Goldman’s Lloyd Blankfein, Citibank’s Vikram Pandit and, of course, Barclay’s Bob Diamond, all have something in common. Even their normally acquiescent shareholders have been moved to express concern about their latest round of excess, greed and thuggery. But they are only the tip of the ice-berg. It has become custom and practice for top people to take spectacularly from the businesses they command. Whether their take, largely for unacceptable performance, is £5m or £67m makes little difference. It obviously bears no relation to their true worth: their talent, or their hard work.
These are the unacceptable faces of capitalism, the reasons why people have so little trust in the integrity of corporate business. They are why people are demanding ‘new models of capitalism’, ‘ethical capitalism’, ‘capitalism with a conscience’, etc. And why Ed Milliband makes the clear distinction between what he refers to as ‘good capitalism’ and ‘bad capitalism’.
But capitalism with a conscience won’t work. We may all start out with a conscience, but if the system tempts us with untold riches for doing not a lot, then most of us are likely to fall for it. Our intrinsic good intentions will be crowded out by extrinsic incentives or greed. The problem is making the system proof against that simple human frailty. Continue reading Modifying the Capitalist System
How does a basic item of clothing, say a shirt, come into existence. Where does the cloth come from? And the colours or dyes, the buttons and thread, the machines that cut the fabric and the machines that stitch the bits together? And who dreamed up the designs and how did they get printed on the fabric? And what brought all these things together to produce the finished article? And how did it get distributed to people wanting such a shirt? The answer to all those questions is, of course, ‘the market’. No other form of economic organisation gets anywhere near that level of efficiency or provides a comparable degree of choice. All the tools of central planning and control of the former communist states, proved incapable of organising the production and distribution of shirts that people actually wanted to buy. That is the beauty and power of the market for something as simple as a shirt. For more complex products, and most products are, the competitive advantage of the market over any alternative, is far greater even than that.
The thing that makes the market so effective is competition: the existence of alternative suppliers of cloth, dyes, thread, machines and the rest. Without competition , the market would be no different from the central planning and control system. That failed not only because of its inherent inefficiency and proneness to bad decisions, but because the empowered bureaucracy was vulnerable to self-interested, even corrupt and illicit decision making. Monopolists are in exactly the same position: inefficient and vulnerable, and likely to take corrupt and predatory decisions to further their avowed aim of maximising shareholder wealth.
Continue reading Free Markets Controlled by the Unaccountables
Keynes referred to them as the ‘madmen in authority’, referring to the policy makers and top financial and business executives, who rule our world. Maybe ‘madmen’ doesn’t quite capture their essential characteristics today. After all, mainstream economists would argue they are not mad, but wholly rational in their unwavering pursuit of self-interest without regard to any broader, more enlightened consideration. In a talk to TED’s global conference (TED – Technology Entertainment Design – bills itself as a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading), economist Tim Harford identified a ‘terrible affliction’, one that the ‘madmen’ might be suffering from. It was both ‘debilitating to individuals and corrosive to society’. He referred to as ‘the God complex’, the symptoms of which could be simply described as: ‘no matter how complicated a problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solutions.’
The UK coalition government has more than its fair share of sufferers: Andrew Lansley at Health, Michael Gove at Education, and, of course, Prime Minister Cameron, self-confessed expert in how to manage hospital wards, deal with binge drinking, solve racism in football and make child adoption processes fairer and faster, to name but a few recent self-confessions. These are individuals convinced of their infallibility, despite the complexity of the issues they confront, and not prepared, unless forced, to consider the possibility they might be wrong and other solutions might be better.
Continue reading God Complex ‘Drivers’ to Extinction
Management scholar, Sumantra Ghoshal, accused mainstream business schools and university departments of teaching ‘bad management theories’ that were ‘destroying good management practices’. His arguments were persuasive, both as to how bad the theories were and how effective they had been in destroying good management practice. The bad theory was that management had no other social responsibility than the legal duty to maximise shareholder wealth. The good practices this bad theory destroyed were related to concern for employees, customers, the local community, the environment and (therefore) the long term, all of which were exploited and impoverished, or at the very least neglected, on the altar of short term shareholder interests.
Ghoshal argued that destroying the bad theory would be an essential first step to renewing good management practice. If the bad theory remained intact, the greed enabling culture it supported would remain as the dominant set of beliefs. Under that circumstance, initiatives promoting sustainability, transparency, fairness and integrity, as characteristic of the role of business in society, would be doomed to fail. At the end of the day, no matter how worthy an action would be, if it meant reducing shareholder return, it would not be sustained. And if an action were to harm employees, customers, the community or environment, but would enrich shareholders, it would be justified. For this to be reversed, the bad theory must be totally overturned.
Continue reading Bad Theory and Management Renewal