Posts tagged with: Business/Finance

News broke yesterday of an audacious violation of Apple Computer’s intellectual property rights (IPR) in China. This expat blogger posted photos of three sham Apple Stores she discovered in the city of Kunming—the stores have been set up by some entrepreneurial chap hoping to capitalize on the company’s Chinese popularity.

The story was slightly amusing, especially in light of Apple’s recent earnings announcement. (“They totally did it again,” said one analyst. It was also revealed that Apple now sits on enough cash in hand to buy 100% of Goldman Sachs at its current market value.) It seems that the Apple brand is now so valuable that the Chinese are counterfeiting the company’s retail outlets to sell Apple’s own products at full price. As one employee of the fake store said when reached by the Wall Street Journal,

It doesn’t make much of a difference for us whether we’re authorized or not. I just care that what I sell every day are authentic Apple products, and that our customers don’t come back to me to complain about the quality of the products.

But that’s precisely why Apple’s IPR must be protected. The company is one of the most innovative ever—their graphical user interface, popularization of the computer mouse, iPod music player, and touch-screen devices have dragged the technology sector forward, to say nothing of their design contributions—and that innovation would not have been supported without protections for the company’s intellectual property.

The U.S. Constitution justifies the establishment of IPR in giving Congress the power

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

As David H. Carey explains in his Acton monograph The Social Mortgage of Intellectual Property,

If allowing some techonology to be patented benefits society in the long run more than it costs society temporarily to forego unrestricted use of that technology, then such patents are morally defensible.

The Apple Store “experience” is tightly bound up with the company’s products (remember how miserably Dell stores failed?), and part of allowing Apple temporary exclusive use of its inventions is allowing it to sell them as it sees fit.

There is also the question of trademark, which exists primarily for the protection of consumers, so that when I buy a tube of Crest toothpaste from a CVS I know that I’m not getting a Chinese imitation accidentally laced with cyanide, stocked by a shyster posing as a reputable franchisee.

Whatever employees of these fake Apple Stores may say—and according to the blogger who broke the story, none of the stores’ sales force realized at the time that they weren’t working for Apple—it’s China! Would you buy an iPhone from one of the fake stores? The Chinese government has a responsibility to its citizens to enforce Apple’s trademarks and protect its citizens from fraud.

By pure coincidence, I can illustrate the importance of protecting IPR in China: Yesterday, about the time this story was hitting the internet, my father went to the Apple Store in Dallas (an authentic one) and purchased an iPad. While he is away for a week on a theology course, Apple’s device will give him access to email and other business tools, so that he can grow in virtue and keep his business running at the same time (and once they debut the iSpankings app, he’ll be able to keep his kids in line, too). He chose an iPad over any number of other devices because his IT guy—who doesn’t like Macs, as IT guys never do—told him it would do the job best.

Except for the U.S.’s protection of IPR, that market solution wouldn’t have been possible.

Blog author: jmeszaros
posted by on Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John Boehner recently stated, in the debt-ceiling talks, that “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” which most Americans agree with in principle.  However, citizens say that keeping benefits the same for the three big programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, is more important than taking steps to reduce the budget deficit by a margin of 60 percent compared to 32 percent for Social Security, 61 compared to 31 percent for Medicare, and 58 compared to 37 percent for Medicaid.

So Americans purportedly want thriftier government, but still want benefits? What gives?  Part of the problem, according to James Kwak, is “the idea that there is one thing called ‘government’–and that you can measure it by looking at total spending–makes no sense.”

What Kwak means is that total expenditure is a misleading measure of the “size” of government. He presents this example:

The number of dollars collected and spent by the government doesn’t tell you how big the government is in any meaningful sense. Most government policies can be accomplished at least three different ways: spending, tax credits, and regulation. For example, let’s say we want to help low-income people afford rental housing. We can pay for housing vouchers; we can provide tax credits to developers to build affordable housing; or we can have a regulation saying that some percentage of new units must be affordably priced. The first increases the amount of cash flowing in and out of the government; the second decreases it; and the third leaves it the same. Yet all increase government’s impact on society.”

So increased spending (or decreasing it) does not necessarily mean the “size” of government has grown (or shrunk). Think how regulation is synonymous with big government, but it does not involve a tax or direct spending of any kind.

In fact, “big” government is often viewed through the lens of regulation, rather than cost. For instance, Kwak explains:

When people say government is too big, they often have in mind something like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–a regulatory agency that tells businesses what they can and can’t do…the CFPA’s budget is about $300 million, or less than one-hundredth of one percent of federal government spending.”

Again the divergence between cost and “bigness” is seen.  The CFPA may be viewed as “big,” intrusive, and unnecessary but it is not large in terms of cost like Social Security and Defense spending.

Kwak states, “popular antipathy toward the regulatory state has been translated into an attack on popular entitlement programs.”  Many people dislike certain government regulations and, due to the budget debate, dislike of regulation, the amount of government spending, and specific government programs may have become accidentally intertwined.

As mentioned before, Americans view Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as important and worth preserving.  Kwak elaborates: “Rationally speaking, your opinion about Social Security or about Medicare should be based on how much you put in and how much you get out–not on the gross size of the program, and not on how big the rest of the federal budget is. Yet instead the total size of the budget has become the driving force behind potential structural changes in Social Security and Medicare.”

Kwak suggests that “we should make decisions on a program-by-program basis, just like a business is supposed to do.”  His advice is: “If there’s a program that the American people, through our democratic system, agree will provide benefits greater than its costs, we should do it, independently of the existing spending level. And if there’s a program that isn’t covering its costs, we should kill it.”

Instead of focusing on a generality, “government size”, our elected officials should evaluate programs on a cost-benefit level.  Then government agencies that are viewed as too costly or intrusive (the CFPA) could be eliminated and government programs that are viewed as beneficial (SS, Medicare), but need reform, can be focused on in an unbiased way and not be harmed by the “too big” generality.

Jordan Ballor, in a blog post for Acton, wrote: “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.”  Indeed, although the American people think Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are beneficial, 52 percent think Social Security needs significant reform, 54 percent think Medicare needs reform, and 54 percent, likewise, for Medicaid.  However, without having a clear definition of what “too big” means, successful retooling will be difficult to achieve.

Ballor added: “This means that the fundamental role of government in the provision of various services must likewise be explored. This requires a return to basics, the first principles of good governance, that does justice to the varieties of governmental entities (local, regional, state, federal) and institutions of civil society (including families, churches, charities, and businesses).”  True reform requires not simply legal and budgetary change, but a reevaluation of what entities perform certain services, as Ballor suggested.

The Acton Institute is committed to real budget reform, and, to make sure that programs, like Social Security, are evaluated fairly and reformed properly, the United States should make sure it clearly defines the costs and benefits of individual programs before taking drastic action.

Two weeks ago, President Obama ventured courageously into the debt crisis debate with soak-the-rich proposals aimed at the usual suspects—“oil companies,” “hedge fund managers,” “millionaires and billionaires,”—and a new enemy, “corporate jet owners.” That phrase may have tested well with focus groups, but economists and pundits weren’t duped. The imprudence of a new punitive tax on a segment of the country’s manufacturing industry was immediately mocked up and down the Twitterverse, and longer arguments have since been made.

There’s also the “small” problem of the size of the tax break for corporate jet owners: over a decade, the government could collect three-quarters of one-tenth of one percent of the portion of our debt that the President aims to eliminate. The proposal begins to smell like demagogic nonsense.

Then we have this towering irony: the President wishes to harm a segment of the economy (manufacturing) which he claims at the same time to support. His union base insists that he sign no new free trade agreements until Congress passes protections for workers whose jobs are outsourced. There is no talk, however, of protections for Gulfstream employees who will be laid off when the higher price of jets brings down demand. Focus groups can’t provide much in the way of economic analysis. Perhaps the President’s team should have talked to Steve Rooney, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Wichita, Kan., who told the AP:

I think it’s just insulting. He acts like it is just a luxury for somebody to own a business jet when they’re used as tools. And I don’t think he realizes how many people that this industry employs and how much revenue is brought in here from those types of aircraft.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who claims that lawmakers are fighting the President’s tax agenda “to protect the owners of yachts and corporate jets. To protect corporations that ship jobs overseas” misses this inherent contradiction.

The Heritage Foundation’s Mike Franc calls it an “off with their heads” mentality, and he’s right. That successful businessmen should be bled dry out of a “sense of shared sacrifice” is not the instinct of a free society. It is a Marxist sentiment, one based in a view of historical progress as class conflict.

The creation of wealth, from which the U.S. can pay down its national debt, is not a zero-sum enterprise.  It requires the cooperative striving of the whole business ladder. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens, management and labor ought not to be separated at all. “Isolating … ‘capital’ in opposition to ‘labor,’” he says, “is contrary to the very nature” of wealth and its creation.

In concocting a solution to this country’s fiscal problems, our leaders would do well to remember that.

Blog author: eamyx
posted by on Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back in February 2008, then candidate for president Barack Obama addressed a crowd at a General Motors Assembly Plant in Janesville, Wis. He said,

…I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper– that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue out individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

It is ironic that Obama preached a “we’re-in-this-together” economic philosophy yet three years later, Main Street is carrying Washington’s debt burden.

Debt negotiations are currently at a deadlock in Washington over taxes. President Obama doesn’t want to follow through with $4 trillion in spending cuts without a $1 trillion tax increase, while Senate Democrats are asking for a whopping $2 trillion in new taxes. Democrats also do not want to sacrifice entitlement programs. Top leaders worry they will not be able to reach a deal in time to avoid a government default. With the predicted default deadline of August 2 creeping around the corner and unemployment on the rise at 9.2 percent, citizens feel a sense of urgency about the debt crisis.

When Obama said “I am my brother’s keeper,” what did he really mean? If the government is to act as our brother’s keeper, this means it should be accepting responsibility for the welfare of all citizens. Raising taxes to cover up Washington’s nasty spending habits is certainly not accepting any responsibility.

If the government was really acting in the best interest of its citizens, it would stop raising taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, Americans will need to work from January 1 to April 12 before they have earned enough to pay off their taxes. Tax increases may seem like a quick way to reduce the deficit as opposed to spending cuts alone, but the bottom line is that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. A Goldman Sachs report found that tax increases usually fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging to economic growth while spending cuts correct fiscal imbalances and boost growth. Milton Friedman explains in his essay titled Fallacy: Government Spending and Deficits Stimulate the Economy why government spending does not mean “stimulus”:

Getting the extra taxes, however, requires raising the rate of taxation. As a result, the taxpayer gets to keep less of each dollar earned or received as a return on investment, which reduces his or her incentive to work and to save. The resulting reduction in effort or in savings is a hidden cost of the extra spending. Far from being a stimulus to the economy, extra spending financed through higher taxes is a drag on the economy.

The $2 trillion tax increase Senate Democrats are pushing has the potential to suffocate economic growth and job creation, which would not be good news for 14 million unemployed Americans. Today, the Great Recession now has more idle workers than the Great Depression. An article in The Fiscal Times claims the employment level is nowhere near where it should be for a typical recovery:

In a typical recovery, we would have had several hundred thousand more hires per month than we are seeing now—this despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus (including the rescue of the automobile industry, whose collapse would likely have lost a million jobs).

If spending binges don’t work for a family, why would they work for a government? When a family spends more than they are making, the only sensible solution would be to cut spending. Bureaucrats should take House Minority Leader Eric Cantor’s advice and be willing to share the sacrifice:

Everyone understands that Washington has been on a spending binge of late and we’ve got to start spending money the way taxpayers are right now and that’s learning how to do more with less.

The debt crisis is not just an economic hazard but a prodigious moral issue of poor stewardship as explained in an Acton commentary by Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine titled The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats:

Responsible stewardship of one’s material resources is a consistent and recurring biblical theme. At the conclusion of a parable on stewardship, Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10 NIV). We shouldn’t be duped into granting the use of greater and greater portions of our paychecks to a federal government that has been unfaithful with what it has already claimed.

Our economy will continue to hobble along until Washington is willing to truly act as a brother’s keeper in showing that it too can share the sacrifices necessary for getting spending under control. Until then, we will pay the price for Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility and millions of Americans will continue to struggle.

My editorial, “Intergenerational Ethics and Economics,” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (more details about that issue here). In this short piece I explore some of the implications and intergenerational consequences of public debt. For this I take my point of departure with the much-discussed “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” but I also point out the importance of considering opportunity cost and how that concept has been applied in an analogous conversation about climate change. Focusing particularly on the current generations of workers, however, I observe:

Younger workers have not had as much time in the workplace to earn wages, collect benefits, and save, as those who have been working for decades and are nearing or have already entered retirement. As we learn from what has been called the “miracle of compounding interest,” small deductions of available capital at earlier points in time have major consequences for long-term growth.

In a recent piece for City Journal, Nicole Gelinas reflects on the federal government’s move to take on troubled securities from private firms. She writes,

The politicians we elect have three choices—the same choices they had four years ago. They can admit that this debt isn’t worth much and allow the financial sector to bear the consequences. They can hope that the Fed tries to use inflation to raise the price of everything else, making the debt seem a lighter burden in comparison. Or they can maintain their silence, letting the financial sector take another half-decade or more to make enough money on new ventures so that it can finally admit what it should have admitted back in the fall of 2007: bad debt is never good. At least the Fed acknowledges this strategy: it says that it’s using “time” to manage toxic securities and “minimize disruption to the financial markets.” But prolonging government control of financial markets just prolongs investors’ uncertainty.

Her conclusion underscores what I contend in the editorial about the importance of opportunity cost and the intergenerational effects of (in)action: “As the Fed notes, the cost of this policy isn’t measured in dollars but in something more precious: time. Washington’s refusal to confront the debt problem is costing millions the most productive years of their lives.”

Also in the current issue of the journal, James Alvey explores “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.” Buchanan has a good deal of interest to say on these questions, and Alvey concludes that “Buchanan’s favorite policy agenda, constitutional/legal limitations on public spending, deficits, and debt, needs to be revisited.”

Dodd-Frank regulations, originally scheduled to take effect on July 16, are intended to create market stability. Instead, they are doing just the opposite.

Regulations aimed at financial derivatives, incorporated into the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that was signed into law last July, have recently been rescheduled to take effect on December 31. The regulations are aimed at reducing the risk of derivatives, a contentious issue among those debating the root cause of the financial crisis. A Reuters’ report suggests this legislation will create uncertainty and a legal void for the derivatives market. Fears that trades could be challenged or invalidated may send the market for swaps (over-the-counter derivatives) into “legal limbo,” according to NASDAQ News.

Scott O’Malia, a commissioner of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, told Reuters,

I have concerns that this proposal will not provide the appropriate level of legal certainty, and if it is to last only a few months, will likely only serve to further confuse and frustrate the markets and market participants.

Legal delays and uncertainties are only a small part of a much larger problem. Saturated with 2,253 pages of confusing regulation, Dodd-Frank is considered to be the most drastic financial revision in 80 years.

Former U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, now an adviser to Goldman Sachs, says Dodd-Frank goes too far for our good. He argues the regulation will hurt job creation and smother economic growth:

The consequences will be a massive transfer of economic activity overseas and an equally massive contraction in the liquidity and credit that keeps U.S. business competitive and vibrant.

Though intended to stabilize the financial market, Dodd-Frank is creating more uncertainty and instability at our liberty’s expense. Regulation will harm competition and stifle individual freedom. In an attempt to correct the immoral behavior on Wall Street, the government is compromising the dignity of the individual by reducing financial choices.

In a commentary titled “Credit Crunch, Character Crisis,” Samuel Gregg, the Director of Research at the Acton Institute, discusses the financial and moral costs of similar risk-controlling regulation in the past:

A longer-term problem is that this failure may facilitate calls for more financial regulation, much as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was a response to America’s 2000-2001 corporate scandals. The evidence is growing that Sarbanes-Oxley has proved extremely costly for business. Even Sarbanes-Oxley’s authors now concede many of its provisions were badly drafted.

According to a University of Pittsburgh study, Sarbanes-Oxley’s discouragement of prudent risk-taking and its generation of additional compliance-costs have contributed to many firms listing themselves in the City of London rather than Wall Street. This has also been facilitated by Britain’s Financial Services Authority’s shift away from Sarbanes-Oxley-like procedural approaches to financial regulation, towards principles-based regulation which focuses on (a) the behavior reasonably expected from financial practitioners and (b) good outcomes.

In the end, however, no amount of regulation — heavy or light — can substitute for the type of character-formation that is supposed to occur in families, schools, churches, and synagogues.

These are the institutions (rather than ethics-auditors and business-ethics courses) which The Wealth of Nations’ author, Adam Smith, identified as primarily responsible for helping people develop what he called the “moral sense” that causes us to know instinctively when particular courses of action are imprudent or simply wrong — regardless of whether we are Wall St bankers or humble actuaries working at securities-rating agencies.

Perhaps the recent financial turmoil will remind us that sound financial sectors rely more than we think upon sound moral cultures.

Gregg’s economic and moral analysis suggests regulation cannot build character. The implicit goal of Dodd-Frank is to achieve moral ends on Wall Street through coercive means — expanding government oversight. We must remember virtue cannot be artificially manufactured by increased regulation; rather virtue requires freedom to choose the proper course of action. Moral character in the business world should be encouraged by a proper incentive structure, but even more importantly by the values taught in our social institutions.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, June 24, 2011

Bread for the World CEO David Beckmann once said, “We can’t food-bank our way to the end of hunger.” As I said then, if “changing the politics of hunger” means that more people are getting food assistance from the government rather than food banks and community efforts, count me out.

But on a more hopeful note, this story from NPR tracking how Walmart has partnered with Feeding America, the largest food bank network in the nation, to get food that would otherwise be wasted into the hands of those that need it most. Last year Walmart announced a plan to contribute $2 billion to food banks in the form of direct cash assistance as well as material donations. You can see more at Walmart’s “Fighting Hunger Together” page.

And be sure to check out Feeding America to find out what food banks really can do.

On NewsMax, Edward Pentin reports that “the president of the Vatican Bank has said that emerging economies may be the only countries experiencing economic growth over the coming decades, while Western nations are crippled by lack of productivity, uncompetitive labor markets, and aging populations.”

Ettore Gotti Tedeschi said the “next decades risk seeing exclusively the growth of emerging countries, and not just because of their low cost of production but also due to their advanced technological level and capacity to create capital, which is far superior to that of the old West.”

The English translation of Tedeschi’s comments have been published in the editorial “Re-inventing labor” on the website of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, June 17, 2011

Today at Capital Commentary I discuss the size and scope of the tax code in the US relative to its basic purposes.

In “Back Door Social Engineering,” I argue, “When governments run huge deficits in part because of the complexity of its tax system and the ability of people and institutions to engage in large-scale (and legal) tax avoidance, there is something deeply wrong with the system.”

The basic purpose of taxes is to raise money for the government, not to determine social behavior. We have laws for that.

Read the whole thing here.

I’ve written a fair bit over recent months about trends in charitable giving and Christian tithing. One the latter point, I touched on the importance of tithing in my latest “On the Square” feature at the First Things site. I’m looking forward to getting a look at Douglas LeBlanc’s book, Tithing: Test Me in This. We are seeing right now just how critical faithful charity can be in the midst of disaster.

The Barna Group recently released a major new research study focusing on many of these trends, “Donors Proceed with Caution, Tithing Declines.” This data is worth looking at more closely and there’s a lot to digest. But here’s how Barna initially frames the study:

“The economic downturn influenced donations later than it affected other aspects of our spending,” explained David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “Once it kicked in, though, donors have cut back significantly in their giving to churches and nonprofits. Now, even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, donors are still reluctant to return to their previous levels of generosity. They may be less shell-shocked than 15 months ago, but they are still cautious.

Has the economic downturn impacted your giving? If so, how?