Archive

October 25th, 2016

Where was Wells Fargo's board when we needed it?

    The scandal surrounding the opening of fake accounts at Wells Fargo illustrates a deeper dysfunction in the governance of U.S. companies: Corporate boards are failing at their job of overseeing management. If regulators can't address the problem, shareholders can and should.

    Despite years of evidence that a policy coming from the very top was driving illegal and abusive practices at Wells Fargo, the bank's directors were notable mainly in their passivity. They did not act in 2013, when the Los Angeles Times reported that bank employees were opening phony accounts to meet unrealistic sales quotas. They did not act in September, when Wells Fargo agreed to pay a $187.5 million fine and admitted to creating more than 2 million fake accounts. Only after CEO John Stumpf was excoriated in congressional hearings did they decide to claw back some of his compensation. Still, they never fired him -- he resigned on his own.

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The Debate in One Scary Answer

    OK, Donald Trump won’t promise to accept the results of the election. That’s truly ... good grief.

    “I will tell you at the time. ... I’ll keep you in suspense,” he told Wednesday’s debate moderator, Chris Wallace. The word “rigged” came up. Yow.

    Hillary Clinton noted that Trump tends to presume that whenever he loses anything, the system was rigged: “There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged.”

    “I should have gotten it,” Trump retorted.

    This is obviously what we should have known was coming when the host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” wound up as a presidential nominee. But jeepers, people, this is serious. Trump was refusing to acknowledge it was even possible for him to lose a fair fight. At one point, he announced the election was rigged because Hillary Clinton was in it. (“She should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with emails.”)

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Five myths about genius

    It's not always easy to know when we're in the presence of "genius." In part, that's because we barely agree on what it means. In Roman times, genius was not something you achieved but rather an animating spirit that adhered itself to people and places. In the 18th century, Romantics gave genius its modern meaning: Someone with special, almost divine abilities. Today, we're quick to anoint a "marketing genius" or a "political genius," oblivious to the fact that true genius requires no such modification. In truth, real geniuses transcend the confines of their particular domains. They inspire and awe. Which is precisely why we should use the word sparingly, lest it lose some of its magic. That's not the only misconception. Here are some others.

 

    Myth No. 1: Genius is mostly about genetics.

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Email isn't really private, so think before sending

    I was in the middle of an email to an old friend this week, and had written a sentence about a mutual acquaintance that was more than 50 percent positive but contained a snarky word or two. I paused. "Is that necessary?" I thought to myself.

    No, it wasn't. So I deleted the sentence.

    Maybe it was the Neera Tanden effect. But I think it was really the Henry Blodget effect.

    Blodget's emails were made public in 2002 by former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. A year later the Securities and Exchange Commission hit young Henry with a $4 million fine and a permanent ban from the securities industry. The issue was that, although the emails contained honest commentary on the dot-com companies Blodget was following as an analyst for Merrill Lynch, his published research reports did not.

    So in that case the emails themselves were actually a lot less embarrassing than what Blodget had been saying in public. But I do remember taking the lesson from the whole affair that nothing one writes in an email is entirely private.

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Donald Trump's conspiracy theories about voting in Philadelphia are preposterous

    Donald Trump and his campaign surrogates say they believe that a massive conspiracy will be operating in Pennsylvania to "steal this election" for Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8. Specifically, they're worried about Philadelphia.

    "We have to make sure the people of Philadelphia are protected that the vote counts are 100 percent," Trump said last week in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "Everybody wants that, but I hear these horror shows. I hear these horror shows and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us. And everybody knows what I'm talking about." His ally Newt Gingrich was even blunter, saying that "to suggest that you don't have theft in Philadelphia is to deny reality." Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R, predicted that people would be bused to Philadelphia to vote "four or five times" in place of dead voters on the rolls.

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Don’t Take Donald Trump to Dinner

    The evidence continues to mount: There is nothing in the world that Donald Trump can’t make worse.

    Our latest example is the Al Smith Dinner, a feel-good annual event at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, in which the political and business elite gather to congratulate themselves for raising money to help poor children. It’s sponsored by the Catholic archdiocese, and in presidential election years it’s a tradition for the candidates to show up and make witty, self-deprecatory speeches in which each can also take gentle gibes at the other.

    The nation is filled with must-show events for politicians. (There was quite a stir in Florida a few years ago when the gubernatorial candidates failed to attend the Wausau Possum Festival.) But few are as high-end and theoretically bipartisan as the Smith dinner. The most important guests are seated in tiers onstage, where hoi polloi can admire their table manners.

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Defeating Trump won't heal America's divisions

    If the polls are to be believed, Donald Trump's chances of winning the election have all but vanished. The last television debate is unlikely to have arrested his downward trajectory. One should never say never (think of the Brexit referendum) but the question now, it seems, is what will follow Hillary Clinton's victory.

    Here's what ought to follow: Relief at a disaster averted, followed by some sober reflection.

    After the election, especially if Clinton wins comfortably, a consensus will form around the idea that Trump was bound to fail. As the past year recedes, and in view of the man's outlandish defects, this theory will be plausible -- yet nonetheless false. The most remarkable and disturbing thing about this election is just how unelectable Trump had to be to lose.

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Bernie Sanders is running a shadow campaign

    In Colorado, Bernie Sanders isn't just acting as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton. He's also holding separate events to keep his movement and its issues alive in a state he won handily in the June Democratic primary. Now he is urging his followers to support a ballot measure to establish the nation's first universal health care system. It will probably be defeated, yet his backers, who have settled for a bird in the hand this year, are certain they own the future.

    Changing demographics may be on on their side, and what happens in Colorado could be a model for the rest of the U.S. That doesn't necessarily mean that the European-style changes Sanders has passionately advocated for the U.S. will take place anytime soon.

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American Gut Check

    You can imagine Donald Trump sitting on his golden throne in the Las Vegas hotel he built with all that cheap Chinese steel, imagine him trying to keep every molecule of reality from entering the room. He’s seething, because his numbers are cratering. And yet, in his mind he cannot be losing. So, everything is rigged.

    When he takes the debate stage, he does not smile. The closest thing to it is a sore-loser sneer for failing to get an Emmy out of a reality television show that allowed him to belittle women. He tries to act normal — to hold back the hatred inside him. But this dangerous man is incapable of bottling up his dark self for a full 90 minutes. And in the end, he finally crosses the one political barrier he had yet to fully cross — trashing democracy itself, we the people.

    The best presidents are aspirational, urging us to climb every mountain and ford every stream. Trump has never been able to make it out of the gutter.

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Why Hillary Wins

    Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate. Hey, that’s what pundits have been saying ever since this endless campaign began. You have to go back to Al Gore in 2000 to find a politician who faced as much jeering from the media, over everything from claims of dishonesty (which usually turn out to be based on nothing) to matters of personal style.

    Strange to say, however, Clinton won the Democratic nomination fairly easily, and now, having pummeled her opponent in three successive debates, is an overwhelming favorite to win in November, probably by a wide margin. How is that possible?

    The usual suspects are already coalescing around an answer — namely, that she just got lucky. If only the Republicans hadn’t nominated Donald Trump, the story goes, she’d be losing badly.

    But here’s a contrarian thought: Maybe Clinton is winning because she possesses some fundamental political strengths — strengths that fall into many pundits’ blind spots.

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