The Fruits of Modern Capitalism

Swiss bank UBS just released its 2018 report on the world’s billionaires. A few factual highlights I thought would be of interest to you:

  • Globally, billionaire wealth increased by USD 1.4 trillion to USD 8.9 trillion in 2017, its greatest absolute growth ever, with China minting 2 billionaires a week.
  • Billionaires have driven almost 80% of the 40 main breakthrough innovations over the last 40 years. Approximately 70% are technology-related and 80% of the companies behind them are based in the Americas.
  • A new cohort of Chinese entrepreneurs is challenging Silicon Valley amid rising tensions over trade and intellectual property. With 50 unicorns produced in China and 62 in the U.S., the Chinese are proving restless innovators and disruptors.

Rent-Seeking Pays

A short comment on rent-seeking:

It may be that the most thoroughgoing distortion of free markets and capitalism is rent-seeking – consolidation of firms to give commodity pricing and market dominance to a few, benefiting from favorable government privileges and regulations (also obtaining market privileges through the prevention of regulation), cronyism of all sorts, agreements in restraint of trade,…

We should not, therefore, blame capitalism or those in finance and enterprise for the sins of rent-seeking, only those who engage in rent extraction.

I noticed recently in The Economist a claim that in the U.S., rent-seeking through special tax benefits is profitable. The money spent on lobbyists who arrange for the special tax advantages to be adopted by the Congress or through administrative interpretation of regulations earns a return for companies of 22,000%. Secondly, American financial firms which spent the most on lobbying benefited disproportionately from bank bailouts after the 2008 financial crisis.

Good Advice

I want to pass on a sound observation by Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault and Nissan:

“If you don’t find the solution, it’s because you didn’t see the real problem.”

I like his optimism and his call for intelligent observation and analysis of the “what is” – the Tao of the Chinese and the Dharma of the Buddhists and maybe the natural laws of how the world works of the West.

Private Production of Public Goods?

A very common misperception about the nature of goods and services limits our intellectual horizons on the good that can come from free market capitalism.

I refer to sustainable development and the current global discussion as to how best to implement the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most of the goals in their objectives contemplate provision of a public good or service or the reduction of a public “bad,” such as disease, pollution or discrimination.

What is overlooked is how to scale the production of such “public” goods to have a global impact.

When many of us hear the term “public,” we immediately default to a vision of something provided by the government and not by private markets. “Public” goods traditionally have been paid for by taxpayers and delivered by government.

But that does not have to be the case. Many so-called public goods, such as health and education, are also simultaneously private goods. Health is good for individuals, just as is more education.

Where the use and benefit of goods has a private, personal ownership character, why not use markets and business for production and delivery? After all, both health and education have long been provided by doctors and teachers offering services for a fee.

We might also do well to think of the capacity of private transactions to reach huge scale. Consider the internet and the digital economy. Private businesses like Google and Apple have provided more access to more people more quickly and more efficiently than governments could.

I have just read of several sectors where private business could make a dramatic impact on implementing the SDGs. One is the production of air conditioners. One billion air conditioners will be installed in the next 10 years. Heat waves kill people. It also reduces hours at work in many countries. Lack of refrigeration causes loss of food crops to rats and insects in many developing countries. If HFCs were phased out of the air conditioners made by companies and the energy use by all were as low as in the best of today’s models, millions of consumers buying such machines would make the world better. Replacing refrigerant would reduce greenhouse gas emission by 90 billion tons by 2050.

Large cities are complaining about road congestion and point a finger of blame at ride hailing vehicles. But what about road pricing? Using price to drive consumption levels of a private good – transportation?

In the mid-pacific, somewhere between 45,000 and 129,000 tons of plastic debris floats on the surface of an area roughly the size of Alaska. How to remove such non-biodegradable garbage? What about a private enterprise which would sweep the plastic up and sell it to recyclers?

This is being attempted by Boyan Slat. He designed a boom to float on the surface of the ocean and hold a mesh net under it. As the wind and waves sweep the boom over the water, plastic debris is collected by the mesh net. Occasionally, the net is retrieved and its haul of plastic picked up, taken to land and sold. An investment of 5 million Euros is needed to put into the collection business a similar boom of 1 kilometer or more in length.

Thirdly, in The Netherlands, two Dutch firms have created a road bed made from recycled plastic instead of bitumen. Sections of road are prefabricated in a factory and then installed as a road bed. These plastic road beds will last two-to-three times longer than conventional roads and cost less. They would eliminate the need to use bitumen made from hydrocarbons and provide a use for plastic which needs to be recycled.

These examples point us to a best practice: private enterprise generates new technology, works out the problems and deploys the product to whatever scale society wants to pay for.

Moral capitalism, anyone?

The Economist at 175

A few weeks ago returning from Mexico City, I read the “manifesto” of The Economist magazine written on its 175th anniversary – 1843.  It was a defense of “liberalism.”

The Economist called for a revival of “liberalism” which has lost sight, it said, of its own essential values, saying “Liberalism made the modern world but the modern world is turning against it.”  The magazine defines “liberalism” as a “universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”

This “liberalism” is positioned between the social Darwinist “neo-liberalism” of micro-economic fundamentalists on the libertarian right and collectivist regimentation on the left for the betterment of the “people.”

The Economist argued that “True Liberals contend that societies can change gradually for the better and from the bottom up. They differ from revolutionaries because they reject the idea that individuals should be coerced into accepting someone else’s beliefs. They differ from conservatives because they assert that aristocracy and hierarchy, indeed all concentrations of power, tend to become sources of oppression.”

It occurred to me that the vision and mission of the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism is precisely this “liberalism.”  Our Principles for Business, ethical government as a public trust, responsible debate on the part of civil society and responsible use of wealth to enhance social and human capitals define a working program of “liberal” civilization.

I would add that “liberalism” resumes that individuals have a moral sense, a moral sense that does not need to be imposed by the state or any righteous hierarchy and a moral sense that keeps those with power from abusing it.  “Liberalism” presumes that individuals each have a station in life which carries with it burdens and privileges and a responsibility to serve a higher purpose.

This “liberalism” echoes the balancing between extremes of Aristotle, the Doctrine of the Mean of Confucius, the Mizan of the Qur’an and the middle way of Buddhism.