Value Crisis of Modernity

There are many examples in the modern world showing how this doctrine of the free market—the pursuit of self-interest—has worked out to the disadvantage of society.

— CAMBRIDGE PROFESSOR JOAN ROBINSON, 1977, cited in Buddhist Economics.

The approach used here concentrates on a factual basis that differentiates it from more traditional practical ethics and economic policy analysis, such as the “economic” concentration on the primacy of income and wealth (rather than on the characteristics of human lives and substantive freedoms).

— NOBEL LAUREATE AMARTYA SEN, DEVELOPMENT AS FREEDOM, cited in Buddhist Economics

In Buddhist economics, people are interdependent with one another and with Nature, so each person’s well-being is measured by how well everyone and the environment are functioning with the goal of minimizing suffering for people and the planet. Everyone is assumed to have the right to a comfortable life with access to basic nutrition, health care, education, and the assurance of safety and human rights. A country’s well-being is measured by the aggregation of the well-being of all residents and the health of the ecosystem.

Brown (2017, 2), in Buddhist Economics

~ ~ ~

In the most dramatic moments of Italy’s debt crisis, the newly installed “technical” government, led by Mario Monti, appealed to trade unions to accept salary cuts in the name of national solidarity. Monti urged them to participate in a collective effort to increase the competitiveness of the Italian economy (or at least to show that efforts were being made in that direction) in order to calm international investors and “the market” and, hopefully, reduce the spread between the interest rates of Italian and German bonds (at the time around 500 points, meaning that the Italian government had to refinance its ten-year debt at the excruciating rate of 7.3 percent). Commenting on this appeal in an editorial in the left-leaning journal Il Manifesto, the journalist Loris Campetti wondered how it could be at all possible to demand solidarity from a Fiat worker when the CEO of his company earned about 500 times what the worker did.1 And such figures are not unique to Italy. In the United States, the average CEO earned about 30 times what the average worker earned in the mid-1970s (1973 being the year in which income inequality in the United States was at its historically lowest point). Today the multiplier lies around 400. Similarly, the income of the top 1 percent (or even more striking, the top 0.1 percent) of the U.S. population has skyrocketed in relation to that of the remaining 99 percent, bringing income inequality back to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 1-2)

The problem is not, or at least not only, that such income discrepancies exist, but that there is no way to legitimate them. At present there is no way to rationally explain why a corporate CEO (or a top-level investment banker or any other member of the 1 percent) should be worth 400 times as much as the rest of us. And consequently there is no way to legitimately appeal to solidarity or to rationally argue that a factory worker (or any of us in the 99 percent) should take a pay cut in the name of a system that permits such discrepancies in wealth. What we have is a value crisis. There are huge differentials in the monetary rewards that individuals receive, but there is no way in which those differentials can be explained and legitimated in terms of any common understanding of how such monetary rewards should be determined. There is no common understanding of value to back up the prices that markets assign, to put it in simple terms. (We will discuss the thorny relation between the concepts of “value” and “price” along with the role of markets farther on in this chapter.) (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 2)

This value crisis concerns more than the distribution of income and private wealth. It is also difficult to rationalize how asset prices are set. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis a steady stream of books, articles, and documentaries has highlighted the irrational practices, sometimes bordering on the fraudulent, by means of which mortgage-backed securities were revalued from junk to investment grade, credit default swaps were emitted without adequate underlying assets, and the big actors of Wall Street colluded with each other and with political actors to protect against transparency and rational scrutiny and in the end to have the taxpayers foot the bill. Neither was this irrationality just a temporary expression of a period of exceptional “irrational exuberance”; rather, irrationality has become a systemic feature of the financial system. As Amar Bidhé argues, the reliance on mathematical formulas embodied in computerized calculating devices at all levels of the financial system has meant that the setting of values on financial markets has been rendered ever more disconnected from judgments that can be rationally reconstructed and argued through.5 Instead, decisions that range from whether to grant a mortgage to an individual, to how to make split-second investment decisions on stock and currency markets, to how to grade or rate the performance of a company or even a nation have been automated, relegated to the discretion of computers and algorithms. While there is nothing wrong with computers and algorithms per se, the problem is that the complexity of these devices has rendered the underlying methods of calculation and their assumptions incomprehensible and opaque even to the people who use them on a daily basis (and imagine the rest of us!). To cite Richard Sennett’s interviews with the back-office Wall Street technicians who actually develop such algorithms: (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 2-3)

“I asked him to outline the algo [algorithm] for me,” one junior accountant remarked about her derivatives-trading Porsche driving superior, “and he couldn’t, he just took it on faith.” “Most kids have computer skills in their genes … but just up to a point … when you try to show them how to generate the numbers they see on screen, they get impatient, they just want the numbers and leave where these came from to the main-frame.” (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 3)

The problem here is not ignorance alone, but that the makeup of the algorithms and automated trading devices that execute the majority of trades on financial markets today (about 70 percent are executed by “bots,” or automatic trading agents), is considered a purely technical question, beyond rational discussion, judgment, and scrutiny. Actors tend to take the numbers on faith without knowing, or perhaps even bothering about, where they came from. Consequently these devices can often contain flawed assumptions that, never scrutinized, remain accepted as almost natural “facts.” During the dot-com boom, for example, Internet analysts valued dot-coms by looking at a multiplier of visitors to the dot-com’s Web site without considering how these numbers translated into monetary revenues; during the pre-2008 boom investors assigned the same default risks to subprime mortgages, or mortgages taken out by people who were highly likely to default, as they did to ordinary mortgages.8 And there are few ways in which the nature of such assumptions, flawed or not, can be discussed, scrutinized, or even questioned. Worse, there are few ways of even knowing what those assumptions are. The assumptions that stand behind the important practice of brand valuation are generally secret. Consequently, there is no way of explaining how or discussing why valuations of the same brand by different brand-valuation companies can differ as much as 450 percent. A similar argument can be applied to Fitch, Moody’s, Standard & Poor, and other ratings agencies that are acquiring political importance in determining the economic prospects of nations like Italy and France. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 3)

This irrationality goes even deeper than financial markets. Investments in corporate social responsibility are increasing massively, both in the West and in Asia, as companies claim to want to go beyond profits to make a genuine contribution to society. But even though there is a growing body of academic literature indicating that a good reputation for social responsibility is beneficial for corporate performance in a wide variety of ways—from financial outcomes to ease in generating customer loyalty and attracting talented employees—there is no way of determining exactly how beneficial these investments are and, consequently, how many resources should be allocated to them. Indeed, perhaps it would be better to simply tax corporations and let the state or some other actor distribute the resources to some “responsible” causes. The fact that we have no way of knowing leads to a number of irrationalities. Sometimes companies invest more money in communicating their efforts at “being good” than they do in actually promoting socially responsible causes. (In 2001, for example, the tobacco company Philip Morris spent $75 million on what it defined as “good deeds” and then spent $100 million telling the public about those good deeds.) At other times such efforts can be downright contradictory, for example when tobacco companies sponsor antismoking campaigns aimed at young people in countries like Malaysia while at the same time targeting most of their ad spending to the very same segment. Other companies make genuine efforts to behave responsibly, but those efforts reflect poorly on their reputation. Apple, for example, has done close to nothing in promoting corporate responsibility, and has a consistently poor record when it comes to labor conditions among its Chinese subcontractors (like Foxconn). Yet the company benefits from a powerful brand that is to no small degree premised on the fact that consumers perceive it to be somehow more benign than Microsoft, which actually does devote considerable resources to good causes (or at least the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does so). (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 3-4)

Similar irrationalities exist throughout the contemporary economy, ranging from how to measure productivity and determine rewards for knowledge workers to how to arrive at a realistic estimate of value for a number of “intangible” assets, from creativity and capacity for innovation to brand. (We will come back to these questions below as well as in the chapters that follow.) Throughout the contemporary economy, from the heights of finance down to the concrete realities of everyday work, particularly in knowledge work, great insecurities arise with regard to what things are actually worth and the extent to which the prices assigned to them actually reflect their value. (Indeed, in academic managerial thought, the very concept of “value” is presently without any clear definition; it means widely different things in different contexts.) (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 4)

But this is not merely an accounting problem. The very question of how you determine worth, and consequently what value is, has been rendered problematic by the proliferation of a number of value criteria (or “orders of worth,” to use sociologist David Stark’s term) that are poorly reflected in established economic models. A growing number of people value the ethical impact of consumer goods. But there are no clear ways of determining the relative value of different forms of “ethical impact,” nor even a clear definition of what “ethical impact” means. Therefore there is no way of determining whether it is actually more socially useful or desirable for a company to invest in these pursuits than to concentrate on getting basic goods to consumers as cheaply and conveniently as possible. Consequently, ethical consumerism, while a growing reality, tends to be more efficient at addressing the existential concerns of wealthy consumers than at systematically addressing issues like poverty or empowerment. Similarly, more and more people understand the necessity for more sustainable forms of development. And while the definition of “sustainability” is clearer than that of “ethics,” there are no coherent ways of making concerns for sustainability count in practices of asset valuation (although some efforts have been made in that direction, which we will discuss) or of rationally determining the trade-off between efforts toward sustainability and standard economic pursuits. Thus the new values that are acquiring a stronger presence in our society—popular demand for a more sustainable economy and a more just and equal global society—have only very weak and unreliable ways of influencing the actual conduct of corporations and other important economic actors, and can affect economic decisions in only a tenuous way. More generally, we have no way of arriving at what orders of worth “count” in general and how much, and even if we were able to make such decisions, we have no channels by means of which to effect the setting of economic values. So the value crisis is not only economic; it is also ethical and political. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 4-5, emphasis added)

It is ethical in the sense that the relative value of the different orders of worth that are emerging in contemporary society (economic prosperity, “ethical conduct,” “social responsibility,” sustainability, global justice and empowerment) is simply indeterminable. As a consequence, ethics becomes a matter of personal choice and “standpoint” and the ethical perspectives of different individuals become incommensurate with one another. Ethics degenerates into “postmodern” relativism. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 5, emphasis added)

It is political because since we have no way of rationally arriving at what orders of worth we should privilege and how much, we have no common cause in the name of which we could legitimately appeal to people or companies (or force them) to do what they otherwise might not want to do. (The emphasis here is on legitimately; of course people are asked and forced to do things all the time, but if they inquire as to why, it becomes very difficult to say what should motivate them.) In the absence of legitimacy, politics is reduced to either more or less corrupt bargaining between particular interest groups or the naked exercise of raw power. In either case there can be no raison d’état. In such a context, appeals to solidarity, like that of the Monti government in Italy, remain impossible. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 5-6)

There have of course always been debates and conflicts, often violent, around what the common good should be. The point is that today we do not even have a language, or less metaphorically, a method for conducting such debates. (Modern ethical debates are interminable, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in the late 1970s.) This is what we mean by a value crisis. Not that there might be disagreement on how to value social responsibility or sustainability in relation to economic growth, or how much a CEO should be paid in relation to a worker, but that there is no common method to resolve such issues, or even to define specifically what they are about. We have no common “value regime,” no common understanding of what the values are and how to make evaluative decisions, even contested and conflict-ridden ones. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 6)

This has not always been the case. Industrial society—that old model that we still remember as the textbook example of how economics and social systems are supposed to work—was built around a common way of connecting economic value creation to overall social values, an imaginary social contract. In this arrangement, business would generate economic growth, which would be distributed by the welfare state in such a way that it contributed to the well-being of everyone. And even though there were intense conflicts about how this contract should apply, everyone agreed on its basic values. More importantly, these basic values were institutionalized in a wide range of practices and devices, from accounting methods to procedures of policy decisions to methods for calculating the financial value of companies and assets. Again, this did not mean that there was no conflict or discussion, but it did mean that there was a common ground on which such conflict and discussion could be acted out. There was a common value regime. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 6)

We are not arguing for a comeback of the value regime of industrial society. That would be impossible, and probably undesirable even if it were possible. However, neither do we accept the “postmodernist” argument (less popular now, perhaps, than it was two decades go) that the end of values (and of ethics or even politics) would be somehow liberating and emancipatory. Instead we argue that the foundations for a different kind of value regime—an ethical economy—are actually emerging as we speak. (Arvidsson et. al. 2013, 6)

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