Today’s BBC article Thailand’s Wealthy Untouchables touched a nerve. It describes the chasm between rich and poor and the failure of the rich to take responsibility for themselves. It is interesting to see the emotions of the downtrodden becoming visible. And it illustrates the motivation for changing my career a decade ago.
When I looked from the Bangkok penthouse window in 1998 on to the men in the neighbouring building site washing themselves in muddy water, it was plain that the rich are ignorant of the people they/we tread on to enjoy a comfortable life. And as a financier watching my industry enjoy relative immunity from the pain of economic hardship, it motivated me to do things differently. “Is it possible to balance economics and equity?” I wanted to know.
I had pursued a venture capital career since teenage years because I wanted to nurture SMEs and help build companies that were not only profitable, but ethical and comfortable places to work. While I had not needed to compromise principles until then, it seemed, as I stepped up the ladder, that “pragmatism” was the convenience of removing emotion from business decisions. Having helped manage venture capital funds and businesses in Thailand and the Mekong Region through the Asian Financial Crisis, it was galling to see new money arriving in Asia in 1998 and doing deals because of political connections rather than because they had industrial, financial or managerial competence. Worse, those businesses with successful track records knew the futility of the deals that were being concocted by managers with little relevant experience. But what was worse is that no one was trying to fix the system, to do business in a better way. And that plainly included me, because I was a suit in a penthouse. The view from the top proved that “noblesse pas oblige”; that is responsibility was not the price of power, in fact, it was irrelevant. Making Money was all that mattered. And it didn’t matter who was drinking dirty water, as long as it wasn’t you.
A decade later the ethical investing or SRI sector has grown to become a significant allocation. But the unwinding of financial markets over the past 9 months also proves that little has changed in the penthouse of power, whether economic or political. The people being hung out to dry as the subprime meltdown continues are those little people at the bottom of the pyramid. The bailouts and extra liquidity s for the banks and brokers not those duped into signing a faustian deal by fiduciaries who did not know what they were selling.
Perhaps the story from Bangkok is a sign that there is pressure for equity from below. But the reality is more sanguine: a completely different perspective is required from humanity if we are to live together happily. And without that intention to share from the top, our consumption of the planet will be complete in a few short decades. The view from the top remains uncomfortable and it’s more vertiginous than before.