Thursday, February 14, 2008

God and Wealth

I'm a member over at a site called CrossLeft and I blog and comment there. CrossLeft's masthead slogan is "Join the Progressive Christian Movement". The question of the meaning of terms like "progressive", "liberal", and "left" comes up from time to time, particularly in relation to the presidential election campaign.

I had written a comment complaining that Obama and Clinton are too caught up in the corporate system, and received a reply from an Obama supporter that one can take anti-corporatism too far. Following that, someone else posted a drawing of his to illustrate the passage in Luke that ends with Jesus saying "You cannot serve God and wealth" -- or in the older translations, "You cannot serve God and Mammon".

So this is what I wrote next, with a few emendations at the end, coming from my comments to responders:

Angelo's illustration for Luke 16:1-13 stimulates me to write about corporations, conservatism, and Jesus' teachings. Yeah, again with the corporations.

It really seems so simple and straightforward to me.

1. In Luke, Jesus says "You cannot worship God and wealth."

2. Business corporations whose stocks are publicly traded in the market have, under current law, only one duty -- a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. That means they're obligated to put stockholders' financial interests above all else. Net income and net worth are their only bottom lines. The production of wealth is the sole interest of these fictive legal persons.

3. As a legal person, a corporation of this type is literally a soulless person and feels unconstrained by any human values other than "wealth is good", "more wealth is better", and "no amount of wealth is enough". Thus, maximizing profits is at all times its only operational goal. Providing products and services are but means to this goal.

4. This strange wealth-seeking person is given perpetual life by its charter. It nevertheless may die, but if it makes profits, it need not ever die. With perpetual life comes the absence of 'death taxes'. The 'estate' is never broken up and redistributed to its human heirs; its wealth can build to a level far beyond that which is possessed by a single human person. The most successful corporate persons become economic entities that are larger than most nation-states. With size comes financial power. With financial power comes political power.

5. The human persons who own stock in this fictive legal person are free from any legal responsibilities for what their corporation does. If they don't like what the corporation is doing, they can sell their stock. If they continue to hold their stock, they have no practical influence on "their" corporation's behavior. The structure of corporate governance makes it extremely hard for stockholders to have any significant impact on corporate policy and behavior.

6. Except as restricted by governmental regulation, the corporate personages are therefore set free to do as they like. The cumulative effects of what they like to do have, over the last couple of centuries, changed the face of the earth and changed the terms of human existence . Thus, the true revolutionary force in 'modern times' has been the corporation, aided by corporate-enabling and corporate-promoting nation-states. The Soviet Union's counterrevolution couldn't hold up against the corporate-based system' ability to harness science and technology to produce wealth and power. And China's has been absorbed by the same system within which it is now a major contender for power.

7. Wealth and power, relatively concentrated in key sectors, have made the corporation the dominant and defining institution in our society. People adapt to its needs more than it adapts to people's needs.

8. Our society has in this manner created a class of fictive legal individuals who constitute a totally new type of ruling class. These rulers are beyond the reach of the teachings of Jesus. "Serving Mammon" (I like the old words sometimes), they are unable to "serve God". Or, correlatively, "to serve humanity". Is it any wonder we non-fictive human individuals and our human societies have problems?

9. Those who serve these servants of Mammon as executives and highest-level support staff have generally taken for themselves the respectable term "conservative". They function as the human part of the new ruling class. (It's estimated that perhaps only 30,000 people constitute the "ruling class" part of the "upper class".) Their definition of "conservative", stripped of parochial social and cultural issues (the materials of "the culture wars" in the USA), comes down to maintaining the status quo of corporate domination.

10. Our constitutional structure and the structure of our election laws make for a two party system which is hard to challenge or change. Both parties are conservative in that they work to maintain the corporate system. One party tends to work to enhance corporate power, the other to improve the terms of the deal through incremental changes and reforms which help to stabilize the corporate system. FDR is the prime example of the latter, despite the fact that his reforms weren't experienced as merely incremental by the diehards of the corporate enhancement bloc. He took the label of "liberal" rather than "progressive", as "progressive" had become an outmoded and pejorative term. It was associated with basic challenges to the corporate system which had failed and which no longer had any traction.

11. The term "liberal', having been demonized and made into a pejorative by the Republican corporate party, was in turn rejected by many reformers within the Democratic corporate party, as well as by outsiders to the "left" of that party. "Progressive" became the term of choice for many. It had the virtue -- and the vice -- of blurring distinctions between the incrementalist reformers within the Democratic Party and the "leftist" system-challengers outside of the party. The virtue is that it has made it easier to form some coalitions across ideological lines in order to resist, in mostly ineffectual ways, some of the most extreme actions of the Republican Party. The vice is that it blurs ideological differences in a way that confuses thought and diffuses action. It makes it harder to discern what changes improve and support the corporate system, and what changes actually start to change the system.

12. Jesus said "You cannot worship God and wealth."

What do we mean when we call this place "CrossLeft" and ask people to "Join the Progressive Christian Movement"? Do we see connections between the words "You cannot serve God and wealth" and our American institutional life? Are we to abet those corporate persons and their servants who worship wealth? If we oppose them, how? And how do we discern the difference?

That is, do we take corporatism on as a major opponent? If we do, as I think we must, then what constitutes real opposition and what doesn't?

Those are the questions that will do much to define what we mean by "CrossLeft" and "Progressive Christian Movement". The tags "leftist", "liberal", and "progressive" are far less important than the issue of where you draw the boundary between "conservative" and "non-conservative" -- or more precisely, "corporatist" and "non-corporatist", as some paleoconservatives and Burkean conservatives see the dangers of corporatism.

7 comments:

Mystical Seeker said...

In my view, the Obama supporter who said "one can take anti-corporatism too far" pretty much sums up, in my view, everything that is wrong with modern American liberalism. Most Democratic politicians and most liberals these days have long ago decided to bed down with Big Business, and Obama is no exception. There was an article< that Fortune Magazine ran that showed how both Clinton and Obama have gone to corporate CEOs hat in hand, asking for money.

I agree with you that corporate capitalism is based on the premise of love of Mammon. And the prevailing ideology of our society, regardless of which major party, is that greed is good and that corporates are good.

D said...

Amen. Obama and Clinton are no different in complicity with Corporate America than McCain.

crystal haidl said...

I just found your blog from a post comment you wrote on bravenewfilms re their video on McCain' wealth.
You make good points. thank you.

I always am bothered about the new wave spiritual movement both in evangelical churhes and for the Laws of Attraction followers that bounty is just awaiting all of us, if only we have a clear focus of goodness and click our heels the right way. That wealth is somehow good, so long as it is with a clear conscience. There is a foretelling quote from William james, the psycholigist written in a letter on Sept 11 1906 (yeah, 95 years before our 9/11)
"The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease."

James said...

Hey, dad. Posted a link to this blog entry on a PLATO notesfile, and here's someone's response. Thought you might like the chance to respond:

"James, I'm sorry, but your father is incorrect.

"His point 2: Corporations are not 'obligated to put stockholders' financial interests above all else.' They are obligated to obey the law.

"I don't know what he means by 'net income and net worth are their only bottom lines' because 'bottom line' has well-defined meaning on a corporate balance sheet.

"Do you know who, and how many people, he has talked to to conclude that 'the production of wealth is the sole interest of these fictive legal persons'?
"
Point #3: Oh my. Why so bitter? I am an agent of a public corporation. I disagree with this assertion of my character. Has he ever worked in a public corporation?

"I stopped reading here.

"As to 'small businesses run by one or two individuals,' [a reference to a remark I made in an earlier note--JP] I suspect most businesses of any size are 'run' by one person, the CEO, with a board ostensibly providing oversight. The company I work for has this typical structure. We employ something like 1700 people. I know most of the senior managers, including the CEO, pretty well. I have never felt pressure to break the law to improve profits. I have never felt pressure to increase profits by doing something I felt was unethical or immoral. I haven't even had anyone ever ask me if we could push a contribution margin from, say, 29% to 30% by squeezing employees or suppliers.

"I'm curious. Have you or your father ever been, or had a significant conversation with, a senior manager of a public company regarding the operation of the business? And, if not, dare I ask your father's qualifications to make the statements in his blog? I realize there's a low barrier to writing a blog. But you did reference it, father or not."

Brother Billy said...

Hey, James, pass this on to the guy who thinks I got it all wrong.

He wrote: "His point 2: Corporations are not 'obligated to put stockholders' financial interests above all else.' They are obligated to obey the law."

At first, I was inclined to say that obeying the law is indeed the framework within which taking care of stockholders' interests takes place. On further thought, though, and looking at actual corporate behavior, paying fines for criminal and civil wrongdoing seems to be regarded as just a part of the cost of doing business. If the fine for paying bribes overseas is less than the profit that the bribes helped to procure, then the stockholders' financial interests are well served. See "Royal Dutch Shell, others pay $236M in bribe cases" So I'll stick with stockholders' financial interests coming first, with obeying the law a distant second or even third (behind serving top managers' financial and career interests).

He wrote: "I don't know what he means by 'net income and net worth are their only bottom lines' because 'bottom line' has well-defined meaning on a corporate balance sheet."

"Bottom line" is the informal name for the line that indicates profit or loss on the income statement (not the balance sheet). "Bottom line" has a colloquial well-defined meaning, too, as the final result or upshot, or the main or essential point. Thus, for real persons (human beings), the bottom line usually isn't money. Rather, it's family, or religion, or patriotism, or the Red Sox, or Bach, or social standing, or some other measure of achievement or psychological success. Sad is the person for whom money is the bottom line. For a corporation, however, as a legal person and unhuman being, the bottom lines are only those that appear on income statements and balance sheets.

He wrote: "Do you know who, and how many people, he has talked to to conclude that 'the production of wealth is the sole interest of these fictive legal persons'?"

One merely has to consult the law on fiduciary responsibilities of corporate directors to their company and to its stockholders. The only measurement of a business corporation's well-being is the wealth that it produces, distributes to its owners, and accumulates as long-term capital. I suggest you google "corporation" AND "fiduciary responsibility".

Note that the human beings who work within the corporate structure may well have other business priorities beyond the company's production of wealth. Virtuosity in the production of knowledge, techniques, and processes may be uppermost in any given person's mind, perhaps even to the detriment of the corporate goal of gaining wealth (and positioning itself for the further production of wealth). The "bottom line" on this, however, is that what people say they're doing and thinking isn't a reliable indicator of what they're doing or, more fundamentally, what their corporation is doing.

He wrote: "Point #3: Oh my. Why so bitter? I am an agent of a public corporation. I disagree with this assertion of my character. Has he ever worked in a public corporation?"

Oh, dear. You failed to make the distinction that I make between corporations and the people who work within, or for, them. The fact that corporations are amoral ("soulless") doesn't mean that you are. Nothing that I wrote about corporations applies to your character. That's the point. You have your own human character, goals, and integrity. Your corporation doesn't. It has a charter.

(continued in next comment)

Brother Billy said...

Continuing:

I've worked for two public corporations. Both were investment brokerage firms. I was a retail stock broker in one and then handled both stocks and futures in the other. The first investment banking and brokerage firm I worked for was a partnership.

He wrote: "I stopped reading here. As to 'small businesses run by one or two individuals,' I suspect most businesses of any size are 'run' by one person, the CEO, with a board ostensibly providing oversight. The company I work for has this typical structure. We employ something like 1700 people. I know most of the senior managers, including the CEO, pretty well. I have never felt pressure to break the law to improve profits. I have never felt pressure to increase profits by doing something I felt was unethical or immoral. I haven't even had anyone ever ask me if we could push a contribution margin from, say, 29% to 30% by squeezing employees or suppliers."

Good for you and your company, then. But there are many criminal and civil cases that show that bad behavior is not uncommon. And in labor relations, it's become extremely common to break the labor laws in order to break the unions. Even when a company is found guilty by the National Labor Relations Board, it will have taken years before the NLRB acted, and the fines are small. (Another cost of doing business.)

As a general point, I doubt that one person can really 'run', as opposed to bearing the responsibility for, a really large organization. Yes, boards too often only "ostensibly provide oversight". That's a fiduciary weakness. Someday, 'ostensible' directors may have to pay a heavy price for that.

Hmm...ran over the blog character limits again. To be continued.

Brother Billy said...

He wrote: "I'm curious. Have you or your father ever been, or had a significant conversation with, a senior manager of a public company regarding the operation of the business? And, if not, dare I ask your father's qualifications to make the statements in his blog? I realize there's a low barrier to writing a blog. But you did reference it, father or not."

Yes, I had significant conversations with the CEO of the regional brokerage firm in Illinois that I retired from. We were very friendly, and the last few years there I owned one of the (tiny) branch offices. I also talked with senior management at the other two investment firms I worked for. One firm was a small, old investment banking house that was expanding into retail brokerage in the 1950s when I went on as a trainee, at 44 Wall Street, after leaving graduate studies in Anthropology. The second firm was a large national brokerage house and I worked in their main branch in the NYC financial district. Then I went back to Anthropology in 1963, after having had the best Wall Street training in the anthropological analysis of American culture that I ever was to have.

I didn't take up brokerage again until 1987, after having sold my small printing business and gone through a period of recuperation from the chronic illness that had forced me to sell.

Between 1963 and 1987, I taught college, did community and political organizing, was a photographer and documentary film-maker within the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, and ran an "educational" campaign as an Independent candidate for the Illinois House of Representatives on an anti-corporate "Economic Democracy" platform. The printing business was one result of that campaign: it was set up to provide cheap printing for not-for-profits, community organizations, and political activists. I taught myself to run a press and eventually Broadside Press grew from just me to a staff of 6 unionized employees. In addition to my original clientele, we added the normal range of commercial customers and provided the lowest cost union printing in Illinois.

Now that's TMI -- but I want to make the point that I'm not writing from an academic ivory tower. Now go on and pick up from where you stopped reading. I'd like to see your responses to Points 4-12. Remember, I'm not attacking you -- unless you fall in the category of those, mentioned in Point #12, who are the corporations' "servants who worship wealth". Working in your kind of position in a corporation doesn't automatically put you in that category. But you might want to think about how it might constrain you or prevent you from fully expressing your own values in your work.