Jan
04

When McKinsey Comes to Town

As an expose of McKinsey, this book focuses on the most questionable and problematic aspects of the company's work. Selection bias aside, the authors (Walt Bogdanich & Michel Forsythe) document a company seeking profits by any means: improving tobacco sales while knowledge the harmful effects, improving opioid sales amidst a peak of overdose deaths, human rights abuses, clear issues of conflict of interest, corruption cases (for which payouts have been made but no acknowledgement of guilt), finding ways to cut healthcare benefits and rolling back staffing, the latter contributing to many cases of death and injury at workplaces...

"The most shocking revelation, however, was McKinsey's decision to help companies sell more opioids when the abuse of those drugs had already killed thousands of Americans. Two senior partners discussed possibly purging records, apparently to hide their involvement. McKinsey agreed to pay more than $600 million to settle investigations by dozens of state attorneys general into the firm's role in fanning the opioid epidemic. the firm also issued a rare apology, and fired the two employees, but said it did nothing illegal." (p.26)

"McKinsey & Company watched this rising tide of condemnation, knowing full well that for decades the firm's consultants had been helping the biggest tobacco companies sell more cigarettes. it had been handled in typical McKinsey fashion-in secret. McKinsey's name did not figure in the congressional hearings on tobacco, or in two major books totaling fourteen hundred pages, or in media investigations of the industry. Secrecy benefited both McKinsey and its tobacco clients. Cigarette makers did not want consultants sharing marketing strategy, and McKinsey did not want its reputation sullied as an enabler of companies that sold a deadly product...The story of McKinsey's extensive work for Big Tobacco has never been told, the details buried deep in fourteen million pages of industry documents. That relationship can be traced back to at least 1956, when McKinsey did a wall-to-wall examination of Phillip Morris's operation..." (p.112)

"In one slide McKinsey old Allstate to try to settle 90 percent of its claims as quickly and as cheaply as possible. For the other 10 percent, policyholders or third party claimants who didn't take the Allstate offer, even worse, hired a lawyer, the "boxing gloves" treatment was in order. They would fight in courts, for years if necessary, wearing down everyone who dared to sue." (p.194)

"Forty percent of Regiments' share of the airline contract-6.2 million rand, or roughly $420,000- went to a shell company that laundered payments to the Gupta family. McKinsey said it didn't know that the contract was secured through a bribe. The second tainted McKinsey contact was with Transnet, where Regiments diverted millions of dollars to front companies controlled by the Guptas. McKinsey again took the position that it knew nothing about these payments." (p.239-240)

"Abdulaziz, a Saudi national who had been living in Montreal for almost a decade, replied he was fine but the person had good reason to be worried. He told Abdulaziz that he had been working with McKinsey on a project for MBS. McKinsey had prepared a report about how the kingdom's subjects were reacting to government policies. The report identified Abdulaziz, along with some other Saudis, as being highly influential in shaping the public's opinion, and not in a good way. "I thought, 'oh that's great,' ' Abdulaziz recalled more than two years later. "In the beginning I didn't know that it would be such an important thing. So I thought Nothing would happen." (p. 252)

"Faced with a huge budget shortfall, the government turned to McKinsey to trim the NHS budget. In March 2009, McKinsey delivered its plan in a 123-slide PowerPoint presentation. The proposal outlined a pathway to save an NHS as much as £20 billion by cutting 10 percent of its workforce, or almost 140,000 jobs, in the midst of the sharpest economic downturn in decades. The people who remained would have to work harder..." (p. 265) 

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May
26

Bad Samaritans

Ha-Joon Chang has written many excellent books, on this blog I have covered Kicking Away the Ladder and 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism. With the encouragement of Oxfam's Duncan Green, in 2007 Chang published "Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism". The book aims for a general audience, and in many ways puts the arguments in the above two books in a more accessible way, often conveyed via story. For the details, see his other books. Many of the examples are getting dated, but still a useful read. Some notes:

"This neo-liberal establishment would have us believe that, during its miracle years between the 1960s and the 1980s, Korea pursued a neo-liberal economic development strategy. The reality, however, was very different indeed. What Korea actually did during these decades was to nurture certain new industries, selected by the government in consultation with the private sector, through tariff protection, subsidies and other forms of government support (e.g., overseas marketing information services provided by the state export agency) until they 'grew up' enough to withstand international competition. The government owned all the banks, so it could direct the life blood of business—credit. Some big projects were undertaken directly by state-owned enterprises—the steel maker, POS CO, being the best example—although the country had a pragmatic, rather than ideological, attitude to the issue of state ownership. If private enterprises worked well, that was fine; if they did not invest in important areas, the government had no qualms about setting up state-owned enterprises (SOEs); and if some private enterprises were mismanaged, the government often took them over, restructured them, and usually (but not always) sold them off again." (p. 14)

"Unfortunately, another lesson of history is that rich countries have 'kicked away the ladder' by forcing free-market, free-trade policies on poor countries. Already established countries do not want more competitors emerging through the nationalistic policies they themselves successfully used in the past. Even the newest member of the club of rich countries, my native Korea, has not been an exception to this pattern. Despite once having been one of the most protectionist countries in the world, it now advocates steep cuts in industrial tariffs, if not total free trade, in the WTO." (p. 61)

"Markets have a strong tendency to reinforce the status quo. The free market dictates that countries stick to what they are already good at. Stated bluntly, this means that poor countries are supposed to continue with their current engagement in low-productivity activities. But their engagement in those activities is exactly what makes them poor. If they want to leave poverty behind, they have to defy the market and do the more difficult things that bring them higher incomes—there are no two ways about it." (p. 210)

"Knowing what policies are right for your particular circumstances is not enough. A country must be able to implement them. Over the past quarter of a century, the Bad Samaritans have made it increasingly difficult for developing countries to pursue the 'right' policies for their development. They have used the Unholy Trinity of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, the regional multilateral financial institutions, their aid budgets and bilateral and regional free-trade or investment agreements in order to block them from doing so. They argue that nationalist policies (like trade protection and discrimination against foreign investors) should be banned, or severely curtailed, not only because they are supposed to be bad for the practising countries themselves but also because they lead to 'unfair' competition. In arguing this, the Bad Samaritans constantly invoke the notion of the 'level playing field.' The Bad Samaritans demand that developing countries should not be allowed to use extra policy tools for protection, subsidies and regulations, as these constitute unfair competition." (p. 217-218). 

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Nov
23

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

Ha-Joon Chang has written a number of excellent books, I've only covered one (Kicking Away the Ladder) on this blog so far. Another of his books – also very accessible and clearly written for non-specialists, is "23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism" (2010). This argument has become more mainstream since Chang started to provide counter narratives a couple of decades ago (Kicking Away the Ladder came out in 2003). A few quotes:

"what we are told by the free-marketers - or, as they are often called, neo-liberal economists - was at best only particularly true and at worst plain wrong. As I will show you throughout this book, the 'truths' peddled by free-market ideologies are based on lazy assumptions and blinkered visions, if not necessarily self-serving notions. My aim in this book is to tell you some essential truths about capitalism that the free-marketers won't." (p. xv)

"The free market doesn't exist. Every market has some rules and boundaries that restrict freedom of choice. A market looks free only because we so unconditionally accept its underlying restrictions that we fail to see them. How 'free' a market is cannot be objectively defined. It is a political definition. The usual claim by free-market economists that they are trying to different the market from politicly motivated interference by the government is false government is always involved and those free-marketeers are as politicly motivated as anyone." (p. 1)

"The wage gaps between rich and poor countries exist not mainly because of differences in individual productivity but mainly because of immigration control. If there were free migration, most workers in rich countries could be, and would be, replaced by workers from poor countries. In other words, wages are largely politically determined." (p. 23)

"When reminded of the protection past of the US, free-market economists usually retort that the country succeeded despite, rather than because of, protectionism. They say that the country was destined to grow fast anyway, because it had been exceptionally well endowed with natural resources and received a lot of highly motivated and hard-working immigrants. It is also said the countries large internal market somewhat mitigated the negative effects of protectionism, by allowing a degree of competition among the domestic firms. But the problem with this response is that, dramatic as it may be, the US is not the only country that has succeeded with policies that go against the free market doctrine. In fact, as I shall elaborate bellow, most of today's rich countries have succeeded with such policies" (p. 69)

"Even when it comes to higher education, which is supposed to matter more in the knowledge economy, there is no simple relationship between it and economic growth. What really matters in the determination of national prosperity is not the educational levels of individuals but the nation's ability to organize individuals into enterprises with high productivity." (p. 179)

"Capitalist economies are in large part planned. Governments in capitalist economies practice planning too, albeit on a more limited basis than under communist central planning. All of them finance a significant share of investment in R&D and infrastructure. Most of them plan a significant chunk of the economy through the planning of the activities of state-owned enterprises. Many capitalist governments plan the future shape of individual industrial sectors through sectoral industrial policy of even that of the national economy through indicative planning. More importantly, modern capitalist economies are made up of large, hierarchical corporations that plan their activities in great detail, even across national borders. Therefore, the question is not whether you plan or not. it is about planning the right things at the right levels." (p. 199-200) 

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Feb
02

Ending the Crisis of Capitalism, or Ending Capitalism?

I have covered several of Samir Amin works, including Unequal Development (1976), Capitalism in the Age of Globalization (1997) and The Liberal Virus (2004). This post covers his book Ending the Crisis of Capitalism, or Ending Capitalism? (originally published in French in 2009, and the translation I have was published in 2011 by Pambazuka Press). An longer set of notes:

"The principle of endless accumulation that defines capitalism is synonymous with exponential growth and the latter, like cancer, leads to death." (p. 1)

"The fundamental questioning of capitalism - which our contemporary thinkers in their overwhelming majority deem neither possible nor desirable - is nonetheless the inescapable condition for the emancipation of the dominated workers and the peoples (those of the peripheries, that is 80 per cent of mankind). And the two dimensions of this challenge are inextricably linked with one another. There will be no exit from capitalism solely by way of the struggle of the people of the North, or solely by the struggle of the dominated people of the South. There will only be an exist from capitalism if and when these two dimensions of the challenge combine with one another. It is far from certain that this will occur, in which case capitalism will be overcome by the destruction of civilization." (p. 16-17)

"And are the progressive social forces strong enough to impose such a transformation? In my humble opinion, they are not. The real alternative involves overturning the exclusive power of the oligopolies, which is inconceivable without finally nationalising them for management that is in line with a progressive democratic socialisation. The end of capitalism? I don't think so. I think, on the other hand, that new patterns of social power relationships can force capital to make adjustments in response to the claims of the popular classes and peoples, this on the condition that the social struggles - still fragmented and on the whole defensive - succeed in drawing up a coherent political alternative. If so, the beginning of the long transition from capitalism to socialism becomes possible." (p. 36)

"Historical capitalism must be overtaken and this cannot be done unless the societies in the peripheries (the great majority of humanity) set to work out systematic strategies of delinking from the global system and reconstructing themselves on an autonomous basis, thus creating the conditions for an alternative globalisation, engaged on the long road to world socialism." (p. 58)

"Niger is a textbook example of this. This country receives aid that covers 50 per cent of its budget. This aid is 'indispensable' for its survival although it is perfectly ineffective: the country remains close to the bottom of the list of the poorest countries in the world. But Niger is the third largest exporter of uranium in the world. Situated between Algeria, Libya and Nigeria, it could be tempted, through nationalism, to recover control over this wealth. Areva, the French firm that exploits the uranium mine, knows this very well. It is not difficult to believe that aid to Niger has no other objective than to maintain the country as a client state." (p. 137)

"Liberal globalisation wants to build another world which is in the process of emerging, based on an apartheid at the world level, still more barbaric than what we have experienced since the end of the Second World War... This pursuit, against all odds, by the oligarchy of the imperialist Triad to continue their domination over the world system involves the recourse to permanent, armed violence through the military control of the planet." (p. 185)

On food and land:

"The United States and Europe have well understood the importance of food sovereignty and have successfully implemented it through systematic economic policies. But, apparently, what is good for them is not so for others! The World Bank, the OECD, and the European Union try to impose an alternative, which is 'food security'. According to them, the Third World countries do not need food sovereignty and should rely on international trade to cover deficit - however large - in their food requirements. This may seem easy for those countries which are large exporters of national resources (oil, uranium, etc). For others, the advice of the western powers is to specialise, as much as possible, in the production of agricultural commodities for export (cotton, tropical drinks and oils, agrofuels in the future). The defenders of food security (for others, not for themselves) do not consider the fact that this specialisation, which has been practised since colonisation, has not made it possible to improve the miserable food rations of the peoples concerned (especially the peasants)." (p. 107)

"What the dominant discourse at the moment means by reform of the land tenure system is the exact opposite of what is required for the building of an authentic alternative based on a prosperous peasant economy. What this discourse, conveyed by the propaganda instruments of collective imperialism - the World Bank, many development institutions, but also a number of NGOs that are richly endowed - means by land reform is the acceleration of the privatisation of land, and nothing more. The aim is clear: to create the conditions that would enable some modern islands of agribusiness (foreign and local) to take over the land they require to expand." (p. 121-122)

"...it is not possible to accept that agricultural and food production, as well as land, should be treated as ordinary 'goods' and thus allow them to be integrated into the project of globalised liberalisation promoted by the dominant powers and transnationalised capital. The World Trade Organization agenda must just be rejected, pure and simple. Opinion in Asia and Africa must be convinced of this, and particularly the need for food sovereignty, beginning with the peasant organisations but also all the other social and political forces that defend the interests of the popular classes and of the nation." (p. 124)

On Marxist critique:

"Being Marxist in this spirit is to begin with Marx and not to stop with him, or Lenin or Mao, as conceived and practiced by the historical Marxists of the previous century. It is to render unto Marx that which is owed to him: the intelligence to have begun a modern critical thinking, a critique of capitalist reality and a critique of its political, ideological and cultural representations. A creative Marxist must pursue the goal of enriching this critical thinking par excellence." (p. 18)

"...Nor is 'social justice' a scientific concept. It is vague, imprecise by nature, and the means for achieving it go no further than listing measures that are not integrated (and are incapable of being integrated) into a coherent strategy. The contrast with the language of revolutionary France and of Marx, who called for equality and emphasised its contradictory complementarity with liberty (itself also associated with property) shows how our thinking has regressed with this discourse on social justice. The nonsense of the North American jurist John Rawls, the sermons of Amartya Sen (a Nobel prize winner) and the 'practical' proposals of Joseph Stiglitz (the rebel of the World Bank) cannot save this miserable non-thinking." (p. 133)

"Debt reduction, presented almost as a charitable act (as is clear from the diplomatic jargon in which the decision was couched) certainly does not merit being included as aid. The legitimate response to this question, and not only from the moral viewpoint, should lead to an audit of all the debts in question - private and public, on the side of the lender and on that of the borrower. The debts recognised as immoral (among others, because of their association with corrupt operations on one side or the other), illegitimate (poorly disguised political support, as for the South African apartheid regime), usurious (rates fixed unilaterally by the so-called markets, by integral reimbursement of their capital - and well beyond it): all these debts must be annulled and the victims, the debtor countries, recompensed for having overpaid." (p. 140)

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