Naked Capitalism on the Automated CEO

Are the Davos Men Getting a Bit Nervous?

Posted on January 27, 2014 by

Normally I try not to pay much attention to Davos because it is meant to reinforce the idea that plutocracy is simply a manifestation of natural aristocracy. But several media outlets took note of the sudden shift from self-congratulation (as if they were the ones who navigated the ship through the crisis, as opposed to were the big beneficiaries of how the crisis was resolved) to worry as emerging markets swooned on the last day of the conference.

A confident set of aristocrats would not react this way. Richard Whitney, the epitome of 1920s American WASP-dom (tall, handsome, athletic, a bit too often visibly snooty), as head of the New York Stock Exchange did a brief heroic turn by placing a large buy order during the Great Crash and spurring a brief rally. He also had expensive tastes and a bad eye as far the technologies of his day were concerned. He resorted to embezzlement as a way of dealing with his impossibly high debts. When Whitney was caught out, as recounted in Once in Golconda, he took full responsibility for his actions and made sure his staff were not tarred by the scandal. He went to Sing Sing (no Club Feds back then) with his head up and was a model prisoner. His brother eventually repaid all the funds that were pilfered. Contrast that with the usual CEO/top financier found within hailing distance of scandal conduct: they know nothing, remember nothing.

And in a bit of synchronicity, the Wall Street Journal published this letter from Tom Perkins, founder of Kleiner Perkins in the same timeframe (hat tip Yonatan and danny):

Regarding your editorial “Censors on Campus” (Jan. 18): Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

As danny wrote, “Of all the backwards, ill-considered statements coming from San Francisco elites in recent months, this takes the cake.” Perkin’s firm apparently agreed and tweeted that they were “shocked by his views” and disagreed with them. But these super rich guys to have an unseemly fondness for Nazi Germany comparisons. Recall Steve Schwarzman compared a proposal to close the loophole that lets guys like him pay taxes on their labor income at capital gains rate to Hitler invading Poland.

But more telling is the editorial at the Financial Times, which tells us Davos Men are worried about the threat that automation poses to white collar workers….including them!

Now mind you, the bit about even the folks at the very top not being safe from the threat of computers is a mere aside at a couple of points. But it suggests that deep down, somewhere, a decent proportion of the Galt wanabes actually recognize that the reason they are where they are has to do with luck and timing and not some astonishing superior capabilities that they alone possess.

So why doesn’t someone in the NC commentariat do good and make some money by helping this process along? Doesn’t the world really need a digital CEO? We are moving to computerized call centers and even have computers that can simulate therapists. Surely it isn’t hard to write a program that fires people right and left (the Chainsaw Al module) or the more upscale version that hires McKinsey or some less fancy firm to “rightsize” the company. You need a program that has decision rules as to what to do with excess corporate cash flow. Since there are only two choices, buying back stock or paying dividends, it shouldn’t be that hard to work it out. It will also need to be able to detect when questions are taking a legalistic turn and automatically disconnect from the hard disk and work only off an auxiliary drive. And think of all the money you save! No possibility of sexual harassment suits or insider trading scandals. And all the big bonuses the synthetic CEOs negotiate for themselves can be split between the company and the inventors. And of course you can order personality overlays, like arrogant/pushy (the Dimon/Benmosche flavor), smooth and super corporate (Ken Chennault of Amex style), nerdy, and young digiterati.

I’m waiting with bated breath….

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One response to “Naked Capitalism on the Automated CEO

  1. A computer with the processing power of the human brain is still decades away.

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