Hard Times – from 1854 to 1504 (Dodd-Frank)

Masters and “Quiet Servants”

Charles Dickens wrote “Hard Times – For These Times” (usually known as “Hard Times”) in 1854. This was a bleak analysis of mid-19th Century factories and the mechanistic drive for material reward.

The world of the Industrial Revolution saw immense material improvement within a 19th Century mindset that saw business develop on the back of “resources” – whether they were natural resources (like coal) or human resources – Dickens’s “quiet servants”. Resources were resources and how they were discovered, whose they were, the conditions under which they were mined, how they were shipped or the conditions under which they were placed into the manufacturing process were not much of a consideration.

Britain and other developing nations of the time grew wealthy on their own drive, ingenuities, financing and trading and manufacturing instincts but the whole process would have collapsed if access was not obtained to raw materials from the rest of the world and the use of “human materials” from all over (including their own countries). The terms “human resources” is still with us along with natural resources – but the “quiet servants” grew louder.

Gradually, from 1833 when Britain enacted laws that children under nine should not work in factories, throughout the second half of the 19th Century and into the 20th, our human resources (people working in factories and mining, for example, in the industrializing nations) campaigned and secured rights over income, health and safety, length of the working day and age restrictions.

Developed countries worked out that, to work well and succeed, we had to develop ways that we all could share to some extent in the benefits that material gain provided. This is the basis of free and fair societies based on successful economies.

From nation to global

The last thirty years has seen a vast shift from developed nations using the rest of the world merely to buy from and sell to, to a shift to manufacturing and now development and R&D throughout the world. Trade has grown internationally and the so-called integrated “global economy” is in place. We are no longer merely the industrialised west and the under-developed rest, but an inter-connected web of nations within one, world economy.

Yet, the strains are clearly showing. Allied to the vast changes in internet communications (similar to the vast increase of communications that shaped 18th Century politics and the 19th Century – the telegraph and the phone), all peoples of the world now see themselves as part of this world (or global) economy in the same way that 19th and early 20th Century factory workers saw themselves vis a vis factory owners. They then, understandably, demand rights and safeguards.

This is now happening on a world scale as we develop our global nation (economically).  The changes are profound and, if done properly, will be of enormous benefit.

21st Century Responses

This week saw the approval after two years of the US SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) of articles 1502 and 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The two measures could have major implications for all of us in that (properly implemented) they set a real standard for the globalized economy in two, crucial areas:

  1. the willingness of all of us to buy items cheaply no matter how the raw materials were obtained
  2. the willingness of all of us to buy items from wherever in the world, no matter what corruption was employed in their provision.

Article 1502 refers to the mining of key raw materials in Africa such as tantalum, tungsten, gold and tin. It will (after an implementation period) require all suppliers and manufacturers to state that their products do not contain raw materials that financed war or bloody conflict. So many years after blood diamonds were headlined, there is now a statute that demands that companies step back and consider what they are buying. Manufacturers that buy such raw materials have had to count the cost of reputational disaster if they continue to sidestep basic human responsibilities in this global market. Now, there will be a legal imperative in the USA.

Article 1504 is the Cardin-Lugar rule which sets rules for country-by-country reporting of companies in the extractive industries concerning the revenues and profits they make in all countries where they do business (on a project by project basis).

Both articles require all companies that are listed in the USA to comply (although not immediately), wherever those countries are based. The European Union is expected to pass similar laws.

The implementation of the two articles will help to drive change on a global scale, where individual nations (e.g. where the resources are extracted) are unable to do so. Why? For several reasons:

  1. Developing nations (especially resource-rich and economically poor) are prone to corruption and often unable or unwilling to enact these laws themselves;
  2. Developing nations (especially in parts of Africa) use resource revenues to fund conflicts and wars;
  3. Corporations operating in those areas need to show global sensibilities – where treatment in their overseas subsidiaries and employees is brought up to levels that we believe are credible and reasonable. It is hard to do that without legal change as competition is too high to expect corporate ethics (whatever that means) to work on its own.

To Ayn Rand libertarians Dodd-Frank is an economic travesty and many in the US are waiting for Romney and Ryan to get elected and reverse these laws. That would be the travesty. It is enough that in developing nations, the gaps between the rich and the rest are widening; it is enough that nations like Greece are now collapsing economically. There is potential for real strife in nations where inequality is too widespread.

But, we now live in a global economy where we are all dependent on each other. That means simply that best practice (that works on a national scale) has to be introduced globally wherever feasible. The intricate balance of trade, manufacturing, design and the need for natural resources (as well as the need to work together on climate change issues or disease control, for example) dramatically increase the need to treat the global economy as one economy – which it is. This means that national rights have to be respected but that is not enough.

Article 1504, for example, takes the trust element away from many nations like Equatorial Guinea, where the leadership is a kleptocracy and where riches from oil revenues do not go to the people in any meaningful form. Country by country reporting will, eventually, put an end to opaque deals between companies and those who have taken over the ownership of natural resources in those countries by showing transparently what profits are made and revenues generated on a project by project basis. Citizens in those countries will begin to be able to see how those revenues are used or not. Information is valuable and a first step to more equitable conditions.

21st Century Ethics

As we enter the fifth year of the post-sub prime recession (with economic collapse in Greece and high youth unemployment in Spain), we remain much more concerned with ourselves than with people and nations thousands of miles away. The change that global economics has wrought, however, is that we can no longer ignore the plight of those so far away even if we (wrongly) wish to do so. Their plight is ours just as the impoverishment (economically and educationally) of our inner cities is a blight and our plight.

The Chinese view things differently, of course. A thousand years of relative impoverishment has left it hungry for economic growth and its hunger leads it to plunder the natural resources of Africa. China’s legalist centre, its Confucian heart and its loathing of western imperialism means that it is content to leave governance issues aside. Its own internal corruption (the corruption of a centrist and legalist government, where bribes are the common currency of the status quo) means that it is unlikely to require good governance in return for its acquisition of raw materials. In fact, its non-linkage of governance requirements gives China a distinct trading advantage in Africa.

It is to be hoped that this is a short-term business expedient and a long-term mistake for the Chinese. Just as the best manufacturers in the 19th and early 20th Century were leaders in improving conditions for their employees (notably, Henry Ford who wanted his own staff to be able to afford to buy his cars) and just as the US spearheaded safety rules in the 20th Century, it is likely that the best companies will understand that improving the safeguards overseas (whether in their own companies or those of suppliers) will be important, medium-term investments.

Reputational loss is now potentially huge (as Apple realized when suicides at one of its biggest suppliers in China, Foxconn, began to rise and changes in working practices were required by Apple). The raw materials that we require for so many of the goods that we buy are obtained under horrendous conditions in Africa. It is not just blood diamonds but all those naturally occurring elements that the SEC has just regulated into law.

In addition, the country-by-country reporting will shine a light on the regimes that take in billions of dollars of income and disburse so little to their people. Pressure will mount from outside and inside.

Organisations like One, Transparency International, Global Witness and Enough and the Publish What You Pay coalition deserve huge credit for a relentless drive over many years to enact such positive changes. The US Congress deserves huge credit for bringing it into law in the powerhouse of the US economy. The EU should follow and they should all work within the OECD and elsewhere to ensure that these measures, providing an ethical underpinning to the global economy, are made global.

We live in a globalized economy and comparative advantages should be developed through intelligence, hard work and ingenuity – not via the impoverishment or hardship of our global neighbours.  The bringing into implementation of Dodd-Frank’s articles 1502 and 1504 suggests that the global economy is waking up to the fact that our “quiet servants” deserve respect wherever they are – close to home or further away. The global economy (and climate change and air travel and the internet….) means we are all neighbours now.

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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.