Pearls of Wisdom: Flash Boys

If you read Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys, you might remember the case of Sergey Aleynikov who once worked for Goldman Sachs. Consider how Goldman Sachs handled their problems, and compare that with how you might have handled similar problems.

If you don’t know the circumstances of Mr. Aleynikov, to make a long story short, he was employed by Goldman Sachs to create computer software that facilitated high frequency trading for about two years from 2007 to 2009. He was paid about $400,000 per year (Note: I do not know Mr. Aleynikov personally, this is all taken from news reports of court filings).

Shortly after he left Goldman Sachs to join another firm, he was arrested by the FBI. According to Assistant United States Attorney Joseph Facciponti, “[Goldman Sachs] has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways.” Mr. Aleynikov was tried in Federal Court, convicted, and imprisoned. About a year later, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ordered his conviction reversed and a judgment of acquittal entered. Mr. Aleynikov was then tried in state of New York courts where the state judge dismissed most of the charges and he was acquitted of other charges.

Then in 2012 Congress passed the Theft of Trade Secrets Clarification Act of 2012.

Just last week Congress passed the Defend Trade Secrets Act. Under this new act (which was originally proposed with speeches complaining about the Chinese government), if a company believes any employee has stolen its trade secrets, a judge can unilaterally authorize, without any opportunity for the accused to be heard (what lawyers call “ex parte”), the seizure of all computers and electronic devices in the possession of the former employee.

Let’s think about this for a minute. Goldman Sachs was really angry that an employee had spent two years working there and planned to use what he had learnt over the course of the two years to try to earn more money at a different company. So they got new federal legislation passed that vastly oversteps what you or I would consider to be a component of basic American freedom under our capitalist society.

Taking this analogy away from a huge multinational corporation and pretending it’s about you as an individual. Have you ever been really angry about something? So angry that you called your congressperson? Maybe even your local district attorney? And then got even angrier when they told you that there is no law that will solve your problem?

What would be your response? Maybe you yell at your friends and family about it. Maybe you had an extra whiskey to distract you from it. Maybe organize dozens of people to call the lawmakers and urge them to fix the problem. But would the powers that be really address your problem? Probably not. And then, the next day you had to get back to work and go on with your life and just hope to avoid the person you were mad at.

Well, that is not how the Goldman Sachs elite reacted to it, just as many other rich and powerful interests respond when they feel they have been wronged.

If you’re one of them, your plans include:

  • Building political power by spending millions of dollars on political contributions, lobbying, and direct payments to political influencers through speaking fees;

  • Find lawyers, lobbyists, and lawmakers to help leverage existing laws to rectify your annoyance;

  • If there is no federal law against what they did that bothered you, go to the state government;

  • If there is no state law, that get the existing law changed to accommodate your nuisance;

  • If changing the law doesn’t totally satisfy you, get a whole new law passed that will give you everything that you desire.

The first step to dealing with the problem of inequality in access to government is to just understand how unequal the system is. And it truly is that unequal now.

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