Moral crisis of capitalism

The system finds itself under severe scrutiny because its underlying mechanism of shared prosperity has stopped working, writes Shahid Mehmood

Moral crisis of capitalism
When the economic recession of 2008 struck the world economy, not many would have guessed that this event would set off a wave of serious introspection about the nature and morality of present day capitalism. Many, including economists, thought that this is just a continuation of the traditional cycle that an economy goes through, whereby periods of growth are followed by recessions (which in general means lower GDP growth rates). It was expected that things would be back to normal within a few years.

But something different transpired this time around. Millions of people around the globe, especially in the leading centers of global capitalism like London and New York, spilled onto the streets and vented their anger against the present state of capitalism. This movement became the ‘Wall Street vs Main Street’ movement. Many years down the line, the world economy (mainly the industrialised world) is yet to regain its growth trajectory and the waves generated by the movement still reverberate. In effect, what we have is a crisis of the workings of capitalism. It would be interesting to delve into some details in order to understand how this state of affairs came to be?

This discussion takes us back to a Scottish professor of moral philosophy and his writings on market economy and capitalism. Adam Smith, who is now revered as the father of economics, wrote his magnum opus Wealth of Nations (WON) in 1776. Considered the bible of economics, one of the most outstanding insights of the book was that a person’s greed ends up benefitting the community as a whole. Two sentences (abbreviated) lay out this principle; Smith contends that: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest…” and “Every individual... neither intends to promote the public interest nor knows how much he is promoting it... he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention”.
The signs of this dysfunction are all around, in numbers and other instances. All around the world, labour's share of total national income is on a constant decline

Smith’s workings of an efficient capitalist system is tied to the workings of the ‘invisible hand’, the famous concept which explains how greed that ends up promoting the greater good. But the most noticeable aspect of this concept is that Smith first mentioned it in an equally remarkable (though less discussed) book of his called the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Published before WON, it outlined the moral pre-requisites for an economy to function properly. Smith’s concept of the invisible hand, therefore, was closely tied to morality. It reads as follows: “[The rich] consume little more than the poor and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life ...”

What Smith envisioned has, up till the end of 20th century, worked pretty well. What we saw in the industrialised nations was that capitalists and entrepreneurs, in pursuit of profit, implemented ventures and projects that ended up benefiting the society as a whole. Setting up a plant for production, for example, was purely done for personal gain. But the venture needed employees, and thus many aspiring job seekers found their sustenance due to the pursuit of greed by the industrialists/capitalists. Gradually, in the face of rising resistance in the form of Marx and others, the economies of nation states gradually transformed into welfare states, whose main beneficiaries were the larger, lower segments of the population and the middle classes. This setting worked remarkably well, and explains how it managed to weather stiff resistance over centuries, none bigger than Communism which met its demise in 1991 with the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.

But the 21st century has seen the consensus starting to unravel, with the Wall Street vs Main Street only the first sign of widespread consternation. And the simple reason is that the workings of the invisible hand are now skewed starkly in favour of the one percent.

The signs of this dysfunction are all around, in numbers and other instances. All around the world, labour’s share of total national income is on a constant decline. The real income (income adjusted for the cost of living), except for top percentile of earners, has been falling gradually. Income inequality is at a historic high. Credit Suisse, which tracks global wealth, estimated that the richest one percent now own half of total global wealth (estimated at $280 trillion).

The 18th, 19th and 20th century witnessed entrepreneurship and capitalism in a manner that every new venture resulted in creation of newer job opportunities, generation of real wealth and comparatively proportionate distribution of wealth. In contrast, today’s wealth creation is largely centered upon financial engineering and application of technological developments. The former is merely a transfer of wealth from the lower percentiles (poor and middle classes) to the rich, and the latter is leading to lesser need for workers as artificial intelligence (AI) does the work without requiring any benefits (wages, health insurance, etc.) and thus saving the owners/entrepreneurs major costs of operating a venture. The global economic scene was once dominated by companies like GM that employed thousands of people. Now, it’s dominated by organisations like Google and Amazon whose quantum of wealth is much larger, yet they employ not even half of the labour employed by big players of yesteryears. Facebook, for example, has a market cap of $370 billion, yet employs no more than 14,000 people.

What factors drive this concentration of wealth? The main culprit, apart from others like government regulations, is technology, especially software and AI. Today’s technology has this extraordinary feature that only a small initial investment is needed to make the first software copy, but the millions following it can be replicated at zero cost. Thus, the owner can earn billions without the need to invest further. In technical lingo, there is zero marginal cost of replication, which makes all this different from yesteryears. These technologies do produce jobs, but these are ‘gigs’ rather than good, quality jobs with financial security. And they pay little, usually sustenance level wages except for technically exceptional people. This means that majority of workforce is already out of contention for good, high-paying jobs, thus contributing towards the labour’s falling share of national income.

The anger of Main Street is understandable. Today’s capitalism delivers wealth in the hands of a few. Those responsible for all those Ponzi schemes that destroyed the hard-earned savings of the working class have largely gone scot-free (too big to fail phenomena). And today’s global economic scene has a heavy imprint of rent-seekers, tax dodgers and financial wizards who do not contribute much to the well-being of the citizens or the real economy. This situation aptly describes the challenge faced by Capitalism. A system that has been exceptional in delivering prosperity and successfully warding off challenges over time now finds itself under severe scrutiny because its underlying mechanism of shared prosperity has, to a large extent, stopped working. Not surprisingly, as the dreams of shared prosperity recede, so does the moral ground for its continuation.

The writer is an economist. He tweets at @ShahidMohmand79