On Executive Pay

Sunlight is supposed to be the best disinfectant. But there’s something naïve about the new S.E.C. rule, which presumes that full disclosure will embarrass companies enough to restrain executive pay. As Elson told me, “People who can ask to be paid a hundred million dollars are beyond embarrassment.” More important, as long as the system for setting pay is broken, more disclosure makes things worse instead of better. We don’t need more information. We need boards of directors to step up and set pay themselves, instead of outsourcing the job to their peers.

James Surowiecki 
Open Season
The New Yorker

October 21, 2013

Surowiecki is nobody’s idea of a conservative, but he is going in the right direction with this. The problem here is that boards have lost control of their companies. The way to get boards to “step up” is make sure that the right people know about the pay disparity, and are ready to punish the company for it.

If you want to change executive pay, get shareholders and consumers to vote with their pocketbooks and refuse to patronize or invest in a company that pays the folks in the C-suite more than, say, 25 times the salary of the lowest-paid worker. That will get the ball rolling.

But the idea that regulation is going to fix this problem – and not simply drive it underground – is naive in the extreme.

We Need Government – But Not For Everything

“For 100 years, the narratives of progressives from Woodrow Wilson on, is that progress will come if and only if we concentrate more and more power in Washington, more and more Washington power in the executive branch and more executive power in the hands of experts — disinterested experts such as those who designed HealthCare.gov.”

— George F. Will

I like George Will a lot, and have for years. There are days when he gets a little doctrinaire for my tastes, but they are always redeemed by points like this.

I am not quite as doctrinaire about government as some of the more extreme libertarians. I believe that there are some things that the federal government must do because a) they must be done, and b) neither private enterprise, civil society, nor any other level of government can legally or practically do it. I think most reasonable libertarians would agree with me, and that the only thing we might dispute is where that line is drawn.

You don’t put Bechtel in charge of preserving our national parks. You don’t make the L.A. City Council responsible for building interstate highways. You don’t make the First AME Church responsible for enforcing civil rights legislation. And you don’t put the governor of Kansas in charge of the national defense. You get the federal government to do those things because, like it or not, experience has proven that they are most likely to be most effective in those roles. We can argue as long as you like about whether those things are necessary, but logic dictates that the Feds do it.

Neither, however, do you operate on the presumption that something is better done by the federal government. The folks in Washington have done some fine things over the years, but they have also laid upon this nation some schemes that we may wish we could forget but we must not.

Religion, Law and Morality

If the history of states that have outlawed the practice of religion offers any lesson, it is this. When you take away religion, the only way to sustain social order is to replace it with a series of laws that place the state in the position vacated by faith. Put simply, banning religion leads to the criminalization of immorality. When that happens, you do not get nirvana: you get the totalitarian nightmare of the police state.

One of the unspoken responsibilities of liberty is that we take it upon ourselves to live by a common code of moral behavior that ensures social harmony, in addition to acquiescence to the system of laws necessary to ensure public order. If we remove that moral code, and especially if we fail to replace it with a prescriptive ethical system that regulates our private (as well as our public) behavior, we remove that comfortable pathway between tyranny and chaos.

Adherence to any given faith – or any faith at all – must never be a prerequiste to citizenship. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge that we are a society that is formed on a series of shared behavioral principles. While adherence to some of the more key principles must be enshrined in law, the obligation to ensure moral behavior belongs outside the scope of law, and within the longstanding framework that enshrines ethical behavior as the price of communal membership.

The Snowden Affair: Three Issues

As I wrote yesterday, the hidden story in the Edward Snowden case is the rush to judge him, favorably or unfavorably, before we have a  clear understanding of exactly what he did, why he did it, and how he did it. It is early days with this story, and those who rush to call him a hero or a traitor appear to be more interested in scoring points for their own cause than understanding the matter at hand. This is a shame, because in the process they have made it harder for us to examine three distinct issues that each deserve careful and separate examination.

The first issue is the matter of civil liberties. Any American should welcome a healthy debate in this country about the permissible limits of governmental reach. Personally, I don’t want the government either in my pants or in my hard drive, but neither do I wish to see us blind-sided by any enemy, foreign or domestic, who might plot death and destruction right under all of our noses. We must pursue this debate with vigor and not allow our freedom to be eroded simply because we were not keeping an eye on our own government.

A second and separate discussion needs to take place about Mr. Snowden, one that must happen in the wake of public discovery. We need to better understand his method, his motives, and the process by which all of this took place, and evaluate all three. When we have done that we will know whether he should stand as an example or as a warning. As a nation, as a people, we have to know either way.

Finally, we need to examine our own system. We must ask whether we have adequate institutions to provide whistleblowers (both government and corporate) a legitimate channel to air their revelations here at home, rather than from a far-off land under cloak of a power that is at best ambivalent to the US, if not a latent enemy. A whistleblower who cannot speak out about government processes that endanger liberty represents as much of a national failure as sending a soldier to war with a gun that will not fire.

As this remarkable story plays out, we should make sure we are examining all three of these issues, not as a mish-mash, but as distinct matters that have separate and grave implications for the future of America.

An Ideology, Not a Blueprint

A great quote from Bryan McGrath in Information Dissemination:

Libertarianism strikes me (and others) as a fine bit of political ideology when alloyed with other ideologies.  Their preference for dramatically limited government helps pull Conservatives to the right, and the preference for removal of government from the private sphere appeals to many Liberals seeking to advance social policies.  Unalloyed however, Libertarianism is a quaint, interesting, and ultimately unsuitable approach to governing a modern Republic, especially a world power.

I wouldn’t limit that to Libertarianism. I’d extend it to all ideologies.

The Politics of Self-Interest

It is time that we Americans begin to divine the difference between “enlightened self-interest” and “self-interested enlightenment.” The former demands that we use care in not allowing our self-interest to overwhelm our public duty as citizens. The latter gives us license to take all we can from the system, from the government, from our fellow man without a thought to the consequences.

When you refuse to serve the greater good by sacrificing some benefit to yourself, you take the first step down the pathway to becoming a reactionary. When you try to expunge self-interest in the name of enlightenment, you take the fist step down the pathway to becoming a radical.

The correct path is the middle route, the self-interest moderated by a developed sense of duty to the public good.

Now, which are we teaching our children?