or to suggest that we underestimate how scary non-corporate entities are).

280:

The argument Hayek put forth in Road to Serfdom, while arguably wrong (I'm going to admit I haven't read it), is actually fairly compatible with social democracy. He endorses a welfare state with the provision of public health care etc but objects to central planning of industry (which isn't exactly held dear by the modern left). Matthew Yglesias for instance has mocked his lack of appreciation for how markets can deal with pollution (Hayek didn't just fail to anticipate Coase, he seems completely unaware of Pigou's much older ideas). His old rival, John Maynard Keynes, quite liked the book.

A lot of that may not be relevant because Hayek the person, like Duff-Man, said a lot of things. "Hayekians" may embrace certain spins of portions of some of what he said.

281:

I think Jean Zigler overestimates the quality of corporate governance (by the standard it is purportedly supposed to meet). CEOs do stick around despite doing a lousy job, get golden-parachutes when they leave and get paid more based on the total size of the company rather than whether they themselves increased its profit margin over what would be expected from the next best available guy for the job. Of course Ziegler may view that inefficiency as beneficially mitigating!

282:

I think the reason worker-owned democratically run corporations haven't become widespread yet is mostly that most people are unaware of them so far. The other reason is that it takes a bit of extra work to be part of a democracy.
But worker-owned and run business is the solution to the sociopathy of large corporations, along with these:
1) Starve the beast. Take your money out of big banks and put it in locally owned credit unions. Take your money out of the stock market. Stop buying from large corporations whenever possible.
2) Support worker-owned businesses and other local business.
3) Elect really progressive candidates.

The big problem with starting worker-owned businesses is the financing to get started. That's the reason we should be starting worker-owned banks first.
Some states don't recognize them as a separate category -- we should be fixing that.
Worker-owned business should use a reverse franchise model: the franchise body (that buys in bulk, trains new franchisees, does national advertising, etc.) should be owned jointly by the franchised businesses,, which are in turn worker-owned and run.

283:

@ 239 and others
Money is a measure, yes, but, at the same time all "Money" is fiat - it is a purely artificial construct.
Wealth, or value is real, but it can be created and destroyed.
People forget these things, or never knew them in the first place.

Charlie at 249 - just as well I'd finished my cup of tea!
Correction though, it should have read..."about 60% of the natives are young-earth creationists, or racists, or otherwise bugfuck crazy..."
Always excepting those who travel outsdie the USA - it seems to be a product of their exeptionalism and parochialism.

@ 258
That must be the most convoluted (oops) joke I've seen for some time?
How many dimensions, btw?

@ 265
Yes
Somehow, especially in the USA. the powerful and wealthy have conned/persuaded the porrer to vote and act directly against their own interests.
Healthcare being the most obvious present example...

@ 273
SCARY!

@ 275
You've missed the point:
How does one make a "corporation" behave benificially, as opposed to taking over everything?
It is the same problem as GOOD regulations, and the one I mentioned earlier: Quis custodies ipsos custodes?
May be you need to grow up and READ what we've all written!

@ 279
Reminds me of Adam Smith.
There is this mob called the Adam Smith Institute (society?) who don't appear to have read A. S.

284:

The trouble is that there are some things which a corporation needs to be able to do, such as make contracts, which individuals also need to be able to do. And some things, such as "political speech", which might not be necessary for a corporation. The quick and easy legal fiction that a corporation is a person is essentially a quick hack, and the thesis here is that it has come back to bite us, hard.

Corporations need "due process" protection, too. There's a good deal of the protections and rights of the US Constitution which make sense for a corporation, as well as for a human. But all of them? That isn't anything which changes the "limited liability" aspect.

Are you sure we're reading the same blog?

285:

Utopia Limited, or The Flowers of Progress. A critique of corporatism?

286:

The CEO-superstar cult certainly deserves scrutiny, and I think you've got a solid point about the paranoid style being used to distract attention. (Incidentally, you might have noticed by reference to the John Lewis Partnership upstream? As an employee-owned private partnership, their CEO's pay is capped at some multiple of the average salary -- I'm not sure just how high, but it's much lower than in comparable large retail chains -- and the CEO's on the same bonus scheme as the other staff. I can't find it right now but I've seen an interview or two in which he mentioned the low executive pay making it hard to recruit boardroom level staff. However, that doesn't seem to have stopped JLP's inexorable rise over the past two decades ...)

287:

It would be really nice if coops (worker owned corporations) worked.

(Historically communism seems to work in village-sized units, iirc?)

Coops haven't done that well in Sweden, where they had food stores/distribution. Not even in the time before EU, with an oligopoly and much higher prices than south in Europe.

Normal corporations are changing too fast for coops, it seems. Can they be modified to compete in the same way? It is probably harder to, when necessary, do total reorganizations and fire 20-50% of the employees.

288:

No, because a lot of the crazinesses overlap. Or, to put it another way, I reckon at least 40% of Americans are sane, intelligent, and generally nice folks.

289:

To keep out the US corporate model, how about a hefty dose of nationalism and empire building? Germany, Singapore, China all seem to have retained strong internal economies and enough clout to resist US-style corporatism.

Revive the British Empire!

290:

Some thoughts I haven't gotten off my chest yet.

Can you change laws and social pressure, so it is efficient for corporations to be "nice"? Would you want to? Now corporations are optimizing machines; they do things for money as efficiently as is possible and are constantly changing. Would they lose 20% in efficiency with more things to consider? 50%?

A large organization is similar to the gene's view problem -- for whose benefit does the individual act? It is not for society or his corporation, it is for himself and his group. (Here I loosely apply the term "individual" to "manager".) This applies equally to all possible corporation variants. Without control, you'll anyway get Belgian Congo, or something, with any replacement corporation design.

About evolution, corporations are fast evolving beasts under market/political pressure, even in the Lamarckian sense. They are arguably the main way humans evolve right now, before we start modifying our genes. That is a difference, compared to most other interest groups in societies, which probably makes them more dangerous (arguing against myself in #268).

Another way to see this in evolutionary terms -- we have evolved group instincts (sport teams, political opinions, countries, etc, etc). See corporations as parasites, they would want to optimize the population for those instincts (sf plot: And not only by cultural evolution!) to grow and survive themselves. (Too much "The Space Merchants"?)

Charlie, if you write on this... Please don't make it like Richard Morgan's "Market Forces". It was like reading "The Pilgrim's Progress" with another jew filling the place of Jesus -- Chomsky. :-(

If I was going to write a horror story of the future on this, it would be about all the idealists -- religions and political opinions. They go around believing conspiracy theories and murder members of other faiths because of those conspiracies. (Ken MacLeod already did?)

I don't know if I have anything else to add, so I'll stop writing and let our host pick more interesting brains. :-) I had fun!

291:

The sort of cooperative you're talking about there is a different beast from a workers' cooperative. The retail co-op is basically owned by the customers - a food co-op writ large.

Originally, people grouped together to bulk buy goods and sell them on to members at a reasonable price. Though there had been precursors in Scotland, the modern retail cooperative is based on the work and principles of the Rochdale Pioneers.

The Co-op is still going strong, especially in Scotland. You can still become a member, and the "divi" still exists, though not in the original form. Scotmid, our local cooperative retail society, is carefully walking the tightrope between providing solid, basic foodstuffs for the old women people think are their main customers, and fair trade organic etc stuff for a new generation.

292:

Corporations are not people, they are groups of people who have learnt to think in a certain way. Much like Catholic theology there is an intricate, beautifully worked out system of thinking such that it is almost impossible to imagine anything else.

It's easy to forget that being a rational self interested agent is a new way of thinking, but it is. It's a change in human nature. People used to be loyal to abstractions like religions and nations and races. This turned out to be a bad idea in many ways, and there was a big hoo-haa about which nation was best. After that everyone swore: never again!... and ended up where we are now.

Human nature is actually quite easy to change, and it happens all the time. A new technology comes along, and it needs a new kind of people. Or someone just comes up with something appealing. Off the top of my head: Christianity, the invention of love by the troubadors, Calvinism, romanticism, NEEThood.

You don't even need genetic engineering! Humans are very plastic already. Tell some parables.

Of course there are many ways for this to go horribly wrong.

293:

"@ 258 That must be the most convoluted (oops) joke I've seen for some time? How many dimensions, btw?"

8 orthogonal dimensions, 256 components ("blades") formed by all the possible combinations of those dimensions. Google "Geometric Algebra" for surprisingly understandable physical applications in 2 to 5 dimensions.

Less understandable is that due to Bott periodicity the 7-D algebras are in a certain sense the most complex algebras that can exist, higher dimensions having isomorphic structures to dimensions 0 - 7, so an 8-D algebra is truly unnecessarily complicated. And also truly unnecessarily obscure for a joke.

294:

Charlie: Yes, we've looking at an alien invasion, but an invasion initiated, aided and abetted by the state.

Corporations in their defining characteristics - unlimited life and limited liability for shareholders - could simply not exist without government fiat. As a consequence, they are creatures of government, not the "free market". The limited liability aspect is one that could NOT be contracted for freely by individuals - sure, owners could agree with creditors and counterparties that their liability would be limited to corporate assets, but no such prior voluntary agreement is possible with those who are involuntarily INJURED by corporate actions (actions of management and employees). Thus, corporations embody risk-shifting and moral hazard .. which has only grown as owners are more and more separated from any personal sense of responsibility for the harms generated by corporations, and communities affected have ever less power over them.

Harms generated have been massive of course - with BP and the Gulf of Mexico just the latest in a sorry legacy of pollution, corruption and damaged communities that stretches across the world. Attempts by communities to control corporations has had limited success, as corporations have great advantages in influencing the regulatory process. Perversely but not surprisingly, regs are often used by corporations as barriers to entry by possible competitors, and as weapons to railroad communities seeking to control them.

Tow significant side-effects of regulations has been the steadily transfer of power from states to the federal government, and a weakening of shareholder control over management. Both have served to encourage sociopathic behavior by corporations, fuelled by ambitions not constrained by personal responsibility for faceless corporate actions.

More here: TT's Lost in Tokyo http://bit.ly/8XFOs3

See also:
http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/06/20/more-about-quot-the-biggest-victim-quot-bp-and-how-we-can-help-it-end-its-quot-victimization-quot.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/08/18/in-a-shocking-moment-of-honesty-conocophillips-ceo-says-offshore-oil-isn-t-economical-without-government-gifts-of-limited-liability.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/06/29/limited-liability-financial-crisis-and-bp-someone-else-sees-the-obvious-quot-black-swan-quot-of-executive-trader-moral-hazard-after-investment-banks-went-corporate.aspx

http://mises.org/Community/blogs/tokyotom/archive/2010/07/06/the-cliff-notes-version-of-my-stilted-enviro-fascist-view-of-corporations-and-government.aspx

295:

Hmm... So, if we are invaded by aliens, and those aliens happen to be made of people, perhaps we should just join them?

Everybody, find the nearest corporation. 8-)

296:

Also, can someone explain to me how humans are so bloody plastic and changeable, yet at the same time remain almost the same immoral, selfish, greedy bastards through the intire history of the species?

297:

That's easy: the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. As witness the recent identification of behavioural and cognitive differences between WEIRD people -- if you're reading this blog you're probably WEIRD -- and 'most everybody else.

(New Soviet Man may have been a fiction, but the capitalist, western version is very much with us ...)

298:

We are colonized by memes!


I think everything Charlie said about corporations applies much more strongly to another older, vastly more powerful and successful "invader": the nation-state.

299:

You could as well say humans are "colonized" by their own psychology.

300:

Well, if truth lies between the two extremes, then there may be some things about humans that, in fact, CAN`T be changed (ignoring genetic engineering for a moment). And any ideology that assumes those qualities CAN be changed will fail. And perhaps conservatives are not totally wrong. ;-)

301:

Have you read Gangs of America by Ted Nace? It looks at why the US was initially hostile to corporations, but how this came undone as the corporations slowly undid the fetters that prevented them from taking over. I recommend the book.

302:

The death penalty still exists in the US for people, but there is no death penalty for corporations. Why not? If a corporation commits a crime, shouldn't it go to jail? Why is it that corporations' only penalty for criminality is to pay a meaningless fine?

And let's not forget the thoughts of that extreme radical, Adam Smith:

Employers constitute the third order [after land proprietors and wage earners], that of those who live for profit. … The interest of this third order, therefore, has not the same connexion with the general interest of the society as that of the other two. … The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. … The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.

—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Conclusion of Chapter XI

303:

I understand that this is mostly a metaphor about the alienation of modern life, but this is the wrong way to think about corporations from a left perspective. Corporations are really not very similar to mysterious self sufficient entities, biological, alien or digital.

Corporations are a social structure designed to organize disparate economic factors into a more efficient form. They do this task better than any thing else in history.

Corporations are complicated, but they are not impossible to understand. You can go to school get an MBA and learn how to run one if you want. A big part of the problem is that MBA students tend to be right wing.

As a social structure, the organization of corporations is a political process. In my opinion, the major problem is that the ownership of corporations is concentrated in the hands of to few. But the principal agent problem actually shows us that corporations can be run fine without any input from ownership.

This post is already to long. My main point is that if you want to critique the modern corporate system, you really need to understand how it works.

As an example of this, I highly recommend the book Wall Street by Doug Henwood for a nuts and bolts critique of the american financial system. You can download a free pdf from here.

http://www.wallstreetthebook.com/

304:

@ 294:

8 orthogonal dimensions, 256 components ("blades") formed by all the possible combinations of those dimensions. Google "Geometric Algebra" for surprisingly understandable physical applications in 2 to 5 dimensions.

Hey, that's the sort of stuff I do for a living! Uh, well, no, I lie. I got my working papers for doing work in algebraic geometry (intersection theory); what I actually do most of the time is teach algebra to incoming freshmen. The sort of algebra they would have learned in high school already, had they been paying attention :-(

I suspect this and the rise of the modern corporation have some sort of connection . . . think of the Burgess shale.

305:

Are you familiar with the work of Professor Susan Strange (particularly "The Retreat of the State")? She argues (from historical precedent) that this is a cyclical process - corporations gain power at the expense of democratically accountable organisations, but the pendulum tends to swing back eventually. And given the size of many trans-national corporations, this will probably be via supra-national entities like the EU.

306:
She argues (from historical precedent) that this is a cyclical process - corporations gain power at the expense of democratically accountable organisations, but the pendulum tends to swing back eventually.

I think this observation gets made a lot. Diamond said the same thing about the kleptocracy in his followup to Guns, Germs, and Steel. It seems to be little more than another formulation of "things will get worse until they get better".

307:

I'm not necessarily arguing against corporations completely, but I am definitely for attempts to rein them in, which to some degree we had in the UK between the 1940's and the early 1980's. Nationalisation helped, of course, but there were also countervailing pressures such as unions, and governmental power was not so centralised and therefore less vulnerable to attack by individual large entities. (I'm sure it was still vulnerable enough at a local level, but when things are smaller and more local there is much less damage that can be done, whereas switching profits and production abroad to avoid taxes is more easily done at the bigger national level in a more centralised economy)

I don't actually know what you mean by societies without corporations, given there are a number of plausible candidates from the last 3000 years or so.

We at least agree on regulatory capture.

By humans evolving, what do you mean? Do you mean changes in allele frequency over time, or do you mean changes in culture over time? I would pick the latter, and I'm sure we've all seen the stories about how corporations have taken over a lot of culture and warped it to suit themselves. Which of course makes them dangerous, as they warp human life in total to suit themselves. Hmmm, wait, hasn't that been explored in the last 60 years of SF dystopia's?

308:

But is the EU democratically accountable? What little I can see from being an ordinary pleb in Scotland is, no.
Sure, the court does some good work, you can write to your MEP and hopefully get an answer. But the setup as a whole is so huge and ultimately dominated by the council of ministers from the individual member countries, let alone the large corporations who can afford the lobbying, I have great trouble seeing how it can be democratically accountable.

309:

An interesting thing in the comments has been the anti-regulation bits, and if corporate entities could put ethics before profits, they might successfully self-regulate, I won't be holding my breath waiting for that. Even more interesting is the apparent disinterest of conservatives in the destruction of "redundant" industrial infrastructure and skills, simultaneously increasing demand for government service, reducing the tax base that could pay for them and reducing a nation's freedom of action in the future. Bearing in mind that pauperized customers can't be as profitable as prosperous ones, the re-regulation of corporate entities will be for their own long term good.

310:

"...what I actually do most of the time is teach algebra to incoming freshmen."

That can be a rough gig. The couple of times I have done some algebra tutoring I got past the kids' "why should I care" hurdle by teaching them some jackleg calculus first - minimax problems give some motivation for otherwise deathly dull factoring of polynomials. If they wanted a little more background I went into position, velocity and acceleration and a hand-wavy version of the fundamental theorem of calculus. Conceptual calculus is easier and more interesting than much of basic algebra. And kids are willing to do just about anything - even think - it it puts off "real work", especially doing assigned algebra problems. Complex numbers and basic trig went easily with a bead on a coat-hanger wire helix to relate the unit circle, Argand diagram and oscilloscope traces. Figuring out voltages and currents in resistive circuits by hand gave a lot of motivation to learning the "easy way" with linear equations, (admittedly it was a slow way to teach that, but I was primarily teaching circuits).

Re GA: You may be interested in checking out the gratis GAviewer software either for exploring Geometric/Clifford Algebra or for making slides and animations for class. The conformal model it supports is is pretty amazing - there's a tutorial for it in GAviewer that can quickly get you generating some very nice eye-candy.

311:

You're assuming the customers are individual consumers.

As Naomi Klein points out, it's more profitable to sell products and services to governments. And as governments out-source more core competencies -- whether they be building roads, policing the streets, running health services -- the public sector outsourcing side of the cake piles up higher. At which point you get regulatory capture setting in: politicians campaign to sell off or outsource functions, then get jobs with the very corporations that win the tenders.

The reductio ad absurdam is prison policy. Where a typical young male in a middle class job can earn $35,000 a year, the same TYM can generate $60,000 in revenue for a private prison corporation. Ergo, it generates more consumer purchasing if you can find excuses to put TYMs in prison than it is to pay them a living wage (and expect them to spend it on goods and services).

312:

@ 306
BUT ... the Nationalised industries in the UK were themselves (state) corporations.
And, often, set up very badly: the NCB, for instance was set up (partly at the Unions' insistence (!!)) as another "company" with "Us" and "Them" management, rather than as a syndicalist co-operative.
With all the disasters that followed.

@ 307
I know Charlie disagrees, but the EU appears to be wholly-owned by corporations and pressure-groups, and to be completely unaccountable and, what's worse, corrupt. [ How many years now have their accounts not been valid?]
One reason why I am now vehemently anit-EU, having been very much in favour for a long time.

313:

Of course, it is critical to control so different types of individuals and groups aren't breaking the law! My position is rather that organized human behaviour is built in. Corporations is some weird variant of villages or clans.

Note that I argued against myself in #290. :-)

With societies without corporations, I talked about all known alternatives -- which generally are total horror stories to live in, often even if they have free money (oil). The present alternative states have to lock in their population, so they don't flee to capitalist/corporative heaven...

In short, nothing else works. Not only are corporations good optimizers -- with technological development, nothing else (known to man) is nimble enough. And if a country accepts a lower speed of development, see "lock in" part of previous paragraph.

Note that corporations are very different in different parts of the world. Maybe there is a possibility to choose a better corporative culture by social engineering of the education? Hard to do, since culture can't be planned.

Feòrag, #291: I stand corrected. :-)

314:

This has been truly interesting and informative. Recalling the original brief proposed by our host, it occurs to me that the elements may be already in place for a possible non-violent revolution in the economic sphere.

Some kind of perfect storm involving the John Lewis Partnership, the Co-operative (http://www.co-operative.coop/), and the cooperative movement plus a revitalisation or reconstitution of the mutual societies (aka building societies, eviscerated in the thatcher/major years) could plausibly lead to a more benign form of capitalism - if a sufficient percentage of the local economy/economic structures is owned by these groups, possibly the "alien" corporations (let's say Walmart UK (aka ASDA) or Cisco UK could be forced to evolve towards less "sociopathic" behaviours in the developed west.

"Capital flight" from banks to building societies (following Cantona - once you have removed your money from the banks, then what do you do with it?), Grameen Bank (microcredit), worker participation, step change in growth/creation of co-operative and similar corporate entities. Spreading from the periphery (poor but not failed states, bangladesh and sengal/cote d'ivoire perhaps) and hollowing out from within (the west and BRIC countries).

Possible downsides or issues: Not sure that from the outside the behaviour of say John Lewis or Co-op (e.g. vs business competitors) is notably better than more sociopathic rivals. Co-operatives are not, I think, innovation centres or drivers. Political dimension not covered. Would or could it spread to North America (esp. USA) or would US be bypassed and sidelined?

315:

Seriously? You're going on about the Fannie and Freddie stuff? STILL? In the light of all the data about what happened and what went wrong globally. If it had just been regulated government backed mortgages there wouldn't have been a problem, well, there might have been a small one, but it would have been a minor one.

The Government Backed Mortgages didn't apply in Miami, Las Vegas, Dublin. They didn't bring down the Icelandic economy or Northern Rock.

In competent bank speculation run by people who didn't understand the financial vehicles they were gambling with did. And don't even get me onto Credit Default Swaps because frankly, I'd like a way of insuring myself against losing at roulette when I'm at CES...

Finally...

One of the things that I've noticed since I moved to the US is that most government services are pretty ineptly and badly run compared to those even in the UK. Most of it doesn't seem to be part of an organised plan, just that people don't "get" that there could be an easier way of managing things. The local state run DMV systems spring to mind. What the UK does for 60 million people out of a single office in Swansea, Washington does for 6 million people out of dozens of local offices all manned and running beyond breaking point.

And don't get me onto the waste in the private health services.

316:

So, the Hanseatic League was a failed invasion by the Venusians?

317:

As usual the comments stream is TL;DR. But I'll toss in another datapoint. When we talk about corporations we usually mean the US style of pyramid structure. RA Wilson (and Macchiavelli) had plenty to say about why pyramid structured organisations are inevitably dysfunctional. The gist is that bosses lie to their underlings and underlings both lie to their bosses and are discouraged from thinking. The result is that all a pyramid structured organisations thinking is done by the people at the top who have no idea what is really going on.

At which point, consider this. Starbucks has a branded, conformist cafe on every street corner worldwide. Its run from a 3 ring binder and a local seagull manager who has no empathy with the local population. It's the archetypal US globalised corporation. It attempts to manage every aspect of it's supply chain. On the other side of the street is a Chinese restaurant. Every Chinese restaurant is different, although they share common themes. They're typically run by an individual family who use a vast network of supply chain which itself is run by independent units. Both have spread all over the world into every small town. One is a pyramid structure with very little accountability to local conditions. The other is an anarchic form of hive activity involving individuals who are embedded in the local community. It's more like an anarcho-collective than anarcho-capitalism.

BTW. Even you don't vote the same people get in.

318:

We used to have a few co-ops in the DC area, but when the landlords got good enough offers from developers, they went away.

319:

what I actually do most of the time is teach algebra to incoming freshmen. The sort of algebra they would have learned in high school already, had they been paying attention :-(

Please email me -- I have a friend who wants her GED (taught at home) and is really stuck at algebra.

320:

Speaking of companies, the GM CEO thinks the government is making them keep the salaries of their executives too low (his is $9M approved by the feds). He thinks those executives will go to other jobs with higher pay where the company didn't have to be supported by the government to keep going.

Surely they can find people who want and are skilled for executive instead of those that just move from company to company for money.

321:

... in the case of the USA, it appears that there's a fast track to Secretary of State for Defense that is open to hawks, and starting and managing a small overseas war is a necessary checkpoint on the resumé ...

Hmmm?

First off, do you mean Secretary of State (~ Foreign Minister) or Secretary of Defense? I can't think of any recent Secretaries of Defense for whom anything like this would apply; and when it comes to Secretaries of State, there's only one person in the last thirty or forty years who might qualify (Colin Powell) -- so it's hardly a "fast track to Secretary of State" and not by any means a "necessary checkpoint". And since Powell was appointed Secretary of State after the bombing of Serbia, the people who "started and managed" the latter could hardly have had him as an example.

As for Chomsky and Serbia -- the problem is that Chomsky seems to work from an idee fixe: the chief source of evil in the post-WW2 world is the U.S. government, which is categorically incapable of ever acting for reasons that are not completely sinister and self-serving. This means that, however accurate most of his analyses might be, when he encounters examples of evil coming from actors that are neutral or hostile towards the U.S., he must downplay or discount them; and when there is an American foreign policy action that doesn't seem to fit the pattern (no matter how rare or atypical it is), he has to concoct an explanation in terms of hegemonic perfidy. This, I think, is part of what's behind his shameful record of denial and evasion concerning the Cambodian genocide, and his confusion (bordering occasionally on denialism) with respect to Bosnia and Kosovo.

322:

Would you have any kind of references about your analysis of Chomsky?


Signed: "Department of lazy quarter-intellectuals that have wasted enough time analyzing religious arguments and don't want to read any more extremist sources with conspiracy theories."

323:

While your argument about corporations makes some sense, I would point out that states as entities have been around a lot longer, and have shown similar tendencies to function as hive organisms with priorities other than those of their human personnel. A quite parallel argument could be developed about them. Or about the symbiosis of states and corporations through rent-seeking.

324:

Would you have any kind of references about your analysis of Chomsky?

My remarks about Chomsky's idee fixe are largely my own, and are admittedly idle speculations; I have, however, seen similar speculations from other people (e.g., a hint of that here: "In attempting to create a consistent argument for America as murderous bully, going back to the Seminole Wars, he [Chomsky] edits out anything that could be put on the other side of the balance sheet.").

As for Chomsky's history on the issue of Cambodian genocide, I recommend this (exhaustive) overview, which includes extended quotations from Chomsky's writings. For some discussion of his views on Kosovo, there are these two reviews of Chomsky's book on the Kosovo war.

325:

1) Corporations are very interesting social and economic phenomena. I love William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but I hardly think they offer much in the way of insight into how corporations work, why they work, the social and economic purposes they serve, the risks they present and so forth.

2) It seems extraordinarily short-sighted to criticize corporations so heavily without also acknowledging that the development of the limited liability corporation is responsible for a very large part of the economic development, progress and human happiness of the past 150 years. This extremely efficient means of creating and managing large pools of capital made possible the rapid development of the telegraph, railroad, airlines, automobile companies, etc., etc.

3) I concur with the above posters that governments pose a far greater threat to liberty than corporations. At the end of the day, you can always quit your job if you hate the corporation you are working for and you can always buy goods and services from someone else. On the other hand, if you tell the government to shove it, you go to jail.

4) For those of you who are sincerely interested in the problems of corporate governance - how to improve it so that corporations better serve the interests of their shrareholders - you should check out TruthontheMarket.com, or ProfessorBainbride.com or the Harvard Corporate Governance blog. For those of you who think that corporations ought to be legally compelled to serve progressive, social interests, check out the SALT (Society of American Law Teachers, www.salt.org) blog.

326:

Valid point, but isn't the foundation of the economy individual consumers? How much can this base be stressed and still support governments and corporations? I see a need for economic fundamentalists.

327:
Hey, that's the sort of stuff I do for a living! Uh, well, no, I lie. I got my working papers for doing work in algebraic geometry (intersection theory);
You're reminding me that I've got a major project on my stack to finish reading the book on programming GA I bought and sit down and build an interactive geometric diagram app using galib to define inter-object constraints. I've started this twice now and been interrupted by surgery twice; I'm by-Clifford going to do it this time.

But I already know enough of the math to have snorted hard at the joke.

328:
The death penalty still exists in the US for people, but there is no death penalty for corporations.
In fact there are states in the US where it is illegal for a court to impose high enough financial damages on a corporation that the corporation might be forced into receivership ("you can't kill a corporation"). I don't know if the set of such states all have the death penalty for people, but I would not be surprised.

Oh, and in my experience, the number of sane people in the US is much higher than 40%, perhaps as high as 70%. Unfortunately, the nutbars are by far the loudest voices around, so it's often hard to hear any voice of sanity in the sea of crazies.

329:

@ 324 para:3
BUT
What happens if the govmint is OWNED by the corporations?
As the US guvmint IS owned, especially if the "GOP" is in power?
What then?
What is to be done? (quote)

@327
And I presume Federal law can't over-rule State law, when it comes to fining a corp-to-death?
One important point, and a major difference between US and UK (and I think European laws, generally) ...
In the UK, you can ALWAYS find out who owns a company or coporation. It is a legal requirement, and you must file at Companies House - and you can go through all the layers.
As I understand it, this is NOT so in the USA, and (especially with Maryland?) you can run up against a blank wall, and never really find out who is in charge of, and/or who owns a corporation.

P.S. The oldest corporation on the planet is probably:
The government and Corporation of the City of London.
Relevant dates are: 1189, 1215 and 1376.
[ Foundation, directly elected Mayor, Court of Common Council, respectively ]

330:

the chief source of evil in the post-WW2 world is the U.S. government, which is categorically incapable of ever acting for reasons that are not completely sinister and self-serving.

In making this assumption, Chomsky is at least 80% correct -- at least when dealing with the behaviour of the US government in the field of international relations. (Remember: who else has gone in for strategic bombing of neutral countries, invasions of client states, and invasions of third parties on the basis of falsified allegations of weapons of mass destruction? Note the "and" in that sentence; the USSR did at least one and possibly two of these things, but it took the USA to go for the trifecta. And it did so because the foreign policy apparat is corrupt, from the top down, driven by an internal promotion ladder that rewards violent aggression and paranoia.)

331:

Have a look at maxkeiser.com.
He is running a campaign to take down jp morgan, by buying silver (jp Morgan have bet massively that the price of silver will go down).
Very interesting idea, no idea if it will work. But he is worth a look. His site karmabanque has been trying to get hedge funds to short coca cola, in order to drive share prices lower, hurting that corporation.
He is aiming to use the corporations weapons against them, which on the face of it makes good sense. Traditional forms of activism don't seem to be having much of an impact, on the corporations anyway.
Well worth watching his show on RT, all of which are available on his website.

332:

At which point, consider this. Starbucks has a branded, conformist cafe on every street corner worldwide. Its run from a 3 ring binder and a local seagull manager who has no empathy with the local population. It's the archetypal US globalised corporation. It attempts to manage every aspect of it's supply chain. On the other side of the street is a Chinese restaurant. Every Chinese restaurant is different, although they share common themes. They're typically run by an individual family who use a vast network of supply chain which itself is run by independent units. Both have spread all over the world into every small town. One is a pyramid structure with very little accountability to local conditions. The other is an anarchic form of hive activity involving individuals who are embedded in the local community. It's more like an anarcho-collective than anarcho-capitalism.

But which one pays its taxes, and actually bothers to at least pay lip service to local employment law?

333:

>>the US government in the field of international relations.

As far as I can tell, most every country implements realpolitik and lies about it.

Foreigners can't vote, so unless the voters in a democracy care, that democracy isn't much nicer than dictators.

Or, rather, democracies are mostly humane as long as it doesn't influence important interests or cost money.

The US seems different mainly because they have more power.

>>invasions of third parties on the basis of falsified allegations of weapons of mass destruction?

Looks really strange.

afaik, everyone seemed genuinely surprised that the previous sanctions had stopped the WMD programs. (It seemed Saddam had in his interest to use the non-existing WMDs to scare his own population...)

Anyway, if the US president administration had known there were no WMD programs, he'd probably have "found" a few...

Besides...

And frankly, do you really care about brutal junta's rights? At least not if democratizing Iraq had been handled competently.. :-(

>>And it did so because the foreign policy apparat is corrupt, from the top down, driven by an internal promotion ladder that rewards violent aggression and paranoia.)

OK, you could argue that all closed and non-open organizations are corrupt and incompetent, by definition.

But seriously, can you give (non-extremist) references to support that?

334:

Greg and BerntB - you seem to be broadening the description and definition of corporation well beyond that given by Charlie in the OP. Therefore, although your points have some relevance in terms of "oh lookko, humans tend to do this within these structures" they are not so relevant.
Greg especially, by bringing in the corporation of the city of London is rather ignoring the difference between then (the city of london corp is actually an association of citizens acting as a governing body of the city, with purposes somewhat similar to that of the local council, and with aims and purpose based on dealing with and dispensing justice and charity; and a corporation is a large body of people with expressly economic aims, usually with limited liability)

335:

That's an ad hominem attack on a target too small and diffuse to defend itself, and borderline slanderous: this is your yellow card.

(Do it again, and I'll ban you and delete your comments.)

336:

Guthrie @ 333:
The City of London is sui generis
It is both a local government and a VERY POWERFUL "local trade association".
Although apparently entirely in the hands of "Big Business" it is suprisingly respondent to the wishes of the locals - and acts as a safegaurding body for many areas that other developers just want to concrete over.

Charlie @ 329 - just so we can get our facts straight, you said: "gone in for strategic bombing of neutral countries, invasions of client states, and invasions of third parties ..."
OK
Which and where, both USSR & USA?
Strat-bombing would be Laos - for the USA?
Client state-invasion would be Hungary (USSR), Grenada (USA)
Invasions of 3rd-parties would be Iraq/Mesopotamia for the USA.
So I've missed at least one, somewhere ....

Of course, you have omitted the systematic theological oppression and torture of the USSR's own population, and that of its client-states 1919/45/89, but IIRC we are talking about froeign policy, so the USSR's international crime would "just" be 1945-89.
Um.
Please correct any mistakes here, and amend the list, as I'm sure it is incomplete.

337:

Citizens of Ireland and the British Commonwealth can vote in British elections as long as they are long-term residents here and put themselves on the Electoral Register. It's part of a "no taxation without representation" deal, I think.

338:

I think you're being a bit harsh at what was (admittedly a fairly snarky and unnecessarily targetted) attack at the concept that small businesses>> large multinationals.

It's not a specific attack on Chinese restaurants, more on an informed analysis of how small family-owned restaurants and catering businesses tend to work. VAT tribunal cases and (which I keep up with for professional reasons) discussions with experts on the field give a hint of just how widespread suppression of takings, innocent or otherwise) is. It's a risk-based analysis. A low margin business which takes in the majority of its takings in cash, and which simply doesn't have the time or money to keep fully comprehensive financial records, has both the motive and opportunity to evade taxes wherever it can, and unsurprisingly, it's viewed as a high-risk sector by HM Revenue and Customs. [A typical approach is to send an officer incognito into a restaurant to have a leisurely meal and to count the number of customers visiting. He or she then later inspects the caterer's records to see whether his meal appears, and whether the number of sales in the day matches the diner count.]

The wider point I was trying to (clumsily) allude to in reference to a specific field was that big companies tend to commit offences in plain sight; small businesses, which is where evasion and actual fraud is overwhelmingly concentrated, simply lack the resources to operate in accordance with the law, and are too numerous to be inspected as fully as they should be. (If you read HMRC's own estimate of the 'tax gap', you'll see that small & medium enterprise evasion is significantly larger than the more high-profile avoidance cases.)

[FWIW, this is an often-missed observation about outsourcing by the people doing the outsourcing (if not the people affected by it) - while you can be fairly sure that Asrrisonburys supermarket has scrupulously documented procedures about waste management/disposal, etc., the one man and his van person at the bottom of the sub-contracting chain has a not-insignificant chance of not being too bothered about fly-tipping.)

339:

That's an ad hominem attack on a target too small and diffuse to defend itself, and borderline slanderous

Ad hominem means attacking (an irrelevant aspect of) the person, not the argument. "Bob's argument must be unsound because Bob is a filthy Communist." (Note that "Bob is probably not telling the truth about the USSR because Bob is a Communist" is not ad hominem.)

You can't simultaneously claim that a statement is borderline slanderous and that its target is too small and diffuse. Slander requires a clearly defined target. Saying "lots of British authors are incompetent drunks" is not slanderous. Saying "lots of professional British SF authors currently resident in Edinburgh are incompetent drunks" probably would be, because there's not more than a handful of people fitting that description.)

Chinese restaurants are notorious for employing illegal immigrants (here, for example: http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/sitecontent/newsarticles/2010/nov/42-middlesbrough-restaurant)and also for exploiting their workers (see here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Chinese-Whispers-Behind-Britains-Hidden/dp/0141035684).

340:

Client state-invasion would be Hungary (USSR), Grenada (USA)

No -- client state invasions would be Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan for the USSR, Panama for the US. (The People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada, in power from 1979 onward, was hardly a "client state" of the US.)

341:

Incidentally, Krugman's picked this up - http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/hive-minds-and-kleptocrats/

"I like it; it’s fun (although William Gibson said much the same thing, I think); but it’s so 1960s, if you know what I mean...
Look at the protagonists in the global financial meltdown, and you won’t see faceless corporations subverting individual will; you’ll see avaricious individuals exploiting corporate forms to enrich themselves, often bringing the corporations down in the process. Lehman, AIG, Anglo-Irish, etc. were not cases of immortal hive-minds at work; they were cases of kleptocrats run wild."

I think he's got a good point: the psychotically self-interested, conscienceless entities causing all the damage aren't corporations, they're people.

342:

Take your point. And here's another. In my local market town, it was Starbucks that simply ignored council planning regs and turned an empty restaurant into one of theirs. 2 years later, their planning application still hasn't been ratified and has been refused once, but the store is still open. Allegedly, this is common rather than an isolated case.

But all of this is largely irrelevant to the main point, which was that big business, corporate planning, corporate control is not the only way to globalise a business idea. Some ideas (like the chinese/indian restaurant) seem to have enough momentum to go truly global via emergent hive behaviour rather than centralised planning. That's not even centrally planned and supported franchising. The other aspect I find interesting is the marketing and branding. Starbucks (and all the rest) has a tightly controlled brand profile. The local Chinese or Indian takeaway has almost no brand profile. And yet it's immediately recognisable. And I have this sneaking suspicion that the real money is in the supply of aluminium containers or perhaps in the vast vat of korma sauce somewhere up in the midlands that supplies almost every restaurant nationwide.

343:

Greg: you basically hit my list. (I was hedging in case the USSR had gone in for strategic bombing of a neutral state and I'd forgotten ...)

"Theological oppression" isn't unique to the USSR; just look at the status of atheists in the USA today.

344:

ajay -- you missed all the previous comments mentioning Krugman's blog post, upstream ;-)

As a comment on Krugman's point, I'll note that one of the more striking economic themes of the 1980s was the role of "corporate raiders": wealthy individuals who would stage hostile takeovers of public corporations, then strip and sell off their assets in order to realize a quick profit. These were outsiders subverting corporations, rather than the primarily insider kleptocrats that Krugman is referring to.

A more nuanced analysis might note that corporations themselves can have different varieties of parasites and predators, though I'd be wary of pushing explicit biological analogies too far.

345:

or perhaps in the vast vat of korma sauce somewhere up in the midlands that supplies almost every restaurant nationwide.

ISTR that the Pataks family fortune is founded on precisely this basis - unusually for a family-owned private business, a lot of the details came out in a rather bitter court case a few years back.

346:

Okay, I see where you're coming from. However, while there's VAT-evasion and similar going on among the small scale family businesses, there's huge scale shennanigans aimed at minimizing corporation tax exposure going on among the big ones; for example, the litigation surrounding Tesco's alleged tax avoidance or tax minimization through intricate offshoring of corporate ownership.

All businesses try to minimize their tax liability by any means at their disposal. Small businesses can't afford to establish offshore holding companies; big ones can. On the other hand, big businesses are an easy target for, for example, environmental health inspectors: small ones can hunker down and hope nobody notices them. The methods vary, but the goal is universal.

347:

And i.r.o. Starbucks, a friend once worked as an accountant in their UK head office. From their account, I'd lean towards simple administrative incompetence rather than Machiavellian evil as an explanation of the planning permission example...

348:

Patak's was probably more built on the pickles and pastes. Yes, they eventually sold premade curry sauces to the public, but they'd already got onto the shelves of your local supermarket on the basis of the brinjal and lime pickles, and their curry pastes.

Back in the days when they were still in Westbury (a village so small that the Reindeer was its only pub), the company was still small enough that the hot lunches provided to staff were cooked by the Patak family themselves. My father reported that in his period there as a manager, as far as he could tell, he never ate the same thing twice.

Or in other words - the staff were beta testers for any new recipes going.

That particular southern tip of Northants had some pretty sophisticated connoisseurs of Indian food as a result. If you liked Indian food, it was a great place to work.

The result was that although the Pataks were originally aiming at their fellow Indians in their recipes (the fact that the pickle jars always ended up oily the moment you opened them was something that Sharwoods would never have tolerated), the factory staff were mostly based around the Buckingham/Brackley area, and were probably predominately English in origin. So there was strong early feedback from them on new recipes, with the result that the products ended up being designed for both English and Indians.

(I use Indian here for those deriving from the Indian subcontinent, so including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis too, as well as those who spent a generation or few in Africa.)

Good grief - comment 345. Noone will read this far down.

349:

Good grief - comment 345. Noone will read this far down.

Ahem ...

350:

Oh, f'sure. I'm not going to disagree with you here, but the black and white way it's often viewed in the press vexes me at points. [tl;dr discussion follows.]

The Tesco thing is a case in point. The Guardian got its orginal article hideously and embarrasingly wrong in just about every aspect. There was tax avoidance going on, in that no corporation tax was avoided by the structure, but a significantly smaller amount of stamp duty land tax on the various property transfers involved was[1].

However, taking one (partly rhetorical) viewpoint, the whole transaction was a sale and leaseback, which in turn is fundamentally equivalent to a mortgage. Tescos wouldn't have paid any tax on taking out a mortgage from a bank, why should they have paid a significant amount of SDLT to achieve the same economic effect in a route chosen for wider commercial reasons?


[1] Confession time: I used to sit about five desks from the man responsible for it.

351:

I'm not sure that the most depressing thing about this post (for me) is that I agree with the OP. Appropos of #345, I didn't read #1 .. #344! ;-)

352:

That's OK - I didn't read #348. In case you wonder why this answer exists, it's here because I have intuited what #348 will have said.

353:

Whereas larger companies get away with things like this.

354:

A 3 day wall of text - given how bright and funny you guys normally are, that would be several hours work!
:-D

355:

"Apropos Chomsky on the bombing of Serbia, two points: (a) it was the classic example of Disaster Capitalism (as Klein points out, if you follow the money trail it leads directly to the huge reconstruction contracts, awarded to western multinationals and paid for by loans guaranteed by the Serbian state, that followed the war), and (b) a state may go to war in direct opposition to its own best interests if a subset of that state's diplomatic/foreign affairs elite benefit from the war: in the case of the USA, it appears that there's a fast track to Secretary of State for Defense that is open to hawks, and starting and managing a small overseas war is a necessary checkpoint on the resumé, sort of like a doctoral thesis in academia. [...]"

(Speaking of hawks I just saw a Peregrine perched on a fence less than 50 feet away, which is even more unusual than the snow flurries we're getting here in Atlanta.)

Your overall point about policy being driven by benefit to specific members of the elite and disaster capitalists is dead on. (The potential Secretary of Defense route is a bit too specific, though - there are many other slots for war-management experience is a good thing to have on the resume.)

The most prominent beneficiary among the diplomatic/foreign affairs elite was Richard Holbrooke, credited with brokering the Dayton accord. Holbrooke is closely associated with some of the most troubled Wall Street firms

Holbrooke was the vice chairman of private equity firm Perseus LLC, vice chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston, managing director of Lehman Brothers, and member and from February 2001 until July 2008 was a member of the Board of Directors of AIG. He allegedly received multiple below-market-rate loans from Countrywide mortgage as a friend of Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo.

Holbrooke was co-author of Clark Clifford's memoirs which were released during the BCCI scandal. (Clifford was an advisor to Truman and party to the backroom fights where the President rammed through US recognition of Israel, which was, according to some, a payoff for the campaign donations that would narrowly get him reelected. Clifford was also the Secretary of Defense after McNamara during the Vietnam war and was involved in of the biggest banking scandal in history up until that time (1991) which Wikipedia says involved: "money laundering, bribery, support of terrorism, arms trafficking, the sale of nuclear technologies, the commission and facilitation of tax evasion, smuggling, illegal immigration, and the illicit purchases of banks and real estate.")

Some of Holbrooke's foreign policy positions are just as troubling, In the late 60s he worked for Agency for International Development on the Mekong Delta rural Pacification Program, then drafted a volume of what was later released by others as "The Pentagon Papers". In the 70s he facilitated the genocide in East Timor, met with Suharto to praise his efforts in East Timor, and helped block efforts by human rights activists to stop US military aid to Indonesia. He was part of the small group that made the decision to back up the South Korean dictatorship militarily against a general uprising which followed the dictatorship's massacre of protesters in Kwangju. Within two weeks a large loan to the dictatorship for nuclear development followed, much of which went to Westinghouse and Bechtel.

He supported the 2nd Iraq War, calling Saddam Hussein "a clear and present danger" who "possesses the potential for weapons of mass destruction" and claimed that the coalition forces in Afghanistan are not an occupation but are there at the request of the Afghan people.

His activities behind the scenes in the Balkans are not yet generally recognized, but dark rumors circulate of his complicity with the crimes of both sides.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Democracy Now with Brad Simpson an Alan Nairn, Tim Shorrock, Washington Post piece by Holbrooke)

356:

Greg #335 - but it still ins't a corporation in the sense which Charlie is talking about, therefore, it still isn't clear what you are on about.

357:

Oh God, Vodafone. [Important point to note re: sources: On the basis of the way the articles are being spun, I'd say Private Eye appear to be being fed information by a senior, disgruntled member of HMRC; high up enough to get the office gossip, but not actually involved in the negotiations themselves. There's a suspicious amount of weasel words along the lines of 'normal practice would be to' if you parse the articles closely. Treat with the same caution as coppers talking to the press about how 'Colin Stagg did it really, despite having being acquitted'.]

That said, Vodafone were taking the piss, but clearly (despite a rather tortured Court of Appeal judgment against them), IMO, had one of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the treaties creating the European Union on their side. (In short, their German acquisition was generating pots of cash, far more than they needed. If they kept the cash in Germany, they'd be taxed in Germany on the interest. If they'd held the German companies directly, and paid dividends up, then probably very little UK tax would have been paid (as the German tax already paid could be offset, and German corporation tax rates are higher than the UKs). Cash on the interest would be taxed in the UK. Vodafone instead decided to park the cash in Luxembourg, which exempts foreign dividends and (with a bit of care) interest from Luxembourg tax. The dispute basically boiled down to 'there are provisions to tax in the UK profits parked in low-tax countries.' Vodafone went 'doesn't that conflict with European law?' The Revenue's approach to this (and to many similar questions) was, for many years, to stick their fingers in their ears and pretend they couldn't hear it. Vodafone happens to have come at the tail end of a lot of European litigation above the past fifteen years of so, and at a time when tax avoidance has come up the radar.

In short, Vodafone were morally iffy, but had a fundamental bit of European law on their side.

358:

I was hedging in case the USSR had gone in for strategic bombing of a neutral state and I'd forgotten

They did: they bombed Helsinki in 1939. Finland was neutral (right up to the point when the USSR invaded it, at least).
Invasions of third parties: Poland and Finland, obviously, though neither were justified by WMD claims. Poland was "protection of minorities" and Finland was simply "we want to own a bit of Finland".
Invasions of client states: well, Hungary, Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia.

359:

No no, most sane people did know that the WMD did not exist. France knew, Germany knew, hell all of "Old Europe" knew. And they did the US about what they knew, too:

http://einestages.spiegel.de/hund-images/2010/11/24/82/0381708f962e58159af897d26db84741.pdf

If you don't read German, here is their position from before the war in a nutshell:

1) They were aware that Saddam Hussein's regime was a brutal dictatorship that frequently infringed on human rights.

2) Irak is important but no top priority. Germany's, France's and British Services couldn't detect links between Irak and Al Qaida.

3) Political cost of military intervention outweighs political benefit for several reasons:
- Dangers to the terretorial integrity of Irak
- Dangers to regional stability
- Weakening of the coalition on the war on terror; this fight is expected to go on for at least 10-15 years.
- Danger of provoking the image of a war of the westeren civilisations against the islamic world. It is more important to win the islamic elite and youths hearts and minds; this cannot be done with war, it is more likely to provoke terrorist backlash.
- Social/political Situation in Irak not amenable to instituting a democratic and liberal system. It is very easy to win the war, but it is very doubtful that the US and European populations would support the cost of a very lengthy action. It is not enough to win the war, but peace must be won.

3) War on Irak is not the option to choose at this time. It is possible to achieve the same goal (Irak's total disarmament) with peaceful means. Resolition 1441 offers all the necessary tools. These should be exhausted before considering war as a last option.

360:

So ... we're wandering peripherally off-topic but:
Invasion:
USSR: Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary Czeechoslovakia, Afghanistan (?)
USA: Grenada, Panama(?)
Bombing:
USSR: Finland
USA: Laos
3rd-party:
USSR: Afghanistan (?)
USA: Iraq

Not a lot to choose.
EXCEPT
USA not nearly so nasty internally, especially if you aren't brown-skinned, before about 1960...
No secret police and extermination camps.
BUT, if you are subject to their actions outside their borders...
And the USA has the "burden" of at least claiming to be the good guys - which puts a moral responsiblity on to them, which they don't seem too good at keeping up.
Um ....

361:

Greg, on the US side of the invasion balance sheet you forgot Vietnam, Laos, North Korea (when MacArthur decided to go haring across the line), Somalia, and a bunch of overseas "interventions". We've probably both missed some of the USSR's less charming excursions, too. Empires: not good.

Lest we forget, the USSR started out as a utopian program, then went rapidly off the rails. And there was something of a utopian element in the US declaration of independence and subsequent constitution, which led to the whole American exceptionalism thing.

I'd be less offended by the imperial-powers-behaving-like-empires shtick if they didn't come wrapped in holier-than-thou rhetoric.

362:

Greg -- my initial (short) reply appears hung up in moderation (possibly because it was a small amount of text w/ a URL), but to address these issues:

Post-WW2 invasions of "client states":
USSR: Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan
US: Panama

(The "People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada", in power from 1979 to 1983, was hardly a US client state.)

(The "post-WW2" filter is because I don't think even Chomsky has tried to suggest that the US was the overwhelmingly dominant source of world evil during the 1930s and 1940s. That's why I'm not counting things like the Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland, the annexations of Latvia et al., intervention in Sinkiang, etc. Though if someone wants to claim the USSR as a whole wasn't all that bad, it's no fair ignoring the 1920s, 30s, and 40s...)

363:

Greg, on the US side of the invasion balance sheet you forgot Vietnam, Laos, North Korea

US didn't invade Vietnam, it was invited in by the Saigon government. US didn't invade Laos either; US troops in Laos (the USAF Ravens, for example) were there with the permission of the Vientiane government, albeit without the knowledge of the US population. US did invade North Korea, but given that North Korea had invaded South Korea a few months previously, this doesn't really count. It was unwise, but not illegal.

364:

I know there are such things as employee-owned corporations, but I have had no experience with them, and clearly they haven't taken over the world. Is it because a democratic structure is inherently less efficient than a hierarchy, or have we yet to stumble upon the magic formula that allow them to outperform traditional corporations?

They do "outperform" traditional corporations: it's just that their goals are different. They do not exist to maximize profit. They exist to serve the community and to make decent stable jobs for workers. In these things they excel. They don't make scads of conscience-less money, but they weren't trying to.

365:

My thoughts exactly. Which is why everyone needs to brand and trademark themselves and then incorporate to take over the corporations. I'm calling it Brand Yourself™. T-Shirts pending.

366:

Charlie said:>"Re-run the tape and you get a different program every time, as Stephen Jay Gould used to put it."

That seems to be the popular opinion among biologists, but it is an unproven assumption. I vacillate between this assumption and another explanation that, as implausible as it may seem, has the biosphere looking very similar most of the time it is re-run, due to ergodic attractors in the phase space. More work needs to be done if a definitive answer is sought.

I have never heard of ergodic attractors, and when I googled it, it was all in math-speak, so I didn't understand any of it, not having taken any math since high school. However, I do have some vague understanding of Boolian Logic and self-organizing criticality from a theoretical physics course in the Philosophy department. Are you saying that evolution would come out with something similar if you re-ran it because the available niches to fill remain the same? If so, why didn't you say that?

367:

"Theological oppression" isn't unique to the USSR; just look at the status of atheists in the USA today.

Er, um. Speaking as an American atheist... the idea that the situation of atheists in the US is in any way remotely comparable to the systematic religious repression carried out by the Soviet government (especially during the 1920s and 30s, with a period of renewed repression in the late 1950s and early 60s)... is, well, ridiculous.

(You could perhaps draw an analogy between American atheists and British Catholics during the 20th Century.)

368:

US didn't invade Vietnam, it was invited in by the Saigon government.

By that metric, the USSR didn't invade Afghanistan, either: they were invited in by a sub-group within the government, in the wake of an attempted coup. (Looking at the history of Afghanistan, 1974-80, it gets messy, fast. Makes anything going on there now look positively tame, in fact.)

369:

Go poke around and you'll see lots of interesting news items about parents being denied custody in divorce suits because of their lack of religious faith, and of anti-atheist hate crimes going unprosecuted as such. Seriously, go look. The USA is a lousy country in which to look for freedom of religious expression, in that particular direction.

370:

Also East Germany in 1953 for the USSR, as long as we're working out the list. (Technically maybe it wasn't an invasion, since the tanks were already there, but a very interesting episode nonetheless. Stalin's death sparked a workers' revolt which had to be suppressed with the aid of the Soviet Army.)

371:

By that metric, the USSR didn't invade Afghanistan, either: they were invited in by a sub-group within the government, in the wake of an attempted coup.

When you land troops in a country without permission, shut down communications and shoot the President dead, I'm pretty happy with that being described as "invasion". The first lot of advisors were invited in by Amin in June '79, yes, but they served as Trojan horses for the invasion in December that year. The invasion was invited in retrospectively by Babrak Karmal.

372:

When you land troops in a country without permission, shut down communications and shoot the President dead, I'm pretty happy with that being described as "invasion".

See also: Grenada.

(Mind you, figuring out just who was doing what in the PDPA in 1978-79 makes my head hurt.)

373:

"parents being denied custody in divorce suits because of their lack of religious faith"

But isn't that more an issue of the interest in promoting continuity of religious upbringing with the child in question? In other words, if you've got a family in which the father's religious, the mother's an atheist, and the kid's religious as well, perhaps the thinking is that the kid would be better suited for upbringing with the father for "consistency's" sake. (Not saying I agree with this, mind you; just playing devil's advocate.)

374:

Er, no. Not when the judge is denying visitation rights on the grounds that the parent in question has no religion.

Also, you're betraying your own implicit prejudice by assuming that continuity of religious upbringing may be a good thing.

375:

In all fairness, the theological oppression in the USA would have been a comparative non-event under the soviet union, at least compared with the gulag.

376:

Tim, different cultures crack down on different things. It is rather noteworthy that the US penal system today has more people in prisons -- absolute numbers and per-capita -- than the GULAG did at its peak. Those numbers are an order of magnitude higher than any of the other western democracies, but the USA isn't the crime-ridden hell-hole those figures would suggest; it's just symptomatic of a vastly more draconian penal system, with different priorities.

377:

I think you need a vector space over the reals to adequately evaluate the worth of products and lines of action. Monetary value, resource use, waste, social 'justice', environmental impact, to name just a few - heck, throw in the happiness of each individual and you're almost in Hilbert space territory (time to put the City/Wall Street quants back to work on quantum mechanics!).

Further thoughts: Sometimes I wish the scientific revolution had more of a headstart on the industrial one. We could have used a good think on the large-scale introduction of automobiles and aeroplanes. I'm not saying we should go back to local autarkism, but IMHO we're just carting too much crap (mainly foodstuffs) around.

That said, I still don't understand why my supermarket doesn't have any bread after 7 PM... I don't have a customer card, but you'd think they would have figured that one out by now!

378:

Throughout this thread there has been several comments glorifying( perhaps to strong a word) the attributes of co-ops or worker run corporations. I too would love to believe that co-ops are the answer, however I work for one and have seen otherwise. I live in Minneapolis MN, USA one of the few cities in the US where food Cooperatives survived the onslaught of Whole foods. Currently I am employed by the largest one that actually has more sales per square foot than any other grocery in the US. It is run by a board of directors who unfortunately, even in meaning well no almost nothing of running a grocery store. About 6 years a go we got a new GM from the corporate world. Since she has been in rule, vacations have been cut, No more store party, listening to music during non store hours was stopped, and finally pay reviews now come one a year rather than 3 which previously existed. The final cou de tet was the passage of a by law which stated employees are not allowed to run for the board in a a supposedly democratic business. This occured after a well liked employee ran and almost won. Perhaps this tale is about business and power in general, things start our good, but power draws assholes to it like the fucking ring in lord of the rings. This model should work well, we dont have to grow, are building is paid for, but every quarter the pressure to grow is immense and comes with threats of firing if it doesn't happen. This is made even more ridiculous by the fact that our stock can never go up, but we are still run with the mentality that it must. So sorry about the sob story, but I would like to believe in the co-op model, but recent events have shown me success doesn't always bring good with it, in fact it may be a beacon to those who wish to subvert it.

379:

It is rather noteworthy that the US penal system today has more people in prisons -- absolute numbers and per-capita -- than the GULAG did at its peak.

US prison population in 2008: 1.5 million, or 2.3 million if you include those in jail, out of a population of ~ 305 million. Per capital rate: 0.5% or 0.75%.

Soviet gulag population at its peak (early 1950s): about 2 million (this does not include "labor settlements", which would probably add another 2 or 2.5 million), out of a population of 180 million. Per capita rate: 1.4% (or ~ 2.5%).

The US incarceration rate is appallingly, shamefully high. One can argue that it is, in total numbers, about equal to the core gulag system at its height. But clearly not in per-capita terms.

380:

I think that the co-op model is still too ideologically tied to collectivism. There ought to be a defensible middle ground in the form of a 'constitutional corporation' (or perhaps a 'parliamentary corporation' but there isn't.

Bringing in an outside CEO is probably the #1 mistake, but I would guess that the board was free to make that decision with impunity (no rule in place that only existing employees are eligible). The other rule change to board eligibility you describe also likely didn't even have to be ratified by the employees.

In short, no-one thought through your co-op's rules at the outset to avoid this kind of unilateral power grab.

381:

Completely agree with you Glen. Education is the key to freedom, and democracy in action is the vehicle for change.

When it comes to a system or dogma its only as good as the individuals and their consciences behind it. After all, Communism combined has killed millions of people in Poland, Russia and Cambodia thanks to Pol Pot and others(see Criticisms of Communist Party Rule). The Bill Gates foundation donated 55 million dollars to the third world and improving the lives of people. And Warren Buffett matched that amount. These are individuals behind corporations that have a social conscience.

Part of the human condition is adaptation. Corporations have adapted to Lawmakers and vice versa in an increasingly complex way. The pendulum swings back and forth through history.

Maybe Wikileaks is the start of another swing?

382:

cont.

To be sure, it took a while to figure out how to avoid these kinds of problems in the design of nation states (and given our current troubles, we still don't have it right), so it isn't too surprising that the corporate model is still exemplified by feudal-style organizations (albeit with a bit more upward mobility), and that co-ops still generally fail in approximately the same ways as the typical peasant's revolt.

383:

Supply side economics is the worship of greed. Greed is a very personal thing. For the greedy, corporations are a means to enable that base emotion.

384:

ajay @ 362:

The US also strategically bombed Cambodia, supposedly a neutral country, during the Vietnam War.

But I think Charlie has the right of it: it's not about who committed more acts of aggression, the USA or the USSR. It's about the fact that both of them have acted as imperial powers with intent to hegemonize over some significant period of time. I would not have liked to live in the USSR or Imperial Russia before it1, but on the other hand I have been the target of anti-semitism in the USA.

1. I'm Jewish, if that's not obvious from my name; all 4 of my grandparents got the hell out before the First World War. Some of their relatives who didn't suffered for it.

385:

andrew said: Funny though, that countries with lots of corporations and a minimum of fetters do better than those without as many and more restrictions.

On the balance corporations have been a good thing for humanity.

Andrew -- define "do better". I think you will find that you are defining it purely financially. Or, if you think you are also talking about quality of life, you are wrong. Quality of life is generally better is modern countries that have less rapacious corporations. Life is better in countries that have more equality of income/wealth. Life is better in countries that have better social safety nets. and, no, it doesn't matter that they have higher taxes, because as long as everyone is taxed the same, your buying power is still ranked the same.

386:

Charlie @ 360
Erm - Korea?
No. The invasion came from the N, and had the insane Kim in charge - so McArthur (for all his many faults) was not wrong - the war was already in progress.
And the USSR was failed from the start - look at Lenin's background and history - he had a personal bone to pick with the Romanov's, but allowed that to wash over everything.
The N.E.P was forced on to him by circumstances.

GENERALLY:
My wife, who works professionally in corporate and charity tax (NOT for the Revenue) read all this, and made some notes.
She tends to be "legalist" about this, as one might expect, and, in my opinion is not seeing the wood for the trees, but:
All corporations and companies are, ulimately, owned by individual people. The fact that large numbers of those people have completely abdicated their share/property-owning responsibilities to the "management" is their fault.
Re. Tesco and Vodaphone - the Guardian's financial reporting is even more erratic and error-prone than Prive Eye's "In the City".

To which I might add - but ....
What happens when legitimate shreholders DO stand up in a giant corporations' AGM and start asking really awkward questions, as is their legal right?
Well, someone tried it last year [ I can't remember where - perhaps someone can remind us? ] and was physically assaulted by the management's hired goons, and thrown out of the building (I remember the photographs).
When told of this, my wife's reaction was that the people who ordered this - the company board - should have been immediately arrested by the police, for criminal assault.
Interesting .....

387:

Hah. Your talk of Asimov's Laws reminds me of this:

http://threelaws.nicalderton.com/

Very relevant. The three laws as applied to huge, slavering entities.

388:

#383 "The US also strategically bombed Cambodia, supposedly a neutral country, during the Vietnam War" -

Similarly with Laos, which IIRC was the single nation most bombed during the "Vietnam War".

389:

Ref #385 on Korea. Well, all the reports I've read support the view that NK were the original agressors, but they were all written by Merkins, who may be "unreliable narrators". (This is certainly true of accounts of Vietnam; compare and contrast a typical "war history" with books like Jon Mangold's "The Tunnels of Cu Chi" and Giap (biography of the man himself). I'm not saying these are accurate either, but they certainly cast doubt on the total accuracy of Merkin accounts of 'nam (except individual memoirs from tactical level personnel who were in theatre).)

I'd take some issue with your charactorisation of Kim Jung Il as "insane"; he is now, but that doesn't mean that he was 60 years ago.

390:

Yes, never said Grenada wasn't an invasion.

391:

@ 387
I was thinking of Kim Il-Song "the Great Leader"
As opposed to Kim Jung-Il "the Dear Leader".
And no, there wasn't any doubt that the North invaded the South, and got remarkably close to covering the whole place.
There was a pretty desperate stand, by the few remaining half-trained S Koreans, and a small number (relatively) of US troops around the Pusan (?) perimeter. It was the Inchon landings (which I can JUST remember) that turned it.
Both Korean sides commttied terrible atrocities. The S, Lorean "leader" Syngman Rhee was nearly jailed/executed by the US (It would have been better if they had - see Bodo League Massacre). The N similarly murdered many thousands, out of hand, both in their intial drive South, and of their "own" population.

392:

Well, all the reports I've read support the view that NK were the original agressors, but they were all written by Merkins, who may be "unreliable narrators".

Maybe you should read some accounts by Brits. Or Chinese. Or Russians. (Can't think of good ethnic slurs for them off hand, but I'm sure you can add some in.) Pretty much all of them (except the ones written by North Koreans) will give the same picture: a NK invasion of the South.

I'd take some issue with your charactorisation of Kim Jung Il as "insane"; he is now, but that doesn't mean that he was 60 years ago.

Sixty years ago Kim Jong Il was nine years old, and, sane or not, had only limited input into the decision-making process. Most accounts I've read indicate that his father, Kim Il Sung, was leader of North Korea in 1950. But then, a lot of those accounts are by Americans, who may be "unreliable narrators".

393:

Laos, which IIRC was the single nation most bombed during the "Vietnam War".

Or, IIRC, ever. More heavily bombed even than Germany or Japan. Two million tons of ordnance.

394:

The amusing thing is that the comment previously number 348 is no longer #348, and a different but still plausible comment #348 has taken its place.

Which was my plan all along, of course.

395:

Greg, MacArthur was a nutjob who wanted to leverage his position i/c UN operations in Korea to kick of WWIII by invading China and drawing the USSR in. Not too unusual among senior US military officers of the era -- consider Curtis LeMay's attempts to provoke WWIII by encouraging his B52 crews to play chicken with Soviet interceptors around the border -- but still, if MacArthur had obeyed orders the Korean war might just have ended 18 months earlier, without the Chinese army getting dragged in.

396:

Yup, pretty much. First, the NK invaded the South. Because the USSR was boycotting the UN Security Council, the UNSC got a resolution through permitting use of force to shove the NKs back to the pre-invasion line. MacArthur was parachuted in to lead the UN forces, which duly pushed the NKs back. The Chinese, NK's northern communist bloc neighbour, became extremely alarmed as their somewhat uncontrolable ally was shoved back, and warned that if UN forces crossed the Yalu River -- north of the 38th parallel -- China would invade. MacArthur duly handed them a casus belli and they dumped 300,000 soldiers into the fray and pushed the UN forces back a ways.

By bone-headedly ignoring warnings of likely Chinese involvement MacArthur prolonged the war by a couple of years, leading to further (huge) civilian casualties. Not good. Whether the Chinese involvement was justifiable ... well, to start with things would have been a lot better if Mao had yanked on Kim's leash, hard, before he tried to invade the south. But in 1950 it's quite possible that nobody in the region had enough of a handle on what was going on to make such ultimata stick: the Chinese communist regime had been in power for months rather than decades. Given the rhetoric coming out of the other side during the cold war it's fairly easy, with 20/20 hindsight, to see why Mao and his politburo might have been very alarmed indeed by MacArthur advancing past the 38th parallel, and when the only tool you've got is the People's Liberation Army, every problem looks like a war.

397:

One of the revelations to come out of the Soviet archives in the early 90s was the amount of time Kim spent persuading Stalin to OK the invasion, against the latter's better instincts.

(Somewhere at home, I have a memoir by a Soviet fighter pilot who fought in Korea. He had a good case for what he was doing, which was in his view protecting North Korean civilians from the USAF's best attempts to flatten the place.)

398:

I have no problem with describing the invasion of North Korea by MacArthur as insane, in a political context.

But I don't see anything morally wrong with doing to North Korea what they tried to do to others. Dictators that destabilize other countries and/or do military invasions, should expect to get worse back. Simple game theory.

Let us be happy that USA had milder reactions to a direct attack on themselves from the Chinese army, than the Chinese had on an attack on an ally...

Just continue judging USA harder than China... :-)

Otoh, if USA had put the foot down when China entered, the North Korean civilians might have been saved from slavery and not been mass starved by the millions. (I saw an article claiming North Koreans are 15 cm shorter on average than South Koreans? "Interesting" experiment in nutrition.)

Maybe MacArthur was the sane one?

If I was an Eastern European, I'd also be pretty pissed about being left to rot in a dictatorship for generations.

399:

@ Charlie 394
I Never said that McArthur didn't need a brain-transplant! He was specifically ordered, by Truman, in person, that he COULD invade the North, but to be VERY CAREFUL when approaching the Yalu River. Which latter, he ignored completely ....

396
Stalin HAD "better instincts" ???
Very noticeable, that as soon as Stalin was dead, the final ceasefire of that war came along.
There was also the awful problem of repatriation of captured presonnel - after the slaughter of the "Vlasov" people returned to Stalin after WWII....
And, suprise [not] a huge number of NK people did NOT want to go back - even Rhee's S. Korea was a better place than Kim's North.
Not nice.

400:

Your view is suprising, but has good points.

As a legal professional I agree that we currently dont have have a working way for punishing cooperations for criminal activities or antisocial behavior.

We try to focus on individuals (ceo, officers) as "criminals" in extreme cases, but this concept almost never works (i.E. the German 'contergan/Thalidomide' case - the company Gruenenthal had sufficient knowledge of contergan causing birth defects, but hesitated to stop selling it as it had 46% market share)

If we accept such "Cooperations" with almost as much rights as persons, we need a code of conduct and some kind of well targeted punishments against them. How about heavy "extra taxes" for bp for 2 years as a punishment for neglecting standards in deep oil drilling? You can fine a human with 1 years income, but you dont have such thing for a cooperation.
How about "killing" (sequestrating and selling it in pieces) banks that damage the whole economy? The problem is that cooperations can do what they like and get away with it.

401:

#390, 391 and 395 - Can I plead "before my time", with mitigation that I was more interested in the Middle East (refer to "Books I won't Write subseries for info on just how well I know the ME nations' OrBats)?

402:

"...but they were all written by Merkins, who may be 'unreliable narrators'."

American Heritage Dictionary:

merkin n. A pubic wig for women.

[Alteration of obsolete malkin, lower-class woman, mop, from Middle English, from Malkin, diminutive of the personal name Matilda.]

There are just too many jokes to be made here...

403:

I did not know that. It's also the latest Interweb term for persons native to the USA.

404:

For suitable values of 'latest'. I certainly saw it in common use back in the 1990s.

It's down to the ability of some American politicians to mangle their pronunciation, leading to such words as 'nukular'. In their mouths, 'American' iteslf can end up as 'Murkan' or 'Merkin'.

The very inappropriateness of the word's original meaning led to the appropriation of the nickname.

405:

Gould's claim that if you rerun the tape you get a different outcome is only half true. Organisms are very malleable and their evolution is highly contingent, but niches tend to have long-term stability and the forms of the organisms filling those niches tend to converge on the local optimum.

That's why you have marsupials that look like wolves, and (extinct) reptiles and mammals that look like fish.

We need to be careful about drawing Darwinian analogies, however. In a Darwinian system, fitness is a function of reproductive success and nothing else, but corporations don't tend to reproduce, aside from spin-offs. The evolution of corporations has much more in common with Lamark's ideas with corporation able to borrow successful adaptations from other corporations.

That said, I think that you're right to view corporate interests as basically inhuman. Corporations are explicitly not working for the greater good and the theory that the invisible hand of the market will magically and invariably pull the market into a state that benefits society as a whole is little more than a modern superstition.

406:

For any value of "latest" which does not require the writer to be aware of a more recent synonym for the term defined! :-D Which is probably pretty much all of them.

407:

Well, you mentioned teh intawebby thing. And when it comes to that, anything older than 6 months is suspiciously ancient.

But yes, it may well be a term that has been slowly seeping across the 'net for a while, and has only just recently dampened the particular areas that you frequent.

408:

If I was an Eastern European, I'd also be pretty pissed about being left to rot in a dictatorship for generations.

Speaking as a western European, I'm really glad nobody seriously tried to "liberate" them. Given that the general NATO strategy was "we fight with conventional weapons until we're losing, then we fight with battlefield nukes until we're losing, then we blow up the world," I think that overall things worked out pretty much for the best in 1989. (Especially as I never lived more than 5km away from a strategic nuclear target until after the end of the cold war; by 1970 estimates of the UK's likely death toll in an east/west war had climbed to over 90% at six months.)

409:

More alarmingly, the USSR never really accepted the whole concept of escalation (if you have weapons, it's stupid not to use them), and intended, IIRC, to use nukes from the off.

410:

Hey - I was thinking the exact same thing, especially given Russ' interest in "emergent" behaviour. He'd probably take issue with the use of verbs implying agency to the corps such as "decide".

Personally I think if you can use those words to describe human minds in all their fragmentation and multiple sub-personalities, you can use them for entities one size order up. That is if we use agency as a short cut to describe the emergent process of interacting brain cells producing human action and thought. We can use it for beings built out of humans instead of cells.

411:

@ 405:

Gould's claim that if you rerun the tape you get a different outcome is only half true. Organisms are very malleable and their evolution is highly contingent, but niches tend to have long-term stability and the forms of the organisms filling those niches tend to converge on the local optimum.

That's why you have marsupials that look like wolves, and (extinct) reptiles and mammals that look like fish.

This where you get those "but this is we've always said . . . " formulations that converge to a common orthodoxy. Without pinning down precisely what is meant, there is lots of room for honest disagreement and misinterpretations of what people have said. Eyes have separately evolved how many times? The same thing for flight in the Earthly atmosphere. But other attributes, like tetrapodal land-dwelling chordates seem highly contingent. So the question then is whether or not to categorize four- and six-legged tigers as being essentially "the same".

We need to be careful about drawing Darwinian analogies, however. In a Darwinian system, fitness is a function of reproductive success and nothing else, but corporations don't tend to reproduce, aside from spin-offs. The evolution of corporations has much more in common with Lamark's ideas with corporation able to borrow successful adaptations from other corporations.

Iow, corporations are Shoggoths :-)

412:

Best summary of the problem and our truly dire situation -- as living, breathing, social human beings -- that I've read. How to fix? I've been pondering that one for years and I don't see one.

413:

Charlie, I think it's important to be explicit about what kind of nutjob MacArthur actually was. (This also applies to LeMay.) They weren't suicidal. They correctly believed, and I stress correctly, that the United States could win a nuclear war against the Soviets. They were not suicidal. They simply didn't care about Russian or European casualties.

In 1961, U.S. planners estimated that the USSR Strategic Rocket Forces fielded only between ten and twenty-five missiles capable of hitting the Western Hemisphere. The source of the estimate is the Central Intelligence Agency, TS#142423-c, “Intelligence Assumptions for Planning: Soviet ICBM Sites, 19611967,” November 9, 1961. (Those estimates were accurate: we now know that the Soviets had only ten operational ICBMs at that year, of dubious reliability.)

American air defenses, meanwhile, were very good. The Soviet Tu-85 didn't enter operation until 1951, and only two were built. The Tu-95 didn't enter operation until 1956, by which point the United States not only had massive air cover over Canada ... but had deployed nuclear-tipped antiaircraft systems around American cities.

It was extreme cold-bloodedness, not extreme hot-headedness, what characterized MacArthur and LeMay. They weren't insane. They were worse. They were immoral.

414:

in attempts to keep the co-op model thing going myself and two other partners started a LLC to start out because we a wary of going non-profit lest we eventually be tossed out by a board that does not share a core values. Essentially our business model relies upon locating vacant city lots that are either empty due to neglect of simply waiting to be built upon when market conditions improve. We then establish watering rites with the current landlord in exchange for taking care of their unsightly lots which have but them in bad graces with their neighbors. In exchange we are allowed to grow organic produce which we sell directly on-line and at a high end farmers market. We just finished our forth year and have doubled in sales each of the four years. All of our revenue has been invested back into the business for a tiller, greenhouse, refrigeration etc. We haven't taken out any loans and owe nothing to any banks. We have been featured many times in local papers and minnesota public radio and right now we cant' keep up with demand. If we were to go the non-profit road more land ie.(city land) may become available but I then worry success may co-opt us in a way my prior story illuminated. Any ideas for the way forward? How do we expand without taking advantage of low paid workers? I can imagine starting apprenticeships with low income youth as a way to train them with useful skills and help their self esteem, but how to do this without being non-profit? My many meetings with city leaders and the mayor have been positive in at least lip service, but they are dubious to give us land since we aren't non-profit. Any suggestions from anyone?

415:

The USSR made plans for a retaliatory capability which would survive even an all-out first strike from the US. This dead-man trigger was known as the "Perimeter System" or "Dead Hand", and it is likely still in place in Russia. See the Sept. 2009 Wired article Inside the Apocalyptic Soviet Doomsday Machine.

416:

I hadn't realized it when I wrote the above, but Richard Holbrooke had only a few hours left to live. On Friday 12/10 he had been admitted to the hospital with an aortic dissection and entered surgery the following day for 20 hours. His last words were: "stop the war".
(It wasn't quite the way it sounded - see this brief Washington Post article - but still good last words for anybody.)

417:

Corporate evolution probably resembles most closely cultural evolution, that is it is both Lamarkian and memetic.

The 'hive mind' rhetoric is clearly a bit overblown, as the closest biological equivalent is likely something like a slime-mold, which is composed of amoebas that spontaneously congregate, or perhaps a bio-film, except that modern corporations are slightly more differentiated internally, exhibiting common organs or organelles like marketing departments.

One interesting thing about all this is the way that the web has prodded the corporate ecology into becoming more complex, with such innovations as 'affiliate marketing' and 'contextual advertising' becoming standardized features of commerce, enriching the ways in which companies can signal each other about the environment (via what are admittedly very simple protocols) without necessarily interposing humans to interpret the signals and make a decision, and thus prompting new varieties of parasitism and symbiosis.

418:

I think eusocial insects are a better model for corporations than slime molds: the individual organisms are more complex and more independent, yet they each operate within the behavioral limits of their role in the community. "Hive mind" is still a bit of a stretch; bees and ants and such have hive behaviors, but the hives don't have what you could call a consciousness or a single purposive thread of cognition.

419:

You can still go the non-profit route. NPO's, despite their superficial similarity, can actually have a wide variety of charters and bylaws, and there is nothing that prevents you from innovating a little (not too much though, you probably don't want to enter entirely uncharted waters).

However, rather than concentrate on whether you can be tossed out by a board, I would suggest that you would be better served by attending to ways in which the organization you create can be prevented from drifting away from the purposes for which you create it, and that can survive your leaving (should you choose to do so) or getting hit by a bus.

420:

There are points of similarity to both, but the weakness of the comparison to eusocial insects (and for that matter naked mole rats) is that there is no 'queen' that spawns the corporations workers. Slime molds spontaneously associate.

Neither is a perfect analogy.

421:

There's no mystery. All you have to do is read Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West", and everything will become crystal clear to you.

It's even available for free in PDF form for those who are too cheap to buy the dead-tree version.

http://www.archive.org/details/Decline-Of-The-West-Oswald-Spengler

422:

Check out the "Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy" by Marjorie Kelly. She hit on a paradigm of corporations as feudal barons who have outlived their usefulness to us humans but are just peaking in their power curve. She predicts/advocates for a paradigm shift much like the Renaissance where we realize that corporations are doing very little for us while claiming large swaths of wealth just cuz, and we up and change things.

One example is that shareholders yank more money out of corporate stock than contribute. (See Flow of Federal Funds on stock market flows: there has been a net draining of capital from corporations going on for decades now that I can't get any economist to explain.) The stockholders are the body snatchers that make the corporate leviathans the sociopathic creatures that Charlie describes here. More corporations are going privately held to avoid the drain that public stock shareholders are becoming. At the same time those same corps are building a legal and political fortress against any accountability for their actions.

http://books.google.com/books?id=0nVIJfhZiV4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=the+divine+right+of+capital+dethroning+the+corporate+aristocracy&source=bl&ots=u4uVVxDp5-&sig=8c2hnxWw03QuMkXalDsoyVd19Ac&hl=en&ei=thgITaubFoK0lQfkpYHhCw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&sqi=2&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

423:

This is the neatest, clearest, most succinct and accurate summary of why we are where we are that I've yet seen. Sadly.

424:

i like the analogies of insect and slime mold but where is the corporations fruiting body, it seems to me it as rather asexual then eusocial, unless you want to say their sex or replication is all memetic and takes place through mergers and aquisitions thus at least changing their phenotypic variance. like a new logo or slogan. Although I do suppose the change diet enough(oil,plastic, fibers, rubber), where a case could be made that they do indeed speciate.

425:

Considering that I likely didn't live much further from strategic targets my whole Cold War-portion of my life...yeah, I'd say the Cold War ended pretty damned well from my personal POV. Seeing what a lot of other people were being put through on a daily basis across the planet by both sides, though, I have to wonder if we couldn't have done a better job of handling it.

426:

Who are the majority stockholders in most corporations?

PENSION FUNDS.
In the uS, it's well over 50%, and in the UK it's between 25-30%.
That's right.
All that evil corprate greed is going to pay John Does' pension.
Now what?

427:

#408 and #425 - Likewise. My view of a nuclear escalation of WW3 was pretty much "well, I won't really care, because within 5 minutes of it happening, I'll be a cloud of irradiated gas!"

428:

There's a campaign running in the UK to get a recording of John Cage's 4'33" to Number One in the UK singles chart. This means that it gets played on various radio programs.

(Google on "Cage Against The Machine".)

There are rumours that the engineers are. just in case, checking how this can be broadcast, without triggering automatic systems detecting silence--"dead air"--as an error condition.

A potential cause of dead air used to be a nuke on central London, taking out Broadcasting House. It has been rumoured that a prolonged silence of the BBC 1500m transmitter was mentioned in the orders given to commanders of British SSBNs.

One hopes that nobody gets over-excited about silence on BBC Radio One.

429:

Try network analysis as a potentially powerful and political tool: http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/category/networks-and-rhizomes/

430:

They weren't insane. They were worse. They were immoral.

Yes, I'm with you 100% there.

Note that while the USSR circa 1958 may have only had about 20-25 ICBMs that could strike the continental USA, they had a metric buttload ready to unload on western Europe. LeMay and MacArthur's attitude reminds me somewhat of the allied generals during WW1: so goal-focussed that they became reckless with other people's lives.

(I think we've ended up with a much better outcome as a result of the Soviet system dying of natural causes: it may have taken longer to go, but compared to the mass casualties of a nuclear war ... it's enough to give me the cold shudders.)

431:

One of my nieces' grandfather joined up to fight in the Korean War. He was Chinese, and MacArthur was talking about invading Manchuria, so he quit university and joined the PLA. Chinese involvement, at least at the 'everyday person' levels, was more a matter of homeland defense. He viewed the initial Korean attack as a pre-emptive strike* — South Korea had been threatening to invade the North.

This is hearsay, of course — what a retired PLA officer told a foreigner, as translated by a rather bored teenager. The bits I've been able to check match other sources, but as he had a front-line view of the war rather than one from the command bunker it sheds light on the motivations of Chinese soldiers rather than Chinese leaders.

*A doctrine that is, apparently, still considered perfectly valid as a reason for attacking another country.

432:

Thanks Robert. Hearsay, as you say, but it does support my view that you should never treat an event that has 2 sides, and you only have accounts from one side to rely on, as being described by "reliable narrators".

Ok, even accepting that NK moved first, if your relative's account of that the Chinese believed (not just were told; they seem to have accepted that what they were told was true), it was "get your retaliation in first", rather than military adventurism IMO.

433:

While your argument about corporations makes some sense, I would point out that states as entities have been around a lot longer

OTOH, we recognize that states aren't corporations. Different laws apply to them than apply to people, and they are geographically tied in a way that corporations aren't.

434:

Well, mostly.

Some of them do shimmy about a bit, and the Roman Empire had effectively decamped a few hundred miles to the east by 500 AD or so.

The Merchant Princes novels show a more extreme case of that.

But yes, at any particular point, a state really, really, doesn't want to have to move.

435:

On the theme of biological analogies to modern corporations, it strikes me that since 'The Corporation' is an interesting exercise in psychoanalyzing the corporation as if it were an actual person, A similar exercise in analyzing the corporation as if it were an actual organism would be just as fascinating.

E.O. Wilson comes to mind.

436:

I totally agree with you MR Stross. With the incredibly powerful lobbying mechanisms in place in many Western democracies, it is arguable that modern democracy is government of the corporations by the corporations for the corporations.

One of the things that interests me about it is the extent to which normal nice pleasant people will go along with the "sociopathic" tendencies of the corporation that they work for. They are quite happy to be a part of doing things for the corporation that they would never dream of doing as individuals.

437:

Some of them do shimmy about a bit, and the Roman Empire had effectively decamped a few hundred miles to the east by 500 AD or so.

More the exception than the rule, except for nomads. Being governed by nomads was never pleasant for more sedentary folks.

438:

I'd not considered nomads, to be honest. I was more thinking about how non-island state borders tend to shift over the centuries. Poland lurched westwards somewhat at the end of WWII, due to losing its eastern territories to the Soviets, while gaining a fair chunk of Germany.

The Roman Empire was a somewhat egregious example, with the fall of Constantinople being centuries after the loss of Rome.

439:

One of the things that interests me about it is the extent to which normal nice pleasant people will go along with the "sociopathic" tendencies of the corporation that they work for.

I think that Stanley Milgram can provide an answer to that question.

440:

Can you tell me three wars started the last century, where the aggressor didn't claim it was a preemptive strike? :-)

We should remember that the North Korea junta enslaved their population for generations -- e.g. not allowing them to travel/emigrate and forbid them all non-controlled information.

Arguable, if MacArthur had used nukes, he might have saved millions of North Koreans from dying in hunger. And we don't know yet how many will die from the nuclear weapons tech which NK seems to be exporting. It might even be some uf us, inside a decade.

The brutal dictatorship looks like the real Chomsky-corporation. :-)

441:

Sure: The Falklands War, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the Yom Kippur War. In none of these cases did the aggressor claim it was a pre-emptive strike.

(NB: you may quibble that the Falklands thing was a "conflict", not a "war", because there was no actual declaration of war because that would have required Argentina or the UK to violate the UN Treaty. To which, I will pre-emptively blow a loud, fat raspberry -- if it involves bombers and aircraft carriers and amphibious invasions and jets dogfighting overhead, it's a war! And much the same can be said of the other two conflicts, modulo the amphibious landings.)

As for MacArthur using nukes in Korea, you need to look at the broader context ... namely that it would have pretty much forced Stalin to escallate. With whatever nukes the USSR had back then, and the Red Army: we're talking about world war three kicking off in 1951, and no, I don't think it would have turned out for the best.

442:

OK, point. Not everyone was as sensitive a person as Hitler et al, which faked a reason for attacks.

Obviously, it is hard to do that when trying to steal a bit of territory, etc. (-: And of course, invading and exterminating Israel would be something to brag about for an Arab nation. :-)

Deadline at work.

I don't know either if e.g. a couple of quick nuclear tests in the Korean Bay would have made China back down. We do know that the "peace in our time" handling got millions of civilians murdered by NK. But sure, with the information had at the time, I might have screamed for MacArthur's lynching, too...

443:

I don't know either if e.g. a couple of quick nuclear tests in the Korean Bay would have made China back down.

MacArthur was talking about bombing Manchuria, to eliminate industrial capability and block supply lines. Hardly a couple of quick nuclear tests. (And given this would have killed my niece's parents as children, not a "what if?" I think highly of.)

444:

I don't think some of your readers are getting it, Charlie.

We now know that the Soviet Union had five deployable nuclear warheads in 1951, with a yield of approximately 20 kilotons each. (My go-to work on this is Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces, published 2001.) Five nuclear explosions over Germany, and possibly France or Britain, would have been horrifying, but not, sad to say, outside the scale of 1939-45 war.

Over the course of calendar 1951, the U.S. increased the number of bomber-deployable atomic devices in its stockpile from 298 to 438. War plans called for using all of them in a sustained campaign.

The danger in 1951 --- unlike 1961 --- was not that Western Europe would be atom-bombed. Rather, it was that the Soviet Union held conventional superiority, and would rapidly destroy Allied formations ... in response to which the United States would kill millions of Soviet citizens.

A Roman peace. Truman did not want that blood on his hands. MacArthur did not care.

445:

Since there is some discussion of invasions, you might find this list of US military interventions since 1890 useful. For example, most of us don't remember that the US send troops to Honduras seven times (1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924-25, 1983-89), Nicaragua eight times, or our brutal war in the Philippines (which has some parallels with our current wars—the spiral of history).

446:

#444 - I'm not sure if I'm included in "some of the readers" or not.

My main point is that "the truth" in "who started $war and why?" is often a variable rather than an absolute. To make it become an absolute, you need unbiassed study of the intel and planning meetings on both sides.

On the point about "number of nukes" I'd say you're using 20/20 hindsight, and "human wave" tactics only work when the side using them have overwhelming numbers, the preparedness to use them, and the fanaticism amongst the PBI to actually drive the wave home. Other than (aledgedly) the Russians in the "Great Patriotic War" (their name, and used advisedly) and the Vietnamese in the "French Indo-Chinese War" (forerunner to the Vietnam War), I'm not familiar with any case where human wave has been used, and certainly none where it's been used successfully by the invader.

447:

[other than USSR in WW2 and Vietnam] I'm not familiar with any case where human wave has been used,

* Blinks in surprise *

How the fuck do you think the Battle of the Somme was fought? Or the Kaiserschlacht, or most of the other major engagements of the first world war?

How do you think Iran operated during the Iran-Iraq war? (Are you too young to remember the TV footage?)

You don't need "fanaticism" among the PBI to drive a human wave attack -- you just need rear echelons with machine guns and nooses threatening to kill them if they so much as look over their shoulders. (The promise of 72 virgins in paradise only works if your earlier human waves have killed all the adults and you're handling rifles to 14 year olds.) (Caveat: Iran was using them in defense of the homeland, though. Ditto the USSR. And both sides on the western front probably thought they were defending the fatherland, because the war had gotten started elsewhere and they perceived their nations as being under attack.)

448:

I thought human wave was used by the Chinese in Korea at the Imjin river in Korea. Outnumbered something like 30 to one, the British troops kept firing until they ran out of ammunition, but the CHines kept attacking repeatedly, despite taking horrendous casualties.

449:

#447 and 448 - I thought we'd already established that my knowledge of history is patchy at best? Accepting your premise that the tactic (if not the name) was regularly employed on the Western Front in WW1, does "...where human wave has been successfully* used..." work?

*for values of successfully that require you to hold the territory won rather than lose it in the "other lot's" next offensive.

450:

Yes, human wave attacks sometimes work. See #448 for an example.

451:

My comment at #8 did not say how the comparative advantage worked or claim that it would exist beyond a very particular moment in time. For example, the comparative benefit of the "American corporate" form might be efficiency, adaptability, etc. Or it might be the benefit of easier communication/cooperation with the most powerful actor on the contemporary stage. I merely suggested that adopting it might have given a comparative advantage and not adopting it might have led to large short term disadvantage. Quibbling over whether I should have said "environmental pressure/factors/filters" over using "evolutionary pressure" as short hand seems a bit pointless. On the other hand, I was too cryptic when I said I was not claiming the form was "natural." I should have said it was not inevitable or overly determined. Though the Gould quote seems a bit glib: nature does seem to really "want" crocodiles, ants and sharks.

452:

"Human wave" tactics are partly an extension of earlier infantry tactics. The movie I'd point to is Waterloo. That gives you a feel for the troop density of infantry battles. And the human waves did often work: firepower was short range, and not very effective. Contemporary descriptions emphasise that firefights didn't work.

Jump forward a half century, and there's the American Civil War, with routine use of rifled muskets. Then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, with breech-loading rifles appearing. Both wars challenged the old Napoleonic approach, but many of the responses were limited improvements. Formations became less rigid, and soldiers started to run, reducing the time they were exposed to the enemy's fire.

Jump another 50 years, and we've had the Second Boer War. Don't think that other European Armies ignored the lessons. The German Army was trained to drop prone when they came under fire, which made the fabled British rapid-fire of 1914 look a good deal more effective than it was. The Russo-Japanese War had proved that infantry could still make effective attacks against entrenched troops with machine guns.

I wouldn't call the attacks of 1918 human waves. The Kaiserschlacht involved Stormtrooper tactics, which also ripped through the Russian and Italian Armies. They had worked out how to give effective artillery support. Organisations had moved on from the rifle-only battalion (the machine guns had been a supporting sub-unit in 1914) which could trace its lineage to the invention of the bayonet. The British Army of 1918 was far better trained than the Army of 1916, and used the fire-and-movement tactics which had been in the official manuals before the war.

So I'd say the human wave was an old and successful tactic, largely supplanted by the end of WW1. But it didn't vanish. It could still succeed.

It's still a shockingly wasteful way of making an attack. At the Imjin River the UN forces suffered 1310 casualties, including prisoners, the Chinese attackers between 7000 and 10000.

453:

from #446 "...Vietnamese in the 'French Indo-Chinese War'...", Dien Bien Phu for example. I did not say that the tactic never worked; only that it rarely worked, and required very committed infantry to be truly successful (gain and then hold territory).

454:

Dave Bell, you says
"and used the fire-and-movement tactics which had been in the official manuals before the war."

Which is interesting - I got the impression from reading Sheffield's book "Forgotten Victory" that the 1918 british army was basically using tactics which were new, a well tuned combined arms type of fighting which was unlike that which had been used before.

455:

I can see Dave's point, but weren't the ACW and and WW1 the first 2 significant wars to use artillery and trench warfare? Where human wave and/or shoot and scoot comes in is crossing the ground between the 2 front trnches, and I can see a need for modifying tactical doctrine for using the artillery from the initial "barrage then infantry charge" tactic, then add techniques for working with the new invention of the tank during WW1...

456:

You missed the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. As for artillery, it goes back a lot further than the ACW!

457:

Charlie -

Have you ever been known to surf? I jest of course.

While the DPRK may have fired the first shots in the 1950 - 53 war, the link here argues that this was just the final incident in a long episode of provocations, which in turn were part of an ongoing conflict between the guerrillas who formed the DPRK and those who had fought for the Japanese on the other side.

http://bleiersblog.blogspot.com/2007/11/bruce-cumings-and-if-stone-south-korea.html

I claim no expert knowledge on this one, but it sounds convincing to me.

458:

Not being able to speak (or read) Korean I'm in no position to refer to original sources, but it sounds plausible -- especially knowing what we do about anti-Japanese resistance fighters in other bits of Indochina, and what happened after WW2 ended (hint: Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, etcetera) and in bits of Europe (again: see also Yugoslavia, and what nearly happened in Greece).

This doesn't in any way excuse the way the Kim dynasty subsequently ran the DPRK, but it certainly would explain it.

459:

There's a lot of information available, and you're right that the overall tactical system, by the time of the Battle of Amiens, had developed enormously, with tanks, artillery, and aircraft. But the regular Army of 1914, the contemptible little army, did use fire and movement. So did a few of the better-trained battalions on the First Day of The Somme. There really was a problem in getting the volunteer army, and then the conscript army, properly trained.

The basic section/platoon/company structure, which still holds in the British Army, came into use in 1913. While light machine guns, grenades rocket launchers, and the like all came into use, in various forms, the basic platoon-level mix of weapons which had emerged by 1917 is still in use.

460:

The source for the description of the start of the Korean war is this left wing professor, which has been accused of white washing:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Cumings#Allegations_of_a_pro-North_Korea_bias

It seems hard to blame the war on the South Korea, since any browsing of the Wikipedia page shows that the South was not at all prepared for a war with the North -- a trivial air force, no(!) tanks, etc.

(A bit shocking, I didn't know that the NK army killed intellectuals and civil servants in areas it took over; a preview from 1950 of the Khmer Rouge! Shudder...)

461:

Ryk -- but elections are almost always voting for the lesser of two evils. That's the normal state of affairs.

462:

Evan --- The real growth-maximizing policy seems to be East Asian-style state coordination of corporations for national development ends, basically. No less corporate, but less bent on maximizing inequality.

Are you saying that China's blend of Communism and Fascism may be the thing that will out-compete our American style corporatism and win the day?

463:

andrew said: And my contention is that Germany is less heavily regulated than most countries in the world. Yes, more heavily regulated than the US and doing better. Which may argue for a certain level of regulation being key.

Regulated or not, the thing that is different about German corporations is that the Boards of Directors have a big percentage of workers on it, not just bosses. The regulations in Germany have lots of input by the people who actually do the work, not just the capitalists.

464:

The Labour Party in the UK used to be dominated by workers too. They were the ones who had come through the trades union movement. Looking at the life stories, the number who started out near the bottom of the society of their time is remarkable, and they were obviously exceptional men.

Taking the UK Parliament as a whole, I reckon the mix of MPs was pretty balanced in the middle years of the last century. I think we've lost that, maybe as a side effect of the long Thatcher era when the Labour old guard didn't succeed in winning elections, and were replaced by a new generation with different origins.

When I first voted, there really was a choice.

465:

@ 464
Yes, but ....
The "workers" in the Labour party didn't seem interested in HELPING TO RUN the state-owned industries.
The National Coal Board, for instance, was deliberately set up as a state version of the old mine-owning-bosses structure, with "us and "them" perpetuated.
Ditto the docks, where casual labour, and daily hiring, and theft and corruption were institutionalised.
It took the ralway workers to break that stranglehold, when the dockers tried to take over railway sidings, as containers were coming in - happened only 3-4 miles from here, at Stratford (where the "olympics" are going up - shudder). Very intersting, in a Chinese sense.
NEVER, AFAIK was a syndicalist model or a co-operative model tried, which was a dreadful waste of an opprtunity.

466:

Thanks for that Bernt. I'd never heard of Prof. Cumings before alighting upon that link. I'd been looking for stuff on IF Stone's "Hidden History of the Korean War", which is how I found it.

Prof. C. may well be a wrong 'un where the NK regime is concerned; and I agree entirely that the gentlemen in Pyongyang are a shower of bastards. The specific argument alluded to in that link, however, is not inconsistent with those propositions.

Also, the link doesn't blame the war on 'the South', it blames it on provocations of a clique of former quislings for the Japanese (the vast majority of people in north and south alike would have been highly unlikely to desire a war, or at least so I would assume). They might not have been well-armed themselves, but they probably knew they could rely on the military might of Washington.

467:

Further on this, I've not followed through all the links and references, but IMO the quote in the Biography section of Prof C's Wikipedia article actually shares out blame for the Korean War between the USA and USSR more or less equally.

This in no way excuses NK's treatment of captives; just saying that the question of "who fired the first shot?" is not the same as "who/what caused the war?" IMO.

468:

#456 "You missed the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. As for artillery, it goes back a lot further than the ACW!"

Not "missed" but "didn't know of" the cited conflict. My knowledge of history post Stewart/Tudor Britain is largely self-educated and therefore patchy. Similarly with all but the broadest brush-strokes of non-British history of any period.

As for the use of artillery, I was thinking of its use in roles other than direct fire against mass formations, fortifications and other artillery. Specialist historians in the field consider the ACW to be the first "trench/artillery war".

469:

I would be very careful about taking anything Bernt says at face value: so far, on the basis of his comments, he looks to me to have a rather sharp-edged right wing axe to grind.

470:

Ezra @381:

I'm not impressed with a donation of $55 million coming from a man who owns $46.6 billion. That's about the same as if I donated $10. It's ok as a gesture, but that's about it.

471:

C.S. @396:

No doubt MacArthur was no saint. I still think it's a little harsh to call him boneheaded, though. He was up against a very, very dangerous regime. These people have proven their willingness to indiscriminately kill literally millions of people again and again.

If he was going to use any and all means necessary to push them back I can't say I blame him. I believe it can't be held against him that he ultimately failed.

472:

erald, you're confusing past and future awareness of events. Which is a symptom of generally confused thinking.

Hint: "He was up against a very, very dangerous regime" is an assertion of a state of affairs in the past tense -- describing, presumably, MacArthur's awareness of events. "These people have proven their willingess to ... again and again" is a more recent perspective, invoking subsequent events that MacArthur would have had no basis for awareness of. Why do you think he should have behaved on the basis of events that had not at that time occured?

Also, you're indulging in the usual passtime of dehumanizing the rival by attributing bloodthirsty traits to them and implying that they're incapable of change, as justification for the use of nuclear weapons against them. In my experience, when somebody starts ranting about the evils of some other group and the need to take extreme violent action against them, they're projecting.

473:

Its starts with this great blog post by Charles Stross telling us that we experience the aftermath of an alien invasion since we are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals: Corporations. Remember this comics by Wiley Miller I recently titled Reality principle explained.

A slightly humorous answer came by nobody less than Paul Krugman, musing that Stross, a science-fiction author, seems "stuck in the past". According to Krugman, if the 60's were corporations' years, it is now individualist era.

"These days, we’re living in the world of the imperial, very self-interested individual; the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit."

Ok, we know this story already: the sociology of baby boomer opposed to generation X and head-tailed by generation Y!

Now let's mix Stross and Krugman and imagine a text by Dr Strosman that would depict huge and careless corporations led by young individualists who just want to have fun.

Well... it sounds too familiar not to start being somewhat scary!

PS: Thanks to Jacques le Bris, a translation in French is now available.

474:

What?!

Argue the argument, not the person!

Frankly, I don't see myself as right wing. I tend to argue the opposite of most anyone I talk with.

But I've seen too much of conspiracy theorists from the (Swedish) left wing over the last couple of decades. I tend to see all idealists as just followers of a sort of a religion. And I seldom meet right wing idealists.

Gould, which have been discussed here. is an example.

And re NK/SK, it would surprise me if USA didn't share a large part of the blame for that war. If nothing else, according to the Wikipedia page, they ignored SK signals about the NK buildup for a war. (And personally, I've not much understanding for any dictator, except maybe Singapore... for now.)

475:

An "extreme right wing" perspective [:-)] on MacArthur at the time, might be (I'm not going to look it up) that over the previous decade, he had seen what totalitarian regimes are capable of (not least the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and enslaving of Eastern Europe, etc).

But I'd bet money the real reason is that MacArthur came straight from WW II and an occupation; totally different methods of solutions were acceptable than a decade earlier (or later).

And about projecting total evilness on North Korea, see first paragraph. Also, I'd like to hoist our host on his own petard. :-)

NK is like an old style monarchy with hard external pressure. A bad place to be historically, even in normal circumstances.

476:

The source for the description of the start of the Korean war is this left wing professor

A German friend of mine, talking about Obama, said "he's left wing in America, which puts him somewhere to the right of everyone but the fascists here". I'd be leery of taking a wikipedia political label at face value until I knew who wrote it, and where they draw the line between right and left.


Quoting from the same Wikipedia article: "In May 2007, Cumings was the first recipient of the Kim Dae Jung Academic Award for Outstanding Achievements and Scholarly Contributions to Democracy, Human Rights and Peace granted by South Korea. The award is named in honor of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President of South Korea Kim Dae Jung. The award recognizes Cumings for his "outstanding scholarship, and engaged public activity regarding human rights and democratization during the decades of dictatorship in Korea, and after the dictatorship ended in 1987." Around the time when he received his award Cumings met President Kim at his home in Seoul. "They discussed the North Korean nuclear program, the Korean-American relationship, and what can be done to improve Korean attitudes toward the United States.""

So it sounds like the South Koreans think he's a decent scholar.


I seldom meet right wing idealists.

I meet far too many: neocons who are evangelical about the Invisible Hand and how it will solve every problem if we just have Less Government.

477:

It is not an invasion from Mars, it is just the final death of the Enlightenment.

And the death of the Enlightenment will bring the New Dark Ages....

478:

I think the crux of the corporation problem has two main prongs: one is the fact that short term interest of the slave organisms (the periodic paycheck) clouds the slave organism's view of its long term interest (and indeed the long term interest of the corporate host and society itself). The other is that a corporate organism (for obscene reasons) is never put down or imprisoned for its murderous acts. If we enforced a rule that, if every time a corporation kills or destroys resources and the environment directly or indirectly in a reasonably foreseeable way the entire chain of slave organisms responsible for the decision that led to the crime is held accountable as they would be if they committed these acts outside the corporate host, then I believe much of the destructive behavior of corporate host organisms and their parasitic employees would immediately cease. In that same vein, fines for economic destruction caused by corporations must be, without exception, greater than the profit said corporate organism derived from such economic destruction. These simple rules would help tame our alien invasion. One more rule, any government official that colludes with corporations in order to avoid the above consequences of their actions will be hung by the neck until dead.

This doesn't resolve the first issue of short term versus long term interest but I'm afraid that problem may remain a reality as long as we continue to experience life in a linear temporal manner.

479:

a) Cumings is noted as writing for "New Left review" etc on the wiki page. His politics seems well documented.
b) If you check that S Korean president, he is known for being very, very "soft" on North Korea.
c) You meet "neocons"? Fun! Where I am, we totally lack the US right wing crazies, but we do have lots of the left wing crazies. So my dislike of idealists might be one eyed.

(Btw, I thought the neocons where for a strong state, at least military? Even a bit of corporatism? Never mind, I don't care if I mix them up. :-)

480:

BerntB @ 479
I suggest you look up Syngman Rhee of S. Korea.
He wasn't nice to know either, and was at least peripherally involved in mass murder.
Kim Il Sung was worse, but, so what?
I still maintain the the N started the war, but I am not claiming that the then S leadership were plsater saints.
Got it yet?

481:

I've not seen anyone saying much good about the non-democratic South Korean government.

Let me just note that there are more than 256 levels of gray in the real world. :-)

Here is a fascinating analysis of the background to that level of darkness, which did change my world view:
http://reason.com/archives/2006/03/01/why-poor-countries-are-poor/print

482:

I think of corporations as being like P.K. Dick's androids---no empathy --> predator.

Of course, vampires also naturally come to mind (as someone has already said). In particular, that old crank Van Helsing said something to the effect of 'they don't die unless are killed' but probably more stage-Dutch-y. Take possible immortality, lack of human feeling, and a tendency to drink up our blood like wine....

483:

Not to put too fine a point on it, a quote from BerntB:

" I tend to argue the opposite of most anyone I talk with."

In my book makes you terminally confused...

Now, the thing about living in a world which has been taken over by corporations is that left and right wing don't matter, all that does is the bottom line.
Said organisms will also tend to colonise every niche available, and our good corporate stooges in the gvt are doing their best to make that possible by privatising the NHS one step at a time, and continuing attempts at making our higher education system a private market oriented one, which is not actually a very good idea.
Once every gvt function has been privatised, it will be the end of history. No other way will be possible, since no alternatives to the corporate will are "efficient" or "profitable".

Note also that the BBC governor general is doing as he is told and suggesting the UK needs a channel like fox news:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/17/mark-thompson-bbc-fox-news

The uK needs a channel like fox news like it needs a 50 billion quid bank bailout, oh hang on.
What we need is a public space to discuss things, and a news or current affairs or quality journalism space is not a news channel.

484:

Going right back to the beginning:
At the start of this discussion ...
"Voting doesn't change anything — the politicians always win."
Nothing new - I can remember this from my last days in school in 1964.
However, NOT voting can have even worse consequences.
Two examples.
1] At this year's General Election, I was, effectively, forced to vote Labour, even though I hold the (now-elected MP) in contempt. Whyu? Because the Tory was well to the authoritarian wing of the party (as is the Labour MP) and the Lem-o-Crat, and all his public supporters appeared to be muslim males.
NOT a god choice to make.
2] A few years back, there was a by-election in Docklands, in winter ... turnout, as you might expect was LOW. The reaults (approximately) were Labour 1010, Lem-o-Crat 1005, BNP 1020.
So, the BNP candidate got elected, followed by the most ridiculous outpouring of crap from the national press about this right-wing fascist threat to the nation.

Which is why we need (but I suspect are not going to get) electoral reform.

485:

I do have a feeling that there's some behind-the-scenes manipulation going on to make the Coalition promise on Electoral Reform ineffective. But remember that we do have proportional representation for the European Parliament elections, and that system--large constituencies with several MEPs elected--has given us some BNP MEPs. Expect to see that fact brought up by some.

The system that's been picked for the Referendum is different, and close to that used for the Hugo Awards. (But no equivalent to "No Award".)

It's already been criticised. It's not going to get around the problem of in-party extremists manipulating the selection of a candidate, or of safe seats.

I'm still minded to vote for it. I wouldn't surprised if local-issue protest candidates got a bigger vote, with people using the AV system to record their feelings. knowing that they can still record a vote for a national party.

But will it really make a significant difference to the numbers in Parliament. Maybe, in circumstances as close as this year's election. And maybe we've seen the last of the Swingometer, if this system gets used for the next General Election.

486:

@ 474:

Argue the argument, not the person!

Frankly, I don't see myself as right wing. I tend to argue the opposite of most anyone I talk with.

When the argument is the person, as you yourself admit too . . . In any event, yes you are a right-winger. You could prove me wrong by completely disavowing Cato for the propaganda mill that it is, something you claimed to be unfamiliar with:

A close reading of both studies makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the errors and distortions in the Cato report were deliberate. Without doubt, they were destructive . . .


In their study, the Cato researchers consistently overstated the income of welfare recipients, and consistently understated the income of working people. For example, they counted food stamps as income for welfare families but did not count them as income for the several million working families that receive them.

They counted housing assistance as income for the "typical" welfare family when, in fact, just one in four welfare families receives a rental subsidy. According to the center's study, "Cato adds between $2,000 and $8,600 to the income of the typical A.F.D.C. family in every state on the erroneous assumption that the typical family receives housing assistance."

Then of course, there's their Orwellian memory hole techniques, as recently noted by the Krug Man himself in a recent column on Orwell and the Financial Crisis:

If this sounds familiar, it should. The same thing happened with Social Security privatization. There was a long effort by conservative groups to promote privatization, a term they themselves devised. Cato had a Project on Social Security Privatization. But then, when it turned out that the term polled badly, they began rewriting old records in an attempt to cover up the fact that they had ever talked about it.

No, BerntB doesn't consider himself a right-winger, despite being in a tiny minority here in the U.S., I'm happy to say. But people like him are more than happy to call the vast majority of us who want tax increases on the wealthy to be fringe minority "leftists". It's how they roll. They're not to be taken seriously, for the simple reason that they never enter into a conversation with a willingness to have their mind changed. Think of them as propaganda repeaters, in the same sense as electronic broadcast repeater stations.

I'm not bitter or irate or anything else certain people may want to accuse me of, btw. I'm speaking up merely to observe that it is people like these who have so effectively poisoned socio/politico/economic discourse in my country. They are especially pernicious because of their resort to Frankfurtian Bullshit. The idea being of course not to combat ideas and facts with opposing ideas and cites, something both ancient and honorable, but to overwhelm individual bullshit detectors with bogeys. It's a strategy made necessary by the intertubes as currently implemented.

487:

I've been wracking my old (well, middle-aged, but I'm competing with much younger people) brains trying to come up with sf references to Hofstadters's Ant Hillary that are similar to Charlie's corporate organisms. I'm not talking about telepathic superbeings or the Borg. Just something that fulfills the requirements of being alive or conscious, but several levels of implementation up from the individual organism. All that readily comes to mind is the super-organism from M. A. Foster's "The Day of the Klesh". It is important here that the individuals themselves believe they have free will and don't know that they're part of this higher organism any more than one of the ants in Ant Hillary know they're part of a super-organism. Equally important, I think, is to stress that the super-organism arises not from any woo-woo telepathy! but as the result of perfectly obvious, perfectly visible interactions.

Now, aside from TDotK, I really don't know of anything else in the literature except for one recent read (which is what I've been trying to recall) of sapient, free-willed beings composed of the voluntary and trivial transactions/symbol manipulations of millions (billions?, trillions?) of logged-in users. A Chinese room consciousness. Was this in "House of Suns"? Or maybe something by Schroeder?

488:

To C.S. @472:

It is the priviledge of an analytical mind to be suspicious of dissenting opinions. But while maybe I did try to keep it brief, I don't think I actually confused my timelines.

Disclosure time: I have a background in the legal profession, no more than master but there you have it. Everybody jeer all you want, I'm not ashamed for having studied it. Possibly some episodes of having practised it. Now go away or read carefully.

Not to dwell on it, but for the rest to be understood in the correct context I would like to repeat some obvious points:

The legal profession is a cynical job. Most of the times, no matter who wins, you come out on top if you are a lawyer. As for judges, one that I personally hold to the highest esteem as one of the most diligent I have ever met (and I have met good ones but also quite a few that are sloppy) told me after a drink or three in all earnestness he had never sent down an innocent person. Maybe the wrong person on the wrong charges.

Choke on it (I did for a moment). We all know mistakes are beeing made all the time and that judges can therefore, no matter how scrutinous, never be an exception. For him to operate at all he simply had to take an let's say extremely pragmatic position.

It's hard. You never have anything real to go on, mostly assumptions based on evidence (witness??) that a physicist wouldn't even piss on to put out if on fire.

You could call that relativism. But there is one thing that I'm convinced of: People don't change. If you have two convictions for violent crime, there is an over 65% probability you will see this guy again. And for the rest of them: They just didn't get caught, YET.

Now for North Corea: The exact same individuals of nobility have had their way for over 60 years. What makes you think they have even the slightest inclination to change?

Exceptions can be found in the offspring of dictators, a couple of the Ghadaffi children are said to be very decent people, but even though they may be extremly popular in their countries they are exactly the ones that don't seek power. And they are not the same individuals, but new ones.

Quite a preparation for what I took as a natural assumption: When you have seen reckless behaviour involving several thousand individual persons, what would make me think they are going to go any easier on the next batch?

Now for MacArthur to assume, going on past and present experience, that North Corea wasn't suddenly to become a peaceful regime ->nation was a pretty sound assumption. If you put it into proportion with the number of "friendly" lives that Nazi Germany was willing to sacrifice merely for upholding discipline, another experience that would shock even "Hang Assange Now"-addicts, there you have what might have motivated most of us to do the same, given the circumstances.

489:

If that didn't come out clearly enough, MacArthur simply had a couple of years and thousand lives to base his assumptions on. To me it still makes more sense to think of his actions beeing based on these assumptions than on some demonic evil.

490:

>>When the argument is the person, as you yourself admit too

Well, that is one way of seeing it...

>>You could prove me wrong by completely disavowing Cato for the propaganda mill that it is

As I wrote -- I don't know much about Cato, I do trust the integrity of the guy that wrote that report for them.

If there is a good answer to that, please post it. I'll be grateful and change my opinion. If you can't find/write a good answer, will you change your opinion...?

(Your reference was from 1996. Wikipedia claims that Cato is libertarian and has criticized the Republicans quite hard under the Bush's administrations -- and works well with the Democrats in quite a few areas.)

>>No, BerntB doesn't consider himself a right-winger, despite being in a tiny minority here in the U.S., I'm happy to say. But people like him are more than happy to call the vast majority of us who want tax increases on the wealthy to be fringe minority "leftists".

1. I'm from the EU.

2. My position on taxes/welfare is far to the left of the Democrats, like most everyone in my country. (Disclaimer: The US is probably just too large to work like e.g. Scandinavia.)

And so on.

>>They're not to be taken seriously, for the simple reason that they never enter into a conversation with a willingness to have their mind changed.

If you have to do personal attacks, at least verify basic facts first...

But, well, thanks for a good laugh! :-)

491:

I don't mean to close ranks with BerndB here, although I thing he is right ( ;-> ) in various aspects, and wrong in others. See post ??(the one where he said the Irak war outcome could not have been predicted) and mine @359

The reason that corporations were first establised is very obvious: All the stakeholders in a corporation do NOT represent the same objectives.

Corporations do have a will of their own. So do you (as an individual), presumably. That doesn't change the fact that sometimes what you think is sensible is NOT the way things are going to be. No, you don't need a large corporation for that divergence to happen. Imagine you are a one-person IT-shop. Maybe something your customer wants is not very sensible. You tell them. You implore. Finally you plead. Nothing's going to change their minds. Two years later you better still have all those e-mails, because if they threaten to sue you because you didn't advise them properly, they are going to actually believe that the error wasn't theirs. Only after you prove that you advised correctly in the first place, and suggested exactly what they want now (two years later obviously at hugely greater cost), will they maybe put more trust in you next time around (but only if they are borderline enlightened). From a financial point of view, you shouldn't complain. They paid heavily for the wrong decision, now they are going to pay heavily again for overthrowing the original wrong decision to take the right one. Great, isn't it. Only as an individual who likes to take pride in their work it's not. Not if you want to make a great (or at least good) product.


Want an easy example for the role players: Assume you have 5 owners of an Antwerp sailing ship circa 1650. What is the ship's next destination? High risk, high income (if it survives) or low risk, low income? If you are a small shareholder, you would probably go for low risk, wouldn't you?

Well, if you thought so that was wrong, because you didn't consider the stakes. A lot of people put some money into the lottery, because, hey, after all, it's still just a few bucks, and if you are going to win with a few bucks you need to win big.

Now today, the risk is totally reversed, because if you lose BIG, the state, nation or whatever are going to step in to prevent "To-Big-To-Fail" to fail. Since the taxstructure won't allow all the money that is necessary to cover all that risk to be REcovered by the people favoured the system, they are going to take it where they can: Lowest-class income first, because after all who cares if some bum gets medical treatment or not, they are going to die anyway, aren't they? Hint: Everybody dies at some point. Next, and last step of this escalation: low- and middle-middle-class incomes. They are on the way to being bums anyway, so why bother pacifying them, right?

Strange only, that over 80% of the US population are very much closer to poor and still willing to vote for tax breaks for the ultra-rich. Because the "Man-of-the-Year" promises to spend half of his unconsumable riches to noble causes at some indeterminate point in the future. Wish somebody promised me to give me incredible wealth some not infinite time into the future. Might as well wait for the win in the lottery that I never play.

That was just the owner's conflicting interests.

Quite the opposite is the most common occurrance: Not even the owners, much less the rest of the stakeholders, that is creditors, workforce, auditors (you think I'm joking when I say auditors are stakeholders?), subcontractors, rawstock providers, bulkcustomers, etc have VERY conflicting objectives. It is therefore necessary to establish some kind of system, that allows the various stakeholders to influence some modicum of the decisions being made. Just look at the incomplete list I provided. It is absolutely impossible that any decision is completely satisfactory to any of the other groups involved. At some point the corporation is going to have to make decisions, and that is why there is such a thing as a CEO or an executive committee.

It is, in a way, a representative democracy, erm representative stakeholdership. Depending on any country's legal system, different stakeholders have different levels of influence, but for a multinational corporation the outcome is inevitably the same: The most powerful interest group chooses the "main" establishment, i.e. the one that ultimatly most of the corporation's income is going to.

There is another facet to corporation: Avoiding punishment to any "human" person involved for any decision, however wrong. But even if that fails, hey, that is just another human going to jail, with absolutely no influence on the bottom line. If you want to hire good people, however, you try to keep them out of jail if it doesn't hurt the revenues. There is an easy way to do that: Separate the decision to do something from the awareness that it causes illegal consequence, and your individuals are innocent.

This is, to me, where many legal systems go wrong: If there is something like fines, they should be there for corporations, not individuals. If, say, "BOING", "SIEMENS", "HP" pay (only the ones that got caught, it is probably unavoidable in the long run) bribes, let's not let the fall guy pay the fines, but the corporation. That would make them think twice. Instead of some $K it would be some $M, totally different angle.

492:

BerntB, Cato was co-founded by and is largely funded by the Koch brothers. Which makes it a propaganda mill for their agenda (which is libertarian-corporatist, anti-environmentalist, and violently opposed to the idea of climate change mitigation).

You might want to do some digging.

493:

It seems my position haven't gotten out?

For the third or fourth time:
"As I wrote -- I don't know much about Cato, I do trust the integrity of the guy that wrote that report for them."

To be more specific, I don't agree with Johan Norberg in some/most of his (ultra-liberal) positions, but I've read a few debates and am impressed with both his intellect and his integrity.

Cato came up because of a report by Norberg regarding the "The Shock Doctrine". As far as I can tell, the criticism is scathing. But I can be wrong, of course.

Links to report and back-and-forth:
http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=9626

If anyone can answer the points raised, I'd be interested.

I've read enough about/by idealists, of differing types. My weary opinion is that most idealists lies (consciously or not) when their beliefs come up, so I'd prefer not to go through "The Shock Doctrine" myself.

If I would write about the problems with the world, I'd write about the human animal's tendency to lie to itself.

(-: But then, my anti-idealist position can be considered some form of idealism. Otoh, quite a few of my intellectual heroes have Sunday, or some other day, booked. :-)

494:

Here is a short and easily read overview, re The Shock Doctrine.

http://reason.com/archives/2008/09/26/defaming-milton-friedman

495:

Oh very young where will you leave us this time...
IMO it's obvious that you have some capacity in that backyard of your head. Discussion can at times be hurtful and that doesn't mean any disrespect for any of the participants. CS obviously has opinions, so do many of the peers and if you don't want to be on the receiving end of it you better let it go find better arguments.

Although it does get rough sometimes, I think you'll be champion in debate club if you can only sometimes reproduce some of the argument.

496:

Sry, the first part of that was really mean. Retracting.

497:

I am getting the distinct impression that you're here to troll.

Don't Do That.

(Consider this a friendly hint.)

498:

Sorry, I realize I'm not adding value for a while. I was planning to stop posting but got dragged into answering.

(-: And if I'm called a troll, please don't comment on scentofviolets, see end of 490. :-)

499:

@ 490:

When the argument is the person, as you yourself admit too


Well, that is one way of seeing it...

AFAICT, you admitted to being a contrarian in the post I was responding too. So I don't see any other way of seeing it.

You could prove me wrong by completely disavowing Cato for the propaganda mill that it is


As I wrote -- I don't know much about Cato, I do trust the integrity of the guy that wrote that report for them.

If there is a good answer to that, please post it. I'll be grateful and change my opinion. If you can't find/write a good answer, will you change your opinion...?

And this, people, is why I am so insistent on the correct procedures, rules of evidence, the scientific method, and so on and so forth:

Notice what BertB is trying to pull here - not only is he scrupulously avoiding criticizing Cato when he has had plenty of evidence presented to him that it is a propaganda mill, but he wants us to accept what this guy has written under the auspices of Cato because - according to BertB, he's just a really good guy, and really, it's quite unreasonable to expect any more documentation than that.

Iow, we have to present evidence until BertB deems it good enough and sufficient enough to show Cato's bad intentions. But he himself feels under no obligation to behave accordingly, we're just supposed to take his word for whatever he says without him having to provide any other proof.

And that's why I go with the formal rules on this sort of thing; they've proven to be very effective bullshit repellent :-) Sorry, BertB, but it's up to you to provide evidence that this guy is both reputable and on the up and up. I'm willing to change my mind if you present the evidence . . . but I get to decide whether you've presented this, not you. And - to echo what you've just said despite what people have linked to (what, Krugman is also suspect "because he's a liberal"?)- I'm not convinced yet. So really you've offered nothing to support your position.

And I've got to ask then - so where's your evidence for all the stuff you've been saying?

500:

Sigh, my last words:

>>scrupulously avoiding criticizing Cato

1. For the fifth time, I don't know (or care) enough to have an opinion about Cato; I am not a Libertarian. I wrote about a report they presented. See 493/494. You don't have anything to say about that?

2. Are you REALLY not going to apologize for writing a fantasy about my personal opinions and flaming it? What the Hell?! (See 490.)

>>so where's your evidence for all the stuff you've been saying?

What haven't I given references to, specifically? If you really need this, ask our host to send me your email.

(Again -- I am the troll?!)

501:

@ 500:

1. For the fifth time, I don't know (or care) enough to have an opinion about Cato; I am not a Libertarian. I wrote about a report they presented. See 493/494. You don't have anything to say about that?

Rubbish. If you really didn't know before, you've been presented with enough evidence here that they are nothing but right-wing propagandists. Since you claim to still not know enough to tell if this is true, that means that you really don't have enough competence to verify whether or not a source is good or not. Note that I didn't make you say this; you said it of your own free uncoerced will.

so where's your evidence for all the stuff you've been saying?

What haven't I given references to, specifically? If you really need this, ask our host to send me your email.

Sorry, but anything quoted by Cato doesn't count. And since you claim that you don't know/care that they're a right-wing outfit despite the evidence presented, you've shown that you're easily hoodwinked; I have no reason to believe that your "really reliable guy" is nothing more than another shill. In case you haven't figured it out yet, references to anything by Cato, Reason, AEI, Heritage et al is not evidence of anything. If I were to cite, oh, say, the Daily Worker for "evidence" that Stalin was a really sell guy as well as a great man, you'd be just as quick to criticize me that it's nothing more (or rather, was nothing more) than a propaganda rag for the Communist party. And you'd be 100% correct.

Since you don't seem to get this, it's pointless having any sort of discussion with you. And of course, if you're just plain trolling . . .

502:

Charlie, I apologize if I'm arrogating your moderation rights, but I would really appreciate it BerntB and scentofviolets would both go away for awhile and cool down. This has been a most interesting thread, almost in defiance of its uncommon length, and I personally would prefer not to have it end on a sour note.

If this comment offends, please delete it.

503:

The other of this is to recognize the potential good guys (organizations, AI's, giant metal robots). The collective creatures that can (hopefully) oppose corporate interests are political parties, but both the American (especially) and British systems have structural flaws that weaken democratic forces vis a vis political elites and corporate interests. That structural weakness is proportionality in the electoral system.
1)It is proportionality that is the "drive-belt" between democratic aspirations and how political parties actual perform.
2) I would argue, proportionality also allows for a political system where ideology and policy can evolve in response to democratic forces. PR is not just a "process" issue. PS Charlie, suis big fan

504:

#484 - Was it ("Red") Ken Livingstone who wrote a book called something like "If Voting Changed Anything, They'd Abolish it"? I've just remembered this volume, but never read it!

505:

Yes it was. I have a copy of it somewhere in my library. Unfortunately I can't recall what it said, since there has been so much else to talk about since I read it.

506:

Getting back to the biological analogies tangent, I just came across this really interesting article in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/magazine/19Urban_West-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all

The subject is yet another near-immortal organism composed of a voluntary association between fungible people aside from corporations and states: Cities.

The interesting bits as far as this discussion goes are towards the end, highlighting the way cities *reduce* Coasian transaction costs the larger they get, and that while corps are *potentially* immortal, in practice they only last an average of 40-50 years, whereas large cities are extremely hard to kill.

West (the physicist profiled in the article) attributes rising Coasian costs to the hierarchical form of the typical corporation, whereas cities are not really amenable to the same sort of direct control (and let me point out, neither are most modern nation states. Instead, as we've been discussing here, even corporations have to exercise indirect control). I think cities get to avoid getting killed off in the short term by more-heirarchical competitors due to their natural geographic monopoly, whereas most corporations don't have that luxury.

I suspect that two ways corporations have sidestepped the limits of their average lifespan in order to influence longer-lived states are through the shared upper-management class, and through the use of industry associations. Given those, the individual corporation is far more disposable. But I still think we're overdue for some serious experimentation in corporate governance. Despite these work-arounds, in the shift from feudal forms corporations have been locked into an authoritarian grow-or-die model, and I don't think that model is implicit in the profit motive per-se, nor is it actually conducive to long-term growth of shareholder value.

507:

It's amazing how often the words magic, magical and magically have come up. Conservative politicians regularly talk about 'the magic of the market'. These guys are not invaders from Mars, they are fundamentalist believers, and, worse still, they worship Cthulhu! Charlie has pointed out how dsyfunctional the market is for most of us, most of the time, but still our politician priests are chanting the verses in praise of the demons! We're ruled by Shoggoths who serve Old Ones. It's Neil Gaiman's 'A Study in Emerald', but MUCH better disguised.

508:

aka the Formaldehyde Brothers. :)

509:

If you insist that there is no such thing as evolutionary pressure because evolution is a random process, then there is also no such thing as atmospheric pressure because what we call gas pressure is actually an averaged result of the random Brownian motion of air molecules.

It is certainly the case that if you run evolution twice, you would not expect exactly the same outcome, but that begs the question of just how different the outcomes would be. You can repeat a classic gas pressure/piston experiment, and the exact molecules that strike the piston will be different every time, and yet it still takes force to compress the gas.

An evolutionary biologist would say that the term "evolutionary pressure" is simply shorthand for the basic principle of natural selection--that mutations that increase inclusive fitness will tend to increase over time as compared to those that do not.

There is certainly observational evidence that independent "runs" of evolution can produce results that, while not identical, have great similarities. There is evidence that eyes have evolved independently multiple times--the octopus eye has a very different (and in some ways superior) structure than our own, yet it looks and acts very similarly. And then there are phenomena such as the Tasmanian Wolf which suggests that there is some kind of selective "pressure" for something to occupy the "wolf-like" ecological niche. So there do seem to be some pretty strong attractors on the evolutionary landscape.

510:

I unfortunately haven't had the time to go through all the replies, so perhaps someone else has said something similar to what follows...

Charlie, I (mostly) heartily agree, but I think you should also consider two other things which evolved from the 19th century: nation-states and democracy.

Briefly, the advent of competing nationalisms gave corporations an actionable lever (war) through which to sell their products. One way to see it is that an empire provides less markets than a dozen states (Greene describes this quite nicely in The Confidential Agent).

The advent of modern democracy (one citizen, one vote) on the other hand, while certainly a lofty ideal theoretically, breaks down rather ungracefully in practice. Why? Because it's based on the premise that citizens are intelligent enough to know what's good for them, to say nothing of less inherently selfish goals. I'd say the re-emergence of populism in the last 20 years, so spin over substance, pleads that it is hardly the case. Or to put it metaphorically, in a cesspool, denser shit floats best.

What it requires to be workable is education, both as government policy from the top down (sadly, not in the gov's interest) and individually, the will to educate ourselves. That requires both time and effort, for most people better spent staring at the flashing baubles on sale this time of year...

The internet is a major advance in this domain, as never before has information been this decentralised and accessible, but as we've seen it has also largely been co-opted into just another sales channel flogging Gubbish TM.

Now, the one thing I don't agree with in your post is Communism as a counter-example. It's certainly the least open and most dogmatic form evolved out of the worker's rights movements of the 19th. Its very name already hints to its inhuman group-mind nature. Believe me, nothing can quite compare with a Communist bureaucracy, though I believe the NHS and Homeland Security/TSA should certainly be praised for their recent efforts.

Arguably, the reason Eastern Europe has taken to the corporate creed and market economy with such gusto, is that it already was staffed by faceless, responsibility-averse middle-managers in-waiting, providing a suitably delectable host.

511:

I believed there was no evolutionary pressure and never really questioned it because it seemed self-evident. Your homology thought experiment looks very convincing, though.

512:

More evidence for the theory that managers of corporations distort things for their own personal gain at the expense of the firm:
http://www.propublica.org/article/the-subsidy-how-merrill-lynch-traders-helped-blow-up-their-own-firm

About Merril Lynch and the way it got so far into debt over mortgage securities, basically by bribing itself to buy them.

513:

You're looking at it backwards. The corporation set up perverse incentives in response to short term positive feedback. This causes selection pressure that eliminates dissenting voices: "In an incident [...] a Merrill trader looked over the contents of Octans and refused to buy the super-senior, believing that he should not be buying what no one else wanted. The trader was sidelined and eventually fired." Others get the message not to mess with the gravy train. Over the long term, those most successful in responding to incentives are promoted.

It is true that those who were most senior at the time proceeded to milk the system for all they could, but that is to be expected regardless of whether the system is perverse in the first place.

It is very hard to fix blame on individuals who are caught in a system that is eroding standards of fiduciary prudence, even when those same individuals demonstrably have some role in perpetuating that erosion.

514:

Ok, I get how things work in a system after its setup, but who, or what group of people, passed the original perverse incentives, given that the corporation isn't an AI running things by itself.

515:

The problem is that de-facto corporations are legally *above* humans. Far above.

A corporation can kill thousands and get merely slapped with a fine that it can pay. For one very plain example, see drug advertising for off-label uses.
http://www.ahrp.org/infomail/04/05/16.php
Criminal fraud. If you are a human and you are found guilty of criminal fraud, the sort that resulted in human deaths, well, you don't get away losing merely a small percentage of your assets. No. You get locked up in a prison. For a long while. A corporation can be dismantled for attacking another corporation, but not for killing human beings.

516:

And. If a human hurts corporations by criminal fraud, human gets imprisoned. If a corporation kills humans by criminal fraud, the corporation merely loses a fraction of assets - often, less than it gained by fraud! The off label drug use advertising, for instance, keeps going on after those fines because even with fines it is profitable.

517:

I've used two drugs for unapproved practices and one saved my life; the other made using a different med that saved my life much easier. I went through all the possiblities with the doctors and my health insurer had me sign papers.

518:

"We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals."

Why not create a private corporation whose entire goal is the benefit of humanity? It would be admittedly difficult, but if you gather 5% of reasonable humans such as yourself and several participants in this discussion; in the US that would be about 15,000,000 customers. So for say $5/customer, a legislative issue could be successfully lobbied for a beneficial outcome. Turnabout is fairplay after all, and the price is right.

How much does it actually cost to drive a piece of legislation such as single-payer health care, tax reform, global warming related research, etc? Hell, I'd give a non-trivial percentage of my income for exactly this service...

519:

To decide if corporations are cancer its interesting to compare them to nation sates.

The corporation as a nation state has the following properties:

-Suffrage (the right to vote) does not exist except for land holders ("share holders") and even there voting power is in proportion to land ownership.

-All executive power flows from a central committee.

-There is no division of powers. There is no forth estate. There are no juries and innocence is not presumed.

-Failure to submit to any order can result in instant exile.

-There is no freedom of speech. There is no right of association. Love is forbidden without state approval.

-The economy is centrally planned.

-There is pervasive surveillance of movement and electronic communication.

-The society is heavily regulated and this regulation is enforced, to the degree many employees are told when, where and how many times a day they can goto the toilet.

-There is almost no transparency and something like the FOIA is unimaginable.

-The state has one party. Opposition groups (unions) are banned, surveilled or marginalized whenever and wherever possible.

520:

I'm still wading through the comment stream on this entry, so please forgive me if someone else has already mentioned this, but...

Not strictly related to corporations, but one reason why voter apathy is at an all time high is that as stated in the original posting, the politicians always win. That is, there is no way for an individual - or even a group of voters - to express disapproval of all the candidates running for a particular political post. There is thus no actual accountability since one cannot do anything other than either (a) vote for one of the candidates (b) abstain or otherwise fail to register a valid vote or possibly (c) become a candidate oneself.

Back around comment 89, someone mentioned that
>If "didn't vote" were a political party it would be the largest in the USA.

I think that's probably the case in most western nations - certainly so in the UK.

Perhaps what is needed is to reframe the constitution in such a way that
(a) voting is compulsory for all those eligible, with penalties for failing to do so
(b) there is a 'none of the above' option on the ballot paper.

One might then consider sanctions which could be applied to the candidates should 'none of the above' win an election. Perhaps the government should be immediately formed from an equal proportion of the candidates from each party, with the remuneration for those candidates selected immediately reduced by 50% and another election to be held within 12 months. One would have to be careful about framing the conditions and sanctions such that they would have the effect of causing pain to the body corporate and also the individuals making up the hivemind of the political parties, while also endeavouring to safeguard the ability of the country to function. I'm sure a sweet spot must exist...

Something similar might even be applicable to a corporate entity. To use an example from Doctor Who, does anyone remember the Usurians ('The Sun Makers'), one of whom the Doctor managed to defeat by introducing a growth tax?

The difficulty in any of this, of course, is in getting the hivemind in question to permit such changes to be made to its operational parameters. Something along these lines would amount to trying to get turkeys to vote for Christmas, so is probably doomed to failure. And thus we end up back at the beginning: Voting is pointless, the politicians always win. That's the way the whole thing is wired...

521:

Paul, compulsory voting doesn't fix things; if it did, Australia wouldn't have to choose between Julia Gillard and the Mad Monk for PM.

As for "none of the above", that would apply to candidates, yes? Not parties? I suspect you're American and looking at the problem from the background of lightly whipped parties that are themselves umbrellas for different interest groups. Apply "none of the above" at an individual candidate level to a system with tight party discipline and all it does is strengthen the central party's ability to control internal dissent.

As for "none of the above" in other electoral systems -- for example, pure PR with a party list -- what stops a veto'd party from dissolving itself and reassembling under a new name and constitution? (Same people, different label?)

Cutting legislator's pay and conditions is a really bad idea; if the pay's poor you will end up with lawmakers who have to find alternative means of supporting themselves (a major incentive to corruption), or who are fabulously rich before they stand for election. In other words, you end up with corrupt party hacks, or fat cats (whose motive for standing for election is seldom spotless).

There's no silver bullet for fixing what ails democracy -- if there was, we'd have fired it by now.

522:

@Charlie 521 -

Actually I'm in the UK (south west England) but your response is interesting.

I appreciate what you're saying about the difficulties. None of the above could be taken to apply to either candidates or parties - in the last election I will reluctantly admit to voting Tory, but only because I didn't want to live through another Labour government. I was born in 66 so grew up through the fun and games of the 70s and the madness of the early 80s. With the current UK system - which essentially does not have an 'escape' clause - there is no way to register a vote for what you really want if you fundamentally disagree with all the options on offer, which means having to pick the least worst or accept not having a voice.

Veto'd groups or individuals reforming - I imagine that might be taken care of with legislation to prevent such action, along the lines of the (sadly not strong enough) laws which allow someone to be banned from being a company director. So an individual affiliated with a group which has been 'none of the above'd might be banned from standing for office for n years.

Again, though, such changes in the operating parameters of these organisations would be unlikely to gain any traction because there is a vested interest in the way things are at the moment continuing - it goes around in a little circle every few years and the other lot get a go, leaving the bulk of the population along for the ride as one group of yahoos screw over the economy, ride roughshod over the populace and so forth, and then a different group of yahoos get into power and do all the same things in the name of reversing the decline caused by the first group of yahoos.

(with apologies, naturally, to any yahoos who might be reading...)

I do take your point about cutting pay and conditions. The problem is finding something which is a suitable sanction for getting the buggers' attention and encouraging them to behave sensibly, without encouraging them to become even more corrupt than they are to start with. However I do understand that the definition of 'sensibly' is probably highly subjective, given that e.g. members of certain groups think it quite reasonable to blow themselves up if they don't like what other people are doing, which most other people wouldn't consider particularly sensible..

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: nobody who actually wants to be in charge should under any circumstances ever be allowed to be.

On your final point - the lack of a silver bullet - what, if anything, would you suggest instead?

523:

I disagree about "none of the above"
Since if a party (as they do frequently) parachutes an unpopular candidate in, then rather than vote for second-or-third-best (As I was forced to do this year - *note*) you vote for NotA ....
It wouldn't take long for the message to get across, I assure you.

*note*
A rightwing, reactionary tory,
a muslim-male-entryist Lem-o-Crat
A leftwing idiot screaming about "cuts" that have not even happened yet, in a corrupt, Labour LOndon Brough.
I felt forced to vote for the last.
I agree with Charlie on the anti-science idiocy of the Greens ...

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