Cutting through the Fog – Corporate Secrets and Beneficial Ownership

David Cameron promised last week at the Open Government Partnership Summit that companies registered in the UK would be obliged to reveal their ultimate ownership and that the public would have access to those records.

This was a major statement of intent: evidence that the UK was not going to condone the opacity of companies or owners that could possibly be engaged in criminal dealings or those who are perfectly innocent but choose to inhabit the same smog-bound territory of corporate secrecy.

Why the secrets?

More accountability is a hard-won struggle in an era where our secrets are open to secret services like the NSA and where government secrecy is hard to lessen, Through all this opening up, companies (and Trusts) operating on an international level have reatained an unwelcome ability to shield themselves from public view. At a time of real debate about privacy (Snowden, The Guardian, the NSA, Angela Merkel’s mobile), companies that seek privacy have remained relatively immune.

Companies are treated as individuals under the laws of most countries yet have the ability to hide their ownership and deal with their taxation (if operating multi-nationally) wherever they choose. This means, of course, that they usually choose what is right for them not for the wider society in which they operate. That is their remit. The recent shake-down of Starbucks, Google and others over taxation – which, to date, has yielded not much more than the voluntary promise of payment of a few tens of millions by Starbucks – was a tip of the iceberg moment. With corporate taxation in the UK heading downwards, the current government coalition seems determined to accept the Institute of Directors’ call for companies not to be taxed on their profits at all!

However, one thing about tax is that we can all see how much a large corporate pays in the UK (about a year after the event when it publishes its accounts). What we don’t see easily is where a company has overseas affiliates with which it “trades” – such as paying royalties for the use of its name – in secret jurisdictions where tax is often negligible.

This nonsense of transfer payments and royalties (which HMRC showed last week to the Public Account Committee it has no real understanding over) shifts massive amount offshore and out of the country where real business was done to tax havens.

The fear often cited that proper taxation would force companies out of the UK is nonsense. They do real and profitable business here – the UK is the world’s seventh biggest economy (or thereabouts). Why on earth does anyone believe that they would move away from doing business here? Can anyone imagine that Apple would close its Covent Garden store if they had to pay real tax in the UK rather than shift profits to where the name “Apple” is deemed by a tax expert to reside? Being afforded the space to sell its (excellent) products in the UK, to use our roads, lights, take on people educated here and all the other benefits of selling in the UK (which includes the iconic area of Covent Garden in London) are well worth the entrance fee of corporate taxation.

Offshoring the owners

However, David Cameron’s speech was not specifically about offshoring taxation – it concerned beneficial ownership issues and these are, of course, linked to taxation in a major way but it is much more than that.

The fog of hidden beneficial ownership means that companies are set up which can channel profits or simply flows of revenue to places where tax does not apply and where no-one knows the beneficiary. This is a typical and easy-to-organise ruse of the criminal world. For many years, criminal networks have laundered their revenues offshore – it used to be through the transportation of suitcases full of notes; these days, it is a little easier. This not just saves tax – it transforms illegal earnings into clean money that can then be brought back again into the real economies via the normal banking system.

With the improved ease of transmission of money across the world, it just takes complicit banks to enable the movement (along with some accountants and lawyers to get things under way) and, hey presto, money surfaces wherever it is wanted without anyone knowing.

Just watch the antics of Breaking Bad attorney Saul Goodman – now getting his own series. The essence of monetary manipulation is built around secrecy and contacts. Governments cannot easily stop the development of the latter, but they can do much to stop the former – making beneficial ownership transparent.

Lining Up for Secrecy – the Fog of War

To the vast majority of us, this is obvious, but to many it is a declaration of war. Many secrecy-led jurisdictions are concerned about their future. It is not just Cyprus where the dominance of “financial services” is far too big for the country – Cyprus became completely over-dependent on banking, Russia and lack of due diligence. According to the Tax Justice Network there are 73 secrecy jurisdictions around the world that they analyse.

Of these, a staggering 35 have some substantive connection with the UK. One of those is Jersey and Jersey Finance’s CEO, Geoff Cook, voiced his concern on Friday when he heard David Cameron’s pitch. In his blog he refers to the public register:

It is not yet clear what will be on such a register but unless this is adopted by the G20, I would confidently predict that  Mr Cameron is likely to have lots of friends in the AID world and insufficient food on the table at home.
Protecting business interests, trade secrets, safeguarding personnel from fringe, sometimes violent campaigning groups, from corrupt political elites and from criminals are all real and weighty concerns.  It is telling that the NGO community are happy to  subject those who have worked hard and done the right thing to a much greater degree of scrutiny than almost any other constituency in society.
There is little difference from opening up the private company arrangements of business owners to the public glare of NGOs, journalists, cyber criminals and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of the worldwide web, than for ordinary bank accounts. If the logic holds good do we not need to know the balance publicly of all personal bank accounts so that all can be sure we came by our cash by legitimate means?
We have nothing to hide in Jersey and we have been active supporters of government to government information exchange. However, the voyeuristic tendencies of politically correct elites should not be indulged and indeed will not be by the vast majority of countries, leaving the UK out on an uncompetitive, uncomfortable and potentially impoverished limb.

It is extraordinary that arguments for secrecy over beneficial ownership are now wrapped up in screams about safety from “violent” campaigning groups and cyber criminals. These are the words of fear – fear for a future that may have been predicated on the Cyprus model and lack of such due diligence.

Secrecy over beneficial ownership allows vast amounts of money to be electronically channeled out of not just the UK developing nations. That cannot afford the losses. Huge amounts of wealth properly owned by citizens of countries such as Guinea, DRC, Angola and others are secretly moved and laundered – often with the help of banks (who are now in the firing line of authorities especially in the USA). As TJN itself states:

Secrecy jurisdictions facilitate illicit financial flows.

Illicit financial flows stem from three major sources: bribery (corruption in its narrow sense), criminal activity and cross-border tax evasion. In doing so, secrecy jurisdictions and the secrecy providers operating through them play not only a major role in preventing the poorest countries from developing out of a state of dependency and poverty, but they help creating a criminogenic environment in which all sorts of crimes can thrive and feast on the fruits of breaking the law.

The crimes that are facilitated and whose financial reward is secured by financial opacity and the resulting secrecy comprise, but are not limited to: tax evasion, aggressive tax avoidance, money laundering, terrorist financing, drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal arms trading, non-payment of alimonies, counterfeiting, insider dealing, embezzlement, fleeing of bankruptcy orders, illicit intelligence operations, insider dealing, all sorts of fraud, and many more.

Clearing the Fog

David Cameron has made a real commitment but there are real obstacles to further progress.

The first is implementation.

Those involved in celebrating the introduction of the Bribery Act in 2011 are rightly concerned that its implementation is suspect. As Jack Straw, then Minister of Justice, said in the original White Paper, there was unlikely to be many cases brought before judges as a result of the Act. This has been borne out in practice along with insufficient funding of investigations, low numbers of court actions and Bribery Act guidance that was aimed at stifling the Act’s powers. Proper and funded implementation of real transparency and public availability of that information is now key to ending secret beneficial ownership for UK-registered companies.

The second issue is around Trusts. These are not covered by the PM’s statement or commitment yet Trusts are a key secrecy weapon for criminal activity across the globe.

The third issue is that the commitment only applies to the UK. This will serve some purpose in helping to clear money laundering from this country but the UK should now use its leadership wherever it has influence. This is direct in the 35 secrecy jurisdictions mentioned above but also in other forums where the UK has any influence – such as the G20, EU, FATF (Financial Action Task Force).

The fog remains but the UK is beginning to spy a way through – taking a lead on an issue on which millions of lives depend outside the UK. It is not the problems of those in Jersey’s Finance Ministry we should most be concerned with but the problems of those in countries where massive corruption by those in power is facilitated by banks and secrecy jurisdictions – resulting in billions leaving the countries (far higher than Aid going in) and that means millions having to survive on a $ a day with no medical facilities let alone schools or economic opportunities.

Time to see above the fog.

The Corporate Paradox

 Chimeric Corporations

This week, Danny Alexander has announced that the UK government will not allow companies that have proposed tax schemes that have been found to be unlawful to bid for government contracts.

The G20 announces that governments across the world will work together to ensure that companies pay the proper rate of tax in the countries in which they do business.

Why now, after over 500 years of the joint stock / limited liability company are governments beginning to attack the privileges of the multinational – companies that operate across borders but ask us to believe that what they do is for our good as consumers and for the good of their shareholders?

Paradox: any person, thing, or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature.”

Company: “An entity, usually a business, created by a legislative act or by individuals who have agreed upon and filed articles of incorporation with the state government. Ownership in the corporation is typically represented by shares of stock. Furthermore, a corporation is legally recognized as an artificial person whose existence is separate and distinct from that of its shareholders who are not personally responsible for the corporation’s acts and debts. As an artificial person, a corporation has the power to acquire, own, and convey property, to sue and be sued, and such other powers of a natural person that the law may confer upon it.”

(www.yourdictionary.com)

Worldwide, the campaign to properly tax companies hots up. 500 years after the Dutch East India Company issued shares (and joint stock companies can be said to have been formed well before that date), the part that companies play in society is still not resolved or even understood by most. Many argue that companies should not even be seen as independent entities for tax purposes but, rather, we should see the people behind them (shareholders and staff, mainly) as due for tax on receipts from companies.

That argument treats society as a game – where the simulated rules can be played out on a computer (a bit like econometricians think of economics). It is not credible in reality as businesses make decisions as businesses and act as independent entities as complex adaptive systems within the overall societal environment. Those calling for zero tax for companies ignore the fact that the biggest fund providers to politicians are businesses and business coalitions. Business (through companies) may well be the main instigators of economic progress in a market-oriented world. We now believe that the market (the nearest equivalent in economics to biological evolution) works better than the alternatives. Companies, which are provided with risk limitations through joint-stock ownership, are central to the market.

But….Is the Company Real?

Well, companies can be defined as a collection of people joined together for a business enterprise. Under laws such as the 2006 Companies Act in the UK, companies of various types are given legal definition in their own right. They have privileges and obligations under the law – even though directors of companies may also have individual responsibilities should the company not perform within the law.

The paradox is that companies are (in law) independent and “living” but, in fact, are, of course, artificial. This proves a difficult concept for individuals in society and for lawmakers, but the history of humankind is bound up with people joining together in groups and governments (from dictators to democracies) trying to legislate for them.

Companies are merely an artificial group legislated into being amongst many others that operate directly with individuals and other artificial and legislated groups (such as other companies and trading with governments). They represent a part of our social fabric as a paradox of society – an artificial group which binds together its individuals into group decisions and group impacts on the rest of society.

A company is a complex adaptive system (CAS)

Initially, a company is formed by key individuals that are hard to separate from the company itself – it may be one person who sets up a business. The business is formed to provide a good or service to society and to reap certain rewards in return. John Kay wrote in 1998  about why a company exists and his thoughts on what makes a good company (these days, a sustainable business).

It is estimated that 70% of companies fail within five years of start-up. Those that survive, become in a relatively short period, very different from the individual that started them. As soon as managers are brought in to assist, the company becomes more “complex” and decision-making is more group oriented but not centralized. The company becomes a system unto itself where most decisions are taken by its staff at all levels and continuously.

If a company goes “public” (with its shares traded), then there is also a divorce between the owners and the managers. Owners operate in the stock market casino – with little or no relationship to the company except insofar as it pays dividends or the share value rises or falls. This separation of ownership and management (and the rewards due to each – a special problem in the finance industry where employees at the top level have usurped the risk parameters and receive high returns for no capital risk) is a potential friction and another level of complexity that society still wrestles with (see John Kay’s more recent work for the UK government).

The complexity of a company’s make-up does not hide the fact that a company operates as a distinct entity – a complex adaptive system (CAS) made up of individuals but (like a City) operating without central direction in ways that impact those around it in a multitude of ways. Companies impact through enterprise and innovation, through motivation, through marketing, through involvement with other companies, through its customers and the environment. It does not operate as individual activities of each of its staff individually but as a collective – as a CAS.

Companies and Society

This has been recognized for centuries and most now understand that anything like a company – despite the corporate paradox – has to be treated in law and taxation as if it had a life of its own. Such treatment includes taxation as much as health and safety, labour laws, environmental laws, trade description laws (e.g. not supplying horse meat instead of beef), data protection and customer protection. Society’s interaction with companies means that staff, consumers and suppliers and anyone else affected by companies (such as people those impacted by companies located in their area, those who oppose the lobbying of companies etc) require that companies are treated like the rest of us – society demands that companies face legal requirements and that includes taxation.

The G20 has now committed to proper tax treatment but our governments need to go further. Companies provide innovation and are the mechanism that a market economy uses for prosperity – at least in pure GDP-related terms (another issue).

To make this real, we have to understand that society sees companies as real entities that have a full part to play in the society of the 21st century – not an artificial entity set up but a full system in itself that has legal and moral authority and responsibilities.

To tax is not an issue – of course companies have to be taxed and taxed fairly and properly in the same way that companies should be held to account over natural resource exploitation, health and safety laws and over reputation (no horsemeat in products unless advertised as such). Only in that way will the rest of society (increasingly aware of its rights) enable companies to reap the benefits of their success and be enabled to continue to innovate sustainably.

Do Companies Exist? Part II

Quite a bit of feedback from last week’s post, where it has been suggested that companies (because they are made up of people) should not be seen as independent entities at all – especially for tax purposes. Many thanks to all those that took the trouble to comment on the post.

Of course, I do see companies as part of our “ecosystem” and quite independent from those people that constitute its parts – in the same way that people are quite distinct from the billions of cells that make us.

“a collection of many individuals united into one body, under a special denomination, having perpetual succession under an artificial form, and vested, by policy of the law, with the capacity of acting, in several respects, as an individual, particularly of taking and granting property, of contracting obligations, and of suing and being sued, of enjoying privileges and immunities in common, and of exercising a variety of political rights, more or less extensive, according to the design of its institution, or the powers conferred upon it, either at the time of its creation, or at any subsequent period of its existence.”
—A Treatise on the Law of Corporations, Stewart Kyd (1793-1794)

Since Stewart Kyd defined them in 1793, companies (including corporations) have existed as independent entities – on that we are all agreed.

However, many do see companies as simply a bunch of individuals – which is not correct – and this error is what dictates the desire to take away, for example, corporation taxes. Most companies act as independent entities – the decisions of the individuals involved have emergent qualities in most of them that develop a singular aspect as the company. This is clearly evident to its customers, its investors and the people (and other organisations) with which it does business. In such an environment, companies make decisions which are corporate decisions – propelled by the dynamic of the organisation rather than the individually distinct decisions of the individuals concerned.

This is at the heart of the issue over company taxation. Even if we could distinguish the impact of extra taxation on the wide range of individuals that would be hit by the additional taxation on them that would be required if there was no corporate tax, it would not be right to have companies on zero tax.The problem with this is that companies are clearly distinct entities and act as entities within an environment in which they are seen by their staff, investors, customers and others as distinct. Representatives from companies appear in conferences (as representatives, rarely as distinct individuals).

The impact of all corporate decision-making, strategy, impact on society, impact on resources is always at the organisational level and the legalistic distinction that taxing companies is difficult because they can move money around or they don’t really exist (it is really the individuals behind them) is a flawed argument and one that takes no account of the impact of companies on society and the way that society (people) see companies.

The issue for me is that it is the organisation that makes profits (sure, on behalf of investors and using staff and suppliers and satisfying customers – all people). The organisation “thinks” corporately and takes decisions corporately and lobbies corporately and impacts corporately. It makes perfect sense for that organisation to be assessed for taxation corporately. It is also SEEN to be corporate – like any emergent organising entity – just as we divide into nations, states or cities which, similarly, have different laws and taxes, moral codes and ways of living. It brands itself as independent; it advertises and markets itself as independent. Companies are born and die, evolve, grow and diminish. Such organisations are distinct in themselves – not just an amalgam of individuals.

Do Companies Exist???

David Cameron is an astute politician and he understands that, at last, there is a popular movement for equity in taxation. This equity includes companies paying a reasonable share of profits. Ian Birrell in The Independent sees this as the start of a movement but this is a campaign that people like Richard Murphy have waged for many years.

True, much of the publicity around his work and that of organisations like the Tax Justice Network and Action Aid have revolved around tax and the developing world. This is where multinationals – especially in the energy and mining sectors – have often connived with governments with a corrupt result that siphoned off hundreds of billions of dollars from the state into the pockets of individuals, elite groups and corporates.

The Dodd-Frank Act – and its focus on country-by-country reporting of tax in such areas – was aimed at opening up governments and companies payments.

However, the taxation effects of tax havens, low tax jurisdictions and multinationals with expertise in moving their tax affairs wherever they want has also created the opportunity for such multinationals to pay if they want, where they want. Organisations like the Institute of Directors, whose members are mainly smaller companies with less multinational options, have recently come out in favour of zero corporate tax rates – on the basis that it is people that should pay tax, not companies.

What’s a Company for?

There are many who believe that a company should not pay taxes – that the market economy needs to ensure that companies are free (within the law) to grow and prosper and that their assumption of human qualities (they are seen as entities under the law) is a fiction. It is people that need to be taxed – not companies and the IoD, for example, in its paper “How to get rid of Corporation Tax” (written following a similar paper from the 2020 Tax Commission) strongly advocates the elimination of all corporation tax as the company is a mere conduit for shareholders, staff etc who should pay all the tax on disbursements from the company.

This begs the question about the essential qualities of a company in a market economy – what is it that makes a company different from an individual – why shouldn’t it pay tax?

Limited liability provides individuals with the scope to take risks. It is a formula from which individuals seeking to build a business can bring in investment knowing that the only requirement to repay (if managing a legally proper business) is limited to the value of the shares as well as any loans taken out. It is limited liability that was fully developed in the Netherlands in1602 when stock was tradable on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange that gave the push to enterprise in Europe. Taken up by the British, it heralded the industrial revolution.

Joint stock companies (having limited liability) were the original, defining force that differentiated companies from individuals pursuing business opportunities. Now, most business is done with limited liability.  Governments have lost track of the ability of such joint stock companies to register in whatever jurisdiction they want and to appoint Directors that have nothing to do with the business – often purely there to hide ownership.

Clearly, companies have a huge presence. Their marketing ability is as the company – not the individuals that are behind it. Advertising and brand management is aimed at providing the public with an identifiable face. A company relies on its customers seeing it as a tangible and identifiable organization with which customers can do business. It has a legal basis (and can take action as such and be actioned against as a result) as well as a moral requirement – the advent of CSR is merely a tangible outcome of the way that companies are seen to be real and impact the environment and society in many ways.

If it quacks…..

We all know that companies are the centre of entrepreneurship and product and service creativity. In a market economy, the rise of joint stock corporations have worked to de-risk investments so that competition has been developed and economic growth maintained since the early 1800’s. This growth has developed some enormous corporations in businesses as wide as energy, food, utilities, construction, defence and aerospace, pharmaceuticals and beyond. Every area of opportunity is mined by the evolution of companies across the globe. Governments have progressively sought to assist business but, under pressure from society (people) laws have been passed which inhibit them to what society believes are proper norms.

These laws include health and safety and employment laws but also include tax laws. As a result, companies make decisions on where to locate – although this often includes where it needs to sell as much as where it can find skilled staff or suppliers.

Apart from rogue traders, set up with the need to hide its affairs within foreign jurisdictions and behind false Directors, many MNC’s (multinational corporations) are able to move their profits around by manipulation of licensing and other features. Rather than pay tax on profits in the areas in which they make the money, accountants can provide companies with boltholes in which the rates of tax are very low.

The IoD and others believe that companies are not real – that Governments should give up on them and rely on the payments they make to people on which tax should be paid.

The question arises: if a company is a distinct entity in law; if it can be held responsible for its impact on the environment, its impact on people, its duty of care to customers – why, oh why, should it not pay taxes? Why should society not look to some repayment from the company itself – which benefits hugely from joint stock activities as well and huge benefits that are introduced for companies such in terms of infrastructure, government regulations, and a myriad of other incentives – rather than (in this instance only) having to seek tax purely from receivers of income from companies. Taxing companies is, in principle, correct as it is the company that derives the income from a location.

If tax is to be separated, then the long-term outcome for companies would be potentially the loss of other benefits (such as joint-stock arrangements) as the legal distinction becomes blurred. Not just the thin end of the wedge – but a potentially disastrous change.

Companies have to play their part

If companies exist in law as distinct entities, which they do worldwide, then it is reasonable that they face up to the reasonable demands of the society in which they operate. Company law, however, may set up companies as distinct but the reality is that the company has no moral code except that which society imposes. People have moral codes, companies (which are organisations of people) do not. CSR is reactive to society, not pro-active and while companies have a need to become sustainable (in terms not just of resources but sustainable in terms of the relationship with its customers and the societies in which they operate) it is extremely rare for them to lead – to take such societal risks.

This is true in most areas. Health and safety leaders in companies were years ahead of the legal changes in places such as California but were reacting, quite properly, to likely long-term changes. Those that did so were ahead of the game when laws changed in areas such as environmental restrictions.

This reactive ability (changing as the environment changes in an evolutionary way) makes the best companies resilient – sustainable. It shows they are real entities as much of society as any other organizational form or the individuals that self-organise around them and within them. Companies are a part of society and should contribute to society as a key part of it. This means that opting out of a crucial element of the system – taxation – is ludicrous on grounds of the companies’ relationship with society – whether that opting out is legal or not.

The dangers are obvious. The crack in society would be potentially dramatic – companies would be seen to have no fiscal contract with society. This may well be the case for MNC’s now but the public backlash is starting to inhibit their ability to prosper in this environment. Companies that properly pay their tax are now selling this proposition to their customers – companies such as J Sainsbury whose pride in paying proper company tax in the UK is seen in distinct contrast to those MNC’s like Amazon, Starbucks and similar. The latter is threatening to disentangle itself from future investment in the UK if David Cameron (and his “time to smell the coffee remarks”) persists in trying to get them to pay tax where they trade rather than using licensing and royalties to hid their true profits.

Companies are a key part of society. They have to act as such and not just contribute to society solely through CSR documents. They have to be seen to contribute and tax is one of the most obvious manifestations of that contribution.

Let tax be paid where the trade is made

Let’s end the notion that companies should not pay corporation tax and let’s get on to the next step of the ladder – working out how to ensure that royalties, tax havens, tax schemes, fake Directors and the like are no longer tolerated and that tax is paid where the trade is made.

 

See: Do Companies Exist – Part II

Looking Down from Mount Olympus

With Olympics fervor at its height, it’s tough to resist Homer’s description:

“Olympus was not shaken by winds nor ever wet with rain, nor did snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless, and over it hovered a radiant whiteness.” Homer, Odyssey.

Today, the equivalent of the 12 Gods on Olympus are, maybe, the G-20, or G-2, or the UN or any of the international organisations that are set-up on our behalf.

Or, maybe it’s closer to home – the national heads who make up the EU or the lesser number that make up the EZ; the 100 Senators in the US Congress.

Or, maybe they are the 1% who own 40% of the earth’s assets (financially-speaking).

Or, how about Forbes Global 2000 – the top 2000 of the world’s companies that, between them, account for $149 trillion in assets and employ 83 million people. This compared to McKinsey’s estimate of $212 trillion value of the world’s capital stock in 2011 – a huge percentage.

Icy Slopes

The Greek Gods took their place after a war with the Titans – who ruled before them. Mythology into reality – our new Gods rule in much the same way after a 20th Century where totalitarian regimes fought each other, amongst each and against  democratic nations in bloody conflict. Millions died in China, the Soviet Union, Europe, Vietnam, Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere as different theories of government battled for supremacy.

Francis Fukuyama declared it “The End of History” as liberal democracy supposedly triumphed. We know now that he was wrong (as he has himself declared). For, the winner (for now) was not democracy but a form of capitalism that promotes a new set of god-like creatures and a new Olympus where the wind does not blow and the air is clear. This new capitalism – the complete dominance of quantity no matter what type of government is in power – was relatively bloodless in its conquests, but no less callous in its purpose. Indeed, its callousness is worse than before as it is merely the “invisible hand” that drives the marketplace that has led to the victory of the new Gods.

Now, sitting upon the summit, surrounded by the icy slopes that let few into their circle, they can look down upon the rest in their eco-defended enclave.

How the War Was Won

 

The titanic struggle was won on the back of the primacy of goods – developing the ability for ordinary people to secure their basic material needs and then onwards to “choice” and leisure and luxury. This has been wonderfully accompanied by the ability of business to promote their products so that demand could be developed without the consumer realizing it. This ability to influence demand (so brilliantly described in Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society”) has led to a victory of quantity over quality in the West and will do so elsewhere.

The victory was made easier by Governments’ willingness to adhere to the 19th Century economic theories that made “growth” and GDP the concepts upon which all governing was placed – but, placed them in simulations which cannot reflect reality. Mathematicians and econometricians have extended the fallacy – we live for numbers. The evidence for this can be seen so well in Russia and China. For most of the 20th Century, both held out as anti-capitalist bastions as the world moved to strengthen democracy. Neither has succumbed to democracy – Russia is a gangster-elite State, China is a legalist, centralized State. But, both yielded wholeheartedly to the market.

Who Won the War?

Many argue that the democratic West won the war (as Fukuyama attempted to suggest) but this is wrong. The western form of liberal democracy with its desire to provide representative government, elections and low corruption levels (comparatively) as well as supposed access to education and upward social mobility is losing out. It is arguable that even in those countries that still pursue these ends, there is now a vastly worsening separation between rich and poor and a hardening of social structures – with far less mobility.

In China and Russia, elites have won the war and their instruments of war have been capitalist – as their citizens climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of need from the very bottom, quantity of goods is supreme no matter how they are derived. As Jonathan Fenby describes in “Tiger Head, Snake Tails” this is, in China, despite rampant corruption, ecological degradation and vast differences in wealth between elites as well as complete indifference to the vast population when their houses are demolished to make way for new buildings or motorways (for example).

Who Lost the War?

Millions of lives were lost in the 20th Century as nations defended themselves against the onslaught of totalitarianism. But, a new totalitarianism has taken root right beneath our noses.

It is the totalitarianism of the elites that control the markets – markets fed by a constant diet of GDP statistics and growth targets.

The losers are (in Orwellian-speak) supposedly the winners – the mass of the population that has grown “wealthier” throughout the latter half of the 20th Century.

So, it seems to be a benign revolution but the problems are becoming clearer by the day.

In Greece, home to Mount Olympus, the country is in its fifth year of recession. In Spain, 24.6% of people are now officially unemployed. In most countries, the gap between the wealthy and the rest is growing steadily.  Economic strains are now working their way around the system as growth (measured traditionally in 19th  Century models) stalls outside of newly developing nations (yet, who believes the measures coming from China?). Today’s youth in the developed west are unlikely to be “wealthier” than their parents in pure GDP terms.

But, we should not be focused on pure numbers. Economic growth is also threatening the ecology of the planet at an alarming rate. Whether or not fossil fuels are near their end, the effects on the planet are growing and recent changes to our weather patterns merely the first signs. Our damning footprint is ever more etched on the planet and real risks are emerging that the life styles we live now may not be available for long. As Rumanian economist Georgescu-Roegen surmised over fifty years ago, maybe we can’t change and will simply go out in a puff of smoke.

Maybe, though, society will not, for ever, tolerate the new totalitarians, the new Olympians.

The Gods were not immortal

 

Of course, nothing lasts forever. The Greek Gods did not survive (except in mythology) and neither will the current ones.

The problem is that we are engrained with the belief that quantity is the key to good life (which it may be up to a point) and have lost a connection with what society is about. Mass production has led to greater wealth but, as Galbraith saw 60 years ago, society cannot be all about quantity.

Maslow, developing his Hierarchy of Need as a marketing tool, expected that we would go beyond quantity to some form of self-actualization. We have definitely not managed that yet but we have some signs that societal self-actualization is possible.

A major problem in the way of this is that different countries are at different stages of economic development. China has a massive population still well down the material scale and there will be no let-up in the leadership’s drive for “growth” to stem the dismay of their people on all other issues. In Africa, the longing for material wealth is as strong and who can blame them bearing in mind the economic and social torment they have suffered?

So, initiatives like Zero Impact Growth being developed by John Elkington and his Volans company are worth considering.

This is an approach to growth with zero impact on the planet and ultimately to give back more than is taken out. Where others seek to quantify (and there are dangers in the approach of quantifying everything), the Elkington approach is to develop a maturity matrix as follows:

Maturity Level Definition from ‘The Zeronauts’ Analogy: Characteristics of a company on that level
No strategy and goals No definition The company barely understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions and hardly reports on sustainability. Furthermore, no strategy has been defined and no targets have been set.
Eureka Opportunity is revealed via the growing dysfunction of the existing order. The company understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions. No considerable actions have been taken yet and almost no strategies and targets have been set. The company does already understand the relevance of the topic though, has started reporting and communicates plans to ameliorate its sustainability performance in the future.
Experiment Innovators and entre­preneurs begin to experiment, a period of trial and error. Although the company has started its first inno­vation efforts and internal programs in certain sustainability areas and has developed initial policies and strategies, no concrete milestones and an overarching future vision have been defined yet.
Enterprise Investors and managers build new business models creating new forms of value. The company has developed a short- to mid-term strategy ( ≤ 2020) for specific areas and has set measureable targets. Nevertheless, almost no long-term milestones have been defined. Furthermore, they do not communicate an over­arching future vision.
Ecosystem Critical mass and part­nerships create new markets and institu­tional arrangements. Measureable, ambitious (zero) targets based on a mid- to long-term vision (≥2020) are set. Nevertheless, a conjoint approach and some collaborative aspects are still missing since the holistic zero impact growth vision has not been (fully) adapted.
Economy The economic system flips to a more sustainable state, supported by cultural change. The company has fully adapted the zero impact growth vision. Measureable zero targets that have been adapted jointly are set out for each field of action. A clearly defined strategy is in place on how to achieve these targets, with defined short- and long-term milestones. The underlying benchmarks are clearly defined.

Maybe there is some fight left and the reality behind the model is clear – we can’t fight the invisible hand but maybe there is a chance for society to develop some self-actualisation behind the corporate drive towards zero impact growth where the planet survives along with humanity.

That doesn’t impact on the gap between the wealthy and the rest as the focus is on economics and sustainability. Inequality is as important a problem as ecology. Numbers should be seen for what they are – where money is one aspect of our lives not the only one. Demos, a UK think-tank has just published: Beyond GDP – New Measures for a New Economy.

It is an attempt to seek a rationale for economics beyond numbers. Briefly it posits that:

  • GDP does not distinguish between spending on bad things and spending on good things.  By this measurement, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico “positively” contributed to the economy just like the many good and services that people actually want or need.
  • GDP doesn’t account for the distribution of growth. Our total national income has doubled over thirty years, and so has the share of national income going to the wealthiest households, but average households have seen little or no income gains. GDP doesn’t care if growth is captured by a few or widely shared.
  • GDP doesn’t account for depletion of natural capital and ecosystem services.  If all the fish in the sea are caught and sold next year, global GDP would see a big boost while the fishing industry itself would completely collapse.
  • GDP doesn’t reflect things that have no market price but are good for our society, like volunteer work, parenting in the home, and public investments in education and research.

Two studies that show on this morning after that wonderful Danny Boyle-inspired Olympics night – where values were keenly shown as more than just money – that the slopes of Mount Olympus are slippery but not completely impassable: a Danny Boyle-inspired dose of self-actualisation.