A Philosopher's Blog

Minimum Wage III: Theft & Value

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 19, 2013
Thief II: The Metal Age

Thief II: The Metal Age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine Sam has pulled up to the drive through window at Big Burger and rather than pay the full price for his order, he tosses a handful of change into the window, grabs the bag from the distracted Burger minion and zips away on his moped. This would, of course, be regarded as theft and the police would arrest Sam for his hamburgerlary.  The prevention and punishment of theft is generally regarded as a legitimate function of the state and few people regard this as a form of oppression or an overreach by Big Brother. If Sam protested that as an agent of the invisible hand he had paid what he regarded as the fair market value of the burger, then it would seem likely that this would have no effect.  After all, he is supposed to pay the full value of the burger.

Now, imagine that Big Burger makes part of its profits by paying its workers rather less than the value they contribute to the raw materials. Big Burger would seem to be stealing from its employees in roughly the same manner as Sam. That is, Big Burger is paying them less than the full value of their labor.

The Burger Boss would naturally reply that the situation is different: Sam is robbing Big Burger because there is no agreement between him and Big Burger for Sam to pay less than the value of the burger. However, the employees of Big Burger agree to accept less than the value of their work and thus it is not theft.

The Burger Boss might then bemoan the fact that there is a limit to how low he can pay his Burger minions, namely the minimum wage. Surely, he might say between tears, he is being cruelly oppressed by the state by this imposition on his free choice.

Someone with socialist leanings might respond by saying that the minimum wage would seem to be aimed at preventing employers from stealing (too much) from employees. The idea is that they are forced to pay at least a minimum for work done. This, it might be claimed, is similar to what the law does for Big Burger: just as Sam cannot pay less than the price of the burger without being a thief, Big Burger cannot pay less than a minimum wage without being a thief (or a bigger thief).

Burger Boss could weep that this is unfair, that his workers should be paid less because they produce less value than the minimum wage. This, it must be admitted, is potentially a fair point. After all, if it is accepted that a person should be paid based on the value he contributes (which is so often claimed when defending the top salaries of the “top talent”), then a person who actually did produce less value in his work than the minimum wage would be effectively robbing his employer.

However, if the principle of paying a person what he is worth holds true for paying a person less, then the same principle would need to hold when it entails that a person should be paid more. Interestingly, the “top talent” and their ardent supporters seem to fully embrace this principle when it comes to generous compensation for the top people, such as CEOs. However, their grasp of this principle seems to fail when they examine the pay at the opposite end of the hierarchy. But, to be fair, it can be rather hard to see things that are so far away from a person’s own location. In any case, it seems to be capitalism when the people at the top are paid what they are (allegedly) worth, but socialism when the people at the bottom ask to be paid closer to what they are worth.

Getting back to the minimum wage, it seems that people who are paid the minimum wage generally contribute more value than they are paid.  To use a specific example, McDonald’s enjoyed billions in profits last year. This would seem to indicate that even if the CEO is truly magic with money, the workers are creating considerably more value than they are being paid. If this was not the case, then the corporation would not have this sort of profit. Unless, of course, it can be shown that the bulk of the profit was created by other means—which seems unlikely. As such, it would seem that in many cases the minimum wage is actually considerably lower than the value generated by the workers.

As noted above, theft from businesses is illegal and the state uses its coercive power to prevent or punish such thefts. This is seen as a legitimate function of the state. What a minimum wage does is a similar thing—workers can only be legally robbed so much. That is, they have to be paid at least a minimum wage, even if that wage is significantly lower than the value of what the worker contributes.

This seems problematic. After all, it would be like allowing people to only steal so much. Imagine of people were allowed to steal from businesses, but could only steal so much. This would be a “maximum theft” rule, which would be somewhat analogous to a minimum wage. That is, both rules would set something of a limit on how much could be taken without compensation.

While the state does not allow a maximum theft rule, just as the state needs to protect employers from what is regarded as theft, so the state has to protect workers from what would also be theft.

Burger Boss might argue that employment exists in a special realm, distinct from that of all other human relations. So, while stealing from someone (especially a corporation) would be wrong, it is fine in the case of stealing value from an employ.

The usual argument is that employers do not owe the workers a job and they can thus pay as they wish within the working of the free market. On the one hand, this could be seen as true: Big Burger does not owe Sally a job and it could be said that Big Burger does not owe Sally a fair wage that is proportional to the value she contributes.

However, this would seem to suggest that Sally does not owe Big Burger and presumably does not owe Big Burger a fair price—so if Big Burger can work a way to pay Sally less than her work is worth, Sally would seem to have the same right to get a Big Burger for less than its value. While Burger Boss would regard Sally as a thief, Sally would certainly think the same of Big Burger.

This could be seen as the free market: every party is trying to get one over on everyone else. However, when this takes place in a more general setting, it is seen as approaching the state of war rather than being what is expected of civil society. As such, it would seem that if it would be wrong for Sally to steal from Big Burger it is wrong for Big Burger to steal from Sally.

The stock counter is that Sally chooses to work for Big Burger and thus consents to hand over her value for less than it is worth. Now, if this were a free and un-coerced choice, then that would be fine. However, this is clearly not the case: Big Burger tends to have the coercive edge over those who work for it.

 

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 8:53 am

    One of the most successful people I know worked at McDonald’s as a kid. He has always maintained that what he learned working there was invaluable to his future success.

    Where does this factor in, Mike?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:04 pm

      It depends on what is being claimed. Is it claimed that McDonald’s also pays in invaluable intangibles that result in success? Or is something else being claimed?

      I’ve worked crappy jobs for low pay-that did teach me that crappy jobs for low pay suck. But I would not consider the lesson in that part of my wages.

      When I was 18, I took the bus home from college and was in a NYC bus station at 4:00 am. I saw, for the first time, people eating out of garbage cans. That motivated me to succeed, but I would not say that having people in that situation was a good thing.

  2. Douglas Moore said, on August 19, 2013 at 9:22 am

    There seems to be a confusion between “job” and “career”. As a kid I never shoveled driveways and mowed lawns with the expectation of making it a career. Most people who flip burgers don’t want or expect to do it for the rest of their lives.

    Mike is making a purely Marxist argument here; Marx made this exact argument, that workers could never expect to make what they are worth, because if they did, the capitalist would only break even. The is where rationalism fails. Because the other option (besides the state owning all means of production, which is what some still want, I guess) is that the business does not exist at all. Breaking even is not supportive of business.

    • Douglas Moore said, on August 19, 2013 at 9:24 am

      I guess I opened another can of worms. Mike, as far as value goes, what is the value of labor when there is no money coming in as a result of that labor, for instance in the lawn mowing or driveway shoveling episode? The person paying to have the lawn mowed is not making money as a result of my work.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 10:39 am

        The value of something is set by the marketplace.

        Why else would some old baseball cards be worth huge sums?

        • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 10:49 am

          And yet others, like my 1972 Wayne Granger card only be worth about two bits? Wayne led the league in saves in 1970. Both cards made with the same cardboard. The same level of skill/production involved. The employees at TOPS got paid the same whether they printed a Pete Rose or a Wayne Granger, though at one time they were both on the same team. And why did the value of even Pete Rose or up and coming stars drop precipitously when TOPS decided to change their marketing strategy to sell the entire series instead of people having to buy a random set of 10 at a time?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:12 pm

          Set by people. There is no marketplace fairy that flits about placing price tags on things with the wave of an invisible wand.

          Old cards are “worth” a lot because some people are willing to lay out huge sums for them. This does serve as a good example of the subjective nature of value and how it is mostly make-believe. That is, the cards are worth a lot because people pretend that they are…are pretending makes it so.

          • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:29 pm

            subjective nature of value and how it is mostly make-believe.
            Unlike Mike’s very objective defnition of “fairness”.

            Old cards are “worth” a lot
            Old has nothing to do with it. Rarity and value based on what people want.

            the cards are worth a lot because people pretend that they are…are pretending makes it so.


            At least the market addresses what people want. How is that “pretending”. If anyone is pretending, it is the believer in the LTV. It matters not how hard you work, what matters is does anyone want the work that you are doing? What value do they place on that work? How hard to find are such workers? Ignoring these factors is pretending to know what value is.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:10 pm

      Some people now have the fast food jobs as careers.

      What is wrong with breaking even, once the owner’s contribution is factored in? After all, everyone is getting what s/he deserves.

      For example, if Sally own’s Sally’s Snack Shack and her efforts and so on contribute $65,000 to the Snack Shack’s take and she gets $65,000 then she is getting exactly what she deserves. Likewise, if Sam contributes $10,000 to the Snack Shack’s take and he gets $10,000 he is getting exactly what he deserves. If Sally is getting $85,000 though she only creates $65,000 in value, then she is robbing someone.

      I’m not making a Marxist argument of the sort you attribute to me. I think people should get what they justly earn, which would be the value of their contributions. Some people contribute a lot more with less effort some contribute little with a lot of effort. This is analogous to grading (I grade on results not effort) and sports (as a running friend of mine said, the people finishing at the end are often the ones hurting the most and actually working the hardest).

      The idea that people are entitled to a profit is the same as the idea people are entitled to just be given money other people have earned. Because, you know, that is what it usually is.

      • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:37 pm

        What is wrong with breaking even, once the owner’s contribution is factored in?

        Because a business venture is a RISK. You don’t understand these things because you don’t understand how risky business ventures are.

        her efforts and so on contribute $65,000 to the Snack Shack’s take
        How is that determined? By you?

        If Sally is getting $85,000 though she only creates $65,000 in value, then she is robbing someone.

        By what means did Sally forcibly take $20K? Sally risked her principle. She could have lost that entire $65K. That’s a risk.

        Denying you’re a Marxist makes you no less of a Marxist.
        The idea that people are entitled to a profit is the same as the idea people are entitled to just be given money other people have earned. Because, you know, that is what it usually is
        Marxism. I have repeatedly tried to engage you in understanding what wealth is, where it comes from, and how it is maintained. You have repeatedly refused to make any reasonable effort to understand these things. You don’t understand how wealth is created so to you any profit is unjustly gained because it was “taken” from someone else. You do not understand these things. They are beyond your ken. You really should give it a rest.

      • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:49 pm

        TJ, note Mike’s not even on friendly terms with a small business operator like Sally and her $65K sandwich shop. It’s not just CEO’s. It’s basic socialist principle. Mike’s socialist dogma reaches that far down the economic ladder.

  3. WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 10:28 am

    And again equating profit with theft. This is sophistry bordering on lying. Actually, he’s stomping all over that border to make it disappear. He has no interest in being dissuaded from his point of view, no matter how many arguments you make. This is simple dishonesty. Labor theory of value has been discredited, like all of Marxism. One need only look at what was wrought by the hard socialism Chavez implemented in Venezuela to see the damage these “policies” produce. And much of this is coming to 1/6 of the US economy in the form of Obamacare. Dictating prices has already been implemented in the home insurance business right here in Florida by a Republican (though now Democrat) governor, Charlie Crist. The end result ultimately leads to the government running the businesses they are supposedly just “regulating”. We are headed for some deep s**t in this country and our younger people are being led there by socialists in academia and the media.

    Mike does not know what he is talking about and has no interest in an honest debate on the subject. TJ, Magus…care to defend him on this point, as he refuses to defend himself?

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 10:37 am

      Whenever Mike thinks about business, he is usually thinking about big business.

      • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 10:54 am

        Does it really matter? It takes considerably far more experience, talent, and skill to run a big business than a small one. Why should people not be paid according to their abilities in relation to what the market is willing to pay? Just because Mike doesn’t understand what it is that they do? Mike presents it as a given that CEO’s are overpaid. Some most definitely are. But that is the business of the share holders. And again, the employees are paid according to their skill. Mike just doesn’t like the idea that some of his former students can’t find work outside of Mickey D’s because they don’t have the skills the market demands. Why would that be if tens to hunderds of thousands of dollars were spent on their “education”?

        • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:14 am

          “It takes considerably far more experience, talent, and skill to run a big business than a small one.”

          I don’t believe this for a second.

          • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:18 am

            I don’t believe the big stars in Hollywood are necessarily the most talented actors and actresses, either.

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:24 am

              The market isn’t perfect, and given that much of Hollywood is subjective, it’s a pretty poor example. But a Sean Penn, as much as I dislike his politics, is certainly a talent who deserves what the market will pay. Funny how he’s a capitalist in that regard. Just my own example.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:14 pm

              I am with you on this. In some cases, people are big stars because the people who tell us what to like say they are big stars.

              Michael Bay…

          • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:18 am

            I don’t believe this for a second.

            I’ve suspected as much. Define “big” vs. “small” for me and we can discuss.

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:20 am

              e.g. is “small” a Mom & Pop shop or something bigger? Is “big” a Fortune 500 company or one with revenue in excess of say, $20 million? Or less? Or more?

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:23 am

              For the sake of argument:

              Small 100 employees.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:25 am

              Somehow the “less than” sign must have been interpreted as an HTML tag.

              Small = less than 100 employees

              Big = greater than 100 employees

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:30 am

              Running a big business is like being a General or an Admiral in the military.

              It is nothing at all like risking your life’s savings by putting it into a small business.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:19 pm

              True-when you start your own business with your own money, you have your skin in the game. If it goes to hell, that will be very bad.

              This is why I do my business no-risk: I produce books and sell them via bigger players while keeping my actual job. I know the odds, so I’m not quitting my professor gig to toss the dice on starting a small publishing company. I’d like to do so and hire people, but the economic reality is such that this is not going to happen.

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 12:06 pm

              What does risking your life savings have to do with “Experience, talent, and skill”? It involves much more risk, but if a person has the skill, they can avoid the risk by working for a big business, such as, perhaps, a CEO. Note that many CEO’s have/had experience initially as small business men. Big business men are exposed to much greater risk and have a much greater responsibility in regard to legal vulnerabilities, responsibility to a larger group of employees to meet payroll, far more complex business relationships across much broader geographic locations involving complexities of law and culture, especially when the business crosses international borders. All these complexities, and far more than I could possibly enumerate, limit their ability to get as much done as their position of power is percieved.

              Again, if someone could do the job better for slightly less money than they current CEO, why wouldn’t the directors hire the new guy? Granted, BoD’s can be stupid too. Many of them are now full of leftist fools/tools who were put there in the interest of “diversity”. Ever look at what some of those people are paid? And for what little they do? But eventually the market weeds out the institutions that fail to perform. Funny thing is those very failures are the ones the Mikeomasses call for being bailed out because, you know, “jobs”.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 12:21 pm

              “What does risking your life savings have to do with “Experience, talent, and skill”? It involves much more risk, but if a person has the skill, they can avoid the risk by working for a big business, such as, perhaps, a CEO.”

              I am saying it is apples and oranges. Running a big business is like running any big bureaucracy. The skill set it takes is completely different from the skills needed to run a small business.

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 12:31 pm

              But why is the skill set different? For the same reason that the skill set of a GP differs from that of a surgeon? The cheif engineer of a nuclear plant differs from that of a bridge engineer? And what happens when the demand for nuclear engineers drops when a country runs away from nuclear energy, as this one did in the 1970s? Should we have continued to pay those engineers the same as their “lesser” counterparts?

              Are there more people with the big business skill set relative to the big business openings than the same ratio regarding small businesses?

              Yes, these are apples and oranges, but who decides if not the market? And why?

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm

              Also Running a big business is like running any big bureaucracy. Disagree. Running two big businesses are different in themselves. Many Big Deal CEO’s have gone on to work for other companies only to fall flat on their faces because they didn’t understand the new business. Witness the guy from Apple running JC Penney. Some succeed because they understand the underlying philosophy of the businesses in question, but I would say this is more of an exception than the rule.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 4:31 pm

              WTP, the market decides the value of things like baseball cards as well as the value of skills like being able to hit a baseball or run a big company. I don’t have any problem with CEOs making a lot of money if the market decides their skills are worth the money.

              I do think your blanket statement that “It takes considerably far more experience, talent, and skill to run a big business than a small one” is just not true in general. I think you are underestimating the difficulty of running a small business and overestimating the difficulty of running a big one.

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:22 pm

              I think you are underestimating the difficulty of running a small business and overestimating the difficulty of running a big one.

              And I think the opposite. I’ve given reasons supporting my position. My father ran a small business. I know (some of) the headaches. Why do you think a small business man has greater difficulties, in general?

              Of course generalizations can be picked apart. There are always exceptions. But either way, a man can also run a small business and make more than a large corporate CEO. Depends on the profit margin involved. Of course in such a case it won’t be long before small business man becomes large business man and is transformed from one side of the issue to another.

              I would give you one of your points, that is a large business takes longer to fail than a small one, thus a larger one can conceivably coast into oblivion more slowly. But the BoD’s would be responsible for keeping an eye on such.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:14 pm

            Big businesses have the advantage of management teams. With a small business, it is often one or two people trying to make it against long odds. Doing truly well in either takes serious skills. And some luck.

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 5:23 pm

              the advantage of management teams Forgive him Lord, he knows not what he says.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 9:14 pm

              Mike’s right. In a big business, if you need talent you hire talent. In a small business, if you need talent, you look in the mirror and see what you’ve got.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 20, 2013 at 4:19 pm

              True-my friends and family who run small businesses win or lose with their own talents (and some luck). My uncle and aunt own a very successful small business which succeeded because she is wicked sharp in business and he understands how to work with people. They do have employees, but the buck stops quickly with them.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 9:18 pm

              So WTP, you would think the people running the New York Times are as smart and talented as anyone. How much skill and talent did it take to buy the Boston Globe for $1B and sell it 10 years later for $70M? This sort of think happens all the time.

              These are just ordinary people running these enterprises–not superstars. Any of us could do it.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 20, 2013 at 4:16 pm

              Good point. A person who can take a $70 million company and lead the employees to create a $1 billion company has got skills and talent. Someone who does the reverse most likely does not.

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 9:53 pm

              you would think the people running the New York Times are as smart and talented as anyone

              No. You may think that. Businesses fail. Big or small. Make bad decisions, you pay for it. Small businesses fail at much greater rates than big ones. And big ones have much more complexity to deal with. Not every CEO is worth his pay. But that’s a decision for the stock holders. The people who own the company. It is their money that is on the line.

              Again, big business is much, much more complex, has much greater responsibility than small business. Are you denying this TJ? Are you saying the complexities of managing the distribution systems, the employees, the finances, etc. for a corporation such as Publix, Krogers, or Ingles is comparable to that of the corner Mom & Pop grocer/fruit stand on even a Piggly Wiggly or IGA? Is that what you’re saying? If not, please be more explicit as to what you are referring. Or are you as naïve as Mike?

              Or to put this in terms I think you might more relate to…Is the difference between a coffee shop’s web app and that of an Amazon simply a matter of scale?

            • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 10:13 pm

              These are just ordinary people running these enterprises–not superstars. Any of us could do it

              Mike can’t find his own @ss with both hands, economically speaking. No organization in it’s right mind would let him anywhere near such a job. You think you could handle the job of a CEO? Tremendous responsibility. We only see the results of bad decisions with 20/20 hindsight. Making the critical decision at the critical time, with the careers of thousands of people depending on you. That doesn’t mean many CEO’s don’t suck and a trained monkey could do better. Same could be said for managers/coaches in MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, NCAA, etc. Though in some instances…Gerry Faust does come to mind…but I digress. You seem to have the same cartoonish, media fed perspective of what CEO’s do that Mike does. Again, I’m not saying these people are gods or that a good number of them aren’t as self-delusional as certain college professors. But the do work in the hard world of objective reality. Their decisions have consequences. It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback but don’t delude yourself that you understand how to do the job. Though I could be wrong. Go get one of those jobs and prove me wrong.

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:47 pm

              I don’t know, WTP. I’ve known a few people that have gone into consulting at McKinsey. These were people who washed out as scientists but had the right Ivy League pedigree.

              Are you sure being a CEO doesn’t have more to do with which club you belonged to at Harvard rather than what abilities you may or may not have?

            • WTP said, on August 20, 2013 at 7:19 am

              Sigh…I suspected you were susceptible to populist poppycock. Explain to me why a company would waste money on such people if their competition can undercut them with lower costs? Yes, companies, and even entire sectors of a market, can buy into MBA BS. But those are decisions for the owners of the companies to make. It’s their money. You at least, unlike a mike, recognize that fact?

              I’m pressed for time but I think it would be interesting to expand on Sally’s Sammich Shoppe. Of course Mike, in his ignorance or equivocating nature, blurs much of the fundamentals to be discussed. You did notice Mike’s ignorance of Sally’s risks even in that small business picture, correct?

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 20, 2013 at 7:38 am

              Do you really buy into the B.S. that if you go to an Ivy League school you are really better than everybody else?

            • T. J. Babson said, on August 20, 2013 at 7:39 am

              Why do all the Supreme Court justices come from either Harvard or Yale? It’s a club, WTP–can’t you see that?

            • WTP said, on August 20, 2013 at 9:09 am

              Where, in God’s name, did I say anything like that? You’re the one pumping this Ivy League crap. All I am saying is that it takes considerable skill, talent, and business knowledge to run a large corporation. Address my question regarding large grocery stores vs. the corner fruit stand.

              Why do all the Supreme Court justices come from either Harvard or Yale? It’s a club, WTP–can’t you see that?

              WTH does that have to do with the subject? Those are political appointments. Not necessarily based on merit. The judges are not accountable for the damage they do, for the most part. CEO’s fail to perform, they get fired. It happens far more frequently than in the judicial system. But to address your populist misconceptions…of the top Fortune 500 CEO’s 65 attended Harvard, 27 Stanford, 24 UPA, 18 Columbia, on down the line. You can find one tally here:
              http://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/top-business-schools/articles/2012/05/14/where-the-fortune-500-ceos-went-to-school

              And again, I have reservations about many of these CEO’s and what they learned. Especially some people with MBA’s and what those are really worth. But please explain to me why the CEO of a corporation and what he gets paid is anybody’s business but the business people involved in owning that corporation? What is your point? What do you propose instead? Some sort of Mikesist Marxist meddling? Who owns the company and who’s right is it to make these decisions? Is there, as Mike blatantly states in regard to simple Sally and her sammiches, theft going on?…Aside from laws currently on the books to address it that is? Is that what you believe? State what you believe and what your “solution” would be and what the unintended consequences of such would be and why that approach would in the aggregate be better. Don’t go all soft and weasly on me like a mike.

      • WTP said, on August 19, 2013 at 11:16 am

        Actually, what it all boils down to with Mike is that he sees economics as a steady-state situation. He doesn’t understand what wealth is. He doesn’t understand the concept of economic growth. Or perhaps I should say he refuses to understand it, as when he was last speaking to me I cornered him on the issue, he got flabbergasted and gave up on speaking to me. He couldn’t argue with what I had to say so he argued with how I said it, never mind that far more natsty talk was being spewed by biomass and to some extent AJ. It was his “Get out of Jail Free” card.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on August 20, 2013 at 7:49 am

    A club, WTP.

    Enron’s Harvard connections

    Posted Oct 24th 2006 11:30AM by Peter CohanPeter Cohan RSS Feed
    Filed under: Rumors, Management, Industry

    Yesterday’s 24 year jail sentence for former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling reminded me of a question that popped into my mind four years ago: Was Harvard University an unindicted co-conspirator in Enron’s rise and fall?

    I first noticed all of Enron’s Harvard connections back in June 2002 while Enron was still winding down. It was then that Enron announced the resignation of Herbert S. Winokur Jr., chairman and chief executive of Capricorn Holdings Inc. of Greenwich, Connecticut, from Enron’s board on which he had served since 1985. Winokur’s resignation drew my attention to the many ties between Harvard and Enron.

    Enron’s collapse was also the inspiration for my book, Value Leadership, which highlighted eight Value Leaders, including The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS), Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV), and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ), which earn superior returns for shareholders — growing revenues 35% faster, earning 109% higher profit margins and increasing shareholder value at five times the rate of their peers between June 1992 and June 2002 — by following seven principles that are the antithesis of those that Skilling used to manage Enron.

    How did Harvard help Enron?

    Let me count the ways:

    Winokur. Winokur who chaired the finance committee of Enron’s board announced his resignation from the Harvard Corporation board on which he served in April 2002 but remains a member of the board of Harvard Management Company which manages Harvard’s $29 billion endowment. Winokur was among the directors who voted to suspend Enron’s conflict of interest rules in June 1999, allowing Andrew S. Fastow, Enron’s chief financial officer, to set up the off-balance-sheet partnerships the exposure of which contributed to Enron’s demise. Winokur earned an undergraduate and doctoral degree from Harvard;

    HBS. Skilling is a graduate of Harvard Business School (HBS). During a 1978 class at the business school, Skilling was asked what he would do if he ran a company that manufactured a product that may be, but wasn’t definitively, harmful – even potentially fatal – to the consumer. Skilling’s notion: “I’d keep making and selling the product. My job as a businessman is to be a profit center and to maximize return to the shareholders. It’s the government’s job to step in if a product is dangerous.” In addition, five HBS case studies have touted the Enron model as innovative and worthy of replication. Glowing studies of Enron were produced by HBS as recently as August of 2001, just before Enron imploded. And since then Harvard’s case writers have been working overtime to demonize Enron in roughly 37 articles and cases;

    McKinsey. Prior to working at Enron, Skilling worked at consulting giant, McKinsey & Co. where his boss, D. Ronald Daniel was a partner. Skilling worked for Daniel during the 1980s when McKinsey helped Enron to design its unsustainable business model. Daniel retired in 2004 as Harvard’s treasurer and he chaired Harvard Management. In addition, Richard Foster, a McKinsey director, attended board meetings at which Enron’s debt-concealing special purpose entities were discussed;

    Belfer. June 2002 also marked the resignation from Enron’s board of Robert A. Belfer, who holds a Harvard JD. Belfer, whose family reportedly lost $2 billion by holding on to its plummeting Enron shares. Belfer had been an Enron director since the mid-1980s. A company he started in 1992, Belco Oil & Gas Corp., had multimillion-dollar hedging agreements with an Enron subsidiary. Belfer also donated $7.5 million to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, leading to the creation of The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA) which is “the hub of research, teaching, and training in international security affairs, environmental and resource issues, science and technology policy, and conflict studies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.” The Belfer Center had allegedly done consulting work for Enron. And Winokur still serves on its International Council; and

    Highfields. In an April 2001 conference call, Richard Grubman, managing director of Highfields Capital Management, prompted an obscenity-laced screed from Skilling when Grubman questioned Enron’s lack of balance sheet disclosure. Highfields then managed $4.8 billion in total assets. Harvard’s endowment first invested $500 million with start-up Highfields in 1998 and has since invested more. It is estimated that Highfields earned at least a $50 million profit from selling short nearly 3 million Enron shares prior to its collapse. This made me wonder whether Winokur tipped off Highfields so Harvard’s endowment could profit from Enron’s demise.

    Beyond the self-innoculating case studies, I believe that Harvard should do something to prevent future Enrons. Since so many business and government leaders attend Harvard on their rise to the top, Harvard should examine whether it could be doing more to screen its students for their ethical values and reinforce those values so that its name is not dragged through mud again by its connections to shady ethics at the top.

    http://www.bloggingstocks.com/2006/10/24/enrons-harvard-connections/

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 20, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      Interesting.

    • WTP said, on August 21, 2013 at 6:32 pm

      Yes, somebody should dosomething. Look, I’m not one to defend Harvard. And I lost a good chunk of money myself in Enron stock. Made much, much more elsewhere and Enron taught me a good lesson. But nothing here supports your argument that anyone of us could work as a CEO. That the skills and talents of that position are not extremely valuable. Skilling, et al used their knowledge (power to Peter Parker fans) for evil instead of for good. Thus Enron went the way it went. The accountants at, I believe it was Arthur Anderson, did not do their jobs as independent auditors. If they had done so, these Haavaad boys would have been out on their asses. Harvard, as much as I have contempt for the Ivy League world, is no more responsible than the churches these men attended or other values-oriented institutions to which they were connected.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on August 20, 2013 at 8:06 am

    And what about crony capitalism? I’m sure that requires its own sort of talent.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 20, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      Being born in the right family is a special talent.

      One of my main criticisms of the current “free market” system is that it is not actually a free market. It is a heavily rigged game in which most people start out at a considerable disadvantage and others start out already having won.

      I generally propose things to make the market more free-that is, to strip away the unfair privileges of the established upper classes to allow people to actually compete.

      • WTP said, on August 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm

        I generally propose things to make the market more free
        Getting it yet, TJ?

  6. Anonymous said, on August 20, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    I’ve been reading about Abraham Lincoln. Right now I’m reading “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and the “Speeches and Letters of Abraham Lincoln”. In one letter, Lincoln writes about the difference between slavery and the free market:

    “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us. Twentyfive years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow. Advancement—improvement in condition—is the order of things in a society of equals. As Labor is the common burthen of our race, so the effort of some to shift their share of the burthen on to the shoulders of others, is the great, durable, curse of the race. Originally a curse for transgression upon the whole race, when, as by slavery, it is concentrated on a part only, it becomes the double-refined curse of God upon his creatures.

    Free labor has the inspiration of hope; pure slavery has no hope. The power of hope upon human exertion, and happiness, is wonderful. The slave-master himself has a conception of it; and hence the system of tasks among slaves. The slave whom you can not drive with the lash to break seventy-five pounds of hemp in a day, if you will task him to break a hundred, and promise him pay for all he does over, he will break you a hundred and fifty.”

    Magus

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 20, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      Lincoln is right-if a person is paid a fair wage, then s/he will (generally) do the work for that wage.

      • WTP said, on August 20, 2013 at 4:48 pm

        Mike, you should acknowledge that the word “fair” does NOT appear in the passage quoted. However, Lincoln does state There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us. Twentyfive years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.

  7. ajmacdonaldjr said, on August 20, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    “Goodwill pays some disabled workers far less than the minimum wage, while some executives earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s all perfectly legal, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Rock Center’s Harry Smith goes behind the scenes at Goodwill to investigate.”

    VIDEO – Activists say Goodwill exploits workers with penny wages – http://www.nbcnews.com/video/rock-center/52280748#52280748

  8. WTP said, on August 21, 2013 at 7:41 am

    from pages 17-18 of Ronald Max Hartwell’s “Introduction” to the 1979 Liberty Fund collection The Politicization of Society (Kenneth S. Templeton, Jr., ed.) (footnotes excluded):

    But why have the intellectuals become politicized? Why have the intellectuals rejected liberalism?…. Is it so astonishing? Are not the actions and beliefs of the intellectuals self-interested in a very obvious way? Intellectuals dislike liberalism because market economy [sic] does not reward them according to their own estimation of their obvious social worth. Intellectuals, therefore, prefer economic systems which give them a place in the sun, in which their cash rewards are almost certainly higher, and in which power rewards are undoubtedly higher. Intellectuals play leading roles in the bureaucracies of the state, as advisors, experts, and administrators, and increasing the power of the state means increasing the power of the intellectuals. Their “cult of the powerful state,” therefore, is not disinterested, even though their self-interest is well rationalized.

    Via WSJ and Cafe Hayeck. Comment, TJ/Magus? From 1979. What do you suppose decades of such attitudes by those in “education” have done to this country, economically and otherwise?

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 21, 2013 at 7:56 am

      I think it is clear that the reason 90+% of academics vote for Democrats is that they mistakenly feel it is in their self-interest to do so.

      Let’s look at science funding. You might think that astute scientists would realize that the growth of entitlement spending tends to crowd out all other forms of spending, including spending on science. You might think that, but you would be wrong.

      • WTP said, on August 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

        Yes, but as stated market economy [sic] does not reward them according to their own estimation of their obvious social worth. This applies to scientists as well. Private industry employs more scientists than the government. The ones who gravitate to government work are not interested, and I hope you can imagine the various reasons, in being rewarded according to their own estimation of their worth. Granted, some have legitimate reasons for the government-sponsored work that they do, but even those should have gotten some experience in the private sector.

        • T. J. Babson said, on August 21, 2013 at 9:13 am

          “Yes, but as stated market economy [sic] does not reward them according to their own estimation of their obvious social worth.”

          I think nearly everyone thinks they are worth more than they are paid🙂

          • WTP said, on August 21, 2013 at 9:31 am

            Actually, no. Lots of people fail to get what they deserve in life because they are afraid to ask. Low self-esteem definitely is a problem, but our leftist society amplifies the cries of the overvalued, whose whines are troublesome in their natural state. Others have some sense of perspective and find work comparable to what they think they are worth. And as far as employement goes, that is where you find your happiest workers and in many respects, your most productive institutions. I stand by my (and Hartwell’s) above statement. The overestimation of one’s worth is quite prevalent in the academic community. It’s where many of such individuals gravitate and lick their “wounds”.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 21, 2013 at 2:47 pm

        Coincidentally, I was just discussing this with some of my fellow academics. The main points made included:
        1. While both parties act contrary to our various interests, the Republicans do this considerably more often. As such, it would seem rational to vote for Democrats.
        2. Many Florida Republicans and those in other states have been actively hostile towards education, especially non STEM education. So, it is hardly a shock that academics would prefer Democrats.
        3. Republicans generally want to spend big on defense and cut education spending. The entitlement spending that is attributed to Democrats alone hardly matches defense spending. That is, education budgets are not cut to pay for food stamps, they are cut with the rationalization that this will allow tax cuts.

        • WTP said, on August 21, 2013 at 6:20 pm

          …contrary to our various interests
          Because the various interests are yours, not the interests of the rest of us.

          …have been actively hostile towards education, especially non STEM education
          Yes, especially non STEM education. When, Mike, when will we finally have enough art history and sociology majors to meet our needs?

          As for defense spending (I seem to recall Mike saying he was for a strong defense, you know, China and all) that IS the government’s main purpose. Not that money isn’t wasted there, but at least it’s being spent on what government is supposed to spend money on.

          That is, education budgets are not cut to pay for food stamps, they are cut with the rationalization that this will allow tax cuts.
          YES, because it’s OUR money. See TJ’s post on one of the other threads, from the WSJ I think, regarding the extremes of welfare in this country. Welfare in Hawaii equated to as much as $60K a year.

          Also TJ, note the growth of government spending, entitlement or not, includes student loans. A factor that plays/pays directly into the pocketbooks of virtually all academic professionals.


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