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Daily Office:

Tuesday

26 January 2010

k0125

Matins: Justin Fox kicks off his column at the Harvard Business Review blog by considering the very bad idea of treating business corporations as persons — something that we've been complaining about for a while, and that came to the fore with the rather unpopular (but wholly anticipated) Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. (via Felix Salmon)

The individuals who make up the electorate in the United States are, as Friedman described, beings of many facets — their actions and their views shaped by pecuniary self interest but also by values, beliefs, and loyalties that might conflict with that self interest. The ideal for-profit corporation, on the other hand, is out to do nothing but make as much money as it can "within the rules of the game." It is supposed to behave in a fashion that for an individual would probably be described as psychopathic. And if corporations are allowed to play a decisive role in shaping the "rules of the game," we have effectively put the inmates in control of the asylum.

This feels like a pretty compelling justification for treating corporations differently from individuals in the political process. And there is of course a long tradition of treating them differently. We don't give corporations the vote, and for generations states and the federal government have tried to restrict campaign spending by corporations.

(For some background on the foundational case on this issue, turn here.)

Lauds: Molly Haskell's short answer regarding Avatar: "No, you don’t have to see it." An interesting comparison to Gone With the Wind does will probably not appeal to all readers. (Speakeasy)

What is Pandora but an antediluvian plantation, lush, boasting buoyant, tree-hugging natives with supermodel figures and tails instead of antebellum gowns, and bows and arrows instead of guns? Warning the South of the North’s superiority in hardware is Rhett Butler who, like the protagonist of “Avatar,” inhabits two worlds.

“GWTW” was just as grandiose in its way, but without the liberal pieties that waft through “Avatar” and insult both our soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan and indigenous peoples who are hardly the one-dimensional paragons of Cameron’s schoolboy imaginings.

Prime: Felix Salmon seems to be havng fun, thinking of Goldman's London partners. Noting that Goldman Sachs isn't going to share the pain of the British bonus tax, he reflects that a temporarily ill-compensated partner at that firm is still doing better than a richly-rewarded banker elsewhere.

I’m sure they’re unhappy about this: after all, Deutsche Bank made an early decision that any pain from the UK bonus tax would be shared across the organization, rather than being concentrated on senior executives in London. It was probably reasonable to assume that the one-for-all-and-all-for-one culture of Goldman Sachs would take the same path, but no: you can be sure that partners everywhere else in the world are going to make significantly more than their London counterparts.

Tierce: Why the social isolation of the powerful is bad for any society, and particularly bad for a democratic society: it undermines the human inclination to benevolence. (The Frontal Cortex)

Unlike the ultimatum game, in which the responder can decide whether or not to accept the monetary offer, in the dictator game, the proposer simply dictates how much the responder receives. (In other words, they have absolute power.) What's surprising is that these petit tyrants are still rather generous, and give away about one-third of the total amount of money. Even when people have power, they remain mostly constrained by their sympathetic instincts.

However, it only takes one minor alteration for this benevolence to disappear. When the dictator cannot see the responder⎯the two players are located in separate rooms⎯the dictator lapses into unfettered greed. Instead of giving away a significant share of the profits, the despots start offering mere pennies, and pocketing the rest. Once we become socially isolated, we stop simulating the feelings of other people.* As a result, our inner Machiavelli takes over, and our sense of sympathy is squashed by selfishness. The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. "The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior," he writes. "You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination."

Of course, we live in an age when our most powerful people - they tend to also have lots of money - are also the most isolated. They live in gated communities with private drivers. They eat at different restaurants and stay at different resorts. They wear different clothes and skip the security lines at airports, before sitting at the front of the plane. We shouldn't be surprised that they're also assholes.

Sext: Maybe you can help out an aspiring cosmetologist with better things to do than go to school. As a volunteer, of course! (You Suck at Craigslist)

Hi, I’m a cosmetology student at [Place] , a Paul Mitchell school in [Location]. I really don’t feel like going in tomorrow, or any other time from now ’til the end of May or beginning of June. So I need someone to pose as a doppelgänger for me. E-mail [xxxxxxxxxxxxxx@gmail.com] for photos and more information.

Key qualifications are: must resemble me, or be willing to try and resemble me; must dress in all black and look like a professional Cosmetologist; must be able to work with hair, or be good at acting as if you can; must attend school for me Monday through Saturday, 9:30 AM – 5 PM unless otherwise stated; must take up clients and perform tests for me; and do whatever the hell the teachers tell you to do because I don’t want to anymore. Thanks. – Ash

Maybe Ash wants to be a bedwarmer. (Marginal Revolution)

Nones: In a further sign that Japan's orientation is shifting toward China and away from the United States is manifest in Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's decision to "re-think" the presence of an American airbase on Okinawa. The trigger was a local election won by an ardent campaigner against the Futenma base, home to two thousand Marines. (BBC News)

Talk of moving the base out of Japan altogether has threatened the long-standing US-Japan security alliance.

Mr Hatoyama said the results of Sunday's election reflected the will of the people, and that Japan will continue to re-examine its commitment to relocate the air base.

"The country will start from scratch on this issue and take responsibility to reach a conclusion by the end of May," he told reporters.

Vespers: The always interesting John Self has read Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, admired it very much, and written about it, for all the world, as though he were unaware of Tom Ford's movie. It's clear from his précis that the book is rather more different from the film than one might have thought. (Asylum)

George’s spirits lift too when he is reminded, by visiting an old rival dying in hospital, that he is a member of another “marvellous” minority, “The Living”.  A Single Man, written in the early 1960s, has the obsessions of its time in nuclear war and sexual revolution, but also the obsessions of all time both small (campus politics) and large (‘the only end of age’).  George gets his fix of death-denial in the gym, panting in both senses as he challenges a teenager to sit-ups.  ”How delightful it is to be here!  If only one could spend one’s entire life in this state of easy-going physical democracy!”

Compline: How nice: on the eve of the Editor's vacation in St Croix, we have to share this: "A Deadly Quake in a Seismic Hot Zone."

The recent quake on the Enriquillo fault and the forecast for the Septentrional are bleak reminders that the Caribbean is an active seismic zone, one with many hazards. Major earthquakes have regularly devastated the region’s cities, including the Jamaican capital, Kingston, which was destroyed twice in three centuries. An eruption of Mount Pelée killed 30,000 people in Martinique in the Lesser Antilles in 1902, and it and other volcanoes are currently active along that island arc on the Caribbean’s north and eastern reaches. Earthquakes and landslides along the Puerto Rico Trench, an undersea fault zone, have the potential to cause tsunamis.

The Haitian quake itself might have added to the risks, researchers say.

Fun! (NYT)

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