A Logical Trap

This note is occasioned by Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal on corporate governance—to add labor representation on corporate boards and expand the scope of corporate responsibility.  Regardless of what happens to her bill, she has done an important service by calling attention to a fundamental problem.

In recent decades American business has been taken over by the so-called Milton Friedman view of corporations.   That view has a simple prescription for how companies should operate: the world is best-served when businesses focus exclusively on business.  I.e. the role of a corporation should be to generate the maximum possible return to its investors.  Any other concerns (the workforce, community responsibility, etc.) are a perversion of the engine that makes capitalism great.

There are lots of reasons why that is suspect.  Clearly in this world labor has little to say, and in fact even a business’ own interests are not necessarily well-served—investors can walk away if the business gets pillaged for their benefit.  The percentage of business profits returned to investors has gone up dramatically with this philosophy, to the disadvantage of both labor and capital investment in the companies themselves.

The point we want to emphasize here is how damaging the Milton Friedman view is in the environment of today.   We have just passed a massive tax cut that has taken so much out of the federal budget that there is (particularly with the deficits) essentially nothing left for the other problems of the society.  As justification we’re told that private enterprise is the engine that makes everything great.

That is of course a logical trap.   Businesses in this world have no responsibility for the well-being of the country—and the government doesn’t either, because the private sector is always the answer!  Just give it money and let it go.

As a consequence we’re not investing in our people, we don’t have to think about their welfare, and we’re not preparing for the future, because there is no one on the hook to do it.  Even Adam Smith had no illusions about the private sector’s ability to police itself or prepare the population for personal and national success.

Everyone should recognize the true symbolism of the following chart:

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The one significant result of the tax cuts is the huge surge in stock buybacks, essentially returning taxpayer money to corporate investors.  We set a record in Q1, and then almost doubled it in Q2!

Capital investment, by contrast, was relatively flat—little touched by all that money:

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In other words the tax cuts have siphoned off the resources of the country, so that there is nothing left for issues like education, infrastructure, the opioid crisis, climate change—and has delivered that money to corporations who have in turn just passed it through to their wealthy investors via buybacks.

So we’ve become like one big predatory private equity investment, being sucked dry for the benefit of the happy few who are running the show.

Telsa as Example

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However distasteful Elon Musk seems to be, the nuttiness of Tesla’s treatment nonetheless deserves comment.

Tesla was the first (as far as I know) to figure out that current battery technology is practical to power a car.  They have also been the best thus far at figuring out how such a car can be made uniquely attractive.

This is an intensely competitive business, and they have been trying to maintain first-mover advantages in features, battery technology, and the manufacturing process.  That is a very tall order, and it involves enough risk-taking that there is no surprise that it is tough to keep commitments.  Until they reach some sort of stable state vis-à-vis their auto competitors, Tesla has to be regarded as still in a kind of startup phase.  That applies both to risks and rewards.  No one expected iPhone penetration to grow as fast as it did (I can still remember articles talking about mobile phones as a mature, saturated market), and the same kind of thing could happen with electric cars.

Unless you’re a deliberate non-believer in climate change (and these days you have to try hard), the role of electric cars can hardly be overestimated.    Transportation accounts for 28% of carbon dioxide production, and there is no one proposing to put carbon dioxide scrubbers in every car.  Tesla is trying to become the Apple of transportation, with perhaps an even bigger impact on the US economy.

How are we helping Tesla in that undertaking?  Well, we haven’t cut out the electric vehicle subsidy entirely (as the House Republicans proposed to do), but there’s no evidence we’re trying very hard either. The administration is just not interested in anything that raises even the suspicion of climate change.  A carbon tax for example.  We are minimizing Tesla’s value in its home market, while the rest of the world catches up.

As for the business community, everyone seems eager to predict the Tesla’s demise.  Certainly the traditional auto companies would like that, and Musk’s antics make it exciting for the press to think about the deserved fall of arrogance.

However as an indication of what that might mean, people should recognize that all of the core technology in the Chevy Bolt comes from South Korea.  And that story can hold for the rest of the multi-trillion-dollar investment that will be needed to combat climate change.

Thinking Back to the 2008 Crash

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There have been many articles recently reviewing what happened in 2008 and how things have evolved since then.  It’s a good thing we’re thinking about it, but there seems to be a tinge of inevitability to our memories, as if it was all a fact of nature and we need to understand the science of how things turned out as they did.

That’s wrong.  Blithe confidence in deregulation caused the crash.  The Koch-controlled Republican Party chose—with unconscionable cruelty—to prolong the pain of the downturn, so as to get a new President who would deliver massive tax cuts for the ultra-rich.  (Remember the “balanced budget amendment” and compare with the current deficits.)  And they have placed in power and continue to support a person who in their own words “continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.”  It’s a good idea to think about the crash.

Despite the much-discussed topics of globalization and automation, we are not living with unsolvable acts of God.  And there are no secret demons running around hidden in the depths of the administrative state.  Dramatically rising inequality—and the decline of the middle class—is not an accident, but a chosen result.  The deep divisions that exist in our society are not an accident, but a chosen result.  Follow the money.  Divide and conquer is nothing new.

This country has dealt successfully in the past with industrialization and massive immigration.  And was stronger for both.  And we were able to share that prosperity more broadly than it had even been done before.  We can do it again.  The current, hard-won worldwide prosperity should be good for everyone if it weren’t being sacrificed to greed.

This isn’t going to be easy.  The current inhumane, anti-democratic Supreme Court will be around for a long time.  The much-encouraged divisions in the society will not heal easily.  But we can start by heeding the recent advice of John McCain and vote out this cult that can’t even be called conservatives.  Democrats have a great variety of people running in this critical election.  Breadth of opinions is a good thing.  Belief in democracy is a requirement.

This needs to be done.  What we do matters everywhere.  We are the leaders of the free world, and that leadership is dearly missed.