Posts Tagged ‘markets’

Phantom of the Paradise

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Picking back up on the “Redefining Capitalism” article from the latest issue of Democracy. In a prior post, I wrote:

The role of foundations as labs for innovation…The redefining-capitalism lens suggests that this function is essential to philanthropy’s role in the capitalist system. By focusing on specific problems and promoting creative solutions to them, foundations play their part in helping capitalism function more effectively. Which depending on your point of view, may not necessarily be a good thing. But this redefining perspective certainly makes it sound more palatable.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about phantom needs that fuel the economy. Go into any Duane Reade drugstore (that’s what Walgreens is called here in NYC), and all along the aisles and in front of every checkout counter are little products someone came up with to entice people to part with their money: USB dongles that go in a car’s cigarette lighter, another kind of candy bar, light vanilla soy milk. What if you walked into a Duane Reade, or a grocery store, and the only things on the shelves were things you actually buy or have ever bought? How bare would those shelves be? Now layer on the version of that image for each person who walks in on a given day. How empty would the shelves be? What proportion of products never get bought by more than two or three people in a given week, or month? Yeah, you’d think those products would disappear from the shelves, and I’m sure the data analytics at Duane Reade are pretty decent to enable them to do so – but maybe some items are a package deal from manufacturers: want to sell Doritos, which you know people want? You gotta stock Funyuns, which no one wants, but we’re going to try to push anyway.

Funyuns are a phantom need. If they didn’t exist…meh. Would the world be any different? Would anyone’s well-being really be diminished? (Don’t touch my Munchies mix, though, those are vital to national security and the general welfare.)

And yet we’re told that what the economy needs is more businesses, more ideas, more people making…stuff. Like USB dongles and Funyuns. Those are invented needs. Which are EVERYWHERE. They fuel our economy: stuff we don’t need, and just barely want. But you know, just seem, maybe useful, once. I’m thinking ahead to spring cleaning, and looking at how many clothes I haven’t worn even once in the past year. Closet full of phantom needs.

This may ultimately be the value of the social sector: we focus on real needs, not phantom needs. The problems we focus on are hopefully ones that are genuinely worth solving. If that’s helping capitalism function more effectively (doing the right things) as opposed to just more efficiently (doing things right), then maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Until you stop to think about the problems that capitalism creates, especially in the pursuit of phantom needs.

There are some problems that are just problems of resource extraction – fuel pollutes. Those are real needs, however bogus the solutions (“clean coal”). Those negative externalities should be internalized, and taken into account when making planning decisions.

But problems caused by the fulfillment of phantom needs, like the giant plastic island in the Pacific from plastic shopping bags? (Which, it turns out, isn’t an island, but is still bad news.) As the guys on ESPN would say, “c’mon, man!”

So, new rule: to judge the value of a solution, you have to weigh both the problems its solves as well as the problems it creates. And if the needs the solution solves are phantom needs, well, that’s just a problem in itself.

How good are nonprofits at defining and solving real needs and not phantom needs? How good are foundations?

Do the Evolution

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Incredibly rich article on “Redefining Capitalism” in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. I’ll be unpacking this one for a while. Let’s get started.

The authors’ entry point is coming up with a better measure for prosperity than GDP, of which there have been several attempts, but their end point is, as the title implies, far beyond that question of measurement. They redefine capitalism as an “evolutionary, problem-solving system”:

A capitalist economy is best understood as an evolutionary system, constantly creating and trying out new solutions to problems in a similar way to how evolution works in nature. [...]

[T]he entrepreneur’s principal contribution to the prosperity of a society is an idea that solves a problem. These ideas are then turned into the products and services that we consume, and the sum of those solutions ultimately represents the prosperity of that society. [...]

Capitalism’s great power in creating prosperity comes from the evolutionary way in which it encourages individuals to explore the almost infinite space of potential solutions to human problems, and then scale up and propagate ideas that work, and scale down or discard those that don’t. Understanding prosperity as solutions, and capitalism as an evolutionary problem-solving system, clarifies why it is the most effective social technology ever devised for creating rising standards of living.

The orthodox economic view holds that capitalism works because it isefficient. But viewing the economy as an evolving complex system shows that capitalism works because it is effective. In fact, capitalism’s great strength is its creativity, and interestingly, it is this creativity that by necessity makes it a hugely inefficient and wasteful evolutionary process. Near one of our houses is a site where each year, someone would open a restaurant only to see it fail a few months later. Each time, builders would come in, strip out the old furniture and decor, and put in something new. Then finally an entrepreneur discovered the right formula and the restaurant became a big hit, which it is to this day. Finding the solution to the problem of what the local residents wanted to eat wasn’t easy and took several tries. Capitalism is highly effective at finding and implementing solutions but it inevitably involves trial and error that is rarely efficient.

There’s so much here with regard to philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, I hardly know where to begin. An initial map of the terrain might be:

  • Social entrepreneurs: How does the second paragraph quoted about change if you put the word “social” in front of “entrepreneur”? Does this redefinition of capitalism mean that all entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs? This would certainly fit with the idea that the way companies have social impact is by doing a really good job at delivering on their bottom line. Or perhaps instead, does it mean that there are certain kinds of problems that “social” entrepreneurs are particularly likely or able to take on?
  • The role of foundations as labs for innovation: One of the most frequently cited raisons d’être for foundations is that they have the ability to foster small-scale innovation, that they can be risk capital in areas the market won’t go and the public sector is too slow to find. The redefining-capitalism lens suggests that this function is essential to philanthropy’s role in the capitalist system. By focusing on specific problems and promoting creative solutions to them, foundations play their part in helping capitalism function more effectively. Which depending on your point of view, may not necessarily be a good thing. But this redefining perspective certainly makes it sound more palatable.
  • The “overhead myth”: A recent, laudable campaign seeks to disabuse funders – and especially individual donors – of the notion that overhead (the ratio of administrative and fundraising expenses to total expenses) is the single most important metric for gauging a nonprofit’s performance. The campaign makes the (valid) argument that investment in a nonprofit’s administration often helps performance, and that organizations with overhead ratios that are too low will actually do worse. This is in essence an argument about the balance of efficiency and effectiveness. The redefining-capitalism lens takes that analysis to the level of the overall economy. And the unit of analysis is not the individual organization, but the problem (or solution). High levels of surface inefficiency (it took several tries to find the right restaurant for that location) mask an ultimate focus on effectiveness – a good solution to that particular problem was ultimately found. This is the overhead myth at the level of the sector or local economy, rather than at the level of the organization. Does the analysis still hold? And what does it mean for place-based funders, who have the longer time-horizon that multiple attempts at starting a business would require?
  • The connection between small business and place-based economic development: Relatedly, the restaurant example puts me in mind of the role of foundations as investors in place-based economic development that I highlighted in a prior post. Defining a problem in a very specific geographic space and deploying a range of tools over a long period of time seems like a meaningful way for a foundation to make a difference.
  • The value of long-term general operating support: Another way in which foundations express long time horizons is by making long-term grants. The redefining-capitalism suggests that it is critical for the effectiveness of economic activity for economic actors to be allowed to try, fail, and try again until a solution is reached. Translated to the funding world, this argues for long-term general operating support to give organizations the space to experiment, innovate, and iterate.
  • Strategic “vs.” responsive approaches: The language of problems and solutions is native to “strategic philanthropy” as framed by the Hewlett Foundation and others. In a reflection on a decade of practice, former Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest identifies “problem-solving philanthropy” as one of the two principal modes of strategic philanthropy. This would suggest a close connection with the redefining-capitalism approach. However, those authors identify as one of capitalism’s key strength its ability to foster a wide variety of potential solutions, arguing that “it is not how hard we try to solve a problem that is critical, but rather [...] it is the diversity of ideas and approaches that matters most in problem-solving effectiveness.” This suggests a link with responsive approaches to philanthropy, which are about letting a thousand flowers bloom. So perhaps the redefining-capitalism lens shows strategic vs. responsive to be a false dichotomy.
  • The concept of “social impact solutions”: The redefining-capitalism lens views prosperity as a volume and pace of solutions to social problems. This suggests that the greatest value the nonprofit sector can provide to society is to generate “social impact solutions” – products or services that address a social need not being addressed by market actors. From this lens, nonprofits should be explicitly solutions-oriented, and funders should seek opportunities to foster the iterative, long-term development of viable solutions. Stated like that, this sounds like what should be business as usual, but as we know, it’s not. Does “social impact solutions” provide an organizing principle for understanding the work of companies, foundations, nonprofits, and government?
  • Potential filters for impact investing: The authors recommend measuring prosperity in terms of access to solutions, and judging the social worth of business activity by the extent to which it creates meaningful solutions or simply generates more problems. It seems easy to imagine translating such an approach to impact investing. How does this lens relate to existing socially-responsible screens for investment portfolios?

Lots more there, but this is a first pass. What grabs you about this article or the ideas I’ve shared?

The Shop Around the Corner

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

My blog post from the Council on Foundations community foundations conference in San Diego, about how community foundations might consider differently how to work with private business.

Read it here on RE: Philanthropy.

Change in My Pocket

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

I got a letter from my health insurance company today saying that my employer and I would be getting a rebate because under Obamacare, insurers are required to spend at least 85% of premiums on hospitals and health care services, and no more than 15% on “administrative costs such as salaries, sales, and advertising.”

The overhead ratio has come to healthcare, just as nonprofit leaders are calling for it to be transcended in the social sector.

The kicker: just for New York State, the amount of customer premiums for this one insurer in this one year is $2.2 billion. That would have put it at number 27 in the list of top 50 foundations by assets in 2011. So 0.7% of those premiums is about one-seventh of what that hypothetical foundation’s payout would be – call it one grant program. $15 million, give or take. (Now whether I as a policyholder ever see a dime of that rebate is an open question: my employer subsidizes my premiums, so they may decide to use whatever we get toward defraying those costs.)

I bring that up just as another reminder of the scale of philanthropy relative to other parts of the economy. And to observe that in the aggregate, even relatively small-seeming instances of inefficiency (missing the target by less than 1%!) can conceal some serious dollars.

But the larger issue is, do we want an overhead ratio in healthcare, is that actually a useful thing? For once, the nonprofit sector may be ahead of the game relative to other sectors. I worry we may have to really evangelize some of this thinking beyond our own sector – where it’s hard enough to get the word around. And it’s a tough sell in healthcare – hard to argue that we need more hospital marking. It’ll be interesting to monitor how this “Medical Loss Ratio”, aka the “85/15 rule”, plays out in practice. God, I hope the authors of the healthcare bill didn’t get that number from nonprofit overhead ratios….

Oh, and like everyone in philanthropy, I read and thought and talked about Peter Buffett’s blog on the “Charitable-Industrial Complex.” For me the definitive word on this is from Zack Exley here. The upshot: the unglamorous way to reduce poverty quickly is aggressive state-led development. Viva varieties of capitalism!

Take the Bait

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

I’m pretty sure that it’s a spam account, but one of my Twitter followers seems to exist to spew out random questions about fundraising and the nonprofit sector, and solicit people to contribute answers. At the risk of further spam, I’ll take the bait and answer a question that showed up in my feed and piqued my interest:

“What if every company were non-profit including Wal-mart?”

My favorite kind of question, one that invites consideration of an alternate reality, in a way that questions the premises of our current reality. Lot of good sci-fi out of that conceit. (RIP Fringe, so good until the last season.)

There are different ways to answer this, but I’ll choose this approach: what if every company, instead of returning value to shareholders, were obligated to reinvest surplus in the mission?

To start with, would all companies be private? Would there be any reason to take a company public? There would if you thought that other people might like to share the risk of ownership with you because they believe in the mission. They might risk losing their money if the business goes belly-up. But wait – how is that any different from receiving donations from individuals? They don’t expect to get a financial return – in essence, they’re sacrificing that money, in return for the hope of social impact. (See last week’s post on the three returns and “third heat” of impact investing.)

Are we just talking about membership organizations, where people pay a certain amount to belong to an institution, like a film society or a museum? No, they’re not assuming any risk for anything other than their own money. Someone has to be accountable for the assets of the organization.

So a public non-profit company would be…just a regular non-profit. What would a private non-profit company be? A foundation? No, those have particular obligations to pay out 5% of their assets. And they’re insulated from market pressures other than on their endowments. A private non-profit company would have owners who would directly assume the risk of failure if expenses exceed revenues to the point where all assets are depleted.  It would have beneficiaries, and purchasers of its services, but only a relatively small number of owners assuming the risk. And they would do so without expecting value returned to them from a surplus.

So this seems to come down to ownership and risk. What’s different about a world where all companies are non-profits is that, at first blush, it’s not clear why anyone would start a company, or try to grow it. But I suspect if we look beyond the profit motive, there would be other reasons to do so. For another post….

Cuts Both Ways

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Last time, I was fretting about the counter-majoritarian nature of philanthropy, coming to the conclusion that maybe it’s not such a bad thing. There are such things as democratic failures, and it can be good to have a corrective element in the ecosystem – albeit not in a dominant position.

The latest kerfuffle in the nonprofit space is about the for-profit company GOOD buying the non-profit social network Jumo. People have fretted about it, said “get used to it,” said, “actually, there’s something more interesting going on over here.” There are valid points made in this discussion about getting beyond the superficial discussion of tax status.

But the real issue is remembering why there’s a “nonprofit” sector in the first place (however you want to label it). And that’s because there are some things for which there are no “natural” markets. Robert Kuttner pointed this out years ago, that the “markets” for health care and labor are fundamentally different from markets for other kinds of commodities because the former are about human beings and the latter are generally about physical objects. Human beings have a unique moral status, so it simply doesn’t work to treat them like any other widget, no matter what the textbooks say. Those markets will always be different and always inherently political.

It follows that there are areas of human endeavor where market dynamics will not function in the same way. Think of it like the upside-down mountains in Avatar whose magnetic field throws off conventional instruments. Our basic assumptions about how markets function – rational actors optimizing utility defined in terms of immediate material gain, etc – are called into question. Our tools – our business plans – don’t work in the same way; input A, instead of generating output A, leads to output Q. Behavioral economics helps here, but there’s something more needed.

I’ve written about the imp of the perverse, that dark impulse that leads people to do things against their own self-interest. And about how our theories of human behavior are just so boring.

The problem is, there are just some areas of human endeavor where money isn’t the point. The profit motive isn’t enough to motivate action. Something more has to get people to do it. And that something else is like a flame; it can grow, it can spread, but it can also go out. It may endure as embers, waiting to be rekindled, but its going out spreads a chill, dims light, causes the huddled crowd to disperse.

The [insert a better word for nonprofit] sector is where that flame is kindled. My mentor Jeff Weintraub points out that what gets called “civil society” or the third sector actually has two components: civil society, the realm of private business for private gain, and political society, the realm of collective action for collective gain that is not as all-encompassing at the state. Political society is where advocacy happens, where organizing happens, where (shudder) political parties exist. We conflate civil society and political society – however we label them – at our peril.

Best of Both Worlds?

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

One of my two questions behind this blog is “What is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society?” I struggle with the idea that philanthropy, with its privileging of the perspective of a particular donor and her/his trustees, has a fundamentally undemocratic element.

At the same time, I’m sure that, against the tendency of the day to conflate the two, that democracy and the market are not automatically compatible – that in some respects they are in fundamental contradiction.

But I’m wondering, what if philanthropy, with its counter-majoritarian tendencies, is a corrective to both the market and democracy?

Let me explain. I think people want to say democracy and the market are compatible because both are about the will of the majority. Get more than 50% of the votes, you get to be President. This creates a “mandate.” Or something. In the market, if a product or service becomes popular, passes some kind of tipping point of adoption, it wins. I don’t know how well Google Plus is doing, but I know I haven’t been on it in at least a week, and I spend at least 20 minutes a day on Facebook. People go where the people are; winners keep winning; you have to have money to make money; etc. “Massification” is an important dynamic in market economies – we call it “scaling” in the nonprofit sector.

Philanthropy has counter-majoritarian tendencies, in two ways.

One of the main roles often ascribed to philanthropy is to be a “laboratory” for social programs. Private funders can take chances on risky new ventures, and when they prove their mettle, promote them to public funders and ask that they be adopted as part of public policy. So goes the theory.

There’s something counter-majoritarian about this. Nobody put it to a vote whether paying people to stay in school was a good idea before cities like New York City tried it. But it may turn out to be a good thing.

The other way philanthropy can be counter-majoritarian is in protecting the rights of minorities. Foundations like Gill and Arcus fund LGBT rights, and with a lot of actors and advocates pushing, pushing, pushing in municipalities and states over many years, as well as in popular culture, the needle starts to move on majority acceptance of gay marriage. The funders are far from the only actors promoting this, but they’re part of a movement and help fuel it. To protect the rights of a minority.

The first of these roles is about correcting market failures, the second is about correcting, I guess you could call them democratic failures.

So perhaps one of the roles of philanthropy in a democratic society is precisely to be counter-majoritarian. It’s undemocratic on one level, but on another, it’s about perfecting democracy. Hunh.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Of the vinyl I’m purchased since getting a turntable for my birthday last December (thanks dear!), the vast majority has been “vintage” – used records. In part that’s because I’ve long been in an older-music period (most of my records are either music from the 30s or albums recorded between the late 60s and early 80s), but in part it’s because I enjoy the idea of rescuing a physical artifact from the flotsam of history. I prefer to take an object already in circulation and gain value from it rather than call another object into being by purchasing something new. At least with records.

And I choose where to shop with care as well. There’s a cluster of record stores within a 10-block radius of Bleecker and 7th Avenue South (a quiet culinary mecca, with John’s Pizza, L’Arte del Gelato, Centro Vinoteca, Ottomanelli’s butcher shop, and a Five Guys all within sight of the same intersection). But my true vinyl source, the place that inspired me to ask for a turntable as a birthday present in the first place, is Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, MA, where I went to college (and met my wife). We went up for our annual summer visit (Porches Inn, MassMoCA, W’town Theater Festival), and I had my fingers crossed that the same dude who ran the place when I got there (gulp) 20 years ago hadn’t decided to pack it in since last October. He hadn’t. (Whew.) I spent at least an hour in there and staggered out with a boxful of vinyl. (As I write this, side 2 of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Songbook is spinning and crackling its way along.)

I’ve written about a nostalgic mode of philanthropy. What I’m describing is a nostalgic mode of commerce. I’ve yet to read the new book Retromania on how pop music is eating itself by being obsessed with the past, but as far as music appreciation, retromania is fine with me – and extends not just to the music and artists, but the physical medium of receiving them. I like the idea of an artifact that was originally purchased and enjoyed 30 years ago providing pleasure again today. It’s a flat black time machine.

Sometimes vinyl is cheaper (8 bucks for this 2-record, 30-song Ella/Gershwin set is a pretty good deal compared to iTunes), and sometimes, especially with new vinyl, it’s quite a bit more expensive. One of my rare new vinyl purchases was the latest Belle and Sebastian. It came with a code for a download of the full record plus two bonus tracks, and the gatefold sleeve was sumptuous, a modest art object of its own. Totally worth the markup ($17 at Kim’s Video & Music in the East Village).

Alongside my recent infatuation with vinyl, my wife and I have been doing the locavore shopping and cooking thing for a few years now. (While it’s 95% her, tonight I perfected the recipe for farmer’s market ají casero). And I’ve often wondered – if locavores can create a market for local agriculture, why can’t there be a market for local manufacture? Hello, job creation!

Now here’s what I’m getting at – and where philanthropy might have a role to play. Can we tap into the nostalgic mode of commerce – and other emotional-commercial narratives – to foster a locavorism for manufactured goods? (Locamechanism?) This is beyond my beloved records, which are made wherever. But can we tap into that kind of nostalgia to get people to buy local goods, even if they’re more expensive, so as to generate good local jobs, particularly blue-collar ones?

The L3C, a low-profit limited liability corporation, is an intriguing idea for helping to do this – and private foundations can have a role by making program-related investments. Bob Lang of Americans for Community Development, whom I met at a conference earlier this year, has been tirelessly working on this new vehicle for years. The intriguing case is using it to foster North Carolina’s flagging furniture industry by providing a way for charitably inclined investors like private foundations, who could be willing to forgo short-term financial returns in the interest of long-term community benefit, to jumpstart that industry by providing “patient capital” that helps them to recreate a market for locally manufactured goods. I haven’t been able to find articles online about how that effort in North Carolina is actually going since the law authorizing L3Cs was passed last year, but I’ll be intrigued to follow it.

‘Cause we need all the ideas we can get (HT to Marginal Revolution) about job creation these days, and if philanthropy can play a role, well even better.

Isn’t It Ironic? On “Democratic Capitalism”

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Carl Schramm, head of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, has a piece in Forbes arguing philanthropy exists to advance and perfect democratic capitalism. In response, Albert Ruesga, head of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, laments that if this is why foundations exist, “could there possibly be a better reason for dismantling the private foundation as an institution?” Ooh, CEO throwdown!

Less flippantly, what’s going unexamined here, I think, is the term “democratic capitalism.” My guess is that Schramm sees that adjective, which goes unexplained, as significant. Capitalism within the context of a democratic system presumably is different than unmodified, raw capitalism. But here’s where I think the difference lies. My hunch is that Ruesga’s image of democracy and Schramm’s may be different in one significant way.

As I’ve written about, and I owe this insight to my mentor Jeff Weintraub, in one respect democracy and the “free” market are fundamentally at odds. The invisible hand of the market aggregates the individual pursuit of self-interest into social welfare (or so the story goes). But this aggregation is strangely delicate. Try intentionally to generate social welfare, and the aggregation falls apart. This is some of the thinking behind mistrust of government.

Do you see what’s going on here? To avoid suboptimal outcomes, you have to give up the ability to consciously pursue the collective good. So the free market is really unfree, in an important respect.

And democracy is actually, in one version I happen to like, about a community consciously defining and intentionally pursuing the collective good (what Tocqueville called “self-interest properly understood”). Which is the opposite of letting the free market operate through the individual pursuit of self-interest. So democracy and the market are in one respect fundamentally at odds.

This is if you define democracy as I just have. It’s sometimes called “participatory” democracy, and associated with Isaiah Berlin’s vision of “positive freedom” – the freedom to do X or Y.

But there’s another version of democracy – a “procedural” one, associated with Berlin’s other vision – “negative freedom,” or freedom from X or Y. This version of democracy is not about the outcomes but about the rules and fair play – freedom of expression, and free elections. There’s a lot to recommend this version! And its achievement and sustainment are to be celebrated.

But for many people, I assume Ruesga included, it’s not enough. “Democratic capitalism” based on procedural democracy and negative freedom is sadly perfectly compatible with high levels of inequality and unjust economic outcomes. In fact, it probably encourages them. But for a vision of the good based on positive freedom and participatory democracy – what you might call social justice – “democratic capitalism” would need to look pretty different than it currently does to make that phrase other than a cruel irony.

And whether philanthropy can contribute to that effort – or whether the most it can and should aspire to is supporting “democratic capitalism” as Schramm might have it – is the real question. One of two, you might say.

Shanghai Surprise

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Was at a philanthropy conference today, and one of the panels was about trends in the financial markets and their implications for foundation investment management. Unfortunately, the second part of that topic wasn’t really touched upon, but the three old white guys they had talking about the first part were pretty interesting. Half the conversation was about China: how long it’s going to rule the world, what that’ll be like. Turns out China has been the leading economic power in the world 17 of the last 20 centuries, so according to one guy, there’s a feeling of, “oh, we’re just reclaiming our rightful place.”

But the part that most caught my attention was the discussion of how China has managed to achieve spectacular economic growth in the last 30 years, not in spite of an authoritarian government, but because of it. I appreciated that one of the panelists pointed out that authoritarian governments may be good at the early stages of economic growth, but have a harder time with the more complex dynamics of the global economy. I’ve also seen the argument that China’s growth is not sustainable because the environmental shortcuts they’re taking will catch up with them sooner rather than later. I’d like to think these will be sufficient incentives to democratize, but I kind of doubt it.

I’ve written a fair amount on here about varieties of capitalism, and the types of innovation that different types of economies are good at. But I haven’t considered the Chinese model – particularly in the light of Gates and Buffett’s challenges bringing the Giving Pledge to China. Sounds like the start of another series…..