3 Corporate Myths that Threaten the Wealth of the Nation
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Corporations are not working for the 99%. But this wasn’t always the case. In a special 5-part AlterNet series, William Lazonick, professor at UMass, president of the Academic-Industry Research Network, and one of the leading expert on the American 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?
The wealth of the American nation depends on the productive power of our major business corporations. In 2008 there were 981 companies in the United States with 10,000 or more employees. Although they were less than two percent of all U.S. firms, they employed 27 percent of the labor force and accounted for 31 percent of all payrolls. Literally millions of smaller businesses depend, directly or indirectly, on the productivity of these big businesses and the disposable incomes of their employees.
When the executives who control big-business investment decisions place a high priority on innovation and job creation, then we all have a chance for a prosperous tomorrow. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the top executives of our major corporations have turned the productive power of the people into massive and concentrated financial wealth for themselves. Indeed the very emergence of “the 1%” is largely the result of this usurpation of corporate power. And executives’ use of this power to benefit themselves often undermines investment in innovation and job creation.
These corporations do not belong to them. They belong to us. We need to confront some powerful myths of corporate governance as part of a movement to make corporations work for the 99%. To start, we have to recognize these corporations for what they are not.
• They are not “private enterprise.”
• They should not be run to “maximize shareholder value.”
• The mega-millions in remuneration paid to top corporate executives are not determined by the “market forces” of supply and demand.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these myths.
1. Public corporations are not private enterprise.
Here’s something you’ll rarely hear stated by today’s politicians and pundits: Publicly listed and traded corporations are not private enterprise. As documented by the pre-eminent business historian Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., in a book aptly called The Visible Hand, about 100 years ago the managerial revolution in American business placed salaried managers in charge of running the nation’s largest and most productive business corporations.
This was a peaceful revolution in which a generation of owner-entrepreneurs who had founded these companies some decades earlier used initial public offerings on the New York Stock Exchange to sell their ownership stakes to the public, leaving decision-making power in the hands of salaried managers. In effect, these corporate employees, and the boards of directors whom they selected, became trustees of the immense productive power that these corporations had accumulated.
Even when founders of companies that evolve into major public corporations become their CEOs, they generally occupy the top positions as corporate employees, not owners. For example, when the late Steve Jobs returned to Apple Computer in 1997, 11 years after being denied the CEO position of the company he had founded, his ascent to the top position was as a manager, not on owner. When a company founder like Larry Page of Google gives up private ownership by publicly selling shares, he may become CEO of the new corporation, but he is occupying this position as a hired hand, not as a private entrepreneur.
In other words, private owners make choices to transform a private enterprise into a public company that then needs to be regulated as such. There are other choices that could have been made. When the retiring owner of a private company wants to pass on control over a prosperous company to his or her employees, an alternative to the public corporation is to establish an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP. There are many successful companies in the U.S. that are not public corporations precisely because they are under the collective ownership of their employees.