In a previous life, I once was an assistant professor in the business college of a western University. I taught primarily commercial law to undergraduates and to MBA candidates, but I was also tasked with teaching an MBA course in “Corporate Social Responsibility.” I know – it sounds like an oxymoron, and it did to me too – even back then.
However, it was the era of youthful idealism and activism – the heyday of the anti-war movement and protests against racism and the excesses of capitalism – the counterculture as it was called.
Okay, to come clean, when I started teaching, it was 1970.
The decade of the 1960's had produced a number of scholarly works advocating the notion that business executives should base their decisions not merely on the perceived near-term advantage to the firm, but also on what might be considered its long-term advantage afforded by a healthy society, viable and stable suppliers, and even a stable and contented work force. The concept might be cast as enlightened, long-term self interest, even at the expense of some immediate maximized return.
There was plenty of push-back against the “social responsibility” movement – if it could be called that. His eminence Milton Friedman opined that the corporation's only responsibility was to maximize the return to shareholders while acting within the law. One of the most infamous rebuttals was delivered by one Albert Z. Carr, who analogized the business world to a poker table – an activity in which bluffing, i.e., lying, is permissible and expected.
Not to beat the weathered bones of a long deceased equine, but the analogy is simply grotesque. For openers, one can refuse to play poker, one can walk away at any time, and the operators of a rigged game are subject to civil and criminal penalties. None of that applies to the current business scene. But I digress.
There weren't any textbooks available for my course, so I made do with various articles and essays from a number of sources. We had some lively class discussions, but I let my students know they could pretty well forget the class once they were out in the business world.
Then, of course, came the first OPEC oil shock and the ensuing recession. Soon the hippie wannabes were trading in their bell bottoms and teeshirts for suits and ties, and Ayn Rand's philosophy of “hooray for me and fuck you” became pretty much the order of the day. Gordon Gekko's brand of ethics became the prevailing business ethical paradigm.
After four years, I left academia – OK, I was invited to leave having failed to publish – and found a home in a state utility regulatory agency.
Later on, the electorate having bought into the Great Prevaricator's assertion that Government was the problem, we went through a paroxysm of deregulation, one of the first casualties being the Savings and Loan industry, the greed of who's executives and owners effectively imploded it. That was followed by the Enron scandal and a number of others with the crescendo in 2007 of the investment banks' CDO debacle threatening to blow up the whole system.
Concurrently, the working middle class was effectively eliminated through exporting jobs, breaking unions, and holding wages steady while purchasing power shrank. A 2011 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study found that between 1979 and 2007, income of households in the top 1 percent of earners grew by 275%; earnings grew 65% for the next 19 percent; just under 40% for the next 60 percent; and 18% for the bottom twenty percent of households. Yet most of that top 1% seem to see themselves as heroic “job creators.”
Throughout the whole period of wretched excess and destruction of the middle class, I was unable to detect an echo of the concern with social responsibility with which the '70's had begun. So it was with some pleasant surprise that recently, checking out the current course catalog of my former employer, I found the business college was still offering an MBA course in business ethics and social responsibility. My happy wonderment dimmed considerably when further investigation revealed it was only a two-credit elective offered once a year at a relatively isolated satellite campus. It appears to me that the course is a useless curiosity, like the human appendix.
The demise of the social responsibility concept is indeed a pity. If ever there was a time for a kinder, gentler capitalism, it certainly is now. But I see little sign that the captains of industry recognize the peril they, and we, are facing.
The oil barons and their sycophants in the media continue to trumpet the fairy tale that we're on the cusp of a new oil boom while ignoring the fact that production has remained essentially flat for a decade and prices continue to hover around $100 per barrel. This should signal that we've reached a limit, and it's time to wean ourselves off of the stuff. But that would look bad on the next quarterly report, so just kick the can on down the road.
The evidence continues to mount that global warming is real, and it's going to cause literal hell if we don't do something to put on the brakes on the amount of CO2 we're pumping into the atmosphere. But the CO2 producers fight new regulations tooth and nail and continue to sow uncertainty and doubt in order to paralyze any attempt to take meaningful action. In the meantime the oceans continue to rise and acidify, weather events become more and more extreme, and a catastrophic tipping point looms nearer.
So if there ever was a time when the “job creators” (and their pet apologists, i.e., neo-liberal economists) needed to take a fresh look at the world they control, it is now. Their financial virtual world is only sustained by a real world subject to natural physical laws which they ignore just as much at their own peril, as at the peril of the rest of us.
It's time the present brand of capitalism was recognized for what it is – a world-devouring system which is stifling everything in its shit. How it could be reformed, or replaced, is the crucial question we face. I have no answer, and perhaps there is none. But I do know the only persons with the resources and power to seek and implement change are those same “job creators.” So it's high time the notion of social responsibility was revived. It really would be in the long-term interest of the one-percenters. If they continue to fail to recognize that long-term interest, their failure will doom them – and the rest of us.