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Folly of Without Woke Capitalism

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Or, is that Un-Woke, like Wake-up, Capitalists!... or, is it, as the Editors (2020) claim, totally the opposite, as in The Folly of 'Woke Capitalism', with both capitalism and democracy at risk from being Woke? Confusing. So, let’s try to make some sense of it all.

A colleague of mine, Professor Emeritus David D. --- long standing colleague, in that we were undergraduate majors in agricultural economics together --- pointed me to this piece by the Editors (2020) of RealClear Energy, reflecting a conversation we had started on Facebook about Scroogism vs Socialism. Some backgrounding may be of use here: We both were introduced as undergraduates to economics (and agricultural economics) by the same professors. We both went on to obtain PhDs in agricultural economics, both doing mainly production economics, at least in the early years. We eventually parted professionally, however, as David stayed with mainstream production economics and I moved over to heterodox economics of various stripes, including institutional economics, and finally landing in ecological economics, and, even moreso, into behavioral economics. Yet, we were both originally grilled in what is now referred to as mainstream economics, the most well-known version represented in the Chicago School of Economics, which has been associated with the likes of Milton Friedman and others with a Libertarian twist. In fact, I was especially grilled --- or, was it brainwashed --- into the Chicago School way of thinking, as the professor who taught microeconomics at Oregon State University learned microeconomics from the master himself, Milton Friedman. Why am I bringing it all up?

Well, the story I am about to weave illustrates how alternative economic training and framing affects the story. And, being David pointed me to the Editors (2020) piece, I am assuming he is largely thinking more in line with the Editors (but, David, please chime-in with your take on it); and, as you will see, I have a quite different frame of reference, and theory, and see it quite differently. So, I am hoping David will comment on my story, as well as others who might read this Blog, and help further explore how the farming and theory affects the story being weaved. I wish to frame my story with the following, a backgrounding.

First, there is the overall matter of what is meant by Woke Capitalism. It is not a deep, research based, academic kind of construct. The idea of Woke seems to have a very limited scientific content, other than it generally means 1) having become conscious, or aware of something, or otherwise informed, that heretofore one had not been aware of, seeing or understanding, or being overly concerned about it if aware; in economic terms, it seemingly is about making the Invisible Hand into a Visible Hand, and/or 2) becoming socially conscious, especially racially conscious, leading to being concerned for social justice and/or racial justice (and eliminating injustice); again, make the Invisible Hand (and, culture represents it, holds it) doing its’ thing in the background of capitalism, the background of the market, into a Visible Hand that might stir change, perhaps even canceling bad culture. 3) Woke is sometimes (infrequently, but it is done) associated with collectivism, or, even extremism, like in attaching the word "Woke" to a kind of "ism" as in "Wokeism," with "Wokeists" a controlling collectivist force (as in Ali, 2020). The notion of Woke is not being used in said manner here, nor is it generally being used in the US Business community in that way: It is instead used to represent an ethic, that which works for everyone in a free society, a descriptor of that which everyone can go along with (as Adam Smith characterized it). To be Woke is not in any sense controlling: It is all about individualism, with said person having been to the station of the impartial spectator, as Adam Smith described it, developing a conscience (like the Ghosts visiting Scrooge) and pondering what would be best to do. A truly humane liberalism --- one with plentiful ethical reflection --- is Woke, in said sense. It also follows that one cannot be a Scroogist (not tempered, excessive greed: See Lynne, in press) and be Woke in said sense: No Wokeists or Scroogists, please.

Second, the business and economic framing about Stakeholder Capitalism at an event titled Stakeholder Capitalism and the Future of American Democracy, organized by the Manhattan Institute, seems to be the trigger for Editors (2020). For some reason, based on something that apparently must have been stirred in that event (and I have not yet found access to it), the Editors choose to talk about Stakeholder and Woke Capitalism as though they are the same thing. And, while there is some overlap with the idea of Woke Capitalism, the connection with Stakeholder Capitalism seems to me to be rather tenuous at best. The latter seems to have more empirical content about a broader range of issues, as we will see later. Yet, the overlap is still there, as Woke is focused mainly on justice --- actually, on eliminating injustice --- so, I suppose we could take every issue raised by the problem of social responsibility by a business, especially a corporation, as a matter of injustice? That could work, as injustice is part of it, but I would rather use Stakeholder and Woke as somewhat different constructs. And, yes, a Good Capitalism is one that works to eliminate injustice, with justice the pillar of it, as Adam Smith emphasized, so I guess Adam Smith was Woke, too.

Third, there is the matter of the Economic Narrative being used to frame the story being told. The Editors (2020), and my colleague David (and the bulk of the economists on this Spaceship) also tends to frame things this way, are using a Narrative consistent with and enabled by Neoclassical Economics, especially that coming out of the frame of the Libertarian Branch of the Chicago School of Economics. And, just what is that Narrative? Well, among other things, a main feature of it is represented in Friedman (1970), represented in the proposition that The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits, which was the title of an article in The New York Times Magazine that went viral. It eventually produced Shareholder Capitalism, which is still the dominant Narrative, and, perhaps it has given rise to a culture that needs to be canceled? An Invisible Hand gone awry?

The Narrative took on even more content and virility when it was expanded --- pushed by President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher in the early-1980s --- to include the claim that the Government can do no good, and the Market can do no bad. Build “free” Markets, focus on shareholder value (and, obviously, CEO compensation associated with it), and everything would be good, leading to the infamous “trickle-down” notion. So, maximize shareholder value; profits from doing so will trickle-down; and, everyone becomes happy. The empirical reality is quite different: Trickle-down is a Zombie idea (along with Shareholder Capitalism) that keeps coming back to life, even though it never has worked and never will (Krugman, 2020; also see Stiglitz, 2019).

The point is: Narratives can do that, go viral (see Shiller, 2019 ), like an extremely easy to spread SARS Corona virus, with many perhaps unintended consequences, some of them good, and most of them not so good. The Reagan-Thatcher Narrative, in consort with the Friedman Narrative, has produced extreme income and wealth inequality, with predictable resentment, and then to the evolution of a kind of populist driven Potemkin Economy (Krugman, 2018). That populist drive led to, and has been further facilitated by, Twitterdum and Twaddledee (characterizing President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson, on the September 28-October 4, 2019, cover of The Economist). The larger Narrative which now dominates, including no social responsibility; the market can only do good; and the government can do only bad, all three in combination, has led to an extremely bad capitalism.

Perhaps the biggest bad is this: Extreme inequality in income and wealth, resulting in extreme resentment, has become a social and public health problem (Payne, 2018), with the US moving toward being the top ranking country on said measure for the entire Spaceship. Protests in the streets; vitriolic tribal politics; people supporting a strong man, an authoritarian with fascist tendencies who promises (but, fascists never do) to fix it all? So, no wonder the CEOs (and the Editors, 2020) are going to events about bringing social responsibility back into capitalism: Keeping it out is not working. Bringing it back could save capitalism, saving it from authoritarian extremes on both left and right. Metaeconomics helps explain why, and what to do about it. We apply it here to the matter of the take by the Editors (2020) of RealClear Energy .

I have taken the liberty to copy and paste the exact words, in verbatim, from the Editors (2020) piece into this Blog. In the following, I have identified that verbatim part in italics. Metaconomics framing and theory is then used to comment on the Editors (2020) version of what Woke and Shareholder Capitalism --- as well as bad v good capitalism --- is all about, and how it all might relate to the future of capitalism and democracy.

On August 24, the Manhattan Institute held an eventcast on the rising trend of environmental, social, and governance (ESG), titled “Stakeholder Capitalism and the Future of American Democracy.” President Reihan Salam interviewed Vivek Ramaswamy, a biotech entrepreneur and founder and CEO of Roivant Sciences.

A number of these events have been ongoing in the business world in the last couple of years. Sorkin (2019) points to the Jamie Gamble suggestion for new governance rules, that would bring social responsibility --- concern for all Stakeholders, including the Spaceship system, and, we might surmise, work to eliminate injustice and in that sense, would also be Woke --- back on the table, a typical list at such an event including:

(corporations, business in general, should) “adopt a binding set of ethical rules, approved by stockholders and addressing the key ethical dimensions of corporate life” including: ■ Their “relationships with employees.” ■ Their “relationships with the communities in which they produce and sell.” ■ Their “relationships with customers.” ■ Their “effects on the environment.” ■ And their “effects on future generations.”

So, far more than just shareholder value (and the highly intertwined --- arguably, incestuous --- level of compensation for CEOs) is to be considered. Responsibility went far wider: I guess this is to say, the corporation is to be responsible, and Woke, on a broader frame of reference.

For background, ESG criteria are a set of standards for a corporation’s operations utilized by “socially conscious” investors to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria, for instance, consider how a company performs as a steward of nature in abating climate change. Social criteria look at managing relationships with suppliers, customers, employees, and local communities. Among other things, governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, and shareholder rights.

The list from Sorkin (2019) is representative. As made clear in another part of this Metaeconomics website (, it was what capitalism was supposed to be about, as the enlightenment thinkers originally conceived it. The Market had to operate in the context of “that which others could go along with,” as Adam Smith made clear. That is, the arrogance of self-interest had to be tempered with that which was shared with others, in the other (internalized within own-self, yet shared)-interest. It was about maximizing a balanced self&other-interest, which Smith referred to as maximizing own-interest: It was not about maximizing self-interest, but rather about tempering it, and maximizing a tempered own-interest. There was an empathy-based, ethical-base (sentiment) to that which was shared, with the pursuit of self-interest (profit in the case of business) tempered and bounded by that shared other-interest: Call it ESG, which was to be internalized, within own-self, within the other-interest of each person in the business. There: Some Metaeconomics framing, theory, and jargon.

CEO Ramaswamy expressed a variety of concerns with ESG spreading across the business landscape. ESG has pushed corporations beyond their traditional model of profit seeking into the unstable realm of social activism. In such stakeholder capitalism, the problem is that workers and investors in a corporation could become worse off with such an outside focus. Investors in a company, for instance, are not meant to try to exemplify a society’s supposed core values.

Further, the reality is that business leaders have no better judgment than average citizens in terms of making ESG decisions. Our values should be reflected in our democracy and our voting. Instead of setting the social agenda, corporations should stay in the market and provide quality products. Extending beyond this primary purpose is the wrongful goal of acquiring more political and social power.

The point is being largely missed in this version of what a social responsibility, a shared other-interest is all about. It is not about social activism: The business of business is to do business. It is about a business, however, that is tempered and bounded: Excessive greed associated with the “arrogance of self-love (read self-interest)” as Adam Smith characterized it, had to be tempered. Smith as moral philosopher, and abstract thinker, wanted business managers to go to the “station of the impartial spectator,” and ponder “how would I wish to be treated” --- as an employee; a customer; a supplier; a community wherein the business is located; a lower-income person who could greatly benefit, actually have a decent life, from a larger paycheck; and, yes, the other creatures and systems on this Spaceship on which we travel together, the economy is embedded in the Spaceship --- and temper the economic decision accordingly.

And, it does not take away from profits; it just works to temper the pursuit of same. Sorkin (2020) sums it up this way: Friedman’s manifesto may have fallen out of favor but, like any important doctrine, it can be denounced but not ignored.

True. Profit is still a key part of the mix.Yet, a business is also about trying one’s best to connect with the core values, the moral and ethical system “out there” and form a jointly shared other (internalize it, to own-self)-interest with all said entities. And, sure, democracy and voting can help reveal said values V beyond the mere price P coming out of the Market process: Sorry, life is priceless with value V not always equal to price P. There are incommensurabilities, and other forums --- also legitimate, and always involving Community, hopefully well-represented in the other forums of Government --- bringing value V to the table. Much more is afoot in a business than just maximizing the profits for one group, looking only at price P as related to only the shareholders and the CEO: value V in ESG must also play a role. And, the business of business is to temper business choices with the signals coming out of legitimate, democracy-based process.

ESG has also created a real division in our society: the accountable (e.g., laborers) vs. the unaccountable (e.g., tenured academics). For example, reaching beyond the scope of profit seeking, ESG forces money managers to become accountable to all of society, thus effectively losing real accountability to anyone. The elite managerial class of business is becoming increasingly unaccountable as it veers out of its lane.

Dave, you and I just took a hit here! What is missing is that tenured academics, when they are doing their job, have tenure so they can point out the failures of business (and government, community and society in general) to do what they are supposed to be doing --- taking responsibility rather than operating on the arrogance of self-love only --- sorry to be harsh, but tit-for-tat. What the Editors perhaps need to refer to here is the division between labor and capital. Business leaders (capital) have a responsibility to every Stakeholder in the Sorkin (2019) list, and especially to ensure that workers (labor) enjoy a decent share of the profits, such that they can actually have a decent life and retirement. And, accountability needs to be to own-self: Go to that station and deal with one's own conscience, please. Remember Scrooge and the Ghosts? ESG brings the Ghosts to temper the primal tendency to Scroogism.

And, an aside, on tenured professors: Accountability is built into the system, at least that has been the goal, and while it does not always work as it perhaps should, overall, it has worked reasonably well. Peer review works to better ensure it. Citation indexes reinforce it (but, be careful here: Some of the most cited papers have a lot of attention because of errors in research design, data analysis, and, outrageous interpretations that have little reality), pointing to consensus building on what the academy comes to believe is the most accurate, empirically based, body of knowledge. Competition in publication processes can help, and, when some journal becomes too narrowly focused (to the point of becoming ideological), new journals appear. Blogs and other outlets also subject ideas to a wider-audience. It is not perfect, but it is anything but unaccountable. And, having personally experienced the wrath of a politician, who had no grounds on which to stand that claimed my research was biased against his (unethical) behavior, just a short time after I was first tenured decades ago, I fully appreciate the importance of it. And, that research has stood the test of time, with accuracy.

But back to the matter at hand: A business, corporation paying attention to ESG is also not reaching beyond profit-seeking. In a truly good ESG, there is nothing wrong with profit. It is instead, though, about the ego-based profit-seeking being tempered by the empathy based ethical system --- the ESG if it is good ESG --- that which a reasonable person (and other living creatures on this Spaceship) can go along with. That is perhaps the only real accountability.

And, on the elite managerial class: This opens another whole can of worms, as made clear in Wise (2015): The elite managerial class tends to see itself as Meritorious --- deserving in every way, justifying rather unreasonable $300-400M salaries for CEOs as a case in point --- while practicing a Culture of Cruelty (as Wise characterizes it) to the vile inferior labor on the factory floor, and toward the vile other creatures Traveling on the Spaceship, as in species extinction unparalleled since the dinosaur era. It seems essential to shift the Narrative, and Woke will not be so threatening: We all need to consider the real possibility that everyone needed a helping hand along the way to becoming successful and rich(er). I know I sure did: My Scandinavian-rooted family was given several hundred acres of free land under the Homestead Act; I paid extremely low tuition because of being able to attend state and federally supported Land Grant University, and the list is much longer. I had a helping hand, as did everyone else in the Merit Class.

Merit involves the shared other-interest: We really did not do it all on our own. Horatio Alger is a myth; Robinson Crusoe is a myth. Everyone needs a helping hand. So, the elite of the Meritorious mindset, need to seriously consider a reality check, and after one has been to Adam Smith’s station of the impartial spectator, move toward a Culture of Compassion (again, as Wise characterizes it): In Metaeconomics terms, empathy, please.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that “woke capitalism” has created career-ending risk for those daring to speak out. We are now dangerously installing an idea-fixing cartel that continues to constrain debate. “Cancel culture” has ensured that any person going against the thinking of the movement can very easily lose a job or career. We must all stand up for the free thought of ideas, and business leaders should actively promote freethinking, a pillar of American society.

Indeed, the hypocrisy in woke capitalism must always be exposed. China, of course, is the real winner in the ESG movement. Thus far, corporations involved have shriveled from offending the dictatorial Chinese Communist Party because that means risking access to the immense Chinese market. Incredibly, Beijing has successfully lobbied U.S. companies to limit the free speech of their own American employees, a glaring affront to our country’s ideals. Apple, the National Basketball Association, and the Hollywood movie machine are just a few recent offenders, censoring their own free speech to placate China. This is a gigantic hole in the ESG movement that could eventually be its undoing.

The Editors (2020) do have a point, regarding the matter of the free thought of ideas … actively promote free thinking: Empathy must go in every direction. A cancel culture that is controlling, authoritarian, stopping discourse, stopping expression of reasonable ideas --- is a culture without empathy. China has no right to cancel freedom of thought and expression by American companies: That is authoritarianism, which is never empathic, except in the most cruel way.

This narrowing of ideas brought on by woke capitalism is clearly erroneous; the facts on the ground can quickly change. For example, YouTube has committed to using its fact-checkers to remove COVID-19 videos that spread “misinformation” or are arbitrarily deemed dangerous, such as videos pushing back on state or local lockdown orders during the pandemic. YouTube justified these deletions by claiming that the videos went against the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) and were thus a threat to public safety.

The folly with YouTube’s thinking is obvious. Early on in the pandemic, for instance, the WHO was proved wrong for its questioning of human-to-human transmission. Additionally, as recently as the end of March, the WHO was advising against the use of face masks, which suggests that pro-mask videos on YouTube at the time should have been removed, per the company’s own policy. But now, the WHO’s guidance and advice is to wear a face mask “to protect against and limit the spread of COVID-19.” The reality, then, is that YouTube today could be removing videos that ultimately prove to be factually correct. Especially for science, knowledge is always evolving and our beliefs can be promptly proved false, highlighting why free communication remains so essential.

Being Woke also means being well-informed, doing the homework, doing the empirical assessment, and especially paying attention to the science. And, sure, empirical reality keeps changing, as every scientist fully understands: That which is substantiated at one point may or may not stand the test of time: Further research, more data, more consideration, can clearly lead to more accuracy. As a kind of trivial point, here, however, is the resistance to wearing a face mask to keep something akin to an extremely easy to catch common cold styled virus at bay: Seriously? A business could not see that a mask could be extremely beneficial to keeping the doors open? Ideology got in the way far more than it should have, and, actually, what really got in the way was an imbalance in ego&empathy, in self&other-interest: Too much ego, and too much self-interest, too much arrogance of self-love. Not wearing a mask was an ego-thing --- macho, who me? --- and failed the empathy test, as in the failure to walk in the shoes of someone the egoist might infect. Metaeconomics sees the need for balance, and sure, sometimes organizations like WHO can go awry: Business did, too. That being the case, it behooves everyone to reframe such matters as trying to strike a balance that everyone can go along with, and, stay informed about it (and, in this case, it is also the matter ethics: It is not the right thing to do, to give someone else Covid-19).

Lastly, CEO Ramaswamy believes that shareholders enjoying limited liability is the thin thread that holds the ESG movement together. This is the concept that when a company is sued, the claimants are suing the company, not its owners or investors, protected by limited liability. As ESG continues to spread its tentacles and mission creep pushes corporations beyond the market and supply of goods, they should be forced to drop this limited liability privilege.

A prime example is the ESG push for climate change action—seemingly at all costs. Policies that force the use of more expensive and less reliable renewable energy, while forcing the divestment of more affordable and dependable fossil fuels, would certainly increase the cost of energy (e.g., in California and New York). Without limited liability, consumers might one day be able to sue an ESG titan like BlackRock if their energy bills spike. As another example, one recent economic study concluded that the ESG push for fossil fuel divestment could cause a 25% drop in portfolio growth, leaving trillions of dollars in shortfalls for pension-fund holders who could seek to sue their own negligent money managers.

BlackRock facilitates investment in sustainability; it is about ESG. It is about things in the Sorkin (2019) list, especially Spaceship system investment. For more on BlackRock, see .

As noted earlier, to be Woke is also to be informed. It is also to be ethical. So, it is ultimately about science&ethics, jointly intertwined, absolutely interdependent, and non-separable. Even a tenured professor is liable if they are doing anti-science in an unethical manner: Tenured professors must act on the jointness of science&ethics, and, when they do, they are protected for it. The same is true for business: If the actions are on the side of doing the right thing, in this case working to ensure the sustainability of Spaceship systems through alleviating the overload of the capacity of the Spaceship to handle greenhouse gases, such as to then also ensure the economy embedded within that Spaceship is also sustained, there is no liability. Doing the right thing, guided by science&ethics, does not subject one to liability. And, there are ways to build energy systems that use both carbon fuels and renewable solar-based energy? Seems it could be done? And, if the Spaceship system is being damaged from too much release of carbon (derecho in Iowa; 150 mph hurricane winds; fire tornadoes), in what sense is it more affordable to rely exclusively on carbon fuels?

Ultimately, it is the removal of limited liability that could leave ESG as just another fad destined to fade away.

Adam Smith would not be happy with the suggestion that the sentiments reflected in ESG would somehow just be a passing fad. In fact, ESG broadly considered --- including the elements in the Sorkin (2019) list as a good start --- are essential to a good capitalism and viable democracy. ESG is ultimately about that which everyone can go along with; ESG tempers and bounds; ESG holds the potential to make for a truly joint capitalism&democracy that works for everyone, and everything, on the Spaceship on which we Travel together. It is not a fad. One is not liable if doing the right thing.

And, limited liability works, and does a lot of good, as long as the corporation CEO, other managers, and everyone else in that corporation are --- as Metaeconomics makes clear --- tempering choices with science&ethics, seeking balance in ego&empathy, self&other (shared widely, across the Sorkin list)-interest. Full liability is necessary only when the primal tendency to excessive greed (and, we all have it: it is in the evolutionary genes!) is not tempered, as in anti-science and unethical.

Also, be careful: Sometimes Wok Capitalism is not sincere: Social radicalism is one thing, in rosy statements on business websites; economic radicalism --- putting the proverbial money where the mouth is --- to bringing about actual change is something else (Lewis, 2020). Be careful. The Ghosts will come visit you, Scrooge, unless you actually do something of substance. Achieving balance in ego&empathy, profit&community, will cost real dollars --- not just words. And, as Metaeconomics makes clear, it is the only way to achieve peace, happiness, and economic efficiency.

And, a final note: If you want to see good ESG in action, look to the Nordic Countries (see my Blog, to get you started: ). We might even say the Nordic Countries are already operating in a Woke Capitalism, and it is anything but Folly.


Ali, H. “What Islamists and ‘Wokeists’ Have in Common.” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2020.

Friedman, Milton. "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits." The New York Magazine, September 13, 1970.

Krugman, P. Trump’s Potemkin Economy. New York Times, Digital Edition, June 30, 2018.

Krugman, P. Arguing with Zombies: Economics, Politics, and Fighting for a Better Future. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.

Lewis, H. "How Capitalism Drives Cancel Culture: Beware Splashy Corporate Gestures When They Leave Existing Power Structures Intact." The Atlantic, July 14, 2020.

Lynne, G. D. Metaeconomics: Tempering Excessive Greed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, in press.

Marglin, Stephen A. The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Payne, Keith. The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. New York: Penguin Books, 2018.

Shiller, Robert J. Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Sorkin, A.R. "Ex-Corporate Lawyer's Idea: Rein in 'Sociopaths' in the Boardroom." New York Times (New York), July 28 2019, Digital, Business and Policy.

Sorkin, A. R. "Has Business Left Milton Friedman Behind?" New York Times, Digital Ed., September 11, 2020.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019.

Wise, T. Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich, and Sacrificing the Future of America. Kindle ed. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers, 2015.

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Whenever I hear the term “Woke” capitalism two thoughts come to mind. First, that capitalism if allowed to run unchecked by government action, will lead to huge wealth inequality, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Second, the only way to prevent this from happening is for a third party—say the politicians in DC—acting to set up a set of constraining rules and regulations that prevents capitalist firms from taking unfair advantage of their workers or the public. Oftentimes, the rules and regulations amount to converting enterprises that were part of the private…

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