Category Archives: Book review

‘Shareholder value’ versus the public good: the case of Germany

Support for companies amid the pandemic must come with social and ecological strings attached.
By Emre Gömec and Mustafa Erdem Sakinç – With uncertainty around the world about how and when the coronavirus outbreak will decelerate, whole business sectors have been affected by lockdowns and are facing ruin. In Germany, more than 750,000 companies have put over 12 million employees on reduced working hours (Kurzarbeit), dwarfing the 3 million hit by the 2008 crisis.

Society’s loss goes beyond the toll on employment. As the crisis lengthens, innovative capabilities accumulated over years and even decades may atrophy and disappear, making it far more difficult to emerge from the pandemic with a healthy economy.

This ‘innovation drain’ can be avoided if, and only if, corporations devote every available resource to retaining, and reinvesting, in productive capacity. Implementation of the rescue packages adopted in Germany in March and June must thus fundamentally address future practices of corporate resource allocation.

Making government support conditional on replacing value-extractive practices, such as excessive dividend payments and executive compensation, is the most effective way to block damaging business decisions which undermine investment in productive capabilities and secure employment.

Germany’s case was, it’s true, not as dramatic as that of the US, where S&P 500 companies, having fallen victim to the American disease of corporate financialization, distributed 92 per cent of their net income between 2009 and 2018 in stock buybacks and dividends. Still, in the decade from 2010 to 2019, 65 German companies in the DAX 30 and MDAX 60 indices paid out a total of €338.8 billion, or 46 per cent of their combined profits, in dividends, in addition to €35.3 billion, or 5 per cent of profits, in stock buybacks. more>

How to Disguise Racism and Oligarchy: Use Economics

By Lynn Parramore – James McGill Buchanan is a name you will rarely hear unless you’ve taken several classes in economics. And if the Tennessee-born Nobel laureate were alive today, it would suit him just fine that most well-informed journalists, liberal politicians, and even many economics students have little understanding of his work.

The reason? Duke historian Nancy MacLean contends that his philosophy is so stark that even young libertarian acolytes are only introduced to it after they have accepted the relatively sunny perspective of Ayn Rand. (Yes, you read that correctly). If Americans really knew what Buchanan thought and promoted, and how destructively his vision is manifesting under their noses, it would dawn on them how close the country is to a transformation most would not even want to imagine, much less accept.

That is a dangerous blind spot, MacLean argues in a meticulously researched book, Democracy in Chains, a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. While Americans grapple with Donald Trump’s chaotic presidency, we may be missing the key to changes that are taking place far beyond the level of mere politics. Once these changes are locked into place, there may be no going back.

MacLean’s book reads like an intellectual detective story. In 2010, she moved to North Carolina, where a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party got control of both houses of the state legislature and began pushing through a radical program to suppress voter rights, decimate public services, and slash taxes on the wealthy that shocked a state long a beacon of southern moderation. Up to this point, the figure of James Buchanan flickered in her peripheral vision, but as she began to study his work closely, the events in North Carolina and also Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker was leading assaults on collective bargaining rights, shifted her focus.

Could it be that this relatively obscure economist’s distinctive thought was being put forcefully into action in real time?

MacLean could not gain access to Buchanan’s papers to test her hypothesis until after his death in January 2013. That year, just as the government was being shut down by Ted Cruz & Co., she traveled to George Mason University in Virginia, where the economist’s papers lay willy-nilly across the offices of a building now abandoned by the Koch-funded faculty to a new, fancier center in Arlington.

MacLean was stunned. The archive of the man who had sought to stay under the radar had been left totally unsorted and unguarded. The historian plunged in, and she read through boxes and drawers full of papers that included personal correspondence between Buchanan and billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. That’s when she had an amazing realization: here was the intellectual linchpin of a stealth revolution currently in progress.

Buchanan, a 1940 graduate of Middle Tennessee State University who later attended the University of Chicago for graduate study, started out as a conventional public finance economist. But he grew frustrated by the way in which economic theorists ignored the political process.

Buchanan began working on a description of power that started out as a critique of how institutions functioned in the relatively liberal 1950s and ‘60s, a time when economist John Maynard Keynes’s ideas about the need for government intervention in markets to protect people from flaws so clearly demonstrated in the Great Depression held sway. Buchanan, MacLean notes, was incensed at what he saw as a move toward socialism and deeply suspicious of any form of state action that channels resources to the public. Why should the increasingly powerful federal government be able to force the wealthy to pay for goods and programs that served ordinary citizens and the poor?

In thinking about how people make political decisions and choices, Buchanan concluded that you could only understand them as individuals seeking personal advantage. In an interview cited by MacLean, the economist observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly assumed that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. Buchanan vehemently disagreed — that was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to “tear down.” His ideas developed into a theory that came to be known as “public choice.”

Buchanan’s view of human nature was distinctly dismal. more>

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Updates from McKinsey

The value of value creation
Long-term value creation can—and should—take into account the interests of all stakeholders.
By Marc Goedhart and Tim Koller – Challenges such as globalization, climate change, income inequality, and the growing power of technology titans have shaken public confidence in large corporations. In an annual Gallup poll, more than one in three of those surveyed express little or no confidence in big business—seven percentage points worse than two decades ago. 1 Politicians and commentators push for more regulation and fundamental changes in corporate governance. Some have gone so far as to argue that “capitalism is destroying the earth.”

This is hardly the first time that the system in which value creation takes place has come under fire. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, fears about the growing power of business combinations raised questions that led to more rigorous enforcement of antitrust laws. The Great Depression of the 1930s was another such moment, when prolonged unemployment undermined confidence in the ability of the capitalist system to mobilize resources, leading to a range of new policies in democracies around the world.

Today’s critique includes a call on companies to include a broader set of stakeholders in their decision making, beyond just their shareholders. It’s a view that has long been influential in continental Europe, where it is frequently embedded in corporate-governance structures. The approach is gaining traction in the United States, as well, with the emergence of public-benefit corporations, which explicitly empower directors to take into account the interests of constituencies other than shareholders.

Particularly at this time of reflection on the virtues and vices of capitalism, we believe it’s critical that managers and board directors have a clear understanding of what value creation means. For today’s value-minded executives, creating value cannot be limited to simply maximizing today’s share price. Rather, the evidence points to a better objective: maximizing a company’s value to its shareholders, now and in the future.

Recently, the US Business Roundtable released its 2019 “Statement on the purpose of a corporation.” Dozens of business leaders (the managing director of McKinsey among them) declared “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders [emphasis in the original].” Signatories affirmed that their companies have a responsibility to customers, employees, suppliers, communities (including the physical environment), and shareholders. “We commit to deliver value to all of them,” the statement concludes, “for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.” more>

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Updates from McKinsey

Personalizing change management in the smartphone era
By Alexander DiLeonardo, David Mendelsohn, Nikil Selvam, and Alexandra Wood – CEOs know that making organizational change stick requires convincing big groups of geographically dispersed people to think, act, and approach their work differently. And this is devilishly hard, as human beings are motivated by many things, have different fears and aspirations, feel varying levels of empowerment and commitment, and tend to be reluctant to change in the first place. Undifferentiated approaches that don’t carefully consider employees’ mindsets will fall flat and may even breed cynicism that saps morale and undermines progress.

The good news is that when it comes to personalization, senior executives have plenty of inspiration, courtesy of analytical pioneers such as Instagram, Netflix, and Spotify, all adept at tailoring products to meet individualized preferences via apps and other easy-to-use digital platforms. A large global manufacturer’s ongoing experiment in tech-infused mass personalization shows how this thinking can be applied to organizational change. The company’s experience suggests how smart combinations of digital technology, analytics, and behavioral science can make change more inclusive and persuasive—and help employees unleash their enthusiasm in ways not possible otherwise. The key is to use the available tools to better understand people and meet them where they are—a guiding principle that’s equally relevant for implementing long-term change and for leading a remote workforce through the current disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For a few years, the manufacturer had tried with limited success to implement cultural changes across a key region’s 7,000-strong workforce—for example, by promoting behaviors it hoped would break down silos, empower and motivate frontline workers, and bolster performance. Now the CEO wanted a fresh start. An assessment highlighted places where the company’s organizational health was poor or needed strengthening. From these areas, senior leaders focused on three management practices: operational discipline, inspirational forms of leadership, and the use of rewards and recognition to better motivate employees.

The company then formed a team to translate these broad cultural goals into specific mindsets and behaviors that would both generate the desired organizational outcomes and also help employees better understand how they personally contributed to the improvement. For example, the manufacturer wanted employees to think of operational discipline as everyone’s job. One tangible way to promote this would be to encourage shop-floor operators and supervisors to consciously review the company’s “golden rules of safety” before every shift. Likewise, the company sought to instill a mindset of valuing continuous improvement and celebrating small victories. One way of doing this would be to encourage people to speak up immediately when they saw a colleague do something positive (a motivational take on the mantra “if you see something, say something”).

The team now had a discrete set of behaviors they wanted to encourage. But they knew that to do so effectively, they needed to meet people where they were—they couldn’t simply tell people to change. The team needed to address any mindsets or beliefs that could act as barriers. more>

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Do civilisations collapse?

By Guy D Middleton – We also need to think about what we apply the term ‘collapse’ to – what exactly was it that collapsed? Very often, it’s suggested that civilizations collapse, but this isn’t quite right. It is more accurate to say that states collapse. States are tangible, identifiable ‘units’ whereas civilization is a more slippery term referring broadly to sets of traditions. Many historians, including Arnold Toynbee, author of the 12-volume A Study of History (1934-61), have defined and tried to identify ‘civilizations’, but they often come up with different ideas and different numbers. But we have seen that while Mycenaean states collapsed, several strands of Mycenaean material and non-material culture survived – so it would seem wrong to say that their ‘civilization’ collapsed. Likewise, if we think of Egyptian or Greek or Roman ‘civilization’, none of these collapsed – they transformed as circumstances and values changed. We might think of each civilization in a particular way, defined by a particular type of architecture or art or literature – pyramids, temples, amphitheatres, for example – but this reflects our own values and interests.

It is the same with the Maya and with the Easter Islanders. In both cases, civilization and state have been confused and conflated. The Maya world was spread across a huge area with many different environments, from the dry northern Yucatán Peninsula to the river-fed lowlands in the south, and beyond into the mountains. It was an old and interconnected world of cities and kings, divided up among super-states of wide influence and more modest kingdoms that could fall under their spell. There were probably 60 to 70 ‘independent’ states; the fortunes of all waxed and waned. It was a bigger and more complex world than Late Bronze Age Greece.

he idea of a collapse of Maya civilization seems just wrong – and it carries with it the wrong kind of implications – that the Maya all disappeared or that their post-collapse culture is less important or less worthy of our attention. Via many individual collapses, Classic Maya society transformed through the Terminal Classic and into the Postclassic – a development that is hardly surprising when compared with the changing map of Europe across any five-century period. Maya society continued to change with the arrival of the Spanish, and through the colonial and modern eras. If we value the Maya’s so-called Classic period more than their culture at other times, this is our choice – but it is one that should be recognized and questioned. more>

Out of the tragedy of coronavirus may come hope of a more just society

The lessons of necessity and solidarity learned during the pandemic must inform a transition to a just society within ecological limits in its aftermath.
By Michael D Higgins – The global loss of life and disruption to our daily lives resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in living memory. We have learned through tragedy that we have a shared, globalized vulnerability common to all humanity. We are learning how we, as a matter of urgency, must make changes to improve resilience in a range of essential areas: employment, healthcare, housing. We have been forced to recognize our dependence on our public-sector frontline workers, and the state’s broader role in mitigating this crisis and saving lives.

The coronavirus has magnified the scale of our existing social crises and has proved, if ever proof were required, how government can act decisively when the will is there. It has shown us how so many are only ever one wage payment away from impoverishment, how those in self-employment or workers in the ‘gig’ economy lack security and basic employment rights, how private tenants in unregulated housing markets are at the mercy of their landlords, how many designated ‘key workers’ are appallingly undervalued and underpaid. Averting our gaze to these grim truths is no longer an option.

Years of eroding welfare states in many societies have had to give way, under pressure from the virus, to significant welfare actions as emergency measures. These reflect the impact decades of unfettered neoliberalism have had on whole sectors of society and economy, left without protection as to basic necessities of life, security and the ability to participate.

There is now a widespread, recovered recognition not only of the state’s positive role in managing such crises but of how it can play a decisive, transformative role in our lives for the better. The erosion of the state’s role, the weakening of its institutions and the undermining of its significance for over four decades has left us with a less just and more precarious society and economy. more>

Covid-19 Is a Tragedy of the Commons—but We Can Collectively Mitigate the Tragedy

By Robert Kadar and Steve Roth – Coronavirus is a classic Tragedy of the Commons problem: everyone acting in their own self-interest leads to worse outcomes for the collective. But Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom has a solution to that tragedy: design principles for the commons. “Social Distancing” and “flattening the curve” are examples of community design principles for managing our common health and healthcare resources.

It’s Time to Replace the Economics of “Me” with the Economics of “We” by Jonathan Rowe and David Bollier

Optimizing for Human Well-Being by Douglas Rushkoff

The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas by David Sloan Wilson

Why Common Ownership Is a Route to Social Transformation by George Monbiot

The Woman Who Saved Economics from Disaster by David Sloan Wilson

Cooperation Beats Competition; Pro-Sociality Beats Self-Interest

Neoclassical economics claims that “greed is good”—by following one’s own self-interest, “all boats rise.” Unfortunately, we have evidence—from biology to anthropology to sociology to economics—that it simply isn’t true. Only through pro-social, cooperative behavior can we all thrive. It’s time to put these principles into practice as we collectively tackle Coronavirus.

Where Do Pro-Social Institutions Come From? By Pseudoerasmus

You Might Have Earned It, But Don’t Forget That Your Wealth Came from Society by Ryan Avent

How Norway Proves Laissez-faire Economics Is Not Just Wrong, It’s Toxic. By David S. Wilson and Dag O. Hessen

Are We Cooperative or Competitive? Our View Shapes the Economy by Sandra Aamodt

Here Is Why Economics Is Built on a Monumental Mistake by Jag Bhalla

Parasites, Security, and Conflict: The Origins of Individualism and Collectivism by Daniel Hruschka
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The scholar’s vocation

A century ago, Weber both diagnosed the ills of the corporatized, modern university, and pointed out the path beyond it.
By Chad Wellmon – The university was a modern-day patronage system. Intellectuals had long relied on the powerful and wealthy to provide for their material needs. In return, intellectuals advised princes and kept bureaucracies running efficiently. With the rise of the modern research university in 19th-century Germany, they assumed an even greater social role as members of a community that created knowledge for society at large.

Leipzig University, where Eulenburg taught, was founded in 1409. It began with a few hundred students, and remained roughly that size for centuries. In the 1830s, enrollments began to increase dramatically. As the state started to invest significant financial resources, a modern scholarly infrastructure and a division of intellectual labor emerged. In 1909, Eulenburg noted that although Leipzig University was 500 years old, it had become an ‘industrial operation’ in just the past 50.

The university’s evolution, he added, was a ‘microcosm’ of how life had changed in just a few decades. Modernity showed itself not just in urbanization, industrialization and steam-engine train travel, but also in the remaking of intellectual life. The transformation of the German university had far-reaching effects on the production of trustworthy knowledge. The conditions of intellectual life matter, and at the beginning of the 20th century many of the German cultural elite, especially younger people, felt like they were breaking down.

Weber began with a blunt account of the material conditions of the university. He enumerated the structural problems: terrible teaching, workplace discrimination, the exploitation of the labor force, an arbitrary hiring process, and a businesslike and, thus, uninspired understanding of the scholar’s vocation. The universitas litterarum (the ideal of the university as a corporation of scholars devoted to learning), he concluded, had become a ‘fiction’.

The transformation of the university into a capital-intensive, bureaucratically organised enterprise was not simply an effect of academic specialization. More than a century earlier, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant had observed how some universities had begun to function as factories and organize themselves around the division of intellectual labor. Weber considered what he called the ‘Americanization’ of German universities – their saturation by the ‘spirit’ of American capitalism – more consequential than specialization. They now required largescale funding. They separated the academic ‘worker from the means of [scholarly] production’ – libraries accumulated unprecedented numbers of books, research institutes stockpiled instruments, and state-appointed bureaucrats controlled access to both. Universities had become ‘state capitalist enterprises’. more>

A green reboot after the pandemic

In addition to threatening millions of lives, the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated human societies are capable of transforming themselves more or less overnight—there’s no better time.
By Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Hunter Lovins, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and Kate Raworth – The Covid-19 coronavirus has forced entire countries into lockdown mode, terrified citizens around the world and triggered a financial-market meltdown. The pandemic demands a forceful, immediate response. But in managing the crisis, governments also must look to the long term. One prominent policy blueprint with a deep time horizon is the European Commission’s European Green Deal, which offers several ways to support the communities and businesses most at risk from the current crisis.

Covid-19 reflects a broader trend: more planetary crises are coming. If we muddle through each new crisis while maintaining the same economic model that got us here, future shocks will eventually exceed the capacity of governments, financial institutions and corporate crisis managers to respond. Indeed, the ‘coronacrisis’ has already done so.

The Club of Rome issued a similar warning in its famous 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, and again in Beyond the Limits, a 1992 book by the lead author of that earlier report, Donella Meadows. As Meadows warned back then, humanity’s future will be defined not by a single emergency but by many separate yet related crises stemming from our failure to live sustainably. By using the Earth’s resources faster than they can be restored, and by releasing wastes and pollutants faster than they can be absorbed, we have long been setting ourselves up for disaster.

On one planet, all species, countries and geopolitical issues are ultimately interconnected. We are witnessing how the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China can wreak havoc on the entire world. Like Covid-19, climate change, biodiversity loss and financial collapses do not observe national or even physical borders. These problems can be managed only through collective action that starts long before they become full-blown crises.

The coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call to stop exceeding the planet’s limits. more>

China, America, and the International Order after the Pandemic

By Mira Rapp-Hooper – As people around the world fall ill, global markets convulse, and supply chains collapse, COVID-19 may also reorder international politics as we know it. No analyst can know when this crisis will end, much less divine the world we will meet at its conclusion. But as scholars have begun to note, it is plausible that China will emerge from the wreckage as more of a global leader than it began.

Following World War II, the United States was a chief architect of the so-called liberal international order and became its uncontested leader with the Cold War’s end. China, with its breathtaking economic growth and vast increases in military spending, has been on the ascent for decades, but long remained focused on domestic stability and the security of the Chinese Communist Party. It clambered to center stage after 2008, when the global financial crisis appeared to signal a weakening of American primacy.

China and others took the American financial stumble as a blunder of democratic capitalism, and a moment of opportunity to advance their own agendas. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has seen the last decade as a period of “strategic opportunity” — one it did not necessarily expect to last, as it faces its own expected economic and demographic slowdowns. It built military bases in the South China Sea in contravention of international law, launched the vast and opaque Belt and Road Initiative to spread economic and political influence, doubled down on the state’s role in the economy and prejudicial policies, and coopted international human rights bodies. Along the way, it began to develop its own global governance aspirations and visions.

With the election of Donald Trump, the United States widened Beijing’s window of opportunity with its self-inflicted political convulsion. To China’s great fortune, American foreign policy was now expressly hostile to multilateral institutions, bellicose on trade, and defined national security in terms of narrow, homeland defense. To experts in the United States and abroad this looked like a willing abdication of the system the United States had constructed and led. But alongside these fears, and in another significant shift, foreign policy thinkers from both major parties increasingly agreed that the United States and China had entered a period of a great-power competition, in part, over the future of the international order and which power would set its terms.

Alone, the United States could not hope to match China’s economic and military heft in Asia. With allies by its side, America could remain peerless and manage peaceful change. Narrow unilateralism stoked renewed perceptions of further American decline and attenuated an otherwise favorable balance of power.

Enter the novel coronavirus.

It should be stunning that a virus that originated in China and spread in part due to Chinese government mismanagement may reorder the world to Beijing’s advantage, as Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi have argued. more>