What Is Inclusive Capitalism?

We can distill “inclusive capitalism” down to a single word that captures the concept in its fullest dimensions. That word is EQUITY.

There is a movement afoot called The Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism that counts Prince Charles, Pope Francis, Bill Clinton, and the world’s richest industrialist Carlos Slim among its supporters. Our first reaction to this news might be to ask, “What exactly is meant by the term Inclusive Capitalism?”

The Coalition provides this definition:

“Inclusive Capitalism provides that firms should account for themselves, not just on the bottom line, but on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics… Every firm has a license to operate from the society in which it trades. This is both a legally and socially defined license… Firms must contribute proportionately to the societies in which they operate. Without fairly contributing, firms free-ride on services that other people have paid for. Firms that practice unsustainable activities, disrespect their stakeholders and the communities in which they operate will find their licenses threatened, first by the engaged consumer, then by government. Firms practicing Inclusive Capitalism will see their license strengthened.”

While laudable in its aspirations, operationalizing this value-laden definition poses a few questions and challenges.

First, this definition focuses on firm responsibility according to ESG sustainability metrics and firm performance. In fact, citing studies of corporate performance measures, the IC literature asserts that such practices deliver superior firm performance in terms of profit and market valuations. If true, then market competition should insure the widespread adoption of best practices with the gradual attrition of less profitable, less sustainable firm behavior. In other words, markets should provide sufficient correctives. If they do not, we probably need to question such assumptions that the market is functioning as expected, that it is complete, or that best practices across firms and industries are readily transparent.

Second, one can inadvertently blur the operational differences between public corporations and non-corporate, small business where ESG metrics are more difficult to discern or measure. Since much of capitalism’s innovation, job creation, and business expansion occurs at the small business level, we need to expand the idea of inclusion beyond corporate management practices and stakeholder governance.

Third, the search for an acceptable definition can also put different class segments of society at odds. The British Guardian has already described the Coalition’s efforts as a “Trojan Horse” cynically deployed to placate the public so that crony capitalism can thrive unscathed. Our definition then must not only articulate a vision and a direction, but also gain acceptance and buy-in from all segments of society. In other words, our definition must be “inclusive” in order to mediate conflicts among groups that appear to harbor diverging interests.

Finally, when we probe practitioners we find that different people have different ideas of what Inclusive Capitalism means, so we still lack a consistent and concise definition. Perhaps we can start by eliminating what it is not. It’s more than just corporate social responsibility (CSR) or ESG sustainability. It’s not defined by charity, philanthropy, or noblesse oblige. It’s more than “people-centered” and not really Robin Hood-style tax and redistribution, or even social welfare.

This is not to declaim or disparage these policies and activities, which in many cases yield positive social and economic results. The problem is that these policies are not really designed to be inclusive; rather they target compensation for past exclusion. In contrast, we should understand that inclusive capitalism seeks to reduce the need for such compensation. Thus, the motivating criterion is bottom-up empowerment, not top-down redirection. For example, inclusive capitalism is less about artificially raising wages, and more about creating the demand for and utilization of labor where a minimum or living wage becomes a moot issue.

With this objective, I believe we can distill “inclusive capitalism” down to a single word that captures the concept in its fullest dimensions. That word is EQUITY. Why equity? Because the multiple meanings and usage of the word “equity” expand the idea into every realm of a free society: political equity in terms of democratic participation, legal equity in terms of rights and accountability, moral equity in terms of justice, and economic equity in terms of capital ownership structures, control, risk, and reward. A free society that lacks any one of these dimensions of equity is in need of repair.

Economic Equity

Naturally, the focus of the term “inclusive capitalism” applies primarily to economic equity, begging the next question of how we define and understand economic equity. This can be problematic because a moral precept of equity as “fairness” is not definitive. In other words, What is economically fair? is a question that cannot really be answered objectively. In economic relations, equity implies a linkage between action and consequence; in finance we might refer to the direct link between risk and reward. In fact, the financial framework may offer the clearest insight into the logic of economic equity in capitalism.

Economic growth is a result of successful risk-taking and productive work. The rewards of success are, or should be, distributed accordingly. The simplest formulation asserts that capital takes the risks and labor does the work. The distributional outcomes of success or failure are then perceived as a protracted conflict between capital and labor over issues of equity. I would argue this conflict is misconstrued.

The linkage between risk and reward is inter-temporal. In other words, financial risks are assigned and taken before the enterprise is engaged: capital is borrowed and invested, suppliers are paid, and labor is contracted. The payment contracts reflect a complex web of legal relations and covenants that stipulate the assignment of liabilities and the seniority of claims over the product after it has been produced and, hopefully, sold. The liability risks of all participants are encoded in these contracts. After standard accounting practices measure the results, the returns to success or the losses of failure are distributed accordingly.

In starkest terms: In capitalism, she who takes the risk, gets the reward (or the loss). We can see the importance of residual claimancy over the profits of the enterprise. Under most corporate legal covenants, these profits accrue to “equity holders,” also referred to as shareholders or owners of firm assets. We should note the usage of that word “equity.”

Inclusive capitalism warrants “inclusion” in the profit-making enterprise of capitalism, which by legal necessity requires contractual claims on residual profits as well as the assumption of liabilities for loss. To control the financial risks associated with these liabilities, the corporate charter was deliberately designed to limit liability to the liquidation value of the firm’s assets.

Some correctly make the argument that wider stakeholders in capitalism (those without ownership claims) have rights that should be reflected in the governance of capitalist enterprise. An example might be a community downriver that suffers water contamination from a producer upstream. Economic externalities, such as environmental degradation, are important considerations for inclusion. Politically imposed regulation can be one means of asserting stakeholders’ interests, but the preferred strategy would be to assign stakeholder claims through the accepted legal structures of ownership and control. In other words, stakeholders should be represented as the voice of shareholders participating as owners in capitalist enterprise. In this way, stakeholders assert their interests and can also claim the material benefits of success, i.e., profits.

Thus, inclusive capitalism explicitly requires inclusion in the economic system as “capitalists,” as well as workers. This all can be as simple as being a passive shareholder. This begs the penultimate question of why, in a capitalist economy, we are not all striving to be capitalists? Alternatively, we might ask: Why is economic inclusion so elusive?

I believe this is where the discussion of inclusive capitalism gets interesting. The answers hinge on the risk-taking nature of capitalist enterprise juxtaposed against the risk-averse, loss-averse behavior dictated by our natural survival instinct. There is a selective bias among successful capitalists to perceive a natural order of things whereby some people are natural risk-taking innovators, while others are not. For them, this “natural order” explains the distribution of success in a capitalist society. The elitist bias can reveal itself in attitudes of paternalism and noblesse oblige.

This perspective is largely the product of a theoretical approach to the market economy where participants are grouped by function: producers vs. consumers; employers vs. workers; investors and borrowers vs. savers and lenders; innovators and wealth-creators vs. welfare dependents. When it comes to distributional outcomes, this is a limited analytical paradigm. Let us just consider the risk-takers. Innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Google’s Page and Brin are perhaps one in a million. But each of these immensely successful individuals has been eager to share the risks and returns of their enterprise through the sale of equity in financial markets. The important lesson is not the fact that Gates may have a net worth of more than $30 billion, but that Microsoft (and Apple and Amazon) has enriched thousands of other stakeholders along the way. This is the key to inclusion and we should pay mind to how it is narrowing.

Though risk preferences and animal spirits do vary across the population, economic risk is ubiquitous and borne in some manner by all. As the capitalist risks loss of principal, the worker risks loss of income. The real question is whether the risk-bearers are receiving just compensation commensurate with those risks and whether the risk-takers are also accountable for losses. This is equity in the moral and economic sense of the word. A free society demands that the innocent not pay for the mistakes of the guilty and this applies in capitalist enterprise as well. (Our recent financial bail-outs appear to have violated this moral imperative.)

For inclusion to work, participants in capitalist enterprise must also be empowered to control and manage their risks. Inclusion and participation then becomes a question of enforceable property rights and gets us back to the legal conventions of assigning ownership rights and risks to tangible assets of the firm. In many situations, different stakeholders eschew the risks because they cannot control or manage them, so they pay to have someone else assume them (i.e., sign a labor contract for a lower risk-return profile). Overcoming these impediments to equity participation inherent to the governance issue is the main challenge of inclusion.

Unfortunately, we have many tax and regulatory policies, as well as financial practices and conventions, that contradict the goal of inclusion through equity. Access to credit, debt leverage, collateral requirements, capital and income taxes, conflicts of interest in governance, etc. work to the disadvantage of those who are thereby excluded from the financialization of the economy. A long laundry list of reforms can be offered in this respect, but that is beyond the purview of this effort, which is to first define what we mean by inclusive capitalism.

A more serious challenge is posed by an industrial global economy being transformed by the digital information age, globalization, and AI robotics. Production in the digital age is revealing itself as labor-saving, capital and skill intensive, with winner-take-all product and service markets. Some of the effects we observe are the rise of celebrity branding; the marginalization of wage labor as a distributional mechanism and mode of inclusion; and the explosive growth of wealth concentration enjoyed by those who feed off digital processes—companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. These trends present a dire challenge to the concept of equity and inclusion. It is a challenge that will require far deeper thinking and rethinking of the 21st century economy and how we conceive of a free society. Despite what politicians may promise, I would advise there is no going back.


One thought on “What Is Inclusive Capitalism?

  1. Pingback: Listen. Time for New Thinking. | Casino Capitalism and Crapshoot Politics

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