Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Corporate Greed? No such thing.

When I'm focused on writing, my reading naturally falls behind - especially when my reading would constantly be redirecting my writing!  However, with The Value Crisis completed and published, I am at last trying to catch up, including taking an overdue dive into Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything".

I have read "The Shock Doctrine" and generally find her work enlightening and inspiring.  She has the kind of resources and contacts that I will never have, and I really appreciate her perspective.  There is one philosophical point, however, that I believe she often defaults to - one that is shared by many people around the world - that is so fundamental, it deserves being questioned:  Klein puts a lot of the planet's problems down to Corporate Greed.

My contention is that there is no such thing as corporate greed.

Some might say that I'm simply fussing over semantics, but I believe this is a worthy investigation.  Words evoke framing and responses in the reader, and if they are inaccurate, they can send one down misleading and barren paths.

What is greed?  I turned to a few dictionaries:
  • excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves
  • excessive consumption of or desire for food; gluttony
  • excessive desire, as for wealth or power
  • excessive or rapacious desire, esp. for wealth or possessions; avarice; covetousness

The pivotal concept of greed is excess, or as wikipedia puts it: "desire to possess [...] far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort."  So here's the critical point:  If there are no dictates of sufficiency, there can be no greed.

For the purposes of this post, I discuss corporations with respect to publicly-traded, commercial corporations.  These entities are created under very clear laws, defining their objectives, and setting out the criteria by which every one of their decisions and actions may be judged.

The number-one priority of any commercial corporation (imposed upon it by our laws) is the maximization of shareholder value.  I have highlighted two key terms here: Maximization and Value.  Let us begin with the second.

Value in the commercial world is measured exclusively  by money - by number.  Any other goals or interests must distill back down to a clear impact on the bottom line.  This is a number-based value system, and, as I make clear in my book, one characteristic of such systems is that more is always of greater value - more is always better.  The objective of value maximization is therefore easy and obvious, achieved by growth and the acquisition of more.

It is not possible under such a value system (and under such laws) to say that any corporate desire is excessive.  In excess of what?  There is no concept of sufficiency.  We have instructed (indeed, demanded) that this entity continue to maximize shareholder value, continue to grow, continue to produce revenue.  What is needed to maintain that growth will itself grow.

At this point, I should make some key distinctions.  Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, pays himself $100,000 every day.  Excess?  Greed?  An insult to humanity?  You bet.  However, who can say what the sufficient annual revenue should be for Exxon Mobil?  His societal obscenity simply follows from our inability to deal with the real question: why have we facilitated (and indeed encouraged) his excess by defining corporations as we have?

I wrote this post because I believe we are at great risk of confusing the lucky 1% at the top with the system that put them there.  To go into the psychology of the folks at the top of the pyramid would be a separate exploration altogether.  What I caution is the use of the term "corporate greed".  It implies that corporations are improperly taking more than their fair share, when in reality, there is no such thing as a defined fair share.  It implies that corporations have gone astray, when in reality, they are performing precisely as we have programmed them to do.

If anything, it is our greed that inspires these creations, keeps them focused on profit, and satisfies their need for consumers to buy their goods.

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