World Economic Forum Jumps on the Bandwagon

Two days ago, the World Economic Forum – “Davos Man” – affirmed the vision of the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism’s (CRT) 1994 Principles for Business in their “Davos Manifesto 2020.”

Another domino of establishment opinion has fallen away from conventional wisdom.

I welcome Klaus Schwab to the movement and thank him for his support.

Klaus also issued a statement on Sunday explaining the reasons for more robustly affirming the approach to global capitalism advocated by the CRT.

I note that in his view, the three options open to global civilization for economic growth – social Darwinism for shareholders, nationalized socialism or moral capitalism – are the very same ones that were discussed at our Global Dialogue a couple of weeks ago.

Valuation in the News

Some say money makes the world go round. Saint Paul advised that “love” of money is the root of all evil. I would say that prices create transactions, transactions create markets and markets create wealth.

So, depending on price, the world gets richer and people get or don’t get what they need or want (and if prices are too high, transfer payments of one kind or another are necessary to empower those without money so that they can access goods and services).

I recently read that the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review uses a novel way to set a price for expensive drugs. It puts a dollar figure (an assumption) on a year of healthy life, calculated how much health a drug restores to a sick person and then prices the drug according to the benefit bestowed on the patient. This method, said Dave Lennon, President of a Novartis unit, brings uniformity and transparency to drug prices, reducing the rent extraction available to makers due to their IP rights. Drug company prices can be compared to the computed “benefit” price.

But, how does one put a dollar amount to a year of my life – say, at age 36 or at 55 or at 87?

The intangibles of a life well-lived seem hard to evaluate in market terms.

Secondly, the Saudi state oil company, Saudi Aramco, launched its first public offering of shares, some 2% to 5% of its total shares. What is a share of Aramco worth today? What factors should be taken into account in coming up with a cash figure? The shares will first be sold domestically in Saudi Arabi and then internationally. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince has valued the company at $2 trillion, but market-savvy advisors don’t agree that potential purchasers will want to pay that much per share. They estimate buyer acceptance in the $1.6 to $1.8 trillion range.

Thirdly, the value of shares in still privately held, high-tech start-up companies is uncertain. Many mutual funds which invested in high-tech start-ups saw the value of their shares drop after the companies went public. Investors did not accept the valuations previously put on the prospects of such companies by their initial owners. Multiple funds valued Uber before a public sale of shares at $56.02 per share. Its initial offering price was only $45 and its share prices dropped after that.

The collapse of the initial public offering of We Company, the parent of WeWork, was a second notable example of mispricing by early owners of the company.

Mutual funds have invested $6.7 billion in unicorn companies – privately held start-ups estimated to be worth $1 billion or more. Mutual funds carried these investments on their balance sheets at estimated values, as they have to value their holdings daily. Thus, fund managers must write down the estimates and so take a theoretical loss in the value of their holdings.

The We Company saga of misvaluation was dramatic. WeWork’s estimated value plunged from $47 billion in January 2019 to $8 billion in October. An initial owner and promoter, SoftBank’s Venture Fund led by Rajeev Misra, had to step in with $10 billion to restructure the company and so forestall greater losses. The founder, Adam Neumann, agreed to leave and give up his voting rights in return for $1.7 billion – a nice price for one man’s human capital.

A Capitalist “Revolution” in France

This past summer, France took a happy step in the current march towards rethinking capitalism as a complex, interdependent system of mutual advantage.

The French National Assembly passed a law permitting companies to define for themselves their “raison d’etre” – their more transcendent meaning for the owners, customers, employees and society. This will give companies clear focus for their organizational mission and the ability to create cultures of achievement around that mission.

One commentator has written:

“Under the new law on Business Growth and Transformation (the so-called “PACTE Law”), the management of French companies must take into consideration social and environmental issues. Companies are also encouraged to incorporate social objectives into their corporate purpose.

The PACTE Law contains multiple provisions, some of which are of particular interest for those who follow business and human rights developments. Indeed, the PACTE Law provides (i) for “social and environmental issues” to be taken into account in French companies’ management alongside the corporate interests and (ii) for the possibility of enshrining the company’s “purpose” (raison d’être) in the corporate bylaws.”

More precisely, Article 169 of the PACTE Law introduces the following amendments into French law:

-Article 1833 of the French Civil Code now has a second paragraph stating that corporations must be managed in their own “corporate interests” by taking into consideration the “social and environmental issues” related to their operations.

-Article 1835 of the French Civil Code has been amended to allow corporations to specify in their bylaws a “purpose” for the corporate operations; this means that companies are encouraged to incorporate social objectives to their corporate purpose as part of their bylaws.

-Articles L. 225-35 and L. 225-64 of the French Commercial Code have been adjusted so that corporate and management boards take into consideration “social and environmental issues” as part of their respective managerial assignments.

In short, if the PACTE Law will not directly change the nature and objectives of corporations, it explicitly intends to give them the possibility to go beyond the objective of being profitable.

I find the French express of “raison d’etre” – literally a reason for being – more powerful and existentially directive than the English word “purpose.”

People’s Republic of China – 70th Anniversary

Today marks 70 years since the end of a civil war among the Chinese. The nationalists, mostly politically organized by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party and army, collapsed before a relentless mobilization of other Chinese by Mao Zedong and his Communist Party.

During the last 70 years of the Communist organized People’s Republic of China, China has lived under two different forms of Communism. The first was Mao’s experiment in radical reconstruction of persons and the social order. The second began after Mao’s death under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who opened China up economically to markets and culturally to more acceptance of commonplace human nature.

Where Mao insisted on everyone thinking in ideological terms, with the certainty and passion of religious converts living righteously and bringing down evil, Deng was far more open-minded, famously asking who cares if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. Deng also proposed that it is glorious to get rich.

Mao was spiritual in the Western sense of having a Kantian insistence of us only acting from the purist of universal motives without any concern for self, while Deng was utilitarian.

By following Deng’s moral philosophy, China has become a wonder in human history for economic growth. The Chinese people are now well on their way to becoming the world’s leading nation state, with more wealth and global power than ever before in history.

In a way, both Mao and Deng nationalized socialism. Deng’s formula for the Chinese state was to build socialism with “Chinese characteristics.” In his time, Mao was not a follower of Stalin and the Soviet version of Marxism. He was too Chinese to do that. Mao split with the Soviet leadership after the death of Stalin.

To me, Mao, too, sought to build a socialism with Chinese characteristics. His selection of Chinese values and behaviors to guide his party, which would use the state to mold the people, favored the millennialism of the White Lotus religious sect. The White Lotus sect had given birth to the Ming Dynasty of imperial control of thought and culture. White Lotus beliefs are Manichean, where people must choose between good and evil, between the light and the dark. There can be no compromise between these realms and each person must incorporate in his or her mind and heart only the tenets of the good and repress all contrary thoughts and actions.

Deng, on the other hand, was more practical and took his sense of what “good” Chinese characteristics were from ancient thinkers like MoZi, GuanZi and Shang Yang. These thinkers were influenced by the realism of Yin and Yang, where life results from natural forces. But they proposed ways of manipulating human nature to subordinate the individual to the state. The role of the state is to channel what is natural to the people – like getting rich – in order that the state could grow stronger. Deng released the latent psycho-social energies of the Chinese people and the rest is history.

Both Mao and Deng adopted the Chinese imperial order for the country under which the state set the agenda and made sure individual egoism would never have the power to drive any political agenda. This central premise of Chinese socialism dictated Deng’s response to the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. He allegedly said, “Comrades, don’t you understand? When Chinese blood starts to flow, the South China Sea will turn red.” And so, the popular movement was repressed with relentless determination.

Today, Xi Jinping follows this imperial Chinese pattern of rule with great devotion and attention to detail, creating the world’s first surveillance state.

Thus, China under the Communists has created an effective form of state capitalism or nationalized socialism, where private economic interests are coordinated by the party for the good of the state.

The moral capitalism of Confucius, Mencius, the Yin/Yang school and the Taoists only exists in the ancient texts and, maybe, in the hearts of the Chinese people.

Restraint and Moral Capitalism

A premise of our thinking about prospects for a moral capitalism is restraint on power – restraints suggested by the moral sense, restraints from market preferences and restraints from law. As in most things moral, personal character and good leadership values are indispensable drivers of responsible behaviors. Comfort with restraint is a disposition of character most conducive to moral outcomes.

Accordingly, restraint of market power is a necessary check and balance in the constitutional arrangement of capitalism. In the U.S., thinking more favorably about more rigorous enforcement of antitrust laws is on the rise.

From 1981 to 2017, antitrust cases filed by the U.S. Department of Justice decreased 61%, while mergers and acquisitions, a key means of consolidating private market power, increased by 750%.

I also just read of the drugmaker AbbVie buying its rival Allergan for $63 billion. As a business strategy of growth by merger, AbbVie had bought Pharmacyclics for $21 billion in 2015 and Stemcentrx for $10 billion a year later.

Previously, Bristol-Myers Squibb bought Celgene for $90 billion, Pfizer bought Array BioPharma for $11.4 billion and Eli Lilly bought Loxo Oncology for $8 billion. How is declining competition in drugs good for consumers?

In many industries, a handful of firms now dominate sales.

I have read several academic articles concluding that increased concentration explains recent trends in wage stagnation, rising economic inequality and sluggish productivity.

In step with 1980s economic theory that made a firm primarily responsible for making short-term profits for shareholders, thinking about having too much or too little market power gave priority to making money from consumers. If a merger had advantages for consumers and the market approved of its prospects for enhanced share value, it was held to be a good merger beyond the reach of antitrust laws.

Just as we are now moving on from the theory of the firm as a cooperative enterprise funded to make profits, we are on the cusp of moving away from the theory that bigger firms are better for society.

Why Might We Need Good Constitutional Orders?

This past Tuesday, September 17th, was Constitution Day here in the U.S. While I am hesitant as an American to write about my country in the abstract, the idea of a written constitution providing for citizen sovereignty, checks and balances and rights for individuals against the state has universal ethical implications.

Today, we see great commotions over these issues around our world: a test of an unwritten constitution in the U.K., the evolution of a constitutional order in the European Union as a federation, the unconstitutional order in Venezuela and autocracy in Turkey, theological supervision of the state in Iran, protests against the state apparatus in Hong Kong and Moscow and progressive American presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren suggesting that checks and balances are oppressive and should be abandoned or bypassed so that a majority can enjoy its will to power.

The points to contemplate, I suggest, are two: one is the purpose of a state as set forth in our Constitution. This is an ethical statement about the use of public power in trust. The preamble sets forth the legitimate business of government:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

(I am, I hope, not unduly immodest in these days of political discord in my country to acknowledge my pride that one of my mother’s forebearers, Gouverneur Morris, wrote these words.)

The legal form of the U.S. Constitution, I suggest, is a deed of trust. The sovereign people, acting through state conventions, entrust limited powers to a government for all of them. The powers are to be used in trust so the Constitution provided the text of an oath which qualifies a person to become president. That person must swear to rise above party, religion, self-interest and all personal prejudices in order that he or she may “faithfully execute the office” of president.

Constitutional government is one of office, not of will. Constitutional government rejects the will-to-power ethics of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism and of Nietzsche’s nihilism.

The reason for this constraint lies in keen and truthful conclusions about our human nature. In Federalist Paper No.55, written by James Madison, it holds that:

“As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be, that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.”

Economic Inequality Isn’t Unique to U.S.

I recently saw a report on real income growth in Russia. American capitalism is not alone in favoring the top over the middle and bottom of the socioeconomic order. In Russia, from 1989 to 2018, income for the top 1% grew 429% and for the top 10% by 171%, but for the bottom 50%, income shrank 20%.

Overall growth in income was 41%.

Political power everywhere is fungible with money and power. One breeds the other.