EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
To most Americans, the Business Roundtable might sound like a piece of conference room furniture, but the lobbying organization’s humdrum name belies the scope of its power and influence. Made up of chief executives from corporate giants including JPMorgan Chase, Apple, ExxonMobil, and Walmart, the Business Roundtable is one of the leading voices of the financial elite. As such, it made headlines last week when the group reversed its official position on “the purpose of the corporation.”
In a statement last week, the Business Roundtable abandoned its long-standing commitment to “shareholder primacy”—the idea, popularized by “free-market” economist Milton Friedman in the 1970s, that a corporation’s sole purpose and obligation is to create financial returns for its investors. Instead, the group conceded that businesses also have a responsibility to their customers, workers and communities. “While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose,” the statement said, “we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders.”
It should not be controversial to believe that corporations owe some measure of accountability to the society that allows them to accumulate massive wealth. The investor class’s “self-serving and destructive” insistence to the contrary has “caused grave damage to the American economy and society,” Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs writes, including “a massive rise in inequality of wealth and income, environmental destruction, huge budget deficits, financial crises, and death and despair due to the egregious failures of the corporate health care and food industries.” If nothing else, the group’s about-face is a concession that corporations have failed to serve the public good. In that sense, the statement, uninspiring as it might be, is welcome.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.