Millennials don’t trust Capitalism. While Capitalism has done enormous good, self-interest sometimes takes precedence. Yet, Capitalism survives. And continues to evolve. New dialects of Capitalism are built on the original foundation, but the dynamic balance between Capitalists and Public interests is constantly changing. Let’s dive right in and look at where Capitalism is headed!
While Capitalism has evolved, its foundation is recognizably that of Adam Smith’s, The Wealth of Nations. Published in 1776, it was a runaway bestseller, placing “Supply & Demand” front and center for Capitalism. This simple, yet incredibly powerful concept, is so simple that Capitalists sometimes forget why it’s important.
A healthy balance between Supply & Demand (especially Demand) is critical to the health of Capitalism. Let’s turn back the hands of time, to just prior to Capitalism, to the early 1700s when it was still the age of…
Monarchies: America grew up as Monarchies declined. Kings led the economy and created the laws. The legitimacy of the King came through their “Divine Right”, their appointment by God. Which could not be questioned!
Yet, Enlightenment philosophers (including the Founding Fathers of America) did question that right. They asked, “If Kings lead by God’s command, why is there famine, economic collapse, plagues, and natural disasters under Kings? Why do Kings squabble over land that God gave to other Kings? Why didn’t European citizens have a better life under Divinely appointed leaders”? Their conclusion was that Natural Rights (life, liberty, and property) come from the People, not the crown.
American Democracy: Democracy and Capitalism were cousins that grew up together. Capitalism placed political legitimacy in its citizens. Capitalism placed economic control of the economy in the same hands. Citizens (consumers, the People) are the “Demand” in Supply & Demand. Elections address political Demand, and the free market addresses economic Demand.
However, America’s Democracy and Capitalism were both tempered, or indirect. For example, before 1913 many senators were appointed by state assemblies, rather than voted in by citizens. The Electoral College (a remnant of those earlier days) can, and recently did, reverse the popular vote in a Presidential election.
Capitalism had similar restrictions. Early Capitalists wanted to sell the products that citizens wanted to buy, but before marketing existed… how could you know what citizen/customers wanted? In a day of less-sophisticated customers, simpler products, and local Capitalism, it wasn’t much of a problem. Capitalists sold into the market where they lived and worked. The needs and wants of Capitalists and the needs of customers were very similar. Demand by proxy (corporate owner, bankers, etc.) was good enough.
Industrial Capitalism: By the late 19th-century, farms replaced by factories, Capitalism was national (and becoming global), and products were more sophisticated. New processes, chemicals, pollution, undesirable byproducts, and deals with unsavory people in faraway places, made corporate decision making more complex.
It is difficult for a single Capitalist (or board) to act as the proxy for millions of customers. When factories were in one city (or continent) and customers in another, Capitalists learned how difficult it was to balance the Demand of two very different populations. Often, you had to choose winners and losers, of often to the detriment of whoever was far away and out of sight. Without a strong attachment to either group, a Capitalist might simply choose their own interests over the Demands of customers.
As long as Capitalists and Corporate executives reflected the mainstream beliefs of America… at least the parts of America that mattered… this proxy for Demand worked well enough. In the 1950s, America’s idea was a middle-class college-educated one income suburban dream house. But soon, women graduated from college and became wage earners, minorities wanted suburban homes, educated consumers asked uncomfortable questions, today’s luxuries became linked to tomorrow’s environmental nightmares. The time for proxies was running out.
Monopolies: As corporations grew larger, industries consolidated, and monopolies were born. Monopolies tended to artificially prevent competition, violating a core concept of Supply and Demand… the free market… and distort or ignore Demand.
In the late 19th to early 20th century, monopolies were everywhere. Oil, coal, steel, salt, sugar… you name it and there was a monopoly. Monopolies kept prices high and prevented innovation. Luckily, Democracy came to the rescue. Capitalism worked overtime and after decades of effort, monopolies were dismantled.
Communism: Karl Marx, the person most associated with Communism, and influenced by Adam Smith’s writing, predicted that Capitalism was about to evolve into something new. If Capitalists replaced Kings, surely the government would replace Capitalists. Marx theorized that Communism would take place in an advanced nation (England or Germany), with well-developed democracy, industry, and many union workers. But it didn’t work out that way.
Instead, Communism took root in 50 underdeveloped nations. Lacking Capitalism, Democracy, or even an industrial base few allowed for Demand. Instead, Communists had a “command” economy where the government directly controls what factories produce, how property is used, and who gets which resources. Command economies don’t ask what citizens want, they dictate what a good citizen should want, attempting to socially engineer citizen desires.
The results? 48 of 50 Communist states died, leaving just Cuba, and China. Let’s give Cuba a pass. Is China still Communist? Then why do so many Chinese Communist officials own corporations, sit on corporate boards, or own equity? 20th-century Communists would be aghast! We’re going to need to wait and see where China is headed.
Fascism: Another type of command economy. Fascism fuses government and business leaders into a single organization that runs the nation. For a while, Italy and Germany were seen as the future of Capitalism. But Fascism died quickly after WW II. Another example of the dangers of distorting Demand, or substituting elite opinions for the Demands of the people.
Socialism: After WW II, the colonial empires collapsed. and the last elements of Monarchy fell away. And American Capitalism spread around the world. France, Germany, and England were the most likely candidates for ongoing Capitalism, but their more extensive labor union history meant that national elections would dwell more on social protection than in America. National health care, guaranteed unemployment benefits, and extensive worker protections defined European Democracies.
Scandinavian nations were equally interested in social issues but also took great pride in their ancient forests and pristine beaches and rivers. Environmental protection became an important element of their political contract with citizens, and later in their Demand for goods. In the 20th-century, these differences seemed dramatic. But by the 21st-century, every Democratic nation adopted some or all of these social programs.
Consumer Capitalism: Towards the end of the 20th Century, the global economy evolved from industry to service and data. How much steel or coal was consumed by industrial firms became less important to the economy than the number of new homes, cars, and iPhones that consumers bought. Direct consumer Demand, not the desire of corporate leaders, drove the economy.
Wall Street had grown enormous, partially because bigger corporations need more services, but mostly because the average citizen was investing in Wall Street. By the 1990s huge retirement funds poured money into Wall Street, which in turn invested in corporations. Governments unions now invest trillions of dollars in corporations around the world.
Consumers… Citizens… The People… directly determine Demand. Marketing rapidly matured, trying to predict and direct consumer demand. With varying degrees of success. More recently, “social media” bypassed traditional marketing in consumer and political arenas. The Internet-connected world is struggling to define the role of social media. Are they the new intermediaries, just a distraction, or perhaps a dangerous new stage in our economy and our politics?
What Comes Next?: This brings us back to the Millenials. They deeply distrust Capitalism, and they have little love of the political system. They have examined both Capitalism and Democracy. Ever since the “1 Percenter” protests on Wall Street, they have conflated both. The political elite, economic leaders, the wealthiest people. In the minds of the Millenials, they are pretty much all the same. And the Millenials are not completely wrong.
A well-publicized fact is that a couple of dozen families control as much wealth as the poorest half of the world (i.e 3.8 billion people). The ultra-rich have long since blended their political and economic interests. Why don’t you? If you believe in Global Climate Change, but your political representatives simply will not read or acknowledge the scientific evidence, why not go directly to corporations with your demands.
Consider where the political and the business side of the world are on issues like Climate Change. Ted Cruz from Texas believes, “climate has been changing from the dawn of time… (and) will change as long as we have a planet Earth.” That’s very progressive for Ted who used to say, “global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers.”
Compare this to statements from ExxonMobil. On their website, they commit to “addressing the risk of climate change by reducing our emissions, helping consumers reduce theirs, and advancing research to find new low-emissions technologies for the future.” Global Climate change is all over their communications. They admit it is real and they say that carbon… including carbon from ExxonMobile… is the cause.
The Millenials might be onto something here! Corporations, around the world, are realizing that social issues, the environment, how companies treat their workers (or even their products… such as cruelty-free meats and Free-Trade goods) are important to this generation of consumers. Or to phrase that differently, these issues matter to THEIR consumer and THEIR Investors.
This explains the rise of Impact Investors, who are interested in more than just the traditional “bottom line”. Impact Investors are asking for a double bottom line. They want profitability AND, and a better world. I would go so far as to say, they DEMAND it.
Adam Smith’s concept of Supply and Demand has always been very simple. But understanding Demand can be very complex. Especially when your firm does not represent the values of your customers. Millennials DEMAND a double bottom line from both. Companies that survive the 21st century all need to learn how to listen to that demand and deliver the solutions yoyr customers want!
What do you think? Have your opinions about your part in the economy evolved? Did you move from a consumer to an advocate for certain types of products or for “social good” based corporations? Talk to us and let us know what you think!