Remember When Big Business Did the Right Thing Because It’s the Right Thing to Do?
Earlier this year, Walmart took its first baby steps away from starvation wages and implemented a higher minimum wage for its workers. The move seemed well-timed; the call for a national $15/hour minimum wage had just reached a fever pitch, and shows no signs of slowing down.
But the truth is that Walmart—owned by a family with more wealth than 42% of Americans combined—made this politically savvy move for a very different reason: business needs. As reported by Think Progress, Walmart finally realized that keeping its workers in poverty leads to high turnover and poor productivity, since much of their workforce had to hold down an extra job or two just to put food on the table.
And then we have Shell, which just this week made what appears to be a moral, socially responsible decision by putting an end to its exploratory drilling in the Arctic. Again, the move seems well-timed, with President Obama himself getting some flak for giving them the go-ahead in the first place, and with Hillary Clinton finally coming out against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Again, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Shell’s decision as a socially responsible one. But, as was the case with Walmart, this is simply a fluke of timing. Shell pulled out of the arctic not because it’s the right thing to do, but instead because they weren’t confident they could turn a profit. After all, experts will tell you that the oil industry’s 10 percent profit margin doesn’t leave a lot of breathing room.
But there was a time in American history when big business could be counted on to do the right thing simply because it’s, well, the right thing to do.
For example, we can circle back to the minimum wage and find that, more than 100 years ago, Henry Ford paid his factory workers a wage that would today be on par with the $15/hour currently being called for by economists and activists.
I’ll give you another example: my hometown of Johnson City, New York is even today still referred to as the “Home of the Square Deal.” George F. Johnson, who rose to the rank of co-owner of Endicott-Johnson shoes in the early 1900’s, coined the phrase to describe his brand of “welfare capitalism.” It involved various efforts to “uplift” the workers in his employ, and included E-J financed homes, profit-sharing programs, worker recreation facilities, medical facilities, libraries, parks, and much more. In short, George F. Johnson knew that his success was due only in part to his business acumen, and he know how to give back a portion of his success not just to his workers, but to the larger community.
So let’s contrast these enlightened worldviews with the garbage we have going on today, shall we?
We have a presidential frontrunner that’s not just open about buying and selling politicians, and fighting tooth-and-nail for a lower tax rate, but is boastful about such practices. And the public is, inexplicably, eating it up.
We have wildly successful companies, homegrown on American soil, who funnel their wealth into offshore bank accounts to cut down their tax rates dramatically—sometimes to the point where they approach zero.
And we have former CEOs who, coming off their failed stewardships of powerful tech companies, throw their hat into the presidential race and then stand in front of the nation to spout grisly and obvious lies about women’s health organizations, or to decry the federal government as a hive of corruption and villainy. And we’re letting them. I don’t know where the irony ends and the insanity begins.
Donald Trump is right about one thing: America was great once. But it was a greatness that we bought by holding big business accountable—for taking care of their workers, for maintaining civic responsibility, for paying a reasonable tax rate, and for being mindful about where their success truly comes from.
But these days, Americans live between the rock of aggressive business practices and the hard place of government regulatory intervention. It’s reached the point where big business, even as it decries the role the government plays in private enterprise, leaves Washington with little choice. Consumers now need to fight for every single scrap of dignity, including, if you can believe it, the right to terminate a contract over the Internet that was entered into over the Internet.
I stand with Bernie Sanders (and Spock) in recognizing that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—particularly if “the few,” even after being made to pay their fair share of taxes, and hold up their end of this societal contract, will still own more wealth than most of us can even imagine. With 2016 upon us, remember to vote for the party that has your best interests at heart. You can be sure America’s billionaires will be doing the same.