July 31, 2013
If you watch TV, you’ll be led to believe that the problem with the U.S. economy is that one political team or the other is ruining the country.
A sharp drop in government spending this year is, in fact, temporarily hurting economic growth, but that’s not the real problem.
The real problem is that American corporations, which are richer and more profitable than they have ever been in history (see chart below), have become so obsessed with “maximizing short-term profits” that they are no longer investing in their future, their people, and the country.
This short-term greed can be seen in many aspects of corporate behavior, from scrimping on investment to obsessing about quarterly earnings to fretting about daily fluctuations in stock prices. But it is most visible in the general cultural attitude toward average employees.
Employees are human beings. They devote their lives to creating value for customers, shareholders, and colleagues. And, in return, at least in theory, they share in the rewards of the value created by their team.
In practice, American business culture has become so obsessed with maximizing short-term profits that employees aren’t regarded as people who are members of a team.
Rather, they are regarded as “costs.”
And “costs,” as we all know, are supposed to be reduced as much as is humanly possible (except the “costs” of the salaries of senior management and investors–those are supposed to be increased).
This view of employees was expressed succinctly yesterday by a Twitter user named Daryl Tremblay, who was appalled by the suggestion that McDonald’s should increase the wages of its restaurant workers and pay for this by making a bit less money. (I was arguing that McDonald’s employees should not be treated as “costs,” but instead as valuable members of a successful team who shouldn’t have to work that hard and still live in poverty.)
Here was Daryl’s response:
Now, Daryl is hardly alone in this view. Most senior managers and owners of big American corporations think this way these days. They regard the human beings they work with–the human beings who create the value that pays their salaries–as “costs” to be reduced to create “maximized earnings.” Because “maximized earnings,” it is now frequently said, is the only thing that any business owner or manager should care about.
Whenever you suggest to folks like Daryl that it doesn’t have to be this way, that some companies can and do balance the interests of shareholders with the interests of customers and employees–and, in so doing, create a symbiotic relationship that supports all of these constituencies–folks like Daryl call you a “socialist.”
This is a strange insult, because the government has nothing to do with this. But, nevertheless, “socialist” is the label you get branded with if you suggest that the senior managers and owners of America’s corporations should share more of their vast wealth with the employees who create it.
This view of capitalism is that it is a sort of Lord-Of-The-Flies economic system in which the only consideration should be “every man for himself.” In this style of capitalism, leaders do not manage teams and organizations in a way that creates value for everyone–customers, shareholders, and employees. Rather, in this style of capitalism, a handful of winners extract as much value as they can from hapless losers who don’t have the skills, knowledge, or time necessary to “demand a raise” or “go get a better job.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There is no capitalist law that says companies have to view employees as “costs” and pay them as little as possible.
Senior managers and owners can choose to share more of a company’s wealth with the people who generate it. They can choose to make only reasonable profits, while still generating compelling financial returns. And they can choose to pay their team-mates living wages instead of viewing them as “costs” and extracting every penny of possible value from them.
If American corporations were struggling to earn money these days, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
But they aren’t.
As the chart above shows, American corporations have the highest profits and profit margins in history.
American corporations can afford to pay their employees better, hire more employees, and invest more in their future and the country’s future.
But American corporations aren’t doing that.
Instead, American corporations are choosing to divert as much of their value as possible to their owners and senior managers.
Doing this is not a law of capitalism.
It’s a choice.
And it is a choice, unfortunately, that is destroying America’s middle class, robbing American consumers (a.k.a., “employees”) of spending power, and, ironically, hurting the growth of the same corporations that are making this choice.
If your customers are strapped, your company can’t grow.
And, right now, American companies are choosing to impoverish their customers (employees), while skimming off as much wealth as possible for themselves.
Corporate profits and profit margins are at the highest level in history…
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images