Last week, Amazon acquired Whole Foods in a move that has many wondering what this means for the direction of the economy. In my view, Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods does to organics what Uber did to the sharing economy: it takes something that was born out of a different economic logic (a grocery store dedicated to healthy food) and then molds and morphs it to fit into an economic operating system that is firmly based in the old paradigm—i.e. in a paradigm that aims for world domination rather than serving a goal of shared prosperity and well-being for all.
In this post, inspired by a number of gatherings with change makers across sectors in China, Europe, and the Americas during the past few weeks, I outline a framework for understanding how the current limits of capitalism we are bumping up against in sectors such as food, finance, health, education and business are all related to the same outdated economic logic or “operating system” (OS). We need a new economic operating system, one that reinvents how we work together as neighbors, as businesses, as cities and as larger systems. Below I describe briefly the evolution of these five sectors from OS 1.0 to where we are today, which in most cases is OS 2.0 or 3.0.
The pressing challenges of our time, i.e. the challenge of losing our environment (ecological divide), our societal whole (social divide), and our humanity (spiritual divide) calls for reinventing our systems of food, health, education, finance and management towards 4.0. This essay lays out the rationale for OS 4.0 and a possible way to get us there through an Asian-American-European initiative called 4.0 Lab.
Five Sectors, One Problem
As the labels of the new economy have gone mainstream (green, organic, sharing economies) the underlying economic reality stays the same. That is to say, the immense buying power of giants like Amazon squeeze the supply chain, workers, farmers, and the planet through the same patterns of exploitation and structural violence that gave rise to the movement for a new economy in the first place.
On one level you could describe the problem by saying that companies like Amazon and Uber misperceive the new economy as just another app that runs on their old corporate operating system (i.e. world domination through economies of scale). In reality, though, the new economy is not just another app—it’s a radical upgrade of their entire operating system. The difference between the old and the new paradigms can be summarized in three words: ego vs. eco. Ego-system awareness means “me first”, while eco-system awareness means an awareness that focuses on the well-being of all.
There is a profound systemic barrier that exists in all major sectors today. It’s not only the mainstream players like Amazon and Uber that are stuck in their current economic operating systems; many of the innovators who once broke through that model are now also stuck. The global food system is still profoundly destructive. The health system is still sick. The educational system is unable to learn. The global financial system is heading full throttle into the next crash—as if 2008 never happened. Foundations and philanthropists still place their assets in the old economy, thereby harming people and planet, in order to use some of the profits to fund projects that alleviate symptoms but don’t deal with root causes. The innovators in all these spaces are stuck in the niches that first gave them space to develop something new. But now these niches are increasingly crowded, and mainstream players adopt the new labels and sound bites while often perpetuating the old models.
With a market capitalization of approximately $12 billion and with the price of Bitcoin reaching towards its 2016 high, Bitcoin is both the most established and the most secure cryptocurrency. Its ascendancy has triggered both a great deal of enthusiasm and a fair share of concern.
On the utopian side, optimistic proponents assert that cryptocurrencies will free consumers from the tyranny of their domestic currencies, will force out entrenched financial players and payment systems, will reduce transaction costs for businesses and fees for consumers.
On the dystopian side, pessimistic opponents argue that cryptocurrencies may undermine traditional monetary policy, support illicit activity, or simply cannot meet the speed, scale and privacy requirements of real-world financial applications and marketplaces.
Wall Street’s gambles and risky borrowing directly led to the financial crisis, causing the collapse and near-collapse of megabanks and greatly harming millions of Americans. But thanks to government bailouts, those megabanks recovered quickly and top executives lost little.
In response, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank regulatory law to ensure thatno failing bank ever receive such special treatment again. But legislation that favors very large banks
Professor Bruce Grohsgal
and undermines those reforms is in the works again. The bill is called the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act, or FIBA. The measure already has been passed by the House, and the Senate may take it up soon.
In theory, the bill attempts to solve a major issue in the Bankruptcy Code that prevents failing megabanks from restructuring through traditional Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In effect, though, FIBA offers banks an escape route, creating a subchapter in the Bankruptcy Code through which the Wall Street players who enter into these risky transactions will get paid in full while ordinary investors are on the hook for billions of losses. Not only is that deeply unfair, but it will encourage Wall Street to gamble on the very same risky financial instruments that caused the recent crisis.
Under Chapter 11, a failing company can get a reorganization plan approved to keep its business operating while paying its creditors over time. It then can emerge from bankruptcy as a viable business. During Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, creditors are prohibited from suing the debtor to collect on their debt, a key provision that ensures all creditors are treated fairly and enables the business to reorganize. This is known as an “automatic stay.”
What makes the stock market move over the long term? While stocks have historically delivered positive returns year-over-year on average, it is not clear why stock prices rise more rapidly in one period than in any other.
With my colleagues, Martin Lettau of the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business and Sydney Ludvigson of New York University, I set out to investigate what makes stocks move over time. What we found was surprising.
Despite the widespread belief that firm productivity is a key driver of stock market returns, our results indicate that fluctuations in productivity play only a small role. Far more influential over long periods is the economic redistribution between workers and shareholders — meaning how a company’s profits are divided between employees and investors.
Our first step in this research was to consider which factors might be responsible for movement in the stock market in aggregate. Each firm that is represented in the stock market index produces a stream of revenues. After paying a portion to workers, the rest is left over as profits that can be distributed to shareholders as dividends. The stock price will rise whenever the rewards to the shareholders increase, which can be caused by one of three separate forces:
Productivity: The firm becomes more productive, increasing its stream of revenues. This increases the size of both slices, including the shareholders’ slice.
Redistribution: The size of the pie remains fixed, but the firm pays a smaller share to the workers, increasing the shareholders’ slice.
Market confidence: Neither the size nor the division of the pie changes, but more risk-tolerant investors demand more stock despite there being no change in their current dividends.
After a year of disheartening setbacks, many activists and change-makers may feel that the critical goal of transforming capitalism is slipping out of reach. Yet, having just returned from a four-week trip to many sites and gatherings working on social, economic, and spiritual renewal, I feel that the opposite is true. There are more fascinating and eye-opening examples of this transformation emerging worldwide than ever before. But something is missing, something that contributes significantly to the sense that we’re heading in the wrong direction. Simply put, what’s missing is a systemic connection between all these initiatives—an enabling mechanism that allows us to not only connect the dots, but also to see ourselves, and the significance of our work, from the whole. Below, I take you on a tour through the landscape of some current initiatives, and at the end of this journey I propose how we might link up and support the larger landscape of economic transformation.
In previous columns I have described our current moment of crisis—specifically the rise of Trump, the far right, and populist strongmen—as the result of two factors: (1) the increasing rate of disruption and (2) the lack of a capacity to lean into these moments by letting go of the old and letting come new patterns and possibilities (a capacity I call presencing).