The Law of the Jungle – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “The Law of the Jungle” by Paul M. Barrett, published in 2014.  This is the story of a decades-long court case involving oil contamination in the Amazonian rain forest of northeastern Ecuador, to which a number of cliches apply:

Pox on the houses of both the plaintiff and the defendant;

A man is known by the company he keeps; and

When you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.

Starting in 1993, the plaintiff, represented by a greedy, egotistical, loudmouthed, yet shrewd attorney– Steven Donziger– claimed that defendant, Texaco, and then successor Chevron oil company, had caused illness, deaths, and damage to the quality of life of thousands of farmers and tribesmen in Ecuador. The Amazonians were allegedly poisoned by the oil-contaminated streams where they fished, bathed and gathered drinking water. The oil company had established a presence in their villages since 1964, when it forged an agreement with the Ecuadorian government to drill on 3.5 million and later, 4 million acres in the Oriente region.

The author tells a suspenseful, controversial story that reveals valid arguments on both sides. There was evidence of serious disruption of villagers’ lives. This included cancer clusters and other health issues that plagued the Ecuadorians, pollution of the place where they lived, the unintended consequence of violent fighting for jobs and over income inequality between Indians and homesteaders, etc. directly attributable to the activities of, and inept cleanup of, oil that allowed spreading of toxic chemicals by, the petroleum companies. On the other hand, over the years, the economy of the country of Ecuador made great strides due to the companies’ building of, and heavy investment in, transportation infrastructure and the side effects of job creation and good political relations that would not have occurred but for the corporate presence in Ecuador.

According to the author, the plaintiff’s attorney went after “big oil” rather than “… a struggling national government responsible for letting down its people” because big oil had more sex appeal. It could also be that big oil had deeper pockets.

In sum, “The oil pollution suit was not unique. Ecuador’s judiciary had a well-earned reputation for corruption and chaos.”

Read the book to learn of the various sleazy tactics employed by both sides in the dispute, and to get a concise, eloquent summary of the whole story– read the “Conclusions” section of this ebook.

The Truth with Jokes – Bonus Post

With the U.S. midterm elections approaching, this blogger paged through Al Franken’s book, “The Truth with jokes” (but it isn’t funny), published in 2005. It is mostly about:  election, military and economic issues in connection with George W. Bush’s first term.

One controversial issue (still a relevant question years later) that Franken covers is that “…seven months into the [Iraq] war, Donald Rumsfeld wrote a memo asking whether we were creating more terrorists than we were eliminating. ‘We lack the metrics to know,’ he lamented at the time.” A few years later, the government admitted it had the metrics– statistics on terrorist attacks– and the answer was yes.

In 2000-2001, when Bush was first “elected,” Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan was excited that “After eight years of Clinton-style fiscal discipline and economic growth, the era of big deficits was over, and we were running surpluses…” As is known now, Greenspan’s assessment of America’s financial shape turned out to be a bit off the mark. By 2005, the U.S. government had to borrow $2 trillion.

Therefore, the Bush administration might have been wrong in predicting that Social Security would run out of money by 2042. There were then murmurs about privatizing it. Al Franken and his political ilk squelched Bush’s attempt.

Nevertheless, Franken has done extensive economics research, as is shown in this video:

This blogger thinks it is well worth watching in its entirety.

The Courage of Strangers

The Book of the Week is “The Courage of Strangers” by Jeri Laber, published in 2002. This autobiography describes the making of a passionate human rights activist.

The author grew up in privileged surroundings in New York City, in the Sunnyside section of Queens, and Jamaica Estates when the wealthy suburban enclave was in its infancy. This was because her Russian father was a multi-skilled home builder with his own business. On the family’s newly-constructed home: “Back in 1936, it was a technological wonder, with central air-conditioning, a built-in room-to-room intercom system, garage doors that opened automatically, and, buried under the steep cobblestone driveway, wires that heated up to melt the snow.”

In the early 1950’s, Laber wanted to study Russian in graduate school, but her father objected partly because it was the McCarthy Era, and because he felt over-education would hurt her chances for marriage. She defied him. In 1954, she got the opportunity to visit Moscow with three other students. Their tour guides tightly restricted their activities, allowing them to visit only tourist sites, and Moscow State University. She recorded her impressions of the people she met, including, “They have replaced God with Lenin and Stalin…These people are healthy and happy, as long as they conform.”

Excuse the cliche, but “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At that time, there was the “Military-Industrial Complex.” Now there is the “Military-Corporate Complex.” However, world annihilation via nuclear war was the biggest fear in the 1950’s. The continuing increase in global oppression via telecommunications and other underhanded means is the biggest fear in the early 2000’s.

The author was an eyewitness to the different speeds at which different countries threw off their communist yoke, as she visited various countries behind the Iron Curtain in turn. She writes that people in the former Soviet Union had lived under communism for decades longer than their Eastern bloc counterparts. The older ones residing in the latter had known a better quality of life prior to Soviet takeover. “They looked around them and saw corrupt, repressive governments, failing economies, contaminated water, polluted air, alcoholism, and apathy.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Read the book to learn of Laber’s career adventures in Eastern Europe, her checkered love life, the difference she made at meetings with top Soviet leaders and others by speaking out against injustice, and Eastern Europe’s radical political and social changes in the 1990’s.

In the Name of Profit – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “In the Name of Profit” by multiple co-authors, originally published in 1972. This depressing set of anecdotes on corporate greed simply reminds the reader that there is nothing new under the sun.

One theme is that through the 1950’s and 1960’s, big manufacturers such as Goodrich and General Motors had constructive knowledge that the products they sold were defective. Purchasers had bad experiences, and were seriously injured or were killed by those products. The companies’ attorneys and their employees rationalized that “‘planned obsolescence” meant progress. “But the meaning is clear: ‘Go cheapen the product so we can make more money.” In the case of drug company Richardson-Merrell, the product wasn’t cheapened, but rather, serious side effects were downplayed or hushed up and the results of FDA pre-approval testing were fabricated. Unsurprisingly, the company and its subsidiaries hired top-dollar attorneys skilled at helping businesses weasel out of legal trouble.

Another topic covered was Napalm, whose evolution began at Guadalcanal during WWII. “The Napalm fire bomb was deliberately designed as an indiscriminate terror weapon for mass destruction and death among civilians.” When people in Vietnam were harmed, Dow Chemical’s legal defense was bolstered by the fact that it had received orders by the U.S. Government to make the controversial product.

This ebook also discussed stock manipulation and corporate takeover. SEC laws were shown to be very lax in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as one particular perpetrator did jail time for various securities violations, but after his release, went right back to his old tricks. One Herbert Korholz repeatedly gamed the system with acquisitions. President of the Susquehanna corporation, he was able to bribe directors and officers in taking over another company with a secret tender offer of a share price higher than what was to be offered to the general share-owning public. “Profit-making firms can cut their taxes magnificently by merging with big losers…” One Maurice Schy, an attorney, attempted to make the government aware of Korholz’s unethical, unlawful and disgusting behavior, by filing lawsuits through the years, to no avail. Government officials were mired in conflicts of interest (favorable to Korholz’s interest) and ruled against Schy every time except one; a ruling was pending as this book was being released in 1972. Schy had finally gotten a possible break only because there was another case brought by another party against Korholz’s companies’ illegal activities.

In sum, we human beings are a mixed bag of evolutionary traits; altruism and greed among them. On many occasions, greed wins out, and we never seem to learn from those past occasions.