Tag Archives: corporate governance

Mozambique, Michigan, and the SEC Complaint Against Rio Tinto

Chinde_Rusting_boats

Rusting boats at the port of Chinde, where Rio Tinto proposed to barge Riversdale coal via the Zambezi River.

Yesterday, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought a complaint in New York City against Rio Tinto, charging Tom Albanese, the former CEO of Rio Tinto, and Guy Elliott, his Chief Financial Officer, with fraud. According to the complaint, Albanese and Elliott actively misled the Rio Tinto board, audit committee, auditors, and the investing public about their acquisition of the Riversdale coal business in Mozambique in 2011.

The fraud that Albanese and Elliott are accused of perpetrating looks awfully familiar to those who have followed the development of Eagle Mine and the controversy over County Road 595. Having noticed the parallel between Mozambique and Michigan back in 2013, when Tom Albanese was forced to step down, I now have to wonder whether prosecutors will take the company’s representations around the Eagle Mine into account when building their case.

In Mozambique, they told investors, coal would be transported by barge to the Indian Ocean port of Chinde. Although their technical advisors “highlighted the ‘showstopping’ risks” associated with the barging proposals before the acquisition, Albanese and Elliott blundered recklessly ahead. Then eight months later, the Mozambique government denied Rio Tinto a permit to transport the coal by barge down the Zambezi River. Suddenly, the coal business they had acquired for $3.7 billion appeared to be worth a negative $680 million. According to the SEC’s complaint, Albanese and Elliott “concealed and glossed over” the fact that they had no viable haul route for the 30 million tons per year they projected in their business plans, and misled investors as they raised $5.5 billion in US debt offerings.

In that very same period, Rio Tinto was also promoting Eagle Mine to investors and promising economic renewal in the Upper Peninsula, though they had not yet secured a transportation route — a haul route — for Eagle’s sulfide ore. In Michigan, it appears, the company took the same cavalier attitude toward planning and risk that the SEC complaint says got them into trouble in Mozambique.

Way back in 2005, John Cherry, who was then a Kennecott Minerals project manager and is now President and CEO of the Polymet project in Minnesota, characterized Eagle as a “direct ship” operation, “meaning that the rock would not be processed on site, thereby avoiding the storage of highly toxic debris left over, called tailings.” Presumably this is what Michigan DEQ’s Robert McCann had in mind in 2007, when he told The Blade that Kennecott’s permit “would require them to keep the ores underground, put them in covered rail cars, and ship them to Ontario for processing”; the Marquette Monthly told roughly the same story that year, only now there were trucks in the picture: “ore would be transported by truck and rail to a processing site in Ontario.” This seems to have been nothing more than a cover story.

Everything changed in 2008, when Rio Tinto bought the Humboldt Mill. Those permit requirements the DEQ’s McCann touted back in 2005? They were quickly abandoned. Covered rail cars come into the picture only after the ore is crushed, ground into a slurry, floated and rendered into concentrate at Humboldt Mill. A glossy 2010 company publication promoting Eagle Mine includes not a single word about how Rio Tinto and Kennecott plan to travel the 30 kilometers from mine to mill: “Happily, processing of the nickel and copper can take place in Humboldt, around 30 kilometres [sic] away, at a previously abandoned iron ore plant.” By 2011, the company had “considered more than a half dozen transportation routes” from mine to mill, according to a Marquette Mining Journal article by John Pepin published in February of that year, but they still had no viable haul route.

A good prosecutor with a rigorous and thorough discovery process would probably be able to determine whether the evasions and misrepresentations perpetuated on the public over the Eagle Mine haul route also amounted to fraud, or were part of a larger pattern of deliberately misleading statements. It’s clear Rio Tinto never came clean — and perhaps never really had a firm plan — on mine to mill transport at Eagle before it sold the works to Lundin Mining in June of 2013 and decamped. As long as regulators in Michigan continued to be more accommodating than those in Mozambique, the company seems to have been content to let the people of Marquette County fight out the haul route issue among themselves.

A good idea, and just in time for proxy season

This is a good idea, and the 2017 proxy season is the time for shareholders to act on it.

As Eliza Newlin Carney points out today in The American Prospect, “a long list of fossil fuels and mining companies support the Cardin-Lugar rule, including BHP Billiton, BP, Kosmos Energy, and Shell, whose executives say it promotes good governance, creates a level playing field, and is in the best interests of American companies.” (Notably, Exxon, under CEO Rex Tillerson, who is now our Secretary of State, lobbied against the rule.)

A shareholder resolution requiring disclosure of payments to foreign governments would simply ask companies to continue doing what they were previously required to do under section 1504 of Dodd-Frank.

Save the Wild UP December Gala Keynote Address

This is the text I prepared for my remarks at the Save The Wild UP December Gala. My talk deals with the ethics of Lake Superior mining, connecting it with climate change, the loss of the wild and the dawn of the Anthropocene. It’s also a reflection on human ingenuity and human responsibility. The half-hour keynote makes for a long blog post, but I hope readers will find something here worth sharing and discussing.  

1

When you invited me to speak tonight, I tried almost immediately to come up with names of people who might be better suited to the task. In this crowd, I ought to be listening and trying to catch up.

I’m an outsider, and a latecomer to boot. Some of you were here when Kennecott and Rio Tinto first staked their claim to the Yellow Dog Plains. I didn’t fully appreciate the extent of the new mining activity in this area and all around Lake Superior until about 2012. That was right after Ken Ross and I had finished making 1913 Massacre, our documentary about the Italian Hall disaster.

I was so caught up in the story our film tells that I was under the impression that copper mining — sulfide mining — was a thing of the past in the Upper Peninsula.

Very near the end of 1913 Massacre, there’s an interview with an Army veteran who’s sitting at the counter of the Evergreen Diner, drinking a coffee and smoking a cigarette. He says that after the copper mines closed in 1968, attempts to re-open them failed because people were “bitching about the environment and all that shit and the water and the runoff.” The camera, meanwhile, is exploring the industrial damage left behind by the mining operation.

This is the one moment in the film where we had to bleep out some bad language before Minnesota Public Television would air 1913 Massacre on Labor Day in 2013. The only time anyone in our film curses is when the subject turns to protecting the water and the environment.

That these two things — a destroyed, toxic landscape and a hostility toward people who care about the environment — exist side by side; that people can watch a mining company leave a place in ruins, poison its waters, damage it to the point that it’s now a Superfund site, with high levels of stomach cancer and fish that can’t be eaten, and direct their anger and curses at people trying to prevent it from happening again: our film presents all that as part of what we’ve come to call “mining’s toxic legacy.”

The Army veteran went on to say — this part didn’t make it into the film — that people who bitch about the environment are “people from out of town.” He wasn’t complaining about environmental regulation or about big government; he was complaining instead about out-of-towners, strangers who make it tough for regular guys to make a living.

Strangers can be people from faraway, or just people from whom you feel estranged: people who don’t share your ways or speak your language; and it would be possible to talk at some length about the way the mining operations in the Keweenaw estranged people from each other and from the place they live.

Everywhere it goes, it seems, mining divides and displaces people. It’s never just about extracting ore from the ground. Mining is development and the power to direct it.

When strangers come to town or when people feel estranged, we need translators, guides and mediators. This is one reason why it’s so important to have a local, grassroots organization dedicated to the shared interests people have in the nature and culture of the Upper Peninsula.

You might look like the underdog right now. But I think you’ll agree that there’s a pressing need for a more responsible, inclusive and respectful conversation about development in this place. Save the Wild UP is in a great position to lead it.

2

Back home in Brooklyn, I have a fig tree. I planted it last spring. I just finished wrapping it for the winter. I love the work the fig tree involves — the care it involves — because it connects me to the memory of my grandfather and the fig tree he kept. My tree connects me to my family tree (my roots), to history, and in my imagination the tree belongs as much to history as it does to nature. The life of my tree depends almost entirely on my care. I sometimes wonder if there is anything wild about it.

There is a wild fig. The ancient Greeks even had a special word for it: φήληξ. They seem to have derived its name from another word (φῆλος) meaning “deceitful,” because the wild fig seemed ripe when it was not really so. The ancient world knew that wildness is tricky. It can deceive and elude us, or challenge our powers of discernment.

Nature, we claim, is our dominion, as if it (naturally, somehow) belonged to history, the world of human activity. Our economy organizes nature to produce natural resources. But the wild represents a living world apart from history and another order of value altogether.

We can’t assimilate the wild into an engineered and technical environment: it will cease to be wild the instant we try. The wild begins where engineering and ingenuity stop, at the limits of human authority and command. So “wild” is sometimes used to mean beyond the reach of authority, out of control.

But what’s wild is not alien. Sometimes the wild calls out to us, usually to ward us off. The wild is almost always in flight from us, leaving tracks and traces for us to read. It always responds to us, as wild rice and stoneflies respond to the slightest change in water quality, offering guidance if we are attentive and humble enough to take it.

The wild marks the limits of our powers, our ingenuity and ambition, and before it we ought to go gently.

We have not.

The headlines tell us that our carbon-intensive civilization, which brought us so many material advantages, is now hastening its own demise. We are entering an entirely new era of human life on earth. Some scientists and philosophers talk about the end of the Holocene and the beginning of the Anthropocene — the dawn of a new geological epoch of our making.

The story beneath the headlines is a record of loss. A map of the terrestrial biosphere shows that today only a quarter remains “wild” — that is, “without human settlements or substantial land use” — and even less is in a semi-natural state. Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory tell us that this year was the last time “anyone now alive on planet Earth will ever see” CO2 concentrations lower than 400 parts per million. Those levels started rising in the 1700s with the industrial revolution, spiked dramatically in the postwar period and have climbed steadily higher. Since 1970, the populations of vertebrate animals have dropped by 52 percent. The same report by the World Wildlife Fund tells us that freshwater animal species have declined by 76 percent since 1970.

That precipitous drop in freshwater species should set off alarm bells, especially here, on the shores of one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. Since the 1970s, Lake Superior surface-water temperatures have risen and ice cover has dramatically reduced. Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. There’s an earlier onset of summer stratification. By mid-century, according to the National Wildlife Federation, Lake Superior may be mostly ice-free in a typical winter.

Now I know it’s the holiday season and these aren’t exactly tidings of comfort and joy, but they are tidings all the same. And what they announce is this: we are responsible. We’re responsible for all this destruction of the wild — of the whole web of life — and for the changes sweeping over us. Denial will not let us off the hook.

Responsibility is not just about being held accountable for the damage you’ve done; it’s also about taking steps to limit damage, repair the broken world, reclaim it and make things better. We have that responsibility to ourselves and to future generations.

“Loss belongs to history,” writes the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, “while politics and life are about what is still to be done.” But, he’s careful to remind us, loss still has a strong claim on the way we live now and on our future plans. The loss of the wild gives us a new responsibility that should inform our politics and our lives at every turn, direct the investments we make and the activities we sanction, and give rise to new conversations about what to do.

Saving the wild is now bound up, inextricably, with saving the human world — for ourselves and for future generations. We can appreciate in a new way Thoreau’s famous statement: “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”

3

Knowing all this, why don’t we act? Why haven’t we acted?

One answer to this question has to do with the word “we,” and our underdeveloped capacity for coordinated, collective action.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, suggested another good answer in a speech he gave back in September to a group of insurance industry executives. Not exactly a bunch of tree huggers, but actuaries, people interested in accounting for risks and costs.

Carney talked about the future in terms of horizons, near versus long term. When we focus only on the near term, we don’t account for the true cost of our activities. That’s why for Carney, climate change is a “tragedy of the horizon,” or the tragic consequence of our inability to see and plan and take steps beyond the near term. Since “the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt beyond our immediate horizons” — beyond the business cycle and the quarterly earnings reports, beyond the political cycle and the current election — we have deferred the cost of fixing the problem to future generations.

We’ve organized things — markets, politics, institutions — so that near-term interests win out over longer-term well-being and more sustainable arrangements.

Nowadays, if you look out at the Lake Superior horizon, you might see all the way to China. An unsustainable scheme of Chinese urbanization and economic growth fueled much of the new mining activity around the lake, and especially the exploration and exploitation of copper-rich deposits. Over the last decade or so, copper was used not just to build and wire new Chinese cities, many of which today stand empty; it was used mainly for collateral on loans. As much as 80 percent of the copper China imported was used to back loans. Today, as China unravels and the price of copper plunges, commodities investors are expressing remorse. Nickel’s down, too. The rush for Lake Superior minerals now seems to have been reckless — part of a larger market failure, with unforeseen risks and costs current and future generations are likely to incur.

Or look at the Polymet project in Minnesota. It’s an exaggerated case of not accounting for the long-term costs of mining. Currently, the Polymet Environmental Impact Statement says that water treatment will go on “indefinitely” at a cost of 3-6 million dollars a year. There is no way, so far as I know, to multiply 3 or 6 million dollars by a factor of indefinitely; and even the company’s most concrete prediction is 500 years of water treatment. Just to put that in perspective, the state of Minnesota has only been around since 1858: 157 years.

How is it possible that a proposal like this can be taken seriously? They promise jobs, a fix to a near-term problem; but there’s something else at work here as well: technology or, rather, misplaced faith in technology and human ingenuity. We make technology a proxy for human responsibility.

But technological advances that create efficiencies or solve problems for mining companies can carry hidden social and environmental costs: for example, a study done after the Mount Polley spill last year concludes that “new technologies, deployed in the absence of robust regulation” have fostered a “disturbing trend of more severe tailings failures.” Recent events in Brazil underline the point.

Great machinery, even full automation, will never amount to responsible stewardship. New technologies can have unintended consequences, distancing us from each other and from our responsibilities. Things corrode, repairs are made or not, entities dissolve, contracts are broken, obligations are forgotten, empires decline and fall, even within definite time horizons.

The industrial development that mining brings distorts horizons in another way. One theme of Tom Power’s research on the economics of the Lake Superior region and on what he calls wilderness economics is that “protecting the quality of the living environment…lays the base for future, diversified economic development.” Over-reliance on mining — and mining that damages or threatens the living environment — hinders economic diversification and makes the economy less resilient. It also requires us to discount the value of water and land it puts at risk, a value that is only going to increase over the long term, as freshwater becomes ever more scarce and as carbon capture afforded by peatlands and forests becomes more critical.

To allow that calculation for the nonce is not to concede that the market value of these wild places is their true value. The living world, creation and generation, is more than a bundle of ecosystem services, a tap and a sink for human activity. That way of thinking won’t save the wild; it is bound to open the door to the very forces that have already destroyed so much of it.

4

Let’s not lose sight of the larger point: if you take the long view, looking forward into the future and out across the horizon, protecting the land and water in this region actually looks like a more attractive investment than extracting all the ore from the ground.

That makes the capture of government by mining and extractive industry — from Marquette County to the state and federal levels — all the more troubling and deplorable. It directs investment and development down these risky and unsustainable paths, where short-term interests of multinational corporate actors are paramount and enjoy the full protection of law. The coercive power of the state, which ought to place constraints on corporate actors, is used mainly to benefit them. When things go south, society ends up bearing the cost.

This grassroots effort challenges that whole topsy-turvy arrangement. We have to continue to challenge it, at every opportunity, in every forum, recognizing that the results we’re looking for probably aren’t going to come on a quarterly basis or anytime soon. We have to lengthen our horizons.

At the same time, we have to re-open the conversation about how we are going to organize ourselves in this place, so that what remains of the wild UP can flourish and the people living here can thrive.

It’s imperative, too, that Save the Wild UP stay connected with other groups around the lake facing similar challenges. To take just one example: Kathleen’s recent Op Ed in the Star Tribune about Governor Dayton’s visit to the Eagle Mine. That made a difference to people in Minnesota: it was widely shared and talked about. People connected with it.

I have to believe that there’s power even in these little connections — and in conversation, cooperation and community. There is power where we come together, when we are no longer strangers and no longer estranged from each other. There would be power in an international congress where people from all around Lake Superior gathered to talk about responsible development. This isn’t the power the mining companies and the state can wield; it’s another kind of power, coordinated, collective, non-coercive, one we as a society have not done enough to realize.

We’re going to need that power to meet this current set of challenges.

Now you may have noticed that I keep using the word “we,” and I’m conscious that by including myself here I might be overstepping and intruding. But maybe that’s why I keep coming back to the UP: deep down, I know this is not a faraway or a strange place but a familiar place, where I have a stake in things — where we all have a stake.

The “wild UP” that we are organized to save is not just wilderness, waterfalls, wolves and warblers. It is the stage of humanity’s tragic predicament. It marks a boundary that we cross at our great peril. It can be a vital source of economic and social renewal.

Ultimately, saving the wild UP is about realizing the power and political authority we all have, everyone in this room, people across the UP and around the lake, to govern ourselves and make decisions about the future we want. What do we see on the horizon? What do we want for our children, grandchildren, our great-grandchildren and so on down the line? What do future generations require of us? What do we owe them?

That’s a conversation we need to keep having. And that’s why this organization deserves all the support we can give it, because Save the Wild UP connects us and shows us that we can be both powerful and responsible at the same time.

Thanks for listening so patiently, and thanks again for inviting me to the Gala.

delivered 5 December 2015

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.

Can Mining Be Saved?

TeslaGigafactory

The Tesla Gigafactory, currently under construction in Storey County, Nevada.

Andrew Critchlow, Commodities Editor at The Telegraph, speculates in a recent article that Elon Musk and Tesla might “save the mining industry” by ushering in a new age of renewable energy. Domestic battery power production at the Tesla Gigafactory (now scheduled to go into production in 2016) is bound to create such demand for lithium, nickel and copper, Critchlow thinks, that the mining industry will find a way out of its current (price) slump and into new growth, or possibly a new supercycle.

“Major mining companies are already ‘future proofing’ their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry,” writes Critchlow; and the “smart commodity investor” will follow suit, with investments in “leading producers” such as — this is Critchlow’s list — Freeport-McMoRan, Lundin Mining and Fortune Minerals.

It’s a credible scenario, but it’s also terribly short-sighted. The big switch over to domestic solar power and battery storage Musk is hyping in the run up to the opening of the Gigafactory would no doubt give miners a short-term boost, but it will also take a lasting toll on the places where copper and nickel are mined, raise serious human rights concerns, and put even more pressure on the world’s freshwater resources.

After all, the copper and nickel used to make Tesla’s batteries are going to come from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Lundin and Freeport-McMoRan operate a joint venture at Tenke Fungurume, and which has been at the center of the recent debate in the EU parliament over conflict minerals; Peru, where protests against Southern Copper Corporation’s Tia Maria project led the government to declare a state of emergency in the province of Islay just last Friday; or the nickel and copper mining operations around Lake Superior that I’ve been following here, where there are ongoing conflicts over free, prior and informed consent, serious concerns that sulfide mining will damage freshwater ecosystems and compromise one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, fights over haul routes, and repeated complaints of lax regulatory oversight and political corruption.

Rice farmers clash with riot police in Cocachacra, Peru. The fight is over water. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

These are just a few examples that come readily to mind. It wouldn’t take much effort to name others (Oyu Tolgoi, Oak Flat, Bougainville) and to see that the same problems arise, to a greater or lesser degree, no matter where copper and nickel mining — sulfide mining — is done.

The mining industry and commodities investors have historically tended to minimize and marginalize the environmental and social costs of sulfide mining; so it’s really no surprise that Critchlow should argue that increased demand by battery producers is all it will take to “save” mining. Leave it to others, I guess, to save the world.

But the supply and demand model is reductive and misleading, even for those looking to make a fast buck. A recent Harvard study of company-community conflict in the extractive sector summarized by John Ruggie in Just Business suggests just how costly conflict can be. A mining operation with start-up capital expenditures in the $3-5 billion range will suffer losses of roughly $2 million for every day of delayed production; the original study goes even further, and fixes the number at roughly $20 million per week. Miners without authentic social license to operate lose money, full stop. So Critchlow’s is at best a flawed and myopic investment strategy that ignores significant risks. It also appears to shrug off legitimate human rights claims, and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, and deadly violence of the kind we’re seeing in Peru right now. That’s irresponsible, if not downright reprehensible.

A Macquarie Research report cited by Critchlow claims that the switch away from fossil fuels to battery power in the home is all but inevitable. But if we make the switch to renewables and fail — once again — to address the ethics of mining, what exactly will we have saved?

Five Questions On Business And Society

Dow Chemical is currently soliciting questions for a Google Hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business In Society.” The Wednesday morning Hangout will be moderated by Alice Korngold, author of A Better World Inc., and feature Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris along with other “global sustainability leaders.”

I submitted five questions for the group’s consideration. I can’t say whether they’ll address any of them or whether these questions are even appropriate for this forum. This is a huge topic, and there are lots of ways to approach it. Nor do I pretend that these are the only five questions worth asking. But it strikes me that these five simple questions might help others start and structure a conversation about business’s role in society. So, after tweeting my questions and putting them up for easy reference on Google docs, I thought I’d post them here as well.

  1. Governance: Where’s the seat for “society” in the boardroom, and who sits there?
  2. Priorities: Whose role is it within the company to identify and set social priorities?
  3. Non-performance: What mechanisms should be in place to identify and address human rights and environmental grievances?
  4. Authentic social license: What mechanisms ensure all stakeholders — esp. dissenters, skeptics, opponents — are represented?
  5. Metrics: How does [the company; in this case, Dow] currently measure social performance, and factor it into overall business performance?

The First CEO: A Political Revolution?

I’ve been associating the cultural icon of the CEO with big changes in America, most of which were well underway in the 1970s, when the acronym “CEO” first comes into wide use: the collapse of manufacturing, the financialization of the economy, the emergence of the neoliberal order. David Graeber offers yet another way to characterize these changes: “total bureaucratization.”

An excerpt from Graeber’s new book in the latest issue of Harpers lands us in familiar territory:

What began to happen in the Seventies, which paved the way for what we see today, was a strategic turn, as the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy moved away from workers and toward shareholders. There was a double movement: corporate management became more financialized and the financial sector became more corporatized, with investment banks and hedge funds largely replacing individual investors. As a result, the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable. By the Nineties, lifetime employment, even for white-collar workers, had become a thing of the past. When corporations needed loyalty, they increasingly secured it by paying their employees in stock options.

What Graeber at first characterizes as “a strategic turn” and the merging of the corporate and financial sectors, he then goes on to call “a political revolution”:

At the same time, everyone was encouraged to look at the world through the eyes of an investor — which is one reason why, in the Eighties, newspapers continued laying off their labor reporters, while ordinary TV news reports began featuring stock-quote crawls at the bottom of the screen. By participating in personal-retirement and investment funds, the argument went, everyone would come to own a piece of capitalism. In reality, the magic circle only widened to include higher-paid professionals and corporate bureaucrats. Still, the perceived extension was extremely important. No political revolution (for that’s what this was) can succeed without allies, and bringing along the middle class — and, crucially, convincing them that they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism — was critical.

The parenthetical affirmation — “(for that’s what this was)” — asks us to pause and really take the point. Having read only this excerpt, I don’t know whether Graeber goes on to explain why what he elsewhere calls a “shift” or “turn” counts as a “political revolution,” or how exactly he thinks this overturning of the political order was brought about. No doubt there was fraud, collusion and conspiracy, and “everyone was encouraged” to believe they were included; but the passive verb here leaves way too much unsaid. For one thing, the triumph and establishment of  the new order at home and abroad was really not so bloodless as Graeber (here, at least) makes it out to be.

The celebration and glamorization of the CEO — as a leader, a rule-maker and a rule-breaker, the agent and steward of shareholder value — was one of the things that duped ordinary, middle-class Americans into thinking “they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism.” It deserves a chapter in the story Graeber’s out to tell. The acronym “CEO” itself belongs to what Graeber calls the “peculiar idiom” of “bureaucratic techniques” and meritocratic myths — a language with origins in self-actualization movements of the 1970s, “full of bright, empty terms like ‘vision,’ ‘quality,’ ‘stakeholder,’ ‘leadership,’ ‘excellence,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘strategic goals,’ and ‘best practices.’” It’s good to see this language held up for scrutiny, especially since, as Graeber rightly points out, it still “[engulfs] any meeting where any number of people gather to discuss the allocation of any kind of resources.” To the victors go the spoils, and that’s not likely to change as long as we are speaking their language and playing by their rules.

To the Edge of the Gap with Satya Nadella

It’s hard to believe that the people around Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella did not prepare him for a question about the pay gap at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, and even harder to believe that they would advise him to tell women to stop asking for a raise and place their “faith,” instead, in “karma.” Nadella must have gone off script, or lost his talking points on the way to Phoenix. He tried to backpedal on Twitter later in the day, but by then the damage was done.

There is a transcript of the mess here. Nadella starts by talking about the inefficiencies of “HR systems” and ends up endorsing a corporate caste system, in which karma determines station. He advises talented women that the arc of Microsoft universe is long, but bends toward justice: they should keep the faith, keep working and just keep quiet about the whole equal pay thing.

Today, he’s repented, in an email to Microsoft employees: “if you think you deserve a raise, just ask for it.” He’s also committed, he says, to closing the pay gap at Microsoft. The trouble is, telling women they should “just ask” for raises may indicate that the CEO has found a formula that will allow him to remove his foot from his mouth, but it isn’t going to solve the problem.

In fact, research by the organization Catalyst — which I’ve written about in another post — shows that while the system may reward men in roughly the way Nadella describes, giving them “the right raises as [they] go along,” it does not so reward women; and when women ask for raises, their requests go unmet. It’s hard to have faith in a system like that.

The whole incident brings me back, of course, to my ongoing interest in the power of asking, which is the power in question here.

“Just ask” sounds like permission; but permission does not necessarily entail power. What’s fascinating about the Catalyst research on what happens when women ask for raises is that it clearly shows that the power of asking is a power we have to confer on others: it’s the power we give the other to make claims (or demands) on us.

We confer that power when we recognize the other’s status as a second person, or — to put it another way — when we recognize in them an authority equal to our own.

Respect that authority, and we are mutually accountable to each other. Disrespect or disregard it, and we deny others the status of persons, make them instruments of our will or means to our ends. We dehumanize them, or fail to acknowledge them as fully human.

Of course, respect of this fundamental order is not something Nadella can institute at Microsoft by tweeting about “bias,” emailing his apologies or by executive fiat. But a good place to start the broader conversation about closing the pay gap (at Microsoft, in the tech industry or throughout the business world) might be to see it, and approach it and address it as a basic power gap that only true respect for persons can bridge.

A Fifth Note on the First CEO: The Postwar Fad

We don’t usually think of corporate boardrooms as places where fads start or take hold. But that’s probably the the best way to account for the adoption of the CEO title by American corporations in the postwar period. Or at least that’s the view urged in this 1999 paper by Allison and Potts, which a reader shared in a comment on my post about the postwar provenance of the term CEO: from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, the adoption of the Chief Executive Officer title spread, primarily through “board interlocks” — or through individuals serving on multiple corporate boards.

Allison and Potts present the title’s diffusion through corporate networks as a “no brainer,” “an innovation largely without consequence to adopters.” It was a case, they say, of “contact-only diffusion” or “diffusion with contagion,” in which no serious choices or business decisions had to be made; the title may have helped clarify the difference between President and Chairman, but for the companies Allison and Potts study there was no “non-trivial economic benefit or cost” involved. Companies adopted the title Chief Executive Officer largely because they were emulating other companies: “diffusion of the CEO title was strictly mimetic, a true fad.”

cumulativeCEO
Everybody was doing it. Container Corporation of America started the trend in the late 1940s: why, Allison and Potts don’t explain, but I hope to make some sense of that at some point in the future; it’s intriguing, to say the least, that the company led by Walter Paepcke — Aspen booster, patron of the arts, and promoter of big ideas — led the way. In 1955, CCA was the only one of the largest 200 industrial companies in the United States that had a Chief Executive Officer. By 1975, all but one of the bunch had adopted the title.

CEO Titles

The fad takes hold in four stages: an early period, from 1955-1961;1962-1965, when adoption rates climb dramatically; a late middle period, from 66-71; and a final period where we see adoption rates drop off, mainly due to the remaining number of small adopters.

Though Allison and Potts don’t distinguish the adoption of the Chief Executive Officer title from the use of the acronym CEO, it’s in that late middle period, which they call the “inflection point” of the fad, where we start to see the first traces of the acronym “CEO” in the Harvard Business Review and other business publications. Shareholder value theory makes its debut in 1970. By the time the fad has run its course, in 1976, Jensen and Meckling have published their theory of the firm: the CEO has been identified as the primary “agent” of the firm’s success. He has also begun to enjoy unprecedented political influence, social prestige and cultural celebrity. What began as a boardroom fad has produced a new icon of American power.

The Breach at Mount Polley Represents a Failure of Governance

The Imperial Metals Corporation’s Board of Directors claims “ultimate responsibility” for the company and its business operations, but we have yet to learn exactly how the Board will exercise responsibility after the Mount Polley disaster. It’s not even clear the Board is capable of responding to the spill with anything but the public displays of emotion and concern we’ve already seen, weak assurances that the disaster has been “stabilized” and vague promises to do better next time. None of that amounts to taking responsibility.

Deregulation, lax regulation and staffing cutbacks on the government side are being blamed for the breach of the tailings pond. There are charges of collusion: “The government isn’t inspecting the mines, and the mining companies know it,” says consultant and advocate Glenda Ferris. But the breach at Mount Polley also represents a failure of internal or corporate governance at Imperial Metals: the board does not appear qualified to deal with the risks the mining company’s operations actually entail.

The Mount Polley breach has shown just how big those risks are, and how extensive are the responsibilities they carry. Imperial’s operations have created an environmental catastrophe (in the words of Phil Owens, Professor at University of Northern British Columbia). The last assessment I saw reported that Imperial Metals has released over 10 million cubic meters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of toxic waste into surrounding rivers and waterways. The sudden rush of toxic waters was so powerful it took down trees in its wake.

There are important human rights considerations here as well, now that Imperial has compromised access to clean water throughout the region for who knows how long. Reassurances from Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch that the water “in our tailings” is “very close to drinking water quality” are an insult to the intelligence, and make a mockery of serious human rights claims.

It’s not a question whether the mining company is a “bad actor,” or whether it’s “unfair” to portray them that way, as British Columbia energy minister Bill Bennett complained earlier today. It‘s a question of competence: who’s seated at the boardroom table before anything like this happens, and whether they are able to meet the serious responsibilities that go along with running a mining operation.

No one on the Imperials Metal board has environmental or human rights credentials. The company’s sulfide mining operations — and those of any mining company — require people with both. They should have a boardroom seat as well as a real say in how business gets done and how to mitigate mining’s risks. Until then, talking about “ultimate responsibility” is just guff.