In an Age of Transparency

Sometime around 1980, Denmark instituted a new citizen numbering system similar to a Social Security Number in the US. During that time, I was a philosophy student at the University of Copenhagen. In one class, another student was complaining that, if you understood the construction of the numbering system, anyone could figure out the age of a person simply by looking at the number.   

Transparency

Our professor, never one to miss the opportunity to apply philosophical concepts to mundane issues, challenged us to a dialogue around the nature of truth. He asked what would happen if all information about us were available to all people? If everyone could know your age, what incentive would you have to attempt to deceive a person about it? This led to a robust exploration of how much more efficient and open life would become if deception were not sucking the energy out of most of our relationships.

Remember, this was around 1980. Since then, virtually all personal information has been collected somewhere. The question remains; whose information is it? The government apparently keeps a copy of everything. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, et al, collect all of our private data and sell it to the highest bidder. We know that. It is a trade-off for ‘free’ use of their services. Occasionally, they even seem to use that massive database to do social good, i.e. Google-X and their health initiatives.

Even more influential are corporate and political data. Thanks allegedly to the North Koreans we have been provided valuable insight into the workings of Sony. No, I am not referring to the Social Security Numbers or medical records of their employees. Those are of interest only to identity thieves and voyeurs.  What does have value, however, is to learn of the true culture, as illustrated by the behavior of the senior executives of this major global economic power. The racism, sexism, and pettiness revealed by executive correspondence helps us evaluate Sony as a company and as a culture.

Why should we care about the culture of Sony? According to Sony’s own website, as of March, 2014, they had a global workforce of 140,900 people. Total revenues for 2014 exceed $75B. They are active in virtually every country in the world. In other words, how they conduct business, and how they treat their stakeholders, matters to the entire world. Information illuminating the culture and the factors impacting decision-making are not relevant just to shareholders. It matters to all of us because so many livelihoods are directly affected by what those decisions are, and how they are made.

That is true for all major corporations. Their behavior and their power determine how profits are invested and what interests are protected. The past few years have given all of us reason to reconsider concepts of justice and fairness in corporate dealings. In particular, the Holder Doctrine has dictated that specific entities have open permission to flaunt the law. They are not only too big to fail. They are also too big to jail.

Can it be justified, for example, that US banks have paid $115B – yes, billion – in fines since the financial crisis, yet not a single CEO or senior executive has been criminally indicted? Is it reasonable that the same year that Jamie Dimon’s JPMorgan Chase paid out $9B in fines, he not only avoided prison, but was also granted a 76% salary increase! Well played, Jamie!

What keeps Dimon or Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein out of prison is their collusion with the Justice Department. For some excellent documentation of this collusion, read The Divide by Matt Taibbi and Flash Boys by Michael Lewis. Add to that the incompetence of the SEC and the transition of the American legal profession (emphasis on justice) to a legal industry (emphasis on profitability), and the story line turns even more dire. Add to the mix the intentional cover-up by both Toyota and General Motors of design flaws that directly cost lives, the refusal of Walmart to pay a living wage, Exxon and BP oil spills, fracking pollution, etc. ad nauseum, and the situation worsens.

The problem we are dealing with is corporate governance, and the real issue is transparency. All of the above examples, and many, many more, too numerous to elaborate here, have a common denominator. It is that all their dealings – with each other and with all the politicians and bureaucrats who are supposed to be monitoring these activities – are held in secret. We don’t know what information or what deals have influenced the ultimate outcome of these events.

What if we did know? As Stewart Brant so famously stated, Information wants to be free. What if a serious group of dedicated, socially-minded hackers liberated all the emails and agreements between the banks and their dark pools, between corporations and their political protectors, between billionaires and PACs, between attorneys and regulators trading justice for fines?

No, we don’t need their medical records or their silly texts to paramours. This is not about drama and entertainment. This is about cleansing our economic system so that it functions with efficiency and equity to all stakeholders.

Transparent Piggy Bank

Even though Sony is not a particularly egregious corporate entity, it may ultimately be a positive act that North Korea, or whoever was responsible, blew the cover on them. I actually look forward to someone’s next installment. Yes, it will be disruptive. Perhaps some major corporations will fail, especially without the clandestine support of their political lackeys. Many regulators will be found not to have regulated the relevant people or companies. Certainly many politicians will be exposed and their collusion revealed.

That is the cost of doing business in an age of transparency.

 

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