Our mental models and the financial crisisPosted: 01/22/2011
Marjorie Kelly, in her book The Divine Right of Capital, constructs a bold critique of the role that stockholders play modern corporations. She compares stockholders to the aristocratic feudal lords of yore, who made rent on “assets” into perpetuity without lifting a finger. Instead, Kelly argues that both the employees who work to create corporate wealth, and the communities that provide the resources necessary to create that wealth, should earn a larger share of the wealth. Kelly examines the framework of the corporation as it was first conceived, how the corporations in the United States were initially granted state charters to only serve the public good, and how that public purpose was eroded in our courts. Examining the state of affairs today, Kelly concludes that all players, including stockholders, CEOs, Wall Street firms, and even you and I, are all complicit, but no one is guilty:
“We fool ourselves if we think we can find the enemy somewhere. Our anger at the system leaves us like the farmer in The Grapes of Wrath, who when his farm was repossessed couldn’t find anyone to shoot. There isn’t anyone to shoot. The problem is our internal maps, and rethinking those can require some vilification of outmoded views. But we must remember that we’re vilifying the value system of wealth discrimination – not the wealthy themselves. Respect for the right to attain wealth is integral to the American psyche.” (Kelly 99)
Kelly is absolutely right here; we all operate based on the internal maps, with their arbitrary assumptions and logic, to try to make a good life for ourselves. Certainly, when one examines the litany of shenanigans that occurred in the recent financial crisis, it is easy to spot villains like Bernie Madoff; when reading deft accounts of the crisis, like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, it is easy to ask how our economic game could be rigged as it is, and how we could have been so blind to the massive speculative bubble that would take down the global economy. However, Lewis’s narrative is perhaps the most relevant to Kelly’s critique here, because the 20 or so people that saw the asset bubble for what it was were outliers, consistently critiqued by the establishment. Their mental models were slightly off from the mainstream, most memorably Michael Burry, the one-eyed medical school graduate who was obsessed with the stock market from the age 12, and built a successful stock-picking blog that he wrote in the wee hours as a resident into his own hedge fund. However, the majority of operators in our economy are simply following the rules of the game, to the best of their ability. The idea of the American dream, which is echoed whenever a mother tells a child, ‘you can do anything you want,’ is a critical part of the American psyche. Kelly is attempting to shift our mental models, so that we can see that our current paradigm doesn’t quite live up to the ideals of that American Dream; we are not the ‘Land of Opportunity’ we think we are.
Kelley identifies a critical fault in the current paradigm: the idea that shareholders ‘own’ the company, and the companies they own are required to maximize shareholder return above all other concerns. Employees, who’s knowledge and ideas create the wealth of the 21st century, should under that paradigm be paid as little as possible. However, Kelly brings a different mental model to bear:
“The principle is simple: efficiency is best served when gains go to those who create the wealth. Thus, instead of aiming to pay employees as little as possible, corporations should distribute employee rewards based on contribution – while recognizing that in any humane social order, a living wage is the basic minimum. Likewise, corporations might aim for a decent minimum stockholder gain but drop their focus on maximum gain. The legitimate goal is reward based on contribution. Since the contribution of stockholders has shrunk dramatically, their gains should shrink also. It simply defies market principles to continue giving speculators the wealth that employees create.” (Kelly 108)
In light is the recent Global Financial Meltdown, it is helpful to consider what role those speculators played in the inflating asset bubbles, and the growth of subprime mortgage bonds into the dominant investment vehicle between 2005-7. But step back for a moment and consider what would have happened if the rising productivity of the last decade were not entirely bequeathed to stockholders, but if employees got their share? What if communities, instead of giving tax breaks to draw corporations like Boeing to move, instead received their share, and invested it in our crumbling infrastructure and public schools? In short, both individuals and communities would bear some of the fruit of their own industry. The system would be more efficient, and given the recent speculative disasters, we certainly wouldn’t be any worse off.
Kelly, Marjorie. The Divine Right of Capital. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003. Print.