Dec 6, 2013
Whose Corporations? Our Corporations!
Posted on Apr 7, 2012
By Ken Jacobsen, AlterNet
Even after eight years of Reagan and amid the burgeoning of free-market ideology, the Business Roundtable remained reluctant to place shareholders first, affirming in 1990 that “corporations are chartered to serve both their shareholders and society as a whole” and adding creditors to the 1981 list of constituencies, which it otherwise retained intact. It was only in 1997, in a new statement whose title substituted “Corporate Governance” for “Corporate Responsibility,” that it renounced attempts to balance the interests of corporate constituents and, having reversed its view, argued that taking care of shareholders was the best way to take care of the remaining stakeholders, rather than the other way around:
This doctrine, known as “shareholder primacy,” now reigns in the corporate world today, and it has so increased the power of those whom it has benefited that it will not be easy to dislodge. Those who propagate it believe, or would have us believe, that it is based in law; in fact, it is supported by no more than ideology. They believe, or would have us believe, that it reflects incontrovertible and eternal truths; in fact, it is an expression of transient self-interest. They believe, or would have us believe, that it honors long precedent – but, as we have seen, its ascendency is recent, and, rather than honor it undermines precedent. Yet despite these contradictions, corporations and their allies have been exceedingly successful at selling their viewpoint to the American people.
An important step toward countering their influence can come in refusing to accept the legitimacy of shareholder primacy. Up to now, this fad has had the power to neutralize opposition in part because it has obscured the tool needed to challenge it: a clear understanding of the economic realities. For this reason, we must learn what contributions all stakeholders – not just the shareholders, but all the others as well – make to the corporation, and the extent of the risks and rewards those contributions truly entail. We must learn about the interrelation of business and government in all its complexity, going far beyond the headlines about taxes and regulation to discover who needs whom for what, and who does what for whom. And we must learn what rights corporations legitimately hold, what privileges they enjoy, and what duties they are obliged to carry out.
Ken Jacobson is a journalist covering business, economics and technology. He served as an investigator on the Democratic staff of U.S. House of Representatives’ Science and Technology Committee between 2007 and 2011. He is currently acting as senior editor for the newsletter Manufacturing & Technology News.
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