To the average person living in a democracy, capitalism, and the social changes it forges, rarely is given much thought. And yet our very lives, not to mention our livelihoods, are so wholly connected to our capitalistic economy, that the line between people and business has become blurred, and the properties of one has been usurped by the other. Private enterprise is the engine of our economy, but it also the string that ties us all together. Everything we buy is supplied by a business. Every paycheck we earn is supplied by a business. Every facet of our culture is connected to another by a business of some kind or another. It is this omnipresent aspect of business that makes it so powerful and yet so invisible at the same time. We would like to believe that businesses exist to offer a quality and fairly priced service or a product while making a modest profit for the owners and employees. We would like to believe that companies have the best interest at heart when it comes to their customers and their employees. We would like to think of business as an extension of the human traits we most admire, but the reality is that business in today’s world is hardly the altruistic picture we paint for ourselves. The success of capitalism in the West, and especially in this country, has instead made its higher echelons drunk with wealth and power, and unfortunately, capitalism doesn’t make a very fun drunk. Business, rather than compliment society, now tries to rule it with an iron glove.

The problem isn’t really with all business, per se, but rather with the evolution that has transformed business from the small or medium sized company into the multi-national behemoth that dominates the business landscape today. The legal rules that separated business endeavors from their founders and created the corporation as a separate legal entity, akin to an individual person, have bestowed upon these large companies many of the rights that are constitutionally guaranteed to us as individuals, even though the businesses are not human beings in any way. But because corporate capitalism uses its own considerable wealth to advance legislation, often times these businesses are not held accountable as an individual would be. They are receiving all of the benefits without bearing any of the responsibility. Furthermore, through their legislative access (allowed them by means of political contributions by a variety of means, both legal and extra-legal) they enjoy access to policymakers and exert influence on policy and laws without having any accountability to the general public, a practice that not-so-subtly bypasses the representative system guaranteed by our Constitution. This is wrong, and to stop this corporate subversion, we need to change our political finance laws as well as our interpretation of the rights of businesses. To what extent should a corporation’s activities be separated from those who actively manage it?

Does a business exist merely to produce profit or is it more of a cooperative effort between the business leaders and the employees to ensure mutual success? The answer should be, “Yes.” Obviously, in order for a business to be successful, it has to be prosperous at some level. It must earn enough money to pay for all of its materials and employees and utilities. And if the goal of free enterprise is to provide a materially wealthier lifestyle for the entrepreneur, a business must also generate an adequate profit for the owner. But since the success of a business is directly related to the effectiveness and expertise of its employees, business leaders need to find a balance between acceptable profit and outright greed. Most employees enjoy working for a successful corporation if they see the company returning some of its profit to the workers through benefits or raises or other perks. Yet increasingly, large businesses are decreasing their investment in their workers through reduced pension plans or decreasing health insurance coverage, or worse, through down-sizing and relocation. It’s hard to blame them with costs for these programs skyrocketing in recent years, but in many cases, corporate profits are increasing at just as rapid rates, yet the employee cuts continue unabated as the shareholders profits rise. Reducing the costs of doing business should be a top priority in the area of economic reform, and I’ve already discussed ways to significantly decrease or eliminate the costs associated with retirement and health benefits. (See The National Whole Life Pension Plan and Affordable Health Care Does Not Mean Free Health Care) But any reductions in the cost of doing business should be translated into lower costs, better products, higher wages or any combination of the three. If society and politics work to reduce the costs to business, we should expect business to reduce their desire for enormous profit margins and settle for merely large or even modest profit margins.

We also need to take a look at certain areas of business that generate large profit margins simply because the products or services rendered are necessities for living in this modern world or are mandated by law or nature. A prime candidate for scrutiny would be businesses in the energy industry. Modern society requires a fair amount of energy, either as electricity or as gasoline. And although we derive our electricity from a variety of public sources (hydroelectric plants using public river ways for energy, wind farms using public air, or nuclear generators using public minerals and dollars), the costs to the public are anything but consistent. In a capitalist system, these fluctuations are attributed to supply and demand, but recent shenanigans in this sector of business have shown us that this isn’t necessarily the case. Manipulation and false scarcity have been used to increase the costs to the consumer for no reason other than greed, and the energy sector isn’t alone in this. (For ideas on energy reform, read The Future of Energy) Insurance companies, whose products are often mandated by law, and medical companies, whose products are mandated by nature, also engage in these kinds of manipulations. Perhaps returning some of these businesses to public control, or at least more stringent public regulation is finally in order. After all, there are plenty of other ways for people to make their fortune without having to gouge consumers for the very necessities of modern life.

Corporations, because they are also the main source of employment for many, also enjoy certain legal protections not afforded to individuals. This is done under the assumption that a large business is too valuable, in terms of tax revenue and as an employer of the people, to hold accountable for many of its mistakes. We see the error of this thinking all around us, but usually only learn of it once the real damage has been done. Think in terms of environmental pollution or sealed out of court settlements. Think in terms of hushed up research documents in the rush to market the newest medicine. Think in terms of massive product recalls due to cheap or defective parts. All of these issues tend to diminish the image of business in the eyes of the public. Yet our politicians support these loopholes as if they were part and parcel to the way the world works. As individuals, we expect accountability from each other. We expect honesty and integrity. Why don’t we demand the same of corporations? Why don’t our politicians? The truth is that the corporations don’t care what we think, because they’ve paid for the politicians to keep things as they are and our apathy at the voting booth affirms their assumption that we don’t care or can’t see what is happening. Corporations need to be held accountable for the products they sell. They need to b
e held accountable for the messes they make. They need to be open and forthright when they discover a faulty product. And they need to put safety and integrity at the same level of concern as they put profit.

Finally, businesses, both large and small need to have greater accountability to the public (if they are a publicly held corporation) or to their employees and customers (if they are a small or medium business) in both their financial dealings and their human efforts. Employees should be paid a living wage, (which becomes more possible with pension and health care reforms) be offered a fair amount of leave for illnesses and vacations, and be given the opportunity to grow with the company to their ability and aspirations. It is the best interest of any business to have happy, productive employees, and this can be achieved without seriously harming profit. Simply offering more flexibility in scheduling and more reasonable expectations from overworked staffers would be a start. After all, there is only so much money a person can enjoy, and no one wants to be worked into insanity. The benefits derived from making other people’s lives happier can outshine the brightest diamond, and they provide more goodwill towards a company in the long run.

I don’t think of business as evil, or capitalism as the enemy, and I don’t think money will automatically turn you bad. But it is plain to all who care to look with an open eye that the modern constructs of business in society are leading us back to a place we’d sooner keep in the past. Unless we make an effort to drive the influence of corporate money from our politics, unless we begin to demand honesty and integrity from our business leaders, and unless we teach the future leaders of business that people matter more than profit, we will see a return to the days of indentured servitude as the costs of living continue to outpace wages because our poor, rich corporations aren’t clearing enough profit.