Monday, December 16, 2013

The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic by Patrick Weil

We each deploy an array of identities in forming our social selves -- we can be, say, a Methodist and also a Southerner, and black and a civil engineer and gay. And all of this and still an American. Each aspect distinguishes us; together they individuate us. No single identity -- even that of our nationality -- adequately describes who we are, how we see ourselves. In these times, we no longer see the possession of one nationality as excluding another; many have more than one nationality. We can be both French and American; one does not displace the other in the modern imagination. (A nod to the late Tom Franck here, who explored these themes, personally and in his writings on nationality.)

Yet certain identities have been viewed as inherently incompatible with the holding of the fullest form of American national identity: U.S. citizenship. At various times one could not be an anarchist or an Asian or a Nazi or a communist and become (or perhaps remain) an American. Patrick Weil examines these disabling identities in The Sovereign Citizen, a thorough history of U.S. naturalization law. His emphasis lies with denaturalization: that is, the legal reversal of the grant of U.S. citizenship to an alien. For much of the 20th century, the recourse to denaturalization expands in parallel with the stiffening of opportunities for immigration. The vulnerability to denaturalization marked the ‘second class’ nature of U.S. citizenship acquired through naturalization; the hold of U.S born citizens on their nationality was (and continues to be) more secure. Denaturalization as a broad practice then collapses: from the Warren Court onward denaturalization has become an exceptional act.

Our view of citizenship shifted during the 20th century. It began as an exclusive (if not jealous) relationship between the United States and its nationals, characterized by duty and loyalty. These understandings differ from today’s far more easygoing tolerance (if not encouragement) of multiple nationalities and distributed allegiance. Weil’s book explores and the targets and the techniques of denaturalization.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Extraterritorial Government Use of U.S. Process Patents after Zoltek

The federal government -- and its contractors and subcontractors -- have long enjoyed an effective ‘compulsory license’ for the use or manufacture of inventions covered by a U.S. patent. 28 U.S.C. §1498 relaxes the government’s sovereign immunity and supplies a special remedy to the patent holder. The patent holder may recover reasonable compensation from the federal government for the use or manufacture. Thus, a government contractor can carry out a contract without concern for an infringement action; the government will answer any patent holder’s claims.

The operation of Section 1498 applies to both product and process patents. Section 1498 contains an express limitation to any claims ‘arising in a foreign country.’ This limitation, as well as the territorial limitation found in the basic patent infringement statute [35 U.S.C. §271(a)], and their interpretation with respect to process patents, were the basis of the dispute between Zoltek Corporation and the federal government.

The eventual resolution of the Zoltek litigation by the Federal Circuit [672 F.3d 1309] settles various questions of interpretation concerning the extraterritorial dimensions of the government use ‘license’ with respect to process patents -- but it also leaves a rather worrisome ‘gap’ in the coverage of the basic provisions concerning process patent infringement. Consider these two propositions:

  1. In the absence of authorization, where every step of a process patent is practiced in the United States, liability under 35 U.S.C. §271(a) results. However, if any step of a process patent is practiced outside the United States, there is no direct infringement. 
  2. Where every step of a process patent is practiced outside the United States and the resulting product is imported into or used within the United States, liability under 35 U.S.C. §271(g) results. 
So here’s the gap (and the facts of Zoltek seem to fall into this gap): if a process patent is practiced partly in the United States and partly outside the United States, there may be no liability. This odd result seems to follow from the text of 35 U.S.C. §271(g), which is triggered by the importation or use of a product.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Talent Wants to be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free-Riding by Orly Lobel

Orly Lobel is not writing about love in Talent Wants to be Free, but she’s not terribly far off topic, for she writes about the suffocating attachments firms can form with their employees. The heart-sickened are told to let go -- and perhaps their beloveds will come back to them. This may be the better course, but it isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t what most of us do (with our insecurities and covetousness). Firms are jealously possessive of their key employees; this is a social fact. Lobel challenges these firms (and the responding legislatures) to consider whether they are indeed pursuing their own best interests by clinging.

Lobel usefully gathers a variety of legal doctrines and instruments into a basket she calls “human capital controls” -- and for this alone her book should be read. Human capital controls include IP and quasi-IP (trade secrets and know-how) rights, as well as a host of contractual features: non-competes, non-disclosure agreements, compensation arrangements (option grants and forfeitures) and post-termination obligations. Together, these elements bind the talented employee to her employer. The orthodox justification for these controls is that they promote firm investment in innovation, including investment in human capital -- that is, in forming the movable productivity of the employee herself. It is the workplace, and not the university, where most valuable human capital is created.

Lobel directly investigates the logic of control -- which is easily conflated with ownership. By controlling human capital, firms capture some of its produce. Creative workers create. In addition, firms withhold these assets from their competitors. According to the received view, employees are rivalrous goods. Lobel challenges this notion (though perhaps not explicitly) -- while we are not public goods, our creations often are.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an all-American Town by Mirta Ojito and The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck

In Hunting Season, Mirta Ojito tells the horrific story of the killing of an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, in Patchogue, Long Island at the hands of a group of brutish teenagers. It is a small-town story with international reverberations. At first blush, it is an investigation of American intolerance for the other run wild. Lucero was a poor, hard-working man, searching for a better life. His attackers are themselves lost souls, largely unknown to one another prior to the evening of Lucero’s killing. Each kid seems to lack the basic human understanding that there is something wrong with beating up a man simply because he is a ‘beaner.’ Patchogue is or was a community where the blood sport of attacking random Latinos goes unremarked. It is a dreadful story Ojito presents, and Patchogue appears as a dreadful place.

So what has happened in Patchogue? What does the killing of Lucero constitute? The knife-wielding 17-year-old points to his Latina girlfriend to demonstrate his open mind. Another attacker is both Puerto Rican and black -- the kids embrace him as their friend. Our American experience with racism -- and hence hate crimes -- largely involves victims from established and permanent communities (including the native community). Nativist violence may fall into a different category. The Patchogue 7 conceded they identified and attacked Lucero because of his ethnicity -- but there seems to be more that drew Lucero into their trap. They also understood that Lucero was a foreigner -- and likely one with a shaky immigration status. Lucero’s vulnerability invites this community reprisal.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Post-Financial Crisis Spiritual Reading: the 2013 FT/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book Award

The readers of business books are a fragile lot. They’re uncertain of their talents and the scope of human possibility, confused as to direction (they’re largely not one-percenters). Their anxieties lead them to seek reassurance - from authors who project an understandable and manageable world. It is little surprise that business books resemble spiritual books - they are marked by a confident if not omniscient tone, they judge the unrighteous, they show us the way. The six finalists for the 2013 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award extend these comforts.

For more of this essay, see "Post-Financial Crisis Spiritual Reading" at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

On November 18, the 2013 Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award was awarded to Brad Stone for The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

See my Attraverso review of The Everything Store here.

And you can find below links to my reviews of the five other finalists:

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone

Brad Stone’s treatment, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, is the talk of the business press this week. Jeff Bezos’ wife, MacKenzie Bezos, posted a ‘one-star review’ of the book on the Amazon site. In it, she expresses concerns about the book’s ‘factual inaccuracies’ and ‘narrative tricks.’ While she certainly had a better view of the recounted events than did Stone, her objections seem quibbling. This is a thoughtful and well researched book, with a surprisingly balanced tone: Stone neither praises Jeff Bezos nor does he bury Bezos.

Stone’s book is both a CEO biography and a corporate history. Bezos is the exception that proves the rule; he is the visionary founder who wasn’t pushed aside for a professional ('adult') manager. And given Bezos’ continuity at the helm of Amazon, one can fairly charge much of Amazon’s success -- and its bullying behavior -- to Bezos.

Stone’s book is a prosecutor’s dream -- it is a catalog of unfair business offenses (were such behavior disciplined today). There is a zone of indeterminacy involved in most bargaining: between the terms a party would accept and the better terms a party might exact (before driving the other party away). Bezos is shown to consistently drive for the very best outcome in Amazon’s dealings -- where the greater part of the joint benefit falls to Amazon and a bare minimum is left for the ‘cooperating’ counterpart. Perhaps this is to be admired; we’d all like to be ‘tough bargainers.’ But Bezos (as depicted by Stone) doesn’t pull punches. He is capable of ‘refusing to deal.’ He applies price pressure against smaller firms. He levers Amazon’s immense power against competitors and partners.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Euro Money as Euro Language

This is the first of a series of reflections on the social meaning of the Euro.

Investigations of the social character of money often feature an analogy to language. Like words, money forms intelligible signs. Money, like language, is a critical medium of social exchange. Money, like language, is constitutive of identity: the particular kind of money we use, in part, makes us who we are. And money, like language, is both stable and unstable over space and time.

The architects of the European Monetary System (EMS) anticipated that the Euro would serve as an institution around which a European consciousness could be built. The Euro (at least in its material forms) functions like the EU flag or the EU passport to construct a new identity that plays on commonplace nationalist expectations. That is, when we see flags or passports or money, we have been acculturated to expect national sponsorship. The European Union thus displaces the traditional state in presenting itself through these institutions; if not precisely declaring itself to be a state, the European Union is, at a minimum, asserting that it is like a state for various intents and purposes.

But notice the peculiarly assertive case of the Euro. The EU flag often flies alongside the traditional flags of the EU Member States. The EU passport is formally issued by the respective member states: while it prominently features “European Union” on its harmonized cover, it also bears the name of the relevant member state. The EU passport in fact overstates the EU nature of the document. A passport begs the admission of a members state’s nationals into another state’s territory; it is only secondarily evidence of nationality (and in the case of EU passports, evidence of the bearer’s status as an EU citizen). Through flags and passports, the EU and the relevant EU member state co-occupy a space in the EU citizen’s imagination that had been occupied by the state alone.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Making It Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the Men Who Blew Up the British Economy by Iain Martin

Making It Happen is the story of the crash of RBS (née Royal Bank of Scotland), momentarily Britain’s largest bank. Iain Martin tells a peculiarly Scottish story in Making It Happen (Martin himself is a Scot): the expansion of RBS was driven by a blend of Scottish pride and insecurity. He takes us through the life history of the Royal Bank (though RBS, as of this writing, is not yet dead). The bank is founded in 1727 in the aftermath of an earlier Scottish financial misadventure, the Darien enterprise: a failed outpost located in present-day Panama. Chastened by this experience, the early masters of the Royal Bank of Scotland exercised prudence of a Presbyterian kind (caution and care) in growing the bank, yet remained open to innovation (such as the use of the joint-stock company) that the English ignored. RBS quietly prospered in Edinburgh, and then the financial world shifted. In short: the Scottish economy was too small to support independent Scottish banks, and so, for RBS to survive, it would need to vault itself to a much larger scale (first UK-wide and then global). Two absolutes are then fixed for RBS: the bank must remain independent and it must be directed from Edinburgh. And this is where the Fred Goodwin story starts.

Fred Goodwin is (if nothing else) devoted to Scotland and hence to building RBS as a Scottish national champion. Goodwin did this is a fairly straightforward way -- he bought other banks (including quite large banks) and proceeded to meld them into the RBS structure. Gains to RBS shareholders -- prototypical raider profits -- resulted from the ensuing ‘rationalizations.’ Goodwin’s fame at slashing employment earned him the nickname ‘Fred the Shred.’ Those who were lucky to remain employed remained exposed to Goodwin’s brutal management style -- such as the daily “morning beatings.”

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In has been a major event; it’s been well received and thoroughly discussed. The book and the debates it stimulated appropriately returned attention to the ongoing gap between success promised and achieved by women in the corporate world.

Sandberg is herself an over-the-top success story. She has held top positions at both Google and Facebook. She, at least, is a take-all winner, one who managed to burst through the glass ceiling. But she remains aware of the many women around her who fail to speak up, who make unneeded compromises and veer off track. And she’s aware as well of those women damaged by unrealizable ‘have it all’ fantasies. Her prescription (which she makes clear is not intended for all) is to “lean in” -- to remain ambitious both for one’s personal career and for establishing a more equal world.

Lean In, Sandberg writes, is not a memoir, nor a self-help book, nor a career management primer. Maybe, she admits, it’s a manifesto. So perhaps it is not unfair to look at Lean In from a scientific perspective: what is Sandberg’s understanding of how one can effect social change? Sandberg herself is a prominent vertex in a social network that famously connects Google and Facebook (the ongoing migration of high tech talent from Google to Facebook, the smaller and more cool company, is partly inspired by Sandberg’s at-the-helm example). She can and does span these communities, as well as those built around Harvard, TEDTalks, and whatever Larry Summers happens to be doing (she describes Summers as a mentor). And no doubt her connections lead elsewhere, to centers of power unrevealed in Lean In. The trick then for Sandberg is how to maximize the influence that comes with such auspicious positioning.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund by Anita Raghavan

Forgive me for being thick: after reading Anita Raghavan’s book I had to think a moment in order to name the billionaire’s apprentice. The apprentice has to be Rajat Gupta -- himself a humble multi-millionaire -- who services the only billionaire in view: Raj Rajaratnam, founder of the Galleon hedge fund. Raghavan recalls Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice in her title to capture Gupta’s doomed adventure. But it is the sorcerer Rajaratnam, and not his apprentice, who brings Galleon crashing down; Gupta is destroyed in the process.

So what did Gupta do? The government taped a compromising phone call by Gupta to Rajaratnam where
Gupta reports the confidential discussions of the Goldman Sachs board (Gupta was then a Goldman director). Gupta was only one of Rajaratnam’s many sources, and it is not clear that his information was that useful. (Rajaratnam argued that he traded on a ‘mosaic’ of information; no one item served as the basis for his actions).

It is hard to dispute that Rajaratnam regularly traded on inside information.  But was all (or most) of Galleon’s fortune built on inside information? I asked the same question in my review of The Buy Side, a tell-all by Galleon-insider Tyler Duff. My question is scientific in spirit, not legal.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

In Scarcity, economist Sendhil Mullainathan and social psychologist Eldar Shafir introduce the study of scarcity as a ‘science in the making.’ One of their colleagues, perhaps a sceptic and certainly a joker, gibes: “There is already a science of scarcity. It’s called economics.” But the science of scarcity Mullainathan and Shafir have in mind is not familiar economics. Scarcity is much more the subjective experience (and hence a psychological phenomenon) occasioned by want. Scarcity, say Mullainathan and Shafir, ‘captures the mind.’

Scarcity is a condition that the authors easily recognize. They suffer the curse of the hyper-successful: they have insufficient time at hand to accomplish all they have committed to do. The lack of time preys on their minds (and promotes them to waste more time worrying and complaining about their lack of time) and sets off a cascade of real-life consequences: missed appointments, neglected family, unpaid bills. And perhaps more: a sense of helplessness, depression, despair. We wrote this book, the authors declare. "We were too busy not to."

And so the first scarcity -- the scarcity the authors experience -- is the shortage of time. But their field immediately widens to include debt and poverty, hunger and the dieter’s calorie-count, and loneliness. Scarcity collects these conditions and explores their dilemmas. While many will escape a particular form of scarcity (we are not all poor), all may experience some form of scarcity (as might a recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius grant,’ such as time-pressed Mullainathan). The authors assert the existence of essential commonalities across these states.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region by Joe Studwell

Pity Joe Studwell. He has written a very intelligent, very thoughtful book. You might not agree with much of it; I have my doubts about his recipe. But there is little doubt what the book is: an exercise in economic history, with a focus on a peculiar developmental pathway followed by a few highly successful (generally northern) east Asian countries and not followed by certain (largely southern) east Asian countries. And geography has nothing to do with these diverging outcomes.

So poor Studwell delivers this intelligent book to his editor - one imagines - who decides it needs a snazzy title. Regardless of whether the title describes Studwell’s book. Studwell writes about ‘How Certain Asian Countries Developed’ - not about ‘How Asia Works’. He has very little to say in How Asia Works about how any of Asia works today - again, he is an economic historian. And he makes no claim within the book’s pages that Asia is ‘the World’s most dynamic region.’ Poor Studwell.

He can take comfort from having written a provocative book, which challenges much of the prevailing orthodoxy in developmental economics. And he’s obviously willing to horrify both left and right - praising Robin Hood-esque land reform (but not agricultural collectivization), autocratic leaders who impose export discipline on their cronies, and the elegant effectiveness of capital controls.

Studwell examines the East Asian development successes (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China) and the laggards (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines). The winning path, according to Studwell, involves three distinct phases (“one, two, three,” he calls these in his concluding chapter). These three phases are a recipe for developmental success, they form the “same stretch of the river” that poor countries must navigate.

The first stage requires equitable land distribution to absorb labor and capture the productivity gains associated with moving to garden-style agriculture by small family landowners. The magic here is that everyone works - and most start at the same base. Garden intensity agriculture yields very low returns on labor but enhanced returns on land - it permits the accumulation of small surpluses that can be used to fund imports of necessary technology.

The second phase is the development of export-oriented industrialization. And Studwell cannot emphasize enough the importance that industrialization be export-focused; import-substitution strategies are doomed to fail. Here we see the green thumb of the successful state. Prospering East Asian nations do not (generally) direct their economies; rather they provide incentives and protection to exporting firms (fertilizer?) and then apply discipline (weeding?). The state does not pick winners, but it does cull losers. Studwell traces the development of the export-oriented automotive industry in Korea. Several firms were launched, but in the end one survives: the Hyundai/Kia complex.

Studwell’s third phase involves a sheltering set of financial policies. The state must support its exporting firms financially - which necessarily involves allocating capital in directions that would not be justified by short-term returns. Left unguided, private banks chase quickly realizable returns from investments that may have little transformative effect (luxury hotels, anyone?) Savings must be captured and directed, and this involves exchange restrictions.

So what went wrong in the other East Asian countries? Why do not Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines share in the prosperity? Here the answer is straight out of Tolstoy: each fails in its own way. For Studwell, this means each (at one or more critical junctions) fails to progress down the ‘same stretch of the river’. But this simplifies the error. There are many diverging pathways, many other policy choices that can be made. After all, there are no illuminated signs marking the certain pathway to developmental success. Studwell sees certain leaders as developmentally clear-headed (including MacArthur and Park Chung-hee) and others as muddled (Mahathir); Marcos of course was a thief.

It is not a question of following advice; Studwell makes clear that most advice given developing countries is positively wrong-headed. And while history may demonstrate (as Studwell argues) that the peculiar one-two-three recipe worked for Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China, it does not follow that it will work (or would have worked) for others.

The tone of How Asia Works is dry, to put it mildly. But I did enjoy Studwell’s occasional accounts of arriving in various Asian capitals and noting the correlation of personal service to the local Gini coefficient (a metric of wealth inequality within a particular country): Studwell instantly senses the passage from Gini coefficient 3.0 to 5.0. The northern East Asian countries Studwell studies not only ‘work’ in the sense of greater per capita wealth (China aside); they also have (somewhat) more equitable distributions of wealth.

How Asia Works is longlisted for the 2013 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

See my reviews of these other longlisted books for the 2013 FT/Goldman Sachs Award:
Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan, The Org

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan

It feels odd to be composing this review of Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan’s The Org in the days following Ronald Coase’s passing. Coase was an unusually creative and influential thinker - one who identified some basic truths of organizational life that had not been generally recognized: the kind of simple things that, once pointed out, cannot fail to be seen.

Coase and the work that followed Coase form much of the subject matter of The Org, a book-length meditation by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan on the science of the organization. Indeed, Fisman and Sullivan launch the book with the story behind Coase’s posing of the grand question: “Why orgs?” Young Coase travels to Chicago, meets with managers, and reads the Chicago phone book. He is struck by the range of scale and activities pursued by the firms he finds. Why then, asks Coase (and ask Fisman and Sullivan), are some activities conducted within firms and others between firms (that is, via the market)? Coase’s answer (transaction costs) may or may not be correct (‘transaction costs’ always seemed to me to be a convenient label for a still elusive explanation, almost a tautology); what is important is the question.

Organizations are mysterious. We fit them on like suits of clothing - and instinctively know how to push and pull their levers. Fisman and Sullivan focus on what happens within the firm - how organizations compel human agents (because that’s what we are) to pursue organizational goals. The resort to organization is by and large a given. At this point, they collect the principal/agent mysteries that form much of the challenge to understanding how firms work. Fisman and Sullivan do not confine themselves to business organizations in The Org - indeed their best coverage involves organizations that are not business firms: the Baltimore police department, Methodist churches and the military.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier

So here’s my favorite quote from Big Data - from an interview with Mike Flowers, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ‘director of analytics’:

You know, we have real problems to solve. I can’t dick around, frankly, thinking about other things like causality right now.

We find ourselves in a new world, argue Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier. No longer need we grapple with the world by spinning theories and using them to make predictions. We now have Big Data and Big Data will speak to us, gifting us with insights that were never before accessible.

By Big Data, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier refer to the vastly greater amount of collected and stored data around us. Big Data also reflect a new economics - where the costs to acquire, store and manipulate data are increasingly negligible. Big Data is often collected mindlessly and incessantly: our continuous GPS coordinates, our Google searches.

Big Data presents new opportunities for prediction. Old prediction involved the collection of precise sample data, which would then be fitted into a theory. Theory was developed under causal lines - data confirmed theory and reflected a link between cause and result. If we collect data showing a large number of people diagnosed with the flu, we may infer the presence of an epidemic. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be by Moisés Naím

Moisés Naím sees the decline of power across many institutions. He is at times wistful, at times celebratory in his reaction to power’s decay. But he isn’t entirely clear why we should care about the passing of power. The powerful do care; Naím has many powerful friends who lament power’s loss of magic. Popes, pols and pundits just don’t get the respect their predecessors received; their authority is more circumscribed, more readily challenged (the same decline is noted by law professors). But for the greater number of us, who are in more settings objects of the power of others than detainers of power, the end of power is not a self-evident cause for concern.

A decline in social organization is a cause for concern – and to the degree the phenomena described in The End of Power signal a loss of capacity for coordination, Naím’s book is more than an indulgence of ambivalent nostalgia. Naím is careful with his definition of power: power is the ability of some few - the powerful - to direct the actions of others. And, he asserts, there are four means by which power is exerted: muscle (force), code (tradition), pitch (persuasion), and reward (incentive).

Naím is a superachiever who has spent his life at or close to the top. He was a prominent politician in Venezuela – and since has become a heralded writer in the United States. As such, his personal prescription, given toward the end of The End of Power, is quite surprising. Get off the elevator, Naím urges. And by this he calls for an abandonment of mindless ambition and more; elevator thinking is the focus on rank and hierarchy, which promotes power as an end in itself.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Myths by Mariana Mazzucato

From start to finish of this superb book, I want Mariana Mazzucato to be right. In The Entrepreneurial State, Mazzucato suggests that the state has had a much more powerful role in stimulating innovation that the dominant narrative admits. The state pushes the key breakthroughs; private firms enter the game quite late (though they often capture an inordinate amount of the social gains from innovation).

Mazzucato’s book is timely (indeed, it has had a considerable impact in Brussels), as countries shift away from austerity policies and look towards Keynesian-style spending to get their economies moving. Keynes famously suggested burying a treasure in an abandoned mine as a make-work project (his point, of course, was not to endorse pointless exercise; rather, he meant to show that pure make-work could act as a stimulus). Mazzucato argues countries can improve on Keynes by spending on state entrepreneurship. In a best-case outcome, state-sponsored innovation will shock the economy back to expansion and will lead to frontier-shifting welfare gains.

And maybe it would - if the political class could be convinced by Mazzucato’s account of the hidden state-centric nature of innovation. Her recent historic examples involve pharmaceuticals and information technologies. The private drug development narrative is deliberately cultivated by Big Pharma: bold firms undertake massive R&D in their laboratories, to be rewarded (in the event of success) by patent monopolies. Big Pharma asks to be ‘left alone’ by the State: no tort liability and quick market approvals are the best policies. In fact, Mazzucato observes, it is the state that undertakes the greatest risks in developing new approaches and active agents, through public funding (such as NIH grants in the United States) of medical research. Left to their own devices, Big Pharma would undertake little research; indeed, the current trend among large pharmaceutical firms is to reduce R&D expenditure and to look to smaller, research-oriented firms to do later-stage development work, then in-licensing or acquiring fairly proven projects. But without the substrate of state-funded science, even this system would grind to a half.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die by Niall Ferguson

The civilized world is falling apart in Niall Ferguson’s view. The world of Ferguson’s concern comprises the United Kingdom and the United States, which (in sequence) have enjoyed long periods at the top. In The Great Degeneration, Ferguson signals the decay afflicting our central and defining institutions. Ferguson mixes nostalgia with alarm: nothing is as it was. Unlike Acemoglu and Robinson, who give an institutional account of why poor countries remain poor in Why Nations Fail (reviewed here), Ferguson tells us why great nations decay, why ours is degenerating.

Although Ferguson distances himself from those who give a purely cultural account for the rise of British and American prominence, he celebrates the particular constellation of democracy, capitalism, rule-of-law and voluntarism found nowhere else. A sequence of accidents may have created our cheerful and wealthy societies. The reduction in the Great Divergence seems to concern Ferguson most: the ratio of our well-being to that enjoyed by the rest of the world (as if a more equitable distribution were a bad thing).

If great (though quirky) institutions served us in the past, their present ‘degeneration’ is a cause for concern. Ferguson divides The Great Degeneration into four short essays, each devoted to an institutional category displaying distinctly Anglo-American characteristics. These are democracy, capitalism, rule-of-law and a civil society marked by voluntarism. The book is a write-up of a series of lectures Ferguson presented on the BBC, summarizing and synthesizing his earlier work. Ferguson’s argues that institutions and not culture were the central determinants of the Great Divergence. Yet he also sees the ‘intergenerational partnership,’ the awareness and the willingness to act publicly on behalf of future generations, as foundational. The better democracy we practiced in the past was wiser; perhaps we didn’t think about our neighbor, but we certainly thought about our grandchildren. (Fear not - the last thing Ferguson will address is climate change - he supposedly believes it a hoax.)

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Buy Side: A Wall Street Trader’s Tale of Spectacular Excess by Turney Duff

The Buy Side is part tell-all, part movie treatment and part self-therapy. Turney Duff presents the rise and fall of a Wall Street trader (Duff himself, or a character resembling him) in the years leading up to the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Duff is well on the way to crashing long before the crisis hits; The Buy Side is a story of self-absorption, addiction and perhaps (though it does not arrive by book end) redemption.

Duff would have us believe that he was one of those Masters of the Universe - magically in touch with the hidden rhythms of the markets, knowing just when to hit the buy or sell button. And his sure-footed ascent is predictable. He deftly passes from sales to the Buy Side - the trading firms who engage the fawning brokers to execute their transactions. The Buy Side may or may not be where the big compensation is - but it’s certainly where the perks lie. And Duff relishes the Buy Side life: imagine buying six extra Yankees tickets in order to take out-of-park smoke breaks.

Duff claims no special savvy; he’s just a party guy who attracts other party guys (and party gals). Somehow this leads to universal admiration and a seven-figure bonus check. I wonder if Duff is calculating in his modesty: it makes a better film. Still he must have had some knowledge of the health-care sector (he was heralded as an expert).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Lost Continent by Gavin Hewitt

The challenge with European democracy is its constantly shifting notions of demos - who are the people who should exercise political determination. The current Euro crisis - and the ensuing imposition of austerity policies on Greece and Ireland, Spain and Italy - demonstrate a democratic irony. As Gavin Hewitt points out, there is nothing democratic about the adoption of austerity; austerity is not a lifestyle choice struggling countries freely assume. The Euro crisis precipitated changes of government (left to right and right to left) in the affected Member States and fierce popular backlash. Yet Angela Merkel, the physician prescribing austerity to faltering countries, responds to democratic signals given by her German electorate (who balk on bailing out their neighbors). Hewitt constructs a story where the democracy of Germany is pitted against the democracy of Southern and Peripheral Europe. 

The Lost Continent focuses on national stories - and national leaders - and so at times has the feel of a tell-all. Silvio Berlusconi, to no-one’s surprise, comes off the worst. His cynical disregard for anyone’s interest saves his own marks, a new low in post-War Italian politics. Imagine how Angela Merkel felt upon receiving his ‘political’ advice to take on a lover. And even more respectable characters, such as Sarkozy, engage in behind-the-back smirkiness with regard to Merkel. But much of the focus falls on Merkel herself; we’re never quite sure whether she is (as she claims) acting just like a Swabian housewife, guided by common-sense and prudence, or whether she is the instrument of peculiar German obsessions outside her control.

And so The Lost Continent is to a great extent a German story of Europe (the UK barely figures). Germany is able to impose austerity on its EU partners because it is German resources that largely fund the rescue. Germany’s economic primacy permits it an outsized influence in contemporary European affairs - Hewitt and various of his informants note that Germany may be more powerful than ever. Germany has benefited from this new Europe; its products are consumed throughout. Its economic success permitted the reunification of Germany, an enormous political and social success (ironically, Merkel developed her political skills in the East).

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Introducing Attraverso

Attraverso means "through" or "across" in Italian; it has both a spatial sense (as crossing a mountain range, or a border) and a temporal sense (as across the centuries). It seemed fitting for a new online journal designed to scratch beneath the surface of global financial issues. More than ever, public debate centers around international economic topics: the financial crisis and the great recession, bank reform, pressure on the Euro, austerity and the future of hope.
Attraverso covers the roots of these issues -- and the ongoing institutional innovations proposed to address them. Attraverso is a journal devoted to commentary and reviews of books on international finance and economics. Formerly published as a series within Loyola’s Summary Judgments faculty blog, Attraverso’s content proved vast and rich enough to fill its own space.

International finance is an arena for ideas; it is a cultural practice. Attraverso will be the first online resource dedicated to covering books in this space. The blog is designed to be a dialogue; comments are encouraged.

The blog is edited by Jeffery Atik, a widely published lawyer and economist with deep experience in Europe and North America. He teaches International Banking & Finance and related courses at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles.


"Professor Atik offers lucid and learned commentary on the most current issues in international finance,” said Heidi Mandanis Schooner, professor, Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America. “Attraverso provides a balanced approach to complex issues and, therefore, is on my essential reading list."

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth

There is nothing ambivalent about Mark Blyth’s view of austerity: he is against it. Blyth’s Austerity is more than a brief against today’s accepted form of treatment for all that ails a slumping economy - it is an intellectual history of a powerfully attractive idea, though in Blyth’s view, a dangerous one. Austerity fails for a number of reasons: it is unfair (it hurts the poor), it cannot be pursued simultaneously by all (someone must spend to ignite economic expansion), and (most damning) history shows it doesn’t work.

Blyth admits to being a Keynesian. There is no shame in that: many neo-Keynesians are calling for an end to austerity. Blyth states, however, that he need not prove Keynes right (“for what it’s worth, he was right, but that’s in another book”); his goal here is simply to prove austerity wrong.

While austerity figures in contemporary U.S. politics, it is predominantly a European fix and fixation, famously imposed on Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal as a condition for European and IMF support in response to the Euro Crisis. Blyth begins the book by correcting the dominant narrative: Greece aside, the Euro Crisis did not originate by reckless government spending, but in private irresponsibility. Excessive private sector lending (provoked by cheap borrowing costs associated with the adoption of the Euro) sank the banks in Ireland and Spain (and their respective economies); the states became indebted in attempting to clean up the mess. Setting this history right is important -- as part of the moral authority for the imposition of austerity is a judgment of state fault. Austerity is not merely an economic prescription -- it is a punitive response. As Blyth points out, there was little else Spain or Ireland could have done. Their banks were not only too big to fail; they were "too big to bail" -- that is, their liabilities were beyond the state’s capacities to absorb. Hindsight suggests the better course might have been to abandon the banks -- but that course would have presented other grave difficulties. By shouldered bank indebtedness, several European states wildly exceeded the European limits on budget deficits and overall indebtedness. So why, Blyth asks, is the Euro crisis consistently described as a sovereign debt crisis? One must blame the state in order to justify the imposition of austerity.

Friday, May 24, 2013

European Parliament Approves Implementation of Basel III

On April 16, the European Parliament approved the packet of legislation known as CRD IV, which largely implements the Basel III banking reforms. This completes the political phase of the European legislative process -- formal adoption of CRD IV by the Council of Ministers is expected to occur in June. Assuming the schedule is met, CRD IV will become law effective January 1, 2014. Consultations on the form of detailed regulations ('technical standards') have now been launched.

CRD IV implements Basel III -- and does more. The term 'CRD IV' signals that this is the fourth generation of the EU's Capital Requirements Directive. The name is no longer precise: CRD IV is comprised of a Regulation (law that is uniformly applied throughout Europe) and a Directive (which requires national implementation and admits a certain degree of variation).

CRD IV increases the quantity and quality of regulatory capital a financial institution must hold. In most cases, transitioning to CRD IV requirements will place pressure on European banks to retain earnings, raise additional equity capital, dispose of assets or change their respective asset mixes. Under the existing version of the Capital Requirements Directive (which were adopted immediately prior to the onset of the 2007/2008 financial crisis), many European banks reduced their capital to extremely low levels. Reportedly some European banks had leverage ratios of over 40 to 1 -- that is, maintaining less than 2 percent of effective capital. Many of these same banks remain in crisis now -- a problem that in turn has infected the balance sheets of several EU Member States. CRD IV acknowledges the insufficiency of bank capital during the financial crisis. The new requirements are complex -- and involve a stack of charges and buffers. A minimum of 8 percent capital will now be mandated, computed with regard to a bank's risk-adjusted assets. Left undetermined for the time being is the overall leverage cap -- it is this simple metric that may prove to be the most meaningful limit on a bank's level of debt.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire by Neil Irwin

Neil Irwin's The Alchemists delivers on its promise: the book is a central banker's view of the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis and the more recent (and related) Euro Crisis. Only the subtitle disappoints: The Alchemists isn't quite the story of the three central bankers depicted on its cover (Bernanke, Trichet and Mervyn King). Rather, The Alchemists offers a thorough treatment of Bernanke's crisis-plagued tenure at the Fed and insightful coverage of the ECB's Trichet - until Trichet morphs into Mario Draghi just in time for the worst of the Euro Crisis. Plus the odd bit of Bank of England's Mervyn King thrown in for comic relief. No doubt Irwin's project was inspired by Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize, which treats four central bankers (their philosophies and their quirks) from the 1920s: the UK's Montague Norman, France's Emile Moreau, Germany's Hjalmar Schacht and the Fed's Benjamin Strong. Now these were central bankers: they dominated the monetary policies of their day.

Our contemporary central bankers lack some of the color of their predecessors (save Mervyn King, who is pretty darn colorful). Moreover, their field of action is much more circumscribed. They can be checked by other personalities within their respective institutions, by intimidating political leaders, and by uncooperative markets. These bankers do manage, at least in this account, to largely have their way in responding to the crises, through will and manipulation, and by playing on the palpable belief that no one else has any better idea of what to do.

Irwin's story begins with the shudders in the market in late 2007, when BNP is the first major institution to admit it had no real idea how much those tricky mortgage-backed securities were worth. The response by Trichet is immediate - and is the precursor of many more ECB interventions. Things get much much worse in the following year with the fall of Lehman Brothers. Lehman's collapse is marked by the surprising non-intervention of the Fed. Irwin's account of the abandonment of Lehman Brothers is thin - but he suggests that the Fed may have felt it had no clear legal basis to act. Bernanke no doubt learned many things from the Lehman Brothers fiasco, including (perhaps) the advantages of being a bit less scrupulous in respecting the limits of the Fed's authority.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tarullo on Basel III and Short Term Wholesale Funding

The Federal Reserve's Dan Tarullo has been a key player in post-Crisis U.S. bank reform and in the negotiation of Basel III, the set of international banking rules that guides regulation in major financial centers. In a speech made last Friday (May 3, 2013) Tarullo expressed some satisfaction with the U.S. and Basel III reforms -- and identified a risk needing further regulatory attention: runs on short-term wholesale funding.

Short-term funding has always constituted a vulnerability to the banking system. The traditional magic of banking involves the transformation of maturities -- banks borrow on a short-term basis and lend for the medium- or long-term. In ordinary times this works out splendidly -- as the short-term rates banks pay tend to be lower (over the long term) than the long-term rates they earn. And in ordinary times, short-term funding is quite stable.

The dominant form of short-term funding was traditionally bank deposits. Deposits are essentially loans made to a bank by its depositors. Deposits are legally short-term, but practically rest in the hands of banks for substantial periods. Short-term funding becomes problematic, of course, when depositors systematically demand repayment: this is the old-style bank run. Post-Depression era deposit insurance has largely eliminated bank runs, at least in the United States, and so the ordinary insured bank deposit is (from the perspective of the bank) a trusty source of short-term funding.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition by Arjun Appadurai

In this collection of essays, Arjun Appadurai links his role as leading globalization scholar to his practice as activist on behalf of the slum dwellers in his native city of Mumbai (or Bombay, the abandoned name Appadurai seems to prefer). Appadurai redeploys globalization theory (and more generally modernization theory, of which globalization is a part) as an ethical practice. He calls for cultivating the capacity to aspire among the world's poor -- an unabashedly cultural project with political and developmental implications. Appadurai argues that the poor must be enabled to aspire -- these aspirations will, in turn, define new and different trajectories from those promised by the passé globalist.

Globalization has failed in its predictions -- and so has failed as science. Globalization, it was thought, would lead to convergence and homogenization, more democracy and tolerance and less nationalism and violence. Yet the world we now see displays strong (and growing stronger) national states and continued developmental disparities. Those enabled by knowledge migrate; their home countries capture disappointing returns from their educational investments. New digital capacities have been harnessed by jealous ethnic groups to reinforce local identities; they can encourage aggression and conflict.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is back, and in his new book he asserts that his signature idea was not The Black Swan (that was so last book), but rather Antifragility. This second idea shares a viral quality with the first; like the Black Swan, once you catch the notion of antifragility, it's hard to get rid of it.

Antifragility is the characteristic of certain systems to grow stronger when stressed; it is the mirror concept to fragility (where stress destroys). Exercise stresses our muscles, and so renders us stronger. As Taleb insists, antifragility is not robustness -- robustness is merely resistance to stress. Stress improves the antifragile. And in a world where stresses cannot be avoided, it is better to be antifragile.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bankers' New Clothes: What's Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig

I have the odd habit, with academic writing, of first reading the notes and then returning to the central text. I like to see the foundation of a work. Would that I had read the notes to The Bankers' New Clothes first! For The Bankers' New Clothes is really two books which I had read in sequence (slave as I was to the Kindle's primitive formatting). The first book -- the primary text of 228 pages -- seemed simple-minded, sometimes shrill and often tedious. It argues for a significant increase in the amount of 'capital' (a specialized term in banking regulation) banks should maintain. The second book - the 107 pages of dense notes -- reveals a much more subtle, more flexible and more open understanding of the issues. This 'book' is more useful and persuasive. I recently heard co-author Anat Admati speak in Los Angeles. She described her surprise when first viewing the book as published, that it was so 'short' when the notes were stripped away and shuttled to the back of the book. It matters (Kindle take note) how books are presented; I would have had a better impression on my first read had these rich notes been on the page or gathered at the end of each chapter. And perhaps these authors will speak up the next time they write for the broader public.

Admati and Hellwig are on a mission. They fervently believe that banks should be required to hold more capital than present rules require. And by more, they mean much much more. From current rules that require, depending of the measure, 3 to 7 percent of a bank's assets, to something on the order of 20 to 30 percent. They demonstrate that such higher levels of capital (think of this like the ratio of equity to the fair market value of a house) would significantly increase the robustness of the entire banking system, relieving the state from facing new rounds of bailouts. Moreover, as the leverage of bank's decrease, banks will be less likely to attract the risk-seeking buccaneers that have managed our great financial institutions into the ground.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists by Napoleon Chagnon

Napoleon Chagnon's title promises a visit to two dangerous tribes: the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. He provides a disjointed treatment. The larger part of the book takes the form of memoir, a return by Chagnon to the people he studied over the greater part of his career. The later chapters address the academic scandal surrounding Chagnon's work - and his place within the evolving discipline. Chagnon defends himself here - but he does not 'scientifically' study his anthropologist accusers: their violence (as opposed to that of the Yanomamö) is not explained.

Chagnon made the Yanomamö famous: his monograph (subtitled "The Fierce People') was widely studied (it was a highlight of the undergraduate Cultural Anthropology course I took). And of course the Yanomamö made Chagnon famous.

Chagnon's work was always controversial. He presented the Yanomamö as among the world's few remaining "Stone Age" people, largely isolated in the regions dividing Venezuela and Brazil. From here they subsistence agriculture from ever shifting villages. The Yanomamö were hardly unaffected by encounters with the outside -- they grew plantains and other crops that had been introduced to South America and prefered modern tools (including the machete and shotgun). Chagnon depicted the Yanomamö as a violent society, characterized by treacherous killings, inter-village raids, and systematic abduction of females. The Yanomamö were not Rousseau's noble savages.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bull by the Horns: Trying to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself by Sheila Bair

Bull by the Horns is part defense of past action, part call-to-action. Sheila Bair served as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, one of the chief federal bank regulators, from 2006 through 2011 -- and thus rode the entire wave of the Financial Crisis. By her own account, she clashed with officials of both the Bush and Obama Administrations (in important cases, these were the same individuals). And throughout these times she was the most prominent woman in United States financial regulation.

Bair becomes the FDIC in this story -- she absorbs its mission and makes it her own. The FDIC has a peculiar mission -- and it has never been the only law in banking. Bair believes in deposit insurance but not bailouts. Deposit insurance is paid to depositors in the event of bank failure; bailouts are payouts to shareholders, bondholders and management in the same circumstances. There is a distinction here -- but perhaps not as self-evident a one as Bair imagines. Both deposit insurance and bailouts (under the Too Big to Fail doctrine or otherwise) create moral hazard. Bair though sees banking policy through the FDIC lens -- depositors (up to the FDIC limits) are to be given continuous access to their funds in the event of failure; shareholders and bondholders are to be wiped out and -- at least in most cases -- bank management is to be fired. All very by the book. Which is to say, Bair wants the bank resolution system to work as it is promised to work -- which of course is not at all what happened following the Financial Crisis.

Moreover, Bair seems to have little sympathies for the other agencies involved in federal banking regulation, unless their objectives accidentally converge with those of the FDIC. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision are consistently dismissed as completely captured by the institutions they regulate; the Department of Treasury is a political instrument of the White House (although Treasury is often portrayed as a rogue department under Timothy Geithner). The Fed is okay most of the time -- Bair is generally admiring of Bernanke -- but the New York Fed is a different story. Throughout the book, Bair signals which players were friends and which -- the greater number -- were enemies. In all, it is a very personal book: Washington is a field for contesting personalities.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

America is built on debt. Indeed, assuming our fair share of debt can be seen as an American duty. We obtain housing, education, transport and medical services through our use of credit -- and as such we spend most of our lives deeply indebted. The root of our notion of freedom (echoed, as Graeber points out, in religious imagery) is freedom from debt -- and if this is so, then by no means is America the land of the free.

Graeber's overview of 5,000 years of debt demonstrates that debt is not a neutral social instrument. Rather debt is first and foremost an institution allowing for the exercise of power. Debt is the foundation of hierarchy and hence much social structure.

Read my full-length review of David Graeber's Debt in the Los Angeles Review of Books.