The Business Roundtable, which represents the most elite of America's top chief executives, issued a statement Monday that, for them, borders on radical: Shareholder interests aren't the be-all, end-all, and should be balanced with the interests of employees, customers and society at large.
It would be a welcome acknowledgement of the need for corporate responsibility — if not for the fact that this same crowd drove the 2017 Republican tax-cut-for-the-rich, then used that windfall in ways that basically violated every principle they now claim to cherish.
The Business Roundtable is made up of people like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, the heads of IBM, General Motors, JP Morgan Chase and other corporate giants. It issues statements on the macro-thinking of America's most prominent business people regarding what general principles should guide business today.
In the past, these philosophical pronouncements have had real-world implications. Anyone who laments that corporations seem interested only in serving their stockholders without regard to the interests of employees, customers or the public at large can thank a principle called "shareholder value." It says a company's only concern should be enriching its shareholders. All those other good things, it assumes, will naturally follow (whether they actually do or not). For decades, the Business Roundtable has been a bluntly unapologetic proselytizer of this view.
Given that history, it's notable that the Roundtable has now issued an about-face: No longer is a corporation's only duty to its stockholders. Now, say Bezos and the others, that list is topped by other priorities — "delivering value to our customers," "investing in our employees," "supporting the communities in which we work" — with shareholder profit demoted far down the list.
All well and good. The problem is, the Roundtable's statement doesn't seem to renounce another stated corporate principle: Get it done or don't call me again.
That's what Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y., (in a moment of unguarded honesty) said he was hearing from his corporate donors just two years ago, as Republicans were writing their tax cut. To some, the quote confirmed that this supposedly economy-building package was really just a tribute to the rich that wouldn't help most Americans and would explode the deficit.
Now, the government's own experts have issued their verdict on the cuts: They helped the rich more than average Americans and exploded the deficit. The lack of economic boost, they say, was largely because corporations used the windfall for stock buybacks to enrich stockholders instead of the new hiring, raised pay and business expansion they'd promised.
Is the Business Roundtable now disavowing the tax cut? Does it reject the GOP's corporate-bankrolled attacks on labor, and opposition to measures designed to combat global warming? Until the answers to these and other questions are credibly "yes," this statement isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
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