The Corporate Paradox

 Chimeric Corporations

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

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

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

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

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

(www.yourdictionary.com)

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

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

But….Is the Company Real?

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

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

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

A company is a complex adaptive system (CAS)

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

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

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

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

Companies and Society

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

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

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

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

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Do Companies Exist? Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Euro Chaos to Chasm

As Greece Votes

I was on an ethics panel this week – organized by CGMA and Accounting Magazine. This has been arranged to discuss the outcome of CGMA’s recent survey “Managing Responsible Business” http://www.cgma.org/Resources/Reports/Pages/ManagingResponsibleBusiness.aspx

This survey explored the range of issues around business and doing things properly – ethically. It found that most businesses tried to, CEO’s were handing down responsibility for this to other staff, the ability to do so changed by country and there was real pressure not to in some countries.

With elections in Greece on Sunday and the Euro in everyone’s mind, the issue of business ethics seemed mighty small in comparison.

Ethics – moral rectitude, the rules of conduct – are not just about business. It is from society that ethics emerge and it is the destruction of the rules of good conduct that has tipped Europe and many other parts of the world into an economic, political and financial chasm. It is a chasm that threatens our way of life and, deep inside that chasm, there is not a lot of light.

The Chasm is not just a Banking one

 

We are continuously being told by our politicians that the current banking crisis can be resolved with large amounts of cash. The latest attempts are the £100bn on offer by the Bank of England of low rate loans to banks to regenerate lending in the UK and the €100bn on offer to Spain to prop up their banks.

In the chasm, sticking plasters don’t work.

Banking liquidity is not the problem anyway. The problem that banks have in Spain, for example, is solvency – their very being is at stake not their ability to lend in the short-term. They were over-stretched by awful decisions ten years ago to lend to get-rich-quick property schemes that were doomed and, when the tide went out, were shown to be naked. Borrowers across the western world were too highly geared – over-leveraged. While companies have managed to get their act together, individuals have not and while savings are higher, they are still, by normal standards, far too over-leveraged – which is still leading to house price reductions everywhere but London (where funds are rushing in from all corners of worse of countries).

But, the banks are hiding behind the problem in front of them – national insolvency. The transfer from nations (i.e. taxpayers) to banks has been enormous and continues. Well over a trillion dollars was poured into the US banking system and the same in Europe. The estimate is that this needs at least to be doubled. National solvency is at stake throughout Europe (west, south and east especially) and the austerity programmes now in place are a testimony to them.

Like the 1930’s, this is leading to massive unemployment and a risk that the chasm into which nation by nation is being thrown will swallow them whole. In Europe, the answer, we are told lies with Germany – they should assume the debts of all the others with Eurobonds – a financial answer to a financial problem.

But, the chasm is bigger than this.

The Chasm is engulfing Politics, Economics and Finance

Behind the financing of banks and the insolvency of nations lie the root causes. These are the disenfranchisement of the mass of people in most nations – disenfranchised not by their inability to vote every few years but by the paucity of choices on offer.

Greece offers a great example of a nation in economic chaos but the causes and the choices open to the people there are not often recorded.

Whoever read Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang” will understand some of the corruption that underpins the chaos. It is endemic and led by a political elite that have rampaged through the economy and gouged out any life from it. At the same time as The President of Equatorial Guinea is about to meet with four NGO’s (including my former employer, Global Witness) to discuss the rampant corruption inside his country, who is meeting with who to ensure that Greece can emerge with some dignity from its corruption?

Who can blame voters for, at last, running away from Pasok and into the arms of Syriza – the main concern is not the Euro, it is the corruption of the political elite and complete lack of trust in any politicians. The whole political class is tainted.

Outside Greece, the same is true to some extent in Spain and in Italy, where technocrats (unelected) now rule. The paucity of choice for voters – why vote for politicians when they are all the same and as corrupting and corruptible as each other?

The euro problem is much deeper. It is not just about emulating hard-working Germans, it is about serious change needed throughout Europe where leadership is absent or tainted by nations that are corrupt, unable to raise taxation, where the cash culture is rampant. This is true in Greece, Spain, certainly southern Italy and elsewhere. Why would Germany want to pick up the tab for this when the problem is chasm deep – not the surface banking or financial issue that has been painted?

The Ruling Class

In democracies, we are supposed to be able to vote out political parties that do a bad job. What happens when the whole political class is damned? The whole electorate is disenfranchised as a result.

This is true throughout the Eurozone – political parties have joined forces with other powerful elites to seemingly run countries – now, it is clear they have run them into the ground or, worse, into the chasm where conventional politics, economics and finance are drowning.

The ruling classes – politicians of all political persuasion, big business, the public sector – decided to run off with the benefits and have left the rest behind. Somewhere those funds reside in tax havens, well away from the hands of civil society. If it was all about harder effort, there could be some light ahead, but the problem is so deep that it will take years of real change and real hurt to recover to anywhere near where countries thought they were until recently.

From Chasm to ……what?

The European dream of one country living under one flag, which to many is a nightmare, is not a new one as the wars of the twentieth century showed. Now, a war just as savage is being fought – but a war where the fighting is hidden and where the soldiers don’t even realize they are in the trenches. Greek citizens and the young in Spain (where 50% are out of work) probably realize the consequences of the post-war European experiment. Many others don’t yet, but soon will.

Papering over a crack or two is relatively easy. Papering over a chasm is impossible,

The core problems of societies need to be resolved – corruption has to be ended, taxation has to be collected, public servants have to serve the public, politicians have to be credible and respected and people have to believe that if they work hard they stand a chance of being successful. For banks to function, they need finance; for businesses to succeed, they need markets and finance; for an economy to succeed, it needs good business but also a society that works – and that is not riven with insidious corruption of people and dignity.

Many African states (with massive natural resources) are corrupt and wealth is held by small elites. We did not believe that the corruption in Europe was on the same scale and, indeed, it is not the same – but the scale may be greater and just as endemic.

Solutions will not be found purely through the injection of more money into a chasm – the chasm has to be filled first or cleansed at least. Liberal democracy was supposed to be the best solution (the best worst solution). The 21st Century struggle may not be against the same totalitarians as in the last century (fascists and communists) and, hopefully, it may not be sullied by war and death, but, metaphorically, it will be just as bloody and won’t be complete until political elites are brought down to earth and civil society gets inside the tent.

Do we Value the Charitable Sector?

As the Coalition Government slips worryingly through its third year, the value given to the Third Sector (or the Civil Society) is more uncertain. The Big Society is being challenged as it has not been for many years through financial austerity in national and local government. This has had a dramatic impact on charities in the UK that have been set up to serve the community and who rely on government (national and local) income. In Osborne’s last budget, charitable giving has been hit hard by limiting that which is tax allowable to £50,000 in any one year for individuals.

The charitable sector is strong in the UK, but threatened by this reduced government spending, reduced spending by companies and potential reductions in individual giving as we tumble back into recession.

The variety of charities is vast – from those set up to further medical research, those working to improve health and welfare, those set up to do international development, social clubs and societies, sports clubs and a host of others. Even schools are charities under UK law. This makes it hard to understand the role they have in society.

However, they stand alongside the Governing sector (government) and the products and services sector (business) and the fourth sector or fourth estate – journalism. Maybe that’s also where many NGO’s lie these days – funded to do investigations into society as newspapers once were. The fourth estate now contains many NGO’s – the likes of ONE, Enough, Global Witness, parts of Greenpeace, Oxfam, Save the Children, Amnesty and many others – where charitable work continues alongside the investigations and journalism and lobbying.

The Charitable Sector – Filling the (Massive) Gap

The role of charities is therefore complex – even if in the minds of most funders it is primarily to provide help to those sectors of society that are left out by the State and by the remainder of civil society. Charities exist to drive funds and assistance locally, regionally, nationally and internationally where it is deemed that government does not, cannot or will not.

Whether it is DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee) or similar assisting in emergency international funding, or Oxfam or Save the Children, or local hospices, each has been set up by individuals who saw a gap in care and raced to fix the problem. The whole area of social business has also sprung up in between business and charities. The roles are evolving as niches appear where need is believed to occur – it is a complex and adaptive system that is constantly evolving.

Each society is developing its own way from the bottom up – very few governments are sufficiently totalitarian to impose its blueprint on its people. In North Korea, this may be so but elsewhere government and business leave gaps that the market cannot satisfy and that civil society attempts to fill.

If the role of the charity sector (outside of the fourth estate incumbents) is to fill the gaps that business and government leaves – because they identify the need first, provide funding that is otherwise unattainable, provide better expertise, more focused concern or whatever other motivation – then how should society be developing to maximize its positive effectiveness? While this note focuses on the UK, it is as relevant to the international community.

Valuing the Charitable Sector

 

It is now time that government in the UK (and elsewhere) took a long, hard look at the charity sector and saw it as a real sector of the economy. The last budget was a good example of how taxation and benefits were structured towards businesses and individuals and where civil society (or the Third Sector) was seen as a peripheral activity. This was a slight on that sector.

The seemingly thoughtless and throw-away issues such as the limit of £50,000 on tax-free giving was typical of government not seeing the organized part of civil society as being defined in any special way. It is surely time that civil society – the charitable sector – is defined as separate from the business and individual taxed community and that we establish a set of income and expenditure statements from government that shows clearly how well or badly we are doing in that sector – at least in money terms. This would then clearly show how well or badly governments are also doing.

At the time when the Natural Capital Committee under the newly appointed Dieter Helm is calling for an accounting for natural resources / natural capital, it is time for the charitable sector to be similarly “valued”.

Impact Valuations – What does this mean?

On a basic level, an understanding of the tax taken from the sector (mainly through VAT, plus income tax and national insurance – both company and individual – paid to staff) should be provided annually at least by Government – maybe the office for National Statistics. That can be set against the tax benefits that may arise through gift-aid benefits for those who provide funds to charities. At the very least, an Annual Report should be made by Government (almost a CSR report) but verified and commented on by Charities Commission and maybe more independently-minded organisations). This would be completely different to the current Charities Commission Annual Report – which is a micro-analysis of how it spends its £29.4m. The report has to be a macro-economic one.

Stage two would be an analysis of the sector’s public “goods” – a value of the huge and positive impact that charities have in the UK and internationally. This will be its “Impact” at a macro-economic level.

If natural assets can be “valued” (providing an accounting value as Dieter Helm wants), then so can charitable activities. This is being demanded by many funders before (certainly trusts and foundations) before they fund charities, while individual givers often want to know more about an individual charity beyond the “gut-feel” instinct that propels them to give.

This macro-economic valuing would give the charity sector an independence. It would mean that civil society could begin to understand just what contribution the charitable sector provides in terms that begin to be understandable.  Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, would have a far more meaningful brief. Currently, he sits in the Cabinet Office (under Francis Maude) – but, the brief is very wide and less economically focused than it should be. The key, of course, is how we go beyond pure economic modeling (our GDP of quantity not quality) to measure the benefits we receive from natural capital / assets (which the NCC is set up to assist with) and from civil society itself.

Just as the value of education is not the money that the government spends on education per head (based on the Academy where I am Chair, £9.35m of income is spent on 1450 students – a “value” of £6,448 per annum – although at least this has some calculative affect. Even here, of course, the cost is reduced by the government’s take of income tax from staff, National insurance from staff and schools), so the value of charities should be assessed and the (often adverse, sometimes positive) impact of government intervention should be made known.

This is not a simple task, but a critical one. As we enter a world of real austerity (especially in Europe), we are underestimating the cost of cost savings on society – at best, we ignore them.

We are well into the 21st Century – time we thought in 21st Century terms and valued those things that materially contribute. The NCC may be making a start with natural capital: it is a good time to start making real progress on valuing the macro-economic benefits of our charitable sector – before it is too late.

Liberalism and politics – short-term thinking or the fight for ideals?

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are holding their Spring conference this week. I declare an interest. That party represents the closest thing to the ideals that I hold – the belief that monopolies of any type are bad in principle and that the state (and other potentially totalitarian groupings) should be limited in scope and the individual in society provided with the best chances to succeed.

This overly-simplified outline of Liberalism (probably not social democracy) – at least to a British formula – where society is seen as individuals and groups that must be enhanced and where over-bearing accumulation of power is to be resisted – is nevertheless a strong reason why I pay my annual subs to the party.

Against the centralist doctrines of the Labour party (where state is still seen to be the best judge of everything) and Conservatism (difficult to assess but primarily a “market is best” doctrine allied to a notion that old institutions must be conserved no matter what), Liberalism should be the politics of the 21st Century. It shouts for the spirit of individuals and civil society making changes for the better against the rigid institutions set up in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It should be capturing the spirit of the internet age – where freedoms to communicate should be elevating transparency and openness to a new generation (and convincing the old as well). It should be screaming about how the UK fits into the future of a world that continues to change (and not always for the better), where the rise and development of China threatens the drive to democracy and transparency that has been in place since the defeat of Nazism and totalitarianism after World War II and since.

Today’s Politics

Tragically, politics in the UK is all about shopping baskets. All our attention is drawn to GDP and austerity. These issues are important – especially to those living (or just about surviving) on low incomes. The drive to change taxation at the margin (and we always talk about changes at the margin – not true in the US where a real debate on dramatic changes in taxation are taking place – see John Mauldin’s latest on this) is a proper argument but the focus on taxation and its short-term impact blots out everything else.

Liberal Democrats believe in a wide range of issues. Moving in with the Conservatives as part of the Coalition Government has been a brave move that is hitting the party hard – based on recent polls. Shifting the tax burden to free those earning low salaries to a wealth tax (although the shift is tiny) is seen by senior Liberal Democrats as working to define the party.

Ask a voter what the Liberal Democrats stand for and they will probably answer with comments about university tuition fees or other short-term decisions made during this parliament.

Today’s politics, the politics of short-term economics and counter-terrorism (or long-standing views on how to counter the perceived threats that international terrorism poses) is our staple. Politicians (and we are not blessed with the cream of intelligence in that area – they usually became bankers in the 1980’s) are hooked on short-term ideas and the next election. It was ever thus.

GDP slaves, taxation dummies, election addiction, five year parliamentarians that act like five-year olds.  In the UK we may have been better off than our EU colleagues in Greece (we do have a society that respects to a greater extent tax collection as a cornerstone) but minor modifications to our lives emphasize the conservatism of the nation –  conservatism that is likely to propel the UK backwards and means that our influence is greatly lessened as the 21st Century progresses.

Tomorrow’s politics

Political parties are under threat. Their short attention span means they are missing the evidence that is before them. People and groups in society are pursuing single initiatives to great effect. Whether these groups are organized as NGO’s or small societies or other types of organization, civil society (propelled by new technologies) are able to have a greater influence on politics than ever before. Politicians and government has to be aware of that change and make efforts to respond to it

That response has to mean that decisions must be allowed to take place at the lowest level possible not at the highest.

It must mean that politics has to “open up”and be more inclusive – that means helping those in society to understand what parties stand for – really stand for – and the world that they see ahead.

It must mean that the political parties must continuously work to make themselves relevant.

For Liberal Democrats fighting to show themselves as sufficiently different so that voters provide them with a future beyond this parliament, it seems pretty important to use the remaining three years to do two, crucial things.

First, sure – secure the short-term changes that (even if at the margin) show benefits to that area of society that is bleeding because of the poor economic conditions.

Second, and far more important in the long term, ensure that Liberal Democrats shout about the society that the party wants to have in place and the UK’s place in the world. This is not about minor taxation shifts. This has to be a society where individuals and groups have a bigger say but also where the opportunities to develop (in terms not just of how many makes of designer trainers one can buy but in terms of real education opportunities, real quality of life from birth to death, a society where large, monopolistic groups which threaten that society from inside or outside are not tolerated) are maximized.

Liberal Democracy (or at least the Liberal part of it) has a strong tradition in all these areas. The message has been obscured in its pro-Europe and pro-euro fervour and over-reliance on short-term tax issues and the obscuring of its longer-term reason for existence and how it should want to change the world.

Nick Clegg’s speech back in December at the Open Society Institute made an attempt to voice some of these issues (see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/liberalism-and…e-21st-century/).

Politics needs to motivate and excite in the 21st Century as large movements (such as the labour movement in the late 19th Century and early 20th) are not so obvious – that does not mean it is not happening.

The movement is now about individuals and groups within civil society using whatever tools are available (and which technology is supplying) to make their case. For Liberal Democrats, the aim should be to show how it supports that key change in society and can help and nurture it and maybe lead it and make it work.

Government, Society and Business – People Organisations

Dominic Lawson, writing in today’s Sunday Times, has a good go at attacking Corporate Social Responsibility – CSR. His claim is that business (to paraphrase Milton Friedman) is there to make profits and reward shareholders and it is to Government (through the taking and use of taxation) that goes the rigors of social responsibility.

Lawson’s simplistic assessment of business in society (the article is a reaction to David Cameron’s speech at the Business in the Community awards last week) fails to understand the complexity of the economy and society and the role of the three main parties involved in making the economy and society work.

From his article, anyone would think that there are only two parties in charge – Government (hopefully, elected) and business. Underneath, there appears the mass of the population – deriving their income from either one or the other and buying the means to life and living from one or the other.

What is forgotten in this simplistic overview (and a short article is all Lawson has to work with, so some excuse there, I guess) is that society is not just made up of the two leaders and the proletariat underneath. Society is a complex mix of individuals, groups, associations, lobby groups, small businesses, medium-size businesses, large / multinational businesses, local government, regional government, national government, export markets, importers, international governments – the list goes on.

Lawson’s simple simulation of reality misunderstands society in the same way that economics misunderstands economics. Macro and micro-economics stand uneasily in the same story (for economics is more a story that a science) and have never coalesced.

Business in itself is complex. Recent arguments over bonuses have shown how managers (in a business world where ownership and management are widely separate) have managed so often to take the profits out of the business before shareholders (now operating primarily through a secondary marketplace or via agents such as pension plans – themselves run by managers, themselves divorced from ownership and direct responsibilities) can obtain what Milton Friedman may have believed was rightfully theirs.

This complexity is expanded hugely in relation to business’s relationship with the society that provides them with their reason to exist. Market economics (and I am pro the market economy – any centrally driven economy is doomed) required businesses to be within a complex national and international environment and for governments (operating on behalf of the people) to ensure that they act properly.

This means that government have to ensure that pressures on business allow them to be competitive nationally and internationally BUT that society’s needs are properly considered as part of the trade-off for all the other protections and benefits offered. The latter includes education, infrastructure (roads, railways and the like), banking system, laws that work.

So, while outside the City of London businesses don’t get a vote (the fact that they still do in the City is not just a 19th Century throwback but one much older) they get a huge lobby through trade associations like the CBI. This influences governments of all types and makes the Dominic Lawsons of this world lose sight of the complex, adaptive world in which we live.

The fact that certain companies or their leaders cozy up to the CSR community is rather a cheap, anecdotal simplification in a complex world where businesses, like all “living” things, have to continuously adapt to meet the changing environment and conditions they find themselves in. Society is highly complex and the over-simplification (which we all love to do because we can then mislead ourselves into thinking we understand the issue as a result) too often leads to decisions that are completely wrong.

We live in a complex society where we have to make changes that reflect the complex mix of the various parties involved. There is no such thing as “business” – it is made up of many strands and people and interactions. Governments set the laws and implementation, only people can work within them. Businesses are mere technical constructions that people form – people then have to live with other people. They have to make the decisions not some artificial construct called a business – no matter how we construct its form in law.

Lawson seems to believe that people don’t exist – or, if they do, that major organisations have a precedence. For so many reasons, he misses the complexity. CSR may not be the answer, but it is an attempt to develop relationships between organisations of people (businesses) with others (local communities, consumers or whatever). People and people – not some simulation of them.