Tag Archives: capitalism

The Key Question About The Crisis of Our Times

From Kate Soper’s review of Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Had it had to pay for the bounty of nature or any of its debts to the labour of animals, slaves, the reproductive and domestic work of women, and so on, [capitalism] could never have existed. ‘The great secret and the great accomplishment of capitalism’, claims Moore, ‘has been to not pay its bills.’ Historical capitalism, moreover, has been able to resolve its recurrent crises until now only because of its continued success in ripping off what it should have been paying for, only because it has always managed to extend its zone of appropriation faster than it zone of exploitation – to overcome exhausted means or ‘natural limits’ to further capitalization, by engineering, with the help of science, technology and conducive cultural-symbolic forces, ever new means of restoring cut-price supplies of food, energy, labour and materials. Cartesian talk of Nature’s wreaking revenge on Humanity at some indefinite point in the future overlooks the often spectacular ways in which capitalism has overcome its socio-economic obstacles to growth. Particularly impressive in this respect has been its capacity to harness new knowledges in the service of economic expansion – as, for example, in the critical use made of cartography in the seventeenth century, or of time measurement, and other quantifying systems. Extensive historical illustration of all these devices and accumulation strategies is provided in the various sections of Moore’s book covering the colonizations of capitalism over the centuries, the territories thereby opened up for fresh labour exploitation, and the frontiers marked out for acquisition of pivotal resources at key historical moments (sugar, corn, silver, iron, oil, etc.).

But if apocalyptic formulation of nature’s limits is mistaken, Moore does also accept that capitalism may well now be running into the buffers, or, in others words, running out of the sources of the Four Cheaps [i.e., food, energy, labor power, and raw materials], and into a situation in which overcapitalization is left with too few means of investment and further accumulation. The problem here, he suggests, is a longue durée tendency for the rate of accumulation to decline as the mass of capitalized nature rises. In the process, accumulation becomes more wasteful due to increased energy inefficiency and the toxicity of its by-products; the contradiction between the time of capitalism (always seeking to short-cut that of environmental renewal) and the time of natural reproduction is made more acute; the eco-surplus declines, and capital has nowhere else to go other than recurrent waves of financialization. The key question, then, to which Moore continually returns without any clear answer, is whether the crisis of our times is epochal or developmental; whether, against the odds, new sources of accumulation will be located, or whether the combination of physical depletion, climate change, stymied investment opportunities and new anti-systemic movements now indicate a terminal decline.

Varoufakis on Bankruptocracy

At an anti-austerity event at the Emmanuel Centre in London yesterday evening, former Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis offered a few remarks on the period in which we are now living. Here is my transcript of the part of his talk describing the zombie state of “bankruptocracy” that arose after “capitalism died” in 2008.

When the bank of England prints billions and billions and billions to buy these paper assets — which are mortgages, which are private debts of the banks, which are public debts and so on and so forth —  what happens is two things.

Firstly, house prices increase, in the parts of the country where wealth is concentrated, the wealthy people spend more, their income increases, so there is this sensation among the ruling class that they’ve stabilized the economy because their bottom line has been stabilized.

At the very same time, you have a situation where companies have access to cheap money, courtesy of QE. The tragedy however is, what do they do with this money? Now they’re not dumb. They know that the rest of you cannot afford their goods and services, so they’re not going to invest in productive activity, in order to produce more of them. So what do they do?

They borrow the money that the QE program is producing, giving it to the banks; the banks pass it on to the corporations; and what do the corporates do? They buy back their own shares. They borrow money to buy back their own shares because that way, they push the share price up, and guess what the bonuses of the CEOs are connected to? The share price. So they have more income, and all this money creation, liquidity creation, does not find itself not only in the pockets of working men and women; but it doesn’t even find itself into productive investment into capital.

So we have a capitalism without capital. We have a capitalism with financial capital.

We don’t live in capitalism.

In 1991 socialism collapsed; and the socialist camp and the left worldwide suffered a major defeat, both a political and a moral defeat. And we’re culpable for that, but that’s another story.

In 2008, capitalism died. I describe the new system we live in as “bankruptocracy”: the rule by bankrupt banks that have the political power to effect a transfer — a constant tsunami of money coming from the financial sector and from working people into the bankrupt banks, which remain bankrupt even though they are profitable, because the black holes created during the years of Ponzi growth prior to 2008 remain.

You can watch the whole speech here, on Varoufakis’ site.

Steel — and Snow — In The Air

michwis

“We have been blessed with good weather” in the Upper Peninsula, Lundin Mining CEO Paul Conibear told a small group of analysts on the 3rd Quarter earnings call last week; “I think Indian Summer has arrived.”

We’re well, well advanced on concrete. Lots of steel in the air. The warehouse facilities we have are chockablock full of equipment that’s been delivered, just waiting for the concrete to cure to start placing.

Conibear says he was in the UP with the Lundin Board of Directors and an entourage of analysts and investment bankers at around the same time I was, but they probably didn’t venture far from Marquette. There, it still felt like October. Mornings were cold and damp. Days were mostly sunny.

In the Keweenaw, hail and snow and rain would fall, and then the sun would burst through the clouds and the sky would clear — all in the space of an hour or two. Before I reached Bessemer, big flakes of snow were falling steadily, and it had started to blow. I asked the woman wearing a Packers jacket behind the counter at the gas station if she thought it would stick. “Already is,” she said.

Lundin needs to keep moving ahead. Though it boasts of having “no high risk, major capital projects,” it’s clear that when it comes to Eagle Mine, high-powered analysts like Pierre Vaillancourt of Macquarie Securities are looking for “any opportunities to decrease the capital intensity a little bit.” Conibear had to admit there wasn’t much room to maneuver:

We’ve inherited a project [from Rio Tinto] that was 50% constructed and designed and 99% complete and permitted, and the clear instructions to the team is you don’t touch anything on the project that has any risk of requiring permit complexity. So yes, the bus [sic, not the train] has already left the station on being able to change any physical aspect in any significant way. You know if we were given a blank sheet of paper would it be designed differently or would it have a different flow sheet or something? Probably, but that’s years ago.

I can’t help but wonder how deep these misgivings about the design of the Eagle project run, especially given the flaws mine engineer Jack Parker and others have pointed to, and if Conibear and his engineering crew are pushing ahead with Rio Tinto’s design and flow sheet despite serious flaws. It’s hard to tell just from these remarks.

In any case, they’re “going as fast as possible” at Eagle. By pushing the schedule, Lundin Mining hopes “to get some capital cost improvement”: “the sooner we bring it in for sure the less overhead there is.”

Delays – and, I imagine, any protracted controversy over the Eagle haul route — will be costly. On site, big ore bins need to be installed before winter. The mechanical electrical piping contractor is already at work. Lundin has “modified the contracting strategy” around the Eagle project to take advantage of “a very competitive contracting marketplace” in the UP, and now “there’s quite a buzz going on” at both the mine and the mill sites. Progress underground is ahead of work on the mill. Conibear seems confident Lundin can commission the mine before the end of Q2 2014, and have the mill running and first ore shipped by the end of next year.

And yet, despite even the best-laid plans, winter is on its way. I saw the first signs of its approach around Lake Gogebic. The next day, in Minnesota, when I cut west on Route 1 from the Palisade Head, the big pines on either side of the road were dusted with snow. It all looked so gentle and dreamlike and the places I drove through had dreamy, faraway names: Finland. The Baptism River. This could not have been the harbinger of the “severe winter” Conibear talked about on his earnings call. It presented itself with quiet grace, like a spell to lull the world into long, deep sleep.

Nature can be the miner’s undoing: “all it takes is one mother nature event to throw you out,” Conibear explained. Whatever cost efficiencies Lundin achieves by speeding up the schedule or managing contracts at Eagle may be foiled by storms or snows or other forces beyond its control. In Andalusia, where Lundin has the Aguablanca mine, “it rains like hell starting about this time of year.” In 2010, it rained so hard that a collapse – a slope failure — shut down Aguablanca until August of 2012.

Can CEOs Ever Get The Political Fix They Need?

There have recently been plenty of shareholder proposals asking companies to disclose political spending. In fact (as noted in an earlier post), the share of proposals to the Fortune 100 focusing on political spending increased 84 percent in 2011 from the three previous years. Last week, to mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision (on January 17th), Trillium Asset Management and Green Century Funds took things up a notch.

Urging “corporate leaders to heed the call of shareholders and citizens,” the two social investment firms filed shareholder resolutions at Bank of America, 3M, and Target Corporation asking those companies to stop political spending altogether. This was the first time institutional shareholders have formally asked corporations to refrain from political spending.

The chances of these resolutions winning approval are slim to none, of course – at least right now. The hope is that over time support will build around these proposals, until they reach a threshold where boards of directors can no longer ignore them. (That’s around 30 percent of shareholder approval.) That day seems a long way off. Still, a slim chance is better than no chance, and — let’s face it — there is simply no chance of legislative remedies to Citizens United, especially from the current Congress, and definitely not in an election year.

“We now have an entitled class of Wall Street financiers and of corporate CEOs who believe the government is there to do… whatever it takes in order to keep the game going and their stock price moving upward,” David Stockman tells Bill Moyers in an interview that will air this weekend. “As a result,” Stockman says, “we have neither capitalism nor democracy. We have crony capitalism.”

That sounds about right, though I would ask whether Stockman and others who take this view have really put their finger on what’s novel or unique about the present moment. Entitlement and cronyism are not exactly new in America; some would say the game has been rigged all along.

But that’s a historical discussion. The more pressing question is one these new shareholder resolutions would have us address. Is corporate political activity good for business? Is the corporate plan to capture government sound? Are corporations really getting what they pay for? Can those entitled CEOs and Wall St. financiers win the game, or are there rules to the game they don’t understand? In other words, how well does crony capitalism work? Those broad questions frame the question posed in the title of this post.

There’s some compelling evidence to suggest that corporate political activity is not only bad for democracy but also bad for business. The Trillium and Green Century announcements cite the research of Michael Hadani, who sets out to “question the standard narrative that political spending is an unmitigated good for firms.” Hadani, a Professor of Management at Long Island University, concludes that despite spending extravagant amounts of money – AT&T, for instance, “officially” spent over 219 million dollars between 1998 and 2008 “on achieving political success” (and that was before Citizens United!) — corporations are not achieving the political outcomes they want.

What’s worse, corporate political activity generally does not appear to increase shareholder value.

This chart tracks a negative correlation between firm market value and PAC activity:


And that is just one lens. The research Hadani presents tells a pretty consistent story: the profligate pursuit of illusory goods, usually without the requirement to disclose where the money goes, or what companies and their investor-owners get for it (apart from heightened risk and reduced transparency). It should therefore alarm all shareholders – not just socially-conscious ones — that Citizens United makes it possible for executives to plunder the corporate treasury in pursuit of those same uncertain ends, without any limits or any real accountability. A new kind of barbarian may already be inside the gates: the CEO in search of the ever-elusive political fix.

Goodness Has a New Flavor, Maybe a New Form


Earlier this week, National Public Radio aired a story about efforts by lawyers in seven states to “rewrite laws” on behalf of social entrepreneurs.

Right now, according to April Dembosky’s report, social entrepreneurs operate in a state of legal limbo: in the eyes of the law, social enterprises are for-profit entities, but they have a non-profit ethos, a concern for doing good or simply doing less or no harm.

The law may respect and admire, but it doesn’t have to recognize that ethos; social enterprise is not – or not yet — a legitimate corporate form. The law in most states currently says that shareholders have the right to sue if your desire to do good compromises their ability to do well, or better than they are already doing. And shareholder value will always trump “social values” in a court of law.

But now there are now serious efforts, mainly in Vermont and California, to create the legal framework for a new, “for-benefit” corporate form. These efforts seek to undo what is commonly called “shareholder primacy” in the for-profit corporation and challenge the idea that the sole duty of corporate directors is to make decisions in the best interests of shareholders – or, as it’s usually put, to “maximize profits” or “maximize shareholder value.” Advocates say that corporations should also have a duty to various stakeholders, including employees and consumers as well as to society as a whole, and that this duty should be on par with, or sometimes trump, fiduciary duties – or, at the very least, that shareholders ought to take into account the costs corporations socialize (e.g., the degradation of the environment) for the sake of shareholder profits.

There is already a for-benefit certification companies can earn. Think of it as a Good Housekeeping Seal for politically progressive investors, job seekers and consumers. But the for-benefit legal movement wants to do much more. For this reason, the movement represents more than another extension of the corporate social responsibility movement, more than a new chapter in the old debate about the public purpose of the corporation that dates back (at least) to the Berle-Dodd debates of the 1930s. The newly-chartered for-benefit corporation or “B-Corp” would, presumably, use “the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.” It would have a legal mandate to do so. In other words, the B-Corp would be a legally chartered, for-profit agent of social change or social “benefit”; its directors would be bound by law to take stakeholder interests and social benefits into account when faced with a decision.

To illustrate the need for the new corporate form, Dembosky looked briefly back to Unilever’s 2000 takeover of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream. As a case study, it’s a bit hackneyed, but as I went back to review it I discovered some distortions in Dembosky’s reporting, and came up against a number of questions about the for-benefit movement, and social enterprise in general, that I’ve run into before.

Ben & Jerry’s is widely regarded as a sort of ur-social enterprise, an early experiment in “hippy capitalism”. The company was founded in 1978. By 2000, Ben & Jerry’s had grown far bigger than its founders ever imagined it would. They needed to raise cash. The company had not solved its distribution problems: Ben & Jerry were still hitching a ride on other “super premium” ice cream distribution networks (mainly Haagen Dazs and Dreyer’s). Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield no longer saw eye to eye. All this made the company vulnerable and the target of speculation.

Still, the company was well past its hippy phase, and this is probably the first place where Dembosky’s story starts to distort the picture.

To hear her tell it, these really cool social entrepreneurs were just making their ice cream and trying to make the world a better place when the Unilever harpy swooped down upon them and carried them away, arms flailing.

Not quite.

First of all, Unilever was already part of a buyout offer engineered by Ben Cohen himself in March of 2000. He had teamed up with Unilever and Meadowbrook Lane Capital; Meadowbrook, a socially responsible investment firm, had put together a group of investors that included Bodyshop founder Anita Roddick. This unlikely trio offered $38 per share; Ben & Jerry’s was then trading at around $30. A shareholder who was privy to the board’s deliberations told the New York Times that the board had approved the deal (over Jerry Greenfield’s angry objections).

But then, in April, things took an unexpected turn. Unilever offered $43.60 per share – a 25 percent premium, almost nine dollars over the then-current share price — for a total offer of $326 million in cash.

Why the aggressive offer? Not because Unilever admired the social mission Cohen and Greenfield had set for their company, except insofar as it added to the buzz of the Ben & Jerry’s brand. Unilever had a nationwide distribution network already in place in the United States and access to European markets; and the company was faced with growing pains of its own: the consensus among analysts was that the company’s “longer-term fundamental growth rate” was “not inspiring.” It needed to enter new markets and find new areas of growth.

When the offer came in, Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors was in no position to refuse, or stand on principle. This much Dembosky had right. However they may have felt about Unilever, however much they may have feared for the social mission of the ice cream company, they were prudent – and they were right — to reject the lower offer from the Cohen-Roddick group in favor of the higher cash offer.

To do otherwise would be to risk being sued by shareholders, and to be accused of neglecting their duty of care – even if the Cohen-Meadowbrook-Unilever group could somehow have proven that they and they alone could keep the ice cream company true to its social mission.

Which is, by the way, exactly what the Cohen-Meadowbrook-Unilever group had done when making their offer. As the Times reported, Meadowbrook Lane “pledged to create a ‘social performance plan’ that would place women and minorities on the board, pay about 7.5 percent of the company’s pretax profits into the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation and provide venture capital to other ‘progressively minded enterprises,’ among other social efforts.”

(Missing from this list – at least as reported by the Times — was the original Ben & Jerry’s compensation scheme, whereby no executive would earn more than seven times what an entry-level employee learned. The company had abandoned that policy in 1995, and apparently there was no going back. But all the ideas in the Meadowbrook package were, and — most people will tell you — still are, very fine sentiments. Whether they are good business practice is open to debate; whether they are to be dignified with the phrase “social mission” or “social responsibility” is even harder to decide.)

In the end, none of this stuff really mattered to the merger agreement. None of it influenced the Board’s deliberations or could make up the difference in the offers. So, when the deal was done, Cohen and Greenfield issued a joint statement celebrating Unilever’s commitment “to pursue and expand a social mission that continues to be an essential part of Ben & Jerry’s,” and the European multinational mumbled something about nurturing community values. None of this talk was binding or even very credible. At the time, it all seemed a little discouraging.

By December of the same year, Ben Cohen was threatening to quit unless Unilever appointed a CEO with the right “business mentality”: “otherwise,” he was quoted as saying, “I’m not interested in hanging around and supporting what I’m sure is a destruction of the company.” It’s worth noting that while making these threats Cohen was angling to have his own choice for CEO, Ben & Jerry’s director Pierre Ferarri, assume the role. He lost that battle. But over time, it seems, the guys from Unilever started to get the idea – or at least they learned how to keep up Ben & Jerry’s “socially responsible” brand.

The company continued to make decisions in keeping with the social agenda Cohen and Greenfield had set for it. It switched to “eco-pint” packaging in 2001. On Earth Day of 2005, Ben & Jerry’s protested oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by delivering a half-ton “Baked Alaska” to the Capitol. In the same year, the company committed to fair trade; and just last month, Ben & Jerry’s announced that its entire “global flavor portfolio” would use only “fair trade ingredients” by the year 2013, engaging with “smallholders, who grow nuts, bananas, vanilla, cocoa and other Fair Trade-certified ingredients.” And in September of 2009, Ben & Jerry’s changed the name of Chubby Hubby to Hubby Hubby, in support of gay marriage.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. But surely there are larger lessons here. What are we to make of the real buyout story, and what does it tell us about the efforts now underway to create a new corporate form?

For Dembosky, the moral of the story, or at least the good news, is that the new for-benefit corporate form will allow – or legally require — a social enterprise to stay true to its mission and its values. It will attract a different kind of investor, one who cares about balancing profits with social costs and social responsibilities. That may be true. But questions remain. Consider what would have happened if Ben & Jerry’s had been legally incorporated as a B-Corp back in 1978, at its founding. How would its for-benefit incorporation have affected its growth? Would it have been possible for the company to make those early distribution deals with Haagen-Dazs or Dreyer’s, without requiring those companies to undergo an intrusive social audit? A fussy shareholder could have demanded it; any early deals or alliances could have been subject to the same additional scrutiny. It sounds cumbersome, and a little absurd.

I’m no lawyer, but I don’t really see how legally-binding social commitments wouldn’t hang over all legally-binding deals or contracts that the B-corporation makes (unless of course the “social values” inscribed into the B-Corp charter are easily manipulated or ignored when it’s convenient to do so). The Meadowbrook Lane social performance plan would have been legally binding, written right into the merger agreement. It’s unclear whether under those conditions Ben Cohen would have been able to bring Unilever to the table at all. Jerry Greenfield might have liked that just fine. But would Unilever have agreed to be bound by the social mission of a Vermont ice cream company? It’s hard to see how that deal would have shaped up under these circumstances, but it’s clear that B-Corp charter would have altered the merger equation. Couldn’t shareholders have objected — as Greenfield did — that Unilever would compromise the company’s social mission, and held the merger up on those grounds?

There are broader and more interesting questions here, too. One has to do with the phrase “for-benefit” itself, and whether it can stand up to very close legal scrutiny, or survive a legal challenge. Current definitions of for-benefit corporations don’t really help in this regard. The Vermont Benefit Corporation Act defines “public benefit” as “a material positive impact on society and the environment, as measured by a third-party standard, through activities that promote some combination of specific public benefits.” That is sufficiently vague as to open the door to all kinds of arguments; and it’s also worth noting that the proposed legislation sets out “no criteria to qualify to be a ‘benefit corporation’.” The company is required only to file “annual reports about its community-oriented work.”

I suppose the “third-party standard” is meant to be reassuring; but it is bound to raise the question who will guard the guardians. That question doesn’t matter all that much when “for-benefit” is simply a certification or thumbs up from the progressive business community, or from the non-profit B-Lab; but when it’s a matter of corporate law, you can expect that someone is eventually going to point out that the third party needs to be checked and balanced, and that the for-benefit corporation is essentially chartered to pursue what looks very much like a political agenda.

Of course it’s nothing too offensive – a concern for the environment, fair dealing, civil rights, workers’ rights. If it were a Ben & Jerry’s flavor, it would be Progressive Passionfruit, or Vibrant Vanilla: easily digestible, soft, kind of sweet. Hope and Change. But what about other flavors, other political agendas to the right or the left of the B-Corporation’s Unitarian progressivism? To put the question bluntly, is B-corporation law essentially legislating an idea of what constitutes a “social benefit,” and therefore deciding for the rest of us what is good? How — outside Vermont – can that stand without a quarrel? What about other ideas of how businesses benefit society? How long before Milton Friedman rises from the grave to tell us that increasing profits is the highest social responsibility of a business? Or what happens to the idea of social “benefits” (for example) when the American religious right gets into the social enterprise game?

What bothers me most about all this is that behind the Unitarian progressivism of the B-corporation, behind much of the talk about social enterprise and delivering social benefits through business, lurks another 19th century idea: benevolent corporate paternalism, which, as I suggested in a recent post, now manifests itself in a more politically correct, palatable way, so kind and soft and sweet and full of concern that it might be better termed benevolent corporate maternalism.

By chartering corporations to deliver social benefits, isn’t society also surrendering power? Instead of rewriting the laws to create for-benefit, for-profit companies, why don’t states more strictly enforce the existing laws, or enact laws on behalf of communities and the environment? The rise of the social enterprise may actually signal society’s loss of its power to regulate and restrict business. These fledgling efforts to rewrite the law may — albeit inadvertently — usher in a new era of lawlessness, in which companies can do whatever they want, as long as they can claim to be doing good.