Moore’s Law / Elon Musk

The Books of the Week are “Moore’s Law, The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary” by Arnold Thackray, David C. Brock and Rachel Jones, published in 2015, and “Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Ashlee Vance, published in 2015.

The former biography described not only Gordon Moore’s life, but the histories and cultures of his ancestors, his wife’s family, and the places where he lived.

Born in January 1929 in Pescadero California, Moore was the middle son of three. His father spent most of his working life in law enforcement. He, his father and brothers went fishing and hunting. The family moved to Redwood City in 1938.

At eleven years old, Moore fell in love with chemistry. His “… adolescent hobby of making bombs and explosions” or maybe also the cumulative effect of his noisy hunting excursions were thought to have caused his hearing loss later in life. He wed his college sweetheart and completed a PhD in experimental particle physics at California Institute of Technology.

In 1953, the transistor was starting to replace the vacuum tube in various devices, like TV sets. It also became a handy component in military electronics. In 1956, Moore went to work for William Shockley– a reputable scientist but a psycho boss. Shockley had hubris syndrome and, with his friends from Bell Labs, convinced his company’s major investor to fund the development of a diode rather than the silicon transistor.

In 1957, feeling disgusted and entrepreneurial, Moore and seven of his colleagues left the company and, financed by venture capitalists, eventually formed Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View, California. What with the space race, aerospace computing was all the rage. Silicon was a substance that had the right physical properties to advance it.

At Fairchild, Moore formed a research and development group that competed with the manufacturing department. Unfortunately, his temperament was non-confrontational, and his avoidance behavior was bad for business. Fortunately, in 1968, he, Bob Noyce and Andy Grove sported the appropriate diverse set of personalities and skills that maximized profits in a new venture they formed, called Intel. Their strategy was to introduce cutting-edge products to the technology market and be the first to do so.

Intel went public in October 1971, but NOT on a “stock exchange” as the authors wrote. Only on NASDAQ (not an exchange). Moore wanted the company to make computer parts, but not the whole computer, or else it would compete with its customers, such as IBM. By the mid 1970’s, Intel had factories in Malaysia and the Philippines. Moore motivated his initial employees through bribery– stock options and a stock purchase program. He even bribed his own son to finish school.

Intel’s labor- and time-saving devices proliferated in everyday products like calculators, color TV’s, telephone networks, cash registers and watches, not to mention inter-continental ballistic missiles. And spaceships. The authors downplayed the role of video games in the advancement of computer components.

Moore wrote about a concept that played out accurately through the decades that came to be known as Moore’s Law. In 1976, the price of silicon transistors– which are put on memory microchips– was less than a penny. That price got lower and lower as technology got better and faster. Unfortunately, according to the book, this economic growth has run its course in the United States and is predicted to come to an end in the next five years or so.

Read the book to learn how Intel cheated by taking a page from Microsoft’s playbook (and partnered with it)– to become a monopoly– in order to dominate the PC world; what the billionaire Moore did after he was forced to retire (very reluctantly; hint– he engaged in philanthropy from which he required measurability and accountability); and much more about his company, lifestyle and family.

Born into a relatively wealthy family in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa, Elon Musk is the oldest of three children. A voracious reader, he, like Isaac Asimov, was also an insufferable know-it-all, and thus became a social outcast. At about eight years old, he chose to go live with his psychologically abusive, rabid-apartheidist father when his parents split.

Musk engaged in the usual leisure pursuits of nerdy boys of his generation: Dungeons and Dragons, computer programming, rocketry and chemistry explosions. Being super-smart, he learned that the United States was superior to South Africa in terms  entrepreneurial opportunities. He therefore got Canadian citizenship through his mother’s ancestors, and then moved to the United States as a young man.

Musk attended college and graduate school in Pennsylvania. He studied business, physics and economics. He charged admission for alcohol parties to raise money to pay for his tuition. In 1995, he went into business with his brother. Four years later, their website start-up, Zip2, was sold to Compaq for a tidy sum. He then started and/or worked on other projects, including an internet bank, an electric car, spacecraft and devices that harness solar power.

Certain aspects of Musk’s personality in the workplace are comparable to various other famous people. Musk’s dysfunctional managerial style is a blessing and a curse. He, like the late Steve Jobs, is hard-driving on employees to the point of meanness. But his focus and workaholic business ventures have achieved what many said was impossible. His keen entrepreneurial instincts, similar to those of Bill Gates, have seen him through. Also like Gates, he has delivered on what he promised, but usually way over deadline.

When it comes to space exploration, Musk, like Freeman Dyson, shoots not for colonizing the moon, but for colonizing Mars. Musk, like Richard Stallman, believes in the free exchange of information. He truly wants to improve humanity so much so that, according to the author, he eventually shared with the world (!) the intellectual property of his electric car company, Tesla. In 2005, its first car was completed by a mere eighteen workers.

However, in 2007, Musk was very possessive of Tesla. Contrary the recommendation of an interim CEO, he stubbornly refused to cut the near-bankrupt company’s losses and sell it to an experienced international automaker. He was competing with not only overwhelmingly powerful and politically influential automakers, but also with military contractors and the oil industry.

Read the book to learn of two major automakers who have invested in Tesla; of how the Obama administration helped keep the company afloat; of the myriad benefits the world is deriving from Musk’s  innovations; and of Musk’s personal life.

Grand Delusions – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Grand Delusions, The Cosmic Career of John DeLorean” by Hillel Levin, published in 1983. This volume described the adventures of a car company engineer and entrepreneur, not to mention swindler.

The book’s first chapter was a summary of his entire career, suspense be damned. The section on his makeover and marriages was disorganized and redundant. One more criticism– the author interviewed only the book’s subject twice, and listed no notes, references or bibliography.

Anyhow, born in January 1925 in Detroit, DeLorean was the oldest of five sons. His father was an alcoholic Romanian; his mother, an Austrian. He kept busy while attending Lawrence Tech in Michigan. He wrote for the school newspaper and was on the student council. He joined a fraternity, danced in night clubs and drove a fast car.

DeLorean held a series of jobs including salesman, trainee in a special program at Chrysler, engineer at Packard, head engineer and then general manager of General Motors’ Pontiac division, and by the late 1960’s, general manager of its Chevrolet division.

After departing from his full-time job under murky circumstances, DeLorean and his sidekick Roy Nesseth posed as entrepreneurs who executed crooked business deals. Victims included an auto-parts patent holder, a farmer/rancher, and a financially struggling Cadillac dealership, among others. By the mid-1970’s, the pair had a bunch of business failures and lawsuits against them.

Journalists were suckered into writing about DeLorean’s past glory as a brilliant engineer. He “… must have learned that if he didn’t say too much, the reporter wouldn’t bother to check any further… They were still looking for dirt on General Motors, and the ex-executive was more than willing to give it to them… The maverick auto engineer was too compelling a character to be deflated with investigative journalism.” DeLorean fooled people just like Bernie Madoff did, although not on as grand a scale.

When he started his own car company, DeLorean let his attorney create a complicated network of sister companies to deliberately obfuscate financial and legal matters. It took the entire second half of the Seventies.

A boatload of fundraising was required to pay lavish executives’ salaries, design their offices, choose a manufacturing site, build the factory, sign up the car dealers, etc. The author erroneously used the term “comptroller” instead of “controller” when discussing the pesky bean-counter who complained about the arrogant, greedy DeLorean’s huge monetary outlays on all things for himself. “As Dewey [DeLorean’s first controller] predicted, the improprieties grew exponentially with the influx of money from the British government.”

DeLorean was the type of man who fancied himself as having some of the traits of James Bond. A man such as this, with a big ego, marries a model or actress at least a decade younger than himself. Like DeLorean, other James-Bond wannabes have assumed prominent leadership roles, and become international celebrities. The list includes but is far from limited to: Charlie Chaplin, Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Elon Musk and of course, Ian Fleming.

Read the book to learn the details of the combination of honest ineptitude and premeditated, nervy criminality in which DeLorean and his accomplices engaged in the context of how not to become an automaker.

Sons of Wichita

The Book of the Week is “Sons of Wichita, How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty” by Daniel Schulman, published in 2014.

Born in Texas in 1900, Fred Koch was of Dutch ancestry. He pronounced his name “coke” instead of the way the late former mayor of New York City (Ed “cotch”) did. He and his wife Mary bore four sons– Fred Jr., Charles, and David and Bill (fraternal twins), starting in 1933.

Fred was a chemical engineer who moved to Wichita, Kansas and became wealthy in the oil-refining industry. In the early 1930’s, he did business with the U.S.S.R. At the dawn of the 1940’s, he switched to ranching due to legal action over patents that Universal Oil launched against Fred’s company, Winkler-Koch, and also Root Refining. His oil company broke up in 1944.

In 1958, Koch joined the new John Birch Society, a rabidly anti-Communist group who saw Communists everywhere it looked, including those in unions, in charge of government financial programs, and in the United Nations. And the Boy Scouts. It aggressively spread hysteria about these people who were a threat to the American way. Fred had seen the political system in the Soviet Union when he was there, and realized it oppressed people.

Fred, Jr. took after his mother and upon reaching adulthood, moved to New York City and ran with the theater crowd. Charles, his father’s favorite, was groomed to take over the family business, which became Koch Industries. He did so in late 1967, when Fred passed away. The business made acquisitions in the oil industry and its sole goal was growth.

Charles had previously acquired extensive education in chemical and nuclear engineering. In the early 1970’s, he became interested in acquiring knowledge on the political ideology of libertarianism. He became a convert to it in its most extreme form. It espouses the belief that a purely capitalist society is the best economic system. This means total deregulation, no entitlements such as government-administered retirement or medical plans, no unions, no socialism of any kind, no income tax, and a government whose role is only to protect citizens and property from each other and outsiders, and from fraud.

In 1980, David Koch ran for American president on the Libertarian ticket. He knew he couldn’t possibly win but the goal was to plant seeds for future acceptance of his political ideology.

In early 1997, Charles co-founded the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. He and his brother David poured money into front groups that aggressively lobbied to reduce the size of government and expand the public’s freedoms. In 2008, the brothers opposed the taxpayer bailouts of companies bankrupted by the subprime mortgage crisis, and opposed deficit spending. They also denied allying with the Tea Party politicians but were secretly supporting them. About a year later, Charles and his henchmen launched fierce opposition to President Barack Obama’s national health care plan.

During his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama viewed the Koch brothers as a bigger threat than his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Obama copied the Kochs’ above actions (forming propagandizing front groups) to counteract the libertarians. Successfully.

As a result of their political mentality, Charles and David could have cared less about the environmental destruction and wrongful deaths their company caused due to poorly maintained oil and gas pipelines. Perhaps to salve his conscience, David made huge donations to cultural institutions, especially in New York City. The liberals (hypocritically) gratefully accepted the money, notwithstanding David’s political activities that led to rack and ruin. He also heavily funded medical research on prostate cancer, presumably to enhance the chances of his own physical survival.

Read the book to learn of the lawsuits that started in 1982 that Bill launched against Charles on various causes of action; the details of the Koch Industries’ legal troubles; the brothers’ sibling rivalry; the corporate culture of market-based management that Charles instituted in the family business; and what the siblings did for fun and profit; etc., etc., etc.

The World According to Monsanto – URGENT POST

The Book of the Decade is  “The World According to Monsanto– Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of Our Food Supply” by Marie-Monique Robin, published in 2010.

The author wrote, “When one dissects Monsanto’s activity reports (contained in 10-K forms [annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States]) since 1997, one is struck by the place taken up by litigation.”

There are no companies that can fairly be compared to Monsanto in terms of payments to victims for irreparable harm, permanent injury and wrongful deaths caused by the environmental damage done by Monsanto. They couldn’t possibly compete. But the following is a summary of recent expenses of the legal bullying of, and financial punishments handed down, to Monsanto.

Monsanto’s 2017 annual report’s footnotes showed $33 million in expenses associated with “environmental and litigation matters.” The company’s 2015 Restructuring Plan included $167 million of the same kinds of aforementioned expenses and “a SEC settlement.” The cost of goods sold was $101 million. That means, its litigation expenses exceeded the costs of producing its products. Besides, annual reports don’t normally contain the exact phrase “environmental and litigation matters.”

Another item included $32 million of expenses related to “legacy environmental settlements.” Monsanto recorded the settlement of its polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) legal troubles for $280 million in fiscal 2016. Lastly (finally!), the “Long-Term Portion of Environmental and Litigation Liabilities” accounts for almost 1 1/2% of the company’s “Total Liabilities” for the year.

What makes Monsanto’s excessive litigation egregious is that it has so much worldwide hegemony that it wins its cases most of the time– the company itself sues everyone who gets in the way of its profit-making, and successfully defends itself against the countless plaintiffs who have legitimate causes of action against it.

Not to mention the fact that it had basically formed a public-private partnership (largely via political contributions and lobbying), with the American government as of the book’s writing. That is why whistleblowers and activists get crushed in its wake.

Sounds familiar… Unfortunately, the reason history repeats itself so often is that human nature doesn’t change. What makes Monsanto’s case so much scarier than the situations with other, similar monstrous entities is that Monsanto has the potential to permanently contaminate nearly the entire world’s food supply, and there have already been significant consequences of that nature due to its unbridled greed. Yes, it is that bad.

Founded as a chemical and plastics company in 1901 in Saint Louis, Missouri– Monsanto went public in 1929. It made DDT, dioxin, aspartame, (and inadvertently but knowingly and ruthlessly, PCBs), among other substances that have done permanent harm to a large number of people.

As of this book’s writing, Monsanto had a presence in 46 nations and owned 90% of the patents for all Genetically Modified Organisms internationally grown. It makes billions of dollars in profit annually.

The author traveled extensively to interview numerous people to gather a voluminous amount of data on Monsanto’s quest to make the maximum amount of money it possibly can, at the expense of humanity. The scientists she interviewed– including friends and foes of Monsanto– all said they wouldn’t eat the genetically modified foods borne of Monsanto products.

The author tells lots of anecdotes about people from all different geographic areas who have been adversely affected by the chemicals and genetically modified organisms sold by Monsanto, plus about several people previously affiliated with the company and U.S. government agencies, who were clearly still loyal to their former employers. One such interviewee displayed the body language of a liar: excessive blinking when answering her pressing questions. She also pored over declassified documents that indicate outrageous corporate wrongdoing.

Monsanto’s employees currently research, apply for patents to, and sell genetically modified seeds for growing soybeans, corn, cotton and rapeseed; plus a herbicide– Roundup, an insecticide– Bt toxin, and the bovine growth hormone rBST.

The author wrote that in 1983, the American federal government set aside funds called the Superfund Program to decontaminate toxic waste sites around the nation. When some of those funds were diverted to “… finance the electoral campaigns of Republican candidates, Congress discovered that documents that would compromise the companies[,] disappeared.”

As might be recalled, the Reagan administration had a reputation for being staunchly pro-business; so much so that it made EPA worker Anne Burford and her colleague Rita Lavelle the scapegoats of a scandal after pressuring them to shred documents (which would have implicated Monsanto) and commit other crimes in connection with the town of Times Beach, Missouri– a dioxin-and-PCBs-contaminated site.

That contamination resulted in the deaths of numerous animals, serious health problems for the people there, and forced permanent evacuation of the eight-hundred family resort town.

The author spoke with several whistleblowers. All were punished by their employers. One from the EPA distributed an inflammatory memo saying Monsanto published false research results on its products. Another from the FDA wrote a report on the flaws in Monsanto’s application for approval of the artificial growth hormone rBST. He was fired in 1989, sued, and years later, won a job back at the FDA, but not one for which he was suited.

Monsanto’s rBST (still currently used at some dairy farms), when injected into cows, causes them to produce more milk (translation: more money). With the hormone, other substances are also likely to get into the milk, such as pus and antibiotics. This is because the injection sites on the cows form abscesses, necessitating the administering of antibiotics to the cows. Further, with rBST, the cows develop serious health problems, like ovarian cysts, mastitis and uterine disorders. Never mind humans who drink their milk.

In an unprecedented move, the FDA changed its own rules and approved rBST in November 1993 without forcing Monsanto to reply to its concerns and recommendations.

In the late 1980’s, a genetically modified dietary supplement sold by prescription only caused serious health problems, killing at least 37 and permanently disabling 1,500. If that kind of harm was done by a regulated item meant to be eaten that was genetically modified around the same time that Monsanto was testing rBST– a part of a product that millions of people would consume, shouldn’t the FDA have been more prudent in its approval process of rBST??

Monsanto sued the dairies that said on their milk-container labels that their milk contained no rBST. The defendants were forced to change their labeling.

In the late 1990’s, there was the TV-journalist-couple who were working on a show with negative coverage on Monsanto, when their employer was taken over by Fox News. They were fired because they refused to switch from telling the truth, to lying about Monsanto.

In 2003, after the couple suffered years of emotionally and bank-account draining litigation, “The [federal] judges considered that no law prohibited a television network or a newspaper company from lying to the public. To be sure, the rules established by the FCC prohibited it, but they did not have the force of law.” No wonder journalism is dead.

Conflicts of interest abounded in the 1990’s , when supposedly scholarly journal (peer-reviewed) articles (like Science, Nature and the Journal of the American Medical Association) declared that Monsanto’s products were safe; those articles were written by people paid by Monsanto.

Reputable scientists pointed out that Monsanto’s scientific testing involved non-standard procedures, and was statistically suspect as it was of too short a duration, and had too small a sample size.

Read the book to learn about:

  • horror stories resulting from Monsanto’s underhanded tactics regarding testing and use of its products, including the herbicide Roundup;
  • its victims in Anniston, Alabama who were subjected to PCBs;
  • which of Monsanto’s products was banned in 2000 in Canada and Europe;
  • how Monsanto is active in the United Nations;
  • how deregulation perpetuates Monsanto’s worldwide hegemony;
  • which ten or so individual American government officials acted on Monsanto’s behalf, but had undisclosed conflicts of interest [there was scant room in the book to list all those who were ethically challenged Monsanto affiliates— wait, that’s redundant];
  • the percentages of all foods genetically modified in specific categories in 2005;
  • how taxpayers footed the bill for Monsanto’s aggressive use of legal and political weaponry against American soybean farmers (whom it seriously harmed by taking away their livelihoods through duress and illegally spying on them in the late 1990’s) from 1999 into 2002;
  • why Monsanto dropped its initiative to introduce a transgenic wheat, even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars in connection therewith;
  • how Mexico has been harmed by Monsanto’s transgenic corn;
  • how Argentina and Paraguay have been harmed by Monsanto’s transgenic soybeans;
  • how India has been harmed by Monsanto’s transgenic cotton;
  • how Canadian farmers have been harmed by transgenic canola;
  • what transpired when, in January 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched a legal proceeding against Monsanto for corruption in Indonesia;
  • why the World Trade Organization should share some blame for allowing the worldwide spread of Monsanto’s tentacles;
  • and much more.

Endnote:  Feel free to browse other posts for additional examples of entities behaving badly under the category “Business Ethics.”

Devils on the Deep Blue Sea

The Book of the Week is “Devils on the Deep Blue Sea, The Dreams, Schemes and Showdowns that Built America’s Cruise-Ship Empires” by Kristoffer A. Garin, published in 2005.

As of the book’s writing, Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean were two holding companies that dominated the pleasure cruise industry. The chairman and CEO of the former controlled almost half of the passenger capacity.

The passenger capacity of one cruise ship skyrocketed from less than two hundred to seven hundred fifty in the decade after WWII. Vacation culture was changing from wintertime to year-round Caribbean jaunts. Miami, Florida was the place of embarkation.

In autumn 1965, a cruise fire caused 91 deaths, and put the industry on edge. Negligence and incompetence of the captain and crew were to blame. Nevertheless, even at that time, the travel company owner was able to weasel out of legal trouble because the ship was registered in Panama. He didn’t escape financial trouble thereafter, though.

In 1966, Miami got a new passenger terminal. The 1970’s saw the city’s docks fraught with organized crime, thanks to the port director. Starting in the late 1970’s, the TV show “Love Boat” significantly boosted the number of people of all ages who tried cruising. In 1981, the industry experienced labor trouble.

Read the book to learn how the industry evolved; how Ted Arison earned his less-than-stellar reputation; how business-savvy executives seeking to merge with or acquire distressed cruise-line assets did so through the decades, including the Princess Cruises saga; and the tax, employment and supply-chain tricks they use to maximize profits.

See You in Court – BONUS POST

The Book of the Week is “See You in Court” by Thomas Geoghegan, published in 2007. The author, a labor lawyer in Illinois, argued in this short paperback that the decline of unions in the United States is responsible for all sorts of ills that were plaguing the nation at the book’s writing (and have gotten worse since), such as the replacing of the of Rule of Law, contract law, and anti-trust law– with tort litigation; the risk of the disappearance of retirement funds at the whim of employers, and the growing income gap between rich and poor.

The author failed to differentiate between unions in the private sector, and ones in the government. Beginning in the 1950’s, the unions in the private sector were becoming unnecessary with the way things were progressing in the United States.

Economics 101 says that a nation requires a healthy, well-educated workforce. Unions in the private sector discouraged upward mobility– why should workers want to acquire more training and edification in their careers if they were making a decent living and their jobs were protected? Unions in low-skilled positions especially, fostered complacency. Private-sector unions fostered a lazy, poorly educated nation of low-skilled employees who went to work to collect a paycheck.

By the 1990’s, non-union, private-sector employees needed no protection. Employee satisfaction gets the same score as customer service. Free-market competition usually kept employers in line.

If employees walked off the job en masse, other employers gladly accepted employees and business lost by the wayward employer. Customers and employees could go over to Wendy’s if McDonald’s was unsatisfactory, or to Target if Walmart didn’t deliver. Low pay and difficult working conditions should have encouraged fry cooks and greeters to go to school to get a better job.

In the early 20th century, there was a need to protect workers– who were easily subjected to exploitation because many workers were poorly skilled, poorly educated new immigrants. There was limited opportunity for education, and limited transportation options even if workers were willing to relocate to find a job. Into the 1990’s, workers had more resources than ever to find work or engage in professional improvement if they wanted to.

Unions are always needed in civil service and in a few monopolistic industries (such as couriers, transportation, education and healthcare services), because they are exceptional. They are providing essential services (health, education and welfare), or else the work they provide is a matter of life and death. Government employees who are providing essential services deserve due process, in exchange for not striking.  Striking is illegal, and rightly so. There would be massive economic and/or societal disruption, and possible deaths, if they were to walk off the job en masse. Therefore, civil service unions are a necessary evil.

The unions in the author’s day used to minimize the number of workers’ compensation claims, which have now become tort suits, in which the cause of action (grounds for suing) has become discrimination. Such suits are many more times complex than contract law. The legal bills for these suits keep soaring, as well. Pretrial discovery entails “fishing expeditions”– extremely intrusive investigations of, say, medical records and activities of the plaintiffs, so that the defendants can gain every possible legal advantage.

The author also ranted about various other issues. He wrote that hegemonic institutions such as nonprofit hospitals, Ivy League universities (which get billions of dollars in government grants) and nonprofit organizations sue people for nonpayment but get massive tax breaks themselves.

These entities get away with this because they are allowed to keep their accounting books secret– they file neither tax returns nor SEC documents. The author failed to specify how big a part of the U.S. economy this sector is. That situation has partially changed among the hospitals anyway (but not necessarily improved), due to Obamacare.

The author pointed out that “The more we deregulate, the less stability and civic trust we have… More and more it seems we don’t trust government, we don’t trust business, we don’t even trust each other.”

But– in the 2020’s, after the Trump administration has continued its predecessors’ policies to the extreme–  running the government like one big brand (the president’s own) while allowing monster-sized corporations to ruthlessly profit with regard to neither the workers nor various populations who will be victims of pollution, poor quality education, housing and healthcare– history will have come full circle. There will be a need for unions in the private sector again (!)

Read the book to learn of additional outrages that have arisen in recent decades, such as the replacement of litigation with arbitration imposed by big corporations, how the law has changed to allow widespread usury, why people are suing Social Security to collect disability payments that are rightfully theirs, and how overpaid CEO’s (a redundant phrase) are making U.S. companies’ products less competitive overseas.

Chocolate Nations

The Book of the Week is “Chocolate Nations, Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa” by Orla Ryan, published in 2011. This slim volume described the situations in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire at the book’s writing, with regard to growing the crop that ultimately becomes chocolate. Both countries had command economies and a large number of farmers with small landholdings growing the cocoa-bean trees.

Ghana has grown cocoa at least since the late 1800’s. Even after it declared its independence from Great Britain in 1957, it had a series of tyrannical leaders, each replacing the next via coups. They kept the farmers poverty-stricken by setting the price the government paid for cocoa.  Some farmers illegally sold their harvests to Cote d’Ivoire for better prices. Around 2009, Ghana was producing approximately one fifth of the world’s cocoa; Cote d’Ivoire, about one third.

Even after independence in 1960, the latter’s former colonizer, France, invested in cocoa farming there. However, the dictator became well-liked by encouraging laborers from Burkina Faso and Mali to farm cocoa and coffee in his country. He gave land to those from the Baoule tribe who tilled it.  His excessive spending to support his lifestyle and that of his loyal servants, resulted in huge debts, which he tried to reduce by cutting wholesale prices paid to cocoa farmers.  The nation saw a bloody civil war from 2000 to 2003.

In the first decade of the 21st century, hysteria ruled the airwaves in the United States over the accusation of abusive child labor on the cocoa farms. It was unclear whether the accusation was true, as data were anecdotal, ulterior motives abounded among the accusers (such as NGOs, tabloid reporters and even a politician), and the culture of the cocoa growers provided plausible denial that truant children were being enslaved. For, farming families tended to be large so that the kids’ assistance could help keep the family in business.

It appears that cocoa farming is unlikely to change significantly in the near future in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire because “For smallholders, the cocoa market can seem little more than a plaything in the hands of a few large companies and speculators.”

Read the book to learn more details.

The Monopolists

The Book of the Week is “The Monopolists, Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game” by Mary Pilon, published in 2015.

A passionate believer in Henry George’s philosophy– a Georgist– invented a board game called “The Landlord’s Game” which she patented in January 1904. The game had two versions, one whose object was to win by generating a monopoly; the other, to win by generating wealth through free-market competition. The latter was accompanied by the philosophy (Georgism) that land belongs to everyone, so only real-property ownership should be taxed, not income from other sources. In those days, ownership of land was a major source of income, but there was only so much land to go around.

Another incarnation of the aforementioned game– the monopoly-creating version only– was played by hundreds of Quakers and university students across the country. They made modifications to the names on the board spaces and the various rules on property purchases, monetary distribution, jail, etc. People fashioned their own boards, pieces, cards and money.

Somehow, Atlantic City streets became a theme for the property names of the game version eventually sold by Parker Brothers. In Atlantic City, the streets physically represented the division of rich and poor people, while the game indicated which was which by their purchase prices.

Read the book to learn the details of how Parker Brothers came to own the intellectual-property rights to Monopoly (by fittingly using tactics of monopolists), and how those rights were contested in prolonged, grueling litigation.

Digital Gold

The Book of the Week is “Digital Gold– Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper, published in 2015.

This ebook is about Bitcoin, a bookkeeping system used on various websites that distributes, records and stores the value of units called Bitcoins.

The system was created in 2009 by a computer geek who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His vision was to create a worldwide means-of-exchange to be used online that would be:

  • a decentralized network of users so that no one central authority has the majority of power over the system– unlike the current situations in the world; in other words, place power in the hands of the users, rather than the economic royalists. (Nevertheless, the irony is that Bitcoin has largely stayed in the realm of the wealthy computer geeks- so there has bascially been redistribution of wealth among the wealthy);
  • created and maintained by users of the system on a consensus basis rather than by the powers-that-be, whose political campaigns are funded by financial institutions, and who stay in power by doing their will;
  • anonymous (like cash– no third parties acquire the information of buyers and sellers);
  • secure (no one point of failure would mean vulnerability for the whole system, plus have protections against identity theft, malware, counterfeiting etc.); and
  • offered at a lesser cost than the current system (avoiding financial institutions with their fees).

However, no utopian vision is perfect. Various tech-startups around the world have been created to store and exchange Bitcoins. That is all well and good. In the last seven years or so, a “remarkably engaged online community” has sprung up to discuss the ideology and all the different issues attendant to the new system. Even the major American financial institutions, fearing competition, have begun to rethink the security of their online dealings, and so have assembled task forces to research how to harness Bitcoin’s loss-prevention technology.

Bitcoins are acquired by computer users who log on to a specific site on the Internet. The users get the virtual “coins” for free, but might have to pay to store them elsewhere to keep them secure.

Bitcoins are more like a security than a means of exchange like cash because:

  • The system distributing Bitcoins is like a combination slot machine and a financial market where instruments are bought and sold, and the value of Bitcoins fluctuates.
  • There’s an inherent unfairness in the system in that– technologically astute users of the system have banded together to create devices that mine Bitcoins at a significantly faster rate than individual users.
  • People can acquire a national currency such as the American dollar in many more ways than they can Bitcoins, most of them honestly– earning, borrowing, begging or stealing.

Anyway, the purpose of Bitcoins as a means of exchange has yet to catch on among mainstream consumers of industrialized countries. There is no sufficiently compelling reason for consumers to start to buy things online with Bitcoins rather than credit cards. “Why should they trust a digital code that had nothing backing it but the computers of some libertarian nerds?”

Argentina is one country where Bitcoins have been useful. The super-speedy inflation of the peso there has meant people must spend their Argentinian money the minute they acquire it or risk the inability to buy anything because they wouldn’t be able to afford it– even food. In China, Bitcoin is popular because the government regulates the yuan exchange rate in order to stem “capital flight” and sell more of its own goods to the world.

As with all human-created systems that rely on the honor system, ALL users must act ethically. One American Bitcoin-processor in particular created a drug-distribution entity called Silk Road that was deemed illegal according to U.S. law.

Another bad actor hacked into a company called Mt. Gox in Japan. All users of that service suffered. “Bitcoin users eventually went to government authorities that Bitcoin had been designed, at least partly, to obviate.”

Besides, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has been examining the legal aspects of Bitcoin as a virtual currency. Homeland Security is concerned about the fact that Bitcoins could be anonymously sent to terrorist cells overseas.

Read the book to learn much more about the good and bad consequences of the creation of Bitcoin.

Red Notice

The Book of the Week is “Red Notice, A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight For Justice” by Bill Browder, published in 2015. This suspenseful, emotional saga should be made into a motion picture, as it is not only entertaining and engaging, but is a comprehensive picture of the extremes of human nature.

Rebelling against his left wing intellectual family, Browder became a capitalist. During his career, he worked under two big bosses who died under mysterious, suspicious circumstances– Bob Maxwell and Edmond Safra. As a young whippersnapper, he longed to do investment consulting in Eastern Europe, but had to settle for London. Browder got in on the ground floor when the Russian securities industry was in its infancy in the early 1990’s.

In early 2000, the power of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, was actually held by “… oligarchs, regional governors, and organized-crime groups.” Browder started a hedge fund called Hermitage. What with complex economic and political goings-on, his hedge fund became the victim of the Russian mentality. In 2006, Hermitage had to “… sell billions of dollars worth of Russian securities without anyone knowing.” That was just one of many traumatic episodes in Browder’s career.

The author had the brains and skills to become not only a successful financial consultant and investor, but a muckraker; however, this made him a “Darwin Award” candidate. He became involved in a true thriller with intrigue, greed, power hunger, human rights abuses and karma. Russia struck at his attorney, Sergei Magnitsky. Numerous Russians in positions of authority– in the government, prisons, the police– all lied to the world about what happened to Magnitsky. Under Putin’s rule, Russia had reverted to the Stalinism of the 1920’s, with thousands of dissidents tortured and killed.

The few people whose eyes were open, who were raising the alarm– were risking their own lives. The rest of the world didn’t want to get involved because they were of the mentality that the violence was confined to Russia, and it wouldn’t spread to them. And they might end up like those dissidents if they rocked the boat. Besides, in the 2000’s, people have become desensitized to human rights abuses due to the widespread, propagandized publicizing of them (like video clips arousing viewers’ morbid curiosity, of the alleged beheadings of journalists by Middle Easterners on YouTube).

(Please excuse the legalese in this paragraph- but it is the briefest way of explanation) Some people would say that Browder had “unclean hands” and there was “contributory negligence” on his part, so his story should not have deserved the special attention it got. Admittedly, he was out for revenge, not because he truly wanted to stem uncivil behavior in the world. He made his living in an industry full of greedy people whose scruples are less than stellar– securities. He made a ton of money by engaging in “self-dealing” and insider trading, which would be considered violations of American securities laws. He was from America, the country that gave rise to the corrupt economic system in Russia in the first place. It might be recalled that Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs gave bad advice to Boris Yeltsin (to put it generously), convincing him to adopt “shock capitalism” — a ruinous financial plan. Lastly, Browder had “constructive knowledge” that doing business in Russia was especially risky (not just financially), compared to other countries. Arguably, he was trying to apply American morals and laws to get justice in a situation in which he had profited from Russian morals and lawlessness. Some people would say, “Pox on everyone’s house.”

Browder wrote, “There was something almost biblical about Sergei’s story, and even though I am not a religious man, as I sat there watching history unfold, I couldn’t help but feel that God had intervened in this case.” This blogger thinks that, but for Browder’s powerful professional and political contacts who intervened in this case, it would be just another infuriating, depressing, suppressed, and eventually forgotten human rights abuse story.

Read the book to learn the details of the story, including the actions taken against the morally bankrupt, brazen Russian criminals, and learn whether justice was done.