There is a long struggle ahead of us and the outlines of that struggle just got a little more clear this week, when Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, which is about nothing much less than changing the game. Her legislation calls for corporations that make over $1 billion a year to be formally responsible not just to their shareholders but also to their workers, customers, and communities – which last concept hopefully extends to the environment. This is important because at present the board of directors and the management of corporations are legally bound to maximize economic return. That is the only criteria – other than not breaking the law – with which they are allowed to make decisions. This dictate is the backbone of capitalism as we know it, which is to say a most predatory, ruthless, and myopic kind of capitalism which sooner or later is going to get us all killed.
Of course the spokespersons for the titans of industry and finance say not only is Elizabeth Warren “batty” but also that she is a Communist who must be shut up or all the businesses in America will move to Switzerland ( I kid you not.) Because heaven knows American Capitalism Will Not Survive being responsible for anything but making as much money as possible! Such a fragile flower cannot be asked to clean up its own room or do the dishes.
As the incomparable Charles Pierce puts it:
This is one of the first complete frontal assaults on the economic theories that have ruled American politics in one form or another for the past four decades. It is one of the first substantial efforts to treat the ascendancy of conservative economic ideas as a thoroughgoing blight that must be reversed, and it does so by turning the achievements of which conservative economic ideologues are proudest back on them. Corporate personhood? OK, then we’re going to have corporate jail, too. A rising tide lifts all boats? We’re going to be sure everyone has a seat.
Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is significant – perhaps even world-historically significant – but her legislation is just one point in a change in the air, in the mood, in a growing awareness. She has brought up into the bright light of the national political debate a simmering knowledge that what we do in pursuit of business success has complex consequences and those consequences are not adequately weighed and measured in the quarterly accounting of profit and loss, of Return On Investment, and Asset Liquidity. The long struggle will be to make this point over and over again – that we all must be responsible to a greater conception of the good and profitable – until it becomes common knowledge and the way we do things.
I tell you what…I’m signing on to her team.