Human Rights v Trade

151003_OpiumWar

The Independent today (3rd October) reports that the Foreign Office is placing human rights below trade in its international efforts.

Sir Simon MacDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, said this to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt – a Conservative MP. The outrage to this frank admission from those like Amnesty International is understandable but the news is not a surprise. The UK has a default mechanism – overseas trade at almost any costs. It is this default that has, at times, been tempered by those heading our foreign ministries (such as Robin Cook and his “ethical foreign policy” and Douglas Hague more recently) but over more than 200 years, Britain has pursued a trade policy which has been usually unyielding.

Mercantile Britain

From the 17th Century onwards, this island nation has pursued conquests and material gain in overseas territories that enabled a minor nation (by population) to erect a massive empire. It was a mixture of bravery, opportunism, single-mindedness and adventurism that took Britain throughout the world as searchers for new lands and the rewards that would come with them. Along with the supreme invention of the joint-stock company that somewhat de-risked such ventures, companies like the East India Company not just took advantage of these overseas territories but set themselves up as military governors of them. This company ruled India until as late as 1858 (after the rebellion of 1857).

From then on, British military might was handled directly by Government. Thus, the mercantile underpinning of our international trade, by then as much as the need to export the produce of the industrial revolution as the need for raw materials, was in place. This was an extrovert linkage between might and trade in the nineteenth century, now it is implicit. One of the worst examples of mercantilism were the Opium Wars in China where Britain fought to ensure that the sale of opium into China would continue.

20th Century Mercantilism

More recently and especially since the end of World War II, when British military might was used to vanquish an evil Nazi regime and almost bankrupted this country, Britain has used its ability to aid overseas trade more subtly. We have now ceased to follow the Palmerston gunboat diplomacy of the nineteenth century but our ability to promote trade along with military capability is still firmly in place.

For much of the twentieth century an example was the Defence Services Organisation (DSO) that promoted our arms exports throughout the world. This was an effective sales force for arms exports that retained the UK’s ability to remain in the top three or four internationally until very recently. Our embassies were (are?) and our military attaches in particular represented not just our Government but the companies that sought to trade in the countries where they were situated.

Alongside this, the UK has developed a record on human rights that is one of leadership on a world-wide scale. In the nineteenth century, our Gladstonian free trade mindset was tempered with a humanity in a section of the population that sought to restrain the might of an empire and restrict its natural tendency to the Benthamite utilitarianism that sought to consider overseas peoples as no more than collateral. While we may seek to measure natural resources in 2015 as “natural capital”, in the nineteenth century, even after we abolished slavery in Britain in 1809, we would still value people our dominions numerically as we would a piece of equipment.

Liberal Free Trade was built on this and while Tories (Conservatives) may have initially tried to stem the Free Trade tide (because of their natural affinity to those that ruled by their ownership of land), they became as fervent in their pursuit of capitalism and mercantilism until now they have adopted the mantle to themselves.

So, while this country spends 0.7% in overseas aid (and trumpets this, rightly, as an example of our desire to alleviate poverty and disease), in this progressively post-Industrial world (where all countries are now so interlinked by trade) we maintain an extraordinary linkage to many tax havens around the world that ensure that companies can reduce their tax burdens at the expense of much of the world’s poorest. London is itself a crucible of money laundering and Tax Justice Network assesses London and its affiliated tax havens in places such as the Cayman Islands, Jersey, British Virgin Islands and elsewhere, as the most secretive combined jurisdictions in the world. This is today’s example of the UK and its desire for financial trade above the rights of the poorest.

Trade vs Human Rights in the 21st Century

Since WWII, the UK has (as stated above) been at the forefront of much that is good in the development of human rights world-wide. Apart from our leadership in the establishment of UN and other basic norms for human rights, this country houses many NGOs that lead in this sector. This is now at risk.

Not only is the current government suggesting that we opt out of various human rights bodies (unable it seems to allow ourselves to be subject to best-case international norms), not only are we potentially removing ourselves from the historical capability of being a home for immigrants that are subject to terror in their own countries, but we are looking to enhance our ability to trade in nations that continue to abhor basic human rights in their own countries.

This is a pandering to economic welfare and materialism that has not been seen since the days of Bentham and the focus on such utilitarianism (then at the expense of the poor working class in this country but now internationalized) is a stark throwback to the default mechanism of our forbears – those who maybe knew they were wrong but had no experience to turn to.

Now, we have no such excuses. The desire to trade unabashed world-wide and not concern ourselves with the dire consequences of the countries with which we trade points to a shallow materialism that is in danger of throwing aside all that so many have worked for so many years. That this country, one of the world’s richest, should consider that the problems faced by those in the countries with which we do business are not of any concern to us is not just wrong but a short-termist mistake.

George Osborne’s recent visit to China is a good example of this. He is not just a head of finance but a senior Cabinet Minister that goes with the blessing of the Government. He left China with the endorsement of the Chinese government as voiced through their newspapers for not overstating human rights issues. Apparently, the UK cares less about people than about profits or increasing our GDP.

So, Mr MacDonald’s statement before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is no surprise but it is a statement that will have chilling effects. It states that we are giving up our responsibilities on the back of a desire to enrich ourselves at the expense of those outside the UK that suffer oppression and poverty. While we maintain out 0.7% (although some of that is being deflected into defence spending) much of that, in effect, buys us more ability to sell products and services.

Robin Cook did not last long in office as a result of his ethical foreign policy beliefs. We no longer even hint that this remains our aim but the lesser aim of maintaining human rights and challenging those that do not follow our example is now not just under threat but clearly is seen as history. It may be that quantity of life is the belief of this government (and the defocusing on climate change is another example) rather than quality of life and the desire to lead lives that are worth living. We do have average levels of material wealth in this country that are envied in many countries and much that our democracy and ability to live relatively freely within out nation that propels many to want to live here.

Yet, in a global economy, it appears that materialism is now the only objective as we go back in time to the nineteenth century. This time, we have no excuses. Human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights are essential components of how we should not just run our own country but how we should see the world.

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and “to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories.”

 

PREAMBLE

  • Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, 
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, 
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, 
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations, 
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, 
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, 
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

 

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

  • All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

  • Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

  • No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

  • Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

  • Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

  • Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

  • (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

  • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

  • Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

  • Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

  • (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

  • Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

  • (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

  • Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.Human Rights
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Is FIFA-world just a microcosm of the real one?

Russia's president Vladimir Putin (left) and Fifa president Sepp Blatter

FIFA-world: a virtual world where you get ahead by what you pay and stay ahead by denying the evidence

“When we get bribed, we stay bribed.”

Jon Stewart on his Daily Show in the USA – his take-down of Sepp Blatter and FIFA. The legal onslaught on FIFA-world  has been 24 years in the making – 24 years before the legal process (headed by the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch) went into motion. As Stewart remarked, “even Switzerland” itself had moved on FIFA.

Yet, Sepp Blatter was overwhelmingly affirmed by FIFA delegates for another four years – on the votes of Africa, Asia and Platini’s France amongst others. This was despite the obviously dangerous legal claims made against many senior employees and representatives of FIFA by the US and Swiss legal authorities. This was despite the fact that Blatter has been President of FIFA for so long – it has been on his watch.

The President of FIFA has (under its latest statutes) the following responsibilities:

32. President

The President represents FIFA legally.

He is primarily responsible for:

a)  implementing the decisions passed by the Congress and the Executive Committee through the general secretariat; 

b)  supervising the work of the general secretariat;

c)  relations between FIFA and the Confederations, Members, political bodies and international organisations.

Only the President may propose the appointment or dismissal of the Secretary General.

The President shall preside over the Congress, the Executive and Emergency Committee meetings and those committees of which he has been appointed chairman.

The President shall have an ordinary vote on the Executive Committee and, whenever votes are equal, shall have a casting vote.

If the President is absent or unavailable, the longest-serving vice-president available shall deputise.

Any additional powers of the President shall be contained in the FIFA Organisation Regulations.

As FIFA’s legal representative on planet earth, it seems clear that Blatter would be held accountable for all its actions whether he knows about them (and he claims a complete absence of knowledge) or not. Yet, FIFA members, by a great majority, supported his continued Presidency.

For some of us, this seems absurd. For those of us brought up under democratic systems, where wrongdoing in an elected body is normally punished by the voter, the inability of FIFA to sort itself out appears naïve as does the apparent understanding of the electorate. Yet, to many of those who voted for Blatter, their response was entirely logical.

How FIFA-World Seems to Work

The world has changed over the last fifty years to an extent that is now becoming highly visible. Until the 1950’s, the great western powers and the USSR held military power (hard power) over the rest of the world. One by one, states outside this power block became politically independent. Asian economic power-houses like Japan grew quickly and then China began its sustained and dramatic economic renaissance. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, instead of democracy, economic power brokers developed (with Putin at the top of that tree).

While we understandably focus on military and security threats posed by those like ISIS, the world has been moving on – with economic growth at the centre (softer power).

However, instead of the west’s domination, there are now various centres of economic power – such as China, India and Brazil – which are breaking down long-established norms.

These norms (such as the desire by Western nations to link good governance with economic aid) are under real threat as newly enriched nations like China care less about the good governance of its supply and customer base outside China than it does internally and less than the stated aims of the earlier economic hegemonies.

This compounds the pent-up pressure on the governments of the newly developing world that may be tired of the continuous pressure put on them to do more of what the west wants them to do – such as reduce corruption and improve good governance. This is not the reaction necessarily of their people (most are completely sick of the bribery and corruption that exists, often sick of the absence of real democracy and the absence of real representation) but in many parts of the world, the people do not have a say.

Also, populations are torn between a natural desire to see things properly run (good governance) and feeding their kids or having a roof over their heads. Elsewhere, like in Russia, the government has a rigid control over their people. The same is true in China.

Finally, nations are now (because of their own economic strength and because of alliances with those like China) less likely to fold against the old hegemonies of the USA and Europe.

For all these reasons, FIFA-world seems symbolic of the new world order that is taking place where an organisation that has been corrupt for so long is able to maintain good relationships with its supporters through its economic success and the ability to pass on that financial success to a range of nations and individuals – upon which it also survives. It pays to support Blatter – even if you are in receipt of dirty money.

Despite pressure from the west (notably the UK – via, mainly, its newspapers like the Sunday Times while government was just as mercantilist when London was in the running for the World Cup), FIFA refuses to change from the inside. As there is no ability to march into Switzerland and take over the company by force (the 19th Century ideal), the only method remaining is via international law as applied by the US Attorney General and the Swiss. It has taken 24 years to get to this stage.

What could we be learning from FIFA-world?

This microcosm represented by FIFA-world must have lessons for the new real world order but it is not easy to overcome the concern that fifty years of working towards better governance (e.g. where we have seen increases in the number of democracies throughout the world) is under threat.

The natural focus on material wealth as the highest priority for all nations and all people is understandable. Worldwide poverty indicators are reducing (even if mainly from Chinese economic success). As Maslow showed so clearly in the 1930’s, most people focus on material wealth creation well before there is a serious thought given to quality of life issues.

MAslow

This is clearly seen in practice as the world pursues economic gains even in those countries that are already wealthy. Even the safety and maintenance of nature and the environment becomes translated into a form of costed “natural capital” so that it can enter into our economic thinking. If it has no valuation methodology, then humans seem unable to evaluate it. If we can’t count it, we can’t imagine it, apparently.

This means that issues like corruption are treated as secondary to economic benefit or economic security in most nations. It is no longer just a case of saying “Corruption is bad, stop!” because the complexity of the each situation means that, in the short term, those who gain through corruption and / or being part of a corrupt environment do not visualise the problems quickly enough. Moral crusades are not high enough on Maslow’s hierarchy (which was developed for marketing purposes but serves as a useful tool elsewhere).

Even the use of legal sanction by the USA, while applauded by many in developed nations, is not so well received elsewhere. Blatter knows how to utilize this reaction by appealing to the sensitivities of nations that do well out of FIFA economically and see themselves (as nations and individuals) threatened economically by the ending of corruption. This is not much different from oil-rich nations like Angola preferring to sell to China than the west – because no-one in China is demanding good governance from Sonangol, the dos Santos-owned oil company. It is similar to tribal leaders in Afghanistan that react badly to the west’s demands for an end to corruption in that country.

Those legal sanctions operating in the West (through a range of anti-money laundering devices, FCPA, Bribery Act and the like) can have great power when used against corporations. They are now extra-territorial in scope and can remove any one nation’s or company’s ability to protect themselves from legal onslaught. However, in the UK, for example, implementation of laws such as the Bribery Act are completely under-resourced so reliance has been placed on the US to widen its military policing role to one of legal challenge – where an individual using US assets (banking, currency or legal) is liable.

Such legal sanction needs to be policed (a) by more than just the USA and (b) in a way that is not seen as hegemony by former military world powers.

The first requires resources and a willingness to attack the problem; the second is far more subtle – a need to assess how to convince the world that corruption is hugely damaging to economies, sectors or society and even security (as is seen in Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others vulnerable nations where armed forces are depleted by funding being ransacked by a few elites) when the benefits are clearer than the problems.

As an article in today’s National Post in Canada shows so well, giving the World Cup to a country well down Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Indicator (CPI) is asking for trouble. Yet, not giving the World Cup to such nations (which are developing nations in need of such investment and focus) until they have cleaned up their act would be seen to be counter-productive – and construed as anti-poor. There is no support for such a move.

What needs to happen is that good governance is seen as a central tenet of major corporations and of governments (national and local) and, for this to happen, a huge and relentless shift needs to take place in the way the non-FIFA world works so that the real economic needs of people are met while the ugly needs of vested interests that stand to gain through corruption are not.

For corruption to be minimized should be seen as one of the world’s major aims – where we need nations to meaningfully sign up to this in the same way as we sign up to human rights as corruption erodes human rights as well as any impediment known to humankind.

FIFA-world is a microcosm of how the real world tolerates corruption and the 24-year corruption story in FIFA is by no means finished. We need to learn from that story not just to fix FIFA-world but to fix the way the world tolerates corruption.

Note: I am a Trustee of Transparency International – UK

No Accounting for the End of the World?

Jacob Soll’s book “The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Making and Breaking of Nations” makes a good case for economic progress being firmly based on the ability to account for that progress. Although he does not show direction of travel (or cause to effect) with certainty, there is a common sense from his historical analysis from ancient Greece to more recent times in the theory that progress is based partly on an ability to undertake double-entry book keeping. This measures progress but also provides the degree of transparency that ensures “buy-in” from society.

 

This may not be a riveting “eureka” moment for many and Soll’s dallying with more metaphysical comparisons about the debits and credits of a good life being reflected by the righteous in the way that good businesses and people (like Josiah Wedgewood of pottery fame who not just promoted cost accounting but used the principle of accounting to balance their sins and good deeds) do their accounting is somewhat stretched. However, there seems ample evidence that at both a corporate / organisational and national level, economic progress is assisted greatly by the ability to count your profits and losses – to show how progress is being made.

 

Soll refers to corruption in the past that resulted from both poorly kept accounts (at corporate and national levels) and those clever enough to hoodwink auditors and investors through manipulation of accounts.

 

From the analysis, it is clear that investors need good data to make informed decisions and that citizens need to know how governments spend their money – not just for the sake of transparency but to provide worthwhile and useable information. In the majority of developed nations, corporate accounting is subject to GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) or equivalent; in other countries there is a wide disparity of accounting standards or a lack of them – in Afghanistan, it will hardly be a surprise that there is no accepted principle of accounting and very few qualified accountants from there.

 

Despite the developed world’s professional standards, this does not prevent disasters on the scale of the 2007-8 banking crisis or Enron or a host of other “accounting” failures. Often, auditors don’t see the problems and may even see them and do nothing.

 

On a national basis, the same is true. While it is hard to judge the efficacy of national accounts (which are the subject to revision for many years), it is hard to believe that any country which does not work hard to make its national accounts transparent is one where real economic progress is being made or where opacity is not hiding something sinister.

Back in 2010, Global Witness highlighted this in its report “Oil Revenues in Angola” which documented the problems that Sonangol (Angola’s state oil and energy company which was then considering a public stock listing) had in reporting its revenues. That report, one of the few independent reports in a sector that is riven with corruption, argued for greater transparency, improved systems and independent auditing to the highest standards for an organization through which Angola’s wealth derives. Soll would argue that its secrecy and lack of transparency and independent auditing shows all the hallmarks of a corrupt society. But, pressure on Sonangol to provide more and better information (better accounting) is a key approach.

Numerous, other examples exist in many countries – many where natural resources exist that should benefit the population but where the “resource curse” is made possible by lack of proper accounting to high standards, properly audited and verified.

Similarly, the Dodd-Frank Act in the USA opened up country-by-country reporting to reveal how much revenue was entering such countries. The USA (and hopefully with the EU to follow) are attempting to go around the opacity of nations (and their lack of accounting capability) to find the real accounting data through those that have that ability and are subject to our own norms of accounting – the major energy companies. In this way, good accounting may be accessible by the back door to show citizens of the affected nations just how their Governments provide for them (or don’t).

 

A recent example of this is shown by an analysis made by Richard Murphy (the progenitor of country by country reporting) on recent data issued by Barclays Bank. It shows, through analysis of that data, how Barclays shields its profits from the UK Exchequor.

 

 

 

 

Value accounting – can we properly Account for Natural Resources?

 

One of the latest “opportunities” for accountants is accounting for natural resources – our natural capital. It is believed that if we make up a balance sheet of all our assets (and liabilities) then we will better know by valuing them what impact we are making on them. We naturally sympathize with a society that is striving to understand its failings and what to do about them. There is no question that if it was possible for governments (nationally and internationally) to properly assess value in our natural capital, then we could (somehow) impose some sort of value adjustment to problems caused by companies and governments when doing the things they do that adversely impact our natural capital or trade-off costs and benefits and make better decisions.

 

There is a natural and realistic desire in some governments to properly account for their natural capital. For example, The Scottish Forum on Natural Capital aims to focus on its natural capital and

 

“To deliver on its goals, the Scottish Forum will:

  1. Calculate the monetary value of Scotland’s natural capital and the cost of depleting it. This will involve coordinating experts including accountants, people from business, academics and policymakers.
  2. Communicate to a broad range of businesses and other stakeholders the risk of depleting Scotland’s natural capital and the huge economic value from protecting and enhancing it.
  3. Set up collaborative projects to deliver tangible action to protect and enhance Scotland’s natural capital.”

 

 

The calculation of that value and the link between that and effective action are major challenges. This is because the pricing mechanism for such resources does not exist. Accounting is based on the ability to reach a value determination on goods and services. It is not always right but much of double entry book-keeping methodology is based on market prices – the prices actually paid for goods and services. Market prices provide information on those goods and services that allows a profit and loss account and balance sheet to be derived.

 

Now, even existing and well understood basic accounting is often flawed or wide open to judgement. An example from the recent past: in the days of high inflation, companies (that anyway provide accounts that are usually out of date by the time a user receives them) were encouraged to undertake inflation-based accounting in addition to actual costs. Oil companies still provide two sets of accounts (one takes the data back to the latest oil prices). Which is correct? Neither (although only actual costs are used by taxation authorities)– but, they may be aids to better informed decisions.

 

Accounts are always an approximation of reality. So, for example, accounts show labour costs (the costs of people who work in a business or organization) as costs. Yet, of course, people are only recruited to add value. Unfortunately, there is no balance sheet valuation of the benefits that they can provide. Back in the 1970’s, it was fashionable to consider whether people should have a value assigned to them on the Balance Sheet (much like footballers used to be valued on the Balance Sheets of football clubs). This proposition lasted only a short time and people are not valued on a balance sheet – except in those companies with traded shares where “goodwill” (the difference between the stock value of the company and its balance sheet value) contains an undefinable figure for people. Google’s share price (usually viewed as a multiple of earnings – its P/E which is currently around 30) takes account of its extraordinary people talent – but, in a way that the market is willing to trade – a form of market pricing.

 

When the accounting mechanism is brought to natural capital, it is much harder to “account” for it – there are limited pricing mechanisms.

 

At a micro-level, companies can provide information on where their natural risk lies (e.g. how they source materials upon which they survive, where the risks are and what they are doing about it) but some of this is pricing, much of it is risk analysis. From the latter (just like any risk analysis) actions can be taken to minimize risks and maximize opportunities.

 

Companies also produce “externalities” – they impact the environment, for example, through CO2 emissions, use and abuse transportation systems, can destroy environments. So, clean-up costs need to be established when developing projects along with the minimization of health hazards and environmental degredation. Governments in many countries can work with businesses to save the environment and recast it. In the developing world, this is harder. Many instances occur whereby companies ravish areas of natural beauty and poison locations with the side effects of their production processes and do not pay the consequences. This is often a corrupt bargain but becomes the norm where natural resource extraction and its “value” overcomes the perceived value given to those dependent for their lives and health on the land: from China to DRC, from mining to forestry.

 

The key problem is linking the micro activities to the macro (governmental) responsibility for the environment. The notion of valuation at least focuses the mind. The question is whether valuing natural capital (and the wide range of – usually erroneous – assumptions that have to be made in a non-market priced environment) is useful and whether such valuations can be used to make decisions – even whether there is a use for such decisions on a quantity basis at all. For decisions based solely on price (where all the risks are not taken into account) will be wrong except where there is a market-based pricing formula available (and, of course, perfect pricing relies on perfect information on both sides – which never occurs). We can “see” how Barclays used low tax jurisdictions (see the TJN report referred to above) to shield profits and decisions can, in future, be made as a result. Valuations of natural capital are far more tenuous.

 

The drive to valuing our “natural capital” in business jargon (through pricing) is centering our attention on this critical area. However, at this early stage of natural capital ideas development (although not at an early stage in the degradation of the planet) we should be understanding what we want out of it.

 

What if all the alligators in the world were to be destroyed because enough people were willing to pay the price for alligator skin handbags and shoes? Would this be acceptable because we “paid the price”? Clearly not as the value of preserving such an animal is not easily factored into the price – who assesses it and who sets it when the “value”of having alligators is unpriceable. That is why ivory sales are (in the main) banned. There is no price allowed in the system for the elimination of elephants from our natural environment – we have made a collective decision to try to stop it rather than pricing it.

 

This suggests that the “value” placed on part of our “natural capital” is not quantifiable in business terms – even if the costs of certain degradations (and “externalities”) are.

 

Not only do we need to ask the right questions, we have to start with the answers we want or the history of Easter Island is just repeated on a massive scale.

 

There is a place for good accounting – and good accounting should know its place.

 

Natural Capital – CIMA – Ethical Lens

February’s edition of CIMA’s (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants) Ethical Lens –  features my blog post from November 27, 2013 – Being Cynical About Natural Capitalism

Ethical Lens says:

“In his blog, Jeff Kaye FCMA CGMA , Chair of Future Brilliance Limited, writes about the challenges and possible moral implications of “pricing the priceless”. Highlighting that GDP rose during the BP oil spill, he argues that GDP and numbers won’t always be a good indicator of of how businesses or communities are doing.”

Ethical Lens goes on to report on Integrated Reporting as one of the ways that business is reporting on wider social issues.

It is interesting to re-read Eric Hobsbaum’s “Age of Extremes” about the world between 1914 and 1991, where he refers to John Maynard Keynes’s focus on macro-economics (virtually his invention) and that national estimates of the size of an economy were not developed until after the Second World War probably with an eye to the USSR.

“The first governments to do so were the USSR and Canada in 1925. By 1939 nine countries had official government statistics of national income, and the League of Nations had estimates for twenty-six in all. Immediately after the Second World War estimates were available for thirty-nine, in the middle 1950’s for ninety-three and since then national income figures, often with only the remotest connection with the realities of their people’s livelihood, have become almost as standard for independent states as national flags.”

Eric Hobsbaum, Age of Extremes.

Being Cynical about Natural Capitalism

A Cynic “Knows the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing” – Oscar Wilde

The World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh from 21-22 November 2013. This was around 18 months after the Natural Capital Commission was set up in England – see my earlier note on this.

The stated aim is to develop a way of costing the natural environment. In Scotland, the host for the Forum, the Scottish Wildlife Trust stated this as:

  1. Calculate the monetary value of Scotland’s natural capital and the cost of depleting it. This will involve coordinating experts including accountants, people from business, academics and policymakers.
  2. Communicate to a broad range of businesses and other stakeholders the risk of depleting Scotland’s natural capital and the huge economic value from protecting and enhancing it.
  3. Set up collaborative projects to deliver tangible action to protect and enhance Scotland’s natural capital.

Now, I am sure that all those accountants, business people, academics and so on are completely transparent about the not just perceived benefits but also the pitfalls of accounting for natural assets. I hesitate to criticize my own profession (yes, I am a qualified accountant) but the relatively simple task of accounting for profits, business assets, transfer prices, taxation, royalties, inflation, shareholder value and the myriad of other pricing mechanisms is an industry in itself.

Valuations of properties and land values (land which is marketable) are very difficult; valuations of anything is except in key market driven areas. So, before we consider whether everything should have a price, can everything be priced?

Pricing in the eye of the beholder

Michael Sandel has written vividly about the dangers inherent in pricing everything. The market continues to stretch itself to many aspects of our lives – to everything a price. Oscar Wilde described a cynic as “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Well, maybe it is time to be a little cynical. The Greek Cynics such as Diogenes believed that humans should be rid of worldly goods and live as close to nature as nature intended.

To them, “natural capitalism” would be a paradox and if the word “cynic” has been usurped to mean one who distrusts others’ motives (a somewhat jaded negativity), then it is still worth us having a good look before we hurtle into the world of valuing nature – purportedly to enable it to survive.

The problem for us all is that we (humans) seem to respond automatically to numbers. Whether it is GDP or wages and salaries or league tables or baseball and cricket statistics or KPI’s or health targets or bankers’ bonuses, the human mind seems to adopt numbers as the common language. This has had ridiculous consequences.

We now actually believe that Gross Domestic Product calculations are a real and meaningful simulation of the value of our existence. We may note that GDP rose when the BP oil spill was in the headlines because of the way that GDP is counted. We may know that GDP rose enormously when the Viet Nam War was in full flight – a rise in our prosperity at the time when so many were dying. We may note lots of things and then discount the “knowing” as we allow our brains to consider only the number.

Just like economic theory is a very poor simulation of reality, using numbers to simulate life is very difficult and a very poor approximation of reality.

Pricing is in the eye of the beholder. When there are many of the same item and large numbers of buyers, then prices can be developed that (at a particular time) can be adjudged reasonable. A day later and the price will change; a bit more demand and the price may rise if the supply stays the same or there is no alternative; a bit less demand and the reverse – all other things being equal (which hey never are).

Yet, pricing is the underpinning of the marketplace and serves its purpose – allowing us to satisfy demand through the pricing mechanism. Where it is less workable is where the market is not large enough or where the item being priced is unique.

For a work of art, this does not matter too much. Such a work of art as the Francis Bacon triptych which recently sold for $142m or the $58.4m for a Jeff Koons painting potentially hurts no-one but the wealthy buyer should the price collapse overnight. Anyway, no one will be revaluing these works until they are re-sold. While the loss to public exhibition may be a shame (if they are kept locked away) it is not a tragedy.

For our natural capital, there is a different set of criteria.

Valuing quality

 Traditionally, major projects have used a form of cost-benefit analysis. Prices or costs are provided to each part of a project and the benefits calculated overall. In this way, countless projects (corporate and public sector) are continuously appraised.

Recently, the HS2 rail project proposal in the UK has been treated in this way. HS2 is a plan to link London to the north of England by a £50 billion investment programme (which some think will rise to £80bn) – to speed up rail links and to provide much more capacity. In this way, it is believed that significant benefits will accrue to the northern towns (although many see the benefits accruing to London as more northern towns become commuter towns for the capital).

As Frank Ackerman (an Environmental Economist) wrote in 2008 in an excellent paper for Friends of the Earth that there are six major flaws with cost-benefit analysis that he calls:

  •    Pricing the priceless
  •   Troubling Trade-offs
  •   Uncertainty and Precaution
  •   Distorting the Future
  •   Exaggerated costs
  •   Partisans and Technicalities

His paper warns against the simplistic tendency of cost-benefit analysis – its atomistic view of the world (a world of numerical opinions – usually slanted towards where the answer is directed to be).

The alternatives to simplistic cost-benefit analysis include one (the precautionary approach) that approximates to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s antifragility proposition – or at least an approach tending to resilience.

The inclusion of natural phenomena and the benefits that accrue from them into a numbers game is a tremendous risk. It suggests that we hurtle towards some valuation methodology because we are caught up in the spirit of pricing everything. Yet, we don’t hesitate enough to consider the ability of the valuers (those who make the key assumptions which drive the computations) – which include those who work backwards from decisions they want taken to those who are inadequate in their assumptive judgements.

It is normal for large projects to overrun in terms of cost by two to three times and most large projects overrun substantially on timescale. This means that basic projects cannot be properly valued – how difficult is it to put a price on our natural capital and use those calculations in determining how we use the natural resources / capital? It is not our ability to compute that is at question – it is a mix of our ability to ask the right questions, to set the right assumptions and to reason on a qualitative basis.

Private and Public (People) needs

The sectors involved in developing natural capital accounting and using them for decisions are naturally coming at this from different directions. The private sector, especially large companies naturally concerned about the long-term sustainability of their businesses, need to evaluate their impact on the environment and on their raw material base in order to see their long-term survivability.

This is an essential survival tactic in a world with limited access to natural resources and where it is understood by companies that their customers are also taking impact on environment (for example) seriously. For almost all businesses, taking account of natural capital is a fundamental need of the 21st Century marketplace but should not be seen as companies becoming primarily societally driven. Accounting for natural capital wherever possible is a natural go-to for business. It sets up an accounting mechanism which, after all, is the basic language of business and which can be used for decision-making and for influencing those decisions internally and externally.

The external decision-makers are citizens – local, regional, national and international – often (not always) represented by the public sector (and, in many countries, misrepresented).

Quantity versus Quality

 

The problem for people (us) is, of course, fundamentally different to those of businesses that are fighting for long-term sustainability and want to manage their use of resources (and look for substitutes) and help the marketplace to view them as 21st Century businesses that are aware of society’s needs. Accounting for natural capital can help to do that.

Citizens (however grouped) have another consideration – the quality of life outside the quantity of goods and services that they can buy.

Quality of life includes good air to breathe and a sustainable climate – items not quite on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or developed in his basic needs structure – which was, after all, originally developed for business marketing purposes.

Government (local, regional, national and international) is our representative – tasked with managing our natural capital to our benefit (along with private owners). The key question is whether Government understands that the issues are not just about how business remains sustainable (a world dominated by GDP) but how the quality of life is sustained for all of its citizens. While this includes key quantitative factors such as economic well being, that is not all.

To citizens, the environmental impact of business misuse is not just an “externality” that needs to be costed into business decisions. These so-called externalities are central parts of our existence.

So, one of the key questions is how to develop a framework that incorporates the requirements of the two sectors – private and public (here being used to define what people need) and the issues of quantity and quality.

 Slide1

Keeping that balance is the key – we should not be overly dependent on the numerically calculative approach as that leads to more goods and services but a natural environment that is depleted not just of raw materials but also the naturally occurring benefits on which life depends.

We cannot completely guard our natural capital either – as that will deprive us of needed goods and services.

Counting the costs and benefits of natural capital may assist in some ways to prolong sustainable business but real leadership on behalf of all of us should understand that counting is a tool – only to be used in certain situations and only as an aid to considered thinking – the use of our human brains in determining qualitative outcomes.

Should Everything have a Price?

Michael Sandel in his recent book “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets” writes excellently on how the market economy has turned into the “market society”. This view echoes Galbraith and “The Affluent Society”. Galbraith’s warning from the 1950’s has not been heeded – we are now subject to the “market” in everything we do – anything and everything has a price.

 

Sandel cites many examples – such as someone selling their organs, someone saving a place in a queue, schools being sponsored by companies and many others.

 

It could be argued that it was always so. Slavery, the selling of humans in the marketplace, was a common market phenomenon and still exists. Bribery and corruption – the selling of favours or ensuring something goes in your favour – remains common and Iraq and Afghanistan are riven by corruption on the grandest scale. Russia and much of Eastern Europe are held to be gangster nations – like much of the USA in the time of prohibition. Somalian pirates resort to kidnapping as an outcome of pure economic theory.

 

Yet, society does, from time to time, attempt to apply limits in a world where it seems that everything has a monetary price.

 

Market domination

 

The libertarian view that the market should be allowed to rule means that we abrogate our responsibilities. It is the role and duty of civil society (usually through Government) to judge where market rules and where other forms of decision-making are paramount.

 

We make those judgments continually. The right to be safe on the streets is, in most developed societies, made possible by laws which are enacted through general agreement by citizens. It is enforced, where needed, by legal systems and enforcement agencies – again, only there by the general agreement of civil society. In those countries where the market and price dominate, then the danger is that laws and police forces can be bought off. This is the case in many eastern European countries and many countries in Africa. Bribery and corruption rule through what may be called the market society – against the agreement of most of its citizens. As Sandel points out, this is against the best outcome for society – and by a long way.

 

Libertarians may argue that a legal system and an “open society” are the foundations for market economies to work, but the world is a global economy and it is no longer possible for one country to be cut off from the rest. The market domination into so many areas of life is a threat if basic norms do not exist.

 

The market versus societal norms

 

Sandel does not go too much into how society develops its norms – where market pricing should not intrude. We are in danger, of course, of taking on pricing into every form of our lives and there are plans to price our natural resources and to ensure that accounting incorporates aspects of social life into accounting rules – for example, through the Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project; through the Natural Capital Committee – which will report into the UK Government’s Economic Affairs Committee, chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequor.

 

While this acknowledges the problem in one respect (i.e. we are not properly accounting for externalities like pollution, the loss of natural capital – our rivers, forests and such) it is perhaps giving up the struggle against the market society. By the very nature of accounting in terms of numbers for such “externalities”, we subscribe to the essential condition for market pricing of everything – the market society is allowed to dominate.

 

Our focus on GDP and numbers betrays a failing of society – our inability to see anything outside of numbers – so-called economic wealth. GDP, which rewards only that which can be measured, has been a poor simulation of real “wealth”. Our drive to economic success (measured by how many unnecessary items we make and buy) takes no account of what is really important. Ability to buy is all that “counts” – literally.

 

Societal norms are now up for sale. Instead of a rearguard action against the market society (as against market economics) where we defend those areas of society against pricing (as they should be beyond price), we succumb to pricing everything. This leads to everything having a price – an accounting-driven doctrine, a market society doctrine.

 

Beyond economics

 

Of course, this may be the price (!) we are paying for economic growth and relative economic success. As we become more economically successful and as the world derives basic economic success, maybe our brains are becoming hard-wired to numbers as the only register of what is successful. The left-hand side of the brain is assuming victory over the right.

 

There is no question that the discovery of numbers has made the human successful and to understand and control large areas of science. We have changed the world entirely. Our ability to count is now dominating our lives. Since the dawn of accounting (when we counted our grain), numbers now “account” for everything.

 

Where has been the debate to question the way we account? If numbers dominate everything we do, what outcomes do we envisage, what changes result? If all our successes depend on numbers, then what lives will we lead?

 

This is now beyond economics – which, as George Soros has recently outlined, http://www.georgesoros.com/interviews-speeches/entry/remarks_at_the_festival_of_economics_trento_italy/

has been shown to be terribly mistaken in its misunderstanding of the world. His analysis, that economics, in trying to copy the rules of science has travelled the wrong path. Economics is a social science and, as such, does not have definitive outcomes. But, the situation is worse than Soros makes out.  Macroeconomics is being subsumed beneath a torrent of numbers so that, worse than following a quasi-scientific path, we are now following an accounting outcome for everything.

 

Where are the norms for society? Who are the guardians?

 

The financial crash of 2008, which is still playing out in 2012, opened up severe cracks in our economic system. It is also opening up divisions in society between the very wealthy and the large swathe of middle-income earners who make up most of civil society. These divisions show how we are valuing society and show clearly that pricing is not working. The value given to bankers and bonuses (no risk activities for the individuals who can only lose their jobs, not their wealth and no risk activities for the banks, who are too big to fail) shows a dramatic failing in pricing – in which we apparently put all our trust.

 

Pricing mechanisms are not working successfully, yet we place more and more of our faith in pricing as the only arbiter of success.

 

We now price (or will soon be attempting to price) everything – from CO2 to education, from healthcare to shoes, from our rivers to our right to pollute – everything with a price.

 

Yet, macro-economics (the economics of society) is a social science – it is not based on rigid rules. It is (as Soros rightly states) bound up in decisions and thoughts of men and women.

 

Pricing is one outcome of a social science that is not unquestionably right in every case – it is actually, mostly wrong and most economists are only good at describing what has passed (i.e. rear view mirror gazers).

 

Accounting was originally a micro-based activity – to help regulate and tax individuals and firms. It is now being used to price everything.

 

Are there any alternatives to pricing everything?

 

Of course there are, but it is becoming tougher. The Bribery Act in the UK (following a mere 34 years after the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the US) is an example. Society has (at least in the UK) decided that winning contracts or influencing economic decisions should not be subject to corruption. In China, as Jonathan Fenby’s excellent “Tiger Head Snake Tails” so ably describes, bribery and corruption have existed for many years but (at least at home) it is not considered acceptable. In many other countries in the developing world, it is.

 

But, we know that price is in play throughout society. The best lawyers cost huge sums and only the wealthy can afford them – so, our legal system is subject to pricing. The best education is paid for; the best healthcare is paid for.

 

With wealth divisions becoming wider, pricing is everything. It is time for a real debate in society on how economics needs to be changed to reflect reality and how accounting for everything (and a price for anything) may not be the answer. The invisible hand of the market should not be allowed to grab everything.

The Affluent Society and Social Balance

Public goods and market products – and what else?

John Kenneth Galbraith in “The Affluent Society” wrote how the obsession with production was getting out of hand and that there had to be a rebalancing between social goods and products. The absence of this balancing would be seen by ever growing debt burdens as individuals chased products which provided ever diminishing value to them. At the same time, social goods – such as education, street lighting, rubbish collection – would suffer because the focus was always on products. Debt burdens would end only with economic depression – before rising again as the economy improved.

“The Affluent Society” was written in 1958 and revised in 1973. Forty years’ later, much of the book reads as if it was written today – or, at least the analysis section of the book. Galbraith’s analysis was right as far as it went, but the prescriptions for change were never likely to be implemented.

Galbraith’s focus was on products and how our wealth was fixated on production – production that the “market” determined was needed. As wealth grew, so the market for goods is increasingly the subject of corporate advertising in order to promote goods that we may not need – but believe we do.

Public goods – such as education and anything produced by the public sector – was deemed wasteful and could never compete with corporate advertising. So, taxation (whether national or local) was harmful in most eyes as it deprived the payer of marketed products and was spent on ill-conceived public goods (such as education, waste collection and keeping the streets clean – or, worse, providing a baseline of income for those most in need). Other than defence spending, which Galbraith believes is wasted, he contends that a “social balance” is needed between the market for products and social goods.

He also saw the problems caused at the intersection of public sector and the market – two estranged bedfellows who often wake to find themselves in the same bed but unable to understand why or how to cope.

A good example of this was recently seen in London’s Heathrow Airport where lines / queues at customs on entry were up to 3 hours. Businesses impacted by such horrors in the year of the Queen’s Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics were outraged at the inefficiency of Government – who control customs. Heathrow is a business – a travel and shopping centre. It is also the key entry point for people from across the world and Government is responsible for who enters the country. This intersection of the two clearly shows the difficulty of creating the “social balance” between government and the market.

Galbraith’s Missing Elements

Forty years ago, four, major elements were missing from or only sidelines in Galbraith’s analysis – issues which have become more central over time:

Global trading – or the Global Social Balance

The errors in GDP accounting – quantity vs quality

The Environment

Civil Society

Global Social Balance

The world is a different one from 1958 or even 1973. We trade globally and the developed nations increasingly use labour from the undeveloped nations to do low-cost, manual work (often in conditions we would not tolerate in our own countries). It is a 19th Century state of work but internationalised– where now, international companies tend to operate as the mill owners of old.

From a micro-economic sense that is understandable – each company is different and many act responsibly. However, from a macro-economic viewpoint and from an international political viewpoint, there are limited mechanics for equalizing health and safety laws let alone education and pay scales.

Galbraith’s concern was that we produced too much and that we should be able to make less in a country like the USA. When the work goes international, the responses to the problem have to as well.

Production by numbers: quantity versus quality

In an affluent society, production is made the cornerstone of all we do (the economy is central to all our decisions) because work is needed to secure income. Even in an affluent society, income at a certain level is deemed to be critical. Products of progressively less use (or utility) are sold (often solely on the back of advertising) and we buy them and this is meant to keep us in work and more buying goes on.

Of course, in an international labour market, that won’t always work (as Gandhi found out in the early 20th Century when England produced most of the cotton garments sold in India) and it has become harder to focus just on one country.

However, the global economy does not mean that products become more useful – much of what we make is simply wasting energy and resources. However, it is keeping people in work in many developing nations.

But, growth is measured by GDP and GDP is a poor measure of quality of life or even production. Quality of education, for example, is measured in GDP by its cost (an input) not an output. A £500 handbag is deemed worth the same as £500 worth of essential foods – no difference in utility is assessed.

The felling of a rare tree is “valued” at the cost of felling or its price in the market as a table. The value of a river is missed completely – unless over-polluted when its clear-up costs may enter as a cost in a nation’s GDP.

It is production by numbers, quantity versus quality.

Environmental Balance

While mentioning the issue of environment, the main topic of “The Affluent Society” is the social balance between public goods and market production. All these are made by people – so, the environment in which we live is ignored. The trade-off is not, of course, that simple (even though the Galbraith trade-off has never been seen to function). The environmental trade-off (our need to maintain our natural capital) is now being understood but remains relatively hidden in economic debates. Natural capital needs to be brought into any debate on affluence in society – our quality of life as opposed to the quantity of life.

Civil Society

To Galbraith, the game is between the market and the public sector and to most, this battle still exists as the only one. There was not much mention of civil society – where most of us spend most of our time – except through discussion of leisure time. Here, the trade-off was between productive working and spare time. I expect that this assumes that all non-productive time is spent on hobbies or watching TV.

The creativity and value of civil society – a huge array of organisations from sports to international development, from charities to women’s institutes – is normally missed completely by economists and thinkers on society. The problem is that it does not fit easily into econometricians’ computer simulations: more of the “if you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist” syndrome.

Of course, for centuries, people have been undertaking “good deeds” – the history of the 19th Century is full of examples of charitable activities. However, society is changing fast and as politics loses its appeal for so many (with parties genuinely fearing for their future), the role of civil society is growing and, in affluent societies, taking back more from the state that it lost to the state in the 20th Century.

This escape from the centre is to be applauded, but needs to be better understood.

Social Balance

Complete reliance on the market or on the centre (libertarianism or communism) may still appeal to some. The reality is that complexity is the norm. Society is a mixture of competing ideas and competing structures – out of which we muddle through and where individuals take centre stage and form organisations to make their voice louder.

Nevertheless, we should learn from history and our mistakes. Centrism is a doctrine of the defeated; totalitarianism a doctrine of the damned. There is no one answer but a constant mix of opportunities that society provides and where changes are constant in the way we answer our problems.

The mix of competing answers does no longer rest between public and private sector in an affluent society – that is a 20th Century doctrine or response. The response now has to take into account the social balance we want from our lives between products, social value, natural capital and civil society relationships in a global context not a rigidly national one.

This means being adult about the causes of change and grown-up about the challenges – it means being international in approach and understanding the complexity of the problem – not something that can be understood wholly by quantities or computer simulations.

As we grow materially (i.e. through the quantity of products we are able to manufacture) and bump up against the troubles of environmental degradation and massive disparities of wealth and conditions (on a global scale), the question to be addressed is how does a complex society best form itself to take the decisions it needs to maximize the value we all give and receive from this “affluent society”.

 

Natural Capitalism – Economics Missing Link

Does the establishment of a “Natural Capital Committee” – NCC (which will report into the Economic Affairs Committee – chaired by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) herald a change in thinking in the West about the importance of our natural world? The result of The Natural Environment White Paper, the Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature, it does mark a potential for change in the way that British Governments view the economy and the impact of economic progress on the environment.

DEFRA’s website ( http://www.defra.gov.uk/naturalcapitalcommittee/) states: “By reporting into the EA Committee and the Chancellor, this Committee has the opportunity to truly influence the economic policy of the UK for the good of the natural environment.”

This has been an understated move that has virtually had no publicity amongst the swirl of economic and austerity measures that seem to dominate our lives. As the government decides who will Chair the committee and populate it, the sound of recession, bankers’ pay, unemployment and lack of economic growth (here and overseas) crowd out any other debate.

Yet, CO2 emissions continue to grow and the drive for renewed economic growth here (and continuing economic growth in China and elsewhere) dictates the future quality of our lives more fundamentally than the setting up of a small committee (subsidiary to the EAC). No matter who Chairs the NCC, its voice will be very small unless the Natural Capital community and those as interested in the quality of our lives as in the quantity of our economic performance develop an ability to shout louder.

Natural Capital is defined by the Natural Capital Initiative (www.naturalcapitalinitiative.org.uk) as:

Natural capital:
the term ‘capital’ is used to describe a stock or resource that produces revenue or yield. Natural capital is usually interpreted as an economic metaphor for environmental assets, such as forests, soils or marine habitats that supply resources to the economy or offer a receptacle for disposal of wastes. Four basic categories of natural capital are generally recognised: air, water (fresh, groundwater and marine), land (including soil, space and landscape) and habitats (including the ecosystems, flora and fauna which they both comprise and support). The quantity and the quality of natural capital affect the quantity and quality of benefits generated.
So, how important has the subject become – is the role of natural capital in our decision-making yet central or peripheral? Is this even a debate or a quiet discussion in hushed rooms? Is this just a British issue or one that is expanding to a world scale?

There is no doubt that champions exist that want desperately to make this a central issue in all economic debates and have a strong desire to internationalize it. As the world struggles to untangle itself from 19th Century dogma in politics and economics and to integrate natural capital into the mainstream, there is no doubt that key advances are starting to be made.

For example, the world of accounting is leading one strand through the International Integrated Reporting Committee (IIRC) which last year issued a report on the integration natural capital into corporate reporting. This begins to link (even if peripherally) the micro and macroeconomies through natural capital – although as economists have failed to link the two for the last 250 years, the impact is not yet clear.

Nevertheless, macro and micro events are starting. Natural Capital (the link between the human and financial capitals that dominate economic thinking – the missing link of economics) is beginning to grow in importance. Natural capitalists (those who can anticipate this change) are what we have to become – ensuring that the world in which we live is considered as more than a simple “externality” and becomes a critical element in economic decision-making. Natural capital needs to fight for airtime amongst politicians and economists still mired in the mindsets of the 19th Century. It is a start.