Archive for the ‘Age of Unreason’ Category

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Winds of Change are Blowing, Beware

November 12, 2011

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, under sharp pressure from officials in Nebraska and restive environmental activists, announced Thursday that it would… delay any decision about the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election.

An election year politician doesn’t really need any more incentive to delay an unpopular decision than thousands of protesters parked in his front garden.  That’s a political no brainer.

But, realistically, if a few thousand activists were the extent of it, precedent suggests that a politician is home-and-dry supporting ‘Job Creation’ activities, particularly in tough times.

Unfortunately for TransCanada Pipeline (and by extension, Oil Sands developers in Alberta) there is a large and growing backlash against ‘Big Business’ in the United States that’s altering the strategic landscape profoundly.

“The public outcry has just continued to get louder and louder, stronger and stronger,” said Annette Dubas, a Nebraska state senator. The issue for Nebraskans is complex.  Although they are a ‘red’ state, supporting business and right-of-center causes consistently, they is growing concern that the XL pipeline will contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, a crucial source of water in the Midwest.

For TransCanada, pipeline sponsor, this is an unexpected surprise. The company has been developing this project for years and has sailed through its governmental reviews and environmental impact studies with flying colors. Their astonishment at recent developments was made perfectly clear by spokesman Shawn Howard, “A lot of people would stand back and say, ‘If this was such a concern, where were you three or four or five years ago?’ ”

Shawn’s surprise is typical. But how do you know you’re in the middle of a revolution? Answer: you don’t. Not until it’s too late.

Our societal tectonic plates are shifting. The “Occupy Wallstreet” movement marks a turning point. It is the radicalized thin-edge of a giant wedge of public resentment that has been building for many decades. The establishment is unaware that a volano of middle class anger is about to erupt Vesuvius-like over the business landscape. The speed and violence of this explosion will simply overwhelm the established way of doing things. What does a business leader do in such situations: act now to strengthen the company’s most valuable asset, the ‘Social License to Operate’.

Most hard-nosed business people pay lip service to the idea of social responsibility, and, in this, they have lots of institutional support. No less an authority than economist Milton Freedman laid down the law: “…there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits….”.  Making profits and (secondarily) providing jobs IS the social responsibility of business; it’s no wonder that many businesses take their Social License for granted.

However the winds of change are blowing. American banks, authors of the ‘sub-prime’ mortgage disaster, illegal foreclosure practices, and serial incompetence are leading the way, The oil industry, although not free of embarrassing public gaffes, is still reeling from the Gulf of Mexico fiasco and a host of pipeline problems.

What should be clear from recent events is that the status quo is dangerous. Much more will need to be done to win back public trust and confidence. A good start would be a sober analysis of the situation, and a willingness to understand businesses’ ‘relationship with the public’ is damaged and needs repairing – fast.

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THINGS ECONOMISTS CAN’T TELL US, and WHY

June 9, 2010

Many not so casual observers, including Queen Elizabeth II, have wondered why economists did not anticipate the recent Financial Crisis. The reality is most economists were stunned when the Crisis arrived, panicked at its blinding speed and can only recommend ‘the same old, same old’ going forward. There’s two principal reasons they didn’t see it coming. One, economists weren’t looking broadly enough at the economy to see the problems developing in the first place, and second, what evidence was available (and there was plenty) tended to be discounted or ignored for ideological reasons.

The Dismal Science

Economists, despite being highly respected and sophisticated scientists, have been on the defensive for centuries. Truthfully, the study of economics was in difficulty even before Thomas Carlyle leveled his famous ‘dismal science’ charge in 1850. Perhaps the one nagging criticism  that stings most strongly these days is the charge that economists are so infatuated with the wonder of their theory that they ignore practical reality.  

Why should the rest of us care? It’s a serious issue because economics matters. The management of a modern economy, the decisions and actions undertaken by politicians, senior policy advisors, Chairmen of the Federal Reserve Bank, business leaders, Wall Street investment bankers and others, are derived from an underlying body of economic thought; today those underpinnings rest largely on the shoulders of neoclassical economics, the foundation stone of modern capitalism.

Neoclassical Economics

Although neoclassical economics is a foundation, it is by no means a unified body of theory. However modern economists working within the neoclassical paradigm tend to agree on both a quantitative approach to economic analysis and a field of study centered on the exchange process. Neoclassicism is a mathematical system of thought concerned with market related phenomena, particularly the determination of prices, outputs, and income distributions.

This is quite a change from the past. A century ago the great Alfred Marshall could say of economics: “Political Economy or Economics is a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life; it examines that part of individual and social action which is most closely connected with the attainment and with the use of the material requisites of wellbeing. Thus it is on one side a study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man.” These days you’ll find a much less ambitious definition for economics, generally along the following lines: “Economics is the social science that examines how people choose to use limited or scarce resources in attempting to satisfy their unlimited wants.” …a dismal science indeed.

So, where did it all go wrong?

It all happened a long time ago, in the horse and buggy days of the Victorian era. Mid-Victorian capitalism was facing a mountain of trouble. Marxism and the rising working class movement were galloping forward on the left; on the right there was a looming – cataclysmic – breakdown of laissez faire, which eventually launched an era of vicious protectionism and hyper aggressive imperialism. According to economic historian Eric (Lord) Roll, in these confusing times there was a strong desire among classically minded economists to produce a more scientific study of economics and – ideally – find a way to side-step the theoretical challenge of Marxism once and for all.

The Marginalist Revolution of the 1870’s provided just such an opportunity. The marginal utility theories of Jevons, Manger and Walras revolutionized economic thought and with it the entirety of economic study.  Neoclassical economic theory, which emerged as a consequence of the Marginalist Revolution, introduced important new concepts into the economic lexicon, particularly a theoretical perspective that the value of goods is determined subjectively “in use” by the end-user (classical economics had assumed that goods had a hard, objective value, which was equal to the amount of labor applied in its development – the so called labor theory of value).

However, neoclassicism also introduced fundamental changes in the study of economics; its explicitly scientific approach introduced a mathematical bias into economics, which has grown significantly over the course of the past century. Unfortunately, mathematical precision has come with a hefty price tag: the Marginalist Revolution reduced the scope of modern economic analysis considerably. By drawing a ring-fence around the exchange process – forevermore the ‘legitimate’ area of economic inquiry – neoclassical economics retreated into a narrow, quantifiable definition of economics, where the larger (messy) questions were simply ‘out of bounds’. And although economists gained much greater mathematical certainty and logical consistency in adopting neoclassical principles, the Marginalist Revolution placed significant limits on the boundaries of economic study, stifling inquiry of those economic inputs that lay outside the narrow confines of the exchange process.

It was this reduction in scope, this retreat from the larger study of political economy, undertaken over a century ago that created the ‘boundary’, the theoretical wall that defines the limits of economic analysis; the presence of which leaves economists as mere spectators in critical elements of the economy. It is one of the reasons why so many of them didn’t see the storm clouds gathering in the first place and still can’t.

Economist’s counter these charges by pointing out that their market focus is reasonable, given that every meaningful economic activity that takes place outside the boundary eventually winds up in an exchange transaction, which they believe, essentially, brings the outside world to them on their (quantitative) terms.

Yes, economists do consider ‘out of boundary’ inputs, but lumber them into a broad undifferentiated category they call externalities. The practical consequences of this approach, however, distance economic analysis from the primary sources of economic activity. For instance most economics are unconcerned (and presumably unaware) of the nature of new asset classes in an emerging knowledge  economy or more importantly, just how these new assets impact economic risk assessment over time. In other words, economists are left to examine only the derivative (quantitative) effects of economic phenomena rather than their primary causes.

The Ideological Force of Monetarism

Unfortunately, this confusion between cause and effect has been greatly magnified by the late 20th century rise of Monetarism. Like many theoretical considerations in economics, monetarism was controversial and applied carefully within the profession; while outside in the world of finance and business it was swallowed whole, hook, line and sinker. Unfortunately monetarism became more than a new set of economic principals, it morphed into an ideology, a faith like belief in the purity of markets. The practical effect of market purism has been to undermine traditional checks and balances perfected over the ages to preserve the integrity of capital. As a result capital management practices collapsed across the board when it became popular to believe that markets purified the economy of all risk. This ideological sedative infected all aspects of economic decision making, undermining the culture of banking, accounting, credit rating, management and economic policy making.

Modern Economic Thought

Modern economics, despite being an important theoretical advance on the past limits economic thought in several ways. Firstly its dedicated mathematical approach limits the very process of economic analysis, for it implies strongly that anything that is not quantifiable simply doesn’t count. Secondly its constricted focus means it looks at the economy through a microscope rather than a telescope – in other words its missing the capitalist forest for the statistical trees. These reductive forces contribute to the fatal combination that blinded many economists in the run up to the Financial Crisis and are, even now, limiting our ability to put the economy back on a sound footing.

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Copenhagen, and the Age of Unreason

December 9, 2009

According to the press Alberta’s Environment Minister is going to get on his horse, ride into town and show them foreigners (in Copenhagen) a ‘thing or two’. “I’m going to Copenhagen as a proud Albertan…Alberta can hold its head high as a responsible major global energy producer already acting to make real greenhouse-gas reductions.” The Environment Minister is going to the Climate Change Summit armed – no doubt – with the latest policy initiatives of the Alberta Government, the latest scientific evidence and a cupboard full of rational arguments in support of the oil sands development being no more damaging to the planet than other less high profile developments. He is assuming that these rational arguments will win the day and save the oil sands as an economic development resource in Alberta.

Good luck! I’m not sure the Minister is remotely aware of the scope and scale of forces lining up against him in Copenhagen. This is not a rational scientific debate about carbon emissions and government policy; it’s a framing and public relations battle that Dirty Oil has already lost. More importantly it’s a debate that has become deeply entangled in global politics. Consider that the scandal de jour in Copenhagen is not whether or not we should be more environmentally responsible, reducing green house gases (that’s pretty well agreed) but who should pay the bill and why. The debate has moved on to the point where many global activists are concerned that the ‘Rich’ countries are not prepared to reduce their green house gases, and then compensate the developing world (including China and India) with ‘reparations’ for centuries of uncontrolled development and flagrant imperialism.

Into this maelstrom the Minister will ride a rugged but lonely voice of ‘reason’.

As a Canadian, he should have seen this coming. For it was in Vancouver in 1970, that Marie Bohlen and a group of friends launched a small boat and, with it, a global environmental movement. The small boat, The Greenpeace, sailed north to protest a US nuclear test at Amchitka, a small island near Alaska. With this seemingly innocent act an environmental cause célèbre was born. Right from the beginning the founders of Greenpeace, Bohlen and friends Brian Davies, Paul Watson, Robert Hunter, Patrick Moore (et al) combined environmental passion and moral righteousness with extraordinary public relations savvy. “We may have just looked like a little old fish boat but in fact we were cranking away at our typewriters and with our tape recorders,” said Hunter. “In a sense, we were a media war ship.”

And let’s not forget, the reasoned, scientific approach has been tried before. Consider the media fiasco associated with the 1970’s seal hunt protest. After several years of disrupted hunts, the Newfoundland Government attempted to counteract the growing influence of Brigitte Bardot and Greenpeace by commissioning an ‘expert’ panel. They brought together a host of scientists, fisheries experts and local fishermen, and mounted an international media campaign to tell their side of the story. The pivotal moment came at their televised news conference in the Savoy hotel in London. As the panel was soberly presenting their ‘scientific’ evidence, Greenpeace founder Brian Davies rose in the gallery and violently disrupted the proceedings, loudly denouncing the panel as puppets of barbarism and cruelty. Reasoned arguments soon got buried under shouts and abuse – the news conference rapidly reduced to chaos. The British press, needless to say, had a field day. After the smoke cleared the government panel retreated, the battle lost.

Alberta has a lot of catching up to do. For a variety of reasons the government, the oil industry and Albertans in general have operated with a studied indifference to the environmental impact of oil sands development. It’s the ‘way things are’ in Alberta. The economic imperative of the industry has always been the compelling argument, which was fine as long as the eyes of the world we’re not focused on Alberta. They are now and we’d better be prepared for the consequences.

We should perhaps take heed from Satya Das, revisit his thoughtful recommendations. A more responsible, sophisticated Green Oil approach, where Alberta leads the world in stewardship of our shared heritage might start to redress the balance, anything less will simply be drowned in the flood.

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