Leadership jobs

Steve Jobs told employees a short story when they were promoted to vice president at Apple. Jobs would tell the VP that if the garbage in his office was not being emptied, Jobs would naturally demand an explanation from the janitor. “Well, the lock on the door was changed,” the janitor could reasonably respond. “And I couldn’t get a key.”

The janitor’s response is reasonable. It’s an understandable excuse. The janitor can’t do his job without a key. As a janitor, he’s allowed to have excuses.

“When you’re the janitor, reasons matter,” Jobs told his newly-minted VPs. “Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons stop mattering.”

“In other words,” Jobs continued, “when the employee becomes a vice president, he or she must vacate all excuses for failure. A vice president is responsible for any mistakes that happen, and it doesn’t matter what you say.”

It is a story from John Rossman’s upcoming book titled Think Like Amazon. Steve Jobs had a simple theory about what separates great leaders from all the rest. If it is your job to lead, and a lot depends on you, there is no excuse for failure.

Read more:

https://www.businessinsider.com/steve-jobs-quality-sets-apart-great-leaders-2019-4

Jeep Grand Cherokee

The law of diminishing marginal utility

Imagine that you are very fond of pizza and also very hungry. If I offer you a pizza, you will be very grateful. If after you have finished eating your pizza I offer you a second pizza, you will not decline the offer but you will be a bit less grateful. If I offer you a third you might still eat it in order not to offend me. The fourth pizza you would decline. Perhaps you would come up with some lame excuse like nausea to explain your peculiar behaviour. Before the fifth pizza is offered, you may already have left my home in a hurry.

Welcome to the law of diminishing marginal utility. It is an important law in economics. It states that the more you have of something the less useful an extra unit is to you.

This law can be expressed in terms of money. If you are at a pizza restaurant, you might be willing to pay € 12 for the first pizza. After eating it you are not so hungry anymore and you might not be willing to pay € 12 for a second pizza. But if the restaurant owner offers you a discount of € 6 on the second pizza, you might accept the offer. A third pizza you may only eat if it is on the house. A fourth pizza you won’t eat unless the restaurant owner offers you € 6 to eat it. Eating a fifth pizza might cost the restaurant owner € 12.

What might strike you is that the fourth and fifth pizza have a negative value to you. You are not willing to eat them unless you are paid for it.

The law comes with another consequence. If you have enough now, you may think about the future and save money for unexpected expenses and retirement. As we get wealthier, getting more stuff becomes less important to most of us while certainty about the future becomes more important. At some point we do not want more stuff and the law of diminishing marginal utility becomes an obstacle to economic growth.

If you are happy with what you have and care about the future, you may save too much for the economy to grow and capitalists won’t make enough money because they must at least make the interest rate. The law of diminishing marginal utility is therefore a grave threat to capitalism. And so is interest. This is where the advertisement industry comes in. The trick of advertising is to make us unhappy with what we have and to make us desire more. Buying this or that will make us happier, advertisements promise us.

Fashionable items with a limited life-span are part of the solution too. It is not always possible to make us desire more stuff, but it is still possible to make us desire new stuff. The dress you bought last year is out of fashion now. In order not to look stupid you have to buy a new one. And then there is technological development. Next year there will be a newer model, and by the way, the software on the old model won’t be supported any more. And of course, luxury items do their bit. Why go for a Volkswagen Polo if you can afford if you can afford a car with a low marginal sports utility value like the Jeep Grand Cherokee?

Yes, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is an ugly monster, but it is bigger than the Volkswagen Polo and if you can afford to drive it, why not? There is a reason why not.

We humans use far more resources than our planet can offer. That’s why capitalism is a grave threat to humanity. Capitalism nowadays is like making us eat the fifth pizza and pay extra for it even though that creates a health hazard while many people are hungry. And there may be no food tomorrow because we have eaten too much today. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is like the fifth pizza. We work hard to buy stuff we do not need. This is how humanity is committing suicide. This can’t go on. There is one obstacle. Businesses must make at least the interest rate, and interest rates below zero are still unthinkable.

In other words, we must learn to care about the future and interest rates may need to go below zero. We must learn to be happy with what we have and settle for less when possible. This may be a grave threat to capitalism for what will happen if we stop spending on excesses? Economists fear that the economy will collapse and that we will be without jobs when business profits decline and interest on debts can’t be paid. That doesn’t have to happen when interest rates are negative. In that case debts don’t have to be repaid and businesses with little or no profits can survive.

That may seem strange but it is already happening. The law of diminishing marginal utility is kicking in, and it is kicking in big time.

This law affects capital too. If there is only one pizza factory that can supply every pizza addict with one pizza per day, it would almost certainly make a profit. A second factory might make a profit but it might not. And what is more, if the second factory comes into operation, the supply of pizza increases, and according to the law of supply and demand, the price of pizza would drop. That would also cut into the profits of the first factory.

A third factory would almost certainly be loss-making and it would make the other factories loss-making too. At some point there is little use for more capital. That causes the demand for capital to drop and interest rates to go negative. Traditional economics would consider this unhealthy or temporary.

That doesn’t need to be and it can be desirable. Three pizza factories fiercely competing and without profits might be better for consumers than one that is profitable if we assume that pizza is a necessity. Everyone must eat something. There could be an ample supply of investment capital at negative interest rates so profits may not be needed for pizza factories to stay in business.

A problem is that excess investment capital can go to businesses that suicide humanity by using scarce resources to produce stuff we do not need. Negative interest rates can help to make the economy sustainable but only if the excesses do not happen. This would require governments to ban or tax excesses or to regulate their production so that these products don’t have a harmful impact. That would make them a lot more expensive.

But the fun driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee, apart from being it big, is that you can afford it, so the fun will even be greater when it is three times as expensive.

When people start saving more and businesses hardly make profits then where does the money go? It can be used to make the economy sustainable. It can go to people in need who still have use for money. The money can help to reduce poverty and it can be used to address pressing needs in society. And we could have far more leisure time. What’s the point of working so hard for things we do not need? We may only have to work for twenty hours per week and still have a good life. It seems possible that humanity will survive capitalism and that capitalism will be transformed into an economic model that can endure for the foreseeable future.

Featured image: Jeep Grand Cherokee. Jeep (2019). [copyright info]

Currency

Self determination

To most people currency means government issued money used within a nation or a group of nations. US dollars, Chinese yuan, Korean won and Brazilian real are all currencies. Currency is important for political and economic self-determination. A national currency allows nations to pursue their own economic policies, although the options are constrained by global economic forces.

Local or regional currencies can supplement national currencies, most notably when communities or regions want to achieve a higher degree economic independence. Supranational currencies like the euro reduce can economic independence. To maintain some political and economic independence in an increasingly integrated world, currency is key. For that reason currency is more of a political subject than an economic one.

Reserve currency

Reserve currencies facilitate international trade. In the past decades the US dollar was the most used reserve currency. This arrangement allowed the United States to enjoy a higher standard of living and have a large military paid for by foreign nations. That is because the United States can print US dollars and other countries accept them as payment.

This arrangement gave foreign nations a competitive advantage. By buying US dollars for their currency reserves, competitors of the United States were able to suppress the exchange rate of their own currency and sell their products cheaper. This harmed US exports and it allowed other countries like China and Japan to build up their industries.

The reserve status of the US Dollar made the FED responsible for the international financial system. The FED had to rescue foreign banks during the financial crisis of 2008 so that US taxpayers ended up backing foreign banks. The FED probably had no other choice because if the FED hadn’t acted, the global financial system might have collapsed.

International Currency Unit

For that reason it may be better to have an international reserve currency that is not a national currency. The future International Currency Unit (ICU) can be a weighted average of national currencies. It may require an international central bank to guarantee stability in the international financial system. As long as central banks make decisions that have significant consequences, an international central bank will be a troublesome construct.

Only when central banks do not set interest rates and do not print currency, it might be feasible to introduce an International Central Bank (ICB). For that the ICU as well as the underlying national currencies may need to be a Natural Money currencies. Natural Money currencies require little or no central bank oversight as financial instability is the result of usury. Furthermore, with Natural Money central banks do not set interest rates.

50 euro
50 euro

The euro

The euro is an interesting experiment because it is a currency shared by a group of nation. The nations of the euro zone are sovereign but have given up their national currencies. Initially it was thought that the European Union would become a federation like the United States with a strong centralised government bureaucracy. But history took a different turn, and the European nations remained sovereign while the size of the centralised European institutions remained small compared to the United States.

The euro produced political and economic tensions. Previously, when every nation had its own currency, the differences in competitiveness between countries could be dealt with via exchange rates of their national currencies. If a country could not compete and exports were outstripping imports, the exchange rate of its currency could be lowered so that exports would become cheaper while imports would become more expensive. In this way the country could remain competitive in international markets.

Apart from the economic issues, there are also political concerns. People in Northern Europe feel that they pay for the debts of Southern Europe while people in Southern Europe feel that they are faced with austerity dictated by Northern European countries. The available options appear making the eurozone a federation like the United States or reverting back to national currencies. The benefit of a larger currency like the euro more efficient financial markets and lower interest rates.

If their government budgets are sustainable then Southern European countries can benefit from these low interest rates. Returning to national currencies doesn’t have to be the end of the euro either. National currencies can be introduced alongside the euro. Existing balances in euro will then remain in euro. The euro can be a weighted average of the national currencies making up the euro zone. This would make the euro look like the proposed ICU. It could be a step towards introducing an ICU and the ICB.

Private currencies and cryptocurrencies

Private currencies are not issued by a government or central bank. Proponents of private currencies like cryptocurrencies promise that they can provide an alternative payment system independent from governments and banks as well as an alternative way to issue stock. They believe that private currencies like cryptocurrencies can supplement or even replace existing currencies issued by governments and central banks.

Currency is important for political self-determination. For that reason governments have usurped the prerogative to issue currencies. Private currencies can undermine the power of governments, hence nations. Cryptocurrencies can facilitate crime, scams and tax evasion, so they their use is likely to become regulated or even banned in the future. Governments may also start to issue cryptocurrencies themselves.

Until now cryptocurrencies have not been stable. Payments in these currencies are cumbersome and only attractive when there is no regular payment system. Financial markets in these currencies are non-existing. A currency most allow for debts denominated in this currency. It must be easy to lend or borrow money in financial markets. And if the interest rate in the market is negative, then the currency must facilitate this, otherwise the economy may be disrupted.

Local currencies

During the Great Depression in the 1930s the Austrian town of Wörgl issued a local currency with a holding fee, which worked like a negative interest rate. The ‘miracle of Wörgl’ suggests that negative interest rates could have prevented or ended the Great Depression. The miracle also revealed something else. It was not possible to use the local currency outside Wörgl and because of the holding fee people spent it so the economy of Wörgl improved while the Great Depression intensified elsewhere.

The local currency allowed Wörgl to achieve a degree of economic independence. In the midst of a worsening depression the local economy improved so that unemployment dropped. It demonstrates that currency can be important for local, regional and national self-determination. If international markets fail to help a municipality, region or nation, it may be able to help itself with the use of a currency.

The Wörgl money was an complementary currency that circulated alongside the Austrian currency. It has been tried to copy the idea but only a few times it has been a great success. If the economy is doing well then a complementary currency often makes little sense. And complementary currencies often depend on a the commitment of the local people to the well-being of their municipality or region to the point that they prefer local or regional products simply for the reason that this promotes the local or regional economy.

Disconnecting from international markets can allow a municipality, region or nation to build its own economy but local products may provide less value for money than products from international markets. When the disadvantages of free trade outstrip the benefits then that is justifiable. Many successful national development stories include shielding national markets from international competition in order to build up a national industry. Once a country becomes developed and wealthy, the justification for trade barriers disappears, as they deny people the benefits of better or cheaper products from abroad.

Featured image: 50 pula bank note. Bank of Botswana.

 

Morality clause

Legal is not always fair

What is legal isn’t always fair. The role of morality in law may be too small. People have different views about what is right and what is wrong so the prevailing liberal view in many Western societies is that people should be free to do as they please unless their actions harm others. Even that view can justify a greater role of ethics in law as humanity is on suicidal path. If moral views converge in the future the role for ethics in law can grow.

For now we need to focus on what is most important as we could easily get trapped in issues of secondary importance. Moral issues can be contentious and people reason according to their beliefs and political views. The following arguments people with different political views use against each other illustrate that:

  • Leftists might be concerned with the rights of criminals in jail but not of the rights of unborn children who are innocent of any crime.
  • Conservatives might be concerned with the fate of unborn children but as soon as they are born in misery their compassion suddenly vanishes.

It is easy to simplify matters in this way. This is how issues are framed. And as soon as you are dragged into a dispute it is hard to stay moderate. Moral issues are often complicated. Euthanasia can be an act of compassion but it can be turned into a way of getting rid of undesired people. Perhaps criminals have had a poor life and never realised that they had a choice but making them suffer can give victims a sense of justice.

Leftists and conservatives have different moral views and can be passionate about them. This is difference of opinion rather than an absence of morals from one or both sides. Rational debates might help to clarify these matters and balance the laws on these issues.

In some areas ethics are needed urgently. Research has shown that CEO is the job with the highest rate of psychopaths while lawyer comes in second,1 possibly because traders in financial markets were not included in the survey. Media came in third because it was a British research. Salespeople make a rather unsurprising fourth position.

Vulture capitalism

Rural areas in the United States are turning into an economic wasteland. Closed down factories and empty malls dominate the landscape. Communities are ravaged and drug abuse is on the rise. One reason for this to happen is that jobs are shipped overseas. Several factors contributed to this situation, but a major cause is CEOs not caring for people and communities. In many cases other solutions were possible.

Paul Singer is wealthy hedge fund owner. He made a fortune by buying up sovereign debt of countries in trouble such as Argentina and Peru at bargain prices and starting lawsuits and public relation campaigns against those countries to make a profit on these debts at the expense of the taxpayers of these countries.2

In the United States Singer bought up stakes of corporations in distress. He then fired workers so that the price of his shares rose. In the case of Delphi Automotive he and other hedge fund managers took out government bailouts, moved jobs overseas, and cut the retirement packages of employees so they could make a huge profit.2

Vulture capitalists prey on patients too. They buy patents on old drugs that are the standard treatment for rare life-threatening diseases, then raise the price because there is no alternative. Martin Shkreli was responsible for a 6,250% price hike for the anti-retroviral drug Daraprim. Many people died because of his actions.3 Perhaps he should be in jail for being a mass murderer but he is not because what he did is legal.

Profiteering at the expense of the public

In the years preceding the financial crisis of 2008 there was a widespread mortgage fraud going on in the United States. Few people have gone to jail because much of what happened was morally reprehensible but legal. Financial executives and quite a few academics share this view.4 And so nothing was done. Perhaps fraud can be proven some day but that may take years if it ever succeeds.

Healthcare is another domain for fraudsters and unscrupulous corporations. Patients are often not in a position to bargain. Perhaps that is why privatised healthcare performs poorly compared to government organised healthcare. In 2015 the Dutch government introduced the Social Support Act, making municipalities responsible for assisting people who are unable to arrange the care and support they need themselves.5

The municipalities were ill-prepared so fraudsters took advantage of the situation. Most businesses are legitimate but several private contractors enrich themselves at the expense of taxpayers and people in need. The Dutch prosecution is overwhelmed by fraud cases and it is not always possible to get a conviction because of loopholes in the law. Until these loopholes are fixed, several schemes remain legal.6

In the United States hospital bills are feared. A routine doctor visit for a sore throat can result in a $ 28,000 medical bill.7 And so many people in the US go without healthcare because they can’t afford it. Efforts to reform healthcare in the US haven’t succeeded, perhaps because those who send $ 28,000 bills for sore throats have plenty of money to bribe politicians into keeping the US healthcare system as it is.

Attributes of the law

First we have to recognise why it is so hard to prevent these things from happening. On the political front it is because once politicians are elected, they can do as they please until the next election. Lobbyists prey on them. Citizens have few means of correcting politicians, except in Switzerland. The Swiss have direct democracy. Swiss citizens can intervene in the political process when they see fit and fix laws if they think that is needed. Direct democracy might help to fix many of these issues.

Laws are often made with the best intentions but it is not possible to test them in a simulation to see how they will work out in practice. So once laws are enacted, unexpected problems pop up. The process of law-making is slow and it can take years before issues are fixed, at least if they are fixed at all because law-making is often political process, and that can make it rather complicated.

Even more importantly, the underlying principles of law benefit the savvy. The system of law is the way it is for good reasons. No-one should be above the law and people as well as businesses should not be subject to arbitrariness. The rule of law implies that every person is subject to the law, including lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges. It is agreed that the law must be prospective, well-known, general, treat everyone equal, and provide certainty. Only, in reality not everyone is treated equally.

Laws being prospective means that you can only be convicted for violation of laws in force at the time the act was committed. Legal certainty means that the law must provide you with the ability to behave properly. The law must be precise enough to allow you to foresee the possible consequences of an action. Businesses prefer laws to stable and clear. Corporations invest for longer periods of time. If laws change they may face losses. If laws are not clear, investments won’t be made, and a country may end up poorer.

With the rise of neo-liberalism came the era of shareholder capitalism. Making profits became a goal in itself. Greed was considered good. Wall Street traders and CEOs were seen as heroes even when they were just psychopaths outsourcing jobs for profit. There was little consideration for the planet, people and communities. Consumers preferred the best service at the lowest price so businesses were pressed into cutting costs and moving jobs to low-wage countries. Ethics in business were a marginal issue at best.

A bigger role for ethics

More and more people believe that ethics should play a bigger role in business. Activists pressure corporations. That may not be enough. Corporations must be competitive and can’t make real changes if that increases their costs. Levelling the playing field with regulations is an option but that may not be sufficient. The law needs a morality clause, making unethical behaviour unlawful, even though the action itself is not explicitly stated as forbidden in the law. That increases the cost of unethical behaviour.

A randomly selected jury of laypeople could make verdicts in these issues. Perhaps it is better that the legal profession stays out of these matters because it is not a legal matter in the first place. There are a few issues that come with a morality clause. Ethics in business can be a political issue. People may differ on what kind of behaviour is ethical and people may differ on what kind of unethical behaviour should be punished.

Introducing a morality clause to enforce ethical behaviour in business affects legal certainty. It will be harder for businesses to predict whether or not a specific action is legal. Business owners may incorrectly guess moral sentiment and believe they did nothing wrong. The uncertainty that comes from that might reduce the available investment capital for questionable activities. But that may not be so bad. And if immoral profits and bonuses from the past are to be confiscated, it affects the prospectiveness of the law.

International treaties like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have been set up to accommodate the unethical practises of corporations and to protect those corporations from making those unethical practises unlawful. Because that is often what reducing the regulatory barriers to trade like food safety laws, environmental legislations and banking regulations often amounts to in practice.

In most cases it can be known on beforehand what actions are unethical. For instance, investors in corporations that extract fossil fuels should know that burning fossil fuels causes climate change. They are gambling with the future humanity. So if some countries decide to outlaw the use of fossil fuels then these investors should not be compensated.

Perhaps you have serious doubts about this proposal as it upsets the very foundations of the current system of law. And I can imagine that you think: “Where does this end?” But there is something very wrong with the current system of law. Business interests often take precedence. So do you want the law to protect the psychopaths who maximise their profits at the expense of people and the planet? And do you really think that the law can be made without failures so that corporations and savvy people can’t exploit them?

Featured image: Of course the laws are always functional. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. Kevin Dutton (2012).
2. The death of Sidney, Nebraska: How a hedge fund destroyed ‘a good American town’. Charles Couger, Alex Pfeiffer (3 December 2019). Fox News. [link]
3. Vulture capitalists prey on patients. The Sacramento Bee (22 September 2015). [link]
4. How Mortgage Fraud Made the Financial Crisis Worse. Binyamin Appelbaum (12 February 2015). New York Times. [link]
5. Social Support Act (Wmo 2015). Government of the Netherlands. [link]
6. Gemeenten starten onderzoek naar Albero Zorggroep. Eelke van Ark (31 October 2019). Follow The Money. [link]
7. How a routine doctor visit for a sore throat resulted in a $28,000 medical bill. CBS News (31 December 2019) [link]

Was Marx right about capitalism destroying itself from within?

One of the core tenets of Marx’s work is that capitalism will be undone by internal contradictions that would manifest as ever-greater crises that would eventually destroy the system from within. If it turns out the current version of global capitalism is indeed unraveling due to its internal contradictions, it would be valuable to understand this now rather than later.

Read more:

https://www.oftwominds.com/blogjan20/marx1-20.html

Since the failure of communism Marx has been politically incorrect even though what he had to say about capitalism could be of great value.

There are two trends within capitalism, which are wealth creation and wealth concentration. Wealth concentration at some point may hamper wealth creation if the people at the bottom have not enough money to spend to make capital profitable.

The oversupply of capital or the lack of demand caused by lagging wages Marx foresaw may be the primary cause of the low and negative interest rates we have now. After the next recession we may never see positive interest rates again.

Read more:

https://www.naturalmoney.org/blog/190817.html