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Citizen Capitalism: Interview with Sergio Gramitto Ricci

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Sergio Alberto Gramitto Ricci is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, where he also serves as the assistant director of the Clarke Program on Corporations & Society. He studied law at University of Milan, and received a Ph.D. from Bocconi University. Gramitto Ricci is consistently invited to speak at universities around the world. His research focuses on corporate law, corporate governance, and legal personhood. His new book is Citizen capitalism: How a universal fund can provide influence and income for all.

Care to briefly explain how your Universal Fund differs from Universal Basic Income?

It differs in three ways. First, the Universal Fund provides more than just income; it provides influence. The Universal Fund is a device which allows all American adults to participate in the corporate sector. It gives voice to those who have not been heard so far. Second, the Universal Fund would solely be funded by private donations of humans—especially the ultra-wealthy—and corporations; thus it does not require transfer payments or coercion. Third, because it would be a private ordering initiative, the Universal Fund would be insulated from changes in the compositions of governments, political elections, and government budgetary needs.

You write that a sovereign wealth fund bill could never pass in Congress.  However, such legislation was able to pass in ultraconservative Alaska.  Polling shows an increasing majority of the US electorate favoring ambitious government programs like Medicare for All.  Why can’t the US enact its own sovereign wealth fund?

The Alaska Fund could be created with the profits coming from a quite specific source of earnings: Alaskan oil. That would not be replicable on a national scale. Moreover, the Alaska Fund supplements, does not replace, other government programs. In addition, the Alaska Fund does not provide influence over the corporate sector—a characterizing trait of the Universal Fund. Lastly, a government program could pose risks that private ordering does not entail—think about the instability that a government program could be subjected to upon changes in the composition of government or congress. Insulation from politics is a great feature of the Universal Fund.

In 2018, companies didn’t raise compensation for employees, even in the face of record profits.  Why do you think they’re going to start donating to your Universal Fund?  If tax deductions are the main reason, wouldn’t it make more sense for the government to directly support the Fund, instead of hiding behind tax incentives and hoping for the best in terms of corporate generosity?

Corporations would have a number of reasons for donating. Marketing reasons: donating corporations would appeal to all American adults, who would benefit from such donations. Corporate governance reasons: by design, the Universal Fund would not trade the shares in its portfolio (with exceptions of specific circumstances), so corporations and their boards of directors would secure a long-term, patient shareholder on which they can rely. Practical reasons: lately corporations have repurchased larger and larger amounts of their shares; they could donate these shares to the Universal Fund instead of turning them into treasury shares. Now imagine if the legislator made these donations tax-deductible, corporations and humans would benefit of a fiscal incentive, too. But enough reasons exist even without this legislative intervention.

People are increasingly skeptical of the philanthropist-centered model of social welfare spending.  Jeff Bezos alone could write a check to end homelessness and still have billions leftover.  Instead, the billionaire class donates crumbs and stash most of its tens of trillions of dollars in tax havens.  Why should we continue to wait in vain for the unaccountable Davos crowd to save us, instead of demanding change from our elected officials, whom we actually control?

A large part of the ultra-wealthy have already committed to donate a majority of the wealth. As I respond to your questions, 189 pledgers have signed the Giving Pledge. But there is a collective action problem: without an idea that would allow donors and corporations to coordinate, their donations might only have a superficial impact. The Universal Fund is a device that would allow to coordinate charitable actions and donations and to produce real social change in the present and in the future.

Why do you think the billionaire class is vocally supporting UBI?  Could it be that they’re simply trying to placate people asking for more fundamental changes to our unequal system?

I believe that the billionaire class is aware of the widening inequality and of potential issues that automation and robotization of labor could cause.

UBI is touted as a possible solution to the emerging Era of Automation.  However, countless social scientists and philosophers argue that work is a fundamental part of being human.  What are your thoughts on the looming unemployment pandemic?

UBI would only support people financially—perhaps also in the effort to start a new enterprise. Conversely, the Universal Fund, by allowing all to engage with the governance of the corporate sector, could mitigate the sense of lack of purpose that citizens might experience in the emerging Era of Automation. 

In terms of instituting “citizen capitalism”, what do you think of the German law of corporate co-determination, in which workers make up about half of a company’s board of directors?

I like German co-determination; I find it consistent with an interest of corporations that goes beyond the mere interest of shareholders and that better recognizes the nature of corporations as legal entities distinct from its shareholders. But German co-determination would require a structural change in American corporate governance because the German model is structured around two boards, the monitoring board and the managing board. It might be too big a change for American corporate law.

To further riff on your concept of “citizen capitalism”, do you think financial literacy and economics should be made required courses during high school?  If so, what concepts would you include in the standard curricula?

I would start with basic macroeconomics.

On Pg. 92, while glowingly extolling the benefits of capitalism, you write, “Companies like the Dutch East India Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company opened whole continents for trade.” I laughed out loud reading that naïveté. These are among the companies that first engaged in the centuries-long colonization, swindling, enslavement and genocide of native peoples in America and the Global South. I daresay people in places like Sierra Leone and the DRC still aren’t benefiting from “continental trade-opening”, either.  Would you care to clarify your statement?

In a recent paper, “The Technology and Archeology of Corporate Law,” I trace back the origins of corporations to Ancient Rome. The Roman State first conceived the corporate form for cities and towns. When the state expanded and could not provide services and infrastructure, it outsourced activities, including tax farming and infrastructure building to private entrepreneurs. To facilitate the performance of these activities, the Roman State granted the corporate form to private business ultimately carried out in the interest of the state itself. Today, almost everybody uses products and services that business corporations provide. The challenge is making the corporate sector inclusive, instead of exclusive. That was the ultimate goal Lynn Stout and I had in mind when we conceived the idea of the Universal Fund while writing the article “Corporate Governance as Privately-Ordered Public Policy: A Proposal.” I hope that our idea could help business corporations re-merry their original purpose to serve the civic society.

Do you want to take a minute to write about your co-author Lynn Stout, who passed away last year?

Lynn and I used to box in the same gym and our trainer used to call her The Indomitable Lynn Stout. In remembering Lynn during the launch of this book, Marty Lipton listed the names of Nobel Laureates whose theories and positions she challenged. Her intellectual courage was second to none. She was indomitable in academia, even more then at the gym.

Russell Whitehouse is Executive Editor at IntPolicyDigest. He’s also a freelance social media manager/producer, 2016 Iowa Caucus volunteer and a policy essayist.

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Economy

Baltic reality: High inflation and declining of living standards

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The Baltic States’ economy is in bad condition. The latest estimate from the EU’s statistics body shows that Eurozone inflation is continuing to soar to record highs.

The Baltic countries continue to be the hardest hit. These states in particular are experiencing the highest levels of inflation in the Eurozone. Thus, inflation in Latvia and Lithuania hit 22.4 per cent and 22.5 per cent respectively. Estonia also has seen inflation rise year on year from 6.4 per cent in September 2021 to 24.2 per cent in September 2022. The more so, the Baltic States continue to see soaring energy and food prices which lead to declining standard of living.

The Bank of Lithuania has published its latest economic forecast and revised gross domestic product (GDP) growth projections for 2023 from 3.4% to 0.9%.

Statistics Lithuania also reports that in September 2022, the consumer confidence indicator stood at minus 16 and, compared to August, decreased by 5 percentage points. The decrease in the consumer confidence indicator in September was determined by negative changes in all of its components.

According to SEB bank economist Tadas Povilauskas, the number of poor people in Lithuania will increase. Living standards will be affected by rising food and energy prices. The current price of natural gas is too high and the economy cannot “go” with it. It is evidently that energy prices shocks have far-reaching effects on Lithuanian economy and population.

The main cause of such state of affairs is deteriorated relations with Russia. Russia has lately been the EU’s top supplier of oil, natural gas, and coal, accounting for around a quarter of its energy.

The conflict in Ukraine and political confrontation between Russia and the West has exacerbated the energy crisis by fuelling global worries it may lead to an interruption of oil or natural gas supplies from Russia. Moscow said in September it would not fully resume its gas supplies to Europe until the West lifts its sanctions.

It is obviously that the conflict in Ukraine dramatically worsened the situation on the markets, as Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat and barley, and two-thirds of the world’s exports of sunflower oil used for cooking. Ukraine is also the world’s fourth-biggest exporter of corn.

According to Euronews, the prices of many commodities – crucially including food – strained global supply chains, leaving crops to rot, caused panic in many European countries, including the Baltic States.

High inflation has become the direct consequence of sanctions imposed on Russia. As for the Baltic States, the lack of wisdom to find compromises and blindly following the European Union’s decisions have lead to declining standards of living. The desire to punish such huge state as Russia played a cruel joke on the Baltic States. It will be difficult to explain the population why they should turn down the heating in homes, schools and hospitals over the winter.

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Policy mistakes could trigger worse recession than 2007 crisis

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The world is headed towards a global recession and prolonged stagnation unless fiscal and monetary policies holding sway in some advanced economies are quickly changed, according to a new report released on Monday by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).“There is still time to step back from the edge of recession,” said UNCTAD chief Rebeca Grynspan.

‘Political will’

“This is a matter of policy choices and political will,” she added, noting that the current course of action is hurting the most vulnerable.

UNCTAD is warning that the policy-induced global recession could be worse than the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2009.

Excessive monetary tightening and inadequate financial support could expose developing world economies further to cascading crises, the agency said.

The Development prospects in a fractured world report points out that supply-side shocks, waning consumer and investor confidence, and the war in Ukraine have provoked a global slowdown and triggered inflationary pressures.

And while all regions will be affected, alarm bells are ringing most for developing countries, many of which are edging closer to debt default.

As climate stress intensifies, so do losses and damage inside vulnerable economies that lack the fiscal space to deal with disasters.

Grim outlook

The report projects that world economic growth will slow to 2.5 per cent in 2022 and drop to 2.2 per cent in 2023 – a global slowdown that would leave GDP below its pre-COVID pandemic trend and cost the world more than $17 trillion in lost productivity.

Despite this, leading central banks are sharply raising interest rates, threatening to cut off growth and making life much harder for the heavily indebted.

The global slowdown will further expose developing countries to a cascade of debt, health, and climate crises.

Middle-income countries in Latin America and low-income countries in Africa could suffer some of the sharpest slowdowns this year, according to the report.

Debt crisis

With 60 per cent of low-income countries and 30 per cent of emerging market economies in or near debt distress, UNCTAD warns of a possible global debt crisis.

Countries that were showing signs of debt distress before the pandemic are being hit especially hard by the global slowdown.

And climate shocks are heightening the risk of economic instability in indebted developing countries, seemingly under-appreciated by the G20 major economies and other international financial bodies.

“Developing countries have already spent an estimated $379 billion of reserves to defend their currencies this year,” almost double the amount of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) recently allocated Special Drawing Rights to supplement their official reserves. 

The UN body is requesting that international financial institutions urgently provide increased liquidity and extend debt relief for developing countries. It’s calling on the IMF to allow fairer use of Special Drawing Rights; and for countries to prioritize a multilateral legal framework on debt restructuring.

Hiking interest rates

Meanwhile, interest rate hikes in advanced economies are hitting the most vulnerable hardest

Some 90 developing countries have seen their currencies weaken against the dollar this year – over a third of them by more than 10 per cent.

And as the prices of necessities like food and energy have soared in the wake of the Ukraine war, a stronger dollar worsens the situation by raising import prices in developing countries.

Moving forward, UNCTAD is calling for advanced economies to avoid austerity measures and international organizations to reform the multilateral architecture to give developing countries a fairer say.

Calm markets, dampen speculation

For much of the last two years, rising commodity prices – particularly food and energy – have posed significant challenges for households everywhere.

And while upward pressure on fertilizer prices threatens lasting damage to many small farmers around the world, commodity markets have been in a turbulent state for a decade.

Although the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative has significantly helped to lower global food prices, insufficient attention has been paid to the role of speculators and betting frenzies in futures contracts, commodity swaps and exchange traded funds (ETFs) the report said.

Also, large multinational corporations with considerable market power appear to have taken undue advantage of the current context to boost profits on the backs of some of the world’s poorest.

UNCTAD has asked governments to increase public spending and use price controls on energy, food and other vital areas; investors to channel more money into renewables; and called on the international community to extend more support to the UN-brokered Grain Initiative.

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‘Sanctions Storm’: Recovery After the Disaster

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After the start of the special operation in Ukraine, a “sanctions storm” hit Russia; more sanctions were imposed against Russia in a few months than against Iran in decades. But a catastrophe did not take place, and the stage of stabilization came.

Indeed, almost all the weapons in the sanctions arsenal were used one after another: commodities exchange was suspended in some sectors, export and import controls were put in place, restrictions on air and sea transportation were introduced. The sanctions have spread to the investment and financial sectors, paralyzing many transactions with the West and complicating them with the East. An image impact came from the mass withdrawal of foreign business from the Russian market—not directly caused by the sanctions, but demonstrating “over-compliance,” excessive submission to them.

In the public mind, the destabilizing wave created the impression of the end of the story of the market economy in Russia, an impending catastrophe. But the catastrophe did not happen. The stage of stabilization has come, and it is important to use it correctly.

What to do?

In the near future, the Russian authorities and business will have to solve three groups of interrelated tasks. First, they must provide the domestic market with necessary goods, and restore value chains by the use of alternative partners. Second, they need to establish reliable financial mechanisms for working with these partners. Third, it is necessary to look for new growth points for the future, industries in which dependence on the West was critical. It is important to work out the possibilities: for new partners entering the markets and for attracting investors from friendly countries, as well as trying to integrate into new value chains.

Partners, first of all, include China and India. The southern direction is also not unpromising—to begin with, this includes Iran and Turkey, as well as a search for investors in the Arab world and the development of logistics routes through the Middle East. Nevertheless, in all areas, the key obstacle is the threat of secondary sanctions by the United States and the EU—which means that the second task becomes the main one: building a safe infrastructure for financial cooperation.

China remains Russia’s first trading partner—but despite the strategic partnership on the political level, large Chinese companies and banks that are active in the international market are suspending cooperation with Russia, fearing secondary US sanctions. In these conditions, it is important to work on explaining the nuances of the sanctions policy for Chinese business, creating secure payment channels that do not depend on foreign banks or on the dollar and the euro, and developing profitable package offers. Beijing seeks to use the opportunities opening up in the Russian market to occupy the vacant niches and strengthen the yuan in international payments, which means that its interest in finding a common solution is high.

A similar situation is developing in the Indian market, with the difference that Indian business is more connected than Chinese business with America, and its awareness of doing business in Russia is lower. As a consequence, Indian companies and banks integrated into the global economy will comply even more closely with sanctions restrictions, despite their interest in developing ties with Russia. Accordingly, even more active informational work is needed to establish Russian-Indian business ties, as well as the creation of a secure settlement mechanism. India already has similar experience, from doing business with Iran. In particular, UCOBank was formed to trade with it in rupees. Similar structures can be created in the Russian direction.

If the necessary channels are laid, both China and India can not only replace some Western goods in Russian markets, and ensure purchases from the Russian energy, agricultural, and military-industrial sectors—preserving their prospects for business—but also become zones of qualitative economic growth. Chinese partners can become a support in the development of bilateral cooperation in the fields of electronics and digital technologies (including 5G), and Indian, in pharmacology and high-tech agriculture. It also makes sense for business to look at these countries from the point of view of the development of green technologies in energy and agriculture, and the introduction of ESG practices, since these countries are also interested in this.

From our partner RIAC

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