by Jerome a Paris
Wed Nov 22nd, 2006 at 06:22:43 PM EST
Rise of 'casino capitalism' shakes faith of moderate Monks
Between 1993 and 2003, [John Monks, formerly general secretary of the British Trades Union Congress, now the Brussels-based leader of the European trade union confederation] led the British trade union movement with modesty and distinction. He was the moderate's moderate: avoiding confrontation wherever possible and advocating partnership at work between management and employees. Business leaders were happy to do business with him.
Confronted by today's turbo-charged capitalism, Mr Monks cast off his former moderation. He even seemed to be on the verge of recanting his commitment to the partnership model. "Partnership with who?" he asked. There has been, he said, a "disintegration of the social nexus between worker and employer - a culture containing broad social rights and obligations. The new capitalism wants none of it."
Mr Monks contrasted businesses' healthy profitability with the ruthless way some have treated their staff recently, whether through large-scale redundancies or the constant threat that jobs may be sent off-shore or outsourced. While median wages have stagnated, record executive salaries are legion.
He admitted that he had possibly been a bit naive in the past. "I did not fully appreciate what was happening on the other side of the table," Mr Monks said. While he sympathised with business leaders for the relentless pressure they find themselves under - "It cannot be easy running a firm . . . when you are up for sale every day and every night of every year" - he was appalled by the increasingly "shameless", short-termist behaviour of overpaid corporate executives. "More and more they resemble the Bourbons - and they should be aware of what eventually happened to the Bourbons."
As we know, what happened to the Bourbons was the French revolution and the guillotine.
The above was printed yesterday in the Financial Times, the main European business newspaper, and I found this fascinating, in a I-can't-take-my-eyes-off-that-car-crash way, and it brought to me thoughts about peak oil and the current inability of our business world to look into the future.
Before I explain, let me, via a small detour, bring another concept into play. We're all familiar with business cycles: there is growing demand for one product; prices can be very high; people rush to provide the good and offer the suppy that will fulfill that demand; the first comers get excellent prices; as new sellers come in and supply increases, prices goes down and more demand is created; the sector booms and more suppliers poor in; but at some point, prices become too low and new sellers are discouraged, and some of the existing ones drop out until demand can catch up, and prices can go back up.
When products are simple and easy to provide, an equilibrium of sorts can be reached, as supply and demand can ajust fairly quickly to price and other contraints, and the market can be quite stable. But in many industrial sectors, supply is far from being flexible: it can take years to build a new production factory, and thus market conditions may be quite different at the time of the decision to invest and at the moment the capacity acutally becomes available. In such cases, the economic cycles are much more pronounced: if demand grows in a situation of insufficient supply, prices will go up as there simply is no supply to respond to that demand, and thus demand must be restricted, which, for vital product (like electricity) means massive price hikes. Producers will then decide to invest to take advantage of these prices, but it will take a while for them to be ready. Many will do the same, all at a time of apparent undersupply. In the meantime, prices will be extremely high. But at some point that capacity will come on line: the early projects will get excellent prices and a great return on investment, but as the others catch up, you may suddenly get an oversupply and prices may eventually crash brutally, leaving producers with a lot of excess capacity and little to show for their investment - then the sector gets neglected, until demand catches up again, and the whole cycle starts again.
Many such cycles happened in the past, and they would trigger brutal economic crises. Our governments have slowly learnt to manage our economies so as to smooth out such cycles and avoid the worst of the boom-and-bust which is inevitable in pure market driven economies. The way they have done this is by boosting demand during busts (for instance, by providing income to those that lose out in such circumstances, via unemployment insurance or deposit insurance - to avoid banking crashes), and by trying to slow supply during the good times (by limiting money growth and trying to curtial credit at those times to avoid overinvestment). It's never been a perfect science, but by and large, macroeconomic cycles have become a lot less brutal in recent decades than, say, a century ago.
But even today, sectors like electricity or oil are prone to such cycles, due to the long lag time of investment decisions. In the late 70s, there was a boom in refinery building to take advantage of skyhigh gas prices; prices crashed and the oil industry had to nurse a lot of overcapacity for the following 20 years - until recent years when demand caught up and caused brutal price increases (and largely unfair accusations of gouging). Same thing in the power sector in the late 90s, when an investment boom in gas-fired power plants created a glut of power and rock-bottom prices that left a lot of investors (and their financiers) in the dust. Demand is now catching up after several years of little investment, and we again get brownouts or huge price spikes.
The same can happen with their work force: there is slack, people are made to work without wage increases, business pickes up, but still no hires and no higher wages. Until, suddenly, there is a strike (or a resignation) and a loss of production, and a much higher wage increase must be given to get people back to work (or to hire someone new).
To keep it short, some industries, and a lot of economic players, seem structurally unable to anticipate market changes, and react in emergency mode to crises when they hit.
Today, business is on a roll. They see that everything is going their way. Labor is kept in line by the apparent plentiful availability of endlessly renewable pliant Chinese laborers. Demand is boosted by the same emerging economies. Western government's itch to tax is kept in line by the ability to move capital and assets easily across borders. They have the upper hand and they are abusing it, creating a lot of economic dislocation, poverty and resentment in their wake. They think that they can get away with it, even if it means pissing off people that were not hostile to them like Mr Monks.
Their actions are "dangerous to economic stability, traditional industry and jobs", he said. "I would like to see the City pages of the press more challenging and less respectful on these matters . . . Our future - the world's future - is too important to place in the hands of the new capitalists."
Will corporate leaders - those that have read this far anyway - simply shrug their shoulders and get back to their slashing and burning ways? Is Mr Monks merely offering a wholly predictable, knee-jerk, lefty rant? I do not think so. This general secretary just does not do lefty rants. So business people should take note. When the John Monkses of this world say enough is enough, that the capitalist system itself is sick, you can be sure that elsewhere in the world there is deep-seated, lingering resentment and unhappiness.
Which suggests that the only way to reverse this trend will not be small, moderate steps, but brutal retaliation, when it becomes possible and/or attractive for people that have little left to lose. Revolution. Guillotine. Quite possibly worse than a market crash or -gasp- wage increases for the guillotined.
And which also makes me pessimistic about our ability to react to peak oil in a sensible way. Markets are unable to anticipate the sea change that stagnant production at a time of sharply increasing demand will mean, and the requisite demand destruction, which could be brought about in an organised fashion via a combination of market manipulation (taxes to increase the apparent price) and regulation (to encourage or impose energy efficiency, for instance), will happen brutally, via huge price increases and the serious economic dislocation that will entail.
As Leonardo de Vinci noted, nature does not break its law. If there is a wall in front of us and we do not brake, then the wall will stop us - and probably destroy us in the process. If there is not enough oil, then not everybody that wants some will have it. Either we organise the sharing, or nature will do it for us, brutally.
So what has the discount rate got to do with all this? In fact, whatever your discount rate, an event so momentous as peak oil or global climate change should register in your balance sheet and make you adapt your decisions (essentially, whatever your speed, you should be able to see the wall and decide to adapt your driving). The fact that it doesn't suggest strongly that we have a clear case of market failure, and that government intervention is needed to avoid the crisis.
The alternative is crashing in the wall, or finishing under the guillotine. And that's not a lefty ranter telling it.