Marshaling deeply sobering statistics, Georgescu depicts the stark reality of America today: a nation with greater wealth inequality and lower social mobility than just about any other country in the developed world. But the problem isn’t that free-market capitalism no longer works—it’s that it’s been hijacked by shareholder primacy. Where once our business leaders looked to the needs and interests of a variety of stakeholders—employees, community members, the business itself—now they’re myopically focused on maximizing their shareholders’ quarterly returns.
Capitalists Arise! shows how the short-term thinking spawned by shareholder primacy lies at the root of our current economic malaise and social breakdown. But Georgescu offers concrete actions that capitalists themselves can take to create a better future. The irony is that if businesses do this, shareholders will do even better. In the long run, businesses can thrive only when society is healthy and strong. This book is a manifesto calling on capitalists to heal the nation that has given them so much.
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About the Author
David Dorsey is the author of the critically acclaimed The Force and The Cost of Living. The Force was included in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. Dorsey is coauthor, with Peter Georgescu, of The Source of Success and The Constant Choice. He has written for Fast Company, Esquire, Worth, and a variety of other publications.
Read an Excerpt
End Economic Inequality, Grow The Middle Class, Heal The Nation
By Peter Georgescu, David Dorsey
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2017 Peter A. Georgescu
All rights reserved.
CAPITALISM ON THE BRINK
I'M UP EARLY, READY for breakfast with an old friend, Ken Langone, who is planning to pick me up and take me to his favorite Florida haunt for a meal. I'm going to tell him how worried I am about the state of our economy. My hopes for the future depend on being able to find common ground with people like Ken: conservative, smart, and willing to recognize that our system is in trouble.
Reports regularly tell us that our economy is recovering, but I don't believe it. Certain indicators are up, but people are living in debt, and incomes have been stagnant for decades. Meanwhile, during those same years, roughly since the mid-1970s, profits and productivity have risen, with only occasional slight dips before bouncing back to the same rate of increase from year to year. What's happened over those years is that most people have been locked into their stations in life, while the corporations that employ them are thriving. Opportunities to improve and get ahead have withered, and though many people are getting by — while getting deeper into debt in the process — they are losing hope. What's needed is action from people like Ken, who have the power to influence how we do business — because business, the private sector, is what generates opportunity in a free-market capitalist system. Without the creation of new opportunities within the private sector, that profit-making system itself will come apart. If wealth rises to the highest ranks of our society without circulating back into the system in the form of wages and benefits, then spending inevitably declines or collapses.
While some celebrate how stock prices are still booming and productivity is still increasing at modest rates, the majority of Americans feel left out and know they have less and less ability to buy the things they want and need. At some point, the choke point of this economy, the middle-class pocketbook, will quit opening. What follows won't be pretty. We need a different sense of how to do business as a whole — a way that takes into account all stakeholders, not simply those who own stock in the company.
First of all, and most importantly, employers need to raise wages. Wages would be rising already if our private sector were devoted to long-term profits rather than short-term gains. A focus on steady, long-term growth may be unheard of now in most public companies, but it was standard operating procedure for corporations in the 1950s and '60s, until we wilted in the face of foreign competition and the global economy and became obsessed with shareholder value.
Given these factors, two key questions are addressed throughout this book:
Why doesn't the private sector see how precarious income inequality has made its profitability and seek productive solutions that both close the wealth gap and spur greater profitability?
Can we admit that our current business model has been responsible in a major way for a crisis of inequality, and can we wake up and take action now, rather than continue doing business the way it's been done for more than four decades, until the whole system risks falling apart?
IN SEARCH OF A PARTNER
This is not an easy discussion to have in a culture where pumping up stock prices each quarter has become a cardinal rule — and keeping wages down has been one of the cornerstones of that imperative. I want a partner to help spread this heretical message, and Ken is as good a chance for that as I'll get. If you're going to begin warning people that the sky is falling, it helps to have someone with authority at your side. He's a test case for me, but also, Ken could open doors. He could persuade. I want to describe a crisis of inequality of opportunity that has grown out of business practices adopted for decades by most business leaders. It's more than unfair. It doesn't work. Will he recognize that?
I respect Ken. I wish he were running every company in America. His parents were blue collar, and he put in years of menial labor to see himself through Bucknell and NYU, and then he got into banking. In his early thirties, he handled the IPO for Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems and then became an angel investor who underwrote the founding of Home Depot. A good bet, as it turned out. He dotes on that $88 billion retailer. It's his baby. You can Google his net worth if you want to know the reward he received for his instincts and hard work. He's familiar to many people in business through his appearances on CNBC, Bloomberg, Fox, and other media portals. When he endorses a presidential candidate, Ken's face appears on the Fox evening news.
I hear him honk outside. I head out and climb into his convertible, though the morning temperatures are unusually cold in Florida this year. By the time we arrive at his favorite dive, Harry and the Natives, I've pulled on my sweater, visibly shivering from the Atlantic chill. Ken probably thinks this is just another casual breakfast. I'm wondering if he'll soon be thinking, "Who is Peter to be making pronouncements about the economy and our social fabric over breakfast?"
It's a good question. I'm no academic. I'm a retired ad man and fortunate to be the former CEO and chairman of Young & Rubicam (Y&R), one of the world's largest marketing communications corporations. When I was just starting out, I was one of Don Draper's gofers in the 1960s. You know the type. The studious apprentice in the back room, consigned to research, devouring all the data Y&R routinely gathered about consumers. I learned quickly how to assemble reams of those dry numbers and stories into a picture of what middle America was thinking, feeling, and doing. When I handed it to the creative side of our shop, they crafted it into "The mind is a terrible thing to waste" or "the softer side of Sears." We made fortunes for some corporations. We made life better for others. In incremental ways, things improved all over. I was proud of what we did, even though those days are over, big time.
What exactly did we do for consumers? We plumbed their hearts and understood what they faced in their daily lives. We knew them inside and out, and we fashioned messages that spoke directly to their needs. All this worked because our data recorded what people told us they needed. Give people what they need, and life gets better. That was what drove us. And I leveraged that skill for decades, staying at the same company, rising through the ranks until I became the company's CEO and chairman.
In retirement I find myself, like Ken, trying to put my economic privilege to good use. (My wealth is extremely modest compared with Ken's, so I'm lucky to move in his circles and to consider him one of my best friends.) I realize I can't stop doing what I did when I had to earn my paycheck. I'm doing exactly the same thing — collecting reams of data, paying attention to the news, putting it together into a picture at my desk and my dining-room table, in my kitchen, in the backseat on a ride to the airport. It's a compulsion. I'm still taking the pulse of the American public, and from where I sit, the pulse is getting harder and harder to find. It's frighteningly weak.
The question is whether I can aim my skills in the opposite direction — up the income ladder toward the people who were once my clients, the people who can help revive and strengthen that pulse. I'm hoping that with Ken's help, I can reach the men and women at the top end of the economic system — the ones who once engaged me to connect with consumers.
Ken orders his egg whites with some spinach and whatever other vegetables are handy back in the galley.
"And a fried tomato. Sliced horizontally. Cup of coffee," he says, handing the waitress his menu. "So, Peter, what gives?"
Tentatively, I start my elevator speech. People are stuck. They can't move up the ladder. They don't have enough money to get by. I see it everywhere. I tell him, "I read a story about a woman who was selling her blood to pay bills." 1
"Yep. Saw it. It isn't right."
I perk up. He listens patiently for a while longer as I go through my pitch. I tell him it's no longer possible for most people to build a better life through hard work and sensible choices. "People are carrying more and more debt."
"Peter, Peter! I get it!" he says. "You done? You got more?"
"That depends," I say, smiling. "Are you with me?"
"I get it. You're right. We have a serious problem," he says. "This is bad business. It's not sustainable. We'll get into trouble. Peter, listen. If we don't fix this, we're dead. This isn't temporary. This is structural. I've been thinking about this for months."
It's better than I expected: Ken and I are on the same page.
"We're looking at a crisis of opportunity," he says. "People have no way to move into higher-paying jobs. Wages are just barely keeping up with inflation. It didn't used to be like this. When it came to profit, used to be even the janitor got to wet his beak. Wages used to reward everybody."
"Minimum wage is impossibly low," I say.
"Right. Right. But it's way bigger than that. You get a job, there's nowhere to go. It used to be entry level, then you moved up. Now you're stuck. With no way to get more buying power out of that job. Not good. People are frustrated."
"There's no mobility."
"But listen. We need inequality. That's the thing, Peter. It's what drives people to do better. You want more. You see the kind of life somebody else has, and you go out and get it. That's what I did. I love my dad, but I wanted to do more than plumbing. He wanted the same thing for me. Fifty years ago, we had too many choices! You could get ahead in half a dozen ways. Not now. There's room to move at the top but nowhere else."
I point out that from what I was seeing, more and more people were being trapped in a downward spiral of debt, which was locking them out of a better life. People are moving down. It simply wasn't visible yet.
"The pursuit of happiness. That's the contract, Peter. Play by the rules, get ahead. But nothing better is waiting around the bend for most people. The contract is broken."
"We need to spread the word about this," I say.
This book is the outcome of what Ken and I have done since that first breakfast. It's been many months on the road for both of us, booking meetings with a long list of powerful people — the head of the Ford Foundation, CEOs of highly ranked Fortune 500 corporations, Nancy Gibbs at Time, the Aspen Institute, the Conference Board, and dozens of others. Together, Ken and I drafted an op-ed for the New York Times that got such a tsunami of response that the paper shut down the comments section after the first several thousand were posted.
OUR CRISIS DEMANDS ACTION NOW
I'm getting ahead of myself. Before Ken and I could grope toward solutions, we needed to see our current crisis as clearly as possible and to break it down into its root causes. This was to be a path of discovery. As we drove home from our breakfast, I thought of Will and Ariel Durant. I'm old school, so rather than searching the web, I went to a shelf for their book The Lessons of History. It was published almost half a century ago but has only grown more powerful over the decades. Their popular histories of Western civilization were founded on their awareness that cultures go through repetitive cycles over the course of many centuries.
We've been here before, to put it simply. When an inequality crisis gets too severe, it solves itself in one of two ways: society redistributes wealth through taxation, or poverty gets redistributed through revolution. But higher and higher taxes lead to stagnation and decline. Increased taxation vents the pressure of unrest and decreases inequality in a cosmetic way only for a while. It's unsustainable. Yet higher taxes are exactly what the French economist Thomas Piketty advocates in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
The second solution leads to unpredictable and often oppressive regimes. Examples abound: the French revolution, the Bolsheviks in Russia (I lived through the consequences of Soviet oppression as a child in a forced-labor camp in Romania), China, Cuba, Venezuela, the Arab Spring, and many more.
Signs of unrest are everywhere now: the Occupy movement, the Tea Party, the angry and restless following behind Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. These movements thrive on a sense of grievance against the injustice of our economic system. And despite the progress we've made since the civil rights era, our inner cities are in turmoil for much the same reason: a dearth of opportunity and the anger that erupts as a result. Ferguson, Cleveland, Charleston, Baltimore. Racial tension was only the most visible driver of these confrontations. Eliminate the economic deprivation of our cities, and those tensions would decline dramatically. Life without hope can lead to violent change.
Finally, the presidential primary campaign of 2016 played out the socioeconomic plight of the majority of Americans. In Donald and Bernie, the discontented found effective messengers. The consequences of that campaign will be long lasting. One hopes real solutions will emerge. One hopes potential violence will be avoided. Business and government must play their roles in the solutions, both independently and together.
But we aren't there yet. If capitalism can lift millions out of poverty around the world, as it is doing in China, India, and a host of other developing nations, it can revitalize itself here. It built the most affluent and creative middle class in history in America, a population that became the healthiest consumer market in the world. But how can we turn back the clock — or at least reset it?
We've been searching for the answer to that question. Ken and I set out to do what I'd done for decades at Young & Rubicam: draw a crisp picture of what was actually happening in the typical American household, simply to understand what we were up against. I wanted to use what we discovered to make a case for action from the private sector to find a way toward sustainable profitability by addressing growing inequality. This time, I wanted to get a fix on the average home budget and how insufficient funds might be taking a toll on it.
In much of mainstream media, talk about income inequality and the shrinking middle class has become second nature. I've been hearing it everywhere. But something has been missing in all the sound bites about America's inequalities. My sense is that decreasing opportunity is the ultimate threat to our free-enterprise system, though this hasn't been the case for much of America's history. Income inequality drives inequality of opportunity. The two are totally related. Importantly, they both share the same root causes. It started with how quickly and aggressively American businesses adapted to globalization by succumbing to pressure to move jobs offshore. Next, the business community passionately embraced technology, which eliminated even more domestic jobs. And finally, corporations moved to keep wages, except those for management, almost flat for close to forty years. All these choices have been made without a care for how they affect our society — diminishing the buying power of the American public and eventually decimating America's middle class.
Philosophically, it's not hard to ignore inequality. It's the rule in all aspects of life. We aren't born equal in any respect other than our rights as human beings and citizens. Diversity means differences, and our unique qualities as individuals derive from a variety of factors. Outcomes depend on desire and effort, a decent education, and a multitude of personal characteristics, none of which are equal. Yet certain kinds of inequality now act as a cage.
In the past, desire to move upward spurred aspiration, not frustrated envy. Lifestyles of the rich and famous were once a matter of vicarious wish fulfillment for most, not hot spots of resentment. Aspirations remained alive back then because a wealthy minority had not yet destroyed prospects for those trying to move up the ladder of opportunity. Concentrations of wealth enlivened the economy for everyone.
Now most people have become stuck. This chronic stasis was something I didn't fully understand. Ken and I needed to find hard numbers that explained the sense we both had that America was creeping toward a cliff — and maybe discover some ways to change course.
I wondered whether gross income figures alone really captured what was happening. What was happening with the average home's budget interested me more. I needed detailed data on how much actual economic freedom American people enjoyed, regardless of how much they were making. What sort of discretionary money did they have left at the end of a week, a month, a year? What were they able to accomplish with that extra cash? What picture of the future did those numbers paint? What quality of life could people now hope to achieve through years of work? Did hard work make for a better life?
Excerpted from Capitalists, ARISE! by Peter Georgescu, David Dorsey. Copyright © 2017 Peter A. Georgescu. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Capitalism on the Brink 5
2 The Dangerous Inequality 16
3 The Outcome of Inequality 26
4 The Perfect Storm 37
5 Shareholder Value Gets Lean and Mean 51
6 The Way Forward 71
7 Stakeholder Value is Already Working 87
8 The Time to Act is Now 105
Illustration Credits 123
About the Authors 131