The Heavy Cost of “Maximizing Shareholder Value” – Thoughts on the Shrinking Middle Class

Andrew Jorgenson (Gregory Peck) addresses the stockholders
Andrew Jorgenson (Gregory Peck) addresses the stockholders

Well, this too is murder — on a mass scale. Only on Wall Street, they call it “maximizing share-holder value” and they call it “legal.” And they substitute dollar bills where a conscience should be. Dammit! A business is worth more than the price of its stock. It’s the place where we earn our living, where we meet our friends, dream our dreams. It is, in every sense, the very fabric that binds our society together.
Andrew Jorgenson Addresses the Stockholders of New England Wire & Cable Co. — (from the Movie Other People’s Money, 1991)
(Read the manuscript of the speech here.  Watch the video here).


What if we have made, and then exacerbated, our own problems – and aren’t willing to face up to them?

Let’s pretend that we would like to do “big picture” thinking for a holiday weekend.  About American business, and our society.  Then, my first suggestion is that you click over to this article, and read it.  Is Capitalism in Trouble?:  CEOs are growing nervous. Can they help save our system from its worst excesses?, by Chrystia Freeland.

In the midst of many good, provocative paragraphs, these are especially critical:

Dominic Barton, the global managing director at McKinsey, is one critic: “Capitalism, even 150 years ago, was more inclusive; there was more of a sense of social responsibility,” he told me. Today, trust in business is declining. “The system doesn’t seem to be as fair or as inclusive. It doesn’t seem to be helping broader society.”

Barton precisely dates the moment Western capitalism started to go off the rails: it was 1970, when Milton Friedman first advocated maximizing shareholder value as the paramount duty of the chief executive. (emphasis added).  That notion—which reduced issues like employee well-being to “externalities” that shouldn’t concern a company’s manager—helped catalyze a divorce of business from society. As Friedman said, the job of business was business, and that was it.

The articles raises, and states so clearly, the current unease.  Income inequality is massive, and rising.  Many defenders of the current system seem to be oblivious to the problems that the very system seems to create.

The article describes better years – more “fair” years – when the middle class was thriving.  Taxes were higher, unions were active, and yes, the boats were rising with the tide for a much larger percentage of folks.

Now, friends of mine remind me, correctly, that businesses have to make a profit.  Yes, they do.

But, profits are not the problem.  Our corporations are sitting on a lot of cash.  And the people at the top are doing very, very, very well.  Ultimately, it is the failure to share the profits with the workers that might lead to genuine, whopping problems.  Again, from the article:

“We are going through a shift,” said Marcello Palazzi, one of the leaders of the B Corp movement in Europe. “Society as a whole is realizing the capitalist system itself is quite dysfunctional. We have created an economy and corporations that in many ways have become unethical.

The decisions of individual CEOs won’t stop what’s new about capitalism in the 21st century—the job-hollowing impact of technological change and globalization.

The sustainable capitalists don’t claim to have all the answers to these challenges. But one measure of their concern is the newfound openness some of them have toward a greater role for the state. They want the government to help them—and their rivals—do the right thing, like raise wages or repatriate taxable profits. “If the rules were changed,” everyone would have to behave differently, Kurt Landgraf told me. “If they believe that those changes are in the interests of society, I don’t think American CEOs and boards would go into a massive revolt.”

Note especially this line:  They want the government to help them—and their rivals—do the right thing, like raise wages or repatriate taxable profits.

I wrestle with this as a consumer.  I believe that workers should be paid a living wage.  I, on purpose, do not shop at Wal-Mart.  Their wages are too low.  And they are militant about keeping unions out.  And, I partly prefer Kroger to other grocery stores precisely because many Kroger workers are members of the union (UFCW Local 540, in my area – United Food and Commercial Workers).

I believe that unions helped bring about safer working conditions, and better wages.  But today’s anti-union fervor has almost silenced their voice and stunted their efforts.

{And, I confess to my own inconsistency (hypocrisy?).  I am also a loyal Amazon shopper.  And they have successfully kept unions from organizing within their company.}

One reason that I am a believer in the work of unions, and a more active role for government rules and regulations, is that many large corporations have to be dragged “kicking and screaming” into making changes for the good of their workers.  This has always been true, and it is true today.  I’m just finishing reading The Everything Store:  Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone.  There is an account of the working conditions in Amazon’s Fulfillment Centers.  The heat was unbearable, but Amazon did not air condition the centers — until they were “forced” to.

The article hints that we may face a time – maybe soon – when society “forces” major changes.  From the article:

“We have so many people who are suffering,” says Kurt Landgraf, the former president and CEO of DuPont Merck, and now the CEO of ETS, the nonprofit educational-testing company, where he is championing an ambitious new project to study and try to reverse declines in economic opportunity. “If we don’t do something to change the trajectory” of the economy, these people will eventually become “advocates for more-extreme change,” and “we as a country will experience significant social upheaval.” Landgraf told me that most of the corporate executives and board members he knows are beginning to share this concern.

At least one starting place is this:  we could “begin to share” the concern.

Anyway, these are some “big picture” thoughts to ponder on this shopping weekend.

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