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NOS Alive (Lisbon, Portugal) 2016 Review

9 Jul

Day 1. The first act I saw was LA. I’d never heard of them, but kind of wish it stayed that way. They were so painfully mediocre. Their style is like a Springsteen inspired style of American indie rock. They were competent, but boring as all fuck – with the most clichéd lyrics e.g. “Living in America, Dying in America”. What could you really expect from a band with the least inspired name since America.

The 1975: I was sceptical – because from what I’d seen and heard, I was pretty sure they’d be one of these indie pop buzz bands that will be quickly forgotten. However – they were a nice surprise. Their recordings sound a bit thin and shrill, but live their songs really pop. Heavily influenced by the funk influenced British pop of the 80s (Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, David Bowie) – they held it down. The front man was a good singer and had an easy presence, while the rest of the band were tight. Not going to buy the record – but do recommend checking them out live.

Vintage Trouble: A truly outstanding live act. I’d listened to them on the Spotify Playlist as part of my homework for the festival – and thought their songs were derivative and boring (much like their band name). However, the stage show transcended the one-trick music. Mostly because the front man really sold it, and put so much of himself into it. He really dug into the Sam Cook, Otis Redding, James brown stage show. Dancing like a demon, spinning and spinning, down on his knees, then jumping and screaming. At one point he walked through the crowd to the mixing desk at the back climbed up on the surrounding barrier then crowd surfed back to the stage without dropping a note. They were a relatively small band for the festival being a 4 piece (essentially a 3 piece with a singer) so credit to them. The music was simple and familiar (you could basically sing Mustang Sally over the top of any song they played) but their showmanship more than compensated for it. Great guitarist too.

John Grant: I didn’t see much of his set so take this with a grain of salt. John Grant was recommended to me by a couple young guys on separate occasions. So I had a listen to some tunes of his, and was unimpressed. Boring folk rock. I was told I had to see him live. I watched 2 songs and was underwhelmed so I left. One of the 2 songs sounded exactly like a SMOG song (I think) – but with different lyrics. Meh.

Robert Plant: Shit yes! Just so much yes. I wasn’t too fussed about Robert Plant going into it tbh. His solo stuff has never really gripped me, and I felt he was an ageing rocker trading on past glories (which is at least partly true). However – OMFG – he and his band were outstanding. They played 50% Led Zep, and 50% originals or covers. As a Led Zeppelin fan I always thought his voice was proficient for the style – but not really distinctive – but now that he’s older and weathered, he sounds amazing. He still hits every note, yet it is now imbued with character – like a single malt aged 18 years in an oak cask. His band were top-shelf as well. I’m told by my colleague that it is made up of local legends, the sorts of guys that are well known in their home towns (Like Skin Tyson – the guitarist that hails from Liverpool). When playing Led Zep songs it is hard to imagine the original line-up doing it better. They did not sound like a covers band, they owned those songs and they all had the free-flowing feeling that they could (and did) go in any direction at any time. Even Robert Plant’s originals came over really well. My liverpuddlian friend correctly lost his shit.

Wolf Alice: The Kids loved them. I thought they were alright. Not a bad live band, but basically you get what it says on the box.

Pixies: Played 24 songs in like 1.5 hours. I missed some of it because I am a human being and have biological needs. I’d seen them in 2010 when they played the Vector Arena in Auckland. They Had Kim Deal back then, and sounded better. The current bassist is good, but they lacked a bit of punch – and Deal’s stage presence used to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Still, it was a Pixies show, you got the hits, Joey Santiago still rocks, Frank Black is still a bit of a charming loser.

Soulwax: I didn’t catch much of Soulwax, but was impressed with what I saw. I love it when dance music that sounds like it was all recorded in Ableton by one bedroom producer, is played entirely live with a killer band. Really powerful sound.

Chemical Brothers: Headliners for the first night, the Chemical Brothers had an insane visual and lights show. The supporting visuals were perfectly synced with the music (which suggests that their knob twiddling was all for show – but we’ll let that slide). They were at their best when playing the hits. When they weren’t I just felt I was at a 90s rave – which isn’t my thing – but if it’s yours, you would have loved it (I don’t think it was most people’s though). You can’t help losing yourself into the music and dancing. The visuals get pretty hypnotic. Mostly they played with the motif of animated people moving in time with the music (walking, being hit by objects, falling and hitting things – all on the beat etc.). Some of the imagery got a bit intense at points. Maybe it’s the catholic schoolboy in me – but having infinite permutations of medieval depictions of the devil flashed at you for 8 minutes straight can make you feel like you’re having a bad trip – even when you haven’t dropped anything. Aside from that section – the set probably would have been even better with chemical assistance. The chems didn’t disappoint. If you haven’t seen them “live”, and you get the chance, I would recommend it.

NB: At this point I should point out that while the line-up of NOS Alive is amazing – the logistics are fuckin’ deplorable. The usual festival organisation complaints are all present: No shade, hard to get a place to sit down, not enough toilets and crowd flow is terrible (people crushing to get to the loo- and stopping the ones trying to leave is a nightmare), timetable clashes (I missed Father John Misty for Tame Impala), drunk douchebags being fuckwits, and worst of all – leaving the venue and trying to get home. There is a train station and bus stop around 100m from the main entrance – it takes about 30 mins to get to the station from my hostel then a 10-minute walk to get in via the station underpass. Once the headliners take the stage they close the underpass and divert the crowd only a section of freeway that they have closed off to vehicle traffic. The crowd must now walk an extra few kilometres over an overpass to an off-ramp just to get to a station that was just a few meters away. Between the 30 min walk and 30-minute wait for the next train (because you will see your train come and go while you’re walking over the motorway) it takes 1.5 – 2 hours to get home. Also the last train leaves at 4:30am and a lot of the best acts start at 3am (Hot Chip, Ratatat etc.) so this severely affects what bands you are capable of seeing. We left at 2:45am after the Chemical brothers and didn’t get back until 5am. We were destroyed and it meant we needed to approach day two a bit differently. For contrast I camped for 4 rainy days at the Best Kept Festival and have no complaints about how that was organised.

Day 2: We only saw 4 acts, but they were all ones that we really wanted to see.

Jagwar Mar: We were really pumped to see Jagwar Mar. I love their album and had it on high-rotate in my car for some time. Their live show was a total disappointment. Just so lazy. They put no effort into their live act. The front man dressed like me when I’m severely hungover and am not leaving the house. He was wearing these really loose fitting stubbies, with a flannel shirt of over a white t-shirt. I thought I was going to see one of his balls drop out the bottom of his shorts at any moment. The bass player hardly played and when he did it was sloppy AF. He mostly stood around striking poses. They perform as a three piece with most of the sound being supplied by the guy manning the sequencers. Not many keyboards were played, and I get super sceptical when the guy running the sequencers and samplers hasn’t touched anything leading up to a drop. The singer was off-key too. At one point he layered up his vocals on a looper, except he was singing so out of key that it sounded terrible. These out-of-tune vocals kept looping, and to make it worse the music dropped away at the end of the song leaving this mess of flat harmonies echoing around on their own. 2 stars out of 5.

Courtney Barnett: She’s awesome. Such a relief to see a three piece just get up, plug in and rock out. Her lyrics are great, she’s a great guitarist and her band feels like a band. I don’t have much to add. I loved her set. Sounded huge.

Tame Impala: Holy Fuck these guys are amazing. You must stop what you are doing, and see if they ae playing near you soon. If not, put on their latest album Currents and console yourself. Tame Impala were the absolute highlight of the festival. Every song had all the psychedelic sounds and effects from the records, but were played live by incredibly good musicians as part of an impressively tight band. The drums and bass locked in perfectly, but never lost feel. This contrasted with the washy synths and phased out guitar. Kevin Parker has developed a sound that is really unique, and would otherwise seem difficult to translate effectively to a live show, but they played every sound from the record (except for the de-tuned spoken word sections) and went on exploratory journeys while doing it. So good. 6 out of 5 stars.

Radiohead: Ok, so this set was one of the main reasons why I came to Europe in the first place. Most of my trip could be characterised as a pilgrimage rather than a pure holiday, because since I was a teenager I always wanted to visit my host family in Germany, see Beck live and see Radiohead live. It took me 17 years to get back to Europe, and I was missed both Beck and Radiohead when they came in 2012 because I was broke. Experiencing Radiohead live was the last key moment. This is serious business. Also the chances for disappointment were high.

We tried to get as close to the stage as possible and used the Tame Impala set on the main stage to get into position. Despite this the best we could do was to get just in front of the mixing desk (about 70m back from the stage. Everyone at the festival crammed the area because there were no other acts performing while Radiohead was on (I suspect because the acts themselves refused to compete with Radiohead for an audience).

The first 20 mins of the set were a nightmare. The band started by playing songs from their latest album, which are mostly quite soft and delicate. There was a group of about 6 to 8 Essex girls behind me that would not shut up. They just kept talking. I thought they’d shut quieten down eventually, but they didn’t. One of them started hitting on me in a really weird way. Turning towards me and rubbing her boobs on my arm. She had a running conversation with one of her friends about how she was trying to get my attention. “Make him want you.” I heard her friend say “He’s pretending he hasn’t noticed.” The boob-rubber said. Just as I was contemplating my response another friend turned up and all the girls started screaming, and whipped up into a frenzied 6-way conversation about who-the-fuck knows what. At the same time two women get on the shoulders of their boyfriends in front of me and someone else starts recording on their phone. Two blokes on the other side of me also seem to think now is an appropriate time to discuss the price of fish. So after not really experiencing much Radiohead for the first 20 mins of the Radiohead set, I decide to concede our location and seek refuge further back in the crowd.

This was the best move. I found a spot where no one was talking and they seemed as interested to be there as I was. Now I could hear Radiohead, and watch as much of them as I could see between the sea of women-on-shoulders and mobile phones.

They started of with Burn the Witch, which I was interested to see how they do live, given that it is mostly a string driven song. However, the lack of a string section was not a hindrance at all. Johnny Greenwod played the chords made up by the strings on his guitar using a violin bow, and the rest of the arrangement sounded very close, and even more powerful, played on guitars bass and drums.

A great deal of the new songs were quite acoustic, employing acoustic guitars and pianos so these translated well. For the most part everything sounded just like the record.

Then after about 30 mins of the new material they started playing “the hits” starting with My Iron Lung. It rocked. Ed Obrien seemed to be laying most of the foundation of guitar and backing vocals on most songs, while Johhny Greenwood mostly focussed on the piano and keyboards parts. However every now and then Johnny would turn up with a guitar and unleash an unholy solo from his guitar like a demon possessed savant. Such a show-pony. I felt sorry for dependable Ed doing all the foundation work only for Johnny to turn up and claim the limelight.

They played a bit from each album. Some songs that I never thought would be any good live were in fact excellent. The Gloaming is probably the best example of this. It’s one of their more divisive songs, and not generally one of my favourites. But when they played it live – Wow! Only a very small amount of it was a looped sequence. There was a lot more guitar and live percussion throughout it, which makes me want to re-listen to the recording – since I thought it was by and large digitally sequenced.

Likewise, for the TKOL material. Lotus Flower rocked and I was surprised at the how much of the digital, syncopated material used essentially the same instrumentation from their older material.

Tom Yorke’s vocals seemed a bit unfocussed at times, which was hard to defend to my mate that wasn’t a Radiohead fan.

When playing Kid A, he got the audience to make noise that he then sampled and manipulated throughout the song. It was pretty cool. Everything in its right place sounded so good through the massive PA. An old friend described that song as having “bass you could hug”, but here it was bass that was hugging you.

After about 1.5 hrs they exited the stage, briefly before returning for an encore. They really delivered during the encore playing Paranoid Android (which satisfied this little boy’s fantasy) and the best song of the entire set – There There. Holy shit that song sounded good. Both Johhny and Ed playing timpanis while Tom took the lead on a beautifully distorted guitar. Just beautiful.

After an extended wait following the encore, they did come back for a second encore where we were treated to the song that has had fans all a flutter recently “Creep”. Now, I’ve heard other bands cover Creep quite well, and usually they do this by emulating the recording, but when Radiohead did it, it was like they were bringing it back to life. Something about the guitar sound, and I didn’t get a sense that they begrudged doing it. In fact they seemed like they were having fun. Maybe that’s the more blasphemous idea for Radiohead fans. That one of the most sour and neurotic bands – actually had a good time playing their first hit.

The show closed on Kama Police, in which Tom Yorke continued playing on his own after the rest of the band had completed the main arrangement, allowing the crowd to continue singing along with him.

At the time I was just trying to take it all in. There is a lot going on onstage with each song, and I’m so familiar with the recordings, and deconstructed them so much in my mind – that it was a little overwhelming trying to just be there, in the moment and enjoy the sound.

You can check out the setlist here:

http://www.setlist.fm/setlist/radiohead/2016/passeio-maritimo-de-alges-oeiras-portugal-73ffee1d.html

Day 3: I was fucked. I was feeling burnt out all day, ad it took me until 9:30pm before I felt alright. If the festival was run a bit better, and the schedule made a bit more sense, I would have been back there, and I would have been fine. But the level of endurance required due to poor planning and logistics was too much for me and my colleague. While there were lots of acts that I wanted to see today, they were all spread-out timewise, starting at 6pm and finishing around 4:30am. I don’t want to list who I’m missing here, but if you want to join me in my FOMO – you can check it out here:

Schedule

I hope you enjoyed the review. Sorry it’s a bit long. Once I start writing – it gets its own momentum.

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The Wave

8 May

I’ve been held down, dragging on the bottom, on the sand. The surf keeps pushing me back down. Every time it feels like I’m going to start heading up for air, down it comes again. I can’t breathe. I start breathing water. I’m kicking hard but it seems useless. Do I give up? What’s the point in fighting it. I question if there’s such thing as air anymore. The whole world is salt water and sand. But I remember it’s up there, it’s where I came from, so I kick harder. I keep kicking, and despairing, and kicking. I’m not on the bottom, but I’m not on top either. I can’t do it anymore. My body won’t do it anymore. Maybe water is the new air. Maybe I’m not supposed to fight it.

Fuck it! I give one last push against the tumult and resign to fate as I begin to lose consciousness.

Something hits me that snaps me back to life. What is it? It’s cold, expansive and vaguely familiar. My head seems to expand as salt spray whips my face. I spew primordial fluid from my lungs. I cough, I gasp. I breathe one deep breath as I turn to see a terrifyingly beautiful wave is bearing down on me. Breath two comes as I kick to catch the wave. It’s instinct now, I’m not going down again. I think about the shore. I’m not ready for it. I spread my arms. This wave will take me where I want to go.

This wave loves me. It holds me up and pushes me toward the horizon. We communicate through our bodies. It through the water, me through my flesh. It tells me when the wind is threatening the part I am on, so I swim hard to escape the crash. It tells me that it will carry me now so I relax. This wave and I go on until we meet the shore together.

Twelve Vignettes

18 Jan

I have had a lot of stuff boiling under the surface for a while. Most of it revolving around some true stories from family lore, so I thought I should just get it out of my system as quick and succinctly as possible.

I therefore now present to you:

Twelve Vignettes

01.

2013: Driving down Mason Street. 10pm Thursday night. Dad’s driving me home. There’s a bicycle lane. The light’s aren’t working properly (truth be told – They shoot half a mile up in the air). Little brother’s excited about getting his first car. He’s 15. Will start learning to drive in the next few months.

Shit! What’s that? Dad, almost ran him over; slows the car down. Dad winds down the window.

“You should be on the footpath you idiot!” He shouts. Keeps on driving.

Little brother and I piss ourselves laughing.

“What?” dad says.

“You just road-raged at Stephen Hawking” one of us says as we catch our breaths between laughs.

Dad had just slowed down to tell off a disabled bloke in a motorized wheelchair for driving in the bike lane at night without reflectors or lights. He was dressed in a pinstripe suit and bowtie.

The wheel-chair guy was – not Dad.

02.

c. 1930: Great Grandad’s friend dies on the ship. The crew don’t know what to do. Great Grandad suggests using a coffin they’re transporting in the hold to keep his body in until they dock. All agree. Great Grandad helps them take the body down to the hold and place him in the coffin. The body is too long. Shit!

Great Grandad suggests cutting the legs and slipping them up inside the pant-legs to fit him in.

No-one can agree. Great Grandad say’s “Give it here!”

Takes the saw and cuts the legs of his late friend and slips them up inside the pant legs.

Shock gives way to sailor humour and laughs.

The next day Great Grandad inexplicably starts walking with a limp. It accompanies him to his grave.

03.

c. 2005: My sister buys me a tight pink shirt. “ It’s all the rage” she says. “It’ll look good on you”.

I wear it home from a night out, also wearing an ironic handle-bar moustache. I keep getting stopped by bunches of cunts.

“Where are you going you homo?” they all ask.

“Home. What the fuck’s your problem?”

–       Laughs –

Curious at the number of dickheads out tonight. Mention the fact to my flatmates in the morning. “Never been hassled so much in my life!”

Later that week I interview Georgina Beyer [Trans-sexual MP] on her equality for gay employees bill, on the radio. Draw a parallel on discrimination. It’s not a parallel.

Penny drops.

04.

c. 1944.  Grandad lands at Auckland with (Grand) Uncle Conrad. Arrested on landing. No passports.

“What nationality are you?” the officer asks.

“German” answers Grandad.

“Tongan” answers Conrad.

The Customs/Police officer lays into Conrad. Beats him bloody. “You’re a fuckin’ liar! At least tell the truth about who you are you coward!”.

Conrad spends his night in a cell.

Grandad is waved on through.

06.

c.1880: There’s a storm at sea. The sails must be cut or the whole ship will be lost. Great-Great Grandad runs up the mast and cuts the ropes that are holding the sails in the tempest.

As soon as the last rope is cut the ship violently rights itself. He falls, smashes the left side of his face against the railing of the ship. Lands in the water, unconscious.

Protocol says if a man is overboard in a storm, you leave him.

Captain orders the ship be turned around. Great-Great Grandad is hauled aboard.

07.

c.1983: Dad scores the last try for the Prems in a league game. They win. The whistle blows. There’s cheers. As they’re walking off the field someone shouts “Behind you!”.

Dad turns around quickly. Someone bites into his face. Horror! Assailant spits out his left eye-ball. Nerve still attached.

Run to hospital. Tube installed. Bionic dad created.

Photo of me and Dad in the paper. I’m touching his face ( I’m only a few months old). Dad not happy. Not because of the wound, but because of the slander.

08.

c.2004: I’m driving home from a gig on campus. Shit night. Band broke up.

I sneak my car between the bollards next to the library. Some arsehole’s in the way; standing in the middle of the drive. I beep. No movement.

I roll toward him slowly. He stares me down. I keep rolling (foot off break in an auto – no accelarator). He jumps on the bonnet of my car, grabs onto the rim above my windshield.

Was being nice; Now I’m angry. Foot on gas, sharply brake! He’s still holding on.

Don’t want to kill him by doing it faster. I get out. Drag him off. We scrap. He’s on the ground. I’m grabbing his throat, starting to rip! Hear footsteps. Someone’s coming. I turn around. A friend of his was hiding!

SMACK! Left eye waters. We scrap.

“I’ve had a shit night already!” I say.

“Leave him alone. I know he’s a dick. He’s an idiot but he doesn’t know what he’s doing!” my opponent says.

“Fuck you both!” I say as I jump back in the car. Can only see from one eye. Drive home.

Get there. Start blacking out. Call an ambulance. Need an operation. Eyepatch.

Part of my jaw is now my eye floor.

09.

c. 1957: Grandad is playing in a bar. Gig is a success. Ladies flock to him. He’s married, but doesn’t shun the attention.

Jealous husband smashes a bottle. Throttles Grandad in the left eye. Operation. Stitches. Eyepatch. Suspicious wife.

10.

c. 1947: Grandad’s little brother Moses rides a horse as a child in Tonga. Gets thrown. No worries.

Notices horse is missing a rear shoe. Approaches from behind. Gets kicked in the left side of the face. Moses’ Mother sits by his bedside for two weeks. He’s in a coma.

Comes to. The left side of his face is shattered. Never the same.

11.

c. 1915: Officer from British Consulate sent to Tonga tells Great-Grandad (a Methodist Minister) that the he is being stripped of his assets. Geat Grandad’s main assets = his family home, a bakery and a church hall.

Great-Grandad is Furious. Does not physically assault the British officer but physically strips the officer of all his clothes. Sends him back to his superiors.

Bakery and church expropriated.

Great Grandad breaks into bakery and continues to deliver sermons from within it. Crown does nothing until….

12

1941: Grandad’s 21st Birthday. Watches his father herded onto a ship bound for a NZ internment camp from Tonga. Great-Grandad tells him to look after his mother and his siblings (one unborn). He swears he will (he does). Grandad’s still happy. His Dad will be back. Surely?

He isn’t.

Never said goodbye.

On Asset Sales

2 Apr

I just wanted to make a quick comment on asset sales. I know the issue is both infuriating and boring, but I’ll keep it short.

I was guided to this page on the Greens website to make a submission on the issue. I think the main points made by the greens as recommendations to include in a submission are pretty good, but they still miss the main issue. I am yet to find anyone commenting on the far bigger and more fundamental issue that underpins the sale of NZ Assets (Energy or otherwise). They all seem to get close, but no one that I have come across has pointed out that privatization fundamentally changes the nature and purpose of the core asset.

Consider this: An Energy company is founded and owned by the Government to satisfy the nation’s need for, say, electricity. This is done in the first instance because it is acknowledged that the nation can not function in the modern world without electricity, and the country’s economic wellbeing is dependent on it. The purpose of the Energy company is purely to supply electricity to the national grid, for use by everyone in the Country. That’s normal people, industry, everyone and everything. The cost of setting it up and operating the Energy company is covered by what it charges the users. This cost should be (in theory) set at a level that covers the costs of production, with no-one really making too much of a fuss if the government makes a bit of profit and puts it in its coffers.

The Energy company exists only to serve the needs of the people of the Country.

The Government realises, “well if this company is making us a profit, it must have a value greater than what we have paid for in setting it up and operating it. If we sell shares in the company (whether they amount to 1% or 100%) we can make more more money based on the market value of the Energy Company, than just on the product the Energy Company makes”.

Now at first glance this is all well and good. If in the current case the Government sells 49% of an Energy Company as shares on the open market, it still maintains control of the Energy company. But this isn’t about who controls the asset. This is about the purpose of the asset.

Once you start selling shares in a company, you are making promises to the new shareholders that the company is making a profit, and will continue to make a profit. Investors do not care whether the company supplies enough energy to its users to service their needs, or whether the price it charges its users is fair. All they care about is whether they make a profit. The larger the profit the better.

Suddenly the purpose of the Energy company has fundamentally changed. It now exists to make a profit for its investors and no longer to serve the needs of the people of the country.

So what about the fact the Government still controls the company through holding the majority of shareholders voting rights? Well control over voting rights doesn’t even come close to getting around the change in purpose.

If the Government for instance were to choose not to raise the cost of electricity to its users when all the other energy suppliers were doing so, and the minority shareholders took issue. The minority shareholders can require the Government to buy back their shares. The Government is bound by law to do that. At very least it would negatively effect the share prices and the value of the company. So in practice there is no benefit to the Government holding the majority of shares in a privatized asset. It is bound by pure economics to prioritize the pursuit of profit over supplying the service for which the asset was created. The private shareholders would be lining up to demand a refund of their investment otherwise, and the share prices would drop therefore defeating the purpose of privitizing the company in the first place.

It therefore follows that there is no such thing as “Partial Privatization” of public assets. They are either private assets which exist to make a profit for its shareholders, or it is a public asset that exists to service a specific need for the people and businesses of the country.

Emancipation

28 Oct

What if the very basis on which every large corporation relied for its social currency was known to be a lie by anyone who bothered to look at it, but next to no-one else really knew it?

That’s basically the scenario I dealt with in the second essay answer to my Law and Society exam.

There is a basic myth on which capitalism is based that is used to communicate the core idea at the heart of the system.

If a person who owns property is ambitious, diligent, smart and hard working in how they develop and use that property, they should be entitled to the benefits of their labours by way of trading the resulting product for a profit in an open market.

This story seems so simple, obvious and over-recited (in one form or another) so as to appear boring,  benign or to have lost all meaning; but this simple little folk story of the man who tills his land while his neighbours sit and watch, is exactly what the modern corporation has abused throughout its development; to such an extent that its own make-up resembles nothing of the hard working property owner from the capitalist fairy tale.

The corporate structure has evolved itself well beyond any credible hint of a constraint by the forces it maintains it must contend with. It has emancipated itself from the “Market” – but keeps the word alive to serve as a the bane it must contend with, like the monster in a children’s bedtime story…..

Does the growth of the large, publicly traded modern business corporation exhibit a progressive emancipation from the constraints of both the law and the market?

The Market:

As corporations grow they are affected less and less by the constraints of the market. It is common knowledge that the market is particularly volatile to small companies which are just starting out. Few even make it through the first year and this is usually down to market pressures. Not being big enough to compete is a mantra which is repeated often when they fail, so at the other end of the scale it could perhaps be said that large corporations are too big to fail [ed. my emphasis added].

The large corporation has a number of obvious advantages when it comes to competing in the market system. Firstly just having more money than its competitors helps in securing more voting rights within the system itself. This means that the company can afford to withstand the pressures of competition or even buy them out which is often the case.

Secondly once a company has exhausted its opportunities for growth it will usually look for opportunities in other markets. By entering other markets it has therefore escaped the constraints of its original market and can continue to bolster its position in the original market as it continues to grow.

Management itself plays no small role in determining the effects of the market. As Chandler put it the visible hand of management has replaced Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market.

There are many creative ways in which management finds ways to control aspects of a market. For instance corporations may use transfer pricing to move capital to where it is most desirable for the corporation to have it while evading certain production costs elsewhere in the production process. The effect of such a managerial circumvention of the market is to distort each of the Markets which it has operated in, in order to make its end profit.

The large corporation could argue that it is constrained by the market because it does not flourish in all areas. However it could also be argued that the reason the corporation doesn’t flourish in all areas is due, at least in part, to anti-trust, anti-monopoly laws acting in most areas.

Competition buy-out illustrates how a corporation need not flourish in all areas itself, but can acquire smaller companies with success in areas of a market where the corporation could not have gained access to. For instance in the music industry major record labels have tended to buy up the small independent labels catering to niche markets which the major label could not appeal to. In recent years there has been a major downsizing of competition via mergers between the major labels themselves creating less competition – the cornerstone of the market system.

Vertical Integration is another method whereby the corporation can consume other markets and escape the constraints of the market system. Vertical integration is when a corporation that makes one product buys the smaller firms which supply them the goods and services necessary to make their own products. Although this may not have significantly distortive effects on its own market it can have gross effects of the markets in which those suppliers were operating. For instance in 2003 Apple computers bought e-magic, a German software company which made high end audio production software for both the PC and apple computers. Once the merger was complete e-magic was no longer allowed to produce its product for the PC and effectively disenfranchising half of its market. Apple now entirely controls the market for that software and in order to use it the consumer must purchase the much more expensive hardware made by Apple.

A whole other set of major problems in constraining large corporation via the market system were illustrated by Christopher Stone in “Why Shouldn’t Corporations Be Morally Responsible?,” p. 434, in James E. White, ed., Contemporary Moral Problems, 5th ed. Stone believed that people who believe in the market system hold a few ill founded assumptions. They were based around how effective the communication and interpretation of market signals really was in reaching a desired outcome.

First there is the case of a person who is not aware of the fact that they are being harmed by the corporation. Such as when prior to the 1960s, the harmful health effects of smoking were not known so customers could not express their dissatisfaction with the company by boycotting the product.

Secondly, people who are dissatisfied with a corporation do not know where to apply pressure. That although they may boycott the product with which they are dissatisfied, and switch to an alternative they may still be supporting the same company because consumers are generally concerned only with the brand name, not who made it.

Stone’s argument therefore proposes that the system fails in this respect because the signal sent by the consumer is cancelled out by their support of a like product made by the same company. This idea may not exactly stand up under close scrutiny because corporations will usually stop manufacturing products which no-one buys.

Stone’s second example on this point may have more purchase. That some large corporations are so nebulous, a confusing mix of small companies and departments, that it is difficult to discern which point of the corporation to apply pressure to. Even governments have problems doing this.

Stones third example of ill held assumptions of the market systems efficiency is that people are always in a position to apply pressure of some sort to the corporations. The market system does not offer an appropriate negotiating interface where grievances can be communicated. Consider the situation where a corporation may make products with which there is great dissatisfaction in the general populace but the market system fails to offer them a means of sending these signals because the products manufactured are not available to the dissatisfied consumer, for example an aeroplane manufacturing facility which has huge negative effects on its surrounding environment, or a weapons manufacturer.

Stone’s final example of an ill held assumption is that the pressure does not get translated into the right kind of changes. He cited the example of the metal lids on children’s yoghurt which cut their tongues when licked. After the company fielded a lot of complaints they began an advertising campaign on the correct way to use the lids ignoring the fact that “it is easier to change the design of the can than it is to change the natural tendencies of a child.” Eventually the company was forced to change its containers but at what cost to the children.

Stone also points out that when consumer action against a corporation is effective via market signals, it may result in unintended or disproportionate consequences. If a product is pulled it could cost the jobs of hundreds of workers and have little effect on the company itself.

Escaping Legal Constraint.

The very inception of the modern corporation as an unincorporated joint stock company was an act of legal escape. Since then the law has failed to keep up with and sufficiently control its development. Instead it has tended to ratify the developments which the corporate form has undergone under its own steam and claim them as its own, only rarely pulling it up when the unintended consequences are no longer conscionable.

Even this description does not go far enough to explain just how stretched the legislature has been in accommodating the modern corporation throughout its development. The race to the bottom is the perfect example of how governments have used their legislature to attract corporations for their own financial gain. It is also helpful in identifying how governments have become disproportionately influenced by business interests via an array of political pressure techniques at the disposal of the corporate sector.

There has been a constant erosion of the law used to keep corporations from growing too big. For instance it used to be the case that a corporation could not own shares in another company. Since that law was overturned it opened up the market to the possibility of mega-monopolies. Some of the mega-corporations of today would exemplify the examples which law makers had in mind at the time that law was made. The finite lifetime rule in which a corporation had to end at some point (like a trust) would have helped this situation too.

The myth that big business hides behind, that they are analogous to small private property owners, has been used effectively to subvert the law and the public’s general perception about what it actually is. The corporation has been responsible for stretching the meaning of private property so far and so fast that the law has failed to properly adapt to it. Although most critical writers point out this fallacy, the corporations have been successful in perpetuating its acceptance by ignoring the arguments existence.

Also possibly the most common method corporations use to escape the law is to escape the laws jurisdiction. If a country has a legal framework which is no longer favourable to the corporation’s interests, they can simply relocate their operations while still reaping the rewards of continuing the sale of its products in that market.

When this occurs it effectively undermines the governments of such places favourable treatment to the corporations in any case.

Public or Private

26 Oct

I recently visited the University where I studied and gained my Law and Commerce degrees. I wanted to use the internet so I visited the library, sat down at a computer, and tried to login; testing to see if my username and password were still accepted by the system. Low and behold it worked!

Not only was I able to use the internet, my favourite bookmarks from almost a decade ago were still available. More of a suprise came in what was still contained on the server: all of my documents from my last year of study.

I opened a document that was an essay answer to one of my final exams. It was for a paper called simply “Law and Society”, which I always thought was a strange name because the paper dealt with the history of the rise of the corporation and its effects on society. I thought that “Corporation” or “Capitalism” should have appeared somewhere in the title because when I signed up for it I had no idea that the topic would be so focussed on that subject.

In the end it was probably my favourite paper during my time at uni, and one of the most useful in informing my world view. You see most people take the current social structure, where corporations weild so much power, governments give in to almost every corporate whim and most of the populace feel powerless to effect meaningful change in their society, as a given. But the corporation in its current form is really only a new development; less than 150 years old in fact.

Its proliferation and success at achieving its aims for the private investors that its structure services, has had an effect on global society akin to the introduction of a foreign species into a virgin ecosystem. It has thrived to the detriment of all the natural resources that sustained it.

I reproduce the essay answer here for your information. It summarises an important history particularly in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. I also have two other essay answers to the same exam that I will post in the near future because they contain information that I believe everybody should know. I also provide them as background to a future blog on the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Is the large publicly traded modern business corporation better characterized as public or private?

History

Originally corporations had to be set up by parliament and were limited to carrying out public services. Incorporated joint stock companies allowed private citizens to pool their money to get shares in the joint undivided stock, but a large portion of the profits always belonged to the crown.

This corporate form was most successful during the colonisation period of the 16th-17th centuries when in England the Crown would grant national charters allowing merchants to trade in particular parts of the world. The important aspect of the joint stock company is that it was primarily set up to collect revenue for the crown.

The public purpose of a company was an important aspect from the very beginning. When the parliament incorporated a charter it was always done to achieve some public purpose. Even if the granting of monopolies got out of hand the state maintained the ultimate control over the company.

The thin end of the wedge came when private actors who wished to enjoy some of the features of the corporate form began to take some of its attractive characteristics and put them to use outside of government control and without serving a public purpose. This was the advent of the unincorporated joint stock company.

The main feature which unincorporated joint stock companies sought to approximate was the ability for a number of individuals to pool their money in order to reach greater economic goals than they could separately. Although they appeared similar, in law they were treated merely as partnerships and the owners were still subject to personal liability.

Once the limited liability corporation was really given the go-ahead during the US railroad boom, the corporation really started to take on a life of its own. Limited liability gave the owners of the company a high degree of protection from prosecution in their personal capacity, and publicly traded stock did away with the idea of partnership.

The most significant departure from the corporation’s traditional role in this period was the loss of the public aspect to its constitution and therefore loss of democratic control. Previously under the British system the government had full control over a company’s behaviour, whether it was in its commercial interests or not. Now though the corporation was free to develop on its own.

The Private aspects of the Modern corporation

The starting point for looking at the characterization of the corporation as a private entity is its ownership and control. Because the modern corporation is not owned by the state, or controlled by the state the argument runs that it must therefore be a private entity.

Bowman however believes that although the ownership of a corporation is in the hands of private actors, it is diffused over so many people, and controlled by an oligarchy of managers who are not necessarily driven by personal gains via profit, that the corporation takes on its own political character.

Therefore the question now arises; if it is a body of political power, where does this place it in the public / private distinction?

Traditionally the first argument to be presented that the corporation is public is due to its public effect. Because large corporations are so big and have such a large number of stakeholders a large public effect is inevitable.

Often entire communities are based around the operations of a single company who play a very state like role in many instances. The film “Roger and Me” follows the effects on the community of Flint Michigan which was completely centred around a General Motors manufacturing plant as GM decided to close up shop and leave. Because most of the town worked at the plant when the company left it turned the town into (supposedly) America’s worst place to live. Its public effect was obvious, the unemployment it caused meant people couldn’t afford to pay their rates, property prices plummeted, and the city council suffered a massive loss of revenue because it could no longer claim tax from the company; it destroyed the towns economy.

The leaving of a community does frame a companies public effect quite well, but even in cases where corporations continue to prop up entire communities, they wield so much political power that they can appear to be integrated with local bodies of government.

Another common argument is that corporations exist to provide services for society, and as such they are a public body. Consider the case of a town where its groceries are sold through only one store, a supermarket. When the supermarket set up there had been a number of grocers, but it put them all out of business. One day however the super market chain folds and the supermarket closes leaving the inhabitants of the town without a food supply. Often in such cases the government will have to step in to ensure the supply of goods to the people, therefore fulfilling the public role that the supermarket had filled.

Corporations also conduct state functions. Increasingly corporations are taking over functions traditionally carried out by the state. Either through privatisation or contracting services out. The usual argument given in support of these actions is that corporations are more efficient at carrying out these roles.

The question therefore becomes; what exactly are corporations more efficient at doing? The answer is of course making a profit. In the case of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) this can work to the advantage of the government when such SOEs do in fact return a profit, but the scope for the benefit of the consumer/ society as a whole narrows.

A capitalistic corporation only seeks to turn a profit by squeezing the resource for as much as they can get. This may in turn afford the state good revenue to put into other areas but at the cost of a cheap efficient service vital to the needs of the public. An Example of this in New Zealand might be the railroads which were sold to private investors in 1996. Each owner would speculate about how much the service and the land which was attached would increase in value and sell it on without maintaining or improving the safety or the service. Eventually the Government had to step in and buy it back because it was too valuable to the public to allow it to continue to erode.

This pattern of governments is becoming more and more common as more and more state assets are sold off. Corporations care little for the public roles they are filling but only the pursuit of profit. When they fail at either providing the service or turning a profit the government is required to step in to clean up the situation or bail them out. In such instances it can leave little doubt that corporations should be characterised as public.

Traditionally big business has been held to belong in two separate compartments. This goes back to the classical liberal stance that the state should not interfere with private property, but as the corporation has developed faster than the State has been able to cope with, it has as we have seen, adopted many of the states functions. Here a tension arises between the private nature of a corporation’s ownership and the public nature of its function.

In “Global Reach” Barnett and Muller illustrate the dichotomy of how the corporation has managed to out-adapt the state in terms of control, political power and acquisition of resources. Corporations have become so efficient in the central planning of their operations that they have gained sufficient political power to gain a strong influence over the state.

At this point it begins to appear that the public/ private distinction cannot be maintained. The State and Corporation have developed so closely and have become so intertwined that their separation may no longer be possible.

The classical liberal maxims got so caught up in what they were trying to achieve that it now appears to be an unsolvable case of wanting their cake and to eat it too. It was fine to keep the state from entering their private commercial affairs, but they didn’t see a problem with trying to influence the state to meet their own ends, or to take on public functions in a profit seeking exercise.

Front On

9 Oct

I am totally baffled by the disgusting quality of Australian television advertising.

I was enduring the long ad breaks they seem to have in this country and couldn’t help but remark at how mind destroying-ly bad the ads were to my 14 year old brother. Being the tack that he is, he pointed out that the reason most of the advertisements in Australia are so bad is because most of them use the exact same production technique of filming the entire ad from a camera placed directly in front of the subject person.

No panning, no profile shots, nothing of the like. A dolly shot? – you must be joking! You are lucky if you are indulged with a zooming shot.

It begs the question what the marketing company’s are paid for by the corporates in this country. The quality of dreck they force viewers to sit through to get to the next slither of programming shows just how cynical the advertising agencies are here. Although it is hard to see where to draw the line between the advertising agency and the client when attributing the blame.

I don’t know if it makes the outlook better or worse whether the corporate client was complicit in filming techniques. Obvioulsy they would have had to give it the go-ahead at some point so lets just say they’re in on it.

But why so many? Where’s the imagination? Advertising agencies have massive departments called simply CREATIVE. I can only imagine the creative department must be the place artistic souls go to die of mediocrity. At least in this country.

I dated a marketing exec from one of the big three advertising agencies for some time so I have a pretty good insight into how cynical an industry it really is. 18 months of being intimately involved with people in the industry did nothing to dispell my Hicksian view of the franchise.

A New Zealand audience wouldn’t have a bar of it. You can bet your bottom dollar ratings would drop through the floor if someone tried to spill that shite into their loungeroom. It got me thinking “What is the difference between NZ and Australia that would allow such a low quality of advertisement to be industry standard”?

I think that that there are probably a couple of interconnected factors at play here. First are the obvious cultural differences, and second is the some degree of social conditioning.

To view Australian television advertising’s lack of diversity, it would help to see why NZ is so much better (please don’t interpret this as a suggestion I think NZ advertising is good! There are varying degrees of terrible).

NZ as a culture has a sense of creativity at its very core. Whether it be in the arts, or making the most from a length of number 8 wire, kiwi’s are creative people and expect, on some level, to be challenged by new ideas. They also bore easily. Given its small population and remoteness NZ has done pretty well in spite of other culture killing factors like – not having any money. As a result New Zealand almost completely lacks a defineable mainstream culture.

Sure commercial radio still plays the same tunes it plays everywhere else in the world; The newspaper runs the same stories in essentially the same format as their foreign counterparts, and TV plays the same episodes of desperate housewives a week after they air in the States – but try and appeal directly to the “Mainstream New Zealanders” for anything and you find them out to lunch. Just look at Don Brash’s 2005 election campaign if you need any proof.

But I digress; What I’m basically trying to say is that if you are being forced to sit through a set of ads to get to the next section of programme you shouldn’t be insulted with a creative and mentally stimulating vacuum for 5 – 7 minutes. It’s cynical beyond words, but if that is the general level of quality that passes for an ad, you can hardly make a complaint to the AMCA.

I suppose the most frustrating aspect of all of this is that we are expected to vote with our remote, and by NOT buying the products in question. The effect of switching the channel and not patronising the companies who’s products are advertised in such a mind numbing fashion, is so far removed from the creatives that make the ads that you can’t really expect the advertising companies to connect the dots; particularly when we’re talking about the status quo. The only way to turn it around is for there to be a significant and prolonged shift in creative style and for that, I’m not holding my breath.

PS: I tried to find some video links to examples of the ads that I was talking about but couldn’t find any. Apparently they’re too inane to even bother posting on youtube.