Monday, February 2, 2009

Creating Real Value - Capitalism Quo Vadis?

I just got the transcript back from my talk in Brussels on Nov. 14 last year. It was at the European Parliament and the theme was "Being Bold - A Key to Sustainable Success?" as part of the International Business & Leadership Symposium, sponsored by the International Association for Human Values.

Here is my speech:

Thank you very much for having me here. It’s a delight to be here.

Who knows what the origin of the current financial crisis is? Raise your hand - zero.

Does anybody have a policy recommendation for the current crisis? Okay, zero.

I’m going to do a brief tour of the horizon. I apologize for my slightly American-oriented talk today. The crisis is believed to have originated in the United States, so I think it’s a bit appropriate.

So on the plane ride over here, I gathered a whole bunch of analyses of the current crisis, let me just give you a sort of tour of the horizon; from the least good to better. I’ll start with the publishing millionaire Steve Forbes. He believes that the main problem was bad monetary policy. The loose dollar, the dollar fluctuated too much and dropped in price, weakened, and he advises that America tie the dollar to the gold standard and lower taxes. He even proposes a flat tax. I even see that the value of this analysis, although I don’t agree with much of what he is saying, is that there is a need to lower taxes and create stability in order to drive incentives to do the right thing. Now, I don’t agree with his policy prescription, but I understand his goal.

Second guy, Martin Wolfe, it’s a bunch of white guys, sorry, but then again it’s an American perspective. Martin Wolfe, I think is a British economist, he’s a Financial Times columnist. He says the opposite of Steve Forbes. He says we need to grow the American deficit world-wide, we should also raise taxes, including a value added tax and tax energy consumption. And he says, we should demand fiscal stimuli from countries with trade surpluses while we keep trade open. Trade open is good but I don’t know how we demand fiscal stimuli from them. We’ll see how it works?

Next guy, Tom Friedman, columnist for the New York Times, has been going around talking about what he calls the need for a ‘green’ bubble. He subscribes to the idea that bubbles are inevitable and we might as well get some use out of it. Previous bubbles have included the railroad bubble in the United States, and then the IT bubble out of which both the United States enjoyed productivity gains. Generally speaking the current bubble resulted in a bunch of empty houses that we can’t really produce much out of. Related to that is former Vice-President Al Gore’s idea of looking at the crisis as three inter-related crises: energy, climate and finance. And that as far as technology and long term investment, and I’ll talk about long term investment later, you necessarily solve all the crises at once, i.e. if you have long term investment in energy infrastructure, you can solve the energy crisis, as well as the climate crisis.

Related to that and going a step further and looking at the causes of the crisis, Cass Sunstein, who is a major figure in the Obama administration and influential at Chicago and other universities, describes the current crises as what he calls a mixture of what he calls “bounded rationality,” which means you act rational but you don’t know what the environment is, so that limits the amount of rationality you can exhibit. And number two, “temptation or fragility of the human condition,” that if you are tempted to just take a little bit more, you will probably do it. So he suggests the need for more transparency in that to take these complex systems, not necessarily destroy them, but make them more easily understood.

That was just one stack I had and I hope that gives you a fairly ambivalent tour of the horizon. Now let me take it into the ethics part. Rather than going in to a policy prescription on how to save capitalism, as Steve Forbes tried to do in the cover article of Forbes magazine, let me give you some ethical principles that we might draw from, in order to reach a negotiated policy approach.

Okay, at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs , a ninety-five year-old institution in New York City, we’ve started to espouse a set of three principles that we believe are helpful in the creation of policy formation and agreement. The three are: fairness; rights and responsibilities; and pluralism. And I’ll go quickly through them.

Fairness is basically a way out of prisoner’s dilemma. If you and your negotiating party both believe that you’re operating on the principle of fairness, then burdens and benefits can be shared equally. There’s a game called the ultimate game, it’s a little elaborate, I’m not going to go into it right now, but basically it’s an experiment with different people who have different control over the outcome, and people generally will prefer a fair outcome over one that benefits that benefits them unfairly or disproportionately.

Second, rights, you know God has been invoked here quite a bit and spirituality, and I’m okay with that, but I think that a lot of people, including the Dalai Lama, whose written this fabulous book, “Ethics for the New Millennium,” says something that we agree with at the Carnegie Council, which is that religion tends to make people angry, so we like to talk about ethics as a stand-in, or a practical way of going about it. And some people say that we are born with rights from God – that’s fine, but I think that rights are also a practical matter: if we didn’t have rights, we would need to invent them. Several atrocities in mankind’s history show that we need to have a concept of human rights, and with them goes the responsibility to protect other people’s rights, you can’t just have rights for yourself.

Third, pluralism. Pluralism is a way to get around monism and relativism. It’s in-between, and I like to call it a sort of golden mean – right in the middle. Monism is to say, “my way or the highway.” Relativism is to say that anything goes. We like to say that pluralism is a better way to address problems. It’s bringing everyone to the table, it’s creating a more sustainable and a better-informed solution.

I am going to propose something a little bit playful. I wrote an article about a year ago, an attempt to promote a new idea of fair trade. There was this idea in America, very popular among the Democrat congress members of creating a fair trade policy, rather than just a free trade policy.

Okay, what does that mean? It could be protectionism in disguise – how do we get from an unfair policy, one that cuts off the chance of poorer countries of tapping into the benefits of the trade system. How do we do that? Well, I suggested that trade might not be completely free, nor completely regulated. Again, something in the middle, a golden mean.

So, I talked about three freedoms that we might think about truncating or limiting or sacrificing: the freedom to trade with anybody; the freedom to trade anything; and the freedom to trade with impunity. This was something I put together for a trade policy paper, but I think it’s actually quite relevant for the financial crisis. The freedom to trade with anybody: if you’re selling something to somebody who doesn’t know what’s contained in this box, it’s a package that is opaque, it’s not a very good business deal. If you’re selling things that are shoddy or mysterious, that’s also not good business, and you should be responsible for your actions that result from the trade that you make. There is a great deal of business literature I can go into later on which suggests that if you’re benefiting from the externalities of your business relationships, then you do in fact have a duty to ameliorate them.

Now, I was going to go into a few concrete ways of how to make this practical. This came about a few weeks ago, Prof. John Ruggie of Harvard University, who is the United Nations representative for Human Rights. He came to our institute recently to explain his new mandate. His colleagues at the United Nations have been so happy with his work, which is essentially a survey of companies, that they have extended his mandate for another three years.

After he gave his impeccable, magnificent talk, on business and human rights and the challenges, I asked him: “Professor Ruggie, I am going to be talking about the future of human rights and capitalism in Brussels next week, can you tell me what I should say?” And he said, Okay, ethical capitalism, that sounds interesting, "well sure." He said that you can’t force people to be ethical on their own, rather you have to embed incentives in the system to encourage people to be ethical. And I would add to that that you have to create a system of incentives that are based themselves on ethics, and that’s the challenge. You know, I was watching TV the other day, a news report on these hedge funds, and the bosses saying, “Hey, you know, we didn’t break the law.” So, you have to give them the opportunity to do good.

So, I will just briefly go over some incentives: having prices reflect their true value; re-examining fiduciary duty – I know some of you might be a little skeptical about this. I have a forthcoming manuscript for a book, it’s called, “Sustainable investing: the art of long-term performance.” And the chapter I have here is Stephen Viederman's chapter on fiduciary duty, and one of the things he says is that we should take a look at the original words that we used to describe fiduciary duty. Number one was profit, and the other one was prudence, and both of them imply more long-term thinking. Profit was more for the welfare of people, rather than simply benefiting, and prudence was simply long-term strategic thinking. So his argument is that it is a return to basic principles.

Another one that hasn’t been talked too much about here, but I was going to mention it briefly, and that is a very hot topic in New York City, is Web 2.0, and it’s ability to supercharge corporate social responsibility. It’s an accelerator and a facilitator of what Bill Drayton, the found of Ashoka tells me he calls “the awareness tipping point,” where enough people are aware of what’s going on, they are aware of their connection, their interconnectivity with people, that they are going to create a new movement.

Web 2.0, which is social networking, social interactivity on the internet, is facilitating this awareness. I will just draw your attention to this article which is very popular, in the New York Times, about Google using its data from its search engines to track flu. Well, this reminded me of some of President-Elect Obama’s ideas, how he can connect with his massive database of emails. Beyond the “Walmart sucks!” type of websites, beyond that to a more positive engagement, politicians are thinking about this, to what was the result of a long-term workshop

I was engaged in with SAP, which is essentially how do corporations like technology companies help to build trust, which is again one of the main themes of this conference, between civil society, companies, consumers, investors, and with the understanding that has been mentioned earlier that all these identities are fluid and overlapping, they are not discrete. Finally, there is another theory about the way that emerging value is measured in this new economy – a more globalized, connected economy.

I have tried to coin a term I call the “empathy economy,” to describe a theory that processes are now global. That business processes, human resources, skills, knowledge, data are all part of ubiquitous computing, and it has driven down the price of data and knowledge, and driven up the value of empathy, design, innovation and ethics, broadly speaking. One study I saw on the impact of intangibles on valuation and brand, and I’ll conclude with this, was a survey of how intangibles affect brand, and therefore valuation. Number one was ethical leadership. The next two were social and environmental stewardship.

Thank you for having me speak today.


Ron Robins said...

Devin -- very interesting talk! I think you might find my writings of interest to you at the following sites:
and, and check-out my editorials (scroll down left-side navigation bar)

Best wishes, Ron Robins

SBC said...

Great speech. Ethical consumerism must be met by ethical leadership. As the economy is in recession, Green is entering a critical stage in its life cycle. The will to sacrifice for the sake of a 'higher purpose' or ethics. Green ethics weave sustainability into the fabric of our social conscience and helps us to endure the kind of economic volatility we see today. As I wrote in a article published earlier today, there is evidence of a growing 'empathy economy'.

As the president of a consulting firm and author of The Green Market I am a champion of sustainable business, but I also understand that to be sustainable a business must be viable. The Green Market provides information for people seeking to invest in the rising tide of ecological interest. Included in The Green Market is a Green Link Library, a comprehensive alphabetized list of resources addressing all things Green. Original articles address subjects like CleanTech, the Obama Effect, Green ethics and marketing.

I welcome your comments
The Green Market

Alanna Hartzok said...

Yes, I think it is possible to have ethical capitalism, if by that we mean fair and free markets. We need to start the analysis with asking if the property rights laws are ethical. Is it ethical that so few own and control such a massive amount of surface land and natural resources? Is it fair to treat the gifts of nature as market commodities for profit and speculation? Are the fundmentals of the economy based upon the birthright of each and every one of us to our planet and its land and natural resources as a human right? This is the discussion I encourage, and I too have an award-winning book and websites: The Earth Belongs to Everyone, and the Land Rights and Land Value Capture online course and program:

Alanna Hartzok, Co-Director
Earth Rights Institute

tapsearcher said...

Globalization and Free Trade now have a long history of failures. Starting back in 1956, the U.S. Federal Government launched a program which moved factories outside of the USA. It turned out to be a temporary program that never ended.

The main question to ask is this.
Who said we had to compete like this in a global economic arena. It is obvious that Globalization and Free Trade did not evolve in any natural economic fashion but it has beed driven by powerful forces outside the will of the people

And the Globalization of money came in 1956 following the Suez Crisis. See

tapsearcher said...

See also - is it a money crisis or is human nature in crisis.

Lucas said...

Interesting talk.

Can somebody point me to further information on "The ultimate game"? As it is a general term, I have not been able to find more information about it.

Thanks, Lucas