The Accountable Capitalism Act: It’ll Never Happen, But At Least Now the Conversation Will

The past week or so has seen a surge in commentary on the role of corporations in society, a theme familiar to readers of this site. While it might be convenient to peg the trend to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s newly minted Accountable Capitalism Act (more on that in a second), I think it’s more likely that – finally – our collective will is turning to our most logical and obvious instrument of social change, namely, the instrument of business.

We humans like to organize ourselves into social units. They range from the informal (pickup basketball games) to the elaborately structured (Senate hearings). Our ability to harness collective will is unsurpassed in the animal kingdom, it’s one of our key evolutionary adaptations, driving the success of our species across the globe.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of our most sophisticated social structures is the corporation, which has co-evolved with our various systems of government over the past half millennium or so. The very first corporations were in fact formed (or chartered) by governments – the Dutch East India Company is the most common example of this. In the past century, however, corporations have largely sought to shake the yoke of government regulation – and nowhere have corporations won more freedoms than in the United States, where firms are now considered legal persons with an unrestrained right to “free speech” (IE, the ability to fund political positions).

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Robert Reich: “Saving Capitalism” From Itself

Robert B. Reich Photo and Book with Black Border 08042015Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few is a readable rant that – should you disagree with Reich’s central premise – will elicit eye-rolls and summary dismissal. But while his well-known political ideology (he served as Secretary of Labor under Clinton) is on constant display, I found Reich’s book both timely and important.

I am drawn to any work that posits a better way forward, and as you might expect, I agree with Reich far more often than not. You have to be willfully ignorant to pretend our current economic system is equitable (Reich argues we’re in the “second Gilded Age“) or capable of creating long-term increasing returns. And while many in our industry cling to libertarian fantasies in which technologic silver bullets solve our every social need, back here on earth we need to do better than pine for the singularity. Fixing income inequality and the loss of the middle class requires hard policy choices and a re-framing of the problems at hand.

Reich’s compact book lays out a strong prescription for what he feels is ailing our capitalist system. Anyone in tech should pay attention: Reich lumps the tech elite right alongside bankers, big pharma, and agribusiness as the new monopolists, and argues that if our capitalist society is to truly prosper, some pretty fundamental changes have to occur in both our economic policy as well as the structure, practices, and purpose of the companies we build.

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