One of the bedrock privileges of commercial corporations is that they create and command the very yardsticks by which their performance is generally evaluated. As economist Milton Friedman once said, the sole responsibility of a corporation is to make a profit for its shareholders. Other corporatists may find this a little too narrow a yardstick without adding compliance with the laws of the land.
Along came the environmental and consumer movements. They added two additional yardsticks but they do not have the primary position that generating profits possesses. So, for example, giant companies can routinely defraud consumers, poison the environment and successfully fight regulatory enforcement, but if they make consistent profits, they are still praised in the Wall Street Journal. No individual, no matter how wealthy, can get away with bifurcating his or her behavior in such an irresponsible manner.
The struggle for corporate accountability is basically the struggle for additional yardsticks which public opinion and the law can use to judge corporate behavior and sanctions accordingly. Year after year, global corporations expand their geographical presence, adopt new technologies, develop new ways to shift control or produce capital, maneuver their labor pool across national boundaries, and dominate governments. Their reach into space, time and other peoples’ space and time continues unbridled.
So, let us apply an embracing yardstick suitable for their spreading global power — that asks a fundamental question: Do the actions of corporations mortgage the future of oncoming generations, in order to maximize their present day profit?
This can be considered the third corporate strategic objective — the first two being going after the consumer dollar, then the taxpayer dollar (subsidies, government contracts and so forth).
Mortgaging the future environmentally means that companies cut down forests, erode land, contaminate water and soil, deplete the oceans of fisheries and leave certain areas so toxic as to be uninhabitable for centuries. These devastations, along with the horrific global warming trend, deprive our children, grandchildren and their descendants ofthe enjoyment, use and custody of these life-sustaining natural resources.
Mortgaging the future means burdening unborn generations with the obligation to pay for massive debts and deficits incurred in the present but deferred to the future. These debts and unproductive deficits can also produce inflation, currency devaluation and economic failure on a broad scale. Corporations—the merchants of debt—work overtime to sell products on credit with high interest rates. Consumers just registered the lowest rate of savings—namely zero—since the late nineteen twenties.
As far as government deficits loading up on unborn taxpayers, corporations play a major role. First they work on overtime to reduce their taxes and grab your tax dollars in the form of subsidies, handouts, giveaways and free technology transfers. Second, they are all over Uncle Sam to spend taxpayer dollars on bloated wasteful military budgets and other regular programs disbursing largess to the corporations, whose lobbyists swarm all over Capitol Hill and the executive branch departments in Washington, D.C.
If today corporations were taxed at the same rate as they were in the “prosperous” Sixties, the current annual federal deficit would be erased and then some.
Mortgaging the future means unleashing technology whose perils and costs are ignored while their touted benefits are publicized everywhere. Try genetic engineering (changing the nature of nature) and nanotechnology (where you cannot see, hear and see what is around and inside of you for commercial profit).
Then there is the mortgaging of the health of the youth. Look at the accelerating pace of overdosing youngsters with overmedication, overfat food, and over entertainment of the violent, sexual kind in both programming and now advertisements. (Note the ads on the Superbowl). Day after day, the corporate seduction accumulates with the latest in applied psychology, deception and induced addictions. Dumbing down young minds and damaging their future health.
Would you so mistreat children this way? Of course not. Because you don’t look at children as profit centers. We demand more basic human values to children in our society.
Every major religion in the world warned its adherents not to give too much power, too much sway to the merchant classes, the sellers for profit. This common judgment comes from common experience stretching back millennia and across diverse cultures.
Let’s apply the yardstick of mortgaging the future of human beings to the runaway corporations that pursue the supremacy of commercial values over the bedrock civic and spiritual values we need to shape the nature of the good society.