Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, America

As America celebrates it birthday, I've given some thought to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address and the impact that they've had on Democracy throughout the world and on history.

Within the Declaration of Independence you'll find the following text...
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." The text used here can be found in Declaration of Independence at the website.

Within the Constitution it is introduced with "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." The text noted here can be found within the Constitution at the website.

In his famous speech at Gettysburg, President Lincoln concluded "that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." The text note here can be found in Gettysburg Address at historyplace website.

A quick survey of some of Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address do not expressly mention corporations and in fact the development of the modern corporation ocured much later than these documents, although you could argue that corporations have existed prior to the founding of America and did wield some influence, but certainly not the influence that they've wielded since the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.

I find it hard to believe that the great men that founded and forged America and died for her very existence, would be happy with CEOs making $42 million in a year while planning to layoff thousands of workers and moving more and more work to cheaper labor market where workers have little protections and it is easier to fire them. To these men I didn't believe that "the people" were corporations but the overall population of America. The large corporations and their leaders have become modern day aristocracy, controlling and influencing much of what happens in American government (as well as governments around the world). Much like colonial America overthrew British aristocracy, it is time to overthrow our American aristocracy. Because corporations have grown beyond the reach of the various governments around the world, it is time for cooperation amongst the various world governments to reign them back in. The Declaration of Independence lays the ground work for changing governments when they don't server the needs of the people any longer, by logical extension we should apply this to corporations that are looking after "maximizing shareholder value" all else be damned.

Capitalism and Communism are at opposite ends of the economic spectrum and can be seen as ying and yang. When much of the world headed down the road to Communism, the pendulum shifted back towards Capitalism. At the moment the pendulum has shifted too much in the direction of Capitalism and forces will eventually swing things in the other direction as the focus of various social issues will move things that way. Debates are being held about health care, retirement benefits, and so on. People will eventually realize that there are some basic benefits that if not provided by employers, can't be paid by the employees (because they don't have the needed extra money to fund such things) and therefore will need to be provided by the government. It should be noted that Health Care and Retirement are complicated items that require more discussion and explanation that I can give them at this point, maybe I can go further into them at a different time.

I'm not arguing that corporations shouldn't exist, but that corporate laws need to be revised to make them more responsible. Corporations should have a feeling of responsibility to the communities that they do business in. While this should be common sense, it seems to be often forgotten. Most businesses work hard to develop some sort of brand image through advertising, marketing, and so on, but by doing harm to the communities that they do business, they can do harm to their brand image. The people in the communities that have been harmed by these companies can and should start publicly boycotting goods and services of these companies and make the companies aware of why they're doing so.

Corporations should have a feeling of responsibility to their employees. Employees are typically one of the greatest resources that they have, but now a days management keeps trying to eliminate benefits, move jobs to cheap labor countries where the employees are easier to fire, and in general demoralize and demotivate the employees. While employees don't need to be given everything under the sun, most of them would like to earn a decent wage with some sense of security that their jobs will be there next year. Employees know their companies products and services, have lots of idea about how they can be improved, and even how sales could be increased, and possibly ideas about getting into new market areas where additional profit could be made. Employees can give management a sort of sanity check on ideas, policies, and so that should be discussed further before being implemented, but these need to happen in an environment where employees are respected, not loathed.

The tenet of maximizing shareholder value needs to be reviewed as well as compensation that top executives receive. When someone starts a company, most people will do so for a variety of reasons, but most people want to see their company exist for the long-run, they're willing to invest their own blood, sweat, and tears to grow their companies and are willing to make investments in programs that shareholders might view as costly and not providing return quickly enough. Many of the IPOs (Initial Public Offering) that have gone public are on companies that have already made a name for themselves, but how many of the people that got in on the IPO would have invested any money into the company at initial start up, when the risk was a lot higher, probably not. The point here is that a mechanism needs to be in place where the long-term health and viability of companies is looked after. Would companies be so willing to off-shore so many jobs if they knew that there'd be a public backlash in a few years with irerupuble damage done to their company image, possibly even making the company's position weak and ripe for takeover or failure? Executives are rewarded for driving up the share price, but this is so often a game today. Stock prices can and often are manipulated, so that executives get their bonuses and Wall Street rewards them for cutting jobs. Since most executives don't plan on staying at their current jobs for the long term, they have a short time horizon and aren't concerned so much about the long term health and viability of the company, in fact many exectutives receive bonuses if they "sell" their company. So they can play some games to get the stock price up, sell the company, get their bonus and leave with a nice "golden handshake". One departing CEO from a company received $50 million for "selling" his company to another and leaving by the end of last year. This same CEO was only CEO for a year, if that.

Revolution did happen in America in 1776 and can happen again. If enough people lose their jobs and aren't able to find good ones to replace them and enough people lose their homes, companies doing business in America (and since America is the biggest economy in the world, this is a lot of companies) should worry. Companies need to see the writing on the wall and make the necessary changes before changes are forced on them.

Photo credit: American Pinwheel courtesy of reznor70.
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