Clive: Naked Capitalism – Your Ammunition in the War for Information

Yves here. This post, on how “the munitions for a battle for ideas is information,” and the resulting role that Naked Capitalism plays in this battle, ran in 2015. I think you’ll agree it is still relevant today….particularly to those of you working in finance.

By Clive, an investment technology professional and Japanophile

This is fundraising week for Naked Capitalism. I suspect that many of you, like me, are members of the finance industry who visit the blog, enjoy it and support the editorial aims. So if you want to dispense with the preliminaries and go straight to giving, you can do so here, right now.

Let me continue with the self-disclosure, but it’s perhaps more of a confessional or appeal for absolution. I’ve spent almost 30 years working in the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector, my entire adult life. When I first started, it was viewed as a most suitable career choice for middle class not particularly aspirational sorts who wanted security, respectability and a recognisable position in the community. It was never supposed to be a passport to significant wealth or even much more than very modest wealth. It was certainly never supposed to be anything which oppressed or harmed anyone.

By the early 1990’s the rot, which had started to set in during the mid-1980’s, had begun to accelerate. Most regular readers of Naked Capitalism know how the movie ended. If only it was just a work of fiction. For those of you who have suffered financially, emotionally, physically (or all three) through an unlawful foreclosure, fee gouging, predatory lending, junk insurance or scam financial products you will know what the consequences of an industry which threw away its moral compass and any sense of a social contract are.

For those of us on the inside, we don’t deserve any sympathy. But I’d like to offer a glimmer of insight into the conflict that those of us with any sort of conscience wrestle with because it is a conflict which is going to shape our societies over the next generation.

Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way. Industries such as finance have seized and held onto larger and larger proportions of the economy.

The same disproportionate growth can be seen in financialised healthcare and finacialised education. Naked Capitalism has broken story after story of how these businesses have demonstrated a near-endless capacity for scandal, fraud and wrongdoings of every conceivable sort.

If we were to say that it is the “corporations” which are exploiting people, that would be wrong. “corporations” are not people. It is the people – you might be one of them too – who work in the corporations who are exploiting others.

From my experience, some who work in such exploitative enterprises do so willingly, with full knowledge of what they are doing. It is a regrettable human trait. Societies limit such harmful tendencies by placing justified restrictions on individuals and individual acts. It is relatively easy to identify an individual causing harm and deal with them appropriately. It is, unfortunately, much harder to identify and restrict the activities of groups of people when they can hide behind the veneer of innocence provided by a large, successful business.

For those of us who are increasingly appalled by the moral decay exhibited by some of our most powerful private sector operators which, naturally, lack any sort of democratic – public – accountability or oversight, we quickly learn that attempting to effect change from within is usually a futile gesture. Corporate Social Responsibility policies, regulatory compliance, consumer protection legislation and appeals to plain old fashioned decency are largely symbolic, quickly forgotten and ineffectual. They are minor impediments that the corporation has to work a little harder to step around and step over not significant hurdles to block unlawful, illegal or immoral actions. Whistle-blower protections are a quagmire in most jurisdictions and, at best, a gamble for the employee.

And of course, Big Finance and its related partners in crime Big Healthcare, Big Education, Big Energy, Big Agriculture and others do not sit idly by waiting to react to criticism and any attempt to reduce their influence and the cash benefits they obtains from such influence. They want to set societies’ agenda. They want to not only preserve the gains they have made at others’ expense. They want to increase them still further. To give a little context, one Too Big to Fail bank has a PR department employing over 200 people. The budget runs into millions. That is for just one bank. And that doesn’t count paid-for industry lobby groups, consultancies, advertising and think-tanks.

In the face of such seemingly overwhelming disparity of power what can those of us who want to change the balance do? You could quit. But the system would remain – we’re all disposable in the world of the mega corporation. Some might say that you could sell up and go off-grid. But the system would remain – who would you sell to? These and similar reactions are, in my view, an abdication of whatever limited power we possess. We can’t run away and hide. We have to stand and fight. And we have to combine our inevitable small scale individual power into something which, in totality, is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

But how?

If this is indeed a battle, then it is a battle for ideas. The munitions for a battle for ideas is information. Information has the most vulnerable supply line possible. It can be hidden, stolen, distorted, filtered, obscured, changed and covered over. We therefore need a channel which has the same goals as we do and, if not run by us, is run along the lines we need it to be run along. That channel is Naked Capitalism. And that is why you need to support it.

If, like me, you work in finance or the other finacialised industries, we need to share our stories, experiences, outrage and demands – our information. Naked Capitalism is a place to do that.

The fact that you’re reading this here, now, suggests that you’ve lost your innocence about what you’re working to prop up. Reluctantly or unwittingly propping up maybe. But propping up nevertheless. If you have personally benefitted, or continue to benefit, materially from your participation in these businesses you need to recognise, if you haven’t already done so, that you need to make redress to society for the harms which those business have done and are doing.

You can do that by making a contribution such as in the reader comments sections. Or by sending the editor useful details of what might be the basis for a great article. You and I both know though that the sectors we work in are not, comparatively, poorly remunerated. Naked Capitalism needs to cover its operating costs and we can almost certainly afford to help finance that by making a contribution to this fundraiser which you can do through the Tip Jar. Even if you can only give a little, it’s an important statement, and if you can do more, please give more.

We also know that the exploitative businesses we tacitly support by our continuing to work there do not hesitate to spend their ill-gotten gains controlling the flow of information. Which means that we know how valuable information is. Let’s invest in something that will help us challenge what we know, from our own first-hand experience, needs to be challenged.

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  1. JW

    Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way.

    I am almost 40 and how much better my life would have been if I had understood that when I started out. Even in the nonprofit and public sectors, it is increasingly difficult to do good work—often in those sectors you feel the petty greed of the 10% more than the epic greed of the 1%.

    Thank you, NC and commentators for a daily breath of sanity.

  2. David

    I’m glad I’m finally out of full-time work now, after seeing decades of decline, and the infestation of even public sector organisations with private-sector style greed and dishonesty. Not all of the greediest and most unpleasant people I have ever met in my life have worked for banks.
    In the battle for ideas, information is important, but organised deployment of information in the form of arguments and prescriptions is even more important. The Right has always known this, and can buy any number of academics, pundits, popular authors and publications to push for specific understandings of information and to propose specific policies on the basis of it.
    The Left could do this if it tried, but it doesn’t try. It’s interested in virtue and competitive virtue signalling, and to the questions “how can we create a good and fair society?” or “how can we live better lives?” it has no answer except an indigestible word-salad of identity group demands. When was the last time someone on the Left published an influential book on such issues? I suppose Rawls was the last (if you see him as of the Left) but that was fifty years ago. I don’t deny that the so-called Left comes out with books like All Men are Scum or Give Me the Money White Guy but these are by their nature self-ghettoising, whatever you think of the arguments. We are in what Gramsci called the War of Position: the war to change the way people think, and so the way they act. Information (and the work that NC does) is critical for that, but information itself needs to be supplemented by a willingness to put it in comprehensive and digestible forms with a policy orientation, which NC has done, and I hope will continue to do.

  3. lyman alpha blob

    Question on the mailing address for check contributions –

    When I click the link above it says the zip is 10075 but I just took a look at the fundraiser email I received and the mailing address shown near the bottom lists the zip as 10121. Can you please confirm which is correct? Thank you!

  4. Synoia

    Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way.

    It used to be that businesses, including banks, had a personal relationship with their customers. Over time the relationship become one between the customer and the businesses’ computer, or its call center.

    Once the relationship become not personal, then the executives in the company appear to treat their “customers” increasingly as “marks” to be exploited.

    When I first has a Bank account, the tellers in the Bank Branch knew me personally, and this persisted through the ’70s.

    We had similar relationships with small village shops and smaller supermarkets, until they were replaced with large supermarkets, at about the same time.

  5. anarcheops

    I’m reading this article from the desk of my min-wage part-time service job. Which I took after years of dealing with the cognitive dissonance of working in a white-collar middle-class Liberal “helping people” field that did not seem to do much of anything, let alone help people. Lots of patting ourselves on the back, lots of emails, very little action. And lots of bureaucracy and management dysfunction. I can only imagine how depressed I would be working in an actively harmful job. I’m glad there are at least some others out there recognizing that dissonance and writing about its roots. Something actually helpful to actual people.

      1. anarcheops

        Thanks Yves, I appreciate that. It’s not like it has been easy and mental health made a lot of the decision for me. But I also know I’m in a lucky position in many ways to be able to make the decision and not end up on the streets. I wish there were better options for everybody.

  6. Conrad

    Thanks for setting out the moral issue so clearly. I’ve had a similar impression for a long time, but haven’t been able to put it into words so well.

    I started out on the periphery of the FIRE sector as a commercial lawyer in New Zealand, but lothed the whole scene and jumped to (very low level) academia as soon as I was able. Ever since I’ve been vaguely trying to impress the moral aspect on the business students I teach. I’m unsure of how effective it’s been but none of them have been busted for fraud yet so I’ll claim that as a win.

    I guess all we can do is try to live as moral a life as we can and encourage others to do likewise. Anyway thanks again. The hosts and commentators here have long been a source of inspiration to me.

  7. Alex

    Both this article and previous comments are spot on. Information is key, but so is the organized application of it. This is not just about banks or even large corporations (as Synoia made clear when describing the new relationship between customer and the business computer rather than customer and an individual at a store or bank.) What we are experiencing now is a dehumanization of society. After having spent many years in the US – and still frequently visiting – I’m now in Holland. Traditionally a social democratic country with an extensive welfare system and a government close to its citizens. Since I moved back, however, I see that this society has changed and in some ways starts resembling not the best of the US: small stores are being replaced by large chain stores; local bank offices are replaced by ATMs; you can buy anything online, but less and less from real stores and real people; after the postal services had been privatized a few years ago, post offices have been closed, the daily delivery reduced and personal service non existent; 2 out of 3 leading banks got into hot water after the financial crisis was over ( Rabo bank got implicated in the libor fraud out of London; ING bank – which got bailed out during the financial crisis – just had to pay the largest fine ever by far in the Netherlands of $900 million for money laundering. Only after public upheaval in parliament and the media did one senior executive step down ( maybe an idea for Jamie Dimon?) No one else was made legally let alone criminally responsible.

    What I’m trying to say is that this not just in the US, it’s not just about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about a system (globalization and unfettered capitalism) that is dehumanizing society and benefiting too few, and mostly the usual suspects including the major corporations.

    As a frequent reader of NC, I know NC plays an important role in getting the information out there, and offering its readers a place to meet. It’s a start, an important start, but the counter forces are strong and powerful. We will need more to keep or get to a humane economy and society.

    1. Mucho

      Also based in the Netherlands, and I (sadly) share your analysis. Government is also revealing itself more- and more as puppets to corporate whims: see the recent example in which they proposed to scrap the dividend-tax after lobbying efforts by (mainly) Shell & Unilever, not evening bothering to provide arguments for this (the prime-minister just said he “felt it in the deepest fibers of his being that this would be good for the country”. Nearly everybody disagreed – almost all of economics, investors, other coalition partners, even right-wing media. But all this opposition did not move our PM. What did? The fact that Unilever announced they might not their principal seat to Rotterdam. Then our PM said he would ‘re-evaluate’.
      Feels like the mask has come of..

  8. David Johnston

    Hey just wanted to say thanks for some or the most concise and revealing analysis that I’ve come across. Keep it up!

  9. Mucho

    I think about this often. I work – through a temp agency – as a low-level callcenter employee at a debt-collection (“credit-management”) multinational in the Netherlands. Formally, it is my job to extract from poor and burdened people as much money as quickly as possible. On paper my job would be highly exploitative.

    In practice, I feel somewhat different. Because of the labor market in the Netherlands, the organizational mess – lot of temps, not much oversight – and the freedom I have as a collection agent, I am able to help people. I am able to offer very lenient payment plans for those overburdened, help them argue (against my company) that our claim on them is barred and provide them with legal and financial advice. To be fair: the company I work for is much more lenient already than a lot of similar firms in the market (whose behaviour borders on the criminal) but it wields a score of practices that depend on the low-information or weak financial position of debtors. In making these decisions, and defending them against my superiors, I have no fear of getting fired: there are a lot of these crappy, low-level jobs available to me.

    The societial and legal framework which leads people to become burdened with debt I and the procedures which allow companies such as the one I work for to flourish need to be torn down. Still, in my everyday dealings, I do feel I am doing something useful and vital for society, and for the individual debtors I come into contact with. I take pride and joy in that.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Thank you , Mucho, for your actual service — every little bit helps. My younger family members have worked both sides of the problem: as debtors getting harassed, and as call center collections slaves, reluctantly doing the dirty to other debtors. I am so grateful that they have gotten out of both situations.

      Clive’s posts supporting the fundraising, and your comment and the others here, nudged me to drop some more of my fixed income in the tin cup.

      Have you seen the silly movie, “The Incredibles”? Where the male lead is reduced to working in the Department of Denial for a Really Big Insurance Company? And not only does as you do, telling clients how to get past the “Wall of Denial” and force the bureaucracy to acknowledge claims, but in frustration, he knocks the snot out of the little mid-level manager who regularly reams him for actually “paying claims-“ is told that his job is to collect the premiums, to make the loot pile bigger — never to pay out. And of course gets fired for his trouble.

      I’m wondering if all the people of good will out here will get it together to create an ACTUAL “wave” that might wash away a lot of the toxic flotsam and jetsam that pollutes our civic shores… before the Panopticon and the Rulers lock things down so tight that no light will reach us any more.

      Here’s hoping.

  10. Crosley Bendix

    Thank you to the original poster and the commentariat for all of their heartfelt writing in this post. As dispiriting as our society is, it does make me feel a little better knowing that there are others that feel the same way.

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