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Duty of Care: A Restriction on Our Consumer Freedoms

In response to my recent email on who should stop whom from deciding as a consumer what to buy and use, Don Samuels sent me a very thoughtful reply saying:

“I remember in the late 70s, sitting in smoke-filled rooms for company meetings, where our CEO chomped on a huge, smoldering cigar and leaders at various levels puffed on a dozen cigarettes, in the middle of winter, with all windows shut tight. I remember gasping for air and struggling to speak without a hitch. The health considerations of second-hand smoke were still up for debate between the scientific research and the tobacco industry, but non-smokers like me were becoming convinced that we were paying a price for our smoking-co-workers’ freedom.”

His point about concern for others as a restriction on our liberties is a very sound one.

The old adage is: my right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

In the 1883 English case of Heaven v. Pender, Master of the Rolls Brett ruled that: “Whenever one person is by circumstances placed in such a position with regard to another… whereby he may cause danger of injury… a duty arises to use ordinary care and skill to avoid such danger.”

I was reminded of this source of personal duty to be careful of others by the recent outbreak of coronavirus in China. It seems most likely that the virus began to infect humans in a wet market for wild animals in China. Thus, personal decisions to buy and sell in a free market imposed dangers on others and have lead to many restrictions on personal freedoms in the Wuhan region.

The police powers of the state have long been accepted as reaching far enough to restrain our personal choices in order to decrease risks of harm to the health of others.

Moral Capitalism and Climate Change – Thursday, February 27th

At our November 22nd, 2019 luncheon event, the subject of climate change arose rather unexpectedly as a recurring theme in speeches and table conversations. When you pair that with other changes in the business zeitgeist, such as BlackRock (the world’s largest asset manager) CEO Larry Fink’s annual shareholder letter stating I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance because of climate change, you know we’ve begun to enter new territory at the highest levels of corporate leadership.

How does this new business thinking align with the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism’s Principles for Business? What is the direction a responsible business should take? Is it all doom and gloom or are there potential opportunities to explore? What do you think?

Please join us at 9:00 am on Thursday, February 27 at the University Club of St. Paul to discuss what business can do to address this issue.

Registration and a light breakfast will begin at 8:30 am and the event at 9:00 am.

Cost to attend is $15 for Business and Public Policy Round Table members and $35 for non-members. Payment will be accepted at the door.

Space is limited.

To register, please click here (link to Eventbrite page)

The University Club is located at 420 Summit Ave in St. Paul.

When Consumers Make “Stupid” Decisions, Who Should Stop Them?

One hundred years ago this past January 17, Americans tried to elevate the moral quality of all citizens with the passage of a criminal law. They prohibited, on pain of punishment, the production and sale of alcohol. The social experiment lasted 13 years during which time much crime was committed through the illegal production and drinking of alcohol.

Alcohol was deemed to be a good without merit to the extent that individual judgment was not deemed sufficiently potent to cause consumers to give up drinking beer, wine and spirits and so force producers out of business for lack of customers. The state was given the responsibility of making such decisions for individuals.

The law was draconian and totalitarian, though passed with majority support. The ideology, more a theology, put forth to justify such an abridgement of individual freedom believed that God would bless and protect only a community of righteous people. Since the drinking of alcohol was deemed unrighteous, a nation of drinkers would not receive God’s blessings. To save American, therefore, in God’s eyes, people had to be made to be righteous.

The effort to impose morality by law is commonplace among our species. Most criminal laws are justified by a moral norm, say, thou shalt not kill. In Imperial China over the centuries, filial impiety was illegal. Under legalized Sharia rules in some countries, people are punished for, say, blasphemy. Chairman Mao made the unrighteousness of wrong thinking an offense leading to re-education under state supervision. China today uses coercion to re-educate Uighur Turks in Xinjiang province to “uplift” their beliefs and habits in line with government preferences.

But the human spirit is such that laws can’t instill morality. People are contumacious, which is to say that they, at times, choose immorality or consumption of un-meritorious goods and services over the socially proposed “right” way to live.

Today in the U.S., old laws against same-sex marriage, sodomy and use of marijuana have been repealed. The people’s will changes and so the law changes accordingly.

The new movement associated with Greta Thunberg on climate change or to impose a Green New Deal on the greedy, selfish and rich has overtones to me of using the state to impose morality. I doubt the efficacy of any such attempt.

Which leaves us with the problem of just how to minimize bad choices and encourage wisdom, prudence and mercy among our kind.

Capitalism in Royal Robes?

A recent commentary by Bagehot in the current Economist put a twist on post-modern capitalism. The comment was on “Megxit” as an expression of the current geist.

Bagehot wrote: “The Sussexes are doing something new. They are embracing capitalism in its rawest, most modern form: global rather than national, virtual rather than solid, driven by its ineluctable logic, constantly to produce new fads and fashions.”

And then noting that: “This type of capitalism is the inverse of feudalism. In feudal society, you are bound to your followers by mutual bonds of obligation. In 21st century capitalism, you accommodate followers in order to monetize them.”

Commoditizing royalty is just an extension of middle class consumerism and fits with Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption, where what you buy is what you are. Marx’s disdain for the cash nexus which corrodes all moral relationships still seems apt.

New Wisdom is on the March!

A few days ago, Larry Fink, Founder, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, sent his 2020 letter to corporate CEOs. Once again, his understanding of what success in modern capitalism requires aligns with our Principles for Business. His prescriptions also align with the recent statements on stakeholder capitalism from the Business Roundtable and World Economic Forum.

Mr. Fink said the goal of his management of funds entrusted to his company is to achieve “long term value.”

This year, he focused his concern on how climate change will impact the costs of capitalism and the valuation of firms. He wrote:

“Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. Implications of physical climate risk is deepening our understanding of how climate risk will impact both our physical world and the global system that finances economic growth.

Will cities, for example, be able to afford their infrastructure needs as climate risk reshapes the market for municipal bonds? What will happen to the 30-year mortgage – a key building block of finance – if lenders can’t estimate the impact of climate risk over such a long timeline and if there is no viable market for flood or fire insurance in impacted areas? What happens to inflation and in turn interest rates, if the cost of food climbs from drought and flooding? How can we model economic growth if emerging markets see their productivity decline due to extreme heat and other climate impacts?”

“From Europe to Australia, South America to China, Florida to Oregon, investors are asking how they should modify their portfolios. They are seeking to understand both the physical risks associated with climate change as well as the ways that climate policy will impact prices, costs and demand across the entire economy.”

“As we approach a period of significant capital reallocation, companies have a responsibility – and an economic imperative – to give shareholders a clear picture of their preparedness.”

“These questions are driving a profound reassessment of risk and asset values. And because capital markets pull future risk forward, we will see changes in capital allocation more quickly than we see changes to the climate itself. In the near future – and sooner than most anticipate – there will be a significant reallocation of capital.”

“Our investment conviction is that sustainability and climate-integrated portfolios can provide better risk-adjusted returns to investors.”

“In a letter to our clients today, BlackRock announced a number of initiatives to place sustainability at the center of our investment approach, including: making sustainability integral to portfolio construction and risk management; exiting investments that present a high sustainability-related risk, such as thermal coal producers; launching new investment products that screen fossil fuels; and strengthening our commitment to sustainability and transparency in our investment stewardship activities.”

“The importance of serving stakeholders and embracing purpose is becoming increasingly central to the way that companies understand their role in society. As I have written in past letters, a company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders. A pharmaceutical company that hikes prices ruthlessly, a mining company that shortchanges safety, a bank that fails to respect its clients – these companies may maximize returns in the short-term. But, as we have seen again and again, these actions that damage society will catch up with a company and destroy shareholder value. By contrast, a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to stakeholders helps a company connect more deeply to its customers and adjust to the changing demands of society. Ultimately, purpose is the engine of long-term profitability.”

“Over time, companies and countries that do not respond to stakeholders and address sustainability risks will encounter growing skepticism from the markets and in turn, a higher cost of capital. Companies and countries that champion transparency and demonstrate their responsiveness to stakeholders, by contrast, will attract investment more effectively, including higher-quality, more patient capital.”

We are pleased to have Larry Fink’s analysis so supportive of our work.

A Wise Paper on a Japanese Approach to Moral Capitalism

In our recent San Francisco round table discussion on valuation, George Hara of Japan made a very telling presentation of what he calls “public interest” capitalism as a more sustainable and productive way of creating wealth for society. His presentation can be found here.

Mr. Hara’s approach to stakeholders is consistent with the Japanese ethical principle of Kyosei, which contributed to the development of our Principles for Business and so is in complete harmony with our advocacy of a moral capitalism.