Business Management as a Gamble

Robert Kurz

For the common man, the most evil villain in the country is not the slanderer, but the speculator. The “gambling casino” of financial capitalism has long been held responsible for all economic and social crisis phenomena. Thus, the banker has become the prototype of the irresponsible gambler and is considered the number one enemy of all well-behaved philistines. The same consciousness, however, can find a lot of good in the industrial capitalist, who does not hang around in the airy financial superstructure but has material things produced and needs jobs in the process. One does not criticize capitalism at all, but would like to distinguish between dubious financial gambling and down-to-earth real economy.

But is real economic capital with its material basis really so far removed from speculative thinking? Even industrial profit is not fixed from the outset, but must first be won in competition. Because there is no collective planning of social production, no enterprise knows whether it can sell its goods at all. Therefore, material production is also a gamble on the field of universal competition and the real business manager is just as much a gambler as the investment banker. Only the stakes are different: not paper financial securities, but machines, raw materials and people.

For a long time, economic science did not want to associate risk competition with the concept of gambling. Corresponding attempts to apply mathematical game theory to economic behavior came only from outsiders. It was not until 1994 that John F. Nash (Princeton), John C. Harsanyi (Berkeley) and Reinhard Selten (Bonn) received the Nobel Prize as representatives of economic game theory. This change in perception has not only something to do with the postmodern mentality that wants to turn everything and anything into a “game.” Nor is it merely an ideological reflex of the financial bubble economics since the 1980s. Rather, the use of risk in the real industrial economy has also changed dramatically.

As is well known, the trump card in the competitive game is business cost reduction. In the real economy, this also involves risk-taking in a highly material sense. This applies not least to safety standards in the handling of hazardous natural substances and processes. The competitive pressure that has intensified in crisis capitalism has long since taken hold of this sensitive area. The flip side of the same development is the use of ever larger aggregates of production and ever less mature and controlled techniques. For example, according to the official investigation report, the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was due to a rigid business strategy of saving time and money at the corporate conglomerate involved. The same policy has come to light in the Japanese nuclear disaster; not to mention that nuclear energy in itself carries unmanageable risk burdens.

The financial speculators at least play with paper, the big industrial gamblers with nature, with the life and health of people. Who is more irresponsible? The chain of industrial catastrophes caused by business management has become just as dense as the chain of financial catastrophes in the last 30 years. And the next one is sure to come. The game must go on.

Originally published in Neuen Deutschland on 04/04/2011

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