There are an increasing number of live initiatives for making the capitalist system more sustainable and equitable. Improving environmental, social and governance performance would be steps in that direction. Transparency in terms of measuring and reporting progress would also be important. Including content on sustainability and equitable governance in the mandatory curriculum for all secondary, further and higher education students might start to change the general understanding of these critical issues. Creating an alternative system of ethically focused capital markets and enlightened financial institutions might challenge the financial sector to a more enlightened capitalism role.
These initiatives are all positive and worthwhile. But if the generally held core belief persists, that a successful economy depends on people all seeking to maximise their own material self-interest, such innovations will remain niche, if they remain at all. Their impact would be both limited and short-lived.
The original purpose of the capitalist system was to fund industrialisation. That generated the economic gains for entrepreneurs and their stakeholders and the industrial infrastructure paid for by taxes, as well as providing for the common good by improving health, education and general living standards.
Continue reading Capitalism to the Rescue
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is generally pictured as commander of the economy, driving it through a dangerous jungle at the edge of Armageddon, threatened by mortal danger on all sides. Whether he is conceived of as a hugely intelligent and skilful driver, or an ill-informed purveyor of omnishambolic damage, is a matter of political belief. The fundamental error is in the estimation of his power to drive the economy. At most it extends to steering round relatively gentle corners and having some influence over speed. The effectiveness of these limited powers depends on the ability to see dangers far ahead and to make adjustments accordingly. The currently dominant economic ideology is a particular handicap to achieving such foresight. As Chicago Nobel laureate Professor Robert Lucas told the Queen, the best economic theory can do is predict that such events as the 2007-8 crash are unpredictable.
Lots of lessons have been relearned since Lehman’s bust, yet few substantive changes have been made. So it is predictable, and widely predicted, that there will in due course be another, most probably bigger crash than 2007-8. And after that, if no preventive actions are taken, there will be another. And another. Till the changes are made.
Continue reading Management and the Next Crash
Among all the debate about the vices and virtues of capitalism there is rarely any serious attempt to define its key characteristics. Whatever they are, they appear to work better than the best known alternative that has so far been tried: centrally planned totalitarian communism. Whether good capitalism or bad, compassionate, predatory or even ‘conscious’, all capitalisms appear to depend on the ownership and control of the established legal entity known in the United States as the corporation, or the public limited company elsewhere. That is the corporate form Chandler described as ‘the most powerful institution in the economy’ on which the affluence and growth of the past century and a half has been based.
The corporation was the legal form which was enabled to issue shares to many dispersed individuals and so accrue sufficient funds to make large scale capital projects possible. Initially its legal creation required a royal charter, then an act of parliament and finally, after 1844, a company could be legally established by a relatively simple process of registration. Limited liability followed a decade later. This was the precious means by which industrialisation was enabled.
Continue reading Democratic Capitalism
Advanced economies everywhere seem to be led by politicians who are media competent but practically inexperienced. They seem not to have learned anything from the experiences of the past year, only yearning for a return to business as usual. But there are vital lessons and changes need to be made.
Recession: The much talked of double-dip morphed into talk of triple-dip and the lost decade, and, eventually in 2012, to the previously unthinkable notion that GDP growth might be a thing of the past for advanced economies. Systems thinkers warned of the classic systems life cycle characteristics which accompany permanent change from one phase (eg maturity) to the next (eg decline): for the first several time periods, the idea of permanent change is never accepted – ‘it’s a blip’, ‘a double dip’ – until the permanency of change is absolutely undeniable. By which time most opportunities for improvement have been lost. This scenario seems ever more probable, given the increasingly apparent limitations on earth’s capacities and the ever increasing demands placed upon it.
Continue reading Lessons for Advanced Economies from 2012
An article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review notes that there has been a ‘multi-trillion dollar transfer of cash from US corporations to their shareholders over the past 10 years’ [‘What good are shareholders?’, Fox & Lorsch]. The City of London achieved similar disinvestment. But that’s not what stock markets are supposed to be for. The money was supposed to flow the other way, from myriads of investors into new industrial, technological and business developments.
But public companies clearly no longer need to issue shares for sale on the stock market. Their funding is largely through retained profit and more and more of them are actually being taken private where disclosure and transparency requirements are less invasive. At the same time, the fast growing small and medium sized innovators on which a sustainable future depends, and which do need to acquire additional funds for future investment, don’t find stock markets a satisfactory means of raising the necessary. The fund managers and traders who control investment in stocks and shares want fast, low risk returns. But returns from SME innovators, even though they may be exciting and sustainable, are unacceptably long term.
Continue reading What good are Stock Markets?
Unilever’s Paul Polman must be a Chief Executive in a million. Or more. In his interview with Guardian Sustainable Business, Polman calls on business leaders, politicians and NGOs to recognise they cannot deal with the world’s environmental and social challenges by pursuit of Milton Friedman’s target of maximising shareholder wealth. Polman names a few other companies who are moving in that same direction, and suggests their numbers are growing. But it is a drop in the ocean.
“Why,” he asks, “would you invest in a company which is out of synch with the needs of society, that does not take its social compliance in its supply chain seriously, that does not think about the costs of externalities, or of its negative impacts on society?”
Sadly, the answer is simple and obvious: to make a quick buck. Friedman said that corporate officials had no other social responsibility than to make as much money as possible for shareholders, and that is what the business schools and university departments have been teaching ever since. So that is how the world now works. The world – business leaders, politicians, academics, and even the people in the street – have come to believe that it is the legal duty of those who run businesses to maximise the wealth of shareholders, and to hell with everything else. But it is simply not the case. We should not need heroic figures like Paul Polman to change the world. It should simply be a matter of compliance with the law.
Continue reading A New and Legal Orthodox Wisdom
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