Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The water data hub is LIVE!

Who gets water at what prices in the US still appears to be considered a local issue in the US at its core, and at best regional during droughts that cross borders or as it pertains to agricultural use and ‘retail’ (cities and burbs).

 The issue of private versus public ownership is not very visible yet in US news, nor our need to repair our infrastructure (see my series on water  links to Part 1-5) .  And our friends in Texas haven’t sent any recent alerts to me on their current problems (have any of us followed any other drought concerns on the national stage?). Water distribution questions did actually make national news in 2007/2008 droughts along the east coast and southwest but quickly disappeared.  However, the fault lines on who has access to water, news on how we actually obtain fresh water,  and questions on price structures became quite sharp and very legal in a only a year or two.

The question on an international scale remains largely invisible to US and perhaps is time to revisit.  The IMF and World Trade Organization ownership rules are considered arcane and not relevant unless it involves the occasional town water supply and a company like Nestle’s.

Ian Wren and David Zetland have begun the Water Data Hub to help centralize primary source material worldwide. The authors announced the hub to help centralize data at David’s Aguanomics:

I’ve been looking for a centralized source of water data for over a year, a place where I could go to find data on any kind of water question.

Although that quest led me to IBNET — a fantastic resource on water utility data in many countries — I was unable to find a good centralized index of water data.
Even more depressing, I was unable to get any interest or support out of organizations (USGS, World Bank, OECD, et al.) whose missions might imply support for just such an idea.

So, I decided to set up my own water data hub (WDH) — a central location that links to water data, no matter where it is, who owns it, or what dimension of water it describes.

Last November, I asked for help on this project, and Ian Wren (from San Francisco) joined me.

It’s thanks to Ian’s hard work (weekends and evenings!) that I can now invite you to visit!

So, please go there and add data sources. The WDH, like any network, gains value with the number of links.

Oh, and don’t forget that anyone can add a link to the hub. You only need a WDH account (free and easy to set up). So, go ahead and add your favorite data source from the World Bank, Exxon-Mobile, the Nature Conservancy, et al.

Note by my wording that the WDH does not host, own or control data. It’s basically an index of data controlled by other organizations.
The big goal now is to make a census of data, so that we know what exists, what’s missing and what overlaps.
Future developments:

  • WDH 1.1: You can add records for data that exist but are not available to the public. This will make it easier to contact data owners to ask for access and — hopefully — to pressure them to release it to the public.
  • WDH 1.2: Anyone can comment on the quality of data sources held elsewhere; this will help everyone understand the uses and limitations of data — information that is not necessarily available from data owners.
  • WDH 2.0 (2013): We will start the very difficult process of “normalizing” data from many sources (using translation tables) to make it possible to assemble a data table from 2+ sources linked to the WDH.

Note that the WDH will make it easier for anyone who analyzes data to do their job; analysis is too difficult to automate.

As you might expect, I am running WDH as a stand-alone, academic, non-profit. At the moment, we do not need money as much as your time.

Bottom Line: Please add new spokes to the WDH (get it?) and tell others about the water data hub.

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AARP vs. Social Security?

by Dale Coberly

AARP vs. Social Security?

Last week Huffington Post

reported that AARP was embarking on a

“Social Security and Medicare “listening tour” called “You’ve Earned a Say and We’re Listening.” Through “town halls, community conversations, bus tours and other events,” the influential organization promises to offer members a chance to speak out on the simmering debate over the future of Social Security and Medicare.

“The outreach is part of the group’s campaign to restore trust it lost during last year’s spending debate, when a top AARP official told the Wall Street Journal the organization was open to cuts to the entitlement programs. “The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens,” AARP policy chief John Rother said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“But while AARP staffers fan out across the country to hear from members, the group’s CEO, Barry Rand, will be listening to a different cast of characters.

An AARP invitation to a secret “Relaxed and Robust Evening of ‘Salon Style’ Conversation” to be held at a Capitol Hill home on March 27, obtained by The Huffington Post, indicates that the organization is still very much interested in a “grand-bargain” style deal that puts Social Security and Medicare cuts on the table.
“”AARP is not pursuing any closed door deals or grand bargains,” said an AARP spokeswoman. “Our main focus is hearing from our members, and all Americans, what they think about ways to strengthen Social Security and Medicare. That’s precisely why we’re launching ‘You’ve Earned a Say.’ We are interested in hearing from all sides and having civil discourse on these issues.”

“The invite list for 2012 suggests that AARP is still very much open to cutting Social Security and Medicare, as a majority of this year’s expected “thought leaders” have thoughts that involve slashing Social Security.
“”They want to be at the table when a deal is cut,” said one person who declined to be named because he continues to work closely with AARP. The irony is that while AARP’s legislative team may be convinced that a deal is inevitable, a grand bargain actively opposed by AARP would be effectively impossible for Congress to pass.”

What this amounts to is that AARP, granny’s lawyer, sees granny being raped by a bunch of thugs. But instead off rushing in to help her, he waits to see how the struggle is going. If it looks like the rapists are going to win, he will rush in to help them. Just in case, you know, there might be something in it for him.
There were 3700 comments on Huff Post to this article. Most of them understood that AARP is not one of the good guys, and their “we want to hear from you” is just a cynical more than a survey to see how effective the lies have been. But sadly, not one of the 3700 comments showed any real understanding of Social Security or the “crisis” surrounding it. They have all grown up hearing the lies, and no effective answer to those lies. Not surprising when the politicians and the press are effectively owned by the Liars, and the “liberals” who defend Social Security always start out by talking as if the lies were true.
Rather than attempt to counter the lies, I will just repeat the simple truth here one more time and hope that someone finds a way to tell the people:

Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit, and it never will. Social Security is not going broke, and it never can. Social Security is not paid for by “the government.” It is paid for by the workers who will get the benefits.

With no change whatsoever Social Security can continue to provide “adequate” benefits so workers can afford at least a basic retirement after about forty years of work… that is when they reach 62, though they can get a larger monthly benefit if they choose to retire later.

IF those same workers as a voting majority decide they want the “same replacement rate” (monthly benefit as a percent of of their average lifetime real working wages) … over a longer life expectancy in retirement… they can raise their own payroll tax one half of one tenth of one percent per year… or about forty cents per week each year in today’s terms while their wages are increasing over one full percent per year… or about eight dollars per week per year.

Pretty much everything else you hear about Social Security is Lies or nonsense. There is no need to raise the cap, cut benefits, raise the retirement age, means test, or tax the rich. At most just a tiny raise in what amounts to an insurance premium to cover the increased costs associated with living longer in a richer society.

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Panel Discussion with: Krugman, Sachs, Phelps, Soros

Just wanted to let everyone know about a presentation that aired on Cspan’s Book TV.  It is a 2 hour panel discussion titles: Global Economy: Crisis Without End.  It was held 2/17/12.   Click hereto bring up the show.
What I found most interesting was the different perspectives between Krugman and Sachs. I’m not sure, but I don’t think either realized they were talking about the “crisis” from 2 different perspectives which leads to 2 different answers to what needs to be done. Thus, they come across as if the other is wrong, when in my opinion, they are both correct. Krugman says we need to do more now. Yes we do. Sach’s says we need to take the long view and start changing the direction we are going, namely calling for higher revenue raising by the government to be spent on the nation’s infrastructure, and he did not just mean physical infrastructure. I guess you would say he was calling for the government folks to get real about raising capital and then doing capital expenditures. Not exactly the thinking I would have expected from Sach’s considering his start in economic life: Shock Therapy.
Maybe I was just seeing the difference in Keynes vs Neoclassic Econ meets Bono?  So as much as Sach’s appears to be calling for the correct long term solution, I don’t trust him as the one to lead the charge.
It was a very good discussion and there is more there than what I have keyed on.

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Thinking About the Fed

JKH has magisterial post up on the recent dust-up over Saving as perceived in various sectoral models — one-sector (global, for instance, or government- and trade-balanced domestic private sector); two-sector (government and private including international); the most common MMT construct, the three-sector model (government, domestic private, and international); the rather uncommon four-sector model (government, international, domestic household, and domestic business); or even a seven-billion-plus-sector model, in which each individual (and business, and government) is represented as a sector.

His key point, I think — one I agree with profoundly — is that people need to be very clear on which model they’re assuming when they use the word Saving, or the construct “S.” (People sometimes use those two differently, with different implied sectoral models, sometimes within a single discussion or even a single sentence.) In most cases the different constructs of saving and S that people throw around are absolutely valid within their (implicit) sectoral models. The problem arises when people are talking about different sectoral consolidations within the same discussion, without themselves and/or their interlocutors being (fully) aware of it.

I’ve left a few glancing comments over there, but it’s prompted me to write up some thinking here that’s conceptually related.

How do we think about the central bank, and actually the nature of money and the monetary system? I see a lot of people talking past each other because they’re talking about different levels of accounting consolidation. Here are four ways to look at the Fed:

1. It’s an independent institution, separate from Treasury and the reserve-holding banks.

2. It’s part of “government” — a consolidated entity comprised of Treasury and the Fed.

3. It’s part of the private sector monetary system — a consolidated entity consisting of the Fed and all the banks holding reserves at the Fed.

4. It’s part of a fully consolidated monetary system consisting of Treasury, the Fed, and all the reserve-holding banks.

I’m not going to explore all these fully — there’s a book (or several) there — but here are some thoughts on each that might illuminate how the thinking is very different depending on which you adopt, perhaps showing how quite a lot of unecessary confusion and cross-discussion might be avoided.

1. It’s an independent institution, separate from Treasury and the reserve-holding banks.

Even though this is the “reality” of our monetary system (as a result of legislative diktat), thinking about it this way results in an odd conceptual situation. We end up with a sovereign currency issuer (Treasury) that (like a household or business) has to borrow in order to spend, and a bank (the Fed) that can issue unlimited funds ex nihilo to purchase assets. This seems exactly the opposite of how one would imagine things would work.

2. It’s part of “government” — a consolidated entity comprised of Treasury and the Fed.

This is a preferred MMT construct, and it has much conceptual appeal. “Government” issues new money through Treasury spending, and Fed open-market and QE operations are basically fiddling around the edges of the money “supply,” largely for the purpose of interest-rate management. Yes, the Fed actually issues the money, but in this consolidated view “government” is doing the issuing through deficit spending, crediting people’s bank accounts with newly-created money.

3. It’s part of the private sector monetary system — a consolidated entity consisting of the Fed and all the banks holding reserves at the fed.

This makes conceptual sense, because all deposits ultimately resolve, consolidate, back to reserves at the Fed. In this construct, all the banks (including the Fed) are issuing private money as licensees of of the Fed, which ultimately derives its licensing authority from “government” (Treasury).

4. It’s part of a consolidated monetary system consisting of Treasury, the Fed, and all the reserve-holding banks.

Looked at this way, we could conceive of it all as a single big national bank, with deposits resolving back to reserves, which ultimately resolve back to the full faith and credit of the government (Treasury).

These are fairly sloppy characterizations. I know the JKHs and SRWs, Ramanans, Vimothys et. al could (and I hope will) express them more cogently and accurately. But I wanted to keep them brief to highlight my central point:

Different views, consolidations, of these entitites result if very different understandings of “how the monetary system works.” Each (properly presented, unlike here) is valid within its own construction, and each imparts an important understanding of how things work. The problem arises, as with Saving and “S,” when a person, or people in discussion, confute and confuse these different views, or switch among them during thinking and discussions.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

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Housing Bubbles: Less Frothy but Europe is Behind

by Rebecca Wilder

Housing Bubbles: Less Frothy but Europe is Behind

Wolfgang Muenchau’s article in the Financial Times, There is no Spanish siesta for the Eurozone, inspired me to update my post on housing bubbles around the world (really just Europe and the US). He argues that Spain’s bubble was much more extreme, and that the price adjustment is less mature compared to the others. I would add here that it’s European housing markets more broadly that look overvalued compared to that in the US, as measured by the price to rent ratio.

The chart below illustrates the housing bubble, as measured by the house price to rent ratio, in the US, Spain, the UK, and Ireland that is normalized to Q1 1997 and through Q1 2011. The price to rent ratio can be compared to a price to earnings or a price to dividend ratio in finance. It measures the relative value of the asset: the price of the asset (purchase price of a home) divided by its flow of fundamental value (rental income earned or the value of having a roof over your head). As the price-rent ratio falls, the market home values moves closer to fundamental value.

Spanning the years 2005 to Q4 2011 and indexed to 1997 Q1, home values peaked at roughly 1.7 times rent in the US, 1.8 times rent in Spain, and north of 2 time rent in Ireland and the UK. Since the peak, though, US home values have fallen to 1.0 times rent – a considerable reduction in asset prices toward fundamental value. In contrast, home values in Spain, the UK, and Ireland remain quite elevated to rents, 1.3 times, 1.6 times, and 1.4 times, respectively in Q4 2011. If 1.0 is deemed equilibrium, either home values in Spain, the UK, and Ireland must fall further and/or rents rise to normalize home values. That’s a tall order: rising rental values amid defficient and contracting domestic demand in Spain and possibly Ireland.

The UK has more of a fighting chance, given its relatively easy monetary policy, compared to Ireland and Spain, where more accommodative monetary policy is very lagged amid fiscal contraction. Without growth, though, default is probably the only answer left to normalize housing markets in Spain and Ireland.

originally published at The Wilder View…Economonitors

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Still haven’t filed your FBAR? Don’t wait till you get hit with forfeiture

by Linda Beale

Still haven’t filed your FBAR? Don’t wait till you get hit with forfeiture like this Alaska Plastic Surgeon

It looks like the leads from the various voluntary disclosures are beginning to pay off, as the U.S. is beginning to develop high stakes cases related to Americans who have tried to maintain secret caches of cash offshore–to hide from the taxman and from their ex-spouses! The forfeiture complaint in the case, filed Feb. 9, 2012 in California’s Central District, is available here.

The government seized $4.656 million belonging to Michael and Sheila Brandner (he’s the plastic surgeon) from an account at Bank of America in the name of Evergreen Capital LLC, an entity set up by Brandner and under his (hidden) control. The government’s tale is a sordid one–In the middle of Brandner’s divorce proceedings in May 2008, he drove to Panama where he deposited checks worth about $3.5 million in a non-US bank, with the purpose of concelaing the assets from his soon-to-be ex-wife. A person who became a “cooperating witness” helped him open the account and told him about the FBAR requirement, but Brandner didn’t file the required report. A few months later, Brandner transferred an additional $1.4 million, mostly from his pension fund, to that account (also to conceal it from his wife. The pension fund was awarded to his wife in the divorce proceedings, and when Brandner learned that the Panama account might be susceptible to discovery, Brandner moved the money through wire deposits in 2011 into the Bank of America account of Evergreen Capital, allegedly to conceal it from the IRS and from his ex-wife.

As the Atkinson story notes, this mess was doubly stupid. It was stupid of the surgeon to try to cheat his wife of assets and it was really stupid to do it in a way that could well ultimately subject him to criminal charges. See Jay Atkinson, Brandner: Alaska Plastic Surgeon Faces Forfeiture Of $4.656 Million For Undisclosed Offshore Account Used To Attempt To Cheat Ex-Wife, Forbes (Mar. 17, 2012). Anybody else that is still waiting out there with millions in an undeclared offshore account, watch out. The time to file and pay up has arrived.

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More on Greg Mankiw’s weak arguments for the Bain capital gains preference

by Linda Beale

More on Greg Mankiw’s weak arguments for the Bain capital gains preference

A few days ago, I commented on the weak arguments Greg Mankiw had put forth in his op-ed to support the preferential treatment of compensation for private equity and real estate partnership “profits” partners. He points out the categorization problem–that it is not always easy to be sure what is a “capital gain” and what is “ordinary income”. I concluded along the lines of arguments I have repeatedly made on this blog: the main thing the categorization problem teaches us is that we should eliminate categorization problems that create inevitable inequitable differentiations by eliminating the category difference.

Get rid of the preferential rate for capital gains (and with it the need to distinguish capital gains from ordinary income), and you will in one stroke simplify corporate and partnership and individual taxation tremendously. Much of the Code is invested in trying to prevent smart tax lawyers from using tax alchemy to convert one type of income into another. See, e.g., section 1059 (extraordinary dividends to corporate shareholders), section 304 (sales between affliated corporations treated as redemptions), section 302 (providing tests that, if not satisfied, treat redemptions as dividends if there is e&p), etc.

Uwe Reinhardt makes a similar argument in the Economix blog carried by the New York Times. See Capital Gains vs. Ordinary Income, New York Times Economix Blog (Mar. 16, 2012). Reinhardt uses Mankiw’s own introductory textbook in microeconomics to make the tax equity argument that many have been making about carried interest–it is unfair to tax a money manager at a preferential rate compared to firemen, postal inspectors, college professors, school teachers and neurosurgeons.

In his popular textbook “Principles of Microeconomics,” Professor Mankiw teaches students that “horizontal equity states that taxpayers with similar ability to pay should contribute the same amount.” Well put.

Consider now a person who bought a vacation home for $500,000 and two years later, during one of our recurrent real-estate bubbles, sells it for $1.5 million. That $1 million profit is now taxed at a rate of only 15 percent. If the home had been the principal residence of this person and his or her spouse, half of the $1 million profit would not be taxed at all.

Suppose next that this tax-favored person’s neighbor were a busy neurosurgeon whose many hours of hard, physical and intellectual work earned him or her a net practice income of $1 million during those same two years. That neurosurgeon would pay the ordinary income-tax rate on that income (on average a bit less than 35 percent, because only income over $388,350 a year is taxed at 35 percent).

By what definition of the term would can one call the glaringly differential tax treatment of the real estate investor and of the neurosurgeon horizontally equitable?

Reinhardt goes on to make another of the arguments that I have been pressing for months in this blog–that the assertion that preferential rates are necessary for stock market transactions because they are rewarding investment in the corporations is baloney–most reported gains on securities are from secondary market trades, not from direct investments in corporations.

[T]he proponents of lower capital-gains taxation conjure up an image of, say, Jones purchasing shares of stock directly from the issuing corporation, which then invests the proceeds in new structures and equipment.

More typically, however, sales and purchases of corporate common stock take place among parties quite outside of the issuing corporation. For example, Jones may buy the stock from Chen, who may have reaped a capital gain from once buying and now selling the stock. Chen may have bought the stock from another person not related to the issuing company.

When Jones pays Chen, it is anybody’s guess what Chen does with the money. For all we know, Chen will spend it on a luxury car. Why, then, should any gain Chen enjoys on his or her investment in that stock be granted a tax preference? No new capital formation was supported by this trade in a stock sold by the company years ago.

The ugly truth about the insistence on the capital gains preference is that it rewards people at the top of the income and wealth distribution and serves to maintain the status quo of the allocation of resources. This is what is really meant by “fiscal conservatism” these days–ensuring that resources remain inequitably distributed to the very wealthy who are the “shakers and movers” of society through the influence their money can buy. The right-leaning Supreme Court has made that even more inevitable than it was before, through the Citizens United decision upholding the right of corporations to contribute any amount to influence political campaigns, based on the laughable assertion that such “super-PAC” rights undergird free speech.

crossposted with ataxingmatter

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Learning from campaigns, writing on issues

George Lakoff offers a clear opinion on an important aspect of how people learn from election and media presentations. There are a lot of examples of reporting and the concept is clear enough.   However, it is an entirely different proposition when applied to real life in posts or comments…for instance, how posts are written, for what audience, and what sort of learning is actually being encouraged:

The Republican presidential campaign is not just about the presidential race. It is about using conservative language to strengthen conservative values in the brains of voters – in campaigns at all levels from Congress to school boards. Part of the Republican strategy is to get liberals to argue against them, repeating conservative language. There is a reason I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant! When you negate conservative language, you activate conservative ideas and, hence, automatically and unconsciously strengthen the brain circuitry that characterizes conservative values.

As I was writing the paragraphs above, the mail came. In it was material from Public Citizen (an organization I admire) promoting Single Payer Health Care (which I agree with) by arguing against right-wing lies about it. In big, bold type the lies were listed: Single payer is socialized medicine. Single payer will lead to rationing, like in Canada. Costs will skyrocket under single Payer. And so on. After each one, came the negative: Wrong. And then in small, unbolded type, the laundry lists of policy truths. Public Citizen was unconsciously promoting the conservative lies by repeating them in boldface and then negating them.

The same naiveté about messaging, public discourse, and effects on brains is now showing up in liberal discussions of the Republican presidential race. Many Democrats are reacting either with glee (“their field is so ridiculously weak and wacky.” – Maureen Dowd), with outrage (their deficit-reduction proposals would actually raise the deficit – Paul Krugman), or with incredulity (“Why we’re debating a woman’s access to birth control is beyond me.” – Debbie Wasserman Schultz). Hendrik Hertzberg dismissed the ultra-conservatives as “a kick line of clowns, knaves, and zealots.” Joe Nocera wrote that he hope Santorum would be the Republican candidate, claiming that he is so far to the right that he would be “crushed” – an “epic defeat,” “shock therapy” that would bring back moderate Republicans. Democrats even voted for Santorum in the Michigan primary on the grounds that he would be the weaker candidate and that it would be to the Democrats’ advantage if the Republican race dragged on for a long time.

I mention these liberals by name because they are all people I admire and largely agree with. I hope that they are right. And I hope that the liberal discourse of glee, scorn, outrage, incredulity, and support for the most radical conservative will actually win the day for Democrats at all levels. But, frankly, I have my doubts. I think Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values – not just policies- uniformly across the party. That is not happening.

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Fiduciary duty and self-interest

Lifted from comments from Linda Beale’s post Graphs Show It Clearly–the richest are much richer and most of us are poorer discussing the main points and data from David Cay Johnston’s Reuters article The richest get richer is Bruce Webb’s thinking on how the American market system was designed over time:
Defenders of Goldman who base that defense on “greed is good” reductionist understanding of capitalism are simply ignoring the legal and I would say moral structure in which banking and management were embedded: that of fiduciary responsibilities and principal/agent law.

Before Glass-Steagal repeal (and similar legal and business culture changes dating back to the fifties) there was an understanding that commercial bankers had a fiduciary responsibility to their customers,that the relation in question was one of agent to principal. And the same for management, managers were agents of the owners whether directly in a private firm, or indirectly via the Directors of either a joint-stock company or as in insurance of a mutual structure where policy holders were ‘owners’. On the other hand investment banks ad law firms and reinsurance companies like Lloyd’s and it’s ‘Names’ we’re generally set up on a partnership basis where the agents were principals, at least at top levels.

  But that distinction broke down, maybe as early as the rise of the Conglomerate and the Multinational where the link between the manager/agent and the principal/owner the principal/mutual holder became attenuated to the point of near nonexistence with the result that what had been agents, say a plant superintendent, now reported to an executive suite at ‘Corporate’ where one-time agents were de facto principals. As exemplified by the bastard blend of President and Chairman of the Boardand Chief Executive Officer into a single person whose theoretical agency relation to ownership was at best mediated through a board of Directors often largely serving under his direction.

  And this attenuation of Agent-Principal relations broke down entirely when Glass-Steagal and other actions simply smushed together the partnership and joint-stock/mutual models where the formal and legal structure remained the latter even as the decision making went with the former.

  Thus Goldman-Sachs Corporate culture. Instead of maximizing profits for the partners on one hand or for the shareholders on the other and all while maintaining a fiduciary responsibility to the customer/depositor, the executives and traders, who in law are simple hired help, i.e agents promoted themselves in their own minds to principals. Something complicated by the fact that various forms of stock based compensation made certain top executives both de facto and de jure principals quite beyond their selected/elected Chairman/CEO/President blended position.

  This obviously needs some polish, it is a blog comment after all, but I think I am on to something, something I have been bouncing around in my mind since I first took a course on Post WWII American History back in the early eighties, that is post multi-national conglomerate but prior to the barrier break represented by Glass-Steagal repeal. That is we are seeing a confluence of several streams that have mostly reduced all notions of fiduciary responsibilities and/or principal-agent law into a fetishizing of maximizing individual self-interest as if every trader at G-S was in the same legal and moral position as a medieval chapman selling goods from his pack purchased with his own money from the producer.

  So yes capitalism is organized around the principle of principals maximizing their self-interest. But not everyone is, or should be considered,a principal. And no “Well duh, capitalism equals maximizing return” does not in itself wipe out the entire legal and moral structure that grew up around it. Agency and fiduciary responsibilities still are or should be operative. That is you don’t get to operate Wall Street on the principle “We eat what we kill” no matter what some hot-shot MBA trader might think.

(Dan here…Title added, introduction edited for  clarity)

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