Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Blind Asset Stripper

I’m continuing to work through a set of Adam Curtis documentaries that I received for Christmas on DVD. For the first time in my life I’m finding politics interesting, so Curtis must be doing something right.

The latest series I recently completed watching was entitled the “Mayfair Set”. It tells the story of the rise of free market economics in the UK and America. It introduces us to some of its major personalities on both sides of the Atlantic: Jim Slater, Tiny Roland, James Goldsmith, and Michael Milkin. These men made their fortune by taking advantage of the fact that companies are legally owned by their share holders. In most cases the share holders were passive owners uninvolved with the day to day running of the company, seldom looking beyond their share price. Their blinkered ‘bottom line’ view meant that they were unable to resist a good offer when they saw one, and were very ready to sell their shares at the right price, whatever the ramifications in the wider economic sphere. Enter Slater and co: It wasn’t long before these financially ambitious men owned a string of companies, replacing the previously passive ownership with a much more proactive monopoly shareholder who was prepared to “reorganize” the company in order to increase profits. The reorganization process, which they liked to think created leaner meaner companies, had a more pejorative description: “Asset Stripping”. By laying off workers and selling off assets immediate (and ephemeral?) end of year profits were retuned. However, as far as real long term productivity was concerned the effects of breaking up and selling off company assets was unclear. But in the meantime short term profits stimulated a stock market boom as share holders bought and sold.

That is the background. Whether or not the “asset strippers” helped to create a more productive economy rather than just exploiting a legal way of siphoning off stock market money into their bank accounts is not what I am going to comment on here. What I would like to draw attention to in the context of the evolution/ID debate are the following remarks by “asset stripper” James Goldsmith. They can be found in the third program of the “Mayfair Set” series:

Goldsmith on the “Harshness of Change”:

In nature there can be no continuity because there are predators. And in fact there was some game reserve set up by some well meaning people who said it is horrible that these animals should live under the constant threat of predators. Those animals subsequently became degenerate and died because predators are a necessary stimulant. If you eliminate predators in business and just create comfortable bureaucracies and monopolies with no predators you will have a dead industry and the prosperity of the country will shrivel away and your people will suffer infinitely more than by being subject to constant stimulation, threat and competition.

Goldsmith on corporate responsibility:

The sort of stuff senator Worth is talking about (that is, about corporate responsibility – ed), which is the pastoral America with a little company, a church and university which is going to be there forever and they don’t have to compete with anybody and that competition is awful , is a total mixing up of the difference between doing business and doing good. Doing business is what gives you the fuel to do good. Don’t mix them up. The bee doesn’t make honey because he is doing good. He doesn’t have the soul searching of “Am I doing good?”

What irony; the free market process, so beloved of the American religious right, being described in such folk Darwinian terms! Goldsmith is telling us that individuals need look no further than their own immediate productive interests and hey presto out of the hat pops an organized democratic society. (Although conspicuously, he says nothing about a just society). As in evolution only local and immediate gain need be selected for by otherwise relatively blind local market forces, forces that have no cognizance of the greater whole. Thus, no overall social perspective need be conceived and processed intelligently; the average investor need only act selfishly, looking after his own interests without a mind for the bigger picture. A bonus, according to Goldsmith, is that the investor can even think of himself as doing good; thus he can be both selfish and morally upright at the same time!

In some ways the picture sketched by Goldsmith is how societies inevitably proceed – local decisions are made that, due to limited prescience on the part of finite human intelligence, do not take into account the widest of contexts and long term ramifications. Thus, in a very general abstract sense technological societies evolve, quasi-blindly.

Starting here I did a series of blogs as a follow up to watching Adam Curtis’ documentary series “The Trap”


Stuart said...

If I remember correctly Goldsmith's Darwinian comparison with money markets was proven wrong---unfettered decentralisation doesn't work, it just produces economic chaos as happened thanks to asset strippers. I guess the opposite is also a problem, i.e., total centralised control (e.g., Soviet system), which has also been proven wrong.

So as usual the right way to do things is in the difficult grey area between centralisation and decentralisation. This is a bit similar to those famous scale free networks I read about---e.g., the internet. There is some degree of centralisation in these networks in the form of massively connected hubs, however they are constructed in such a way that they also have decentralised properties---i.e., resistance to being wrecked by the loss of a hub.

Incidentally, the philosophy of total self-interest is very similar to Objectivism. That's worth checking out as well...

Timothy V Reeves said...

Yes I agree. In fact left to a laissez faire market the scale free "rich get richer" effect may lead to powerful hubs that effectively become big government!

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