Let the Business Beware

So far, the major success of the Trump administration has been its quiet, systematic, dogged elimination of regulations, largely while no one has been looking. And why not? Trump ran as a populist friend of the common man, but he is governing as a Republican. According to that faith-based Party’s orthodoxy, all restraints on free enterprise are the work of the devil; they gum up the works of a capitalist economy that, if left alone, will regulate itself.

If all regulations were to vanish overnight, everyone would be employed, goods and services would be cheaper, and it would be the best of all possible worlds. Unless, of course, we were all robbed blind by predatory businesses while our air, water, food and drugs were tainted.

Daily we are treated to case studies of oligarchic businesses behaving as if the only rule that counts in a capitalist economy is: “There’s one born every minute.” In the 2008 crash, storied Wall Street names destroyed themselves by overreaching. Wells Fargo has recently besmirched it’s century-old, pristine reputation. Houston now finds itself awash in the poisons the fossil fuel industry has been carelessly disposing of for decades. The roll call is long and familiar — Enron, Love Canal, Bear Stearns, Bhopal, BP, the Exxon Valdez, Epipen, Martin Skreli, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Volkswagen, Chipotle, and on and on.

If the evildoers got their comeuppance and made way for fitter firms, that would be lovely. But in this wicked old world it doesn’t work that way. Lax regulation allows them to get away wth murder. The capitalists are all O.J. They hire the craftiest lobbyists to get them the regulations they want passed by a bribed or supine Congress. And on the rare occasion an attempt is made to bring them to account, they can afford the cleverest lawyers and drag the process out for years while they continue to transgress. And the members of the public are left to pick up the bill for their pollution or poisoned products.

The latest case study is Equifax, which just keeps getting sleazier. Not only did the company’s incompetence, greed or laxity cause it to be vulnerable to hacking, but when hack occurred the Equifax executives took weeks to warn the victims whose personal data was put at risk. Meanwhile they sold stock to lock in profits before the announcement that sent the price down 30 percent.

There are 125 million household in the United States and 250 million adults over the age of 18. Equifax allowed criminals to gain access to the data of 143 million people. It is likely every household in the country with enough money to have a credit rating has been compromised. While the capitalists profit, the rest of us are collateral damage.

And now the Washington Post reports a new, even more disgraceful wrinkle. Over the last 20 months, did Equifax ($3.1 billion in annual revenue) spend an additional $1.6 million on cybersecurity to keep its customers safe or to comply wth regulations? No, it spent $1.6 million lobbying Congress to regulate it less.

Equifax is headquartered in Atlanta and got its local Congressman Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.), to introduce legislation that would “strike a fair balance” by placing limits on 1) what Equifax could be forced to do to keep customer data safe, 2) what it would be required to do to notify customers of lost data in the event of a breach, and 3) how much it could be forced to pay in customers were damaged.

Alas, for Equifax, the regulatory rollback did not come to a vote before the hack occurred. but the very fact of their seeking such legislation suggests they knew they were vulnerable and were too cheap or stupid to do anything to protect 143 million people. Now, malefactors have got control of all of our Social Security numbers, birthdates, driver’s license information, credit history, bank account information, and so on.

Now, instead of having oversight rolled back, Equifax is being investigated by the FBI, FTC, CFPB, state attorneys general, and will likely face the mother of all class action lawsuits. The cost of their folly could be the bankruptcy of the business, but the villains will almost surely escape jail or penury while their customers suffer the consequences. Apparently in this capitalist world, the customers are unfit to live while the weaselly executives are allowed to float below a golden parachute to a well-earned rest.

If this were an aberration, it would be of little more interest than the two-headed dog at the carnival sideshow. But it is an everyday affair, business as usual. Is it any wonder that 51% of millennials in recent Pew polling, don’t support capitalism? This is the generation that came of age with the the dot-com bubble, the crash of 2008, and the agonizingly slow recovery.

But they are not alone. The only cohort in which over 50 percent of people had a positive view of capitalism were the generations over 50 years of age. Everyone under 50 had a negative view of capitalism. This does not bode well for the future of business. No wonder the oligarchs are so anxious to buy congressmen who will protect them from the wrath of people who are harmed by their goods and services.

Interestingly, Gallup polling from a few years ago earlier showed that only 60 percent of people had a positive view of capitalism and only 53 percent of big business. But 96 percent had a positive view of small businesses. Perhaps this is because it is harder to lie, cheat, steal, and short change when you have to look the customer in the eye and he lives just down the block.

Tell Me A Story

When my grandchildren were younger, I made an effort to force on their parents the children’s books of my era. I knew they’d get plenty of Seuss and Scarry, but wasn’t so sure if the Little Golden books, Oz and the classic fairy tales from Grimm, Andersen and Perrault were still in vogue.

They liked some of these, but others may have been shouldered aside by new favorites like Harry Potter. Now seven, they are avidly consuming the new to me “I Survived” series in which kid role models manage to come out alive on the other side of the Great Chicago Fire, the sinking of the Titanic, Pearl Harbor, The American Revolution, and Mt. St. Helens blowing its top.

I am of two minds about this. I’m all for learning a little history, but “I Survived 9/11” is a far cry from the more anodyne “Johnny Tremain” or “Ben and Me” that we read. I suppose the survive books are about allaying fears in a time perceived to be perilous, or maybe they just reflect an era when most books or movies for anyone under 50 seem to concern shoot-outs, explosions or disasters.

I must say no one thought to produce I survived Joe McCarthy or the Tet Offensive or Polio or the Cuban Missile Crisis for kids in my childhood. We were already freaked enough. The world was just as complicated and terrifying then, but grown-ups didn’t talk about it with kids, though we were perfectly aware of it. Of course, all of this ignores the fact that when the supposedly less spooky fairy tales we were fed were first told, big, bad wolves and wicked stepmothers weren’t a fantasy, but a documentary.

I suppose it may be better that today there are kids books to console young people in the face of death, or to teach them to accept diversity, blended families and households containing two mommies or daddies. Still, trying to postpone the day when innocence gave way to wised up wasn’t all bad.

Thinking back on those simpler times, I have also been struck less by what’s present in kiddie lit today than what’s missing. In Little Gold Books like “Scuffy the Tugboat,” “Seven Little Postmen,” and many others kids were introduced to a busy world of work, productivity and commerce.

A letter from a kid in town travels by postman’s bag to a sorting floor to train to truck to the mailbox of grandma’s farm in the country. Scuffy slips from a child’s grasp into a brook and off he goes, past lumberjacks rolling logs into a river, under bridges in industrial towns, past a city wth skyscrapers. In other books, a steam shovel excavates the foundations for one of those skyscrapers, farmers raise crops and animals that will feed us, puddlers produce steel that will rise into the sky where riveters attach one beam to another.

By contrast, today’s plugged-in kids live in a digital universe populated by more transformers than humans, and divorced from the bustling, complex, real world where humans earn their bread (and bake it) by the sweat of their brows and the ingenuity of their brains.

I’m not arguing for nostalgia for yesterday’s kiddie lit or criticizing today’s. I’m just noting the change, admittedly based on a less than large sample. Children’s tales have always had a fondness for Wonderland, Neverland, days in Oz and nights in Arabia, with heroes and villains, magicians and wizards and witches, oh my.

As Stephen Sondheim, by way of Bruno Bettelheim, suggested in “Into The Woods,” these adventures weren’t just exciting but performed as a surrogate for psychologically counseling. They were concerned with speaking to the inner life of kids with all their fears and perplexities as they try to adapt and evolve in a hard to understand world that they never made but nevertheless had to inhabit.

The little books of my day did that, but they also contained a celebration of what a big, kaleidoscopically interesting place the quotidian world is with trains and planes and threshing machines, traffic cops and bus drivers, factories and foundries and laboratories. We read little biographies of Goddard with his rockets, Edison and his inventions. We got to imagine being everyday heroes, not just superheroes. Does that still happen in kiddie lit? I hope so. We can’t all be Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen.

Acts Of God, Acts Of Men

Sometimes it seems as if we are living in times of cataclysm, beset by unpredictable events that shatter ordered lives. All that’s lacking are plagues of locusts, boils and frogs, and they may not be far behind. Hurricanes line up and blow away the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands.

Very few of us perish at the hands of terrorists, foreign and domestic, but the random nature of their acts— Charleston, Charlottesville, San Bernardino, Boston — make us feel in constant peril. Not to mention, states led by fools and fanatics armed with weapons of mass destruction.

And then there’s economic calamity. The past cycles of boom and bust were bad enough. My great-great grandfather Adam Trish married just in time to see the bank Panic of 1837 postpone his plans to buy a farm for a decade.

My grandmother Williams was only two when her life was plunged into years of poverty by the Depression of 1892, the worst in American history, until 1929 surpassed it. Widespread unemployment and hardship scarred the industrial heartland, and she remembered for the rest of her long life the ragged men of Coxey’s Army begging for food and water at her door on their march to Washington seeking relief in 1894.

My grandfather Charles Monroe died in 1931, leaving his widow insolvent. My father, then in his second year of college, had to drop out to try to earn enough to support himself and his mother during a Great Depression that would continue for almost ten more years. In our own time, my adult children’s economic lives have been stunted by the lingering effects of the Great Recession of 2008.

We tend to regard all these horrors as if they were acts of God, beyond mortal control. Your roof blows away, your savings blow away, you are blown away. Individually, we may be powerless in the face of terror, weather, or downturns, but acts of man are implicated in them all.

The bombers and shooters and plotters can be detected with well-funded vigilance and they can be deprived of easy access to explosives and weapons if the society decides to act. In the case of weather, rushing to the rescue and imploring the kindly to contribute may be admirable, but the time to avert the worst if before the fact, not after.

The perils of climate change are increasingly apparent and not a fiction, but we refuse to pay for an ounce of prevention — seawalls, transitioning to clean energy, sane zoning, bans on building (or rebuilding) in endangered flood plains or denying insurance to people taking obvious risks. Yet if nothing is done, the cost going forward will be trillions of pounds for belated cures.

Booms and busts are not acts pf god. They are almost always the result of irrational actors enabled by lax regulation, and insane risk taking that enriches the casino — bankers, brokers and other lenders — and ruins not just gamblers but innocent bystanders whose jobs, pensions, and homes are sacrificed on the later of laissez faire.

We know the dismal history of predatory capitalism, unchecked by adequate government oversight, that led to 1929 and 2008, to a Savings and Loan debacle here, a dot-com bubble there, everywhere defaults, currency collapses, Enrons and Madoffs. Yet the victims do not have the power to enact protections that would save them, while the lobbyists for the malefactors write the laws that guarantee that the next rip-off will occur.

And often the acts of men that cause immense suffering are as much acts of omission as of commission. The watchdogs who are supposed to catch crimes before they happen are asleep, or are obeying rules that give them more incentive to go easy than to crack down. So, credit rating agencies certified incredibly risky instruments AAA before 2008 proved the paper they’d approved was trash.

Just now, we have all learned that hackers have stolen the mortgage and credit card borrowing histories, place and date of birth and social security numbers for essentially every adult in the country from Equifax. Yet it is one of three companies whose business is to keep this sensitive data safe and secure.

For performing this service, Equifax surely makes a nice profit, but just as surely the profit was enhanced by not spending enough to ensure that our information was safe from cyber-criminals. And as if to demonstrate Equifax shouldn’t have been trusted, before alerting the rest of us to the breach that may impoverish us, the executives of the company hastened to enrich themselves by trading on this insider information.

The Silicon Valley wizards to whom we now entrust our safety, privacy and physical and economic well-being are also culpable. They have grown fat addicting billions to the ease, speed, convenience and economy of life online. But they have not protected us. We are all now vulnerable to dangers we don’t understand and are unable to guard against.

We now find ourselves in an under-policed, anarchic Wild West of cyberbullying, hacking, scams, misinformation and criminality, a dark web where terrorists are recruited, fraud is endemic, banks are broken into, identities are stolen and an American election is perverted.

These are not acts of god or even the devil but of men. and until we put cops on the beat of these virtual-reality streets, and arm them with weapons adequate to the task, we will never be safe. And since a capitalist economy and a democratic society depend on trust, the whole edifice can collapse when nothing and no one can be relied on. Then no one is safe from the disorder that may come.