Archive for March, 2019

Shattering Myths About Business and Society

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

Those who believe that corporate executives are virtuous, government regulators are overreaching, and that we live in a meritocracy have been cringing every time they listened to a newscast in recent days. That’s because two major stories have been shattering myths about the way things work in the U.S. business world and the broader society.

The controversy over whether Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft should be grounded in the wake of a deadly crash in Ethiopia revealed the true nature of business regulation in the United States. Contrary to the image, depicted ad nauseum by corporate apologists, of bureaucrats crippling companies with unnecessary and arbitrary rules, we saw in the Federal Aviation Administration an agency that is essentially held captive by airlines and aircraft manufacturers.

It was only after the rest of the world ignored assurances from Boeing and took the common-sense step of grounding the planes that the FAA finally acted. The agency, its parent Department of Transportation and the Trump Administration had to be shamed into fulfilling their responsibility of protecting the public.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration will temper its anti-regulatory rhetoric after this incident in which it was clear that the country needed more rather than less oversight. Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond rhetoric.

Since taking office, Trump has made it a crusade to dismantle much of the deregulatory system. Left to his own devices, Trump would continue on this path. His new budget proposes massive cuts in the budgets of regulatory agencies, including 31 percent at the EPA.

That budget was dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled House, but the administration is undermining agencies by rolling back enforcement activity. Public Citizen has been documenting this ploy in a series of reports drawing on data from Violation Tracker. Its latest study shows a 37 percent drop in enforcement actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission during Trump’s first two years, compared to the final two years of the Obama era.

The other big myth-busting story is the admissions scandal at elite universities. The revelation that wealthy parents have been paying large sums to a fixer who bribed coaches and used other fraudulent means to get their kids into the Ivy League should cause all critics of affirmative action to hang their heads in shame.

It speaks volumes that one of the parents arrested in the case is William McGlashan, founder of The Rise Fund, an ethical investing vehicle managed by the private equity firm TPG Capital. Working with the likes of Bono and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, the fund says it is “committed to achieving social and environmental impact alongside competitive financial returns.”

Defenders of the fund will attempt to separate its mission from McGlashan’s personal issues. Yet the scandal helps puncture the image of moral superiority projected by those who claim they can do good and get richer at the same time. It gives more ammunition to those who suspect that ethical investing may be little more than a way to ease the conscience of the wealthy with more than their share of misdeeds.

Undoubtedly, protectors of the conventional wisdom are seeking ways to restore support for the notions that regulation is bad and that the rich are good people who earned everything they have. Yet for now, let’s enjoy these moments of clarity.

Resisting the Trump Organization Business Model

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

A recent 60 Minutes episode provided further evidence of how the pharmaceutical industry successfully pressured federal regulators to allow excessive prescribing of powerful opioids, paving the way for the ongoing epidemic of fatal overdoses. In recent days there have been reports that Purdue Pharma, the company at the center of the crisis, is planning a bankruptcy filing to reduce the risk from the 1,600 lawsuits that have been brought against the company.

These developments illustrate how the main structures that are supposed to deter corporate misconduct – government regulation and the civil justice system – are not up to the task. Despite the endless complaints from the business world about rules and lawsuits, there are in fact few meaningful limits on corporate behavior.

Despite years of evidence showing that many industries dominate and neutralize the government agencies that are supposed to oversee them, the proponents of deregulation all too often carry the day. The current presidential administration has embraced that ideology whole-heartedly and has even tried to promote the idea that relaxed regulation benefits not only corporations but workers and consumers.

Yet there’s growing evidence that what interests Trump most is using regulatory powers to punish his political enemies and reward his friends. That’s the message of new reporting by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker that Trump personally urged the Justice Department to try to block AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, apparently thinking that by sinking the deal he would harm Time Warner’s CNN unit and boost its rival, the exceedingly Trump-friendly Fox News.

There were earlier reports that Trump’s criticism of Amazon’s contract with the U.S. Postal Service was an indirect assault on the Washington Post, owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Aside from being an obvious abuse of presidential power, this approach is no better than a “principled” deregulatory stance. While Trump may occasionally direct his ire against companies that deserve to be punished, the vast majority of miscreants will end up being let off the hook.

Many of the same business apologists who criticize regulation also fulminate against lawsuits. These tort reformers don’t explain how else we are supposed to deal with rogue corporations. Nor do they acknowledge that such companies can greatly limit their exposure with the help of the bankruptcy court.

Purdue Pharma would be far from the first corporation to use Chapter 11 in this way. The filing would not shield the company entirely, but it would greatly reduce its financial liability and make it easier to survive the process.

Moreover, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that “Purdue’s assets may not be enough to resolve the company’s potential liability, in part because most of its profits had been regularly transferred to members of the company’s controlling family, the Sacklers.” In other words, much of the corporation’s ill-gotten gains are already out of the reach of the plaintiffs.

When restraints are weak or non-existent, it is more likely that companies will adopt the business model of the Trump Organization, which appears to be that of breaking every rule and cheating everyone it can. Our challenge is to find new ways to fight back.