Politics and economics are becoming dangerously intertwined because we’re breeding impossible hamsters. The immediate solutions being offered curb free speech. Fortunately, there is a Plan B.
Eugene voters will be asked in November to condemn the United States Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling with Ballot Measure 20-198. If free speech is a fundamental American right, should there be a limit when Americans act collectively as unions or corporations?
The issue has seeped into the presidential campaign with what may become Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s most remembered phrase: “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Except corporations do not have friends. They have customers, clients, vendors, contractors, investors, shareholders, directors and employees. But not friends. Friends help out their friends, without regard for self-interest. Corporations are expressly forbidden from such benevolence. Shareholders can sue a corporation that neglects its “fiduciary duty” to maximize their investment.
Corporations (excepting nonprofit charitable organizations) are built to produce and protect wealth. But how much wealth is enough? Here we have another way in which corporations are not people. People die. Corporations don’t, at least not necessarily.
People get bigger as they grow into adulthood. You may keep growing in weight as you age, but this expansion is self-regulating. You get too big for your clothes, then too big for any clothes, then too big to get out the door, but eventually your growth will slow or stop.
Corporations are like impossible hamsters. From birth until puberty, hamsters double their size every week. But then they reach maturity and stop growing. If hamsters never matured and kept growing, a one-year-old hamster would weigh 9 billion tons.
At what stage in that growth would the hamster stop being cute? If it ate all the corn produced on the planet in a single day, would we still consider it our pet?
Likewise, how large must a corporation become before it no longer serves us? At what point does a corporation become unacceptably larger than its people, my friend?
Two recent lectures at the University of Oregon Law School underscored the urgency of the dilemma. On Tuesday, political economist Robert Kuttner railed against what he called the “political economy” of austerity. Last week, Worldwatch Institute fellow Erik Assadourian pleaded with Americans to embrace “degrowth,” warning that only lessening our consumption patterns will avert disaster.
Both scholars may be correct, but neither left attendees feeling as hopeful as the work of some students at this week’s Oregon Social Business Challenge.
The Oregon Social Business Challenge asked teams of Oregon university students to develop plans for businesses that balance profit and social welfare.
Oregonians have always excelled at challenging conventional wisdom. Whether these students become stockbrokers or teachers, the exercise they undertook this week will shape their ambitions. Why must a corporate business plan put profits above all other values, all the time, no matter what?
Because that’s the law. But changing laws is easier than feeding impossible hamsters.
Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown announced Monday that the 2013 Oregon Legislature will consider a bill to create a new category of corporate status. Brown wants Oregon to register corporations which fall between the two choices currently available: nonprofit and profit-at-all-costs.
Benefit Corporations, or B Corps, will be empowered to balance doing well with doing good. This represents the most significant evolution of the corporate model since Bill Gates started giving out stock options to motivate workers with wealth they had not yet created.
Corporations must mature the way people do. When they get too big for their britches, they should exercise their strengths for the good of others. Or at least they should curb their appetite.
The bottom line must be the people, my friend.
Hard work that benefits others makes us feel good about ourselves. Too many people end their work week desperate to feel worthwhile. So they switch toothpastes or buy a new car — anything to feel better before Monday, when they go back in the cage and climb into a wheel that just keeps getting bigger.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com. A short animation of The Impossible Hamster can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqwd_u6HkMo