After Democracy, “Look up at this Tower”

More than ever, technology and technical expertise mean political power.”  – Philip Howard,  Pax Technica

When we look back at the unwinding of liberal democracy in the US, a barely-noticed event this past spring might be seen as a watershed, a harbinger missed. In May, Salesforce.com dedicated their stunning new San Francisco headquarters in a ceremony that took an unexpected turn.

Salesforce’s CEO, Marc Benioff has been an enthusiastic activist for human rights over the years. He led tech companies in rebellions against gay-harassment laws in Indiana and elsewhere that have moved those young corporate giants off the political sidelines. In Bay Area he’s organized housing relief and education reforms, building consortiums of donors and companies to impact lives. He’s clearly not done. His speech at the opening of the Salesforce Tower skipped the corporate pablum, instead focusing on homelessness, income inequality, and San Francisco’s shit-stained streets. Listen carefully to his description of his company, and his tower’s, role in public life:

Kids in schools across the Bay Area, families walking down the sidewalk, families and children in shelters or sleeping in cars. They’re all looking up at this Tower. I want you to know you are not alone — we are thinking of you. I hope you see this tower as a beacon, a symbol of hope and know that there is a company and a city, a group of people and organizations all together as one San Francisco that leads with our core values.

This is unusual rhetoric for a CEO, but these are unusual times. Our president is a professional criminal. Our Congress is dysfunctional, bought and managed by wealthy hobbyists who use it to protect their rentier interests. That rot is working its way into the judiciary one lifetime appointment at a time. Trump removed any pretense of health or stability from our system, but he is not the cause of our political illness. In fact, he’s probably done less damage to democracy than George W. Bush. Removing Trump from office will solve none of our problems.

Liberal democracy is losing its power to function as the central organizing force in public life. As commercial institutions grow more successful and democratic institutions stagnate, Americans are “looking up at this Tower” and asking hard questions about our future.

Domino’s Pizza now delivers pothole repair. Sort of. In a disturbingly dystopian marketing stunt, the pizza delivering company this year is offering grants to cities for road repairs. The grants are small, but for many cities they fill an important hole (get it?). In exchange Domino’s gets a publicity photo and a small measure of goodwill.

As a solution to infrastructure problems, this stunt was all show and no go. What you might expect to see in the future are consortiums of private companies that fund projects of concern to them, like airport renovations or even schools. This may fill some critical gaps, but it will come with a change in emphasis. As competitive private institutions grow more powerful than public institutions, competitive values will matter more than the relatively egalitarian priorities of democratic institutions. A future Dominos is going to pave roads traveled to deliver their pizzas, not the roads into neighborhoods that seldom buy their products. Importantly however, those may not be the roads you’re expecting.

Excellent, cheap publicity for Domino’s Pizza.

Whole industries are emerging to deliver public services to low income citizens. Domino’s didn’t come up with this road paving idea because of problems reaching wealthy households. For all the dystopian potential of the system emerging from the wreckage of our democracy, we may be underplaying the potential impact of public/private partnerships in improving people’s lives. We don’t like to admit it, but the experience of the poor and minority groups in democratic systems was always problematic. This is not an American issue. Ask French Muslims in Paris’ neglected outer Arrondissements about their experience with égalité. A great many might enjoy better treatment as customers and employees than they endured as citizens. Where politics sees tribe, heritage, culture and class, business sees only money. We dismiss the levelling power of commercial culture at our peril.

We often forget that lower income Americans are also America’s most prolific consumers. Their wealth is limited, but their numbers are so enormous that they form a stupendous market. A system honed to sense and address their needs *as consumers* might grant leverage those citizens failed to muster *as voters.* Having Domino’s pave my streets and Southwest Key Programs run my schools and prisons may not achieve an optimal outcome, but it may deliver better outcomes than lower income Americans experienced from their investments in a liberal democracy. At least, that’s the plan. First comes the mass data collection, then we’ll see.

Other tech ventures are tackling urban infrastructure and design at the high end of the market. Google’s spinoff, Sidewalk Labs, recently won a bid to renovate Toronto’s Quayside, a new neighborhood to be carved out of disused industrial waterfront. Data is the key to Quayside, as Sidewalk plans to incorporate unprecedented data collection and analysis into urban planning. Instead of leaving detailed planning decisions to elected boards influenced by whatever bored busybodies show up to complain at city meetings, this new generation of planned infrastructure will let the data speak, and leverage advanced algorithms and AI to quickly mold public services to real needs. Beneath this data network is a simple piece of public infrastructure, a lightweight, lit hexagonal paving tile that can be easily reconfigured for different purposes. Formal plans for Quayside will be published in the Spring of 2019.

A prototype of the modular tiles planned for Sidewalk Labs public areas.

Bill Gates is also entering the race to the next community, with a recent purchase of 25,000 acres of Arizona desert near Phoenix. Cascade Investment, a fund controlled by Gates, is planning to build a smart city called “Belmont,” ordered around driverless cars and autonomous logistics. Few details are available beyond a press release, but if fully developed the project would be comparable in size to Tempe.

This may be the strangest and most confusing element of Next: Liberal democracy will likely continue to thrive in places that need it least. Our wealthiest towns, counties, even states, might be able to sustain much of an older democratic model simply because they can afford its rising relative costs in money, talent and engagement. At the highest federal level, what’s emerging Next will likely snuff out electoral politics as a means of addressing public needs. Arguably it already has. But at more local levels, it may be possible for the wealthy or other well-organized localities to preserve liberal democratic institutions.

Democracy may continue to exist and thrive, for those who can afford it. Amazon might evolve into a major health care delivery service, but not for everyone. Those lucky enough to live in places with deep reserves of education and wealth may form bubbles of liberal democracy inside the rise of Next, at least for a while. But a data-driven approach to government may prove too powerful and too effective to hold off even in these elite enclaves.

Remember, Marc Benioff didn’t give his speech in some Dixie backwater. He was standing in Nancy Pelosi’s Congressional District, the beating heart of the American left, describing Third World conditions of homelessness, political dysfunction, and public neglect. If my political system can’t address a problem as simple as allowing new housing construction and school reform in one of the wealthiest, best educated corners of America, why would I dream of asking that system to fix Newark or Louisiana?

It’s tempting to dismiss Benioff’s comments as grandiose chatter from a disconnected billionaire, but he’s been backing up his talk with action and money for years. And he is not alone. As the tech industry has grown more powerful, and more mature, it is wagging the dog in the Bay Area. A rising culture of data, efficiency and results is chafing against the delusional, old-world leftism that has dominated the region.

Take some time to review  Benioff’s comments at length. Get ready to hear more of this kind of language from CEO’s:

We need to reach our next goal, raising the $200 million we need to get every homeless individual off the streets. And it’s why I’m calling on every part of our community — government, residents, companies, especially tech companies — to step up and help end homelessness in our city. This is a solvable problem.

That’s not a normal speech from a corporate leader at a building dedication, but here we are. Maybe this is good. Maybe it’s bad. But “looking up to the Tower” is definitely not how people solve public policy problems in a healthy democracy.

***

This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.

19 Comments

  1. Your argument is hobbled by using examples solely from the tech industry. For 2 reasons:
    1) The current tech industry has not yet gone through a recession or been wrung out by global competition the way old school companies have. Before global competition made American corporations ruthlessly cut every expense possible, there were plenty who viewed themselves as “good corporate citizens” and adopted their hometowns, doing extensive civic works like sponsoring the arts, educational programs, local non-profits, etc. That stuff only lasts while corporations have fat profits and can afford it.

    When you have companies like Apple who has so much money that they can afford to waste $5 billion building a spaceship for their HQ, or Salesforce that can afford to put up a massive video wall on their tower, then it sure is easy to talk about spending a few bucks on intractable problems like homelessness (the real solution is to lobby local and state govts to relax insanely restrictive zoning laws so more housing can be built, and to increase funding for mental health, not spending a few bucks building homeless shelters; but new shelters garner much more press than slogging through fixing the nation’s mental health system).

    When tech companies start feeling the pinch from a recession, we’ll see how strong their commitment to this new public persona holds. If Salesforce still spends time and money on solving SF’s public problems when their profits are declining and Wall St. is calling for Benioff to resign, then I’ll accept that they truly value civic engagement. Even now, I don’t see embattled companies like Twitter or SnapChat, presumably just as progressive as Salesforce, spending any of their cash or time on public works.

    2) This is nothing more than virtue signalling of the most blatant kind. Right now, tech companies are in a death struggle to attract talent. Which means the “talent” can base their decisions on soft stuff like how many foosball tables and beanbags are in the company rec room, or (slightly better) whether their company is saving the world, since the usual stuff that the rest of us mortals care about (salary, health insurance, time off, etc.) are basically a given at this point. In this environment, it is far cheaper to virtue signal on social issues their prospective employees like, than it is to compete on hard stuff like salary, benefits, and work hours.

    I’m reminded of what Walmart did several years ago when the heat of unionization and worker protests over their poor conditions were starting to get serious. They all of a sudden became pro-environment: pledging to stock CFL light bulbs and reduce their energy usage. All of a sudden, all those limousine liberals who were picketing with their minimum wage brothers and sisters began applauding WalMart as an enlightened company. Their former cause-celebre, the actual cashiers and warehouse workers whose lives were affected by WalMart’s employment practices, were abandoned and the public glare on WalMart’s workplace abuses dimmed greatly.

    You said something very perceptive in a previous article:
    “Elect 535 Ocasio-Cortez’s, and bank lobbyists will spin them all out into knots for years debating trans-gender rights, Confederate statues, the proper use of the term Latinx, and measures to encourage urban farming.”

    Don’t think this understanding eludes tech companies. It’s why top tech companies will loudly proclaim their support for gay and transgender rights while simultaneously being fined by the labor dept. for colluding to fix salaries at artificially low levels. And why Facebook recognizes 70 genders (no exaggeration) but zero collective bargaining rights (and zero privacy rights, for that matter). (it’s also why as a Bernie supporter I can’t stand extreme SJWs).

    Even now, their employees’ influence, as in demand as they are right now, only matters as long as it doesn’t affect the the corporate bottomline. Most tech workers oppose the H1B program as well, since it brings in low-cost competition for their jobs. Do you think Salesforce listens to their employees’ wishes on that issue?

    When the recession hits and tech workers are plentiful, I bet good money that all of this civic engagement will go out the window, as will the foosball tables, and probably the gold-plated health insurance plans as well. Just ask Detroit how good a corporate citizen GM was before & after the 70s before the Japanese arrived.

    IOW, this civic engagement won’t last; it should be paid for out of their marketing budget because that’s what it is. Salesforce is no less money hungry or ruthless than the worst left-wing bogeymen like Exxon or the Koch Industries (FWIW, they also engage in extensive civic operations; Kansas is basically an entire state dedicated to the Koch experiment in new governance).

    You might argue that all might be true but at least for now we can enjoy the fruits of their virtue signalling. I’m not so sure it’s all that great. As you mentioned, when Domino’s fixes potholes, they’re not doing it on streets that don’t benefit them. It gets even worse. At least Domino’s still lets the public use those roads. When Google setup their buses to bring in their workers, those buses were not available for the general public, even if they were willing to buy a ticket. And by siphoning off middle/upper class people from the public transit system, they markedly reduced the public support that’s necessary to ensure public transit gets adequate funding. It’s now a death spiral: Google puts out more buses arguing that public transit is inadequate. This siphons more middle/upper class people from the public transit system. Public transit has less political support. Service deteriorates further. Why didn’t Google just put its money into fixing BART? Because that’s much more expensive. And besides, by providing comfortable seats and Wi-Fi, Google gets an extra 2 hours of work out of each of its workers every day, who now feel obligated to begin their workday the moment they step onto their Google Bus, before they even get to their office. Not a bad ROI, and much better than spending the money on improving the BART for everyone.

    Finally, a note about your thesis that poor people as consumers may fare better than they do as voters, because govts care less about them than businesses do. That may be true. You seem to be channeling CK Prahalad who wrote the book “The Fortune At the Bottom of the Pyramid”. This was embraced by lots of companies, who finally had academic backing for otherwise exploiting the poor. And it was often exploitation, because there is a difference between *consumption* and *investment*. Providing a poor person a luxury branded soap, but in a small portion so that he can “afford” it, doesn’t really help lift him out of poverty. That’s consumption. OTOH, providing a poor person education, transportation, health care, etc., even if they have to buy it, does actually help them build a better life. That’s the difference between consumption and investment (just like corporations have expenses and capital investments).

    Dominos pizza does not provide healthy food to poor people. Making it more accessible to poor people probably worsens their health. Incentivizing Safeway to open a local grocery store and stock fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices would improve their health and be an investment in their wellbeing. They are not the same, even though both are private companies charging for their products and making a profit. In an extreme scenario, selling poor people single cigarettes because they can’t afford packs or cartons, and alcohol in small, shot-size mini-bottles causes a net-negative to their overall status. So we really need to pay attention to exactly *what* companies are selling to the BoP. Unfortunately, most companies who embrace the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” ethos focus on increasing consumption, and don’t really care about providing investment-type goods. And if that’s all that happens, the poor can end up even more impoverished than if companies left them alone. This may sound incredibly patronizing, that we should regulate what the poor have access to purchase, but it’s no more patronizing than the CEO of Salesforce saying he knows what’s best for SF’s homeless (or that he can solve it for $200 million).

    If you like CK Prahalad’s thesis (and I’ll admit there’s definitely merit in it, e.g. mobile phones have vastly improved the lives of poor people around the world, who finally have access to communication and information that only rich people had before, when telecoms were largely state-run companies), you should also read Aneel Karnani’s critique of it summarized in the articles below:

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703338004575230112664504890

    https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=914518

    It’s not as simple as it seems to be (Prahalad and Karnani were both professors at U-Michigan’s business school, which probably made for fun times in the faculty lounge :-).

    So at the end of the day, I don’t believe that tech companies’ newfound social purpose is anything more than a cynical ploy, soon discarded like other corporate benevolence’s of the past. But even if it’s really different this time, when push comes to shove, they will choose their profits over the public interest. And even when profits and public interest are in harmony, their efforts aren’t necessarily going to improve the public sphere as much as they think it will.

    Public policy is hard, something that people in the private world forget as they contemptuously dismiss politicians and public servants as stupid, corrupt, and hidebound. They may be all those, but it doesn’t make public policy any easier. Just ask Rex Tillerson 🙂

    1. As I sit in what was once a corporate town, I can’t help but think that we could have turned out much worse. Well manged, safe, and well planned, we rank high in most city evaluation lists.

      A couple of side notes. We are one of the most diverse cities on the planet. This is Texas we are talking about, yet we all get along.

      We have as much right wing bs as any other place in Texas, yet we carry on. Respect your neighbors, engage them in conversation,and we will make it through this.

  2. EJ

    In other news, Nazis have just marched in one of our eastern towns, with some of them even using illegal symbols and gestures.

    Sigh.

    The first day of Nazi marches took everyone by surprise, and the police mostly stayed out the way. The second day has seen them behaving much more like German police, heavy handed and extremely visible. As usual, the Nazis have dropped their normal demands for “public order” and “supporting our country” when they’re the ones indulging in disorder.

    Fuck Nazis. Fuck people who think it’s okay to be a Nazi.

  3. Well, this is not new either. You’ll remember in the nineteenth century that it was not unusual for companies to build entire towns. The results were not particularly favorable toward those employees who lived there. Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” summarized it all too eloquently.
    “You load 16 tons what do you get?
    Another day older & deeper in debt.
    St. Peter don’tcha call me cuz I can’t go,
    I owe my soul to the company store.”

    So the faces have changed, the industries have changed, but the results are likely to be the same abysmal ones portrayed in the old song. Those who have will always find a way to dominate those who don’t.

    & now you’ll have that damn song buzzin around in your head the entire day! You’re more than welcome :)!

  4. Great essay Chris. Terrifying, but great.

    I am not going to try to refute it, but for every activist billionaire that wants to save the world, there are likely 10 Koch’s out there, whose world view is very very different.

    I will also give you an example, and tell me how this fits in this NEXT. You mentioned privately run prisons. Huffington Post posted an article today discussing prison strikes because forced labor there is the equivalent of slavery, as the prisoners are paid literally pennies per hour, or nothing.

    Under the new world order, what is to stop some prison owner from bidding on government contracts to pave roads, like something out of The Shawshank Redemption? Or is it simply that is something that is still done today? Or some smart owner of a white collar prison forcing convicted hackers into making apps for the Apple Store, and keeping all the profits?

    1. Dins, I concur. The sole purpose of corporations is to increase the wealth of the stockholders. That is ultimately the only criteria on which CEOs are evaluated. There are a few corporations which have a sense of civic responsibility, but the vast majority do not. Perhaps Benioff of SalesForce does. Gates is using his own money to establish Belmont. Perhaps it will be successful, perhaps not. In any event he will be able to cash out and make a bundle. Most corporations are ultimately closer to the Koch model. That has been true of corporations, ever since they were formed. For example, look at the Western railroads, which had a monopoly and abused it. Look at Standard Oil under Rockefeller. Look at the businesses that financed the cotton plantations in the antebellum South and the plantations themselves. In the final analysis, the old human quality of greed will predominate. That is the Achilles Heel of capitalism, in that all wealth ultimately flows to the top, and like an upside down pyramid, it will eventually topple as it did in 1929 and almost did in 2008. In the 19th Century there were numerous panics, where capitalism essentially collapsed. Pure communism also has its Achilles Heel except there the assumption is that the people were not driven by greed. That did not work, and ultimately capitalism triumphed.

      I personally believe that the only solution is a liberal government (using the classical definition) that implements sufficient controls and taxation on the wealthy and corporations to prevent them from accumulating excessive wealth, but still allows for reasonable accumulation. That is essentially the situation that was in place in the US during the period from the late 1930’s to the late 1970’s. The top 1% and corporations were sufficiently taxed and regulated so that the government had adequate revenue to provide infrastructure and services for use by the 99% and led to the golden age to which Chris referred in a comment in the previous column in this series. Economists refer to this period as the Great Compression.

      1. Let me add that I do not feel the US presently has a government based on liberalism. During the golden period mentioned above, it most nearly approached having such a government, but even then many constituencies did not have the voting franchise, e.g. African-Americans in many locations, voting districts that had not been updated in many years and in many cases people who did not own property. There were many restrictions. Even though the Voting Rights Act improved things, there has been considerable back sliding.

      2. Hi –
        late 1930’s to the late 1970’s –
        I would say that it was the massive drop in top tax rates in the 60’s that did the damage – it took a short while to actually start to badly damage America but by the 70’s it was too late the damage had been done

      3. ***The sole purpose of corporations is to increase the wealth of the stockholders. That is ultimately the only criteria on which CEOs are evaluated. ***

        Always question assumptions. A corporation is a tool. It will produce outcomes in line with its constraints and incentives. Corporations turned West Virginia into a poverty-striken environmental disaster. Corporations turned New York and San Francisco into the wealthiest, most dynamic places on the planet. Corporations have been been the lynchpin of the Communist Party’s development of China. They were the partners of government in bringing Japan and South Korea out of ruin.

        With the right inputs, incentives and constraints, corporations (like governments and religions) produce great things. With the wrong inputs, incentives and constraints they can unleash hell.

        My assessment of the potential value of corporations in public life is based on an observed, measurable shift in corporate inputs and incentives – specifically, the rising relative power/value of employees, the profusion of data available to consumers, and the unprecedented new tools available to formerly disaggregated consumers to independently organize themselves into blocs. However, we still have some serious problems around constraints due to the failures of our public sector to act in our interest. There’s work to do.

        Facing an axial period, the first baggage to shed is Ideology. Whatever assumptions we’ve accumulated about what does and doesn’t work and what is or isn’t appropriate goes out the window when the world suddenly pivots. The 2nd largest stock exchange in the world is run by the Chinese Communist Party. It makes sense to question all of our assumptions.

      4. My contention is that the typical publicly traded corporation in the US is governed to maximize “shareholder value”, or otherwise stated “maximize the company’s profit”. That is generally rigidly enforced by Wall Street with its emphasis on short term profit maximization. In other words this is the old factor of human greed at work.

        Throughout American history since the corporate business model became prevalent, the goal of profit maximization has generally been predominate. There have been periods when that was not necessarily the case. The most recent was the golden period from the late 1930’s to the late 1970’s. During that period most publicly traded corporations were managed to increase stakeholder value, with the stakeholders defined to include the employees and the community at large. That was a period when there was a different set of “corporate inputs and incentives” as you mention. That was most likely due to the national unity and communitarian spirit experienced during WWII and the Cold War. However, that all began to change back towards the traditional norm with the Powell Memorandum in 1971. The stagflation of the late 1970’s and relatively stagnant stock market provided the impetus for the shift back to the traditional norm.

        I concur that given a different set of “corporate inputs and incentives” the result could and would be different. However at present I see no indication that Wall Street is willing or even sees an incentive to shift to a different model. Again that is largely due to the old factor of human greed.

        There are a few corporations that are governed by a different model. Amazon is one that comes to mind. Jeff Bezos has so far been able to focus on corporate growth as opposed to returning profit to the shareholders, but he is beginning to get a lot of static from Wall Street. Musk at Tesla is another example. Microsoft was able to avoid the Wall Street dictates for years. Now that it has matured, it is having to shift its corporate focus. There are others in the high tech industry as well.

        I am over 70 and have lived through the shift in “corporate inputs and incentives” back to the traditional norms. That along with several political changes, which are well beyond the scope of this short comment have not been good for the median worker in the US. All this has been partially responsible for the current political dysfunction in the US.

        I will agree that we have considerable work to do. I believe that getting the public sector to work in our interest is of paramount importance. I however believe that implementing liberalism as classically defined is the best way of doing that. Corporations may and should be used where appropriate to achieve a given end or implement a project. However, we must bear in mind that the traditional model of corporate governance in the US is to maximize profit. That is in accordance with American capitalism and individualism. It conforms with the old factor of human greed and will require controls by the public sector.

        On the other hand, in societies where community values are considered to be more important than individual values, then the result may be different. That may be the case in Asiatic countries. I will concur that perhaps a shift in American values may be appropriate. IMO, the US needs to shift from an individualistic ethic towards more of a community ethic. That may happen with the Millennial Generation, which may have more of a community ethic and according to the Generations theory by Strauss and Howe, has many similar characteristics to the GI Generation, which came of age during the Great Depression and WWII.

      5. I think tmerritt is right. If corporations had a different set of goals than their current focus on “shareholder value” they could be more of a force for public good, but the only *reliable* mechanism for setting broader goals is liberal government. (See the legislation recently proposed by Elizabeth Warren on precisely this topic!) The occasional CEO may be altruistic, but that’s not reliable enough.

        I note that Chris referenced “data driven” decision-making a few times, and implied it was something that corporations do and governments do not do. I’m greatly in favor of data driven analysis. If one can simulate the effect of zoning changes, development plans, transportation initiatives, etc., they can definitely be done better than in the past. But there is no reason that liberal government can’t use data driven techniques. Democracy can incorporate significant amounts of technocracy.

      6. tmerritt-

        This theory that corporations should prioritize maximizing shareholder over everything else is a relatively recent phenomenon. As Chris states, there is nothing in the law that forces the CEO to run a company for any specific reason whatsoever. I can create a company and say I intend to light dollar bills on fire. As long as I properly disclose my intentions, I’m free to form my corporation, and people are free to buy the shares I issue. There is nothing illegal about it.

        Before the 70s, the common corporate motto was “customers first, employees second, investors third”. It was Milton Friedman and his band of economists who set about changing that.

        https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2017/04/27/harvard-business-review-the-pernicious-nonsense-of-maximizing-shareholder-value/#5a2fba3371f0

        https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2017/07/17/making-sense-of-shareholder-value-the-worlds-dumbest-idea/#416fd5b02a7e

        No less an authority than Jack Welsh, former CEO of GE and lionized by the corporate press, called shareholder value “the dumbest idea in the world”.

        Chris-
        Despite all of our disagreements, I think we’re actually quite close when it comes to our view of corporations. I view corporations as a tremendous source of energy: pooling capital and motivated individuals together is a powerful dynamo. The goal of government is to channel that energy into worthy goals, and not into something that blows up the country. Apple’s iPhone has revolutionized personal communication and the very way our social interactions are structured. In a span of just 10 years, it’s done more to change human social organization than any public effort. The same can be said of Facebook. These are tremendous forces and we have a lot of work making sure they’re harnessed appropriately.

        Heck, for all the crap I give Rex Tillerson, I’m actually in awe of Exxon and other oil companies: they invest hundreds of billions of dollars a year, pull oil from a mile below the Arctic Ocean, send it through a massive refinery in Houston, and finally deliver me a gallon of gas for less than the price of a gallon of milk extracted by a solitary farmer from a cow 20 miles away. That is an amazing testament to what pooled capital and individual effort can do.

        It’s also why I’m always annoyed when Republicans (and even some Democrats) dismiss socialists and communists as the same thing.

      7. What makes corporations interesting enough to be part of this discussion is their power as a platform for organizing human activities. Profit oriented businesses, especially the corporate form, are the most amazing organizational platform in the human experience so far. They are the nearest thing we have to what bees and ants accomplish. Good militaries are a distant second, lacking some of the critical flexibility and adaptability you get in corporations with a profit motive.

        As the ability to process data becomes the defining trait for evolutionary success among humans, we need to be taking a long hard look at how to leverage the structure and incentives of corporations toward public interests. Like them, hate them or whatever, that is the social form that is emerging out of the evolutionary stew to challenge anything else we’ve created.

      8. Chris: Yes, the profit making corporations are an amazing adaptation and in the aggregate they have the ability to accomplish stupendous things. The ability to organize capital, labor, resources and energy is very significant and paradigm altering. This organizational power in the aggregate makes possible for more significant progress evolutionary progress. The question is, as you say, how to leverage that towards the public interests?

        My quarrel is with how that power has been utilized. Historically, in the US that has been used to create stupendous wealth for the few. That was true in the 19th Century and is true today. Only during the golden period of post-WWII were corporations functioning more or less in the public interest, and even then there were significant problems. During the Gilded Era, there was a general improvement in the median living standard, but still many workers suffered a great deal and in many cases the public interest was ignored. During the current era with focus on “shareholder” value the median real income has been largely stagnant and the public interest has been largely ignored.

        To me a different corporate organizational structure needs to be considered. Perhaps incorporation of labor into the corporate board of directors should be considered similar to the German model. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal might be a good starting point for debate.

        WX: the issue of when “shareholder value” became the major organizational goal of corporate governance is really unimportant. It is the dominant value today. My point is that the main focus of publicly traded and profit making corporations has largely been profit maximization ever since corporations became the dominant as the organizational method of business in the US. Your general remarks seem to indicate that your agree.
        That was true during the gilded era and during the era following WWI. During the Progressive Era, there was an activist Federal Government and corporations were only partially controlled. But their primary focus was not on the public welfare. Then during the WWII and post WWII golden era, corporate governance was kept in check by a strong government and labor. Of course we had to go through the Great Depression to get there.

        BTW, I have been using the term “median”, that is deliberate, as with the great inequality present in the US today the terms “mean, average or per capita” are no longer very meaningful.

    2. & no one says anything about the disabled folks working in sheltered workshops who make less than the prisoners do, often on government contracts. They’re blind or intellectually challenged or physically disabled, you understand, so “they can’t work like normal folks”. Never mind that 1 of the admins who assists w/the technical aspects of this site is blind, right? 🙂 or not.

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