Sunday, October 20, 2013

Re-imagining the Corporation Back to the Public Good

Corporation ownership in its current incarnation is subverting naturally responsible human behavior and the natural limitations on human desire.  We therefore see corporations growing at a cancerous pace and scope.

The idea of such a thing as a corporation is conceivably a noble one.  An incarnate anonymous society that is governed by an elected board and is enabled legally to hold assets and enter into contracts might tend to be more ethical and effective than a sole proprietorship or a partnership if it were structured and chartered properly.  An elected board might be less capricious, less greedy, less corruptible, more accountable, and more ethical than a personal owner.  In fact, if the current and cancerous incarnation of the corporation didn't loom unavoidably before us, we might, for better or worse, imagine the corporation as a utopian idea.

But the incentives inherent in the structure of the modern version of the corporation lead to anything but utopia.  Natural human virtuous tendencies are squashed, limitations are hurdled, and monstrous realities are fueled.  There is no limit to the desire for profit.  There is no limit to the desire for growth.  All ostensible virtuous missions are subordinated to the real missions of growth and profit.  No individual is empowered to subjugate growth and profit in favor of ethical action.  The documentary "The Corporation" weaves a picture of well-meaning CEO's whose hands are bound.

And all this dysfunction is driven by the disinterested and remote demand of thousands of shareholders--traders, investors, and pension-holders--for growth and profit.  The shareholders demand performance.  And they demand it under penalty of dismissal.

But the thousands of remote and disinterested owners of a publicly-traded corporation are only the worst and most cancerous form of the force that prevents the corporation from virtue and leads it to vice.  Even the privately held and even the solely owned corporation is a step in the wrong direction from a simple partnership or sole proprietorship because it dilutes responsibility and accountability without diluting the profit motive.  Very simply, it is still rigged toward irresponsible growth.

To shift the balance toward responsibility, we must remove the unbalanced profit motive by removing the owners from the corporation and putting the selection of its board of governors in the hands of moral stakeholders such as hourly employees, neighbors, and vendors, creating what might be called the Non-owned corporation, or simply (but misleadingly) the non-profit organization.  One form of corporation very near to this is the employee-owned corporation.  Another is the cooperative business.  These forms shift the balance toward responsibility by making ownership local and involved.  But the non-profit organization is different in that it has no ownership at all.  All its profits go to employees and vendors.

With the profit and ownership motive removed, cancerous growth stops.  The board and employees of the non-owned corporation are free and mandated to follow the corporate charter vision for a better future, whether that be the toppling of Monsanto or simply the delivery of the best burrito in San Diego.

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