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An Economic System Out of Control

Based on When Corporations Rule the World by David C. Korten
Kumarian Press and Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1995

Those of us who seek to intervene in policy debates in favor of economic justice and environmental sustainability are regularly assured by the world's power brokers that they are fully committed to these goals so long as economic growth and the expansion of free trade are not compromised by governmental restraints on the market. So sacred have growth and free trade become in our modern culture that only rarely do we find the courage to ask why they should be given precedence over the needs of people and nature? Indeed, why should we consider accelerating growth and trade to be of any importance at all except to the extent that they serve people and nature?

When the proponents of growth, market deregulation, and free trade tout their benefits, it is well to bear in mind what some of the most outspoken of these proponents really have in mind. Take this account from a recent issue of Forbes magazine.

As disillusion with socialism and other forms of statist economics spreads, private, personal initiative is being released to seek its destiny. Wealth, naturally, follows. The two big openings for free enterprise in this decade have come in Latin America and the Far East. Not surprisingly, the biggest clusters of new billionaires on our list have risen from the ferment of these two regions. Eleven new Mexican billionaires in two years, seven more ethnic Chinese.

Taking a slightly more populist view, Business Week presented its own special report titled "A Millionaire a Minute," providing this breathless account of what the free market has accomplished in Asia.

Wealth... Now East Asia is generating its own wealth on a speed and scale that probably is without historical precedent. The number of non-Japanese Asian multimillionaires is expected to double to 800,000 by 1996... East Asia will surpass Japan in purchasing power within a decade... There are new markets for everything from Mercedes Benz cars to Motorola mobile phones to Fidelity mutual funds... To find the nearest precedent, you need to rewind U.S. history 100 years to the days before strong unions, securities watchdogs and antitrust laws.

Neither article made more than passing reference to the 675 million Asians who continue to live in absolute deprivation. So there we have it. In the eyes of two leading business journals, economic success is about creating millionaires and billionaires by denying workers the right to organize independent unions and giving free reign to securities fraud and the extraction of monopoly profits.

Most everyone is aware that we live in an unequal world. Few realize, however, just how extreme the inequality has become or how fast the gap between the poor and the super rich is growing. Forbes tells us the world now has 358 billionaires. Their combined net worth exceeds the combined net worth of the world's poorest 2½ billion people. This is but one manifestation of the extreme economic and social distortions created by the globalized free market economy idealized by business publications such as Forbes and Business Week.

Evidence is mounting that economic growth and free trade are not leading us toward economic justice and environmental sustainability. To the contrary, they are taking us in the direction of increasing economic injustice and environmental unsustainability. The debates over jobs versus the environment miss a basic point. Assuring everyone the means to meet their basic needs and achieving a sustainable balance with the environment are mutually supportive goals. Indeed, there are powerful theoretical arguments why, in a resource scarce world, neither is possible without the other. There is, however, an irreconcilable conflict between the goal of creating economically justice and environmentally sustainable societies and embracing sustained economic growth, unregulated markets, and free trade as the organizing principles of public policy. The resulting policies are well suited to producing more millionaires and billionaires. They are ill suited to achieving justice and sustainability.

The Money Game

The world's most powerful instrument of governance is not a government. Nor is it a global corporation. Rather it is a global financial system that is running dangerously out of control.

Each day half a million to a million people—primarily Western Europeans, North Americans, and Japanese—arise as dawn reaches their part of the world, turn on their computers, and leave the real world of people, things, and nature to immerse themselves in playing the world's most lucrative computer game: the money game. As their computers come online, they enter a world of cyberspace constructed of numbers that represent money and complex rules by which those numbers can be converted into a seemingly infinite variety of financial instruments, each with its own distinctive risks and reproductive qualities. Through their interactions, the players engage in competitive transactions aimed at acquiring for their own accounts the money that other players hold.

Players can also pyramid the amount of money in play by borrowing from one another and bidding up prices. Indeed, the money game players have been so successful in creating play money that for every $1 now circulating in the productive world economy of real goods and services, it is estimated that there is $20 to $50 circulating in the world of pure finance—"investment" funds completely delinked from the creation of real value. In the international currency markets alone, some $800 billion to $1 trillion changes hands each day—unrelated to productive investment or trade in actual goods and services.

Not only is the money game challenging and fun, the play money it generates can be exchanged for real money to buy things from people who work in the real world—lots of things. Unfortunately for the rest of us, though it is played like a game and the transactions involve nothing more than moving numbers from one electronic account to another through a global web of computers, the money game has enormous real consequences. Take the recent Mexican peso crisis as an example.

Mexico became touted as an economic miracle by attracting $70 billion in foreign money over five years with high interest bonds and a super heated stock market. As little as 10 percent of this money went into real investment. Most of it financed consumer imports, capital flight, and debt service payments. It also helped to create 24 Mexican billionaires. The bubble burst in December of 1994 as the hot money flowed out. Mexico's stock market and the value of the peso plummeted. The resulting Mexican austerity measures and shifting terms of trade between Mexico and the United States resulted in massive job losses on both sides of the border. U.S. president Clinton put together a $50 billion bailout package at taxpayer expense to assure that the wall street firms that held Mexican bonds would be repaid. The new link between the dollar and the peso made currency speculators nervous and the value of the dollar fell sharply against the yen. Not a penny of the bailout money went to the 750,000 Mexicans who would be put out of work by government imposed austerity measures or the million Americans expected to lose their jobs to NAFTA by the end of 1995.

These are real world consequences of an out of control financial system in which reckless young traders backed by the massive financial assets of leading private financial institutions send billions of dollars sloshing around the world in a high stakes gambling frenzy with an almost complete absence of oversight.

The global financial system is wildly out of control and no one is tending the store.

Socializing Costs and Privatizing Gains

In a deregulated global market economy global corporations are accountable to only one master, a rogue global financial system with one incessant demand—keep your stock price as high as possible by maximizing short-term returns. One way to do that is to shift as much of the cost of the corporation's operations as possible onto the community. The pressures involved make it almost impossible to manage a corporation in the larger community interest. Indeed, any publicly traded corporation that attempts to manage its assets responsibly will almost certainly be bought out by a corporate raider.

Take the case of Pacific Lumber Company. It pioneered the development of sustainable logging practices on its substantial holdings of ancient redwood timber stands, provided generous benefits to its employees, fully funded its pension fund, and maintained a no lay-offs policy during downturns in the timber market. This made it a good citizen in the local community. It also made it a prime takeover target.

Corporate raider Charles Hurwitz gained control in a hostile takeover. He immediately doubled the cutting rate of the company's holding of thousand-year-old trees, reaming a mile and a half corridor into the middle of the forest that he jeeringly named "Our wildlife-biologist study trail." He then drained $55 million from the company's $93 million pension fund and invested the remaining $38 million in annuities of the Executive Life Insurance Company, which had financed the junk bonds used to make the purchase—and subsequently failed. Turning reality on its head, corporate raiders refer to this process of pirating a firm's assets as "adding value."

Once upon a time local communities looked to corporations not only as sources of jobs, but as well of tax revenues to help cover the costs of essential local infrastructure and public services. For example, in 1957, corporations in the United States provided 45 percent of local property tax revenues. By 1987 their share had dropped to about 16 percent.

Indeed, local governments are now forced by the dynamics of global competition not only to give most large corporations tax breaks, but as well to directly subsidize their operations with public funds.

The state of South Carolina in the United States has been warmly praised by the business press for its successful competitive bid for a new BMW auto plant. The company was attracted in part by cheap, nonunion labor and tax concessions. In addition, when BMW said it favored a 1,000 acre tract on which a large number of middle class homes were already located, the state spent $36.6 million to buy the 140 properties and leased the site back to the company at a $1 a year. The state also picked up the costs of recruiting, screening, and training workers for the new plant, and raised an additional $2.8 million from private sources to send newly hired engineers for training in Germany. The total cost to the South Carolina taxpayers for these and other subsidies to attract BMW will amount to $130 million over thirty years.

This is what global competition is really about—local communities and workers competing against one another to absorb ever more of the production costs of the world's most powerful and profitable corporations.

Another tactic for externalizing costs is through "downsizing"—a process by which the U.S. Fortune 500 companies reduced their total employment by 4.4 million jobs between 1980 and 1993—a period during which their sales increased by 1.4 times, assets increased by 2.3 times, and CEO compensation increased by 6.1 times. Some observers claim that downsizing means the largest corporations are losing out to smaller, more agile and competitive enterprises. The claim has as much substance as the claim by tobacco company executives that cigarettes are not addictive.

While the giants are shedding people, they are not shedding control over money, markets, or technology. The world's 500 largest industrial corporations, which employ only five hundredths of 1 percent of the world's population, control 25 percent of the world's economic output. The top 300 transnationals, excluding financial institutions, own some 25 percent of the world's productive assets. Of the world's 100 largest economies, 50 are now corporations—not including banking and financial institutions. The combined assets of the world's 50 largest commercial banks and diversified financial companies amount to nearly 60 percent of The Economist's estimate of a $20 trillion global stock of productive capital.

Concentration of control over markets is proceeding apace. The Economist recently reported that in the consumer durables, automotive, airline, aerospace, electronic components, electrical and electronics, and steel industries the top five firms control more than 50 percent of the global market, placing them clearly in the category of monopolistic industries. In the oil, personal computers and media industries the top five firms control more than 40 percent of sales, which indicates strong monopolistic tendencies.

Downsizing is really about consolidating the firm's monopoly control of markets, technology, and money in a small, well-paid headquarters staff. Everything else is contracted out to smaller firms that are forced into intensive competition for the firm's business. The contractors—commonly located in low wage countries—compete by hiring workers at substandard wages under often appalling working conditions.

For example, the popular Nike athletic shoes that sell for US$73 to $135 around the world are produced by 75,000 workers employed by independent contractors in low income countries. A substantial portion of these workers are in Indonesia—mostly women and girls housed in company barracks, paid as little as 15 cents an hour, and required to work mandatory overtime. Unions are forbidden and strikes are broken up by the military. In 1992, Michael Jordan reportedly received $20 million from the Nike corporation to promote the sale of its shoes, more than the total compensation paid to the Indonesian women who made them.

An unregulated global market is shifting the financial rewards away from those who do productive work to those who control money and are successful at convincing people to buy what they do not need and often cannot afford. This goes to the heart of growing income disparities around the world.

The world's most powerful corporations are also active in shaping public policy in ways that virtually forces us into a pattern of overconsumption that yields large profits to themselves at the expense of our quality of living. Evidence is mounting that to make our societies sustainable we will have to restructure our systems of production and consumption to largely eliminate:

In each instance, we have an opportunity to substantially increase the quality of our living while reducing our burden on the environment. Why aren't we doing it? Who wants to give over their living spaces to automobiles, take long business trips, eat contaminated foods, or live in a garbage dump?

One important reason we live this way is because it is profitable for politically powerful corporations. For example, the steel, automobile, construction, and oil companies have a major stake in policies that make survival without an automobile nearly impossible in most of our towns and cities. Chemical and agribusiness companies have had a similar stake in maintaining chemical and energy intensive agriculture systems that provide us with foods of dubious nutritional laced with toxic poisons. Other industries benefit from encouraging our use of excessively packaged low durability products. So long as these corporate interests are allowed to dominate public policy processes, change is unlikely.

The first step toward change is to reclaim the power that these interests have co-opted. We need a citizen agenda to tame corporate power, reclaim citizen sovereignty, and restore economic sanity.