I don’t like the word capitalism, but not because I’m against the free market. Open trade and markets provide wealth and raise the standard of living for the majority of people in democratic societies. Free markets also allow the exchange of ideas and innovations without the meddling of governments or religion.
No, the reason I don’t like the term capitalism to describe free enterprise is because the term itself narrows the focus of free enterprise on capital, which is both the money needed to launch a business, as well as the money generated by the endeavor. Capital is of course important, without it, there would be no enterprise. But business doesn’t run on capital alone, no matter what modern Wall Street tells you.
For a free market to truly work, there are two more areas to consider: Labor and Land.
No business functions without labor. Whether machines or people, the free enterprise system needs workers. These are the folks who take the big idea and make it real. No invention has ever seen the light of day without labor, and often large amounts of it.
In addition, most businesses need raw materials, which come from the land. They also need a place to house their business and that too requires land.
Therefore the free market needs three things to thrive: Capital, labor and land.
The news is full of examples of how capitalism is failing us and the environment. The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example of this. Why would Shell let this happen? Will the reason for the spill be similar to the BP debacle where it was shown that they’d skimped on maintenance to enhance the bottom line? Then there’s the famous Foxconn manufacturing in China, where all of our iPhones are made and workers make$1.85/hour yet Americans spend $399 to own the phone the workers so painstakingly make shiny and beautiful at the cost of their health, lives and dignity. Or the 1,100 workers who died in Bangladesh in 2013 making clothes that sell here in America for hundreds of dollars, but for which they received less than $2 an hour and in the end lost their lives.
I can go on and on with examples. Steel mills shutting down. The loss of the middle class. Shipping jobs overseas. Technological unemployment. All of these point to a failure on the part of our economy, but is capitalism to blame?
What if Capital Lust was to blame?
Capital Lust is the obsession within the business community to focus solely on the profits at all costs, to the detriment of labor and land. Capital Lust is what drives a company to reduce benefits, or cut back on safety measures, or lower wages, or dump toxic chemicals into the water rather than clean up their waste, so that they experience continuous profit increases. Capital Lust is the worship of capital over all else.
And unfortunately, Capital Lust is what rules the global economy.
How did we get here? Business owners have always been greedy. Money has a way of bringing out the worst in us. However I think a more modern form of raising capital might be the issue today—The Stock Market.
“Stock is a term used to symbolize an investor's ownership in a company. Those who own stock are commonly called stockholders or shareholders. As a shareholder, an investor theoretically owns a percentage of everything the company owns or owes. The company's profitability, or lack thereof, determines whether its stock is traded at a higher or lower price. While trading of debt and commodities has its origins in the Middle Ages, the modern concept of a stock market began in the late 16th century.”
~ from How the Stock Market Was Started and by Whom by Laura Bramble
Stocks literally paved the way to the new world and financed almost all of the trade ventures of that time. Eventually, traders in London in 1773 took over a coffeehouse as a means to physically trade stocks between the companies, founding the London Stock Exchange. In 1770 traders in Philadelphia would do the same.
Stocks as a means to raise large sums of capital gave us the Industrial Revolution. With this form of investment much technological and social progress has been made. There is no doubt that as a means to supply cash into the free market, stocks are truly important assets.
But what about shareholders? With time, shareholders have demanded more and more profits from companies. Stocks are assumed to always increase in value, exponentially. No one wants to be the one who says, “Well, we’ve hit the limit. Profits can’t rise anymore so stock prices will remain steady.” No one. Every company has to continue to increase in value. There are a few ways to do this—increase productivity, increase price, increase market share or decrease expenses. In a world with finite resources when it comes to labor and land, eventually the opportunities to increase diminish and the only way forward is to decrease expenses.
Shareholders now govern the actions now of the company. Since most CEOs are paid via stock, they too want to see the share values rise. So do the traders. So they manipulate markets. They lobby for laws to allow them to take on shadier investments, they work with bankers to increase credit within the market place to give the impression that increased consumerism is occurring, even though wages have been stagnant for decades. And finally, they create hype and bubbles to give them a momentary abundance of capital, and then cash out just before the bubble bursts.
Stocks have encouraged new forms of Capital Lust within our modern market. Stocks are longer pieces of paper that you can exchange with another person, and instead are traded in microseconds by artificial intelligence programs called algorithmic trading systems written by brilliant software engineers affectionately nicknamed quants. Thus stocks are more virtual reality than anything else, yet stock prices govern the lives of many.
By ignoring labor and land, modern capitalism isn’t really a free market. Companies are deemed too big to fail in this situation and thus, true competition is vanishing. In addition, workers are losing rights daily while the environment is polluted in new and more elaborate ways as we mine and harvest the Earth for our precious metals, oil and gas to run our industry.
What to do? Here’s a strange idea, how about we make some rules about what sort of company can be traded publicly on the NYSE? This law would state that only those companies who have fair and safe labor practices and that follow all EPA guidelines for land use, NO MATTER WHERE THEY OPERATE IN THE WORLD, can seek capital in the form of stocks in any publicly traded stock exchange. Imagine it.
These sorts of companies already exist. We call them socially responsible companies and many investment firms have offered Socially Responsible Investments for decades. I myself rolled my 401K into a SRI seventeen years ago. Do I make 10% each year? No. But they do get returns around 6% and I haven’t lost a dime either. Even during the 2008 crash, my funds increased in steady value because none of the companies in the fund participated in the subprime derivative mess. When my husband saw how much better my SRI funds performed than his regular funds filled with polluters and abusers of workers, he also switched.
In reality, companies that care for land and labor are safer bets in the long run. Their growth might be more realistic and the returns lower on average, but they’re still able to make money while also caring for land and labor. SRI companies are balanced free market enterprises.
In a world where all sorts of laws are passed to make the acquisition, manipulation and hoarding of capital easier, why not demand that companies treat labor and land with dignity if they wish to play the capital game? Show us a business plan that cares for labor and land while still making a profit, and you can use the stock market for access to capital. Too hard to do? Hogwash. Use those impressive MBA degrees to figure out this puzzle.
And if a company is found using Chinese slave labor, or one of their factories crashes on their employees’ heads, or a pipeline spills methane into the air for months, their stock can be frozen until they’ve remedied the problem, not only in the now, but also in their business plan going forward. Oh, won’t the shareholders hate that?
I love the free market and hate to see it abused by Capital Lust in this way. Greed will always exist, which is why we need government to protect us at some level. By restricting access to the stock market to only those companies with a balance between honoring labor, land and capital, we just might see a whole different future.