The much-loved board game Monopoly contains a lesson for all capitalists, one that seems especially relevant given the news this week that Tesco has serially screwed its suppliers with cynically late payments, complicated clawback scams and barely-veiled threats to comply with its one-sided “negotiations”, or else.
The lesson is not, at first glance, obvious but can be summed up as “the winner loses”. In the world of Monopoly, players are in a closed system with a finite amount of money to be shared. The object of the game is to serially screw over your opponents until all their money is your money, all their property your property and the only remaining solace for the sore losers is the pleasing prospect of smashing in the winner’s big, fat, smug, amoral face. Having won, however, the game is now at an end. With no more players left to fleece, the winner could only carry on the game by endlessly circulating the existing money between properties and utilities they already own. The mechanism for wealth creation has essentially disappeared. To quote Hans Gruber misquoting Plutarch in Die Hard: “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept; for there were no more worlds to conquer.”
The relevance to Tesco is not necessarily that the supermarket chain is doomed to end up in a monopolistic prison of its own design. In an economy that is not closed, wealth production tends to ensure an endless supply of future victims to feed the vampire squids of commerce. Rather it is the inherent short-termism of a policy that squeezes one’s alleged partner until their pips squeak and then discards them without a “by your leave”. It is the depressing range of line-of-least-resistance strategies that you sense no one in the business’s upper echelon can see past, or can be bothered to challenge, because, well, you know, it’s all about results now: jam today. What would the shareholders say if we dared to take the jackboot from our suppliers’ throats for a second, just to let them breath every once in a while?
It’s not just Tesco. Everywhere you look, the biggest players in industry and commerce seem hellbent on their own variants of jam today policies, their visions stretching no farther than the next set of results to set before the Board. When Google dropped its “Don’t Be Evil” motto it was but a short march from there to the risible tissue of lies that comprises its corporate tax reporting today. And let’s not even get started on the effect of this corporate malaise on the companies’ own personnel. Far from being “our most valuable asset” most staff find themselves in pretty much the same boat as the suppliers: caught between a rock and a hard place as they strive to make good the ridiculous cheques that their masters write on their behalf.
There is a word that is sadly missing from the vocabulary of many of today’s executives. They would probably find it ludicrously quaint and laughably naive. They probably saw it on a poster somewhere once and wondered what it meant. The word is “ethical”.
It shouldn’t have to be made a mandatory requirement for a business to be ethical in its dealings; it should be obvious to even the meanest intelligence that win-win is a better long term strategy than win-lose. But then most businesses are so myopic they make Mr Magoo look positively eagle-eyed.