Tag Archives: CEO

Varoufakis on Bankruptocracy

At an anti-austerity event at the Emmanuel Centre in London yesterday evening, former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis offered a few remarks on the period in which we are now living. Here is my transcript of the part of his talk describing the zombie state of “bankruptocracy” that arose after “capitalism died” in 2008.

When the bank of England prints billions and billions and billions to buy these paper assets — which are mortgages, which are private debts of the banks, which are public debts and so on and so forth —  what happens is two things.

Firstly, house prices increase, in the parts of the country where wealth is concentrated, the wealthy people spend more, their income increases, so there is this sensation among the ruling class that they’ve stabilized the economy because their bottom line has been stabilized.

At the very same time, you have a situation where companies have access to cheap money, courtesy of QE. The tragedy however is, what do they do with this money? Now they’re not dumb. They know that the rest of you cannot afford their goods and services, so they’re not going to invest in productive activity, in order to produce more of them. So what do they do?

They borrow the money that the QE program is producing, giving it to the banks; the banks pass it on to the corporations; and what do the corporates do? They buy back their own shares. They borrow money to buy back their own shares because that way, they push the share price up, and guess what the bonuses of the CEOs are connected to? The share price. So they have more income, and all this money creation, liquidity creation, does not find itself not only in the pockets of working men and women; but it doesn’t even find itself into productive investment into capital.

So we have a capitalism without capital. We have a capitalism with financial capital.

We don’t live in capitalism.

In 1991 socialism collapsed; and the socialist camp and the left worldwide suffered a major defeat, both a political and a moral defeat. And we’re culpable for that, but that’s another story.

In 2008, capitalism died. I describe the new system we live in as “bankruptocracy”: the rule by bankrupt banks that have the political power to effect a transfer — a constant tsunami of money coming from the financial sector and from working people into the bankrupt banks, which remain bankrupt even though they are profitable, because the black holes created during the years of Ponzi growth prior to 2008 remain.

You can watch the whole speech here, on Varoufakis’ site.

The First CEO: A Political Revolution?

I’ve been associating the cultural icon of the CEO with big changes in America, most of which were well underway in the 1970s, when the acronym “CEO” first comes into wide use: the collapse of manufacturing, the financialization of the economy, the emergence of the neoliberal order. David Graeber offers yet another way to characterize these changes: “total bureaucratization.”

An excerpt from Graeber’s new book in the latest issue of Harpers lands us in familiar territory:

What began to happen in the Seventies, which paved the way for what we see today, was a strategic turn, as the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy moved away from workers and toward shareholders. There was a double movement: corporate management became more financialized and the financial sector became more corporatized, with investment banks and hedge funds largely replacing individual investors. As a result, the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable. By the Nineties, lifetime employment, even for white-collar workers, had become a thing of the past. When corporations needed loyalty, they increasingly secured it by paying their employees in stock options.

What Graeber at first characterizes as “a strategic turn” and the merging of the corporate and financial sectors, he then goes on to call “a political revolution”:

At the same time, everyone was encouraged to look at the world through the eyes of an investor — which is one reason why, in the Eighties, newspapers continued laying off their labor reporters, while ordinary TV news reports began featuring stock-quote crawls at the bottom of the screen. By participating in personal-retirement and investment funds, the argument went, everyone would come to own a piece of capitalism. In reality, the magic circle only widened to include higher-paid professionals and corporate bureaucrats. Still, the perceived extension was extremely important. No political revolution (for that’s what this was) can succeed without allies, and bringing along the middle class — and, crucially, convincing them that they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism — was critical.

The parenthetical affirmation — “(for that’s what this was)” — asks us to pause and really take the point. Having read only this excerpt, I don’t know whether Graeber goes on to explain why what he elsewhere calls a “shift” or “turn” counts as a “political revolution,” or how exactly he thinks this overturning of the political order was brought about. No doubt there was fraud, collusion and conspiracy, and “everyone was encouraged” to believe they were included; but the passive verb here leaves way too much unsaid. For one thing, the triumph and establishment of  the new order at home and abroad was really not so bloodless as Graeber (here, at least) makes it out to be.

The celebration and glamorization of the CEO — as a leader, a rule-maker and a rule-breaker, the agent and steward of shareholder value — was one of the things that duped ordinary, middle-class Americans into thinking “they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism.” It deserves a chapter in the story Graeber’s out to tell. The acronym “CEO” itself belongs to what Graeber calls the “peculiar idiom” of “bureaucratic techniques” and meritocratic myths — a language with origins in self-actualization movements of the 1970s, “full of bright, empty terms like ‘vision,’ ‘quality,’ ‘stakeholder,’ ‘leadership,’ ‘excellence,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘strategic goals,’ and ‘best practices.’” It’s good to see this language held up for scrutiny, especially since, as Graeber rightly points out, it still “[engulfs] any meeting where any number of people gather to discuss the allocation of any kind of resources.” To the victors go the spoils, and that’s not likely to change as long as we are speaking their language and playing by their rules.

A Fifth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Fad

We don’t usually think of corporate boardrooms as places where fads start or take hold. But that’s probably the the best way to account for the adoption of the CEO title by American corporations in the postwar period. Or at least that’s the view urged in this 1999 paper by Allison and Potts, which a reader shared in a comment on my post about the postwar provenance of the term CEO: from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, the adoption of the Chief Executive Officer title spread, primarily through “board interlocks” — or through individuals serving on multiple corporate boards.

Allison and Potts present the title’s diffusion through corporate networks as a “no brainer,” “an innovation largely without consequence to adopters.” It was a case, they say, of “contact-only diffusion” or “diffusion with contagion,” in which no serious choices or business decisions had to be made; the title may have helped clarify the difference between President and Chairman, but for the companies Allison and Potts study there was no “non-trivial economic benefit or cost” involved. Companies adopted the title Chief Executive Officer largely because they were emulating other companies: “diffusion of the CEO title was strictly mimetic, a true fad.”

Everybody was doing it. Container Corporation of America started the trend in the late 1940s: why, Allison and Potts don’t explain, but I hope to make some sense of that at some point in the future; it’s intriguing, to say the least, that the company led by Walter Paepcke — Aspen booster, patron of the arts, and promoter of big ideas — led the way. In 1955, CCA was the only one of the largest 200 industrial companies in the United States that had a Chief Executive Officer. By 1975, all but one of the bunch had adopted the title.

CEO Titles

The fad takes hold in four stages: an early period, from 1955-1961;1962-1965, when adoption rates climb dramatically; a late middle period, from 66-71; and a final period where we see adoption rates drop off, mainly due to the remaining number of small adopters.

Though Allison and Potts don’t distinguish the adoption of the Chief Executive Officer title from the use of the acronym CEO, it’s in that late middle period, which they call the “inflection point” of the fad, where we start to see the first traces of the acronym “CEO” in the Harvard Business Review and other business publications. Shareholder value theory makes its debut in 1970. By the time the fad has run its course, in 1976, Jensen and Meckling have published their theory of the firm: the CEO has been identified as the primary “agent” of the firm’s success. He has also begun to enjoy unprecedented political influence, social prestige and cultural celebrity. What began as a boardroom fad has produced a new icon of American power.

A Fourth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Provenance

A reader of my posts about the acronym CEO suggests I have a look at the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project to gain a better appreciation for the “American and military” provenance of the term. “I believe during a period of intense collaboration between the military and private sector after WWII,” he writes, “it somehow permeated to corporate use.”

I have wondered about that “somehow,” and wondered, too, if I could be a little more specific about the course this permeation took. Is the acronym CEO — and the idea of the CEO — an outgrowth of the military industrial complex? Does the rise of the CEO to a position of cultural celebrity in the 1970s and 1980s tell us something (we don’t already know) about how the postwar environment shaped American ideas of command, power and leadership, in the private sector and in the public sector?

These are questions worth asking, I think, though I’m not sure the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project is the best place to start. Or at least that chart doesn’t include the term “CEO.” There is an “OCE” — an Office of the Chief of Engineers; the role of “Executive Officer” was assigned to J.B. Lampert. That title was also used in the appointment of Leslie R. Groves (of Now It Can Be Told fame), who in the org chart has the title of Commanding General.

The larger point here still merits consideration: just follow the careers of the engineers and military commanders identified in the Manhattan Project org chart, consider the military industrial development of the 1950s and the American business environment in which COs and XOs and members of the OCE worked closely with the private sector, and in many cases left the military to join the private sector: it’s easy to see how a new vocabulary of command might have emerged during that period, and eventually found its way into ordinary usage.

Still, I want specifics and cases I can point to. To that end, I’ve written to the company historian at General Electric, to ask whether the term CEO was in general use before the era of Jack Welch (who for a variety of reasons — not least for his cultural celebrity — probably deserves the title “The First CEO”). I’m looking for some examples of usage from the days of Ralph J. Cordiner (Chief Executive Officer from 1950-1963), Fred J. Borch (Chief Executive Officer 1963-1972) or Reginald H. Jones, who served from 1972-1981.

ReaganProgressGE seems like an obvious place to start looking. The company that brought us both Jack Welch and Ronald Reagan was, during the war and then in the postwar period, at the very center of military-industrial development; and big American companies like General Electric were never just manufacturing products — or even “progress,” which Reagan used to tout on TV as GE’s “most important product.” They were also designing models of power that persist to this day.

Has Management Become Significantly More Incompetent?

I don’t really have a dog in the Lepore-Christensen fight. Lepore’s strongest point, that Christensen’s theory of “disruption” is both a flawed theory of history and itself an artifact of history, seems to have gotten lost in the fray. Lepore overreached in her New Yorker piece, and now Christensen’s adherents and acolytes have come out in full force. There hasn’t been much room for careful discussion of Christensen’s theory as a discourse or artifact of post-industrial social collapse — which is, I suppose, what interests me most about it.

Still, I’m following the controversy, and yesterday, John Hagel offered a welcome, level-headed contribution to the discussion. Here, I simply want to paraphrase the comment I left on his post, because it touches on some themes I’ve written about in connection with the rise of the CEO (notably here, here and here.)

Hagel wants to move the discussion of Lepore-Christensen away from intramural antagonism and the clash of personalities and disciplines to look at “fundamental and systemic trends.” Clearly, he says, “something very profound is happening — and it’s largely escaped notice.” One measure of this bigger shift: “the topple rate at which US public companies in the top quartile of return on assets performance fall out of… leadership position.” That rate, he notes, increased 40 percent between 1965 and 2012.

There are lots of possible explanations for that wild increase. It seems safe to say there must be some great historical forces at work. Otherwise, Hagel writes, “one would have to believe that management is becoming significantly more incompetent over time”; and I guess nobody would seriously believe that. Here, at least, we’re meant to pass over the thought with a knowing smile: of course management has not become significantly more incompetent over time. Right?

I didn’t seriously entertain the thought of growing managerial incompetence again until I arrived at Hagel’s concluding paragraph. There, he offers a few suggestions on how incumbent players might “more effectively respond to these disruptive approaches (short of resorting to regulation and other public policy measures).” One suggestion is that management find ways to take the long view: incumbent players need “to find ways to expand the horizons of their leadership team beyond the next quarter or next year.” Myopia is always dangerous, and more dangerous now than ever before.

At the same time, short-sighted management has a history, and as I’ve suggested in my posts on the rise of the CEO, the most interesting chapter of that history starts right around the time the topple rate increases, in the 60s and 70s.

Around 1965, as profit rates in manufacturing fall and as the postwar boom yields to post-industrial reality, new ideas of management take hold. One of them is what Jack Welch once called “the dumbest idea in the world”: the doctrine of shareholder value. As this doctrine becomes boardroom religion, we see the rise of the “CEO” as corporate savior (in Rakesh Khurana’s phrase) and cultural celebrity.

Short-termism and, in some cases, risky financial manipulation become the name of the game. Compensation packages reinforce bad habits. Strategists and management consultants take their cues from the C-Suite, and tailor their offerings accordingly.

I’m not saying the rise of the CEO, the doctrine of shareholder value, or the promise of sustainable competitive advantage in the 70s and 80s explain the increase in the topple rate, but clearly they should be taken into account here; and we should give growing managerial incompetence its due. Bad ideas about what counts as business success — and misguided actions by business (and political) leaders — certainly make businesses more vulnerable to the kind of disruption that interests Hagel: the loss of leadership position.

Big scary historical forces may be overtaking us, but if competence in the face of those forces is what we’re after, then failed ideas of corporate purpose and failed models of corporate leadership ought to be called out, questioned, and radically altered or just dropped.

A Third Note on The First CEO

In a comment on one of my posts about the rise of the acronym “CEO,” a reader named Hugo reports some early Australian illustrations. I thought I’d lift Hugo’s notes from the comments and share them here, because the examples he’s found all pre-date the 1970 illustration of the acronym from the Harvard Business Review, which up until now I had taken to be the earliest. One dates back to 1914.

Time, again, to notify the dictionaries.

I found some earlier 1968 and 1950 examples in Australian newspapers, where chief executive officers were found at hospitals. I also found a 1917 [sic, but the source is from 1914] from a story about a town hall.

The Canberra Times, 27 July 1968, page 22:
Applications are invited for the above positions at the Hillston District Hospital.

Applications and enquiries to the undersigned or Matron Fairchild, Box 1, PO, Hillson, NSW, 2675.
R. I. Cross,

The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1950, page 30:
Wanted. Experienced Sister to take
charge of the Out Patient Department
at this hospital.

Secretary and C.E.O.

Independent, 7 November 1914, page 3:

Of course I am the chief executive officer but I only execute by instructions.

“What a pity,” said the M.M., the C.E.O.

“Not at all, my dear young lady.” the C.E.O.’s voice was tear laden too.

Also uses G.H.U. a few times for Great High Understrapper.

I don’t think these earlier Australian instances should invalidate what I’ve said previously about the widespread use of the acronym CEO in the 1970s and 1980s. Those observations concern the use of “CEO” as an important marker of corporate power, social status and cultural celebrity in America, from roughly 1970-2010.

Still, it’s interesting to consider these early examples. The first two are abbreviations used in newspaper advertisements (maybe just to save money) for positions at hospitals, where the CEOs are clearly in charge of correspondence if not of hiring. Nothing too glamorous. [Update: And one reader, in a comment on this post, suggests that CEO in this context may mean “Catholic Education Officer,” adding that at this time in Australia, “nurses and religious orders go together.”]

The illustration from 1914 offers a satirical, behind-the-scenes account of a municipal office thrown into bureaucratic confusion by a report of 24 cows eating all the flowers and shrubs in the park. Underlings and citizens address the Chief Executive Officer by such honorifics as “Your Chief Executiveness” and “Most Magnificent” and, then, “CEO.” It is an empty title; he seems unable to execute anything at all: “Of course I am the chief executive officer,” he insists, “but I only execute by instructions.” When he finally understands the gravity of the situation, he acts: “I will tell somebody to tell somebody else to tell the inspector as soon as he comes in the morning at nine. I’m sure 24 cows won’t eat all the shrubs in that time.” He is very much the Chief, very much an Officer, but not much when it comes to Execution.

Quakers vs. Bankers

Earth Quaker Action PNC Bank

This story from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette could almost serve as a postscript to what I had to say yesterday about shareholder engagement and the value of face-to-face dialogue.

On Tuesday, PNC Bank Chairman and CEO James Rohr abruptly shut down the annual shareholders meeting at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. He was still delivering his opening remarks when protesters from the Earth Quaker Action Team started calling out the names of individual board members and “asking them to state their position on mountaintop mining.” Rohr’s response? He called the protesters (who are, let’s not forget, PNC shareholders) “out of order, cut short his prepared remarks, played a brief video and adjourned the proceeding roughly 15 minutes after it began.”


An image from the Google Earth Appalachian Mountain Top Removal Tour, created by Appalachian Voices.

According to Earth Quaker, PNC is “one of the nation’s two largest financiers of mountaintop coal mining,” and the Bank had met earlier demands to divest from companies doing mountaintop removal with equivocation, saying it “no longer financed companies with a majority of their business tied to the practice.” The bank failed to add — in a curious omission — that there are no companies with a majority of the business tied to the destructive practice.

George Lakey, one of the Earth Quaker Action members present at the meeting, describes on the Earth Quake Action blog why he and his fellow share-owning Quakers had “decided to break the rules”:

Twice before Earth Quaker Action Team members had gone to the annual shareholders meeting of PNC Bank and obeyed their rules, spoken out during the allotted time in the meeting, expressed our concern about PNC’s large role in mountaintop removal coal mining and the climate crisis. We’d supported people from Appalachia to be there, speaking to PNC’s board about the injury and death that stems from PNC’s choice to put profits first. We’d brought the eighty-year-old grandson of one of PNC’s founders to tell them an evil banking practice was not what his grandpa had in mind.

We even walked 200 miles across Pennsylvania, witnessing in PNC bank branches along the way, to lift up to Pennsylvanians the full reality of the “green bank” that “helps children grow up great.”

But to no avail. In fact, explained Amy Brimmer, director of Earth Quaker Action to the Gazette reporter, “executives have refused to meet with them.” Why the refusal? Instead of a quiet conversation with a group of Quakers (who are very good at quiet conversation!), Rohr had to contend with shouting and singing and (I would add) an ignominious end to his term as CEO. Lakey continues:

After each board member was addressed by name, we again sang from many parts of the room, “Which side are you on?”

James Rohr threw up his hands and declared the meeting adjourned. Ingrid Lakey began to sing “This little light of mine,” we joined in, and sang joyfully as we slowly left the room along with the other shareholders.

I’m not so sure everybody was singing along. A proposal by Boston Common Asset Management calling on the bank to recognize and report on its response to climate change went down in defeat at the meeting. It’s not as if the hippies were about to take over. The bank’s investments were not at risk. Rohr had nothing to fear, except, perhaps, the truth about PNC’s investments in Appalachian mining.

By Tuesday, it was already too late to remedy the situation. Let’s hope incoming CEO Bill Demchak and the PNC board take the opportunity to set this right.

Strategy’s Eclipse and the Big Chief

One of the more provocative business articles I’ve read lately appeared just last week, on forbes.com. It’s a piece by Steve Denning about the collapse of the consulting firm Monitor. The article has already generated thousands of comments and what its own author, in a follow-up post, calls a lot of “social media brouhaha”.

Most of the discussion so far focuses on Denning’s analysis of Monitor’s collapse. He traces the firm’s demise to Michael Porter’s flawed idea that “sustainable competitive advantage” could be gained in markets “by studying the numbers and the existing structure of the industry.” Monitor, in Denning’s view, was selling an “illusory product” that merely “supports and advances the pretensions of the C-suite.” Where Monitor’s approach to strategy failed was where it matters now more than ever: helping businesses connect with or “delight” customers, or innovate, or do things that customers (or, for that matter, society as a whole) want them to do.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, of course, and Denning has been responding to criticism and comment on the Forbes site and on Twitter. I am more intrigued by what Monitor’s downfall might signify – whether it indicates that there are larger changes afoot.

Denning himself wonders if the firm’s collapse marks the end of an “era”. Several of his readers and Tweeters (including me) have suggested that pure strategy plays are simply no longer viable. But that observation only scratches the surface, I think. The downfall of Monitor may indicate something else as well – a larger change in the configuration of CEO or executive power within the enterprise, and the end of a certain idea or iconography of the CEO.

Denning approaches this very thought as he lays out his historical argument, which is basically the story of how Michael Porter got lucky and launched Monitor at precisely the right moment. When Monitor first appeared on the scene in 1979, writes Denning, a new era was dawning:

Pursuit of shareholder value (“the dumbest idea in the world”) was just getting going with a vengeance. The C-suite was starting to realize that they could cash in, big time. Along comes Michael Porter with a rain dance that justifies their cashing in. Porter arrived at just the right time. Hopefully that era is now coming to an end. People are starting to see the rain dance for what it is.

I would hasten to add that the dumbest idea in the world, the doctrine of shareholder value, helped usher in another very bad idea that is still very much with us — the idea of the “CEO” that started to take hold at roughly around the time that acronym first appeared on the scene, in the early 1970s. The CEO is largely an invention of that period.

I’ve taken up this theme in a few posts (here and here and here). A number of journalists and academics have addressed this same point, directly and indirectly. For Rakesh Khurana, the cultish construct of the CEO emerges out of the transition from managerial to investor capitalism. In response to the growing power of institutional investors (like pension funds, bank trusts, insurance firms, endowment funds, and money managers), boards had, by the 1980s, come to focus almost exclusively on the search for an outside celebrity CEO “savior” who would not only appease and appeal to newly-empowered institutional investors but also make a big splash in the newly-emergent American business press.

Needless to say, this further consolidated decision-making power at the top of the corporate hierarchy. At the same time, the newly powerful CEO had become a cultural icon of celebrity and success. We made a totem of corporate executive power.

If the mantra of investor capitalism was “shareholder value,” the central mystery of the new faith was the “agency” problem (as described in a now-canonical 1976 paper by Jensen and Meckling [pdf]). The interests of shareholders and managers were now to be “aligned.” Results have been mixed: a myopia set in, putting the “focus more on the short-term management of the share price,” writes Christopher Bennett on a Conference Board blog post, “and less on the long-term management of the business.”

In a Washington Post Op Ed, Michael Useem (who’s written the book on investor capitalism) takes it one step further. He connects the “unrelenting pressure of the equity market on company leaders to meet quarterly TSR expectations” with the offshoring of operations, “regardless of the impact on the domestic workforce.” Worse, it’s invited leaders to behave like sociopaths, or at least irresponsibly: “an incessant equity-market demand on company leaders to focus on their own advantage whatever the disadvantage for others” has made “fewer executives and directors…able to step forward to advocate what is required for a vibrant economy, not just what is required for their own prosperity.”

Shareholder value may have not have been the dumbest idea ever, as Denning would have it, but it was, at best, a Faustian bargain for American society. It was an important article of faith — and not just for the believers, but for society as a whole, during the period in which the celebrity CEO took on his (yes, usually his) unique features and cast, all the trappings of his office.

Strategy, especially Monitor’s brand of strategy, played a crucial role here. Denning refers us to a passage in Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth:

Porter’s theory thus played to the image of the CEO as a kind of superior being. As Stewart notes, “For all the strategy pioneers, strategy achieves its most perfect embodiment in the person at the top of management: the CEO. Embedded in strategic planning are the assumptions, first, that strategy is a decision-making sport involving the selection of markets and products; second, that the decisions are responsible for all of the value creation of a firm (or at least the “excess profits,” in Porter’s model); and, third, that the decider is the CEO. Strategy, says Porter, speaking for all the strategists, is thus ‘the ultimate act of choice.’ ‘The chief strategist of an organization has to be the leader— the CEO.”

With the passing of Monitor, this concept of strategy may start to go by the board. And so, with any luck, will the idea of the CEO as the “superdecider” (Denning’s word) or super-anything. The rain dance is over, and we can now see the Big Chief as he really is.

David Koch and the Limits of Tolerance

“I believe in gay marriage.” So, in an interview with Politico last week, GOP megadonor David Koch came out in support of marriage equality. His remarks were widely reported as a “break” from the official Republican party line and Mitt Romney’s position on gay marriage. But Koch “joins a near-majority of young Republicans under the age of 35 who support marriage equality,” according to Human Rights Campaign. Among libertarians, gay marriage tends to be a non-issue. There’s little reason to be surprised or scandalized.

The whole affair reminds me of an exchange that Peter Hallward had in an interview with Noam Chomsky a short while ago. Chomsky and Hallward are talking about gains in the areas of human and civil rights, Chomsky maintaining that “the country has become a lot more civilized” in the past forty or fifty years, since the 1960s.

“Elementary rights” – Chomsky mentions women’s rights and gay rights, and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws – “were more or less marginalized until pretty recently, but now we can almost take them for granted.” (My emphasis here would be on almost.) Hallward readily concedes that human and civil rights gains were “hard won,” but hastens to add that ultimately “they don’t conflict with class interests.” Chomsky concurs:

The ruling classes are able to accommodate civil and human rights, pretty easily. In fact if you look at the opinions of CEOs, you find that their social attitudes tend to be fairly liberal. These things don’t affect their position. When you start to touch on questions relating to authority and the concentration of power in the system you run into more challenging barriers. But still, the freedoms that exist elsewhere give you the opportunity to work against those barriers.

Along with his brother Charles, David Koch certainly represents a concentration of power in the system. So does Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who recently appeared in a Human Rights Campaign video advocating same-sex marriage. “America’s corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and is the right thing to do,” says Blankfein in the video, urging us to join him “and the majority of Americans who support marriage equality.” And there is no reason to doubt Blankfein means what he says here. The Goldman CEO has helped advance legislation for marriage equality in New York, and under his leadership Goldman has made it a policy to reimburse employees for the extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits. (And that’s a draw for talented people – a big plus for Goldman.)

All this might lend Goldman the aura of a “socially responsible” company. But it’s worth noting that this issue is a good distance from the space where Goldman operates. “If Mr. Blankfein was taking a radical stand on pay you could say wow, that’s big,” Paul Argenti said when asked to comment on Blankfein’s video appearance. “But [marriage] equality is simply not an issue you associate with Goldman.” Advocating for marriage equality likely won’t raise serious questions about the role Goldman plays in the system of global finance, or the influence the investment bank exercises over American economic policy. (Those issues, by the way, are the focus of a new documentary based on Marc Roche’s book The Bank: How Goldman Sachs Rules the World, set to air on tonight on the French-German Television channel, Arte.)

Of course it’s better to have business moguls and power brokers like Koch and Blankfein join hands with young Republicans on the side of marriage equality or civil and human rights. No doubt about it. But before we break out into a chorus of Kumbayah it’s important to consider the limits of their tolerance – which is essentially what Chomsky is asking us to do – and ask where they draw the line. That’s where they will come out to fight.

Can JP Morgan Manage Its Human Rights Risk?

No one questions Jamie Dimon’s competence. It’s just not clear that Mr. Dimon or “any executive,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, “can properly oversee such a large financial institution” as JP Morgan Chase. The complexity of the bank’s balance sheet and the scale and scope of its investments boggle even the best minds. The London Whale losses demonstrate pretty clearly that it’s possible for the bank to overlook, or miss or ignore serious exposure – to do something stupid or sloppy, as Dimon likes to put it. I wonder how many shareholders now wish they could re-cast their vote for an independent chair, to check and govern the CEO; and I wonder, too, how many will question the bank’s claim that it is capable of managing the human rights risk in its portfolio of investments.

As I pointed out in a previous post, most boards reject human rights proposals on three grounds: that they would be restrictive, burdensome, or redundant. The JP Morgan board stuck pretty close to this script in urging shareholders to vote against a resolution for a “genocide-free” investing policy, which would ensure that its investments did not “substantially contribute to genocide or crimes against humanity, the most egregious violations of human rights, and to assist customers in avoiding the inadvertent inclusion of investments in such companies in their portfolios.” (You can read proposal 8 and the board’s response in the proxy statement here [pdf]).

Most immediately at issue are the banks investments in PetroChina and its subsidiary China National Petroleum Corporation, which pose “high risk due to their ties to the Sudanese government and its connection to human rights abuses.” That is not the hyperbolical cry of some outraged human rights advocate, but the sober and clear-eyed assessment of the board at T. Rowe Price; they joined 27 US states, 61 colleges and universities and the European Parliament’s pension fund in their decision to divest from PetroChina. JP Morgan, on the other hand, “increased holdings of PetroChina after being made aware of PetroChina’s connection to genocide,” CNN reports; and this year, again, the board confidently – some might now say arrogantly – asserted its ability to manage human rights risks:

 We use our extensive risk management processes and procedures to consider human rights and other reputational issues associated with our businesses….The Firm has a robust risk management framework…, and management routinely reviews specific business clients and transactions including where appropriate for consistency with our Human Rights Statement.

This year, the board had its way. The “genocide-free” proposal went down in defeat, garnering only 9.2 percent of the vote (which, by the way, means it’s not going away any time soon.) But the losses in London, which could run as high as five billion and will be difficult to unravel, give the lie to the board’s argument that further human rights risk review would be merely redundant. To the contrary, the losses raise serious questions about the bank’s ability to manage risk — of any and every kind. Its much-touted risk management framework does not seem so “robust” as the board makes it out to be. And it appears Ina Drew and crew operated without routine reviews or oversight. How, then, can the bank ensure that its investments in PetroChina and around the world are not exposing investors to other, more serious risks?

I refuse to believe that most investors don’t mind blood on their money; their confidence should be shaken.

As for Jamie Dimon, London harbored his white whale. China may turn out to be his human rights dragon. It’s said that when he first discovered the extent of the losses in London he could not catch his breath. Imagine what might happen if Jamie Dimon really understood the atrocities in Sudan and the part JP Morgan has played in them.