I’m going to put forward the idea, here, that what we call capitalism in the United States is actually an awkward, loveless ménage à trois between three economic systems, each of which considers itself to be the true capitalism, but all three of which are quite different. Yeoman (or lifestyle) capitalism is the most principled variety of the three, focused on building businesses to improve one’s life or community. The yeoman capitalist plays by the rules and lives or dies by her success on the market. Second, there’s the corporate capitalism whose internal behavior smells oddly of a command economy, and that often seeks to control the market. Corporate capitalism is about holding position and keeping with the expectations of office– not markets per se. Finally, there is supercapitalism whose extra-economic fixations actually render it more like feudalism than any other system and exerts even more control, but at a deeper and more subtle level, than the corporate kind.
1. Yeoman capitalism (“the American Dream”)
The most socially acceptable of the American capitalisms is that of the small business. It’s not trying to make a billion dollars per year, it doesn’t have full-time, entitled nonproducers called “executives”, and it often serves the community it grew up in. It’s sometimes called a “lifestyle business”; it generates income (and provides autonomy) for the proprietor so as to improve her quality of life. When typical Americans imagine themselves owning a business, and aspiring to the freedom that can confer, yeoman capitalism is typically what they have in mind: something that keeps them active and generates income, while conferring a bit of independence and control over one’s destiny.
Yeoman capitalism is often used as a front for the other two capitalisms, because it’s a lot more socially respected. Gus Fring, in Breaking Bad, is a supercapitalist who poses as a yeoman capitalist, making him beloved in Albuquerque.
The problem with yeoman capitalism is that, not only is it highly risky in terms of year-by-year yield, but there’s often a lack of a career in it. Small business owners do a lot more for society than executives, but get far less in terms of security. An owner-operator of a business that goes bankrupt will not easily end up with another business to run, while fired executives get new jobs (often, promotions) in a matter of weeks. Modern-day yeoman capitalism is as likely to take the form of a consulting or application (“app”) company as a standalone business and may have more security; time will tell, on that one.
While yeoman capitalism provides an attractive narrative (the American Dream, in the United States) it does not provide job security for anyone (and that’s not its goal). It also has a high barrier to entry: you need capital or connections to play. Even though it is a more likely path to wealth than the other two capitalisms are for most people, it often leads to horrible failure, because it comes with absolutely no safety net. It’s the blue-collar capitalism of working hard and hoping that the market rewards it. Sometimes, the market doesn’t. Most people can’t stomach the income volatility of this, or even amass the capital to get started.
2. Corporate capitalism (“in Soviet Russia, money spends you”)
Corporate capitalism provides much more security, but it has an institutional command-economy flavor. People don’t think like owners, because they’re not. Private-sector social climbers rule the day. It’s uninspiring. It feels like the worst of both worlds between capitalism and communism, with much of the volatility, insecurity, and greed of the first but the mediocrity, duplicity, and disengagement associated with the second. It has one thing that keeps it going and makes it the dominant capitalism of the three. It has a place for (almost) everyone. Most of those places are terrible, but they exist and they don’t change much. Corporate capitalism will give you the same job in California as you’d get in New York for your level of “track record” and “credibility” (meaning social status).
The attraction of corporate capitalism is that one has a generally good sense of where one stands. Yeoman capitalism is impersonal; market forces can fire you, even if you do everything right. Corporate capitalism gives each person a history and a personal reputation (resume) based in the quality of companies where one worked and what titles were held. At least in theory, that smooths out the bad spells because, even though layoffs and reorganizations occur, the system will always be able to find an appropriate position for a person’s “level”, and people level up at a predictable rate.
Adverse selection is one problem with corporate capitalism. People choose corporate capitalism over the yeoman kind to mitigate career risks. People who want to off-load market risks might be neutral bets from a hiring perspective, but people who want to off-load their own performance risks (i.e. because they’re incompetent slackers) are bad hires. Corporate capitalism’s “place for everyone” makes it attractive to those sorts of people, who can trust that social lethargy, in addition to legal issues, around decisions that adversely affect one’s career (i.e. actually demoting or firing someone) will buy them enough time to earn a living doing very little. Consequently, it’s hard to operate in corporate capitalism without accruing some dead weight. Worse yet, it’s hard to get rid of the deadwood, because the useless people are often the best at playing politics and evading detection. Companies that set up “fire the bottom 10 percent each year” policies end up getting ruined by the Welch Effect: stack ranking’s most common casualties are not true underperformers, but junior members of macroscopically underperforming teams (who had the least to do with this underperformance).
Compounding this is the fact that corporations must counter-weigh their extreme inequality of results (in pay, division of labor, and respect) with a half-hearted attempt at inequality of opportunity (no playing of favorites) but what this actually means is that the most talented can’t “grade skip” past the initial grunt work, but have to progress along the slow, pokey track built for the safety-seeking, disengaged losers. They don’t like this. They want the honors track, and don’t get it, because it doesn’t exist– grooming a high-potential future leader (as opposed to hiring one from the outside and then immediately reorg-ing so no one knows what just happened) is not worth pissing off the rest of the team. The sharp people leave for better opportunities. Finally, corporations tend over time toward authoritarianism because, as the ability to retain talent wanes, remaining people that the company considers highly valuable are enticed with a zero-sum but very printable currency– control over others. All of this tends toward an authoritarian mediocrity that is the antithesis of what most people think capitalism should be.
Socialism and capitalism both have a Greenspun property wherein bad implementations of one generate shitty forms of the other. Under Soviet communism, criminal black markets (similar to that existing for psychoactive drugs in the U.S.) existed for staid items like lightbulbs, so this was a case of bad socialism creating a bad capitalism. Corporate capitalism has a simliar story. Corporations are fundamentally statist institutions that operate like command economies internally. In fact, if one were to conceive as the multi-national corporation as the successor to the nation-state, one could see the corporation as an extremely corrupt socialist state. What is produced, how it is produced, and who answers to whom, all is determined centrally by an autocratic authority. Advancement has more to do with pleasing party officials than succeeding on a (highly controlled) market. Corporations do not run as free markets internally; but also, once they are powerful and established, they work to make society’s broader market less free, pulling the ladder up after using it.
3. Supercapitalism! (“You know what’s cool? Shitting all over a redwood forest for a wedding!”)
Supercapitalism is the least understood of the three capitalisms. Supercapitalists don’t have the earnestness of the yeoman capitalist; they view that a chump’s game, because of its severe downside risks. They also don’t have the patience for corporate capitalism’s pokey track. Supercapitalists rarely invest themselves in one business or product line; having a full-time job is proletarian to them. Instead, they “advise” as many different firms as they can. They’re constantly buying and selling information and social capital.
Mad Men is, at heart, about the emergence of a supercapitalist class in professional advertising. Don Draper isn’t an entrepreneur, but he’s not a corporate social climber either. He’s a manipulator. The clients are the corporate capitalists playing a less interesting game than what is, in the early 1960s, emerging on Madison Avenue– a chance to float between companies while cherry-picking their most interesting or lucrative marketing problems. The ambitious, smart, Ivy Leaguers are all working for people like Don Draper, not trying to climb the Bethlehem Steel ladder. What’s attractive about advertising is that it confers the ability to work with several businesses without committing to one. Going in-house to a client (still at a much higher level than any ladder climber can get) is the consolation prize.
One interesting trait of supercapitalism is that it’s generally only found in one or two industries at a time. Madison Avenue isn’t the home of supercapitalism anymore; now, advertising is just the unglamorous corporate kind. Investment banking took the reins afterward, but is now losing that; now it’s VC-funded internet startups (many of which have depressingly little to do with true technology) where supercapitalist activity lives. Why is it this way? Because supercapitalism, although it considers itself the most modern and stylish capitalism, has a fatal flaw. It’s obsessed with prestige, and prestige is another name for reputation, and so it generates reputation economies (feudalism). It can’t stay in one place for too long, lest it undermine itself (by developing the negative reputation it deserves, and therefore failing on its own terms).
Supercapitalism also turns into the corporate kind because its winners (and there are very few of them) get out. First, they establish high positions where they participate in very little of the work (to avoid evaluation that might prove them just to have had initial luck). They become executives, then advisors, then influential investors, and then they move somewhere else– somewhere more exciting. That leaves the losers behind, and all they can come up with are authoritarian rank cultures designed to replicate former glory.
Why does supercapitalism generate a reputation economy? That fact is extremely counterintuitive. Supercapitalism draws in some of the most talented, energetic people; and it is often (because of its search for the stylish) at the cutting edge of the economy. So why would it create something so backward and feudal as a reputation economy, which intelligent people almost uniformly despise? The answer, I think, is that supercapitalism tends to demand world-class resources in both property (capital) and talent (labor). A regular capitalist is not nearly as selective, and will take an opportunity to turn a profit from property or talent, but the sexiest and most stylish capers require top-tier backing in both. If you’re obsessed making a name for yourself (and supercapitalism is run by the most narcissistic, who are not necessarily the most greedy, people) in the most grandiose way, you don’t just need to hit your target; you also need the flashiest guns.
Right now, the eye of the supercapitalist hurricane is parked right over Silicon Valley. Sean Parker is the archetypical supercapitalist. He’s never really succeeded in any of his roles (that’s a prolish, yeoman capitalist ideal) but he’s worth billions, and now famous for being famous. While corporate capitalism focuses on mediocrity and marginalizes both extremes (deficiency and excellence) supercapitalism will always make a cushy home for colorful, charismatic failures just as eagerly as it does for unemployable excellence.
Supercapitalism will, eventually, move away from the Valley. Time will tell how much damage has been done by it, but considering the state of the housing market there and the horrible effects of high house prices on culture, I wouldn’t expect the region to survive. Supercapitalism rarely considers posterity and it tends to leave messes in its wake.
The final reason why supercapitalism must move from one industry to another, over time, is that reputation economies deplete the opportunities that attract talent. It’s worthwhile, now, to talk about compensation and how they work in the three capitalisms. Doing so will help us understand what supercapitalism is, and how it is different from the corporate kind.
Under yeoman capitalism, the capitalist is compensated based on exactly how the market values her product. No committee decides what to pay her, and she is never personally evaluated; it’s the market value of what she sells that determines her income. Most people, as discussed, either can’t handle (financially or emotionally) this volatility or, at least, believe they can’t. Corporate capitalism and supercapitalism, on the other hand, tend to pre-arrange compensation with salaries and bonuses that are mostly predictable.
Of course, what a person’s work is worth, when that work is abstract and joint efforts are complex and nonseparable, has a wide range of defensible values. Corporate capitalism settles this by setting compensation near the lower bound of that range, but (mostly) guaranteeing it. If you make $X in base salary, there’s usually a near-100-percent chance that you’ll make that or more in a year (possibly in another job). Since people are compensated at the lower bound of this range, this generates large profits at the top; in the executive suite (above the effort thermocline) something exists that looks somewhat like a less mobile and blander supercapitalism.
People who want to move into the middle or top of their defensible salary ranges won’t get it in corporate capitalism. The work has already been commoditized and the rates are already set, and excellence premiums are pretty minimal because most corporations refuse to admit that their in-house pet efforts aren’t excellent. Thus, talented people looking for something better than the corporate deal find places where the opportunities are vast, but also poorly understood by the local property-holders, allowing them to get better deals than if the latter knew what they had. At one time, it was advertising (cutting-edge talent understood branding and psychology; industrial hierarchs didn’t). Then it was finance; later and up to now, it has been venture-funded light technology (on which the sun is starting to set). Over time, however, the most successful supercapitalists position themselves so as not to be affiliated with a single one of the efforts, but diversify themselves among many. This creates a collusive, insider-driven market like modern venture capital. Over time, this inappropriate sharing of information turns into a full-blown reputation economy.
Once a reputation economy is in place, talent stops winning, because property, by its sheer power over reputations, has full authority to set the exchange rate between property and talent. “The rate is X. Accept it or I’ll shit on your name and you’ll never see half of X.” Once that extortion becomes commonplace, what follows is a corporate rank culture. It feels like the arrangements are “worked out” and only management can win– and that’s actually how it is. Opportunities don’t disappear entirely, but they aren’t any more available to young talent than elsewhere, and the field becomes just another corporate slog. That’s where the VC-funded technology scene will be soon, if not already there.
Supercapitalists, I should note, are not always the same people as “top talent” and they’re rarely young (i.e. hungry and unestablished) talent. Supercapitalists tend to be the rare few with connections to both property and talent at the highest levels of quality. Property they can carry with them, but talent they must chase. Talent arrives in the new place (quantitative finance, internet technology) first. Supercapitalism emerges as these well-connected and propertied “carpetbaggers” arrive, and as the next wave of young talent discovers that there are better opportunities in managing the new place (i.e. associate positions at VC firms) than working there.
What really impels young talent to join supercapitalism is not the immediate opportunity (which is tapped out) but the possibility to move along with supercapitalism to the next new place. For example, someone who started in investment banking in 2006 is not likely to be a million-per-year MD today– that channel’s clogged– but has has a good chance of being rich, by this point, if he jumped on the venture capital bandwagon around 2007-08; he’s a VC partner on Sand Hill Road now.
How do these three capitalisms interact? Is there a pecking order among them? How do they view each other? What is the purpose of each?
Yeoman capitalism provides leadership opportunities for the most enterprising blue-collar people, and is the most internally consistent. It’s honest. Unlike the other capitalisms, there isn’t much room for reputation (much less prestige) aside from in one’s quality of product. The rule is: make something good, hope to win on the market. The major problem with it is its failure mode, even in good-faith business failures that aren’t the proprietor’s fault. The main competitive advantage one holds as a small business owner is property rights over a company, and one who loses that is not only jobless, but often with limited transferability of skill.
Yeoman capitalism has a lot of virtues, of course. It gives a lot back to its community, while corporate and supercapitalism tend to destroy their residences and move on. Yeoman capitalism is what blue-collar people tend to think of when they imagine capitalism as a whole, and it provides PR for the corporate capitalists and supercapitalists, who recognize that their reputations (which they hold dear) depend on the positive image that yeoman capitalism provides for the whole economic system. Yeoman capitalism is aware of corporate and supercapitalist entities in the abstract, but has little visibility into their inner workings. Most small businessmen probably know that the corporations are somewhat different from their enterprises, but not how different (in reality, living within two separate societies) at the upper levels.
Corporate capitalism provides social insurance, although with great degrees of inequity based on pre-existing social class. It’s socialism as it would be imagined by a self-serving, entitled upper class refusing to give up any real power or opportunity. It can make little meaning out of leadership, charisma, or unusual intellectual talent. In fact, it goes to great lengths to pretend that these differences among people don’t exist. Its goal is to extract some labor value from people who lack the risk tolerance for yeoman capitalism and the talent for supercapitalism, and it does so extremely well, but it also creates a culture of authoritarian mediocrity that renders it unable to excel at anything. Needs for high quality are often filled by yeoman or super-capitalism; because yeoman capitalism can provide the autonomy that top talent seeks while supercapitalism provides (the possibility of) power and extreme compensation, those capitalisms get the lion’s share of top talent. Regarding awareness, corporate capitalism understands yeoman capitalism well (it often serves yeoman capitalists) but is oblivious to the whims of supercapitalism.
Between corporate and yeoman capitalism, there isn’t a clear social superiority, because they serve different purposes. Some intelligent people prefer the validation and stability of corporate capitalism, while others prefer the blue-collar honesty of yeoman capitalism. On the other hand, a strong argument can be made that supercapitalism is the clear elite among the three. It’s built to take advantage of the freshest, just-being-discovered-now opportunities.
Supercapitalism has a familiar process. First, the smartest people find opportunities (“before it was cool”) that the property-holders haven’t yet found a way to valuate, and negotiate favorable terms for themselves while they can, and this makes a few thousand smart people very rich. Then, the elite property-holders catch wind of the deals to be made and move in. Soon there’s a rare confluence of two forces that usually dislike, but also rely heavily upon, each other– talent and property. Supercapitalism emerges as the all-out contest to determine an exchange rate between these two resources over a new domain comes into play. Eventually property wins (reputation economy) and corporatization sets in, while those who still have the hunger to be supercapitalists move on to something else.
A puzzle to end on
There’s a fourth kind of capitalism that I haven’t mentioned, and I think it’s superior to the other three for a large class of people. What might it be? That’s one of my next posts. For a hint, or maybe a teaser: the idea comes from evolutionary biology.