Moral Capitalism Starts Going Mainstream

U.S. Representative Joseph Kennedy III has picked up “Moral Capitalism” as his program for the U.S. He called asking for my help, which I said I would give him.

Last week, he gave a talk on the subject at Harvard Law School, which you can read here (PDF).

A commentary in Bloomberg by Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein notes Kennedy’s attachment to Moral Capitalism.

This adoption of Moral Capitalism is a compliment to the authors of our Principles for Business and to the Minnesota heritage they brought forward.

Taking Care of Employees

I saw recently in the Wall Street Journal this anecdote (PDF) about a “boss” looking out for an employee.

It reminded me that even in the throws of making a living, we can make life better for those around us, especially those who can rise or fall thanks to our powers and decisions made as to how we use them.

Moral Capitalism with Swedish Characteristics

In many of our discussions here in the U.S. about capitalism and our shortcomings as a nation, the example of Sweden and Nordic welfare-state capitalism is often raised as a better model for us to follow.

Thus, I thought it telling when the Wall Street Journal, no friend of socialism, recently published a commentary on stealth capitalism in Sweden titled “How Sweden Overcame Socialism.”

Science Stands Up for Moral Capitalism

Two new books make the case for moral capitalism irrefutable. According to two students of human evolution, it turns out that integrating social calculations into real world strategies for living well is what we humans are designed to do.

Therefore, being moral with the use of private property and with free-market entrepreneurship is feasible. We can expect those in capitalism to listen to “the better angels of their natures” because such angels can really be a compelling part of their natures.

Richard Wrangham has a new book titled The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution and Michael Tomasello has a new book with the title Becoming Human.

Wrangham argues that as humans evolved physically out of their original primate bodily configuration, they turned from wild creatures to domesticated ones with their bodies changing shape as evidence of such growing socialization.

Tomasello argues that human children display “joint intentionality” with their caregivers to better succeed in cooperative living.

In other words, just as Aristotle postulated in the pre-scientific age, humans are social animals. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote:

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

Wrangham and Tomasello use science to validate the thinking of: Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Jesus, the Qur’an, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Adam Smith when he wrote on the moral sentiments in 1759 and today’s Catholic Social Teachings.

We would be fools not to follow what has been taught to us over so many centuries.

For ten years now, we have listened to Professor Doran Hunter, now a member of our board of directors, on the constructive lessons to be learned from evolutionary biology and neuro-science.

Because we are social animals, we can set expectations for each other to be ethical and responsible. Ethics and responsibility, duty that we use our powers thoughtful of the consequences, are part of human nature.

Social Darwinism, which is used by some to justify brute capitalism (think of Wall Street in the run up to 2008) – the Hobbesian law of the jungle where only the fittest in tooth and claw are said to survive – is inconsistent with our deepest needs as human persons.

As Harvard psychologist William James affirmed:

“The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”

The implication of what Wrangham and Tomasello are telling us is that we cannot be well unless we are social. But as society is a reciprocal arrangement among the one and the many, society has its corresponding duty to keep us well as individuals.

But how we have evolved leaves us with decisions to make daily: do we listen to the “better angels of our nature” or do we behave as brutes do, or alternatively, seek to be Gods liberated from all obligation and moral sense?

The infusion of morality, ethics and the acceptance of personal responsibility into our decision-making is leadership. We must learn to lead by activating our moral sense.

Thus, as I wrote in my 2004 book Moral Capitalism, it can’t happen on its own; it must be made to happen, by us.

John Bogle, Moral Capitalist: A Tribute

John Bogle passed away recently. He understood financial markets, as we do, that they have a stewardship responsibility inside capitalism to support real wealth creation which raises the living standards of all fairly.

He opened financial markets for ordinary people – the arms and legs of capitalism – by making no-frills, low cost index funds easily available. He started a company, Vanguard Group, in 1975.

Vanguard’s business model allowed investors to minimize their risks by investing in a diversified portfolio of company stocks and so avoid the fees charged by fund managers who bought and sold individual stocks for their clients but who most often failed to outperform the market.

Vanguard was set up as a non-profit with its mutual funds and fund shareholders as owners of the business. Profits were plowed back into the business to reduce fees charged to buyers of its funds. Vanguard now manages $5 trillion globally. Vanguard has an expense ratio substantially lower than any other fund complex in the world.

Then, in 1977, Vanguard marketed its funds directly to individual investors and did not require them to go through brokers, who took fees for their service.

Bogle’s investment philosophy was to mimic the market, not try to outsmart other investors in the short run. Rather, his approach was to grow the market over time – little by little, but steady, year after year. This minimized the risk of loss which kept many with small or no fortunes from putting their assets at hazard in equity markets. Investors could obtain a market rate of return at lower cost with index funds. Even today, almost half of all American households don’t invest for the future at all.

Taken altogether, many Americans are richer and the financial industry poorer thanks to John Bogle. Warren Buffet said that John “did more for American investors … than any individual I’ve known.”

Bogle understood that it was the financial service industry that chased risk in order to get higher returns – greed for money. He saw Wall Street as “Financialism,” not honest capitalism. Bogle argued that financial advisors had a duty to be good stewards of the best interests of their clients only.

Bogle’s strategy was encouraged by federal government tax policies in the authorization of IRAs (individual retirement accounts) and 401(k) savings plans. These two arrangements allowed investors to defer the payment of taxes on their earnings in such funds. Index funds are now just under 30% of the stock market.

He received me graciously in December 2012. He had liked what I had written in my book Moral Capitalism – ”Moral Responsibility is a form of stewardship, of agency, of fiduciary undertaking. … it is a vision of mutuality, of service, of both self and others.”

In giving me a copy of his book The Clash of Cultures, he signed it with this word of encouragement: “Press on – Regardless!”

John differentiated between investment and speculation. The first was good use of money and the second was just gambling to make a money play off the misjudgment of others about the odds of future contingencies happening or not. He understood that speculation did not necessarily create new wealth; it just moved money around from some to others, as happens in any poker game.

Bogle called his industry “The poster-boy for one of the most baneful chapters in the modern history of capitalism.”

Another one of his books, which I have, is just called Enough.

A Garden Among the Flames

I received a Christmas card from one of our colleagues, a Christian who has a substantial business in the Middle East.

He chose for his message a poem by Ibn Al-Arabi who lived in Andalusia, Spain from 1165 to 1240 C.E. I had not known of his poetry before but found his sense of the spirit compelling for our times of distrust and hard-edged competition.

He wrote:

A Garden Among the Flames

My heart is capable of wearing all forms.
It is a pasture for gazelles and a monastery for monks,
A temple for idols and the Kaaba for the pilgrim.
It is the tablets of the Torah and it is the book of the Koran.
I profess the religion of love, wherever the destination of it caravan may be.
That is the belief, the faith I keep.

Happy New Year.

The Next Capitalist Revolution

A while back, I ran across several academic papers pointing to a causal connection between increased concentration of market power and stagnation in wage gains. The correlation was that rents obtained through market power were disproportionally shared with managers and owners and not with employees.

I also ran across several charts showing increased concentration of market power in American business sectors. Here are a few:

The special report in the November 17th, 2018 issue of The Economist pointed to the need for de-concentration of market power as the next revolution in capitalism. Anti-trust limitations on company market power would, said the editors, reduce rent extraction (a technical term economists use to point out returns to market power and not quality of product or service or fair pricing in open markets).

Take Google, for example. It has bought up some 200 small companies – potential competitors.

Amazon has just bought a software firm which manipulates data on individual health conditions and a company which sells drugs over the internet. Put the two together and fund them with Amazon cash and you re-structure the health care market to Amazon’s advantage in giving its platform greater market share.

Rent extraction – the result of successful rent-seeking – is the antithesis of moral capitalism and even of Adam Smith’s invisible hand capitalism. Smith excoriated monopolies and mercantilism for the unfairness of its rent extraction propensities. Rent extraction is an economic system using political power of some kind to obtain cash income. It is the basis of aristocracies and landlord regimes, of warlord societies and political hegemony and most of the crony capitalism and self-serving autocracies in the world today.

If profits in America were at historically normal levels, says The Economist and private sector workers got the benefits, real wages would rise by 6%.

The Economist pointed out that in America, the free cash flow of companies is 76% above its 50 year average, while real incomes for workers and the middle class have been largely stagnant for several decades. Is it, therefore, any wonder that so many non-elite Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016?

The Economist also calculated that the global pool of “excess” profits is $660 billion, of which more than two-thirds were extracted in America.

The Economist recommends: 1) let individual users of tech services take their information anywhere they want; 2) outlaw many barriers to entry such as non-compete clauses in employment contracts; and 3) modernize anti-trust jurisprudence to take into account more than short-term consumer benefits, including consideration of competitive health of markets and excessive returns on capital.

In several commentaries and articles last year, I suggested new examination of the big internet firms for buying excessive market power. It’s nice to have The Economist supporting our recommendation.

What Are We Worth?

Recently, we have been wondering at the emphasis in capitalism placed on income earned rather than on asset value. Not marking the value of assets is particularly odd because it does not account for vital assets such as social or human capital, which contain moral qualities or for natural capital, which is subject to degradation.

I recently saw a story that in the U.S., a credit rating agency for individuals will add to its consideration of one’s “asset” potential to support a loan one’s habits of paying cellphone and utility bills. Timely payments indicate a person of more “worth” as a capitalist.

I am, thus, reminded that a person’s credit is a reflection of their asset value, not just their earning capacity. A good credit is a worthy asset. And one’s credit does not depend on one’s income but more on one’s character and good judgment.

A good credit rating is a capital account in some important way, standing us in good stead through the vicissitudes of material ups and downs.

The great Wall Street tycoon J.P. Morgan was once asked: “Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?”

Morgan answered: “No, sir; the first thing is character.”

Untermeyer: “Before money or property?”

Morgan: “Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.”

This is from Morgan’s testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Banking and Currency in December, 1912.

As We Reflect

On this last day of 2018, I wonder as I do often during this time of year as to the meaning of these holidays. We are so parochial in so many ways – each confined within certain traditions and so most likely distant from others with their traditions who, in turn, may feel themselves to be distant from us.

Yet, I am reminded listening in our family’s rather ordinary Protestant tradition to English Christmas carols with very young grand-daughters sitting on the rug entertained by new toys of one part of the meaning of Christmas – which is the freedom and the burden of personal choice.

The story of Jesus as told in the New Testament and retold in the carols is that of a gift – a gift, if you will, of choice. We are not commanded to follow Jesus. He just appears and teaches. We can adopt his teachings or not. It’s up to us individually.

No ultimate power commands us. That is the reality of ethics and morally. It is up to us. How should we live? How should we treat others? How should we regulate ourselves?

As I wrote in my 2004 book Moral Capitalism, moral capitalism is not a power, not a self-actualizing system that runs on its own. It must be made to happen by our decisions, made one by one, person by person. A tall order, perhaps, but one that follows nature, just as streams must flow from high to low.

Thus, I felt affirmed by the following comment in an article on homelessness in the quite wealthy city of Seattle, Washington, here in the U.S.:

“Advocates point to Zillow and McKinsey studies that show a high correlation between rent hikes and homelessness in Seattle, for example. But correlation is not causation and the survey data paint a remarkably different picture. According to King County’s point-in-time study, only 6 percent of homeless people surveyed cited “could not afford rent increase” as the precipitating cause of their situation, pointing instead to a wide range of other problems—domestic violence, incarceration, mental illness, family conflict, medical conditions, breakups, eviction, addiction and job loss—as bigger factors.”

We live in systems and are subject to powers and principalities, in the words of the New Testament. They constrain our choices. We are raised to believe in this or that. Such beliefs constrain our choices. We are moved by emotions. Such emotions constrain our choices.

But what efforts should we make to make our choices truly our own and in our best interest and with regard for the common good?

We are significantly free and our freedom can be used for good or for ill. Let’s use it for good in the New Year.

Data, Data Everywhere and Not a Drip to Drink

The dynamic process of capitalism in providing for human needs and wants relies on pricing that which has value. Pricing facilitates exchange. It internalizes the multiple values meaningful to buyers and sellers.

The internet, like markets, provides for the needs and wants of its users. It creates goods which have value. Who, then, gets to price these goods and who gets to buy them?

Should internet platforms be regulated as markets often are to protect consumers from exploitation?

On the one hand, the goods provided by internet platforms to its users are price-less – they are free. The users of such platforms are free riders. Use of platforms is undisciplined, not subject to the usual market rationality of price elasticity with an opportunity cost to the user only of how the time spent in consumption could be alternatively spent. Consumption of what internet platforms offer is a pure intangible value play; there is no cash nexus between provider and consumer.

So what is the business model at work?

As with television and radio, the internet takes advantage of electromagnetic waves. It uses electromagnetic technologies to provide convenient “entertainment,” “infotainment” and social connectivity with which to attract an audience. Platforms sell attractions to pay for the time spent absorbing their content in order to obtain suppliers of consumer preferences and personal data. Access to those preferences and data can then be priced and sold by the platforms as a “good” desired by certain specially interested purchasers.

Those who consume the free goods provided by the platforms are actually suppliers of what the platforms sell in order to make profits. The value which users of platform services provide is 1) the potential to purchase goods and services for cash and 2) the data they provide to the platform about their likely purchases and other actions they are disposed to take. The platform sells this value to their real customers – advertisers and others seeking to exploit collected user data. The cash proceeds received by the platforms from their customers is not shared with the suppliers of the potential spending preferences and other data which the platforms sell.

The data provided to the platforms by those who use them is a new form of wealth which can benefit many companies and others, such as political actors and issue advocates.

In a recent speech, Microsoft CEO Tim Cook took pains to point out features of this new wealth which raise ethical issues of responsible conduct on the part of platform companies.

His full remarks can be found here.