Author Archives: Tom Abeles

Capitalism: Keeping Up Appearances*

Dr. Tom P. Abeles, exec. Director

Navigating Futures

[email protected]

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.”  Lewis Carroll

Whether one goes back to Adam Smith’s volumes, the ideology promulgated by the members of The Mont Pelerin Society and the institutes that they have founded, or the arguments put forth in negotiations, there are several key elements used to define “capitalism”. These include, among others: private property rights, capital accumulation, wage labor and voluntary exchange within competitive, free, markets.

The relationships in such a society are money-based with a capitalist class that owns the means of production and a working class dependent on wage-work. The function of government is seen as providing the framework for the capitalist system to function. That includes protection for private property and providing externalities that support the civil society.

Perhaps the starkest reduction of this relationship is provided by Andrew McAfee, in his book, More From Less, a volume that suggests that the entrepreneurial class and the capitalists provide the crucial path to solve the current planetary crisis, arising from “climate change”, resource depletion and environmental degradation. McAfee defines four “horsemen”, the entrepreneur or creative, the owners of capital to underwrite the technology development, government that provides the supportive frame and the general population that provides the labor. William Janeway, a veteran of the investment banking community that financed much of the recent technology expansion, supports the basic idea and, in fact rationalizes the boom/bust financial crises which has allowed the concentration of capital to underwrite what has been termed “moonshots” or singular technical breakthroughs that have contributed to the financialization of the investment marketplace.

Alternative models such as that in the Scandinavian countries and the recent rise of an entrepreneurial spirit within mainland China point to alternative economic models that are emergent but which still bear the imprint of the traditional capitalist patina. The role of government as a venture capitalist has been around since charters were granted for ideas to explore across oceans as well as the use of public capital to actively develop products and services of value to the State and the populous. On the other hand, Federal Reserve, the United States’ central bank is privately held and, with the government, determines the use of capital to keep the economy functioning.

Adam Smith wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” prior to his seminal, The Wealth of Nations. It served as the philosophical or moral underpinnings for what, today, is labeled as capitalism. Unfortunately, the weight of these ideas has been inverted, where the economics of commerce has become dominant and much of the social/cultural elements of society have been largely relegated as a function of government. Often the funding, through taxes and regulation, are seen as restricting the idea of growth and progress under the ideals of capitalism.

Efforts to bring balance raise the idea of socialism (or at the extreme communism). Yet, as noted above, globally, capitalism functions in the ideal along side of governments providing societal needs such as health care, public infrastructure and fiscal support to their citizens. Today, globally, there is active interest and efforts to extend these benefits through a universal basic income. This idea shows that within the spectrum of governmental forms, capitalism in its ideal is able to thrive. The major “rub” in the criteria is “ownership” where the far left of the ideological spectrum, socialism, raises the specter of government ownership or control.

In the 1980’s the Thatcher administration and, in parallel, the Regan administration removed many of the regulations that restricted capital accumulation and began to privatize government managed enterprises such as railroads. The deregulation of capital markets has resulted today, on a global scale, in the concentration of capital among a small segment of society. While this increased imbalance is recognized, the attempt to rebalance has become problematic due to the vested interests among nations to reach reproachment. 

This has amplified the problem of the idea of a free and unfettered market. The issue of ownership is conflated with control and the idea of profit. At one time, the value of the stock in a publicly traded enterprise was based on the company’s valuation. On the other hand, current stock prices, with the financialization of the markets, have been decoupled and significantly inflated, rationalized against some concept of future value. 

Regardless of how capitalism has been defined, as well as how capitalism functioned within the social frame of a country, the “financialization” and the ability of capital to move between countries for it’s own advantage changes the relationship within a country as imagined by the ideals of Adam Smith. “Free market” capitalism such as that put forth by neoclassical economics and the representations made by various policy organizations, evokes these principles, but operates outside of them changing the relationships.

Particularly in the United States and England, there is increasing pressure not only to correct the problems created by financialization, but also to change how society can participate, not as labor but also by access to and return from capital. The growing concern regarding climate change and related impacts of humans on the social and natural environment has turned an increasing number of corporations from resisting investment in change to seeing, through “capitalist” eyes that there are economic opportunities. But, technological “moonshots” prevalent in the investment community will not automatically correct the increasing disparity of the fiscal divide between the concentrated capital in the hands of a few. 

Capitalism is based on the private ownership of the means of production. As such it could be construed as an enterprise working within a social/political model of which there are a spectrum from “Democracy” to “Socialism”. Neither end of this spectrum, today, provides a matrix as we see in a number of governments from the United States to China. As mentioned above, the US government’s central bank is private and China “allows” entrepreneurial ownership of enterprises such as Ali Baba, a parallel enterprise similar to Amazon, but, currently, larger, globally. The Thatcher government was lobbied by capital interests to privatize what had been public enterprises and failed. On the other hand governments such as Canada and the Scandinavian countries have successfully socialized health care and other services with greater reach and efficiency than the private sector in the United States.

Since the start of global exploration and trading, government has underwritten enterprises similar to the current venture funds. Much, of what Silicon Valley has incorporated in its technology, has been underwritten by government. And government has financed the private sector when it has collapsed as we have seen in the crisis of 2007/08. Today, as CO2 is causing climate change, the US government is developing a program to rescue the fossil fuel companies’ soon to be stranded resources, similar to the bank “bailouts” during the 07/08 crises or the rescue of the US automobile industry. The 1980 Bayh-Dole act allowed recipients of federal funding to retain ownership of intellectual property.

Basically, the Adam Smith “ideal” of capitalism has become an “academic” straw man in a globalized world dominated by a financialized system that is increasingly concerned by the growing fiscal disparity between the “10%” and the rest of the population, from a United States perspective. Additionally, the focus on material growth on a finite resourced planet currently endangered by “climate change” will see accelerated shifts in Smith’s ideal or that promulgated by others such as the Mont Pelerin Society. The Wealth of Nations was written in “times past” and a “western” frame. Given a global perspective, From China to the United States, it is apparent that the spirit of Smith’s capitalist ideal holds across the social/cultural spectrum.  It will evolve from the “ideal” as seen today. Many of these changes are in transition:

  1. There will be increasing direction from both the public sector and the venture community with: increasing consideration on what have been externalities, both ecological and sociological elements,
  2. Given the increase in a variety of financial channels such as “screened” funds, the enterprises will be more responsive to a more diverse community of investors rather than the traditional venture capital and banking sources,
  3. While traditional wage work will exist, it will be complemented by a growing precarity. But, both traditional employment and precarity will exist where compensation options will result in a greater voice at the corporate boards and on “the floor”. 
  4. Stockholder returns, given the changes, will require different modes of compensation.
  5. Given the increase in artificial intelligence, new measures of “productivity” and profitability will impact on such factors as public/private compensation including issues such as a Universal Basic Income, UBI, and reduced workweek.
  6. Whether the giant fleet of ships once launched in China to current and historic government funding across the spectrum from space exploration and medical research, there will be increasing variances on public/private partnerships from the perspective of a financial return.
  7. While corporate profits have risen from 10% to 30% and stock evaluations into the realm of speculative, governments will “trust bust” discarding the argument for the need of the disparity to underwrite what has been termed “moonshots”. Modern Monetary Theory gives the citizens, thru the government, the fiscal resources to balance a return to all individuals. This is seen in one of the proposals to securitize the stranded reserves of the fossil fuel industry to recapitalize and shift the business to renewables. As an aside, globally, the need for higher energy density, nuclear will be back on the table.

Platforms as Enterprise part 2

The “Advertising Platform” stands front and center in the minds of most individuals because of its ability to “mine” the data of the users without compensation and to monetize that information in the form of selling access for marketing purposes, sale of goods or services, and the ability to influence decisions in the social and political arenas. At the present time, that business model for the platforms such as Facebook, and the abuse of the information in areas such as politics are close coupled in that the ability to curtail the misuse potentially impacts on both the bottom line and the value of the platform itself as an investment.

With the increasing capabilities of artificial intelligence and the increasing size of the database, there is discussion around the possibilities that selectively extracting and analyzing may not curb the abuse. The issues here have yet to be fully plumbed from a number of social/cultural, legal and application perspectives. What remains problematic, as noted previously, is that such accumulation of data from a variety of sources, including the increasing ability to “infer” connections, currently, can increase the complexity of the issues now on the table.

These issues bleed into the other types of platforms perhaps of greater interest to industrial, commercial and government sectors. Product platforms focus on the consumer and business sectors. Originally, they were used to market goods if we think Amazon, which started with books. Amazon then expanded as a platform for marketing “store fronts” for almost all commodities and services to those on advertising platforms. Alibaba, a China based product platform has a major focus on commercial/industrial products and services. It is clear that these platforms also are able to extract user data from those who visit these sites in a manner similar to the advertising platforms with potentially similar consequences.

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Platforms as Enterprise part 1

Over a decade ago a news and essay magazine sent each of its subscribers a customized issue that showed the block where they resided. That was also a time where simple word processing systems could customize targeted mailings. Today, in the world of large, sophisticated databases that have more extensive individual profiles, customized messages can “speak” directly to that person so that individual messaging is sent only to a specific person about issues that were generalized for an audience and mass mailed.

Similarly, jet engine manufacturers can track the operations of individual engines in real time, combining it with weather data, aircraft loading and other bits and pieces that let them customize maintenance and spot potential problems in operation and management of that specific unit. With a variety of sensors, a product can be tracked from point of manufacture to the ultimate end user.

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Review of The Captured Economy

What Goes Up Must Come Down*

Dr. Tom P. Abeles, editor

Navigating the Future

Lindsey, Brink and Steven M Teles, The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth and Increase Inequity, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017

“The Captured Economy” is an amazingly balanced perspective by two authors whose views from the left and right of the economic spectrum have been focused on the increasing spread of wealth in the United States society today, but the lessons have relevance, globally. There are two main issues, today. First, there is an increasing probability that many of the children of the current generation may fail to realize an income that is greater than their parents. Additionally, many who have risen into the ranks of the middle class may find that mitigating conditions may result in their slipping down the economic ladder. Secondly, there is growing evidence that those in the upper economic strata have increasing influence on government that favors their growing ability to increase that economic status, often at the expense of those lower in the economic hierarchy.

The former issue is more fully explored by Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders (1) which focuses on those who have achieved middle income status, most of today’s professionals, whose concerns are that changing economics could result in their sliding down that economic ladder. As Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory shows, given an equal chance for an economic gain or loss, individuals have greater concern for the latter. The other issue here is that those in the middle brackets, along with the upper 10% in income, have surplus capital to invest in income producing rent seeking vehicles whereas those in the lower income brackets are largely tied to work producing revenue that mostly is used to meet ongoing and extraordinary expenses.

While the issues around personal incomes/benefits are critical, this volume has a larger ax to grind, the impact of this “regulatory capture” on the overall economy and welfare of all citizens. Those who have elected the present administration and legislature see the highly visible spending by government for those “safety nets” while not taking into account that benefits filtering down in the form of tax cuts, for example, disproportionately benefit those already enjoying a fiscal sinecure that has increasingly solidified their rent-seeking leverage, often at the expense of country economic growth. The volume tackles four critical areas: Land Use Regulations, Professional Licensing (Health, Education, Law), Financial Arbitrage and Copyrights and Patents. The area of land use regulation maybe the least well understood.

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The Transformation of the University in a Sharing Economy II

It is recognized that a campus is a “community” where networks are established and other externalities accrue to those who matriculate and enter the Ivory Tower. On the other hand, the rise in competency-based programs, where students are increasingly required to exhibit mastery of materials beyond articulating what they can recall from their text materials and faculty presentations, mitigates or tempers the ability to leverage social networks against demonstrable skills.

Yet, in 2015 United States universities received 1.2 billion dollars directly in support of campus athletics at a time when the core of the university, its research and education functions not only are under funded but are even being defunded. Costs are rising for the academic core and many students are being obligated to assume significant and unforgiveable debt to complete academic certifications, often in areas where the fiscal compensation makes the ability to repay onerous. As Hamlet says in the eponymous Shakespearean play, “The time is out of joint.”

While the irony is seen and the pain is felt, it may be time to reflect, or as Wordsworth said in his “Ode to Immortality”, “ We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind”. In the Christensen model of disruptive innovation, the present industry tends to want to preserve its past while the nascent disruptive alternatives struggle to come into being. And thus it is with the Ivory Tower. This does not signal the demise of the past/present but rather the present evolves as it adopts and adapts to the emergent.

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Has the Peace Corps passed its “Use By” date

Having known and worked with “volunteers” in the Peace Corp since its beginning in the 60’s and working in a number of developing countries it is clear that there has been a significant change in both the volunteers and also in the country in which they work. In the beginning, the United States was learning about the under resourced countries, their needs and where the US might play a part. Simultaneously, the US needed experienced personnel to support this effort.

Thus, the Peace Corp played a significant function in building up a cadre of individuals with international experience, particularly in the developing world. It was/is a learning experience for all parties. Today that world has changed dramatically. Other countries are active in providing many of the needed skills and services that the US identified through a difficult and less than well developed process.

Today the under resourced countries have many of the same needs but at a different level. They have risen on the learning curve, become more aware of what is available and from whom such needs can be met. In many instances the demand for the level of competency, even in small villages has been raised. The ubiquitous cell phone and social networking has identified possibilities.

Many resourced countries are responding by bringing in professionals as both volunteers and financially compensated beyond subsistence levels. Health care is an excellent example as is agriculture. Unfortunately, as we see in the United States, the health profession has its own demands and recruits nurses and others drawing from some of the developing countries. Expecting to fill such needs in the under resourced countries at a level sufficient to effect change requires more than an appeal to volunteer, particularly at a time when many of these individuals have significant demands of families and incurred debt. “Any help is welcome” is not a response.

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The Transformation of the University in a Sharing Economy I

It is said that the two oldest entities are The Church and universities. While The Church has seen substantive changes over the years, the basic institution remains intact. Universities on the other hand seem to conform more to the disruptive models suggested by Clayton Christensen.

With the arrival of the Internet, institutions in click and brick space are emerging and are challenging the extant model of the Ivory Tower in all areas from basic knowledge creation and transmission to its larger functions within society. The sensibility of the disruptive innovation model seems to hold. Universities, as they exist today, evolved from their founding about 1000 years ago, and for the most part, will exist in the future. But they will be significantly changed, informed by the emergent competitive paths that effectively meet the immediate and long term needs of the society in which they are imbedded.

In the past, these Ivory Towers might be considered as points of knowledge creation and concentration in a darkened plain, a source to attract seekers of such learning along an arduous path to arrive and access that knowledge. Over time ICT, information/communication technologies, have evolved making it easier to access knowledge but not with the same urgency to travel to a “Tower”. Simultaneously, scholars and researchers, in the past dispersed, came together at these centers; yet, today, except for the necessity of physical resources, that need has changed, also, but in ways different from the past. In many research driven disciplines, faculty collegiality around singular research is greater across institutions than with the faculty next door.

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Less Bread and More Circuses

What would happen if the faculty and students in all the public universities in the United States in September of 2016, starting on Labor Day, called for a one week teach-in that shut the normal campus programs down across the US to explore the issues at hand and create a plan that would re-capitalize and re-energize the academic spirit, the core rationale for public education in general and public universities in particular.

The news feeds in both click and brick space have noted that universities across the United States acquired 1.2 billion USD for sports programs and facilities. In parallel, there are continued reports of academic budgets being reduced in public universities while private, ranked universities in the United States continue to grow their endowments.

While there is continued reporting of cuts in specific universities, there seems to be little concrete action and visible support from the academic community at large other than ululations and condemnations while faculty and students seem to be ducking for cover.

We have seen programs at universities organize around concerns that either lie outside of the institutions or peripherally have focus within the disciplinary areas. Civil rights, the Viet Nam war, and various social issues within the United States such as GLBT or the rights of various minority groups (e.g. “Black Lives Matter”) or economic disparity (wealth amongst the 1%) have commanded various levels of attention/action.

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Lever Press Breaks the Mold and They May Not Know It

Academic publishing arose to serve the needs of university faculty, think tanks and other researchers to share their knowledge as a community. That knowledge filtered down to the students and out to the larger public. Distributed through journals for more immediate access and through books and monographs for longer works.

As knowledge became more specialized and the communities grew, the publishing world expanded and became more complex and more costly to access. Often cost to acquire and increasing focus on more narrow and complex scholarship started to limit access by the public at large and undergraduate students, in particular.

Over the years there have been a variety of efforts to bridge the gaps between the various disciplines and to create different models of open access to make these materials accessible while maintaining a level of publishing acceptable to peers in the various disciplines. An idea to bridge these gaps was put forward by a number of librarians in small liberal arts colleges starting in 1979.

In 2016, over three decades later Lever Press was announced with a number of distinct goals:

1) All publications, primarily monographs, would be free and open access. There would be no charge for authors or users of the materials. The participating institutions would cover the costs for preparation, processing and publishing in electronic formats.

2) The publications would be interdisciplinary where this is defined largely as the humanities and social sciences

3) There would be a substantial focus on issues around “social engagement”

4) The publications would be “intermodal” meaning that they served both scholarly efforts but be in such a form as to be accessible to undergraduate students

There are substantive questions that have not been clarified in their public announcements and in several interviews. Briefly:

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The Failure of the Universities to Address Their Own Disruptive Moment

Unless there is a violent event such as a revolution or a giant meteor, the disruption of a system such as a business or, in this case, post secondary education, occurs over an extended period, often happening almost unaware by the affected parties. But we reach a tipping point or plateau where one can see out at the events, often, even then, in denial.

Globally, there are transforming events in post secondary education. There is increased demand, particularly in the under resourced countries to provide advanced practice skills for two major reasons. First, the primary/secondary systems in many countries are weak and students have been promoted forward needing further learning. Second, the complex needs of society both from an economic perspective and for civic participation requires advanced skills.

The burden to meet those needs has been met by expansions of institutional facilities and a further stretching of the availability of qualified faculty in the under resourced world while there exists, selectively, a surplus of faculty in the non-STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) areas in, largely North America and Europe. To further complicate the picture, analysis, focused largely in North America, but potentially global in nature, shows that the real need in the “new” economy can be defined by the ratio 1:2:7 or for one Ph.D., there is needed two at a masters level and seven with applied skills level. This runs counter to the standard litany of advanced education with the goal of a Ph.D. being the ultimate destination.

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