Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Root Causes Behind Ever Widening Inequalities

I wrote in a previous post about how inequalities have sharply widened in the past 30 years, i.e. how the middle class has been feeling the squeeze and how a lot of poor people have remained stuck in poverty while the richest have been capturing an ever growing proportion of industrialized countries’ wealth.

I will focus in this article on the root causes that I believe explain why inequalities have been so stark in a recent past after decades of more evenly distributed economic prosperity.

1. Unjust and imbalanced allocation of value created: Basically, the allocation of profits made by companies is disproportionately skewed towards shareholders and senior executives vs. employees. Companies’ boards want to keep their shareholders happy and retain their senior talent, so from their standpoint it makes sense to channel most profits that are not reinvested in the company to those folks vs. to regular employees. Corporations have managed to make money despite the crisis. As reported by Time Magazine last June corporate profits were higher in 2011 than they were in 2006 when the economy was booming ($1.7 vs. 1.5 trillion). Meanwhile, unemployment is now between 9% and 10% while it was only at 4.5% then. So, companies are certainly “lean” as we tend to hear often and productivity is up – at the cost of employment probably.

How to convince companies that part of those profits should be redistributed to employees while uncertainty about the economy is at its highest? I am not sure but I know that corporations have done little to revive the US economy even when times were better. I bet that Americans would be angry to know that from 1990 and 2008, according to that same Time article citing Nobel laureate Michael Spence’s research, “companies that did business in global markets […] contributed almost nothing to overall American job growth”. The vast majority of jobs those firms created were located in emerging markets because of those countries’ lower labor costs. Jobs created in the US came from domestically-focused sectors like hospitality, utilities, healthcare, retail, and government.

So, Corporate America seems to be more part of the problem than of the solution.

2. Short-term focus at the expense of long-term development: Most publicly-traded corporations obsess about hitting their quarterly earnings targets to keep financial markets and institutional investors happy. When they don’t their stock prices suffer mightily… The problem is that with such a short-term focus they have little incentive to make investments that would hurt their bottom line in the near term even if those proved beneficial in a more distant future.

Financial markets apparently prefer to see companies sit on $1.7 trillion of profits rather than take calculated risks (yes, times are uncertain) and invest some of those profits in something productive. How does this make sense though??

An interesting exception to that unfortunate situation is Amazon. A recent NYT article related how Amazon has chosen to focus unrelentingly on the long term, thus posting lower profit levels and disappointing the markets. Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, is absolutely unapologetic about this, pointing out that continuing to invest in his company’s infrastructure and platform will pay off eventually. When your business is logistics, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Finally!!

Ironically, Amazon’s stock price (which is a reflection of how markets see a company’s future earning potential) has done pretty well – certainly much better than the NASDAQ since in the past 5 years (between late December 06 and late December 11) Amazon’s stock price posted a 341% increase while the NASDAQ went up merely by 9%.

So, this can be done… Refusing to follow financial markets’ “dictatorship” is possible.

Ask Jack Welch actually!! He would agree. Wasn’t Jack Welch, GE’s former CEO and “Uber-Leader”, the darling of Anything Corporate? Actually, Welch in line with good governance proponents advocated - for the first time way back in a 1981 speech at the Pierre Hotel - that companies should maximize shareholder value by focusing on the long term (see same NYT article). During his tenure, GE was widely viewed as “the world’s best managed company”.

So, why should companies now cave in to this narrow-minded and unproductive “financial orthodoxy”?

3. Lack of political will around programs targeting the middle class: We are hearing more that the middle class has been neglected by public policies and has been feeling the squeeze economically as a result. It’s certainly been true since 2008 but in fact for much longer - I pointed out in an earlier post that real salaries have on average remained flat in the US for the past 30 years. A case in point is how many big cities’ municipalities just gave up on keeping their downtown areas socially mixed. Revitalization of those areas in New York, Boston, and so many other big cities in the US and abroad has sought to attract wealthy new residents and tourists for the most part. New constructions have mostly targeted the rich, which indeed makes fiscal and economic sense. Cities have made money when they sold parcels they owned in “prime areas” to developers and not only do new residents pay their taxes in those cities but also they shell much higher property taxes than were collected before for the same locations.

But how does this make social sense? Middle class and poorer folks have relocated to less attractive but more affordable areas. The best neighborhoods are left to the rich and the occasional visitors – and god forbid, when social housing projects have remained in some downtown areas (as is the case in Boston for instance), the rich walk by the poor (usually, there is a “color line” too) and everyone equally distrusts and is afraid of each other. Great!!

4. Inability to break the cycle of poverty: The majority of social programs target the poor but many stuck in poverty are still there today – not counting the “new poor” who got stranded by the 2008-09 recession. For many in the US and other industrialized nations it has been impossible to break out this cycle of poverty.

This one is complicated and there are several factors coming into play. First, I feel the “enabling context” to get folks out of poverty is often not there. I am talking about the key ingredients that make it possible for people to be “productive” actors in our society. Two of those ingredients are infrastructure and education. For example, how often do we encounter in the US in particular cheap public transit systems that offer a dense network so that people can go anywhere in their urban areas in an efficient and affordable way? The absence of a solid public transportation system is an obstacle for those seeking employment (to find and keep a job). How about public education? Public school funding is fundamentally flawed in the US as about half comes from local funding and mostly from property taxes. Thus, the higher the house prices in an area, the more money goes to that area’s public school system. How can such a funding formula not generate major inequities?

Institutional racism – or broad stereotypes to use a gentler word – is another factor that undermines the enabling context. In the business world there is still an untold and implicit hierarchy – not everywhere certainly but in most places. Up there sits the “white man”. And if the white man has broad shoulders and looks like a quarterback it is even better!! The rest of the pecking order is open to discussion but certainly people of color still suffer from stereotypes and find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy. Are we ever surprised when we see low-level jobs (fast food restaurant employees, cleaning or security folks) held by people of color?

How is this empowering to those in poverty? Don’t those stereotypes make obstacles seem even more insurmountable?

Beyond the “enabling context”, last summer’s riots in England have shown how dangerous massive cuts in social programs can be. Given current deficit levels these cuts are certainly tempting for local, state, and national governments. Eliminating programs across the board is the last thing to do but if some cuts are necessary how to decide which programs should go? That leads me to my next point, namely there does not seem to have been a systematic evaluation of social programs’ effectiveness and impact out there. Those stuck in poverty for generations have often been receiving support for a while, for instance to acquire skills or find a job. Do agencies implementing those programs know precisely how effective those have been? If the needle has not moved much in all that time, so to speak, do the folks on the ground know why and how to do a better job?

In an encouraging development the Obama administration created the Office of Social Innovation (now grouped with Civil Participation) in 2010. The idea is to replicate programs that have worked and fund their scaling in as many areas as possible.

Only when organizations implementing social programs can show what their results have been (favorable or not) will they be able to make a compelling case to keep those that have worked and channel more money towards new and improved ones.

Finally, how to make sure that those in poverty can find the courage and build the confidence to go out there, fight for themselves, and overcome obstacles? So many Americans love their country because they think that anything is possible if one is willing to work hard. And they’ll give you examples of folks who succeeded against all odds. Well, that’s the problem I have with this system – “against all odds”… As long as we don’t have a level playing field and the enabling context I mentioned above is not there it will take an extraordinary amount of courage, determination, and persistence to make it for those who were born in poverty.

Yes, those qualities are needed no matter what. Even with the support of social programs and a favorable environment around schools, infrastructure, etc. if you are a slacker, chances are you’ll be a slacker for a very long time.

But we should not expect everyone to be bootstrappers and have incredible grit, perseverance, and resolve to be able to make it out of poverty.

In the next piece concluding this series on our system’s crisis I will try to come up with solutions addressing the root causes of the wider inequalities we’ve observed.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting views. This article by Ezra Klein(just saw it today), seem to be related: "The biggest driver of income inequality: capital gains", http://goo.gl/wDMIf