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Whose Corporations? Our Corporations!
Posted on Apr 7, 2012
By Ken Jacobsen, AlterNet
This piece originally appeared at AlterNet.
Corporations are not working for the 99 percent. But this wasn’t always the case. In a special five-part AlterNet series, William Lazonick, professor at UMass, president of the Academic-Industry Research Network, and a leading expert on the business corporation, along with journalist Ken Jacobson and AlterNet’s Lynn Parramore, will examine the foundations, history and purpose of the corporation to answer this vital question: How can the public take control of the business corporation and make it work for the real economy?
Historically, corporations were understood to be responsible to a complex web of constituencies, including employees, communities, society at large, suppliers, and shareholders. But in the era of deregulation, the interests of shareholders began to trump all the others. How can we get corporations to recognize their responsibilities beyond this narrow focus? It begins in remembering that the philosophy of putting shareholder profits over all else is a matter of ideology which is not grounded in American law or tradition. In fact, it is no more than a dangerous fad.
The Myth of Profit Maximizing
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The notion that the law imposes a duty to “maximize shareholder value” – a phrase capturing the notion that profits are mandatory and it is the shareholders who are entitled to them – is so readily accepted these days because it jibes perfectly with assumptions about economic life that constantly come down to us from business and political leaders, from academia, and from the preponderance of the media. It is unlikely to occur to anyone under the age of 40 to question this idea – or the idea that the highest, or even sole, purpose of a corporation is to make a profit – because they have rarely if ever been exposed to an alternative view. Those in middle age or beyond may have trouble remembering a time when the corporation’s focus on shareholders’ interests to the exclusion of all other constituencies –customers, employees, suppliers, creditors, the communities in which it operates, and the nation – did not seem second nature.
This narrow conception of corporate purpose has become predominant only in recent decades, however, and it flies in the face of a longer tradition in modern America that regards the responsibilities of a corporation as extending far beyond its shareholders. Owen D. Young, twice chairman of General Electric (1922-‘40, 1942-‘45) and 1930 Time magazine Man of the Year, told an audience at Harvard Business School in 1927 that the purpose of a corporation was to provide a good life in both material and cultural terms not only to its owners but also to its employees, and thereby to serve the larger goals of the nation:
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