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Is the U.S. philosophy of capitalism outmoded?

In the course of reporting about layoffs and economic downturns since the 1980s, a question continues to nag at me: Just how ethical is it for companies to cut jobs to make money?

Nine times out of 10, I've heard the mantra about maximizing profits to shareholders.

This week, I decided to nag Norman E. Bowie, who was traveling to Maine when I reached him by telephone for a short interview. Bowie is the author of "Business Ethics: A Kantian Perspective" and the retired Elmer Andersen Chair of Corporate Responsibility in the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

In a nutshell, a Kantian capitalist can do well in addition to doing good. "Kant is best known for defending a version of the 'respect for persons' principle, which implies that any business practice that puts money on a par with people is immoral," Bowie has written.


I'll offer more of Bowie's thoughts on philosophy and capitalism in a few paragraphs. In the interest of transparency, let me explain why the question continues to haunt me. I don't have a Ph.D. in economics or an MBA. I'm just a journalist who has reported about the fallout on workers from land flips and overbuilding, leveraged buyouts, the collapse of the savings and loan industry, the tech bubble, outsourcing, the 9/11 tragedy, and now exotic securities.

Norman E. Bowie
carlsonschool.umn.edu
Norman E. Bowie

Over the years, I've stood in a number of unemployment lines and workforce centers with shell-shocked people, asking them about the impact of job loss and what they'll do next. Oftentimes, they’re about to lose their health insurance because they can’t afford the COBRA premiums. In my profession, I've watched a few of my publicly held employers cut jobs and freeze hiring and wages when their double-digit profit margins fell a couple of points during a downturn.

Granted, we're now in the worst recession in decades, and the national unemployment rate has hit 9.4 percent. Even so, we hear about companies shedding jobs when they're still making money. We hear a lot about job losses because of greediness on Wall Street. Our tax dollars are bailing out businesses "too big too fail."

As Bowie and I start the Q&A, I ask if I'm just being naïve in pondering the ethics of layoffs.

"Not at all," he says. "There's a lot of research which shows this (cutting people to make money) is not a very good strategy; that, in fact, you cause so many problems in morale that you actually make things — in terms of profit — worse."

MinnPost: In your work over the years, have you developed a code of ethics for companies to consider before laying people off?

Norman Bowie: I haven't done codes of ethics. They're not very effective. The trouble is, there's a conventional wisdom out there that says "fire people because you can make money," and those of us who argued the other side — that, on the contrary, you create more problems by doing that — we're the minority view. So, a company that adopts a code, they're not going to adopt something that's the minority view. … People just don't believe the argument that firing people causes more problems than it's worth unless you really have to do it because of some kind of economic situation.

MP: I know this is old news, but what are the ethics of moving jobs overseas because it's cheaper?

NB: Well, that's a very controversial one. Through our signed treaties, our businesses and governments have endorsed globalization and we've endorsed ever-increasing free trade, which does endorse outsourcing. I think the real issue for me is whether companies take unfair advantage of all this by going to tax havens and things like that. The Obama administration, I think, is really trying to walk the good line by being committed to free trade but at the same time evening the playing field. We don't want to subsidize sending jobs overseas.

MP: How do other nations and their businesses look at the ethics of layoffs?

NB: Certainly, where you have strong unions as in Europe, it's much harder to lay people off. For an industrial country, I think we have the weakest unions in the world. And of all the industrialized countries, we're the most anti-union. So, where there are strong unions, it's much harder to lay people off.

MP: Wouldn't stronger unions adversely affect our economy?

NB: Some of the richest countries in the world, on a per-capita basis, are Norway, Sweden and Denmark. … For a long time, there was high unemployment in Europe because the benefits were so good and all the rest. But in this downturn, we are worse off. In an absolute sense of per-capital income, the Scandinavian countries are ahead of us. And these are the Scandinavian countries which are the most quote-unquote socialist countries. They're doing the best on a per-capita basis.

MP: So, it's a matter of strong unions, not necessarily a matter of a code of ethics?

NB: I don't think it's a matter of a code of ethics. It is true that Europe has adopted something called "The Sustainability Theory of Capitalism," which rests on three pillars: financial success, environmental success and social responsibility. Social responsibility usually means a commitment to human rights. And we're (the U.S.) finance-based capitalism, which means you want to maximize profits to shareholders. Well, if you think about it — just contrast the two — there's going to be a greater commitment to stakeholder management and a greater commitment to things like the environment and employees and unions and all that under the European model than the American model.

MP: How long have they had that in Europe?

NB: In the last 10 to 15 years, it has become the official policy of the European Union. The EU says it's going to have the most-competitive knowledge-based economy in the world, and it's going to be based on sustainability. And, by the way, they're convincing the Asians — I've done some work in Japan and China — that the sustainability model is better than the American capitalism model. For the first time, our model of capitalism is really under attack in the world. We're not seen as the smart guys that have got it all right.

MP: Is this a good thing?

NB: Yes, I think it is a good thing. I much prefer the European model on both business grounds and moral grounds or ethical grounds.

MP: Do you think that if we had that in place we would have had all these problems with mortgage-backed securities and other types of greed?

NB: I don't know. We have this very high-risk culture. What really hurt us a lot was the philosophy of deregulation. We didn't regulate this stuff, and the regulations we had, we didn't have the money [to enforce them]. People blame the Securities and Exchange Commission, but they don't have the personnel to do this stuff, so it's a combination. We have a political philosophy and a philosophy of capitalism, which helped make all this come to pass. We didn't have a philosophy of sustainability. But we had a kind of winner-take-all mentality with a lot of greed based on it. We didn't understand risk very well. We didn't regulate it very well. It's very complex.

MP: Do you see light bulbs going on when you're talking about these things?

NB: The Asians really love it. One time I was talking to a Japanese business group, and one guy came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, "You're the first American who's come here and hasn't told us that we have to maximize profits for stockholders." 

MP: What's it really going to take to change business as usual?

NB: The truthful answer is I'm not sure. I'm not sure our culture will be able to adapt. I'm pretty pessimistic about our ability to make the changes we need to make. But there's an administration in Washington that's trying. I really do applaud them for trying to change. If you watch CNBC and the guys on the financial channels, you see the resistance to this all the time. I just think we have an outmoded philosophy of capitalism that's deeply embedded in our culture, and it's very, very hard to change cultures.

MP: If you were in charge, how would you go about it?

NB: I don't know. That's why I'm a professor and not in Congress. We need more regulation, that's for sure. We need to regulate hedge funds. We need to regulate any of these … credit-default swaps. We need to enforce the laws we have, which we haven't done. We need to strengthen our labor unions and pass laws that do that. We need to convince people that there's more to life than making a lot of money. But as you can see, all those would involve very big cultural changes in our lives.

Casey Selix, a news editor and staff writer for MinnPost, can be reached at cselix[at]minnpost[dot]com.

To readers: Is the U.S. philosophy of capitalism outmoded? Is it time to adopt "The Sustainability Theory of Capitalism"? Share your thoughts below in Comments.

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Comments (21)

I now know why Carlson students are not worth hiring. How not teach students to be successful in a competitive job market. Don't worry about profits, anti globalization, and praise regulation. I hope the 50k you just spent on your MBA will take you a long way. Would any employer really hire a management level candidate that believes this?

The American style of Capitalism has been eating it's young in order to increase profits, for a very small number of stakeholders, ever since St. Ronnie took office.

The way our economy has been functioning is akin to a prosperous family company being taken over by the second generation after mom and dad die. The kids have grown up with everything. They weren't really involved in the business. They didn't build the plant, they didn't come up with the products, they didn't work hard, over the years to find and keep good workers. All they want to do is extract maximum wealth for themselves out of the system their parents built.

So they treat the workers badly and fire anyone who questions anything, dropping morale into the sub-basement and reducing productivity as the result. To increase profits, they fire the workers whose job it was to maintain the aging equipment (figuring the operators can maintain it themselves while, at the same time driving them to produce more product that the equipment can safely produce).

They refuse to invest in the plant by replacing worn out machines that constantly break down, nor will they upgrade to newer, more efficient manufacturing equipment and processes. They don't even patch the roof, fix wiring problems, or pay insurance premiums.

They live the high life for a few years, but eventually, the business that would have kept the family living well for generations has lost it's best employees, it's biggest contracts, and is left with a plant that's a smoking ruin of what it once was (and arson is suspected).

And of course, as far as they're concerned, the thing that destroyed their business was TAXES!

The U.S. economy has been functioning like that business for 30 years. Meanwhile Joe wants only employees who will join him in building a more efficient wrecking crew. Good luck with that!

If we don't turn these destructive attitudes around, how long will it be until younger American workers are off shoring THEMSELVES to find countries in which to live and work where they can get decent pay, benefits, healthcare, and in economic downturns, a functioning safety net?

Look carefully at the "Swedish" stereotype before you jump to conclusions.

Some estimates are that the true unemployment rate is 20-25%. The dole is so good that many people cobble together an existence from unemployment or disability.

If you do work hard, you're considered a fool. The top tax rate is 60%, so there's not much point.

The economy stagnated for 30 years, and in fact the Swedes are taking baby steps to the right. The moderate and center parties made huge pickups in 2006 over the socialists that currently control the government.

That's not my vision for America.

Joe,
I know what you mean. After all, CSOM grads have only done the following:

-Win a super bowl (Tony Dungy)
-Run the state of Minnesota (C. Elmer Anderson)
-Run one of the largest hospitality companies in the world (Curt Carlson Nelson)

And those are just some of the more well known names. I won't even bore you with the rest of the "losers" who may "only" be senior executives at Ingersoll-Rand, The Walt Disney Company, International Dairy Queen, Wells Fargo, Bachman's, Red Wing Shoe Company, and Polaris.

And for that matter, with such a bad reputation, I'm surprised that anyone would accept an invitation to speak at any of their events. I mean, who would trust:

-Tim Pawlenty
-Steve Forbes
-Zygi Wilf

I'm surprised anybody takes these folks seriously after they spoke to CSOM students.

Seriously, though, I think the point of the "Sustainability Theory" above is that regardless of all the numbers that are crunched and analyzed, businesses are collections of people, and the decisions that are made because of the numbers have a real, tangible effect on people's lives. I think that taking that fact into account is a positive thing for a business leader to do, rather than a negative.

The remember is: while they may be necessary components of a capitalist economy, corporations are existentially sociopathic entities. This sociopathic nature requires that society protect itself from corporate excess.

Greg, How much was the school of mismanagement paying the speakers? The CPA's that Carlson has produced in my time in public accounting have as a group underperformed their peers yet maintain an overwhelming sense of entitlement. I would rather hire a candidate from Bemidji State with a 2.8 and a drop of humility/work ethic over a Suma from Carlson. To your point maybe the school was better in the past, but the graduates produced currently...do not meet expectations.

Contemporary free market capitalism has become adept at cost-shifting onto the public and nonprofit sectors. Unemployment insurance and environmental clean-up come to mind. While at the same time it demands low taxes and lax regulation. This is not socially or economically sustainable.

I think a lot of people are confusing stupidity for capitalism. Any idiot can run a company into the ground, but a smart capitalist will grow a company over time, and often do it the smart way and with few layoffs to boot.

Southwest Airlines is one of the most cutthroat capitalist businesses I know of - even though they are 87% unionized. Guess how many people they have laid off - NONE.

Capitalism and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. Capitalism has served us awfully well for about two centuries, and now you're willing to throw it all in the crapper because of a couple decades of rocky times caused by the rest of the world beginning to catch up with us?

Strong unions, on the other hand, are NOT necessarily sustainable - just ask GM & Chrysler.

Joe,
First, it's "Geoff", not "Greg".

Second, I have no relationship with the CSOM, so I don't know if the school pays its speakers and that wasn't really my point. Even if it was, would that make any difference? Would you sell out your reputation for a fee?

Out of curiosity, I'll see what I can find relative to the school's ranking history to see in which direction it's rep is heading.

Also, if you want to talk about a sense of entitlement in newly minted MBAs, that's certainly not exclusive to CSOM grads (I would imagine there's even some Bemidji State grads that think they're owed a job). I was responding to your generalization about the school, its students and the implication that ethics has no place in business studies.

As many of the other commenters have pointed out, we've seen the train wrecks that have been created in our economy due to an exclusive focus on the bottom line.

Geoff, sorry about the name. As a shareholder what is your expectation management. ROI? I know my expectation is exactly that. A company should not become public if its number one goal is not to provide value to its owners. If that is not the goal the company will fail. ROI should to your point not be only a function of current year growth, but it is very important and should not be devalued. Investors of today and probably my generation say 25-35 are the worst offenders for short sighted investing.

While Mr Bowie makes some interesting points, I think he presents a false dichotomy between maximizing profit and managing for ethical/moral/social good. There are local businesses that have found ways to do both. There are certainly market niches - many of which are growing - that seek products from companies that behave ethically. In conclusion, yes, he's correct that focusing solely on so-called 'fiscal capitalism' can have detrimental long-term effects; but the inverse is not necessarily true - it is possible to achieve high fiscal returns while placing higher value on sustainability.

From 1990-2003 I wrote over 7,000 resumes, at least half of them for Minnesotans. Over that period of time I saw predatory capitalists ruin our economy by overcompensating those at the top and by abusing those in the middle and at the bottom. I have typed six-figure salary histories for guys who couldn't figure out how to find Snelling Avenue, and have helped sales pros find jobs after the territories they established were handed over to the district manager's nephew.

The most striking thing about modern management culture in large corporations is the extent to which sociopathic personalities have risen to key positions while the hard working insightful "drones" have been overworked, abused and laid off.

Unregulated capitalism is a race to the bottom. You can no more refuse to regulate business than you can morality but right now the only thing stopping our sex merchants from peddling child porn is the existence of a few pesky laws. Given the regulatory climate the pro-business folks want, I imagine it's only a matter of time before you'll be able to settle your debts by giving the bank your children (for immediate resale).

Honest businesses will do better in a tightly regulated country. Loose regulations let the cheaters win, and they've been winning for decades now to the detriment of all of us.

Joe,

I think we may have reached a philosophical impasse, but I'm happy with that if you are.

For as much as I would agree that as a shareholder, a high ROI is a priority (and I suppose from a purely objective standpoint, the number one priority), I also hold that there are other investors to which management needs to be beholden.

The employees, as investors of time, should see a return on that investment as well (ideally long term, but I think today that's highly unrealistic). I think too often, management considers the capital investment more important than the temporal one. Granted, you can't run a public company without capital, but you can't run it without employees either. I also think we would agree that maintaining a good ROI for the long term is better than a get-in/get-out strategy of investing.

As Brian indicates in his comment, many businesses have found a way to balance their fiduciary responsibility with their social responsibility. If you want to call that "good corporate citizenship" I guess I'd just like to see more of that.

Mr. Laskowski's comment illustrate perfectly why you can't build an economy around shareholders who are not responsible for corporate conduct. The fact that the financial sector has reached a point where it comprises almost 30% of our economy is one of the biggest drivers of this recession. You just can't have much capital tied up in non-productive activity. For one thing it's sociopathic.

We have to remember, we design economies, and we set priorities. The function of an economy is not simply to make money for shareholders, an economy organized around that principle collapses. Why? Because we need commerce, we need jobs, we need health care, we need transportation and infrastructure. What, you think we're all gonna retire and live off of our investments? Is that the plan? Companies that make money for shareholders but not employees are unsustainable. Our over all mission here is to create a more perfect union, not just make a small number of people rich. The economy is supposed serve us, we're not here to serve the economy.

Yes, I know that the current business school ideology says that a corporation's only purpose is to maximize ROI. Right. But like all investments, buying stock is a gamble. Like all gamblers, you may win big, break even, or lose your shirt.

Unfortunately, when I began teaching (non-business) courses at the university level in the 1980s, I found that my business major students were being fed a steady diet of the Greed is Good religion. What they were learning was that maximizing ROI was a corporation's ONLY purpose.

Republican tax policies didn't help either. Since employee wages and benefits are tax deductible, they actually reduce a corporation's tax liability, but with super low corporate tax rates, there was no longer any tax incentive to reinvest in the company or its workers.

Let's set aside the Greed Creed for a moment and look at the domino effect of mass layoffs. Say that Acme Industries shuts down its manufacturing plant and ships all the jobs to China. The shareholders of Acme are delighted, because that means larger dividends for them.

But what happens to the obvious victims, the workers? What happens to Don's Diner, which used to feed the Acme crowd at lunch? It closes, and Don and his waitresses are out of work. Furthermore, not only the families of the factory workers but the families of Don and the waitresses no longer have the disposable income to spend at Betty's Boutique, which also closes. Now Betty is out of a job, as are her sales clerks. Now the sales clerks were part-time, but their husbands worked either at Acme or at some other business that has closed or cut back hours.

Soon all the remaining stores in town are holding huge clearance sales, but for the people who have lost their jobs and are wondering how they'll pay their mortgage and buy groceries, even a $10 shirt is a luxury.

As people get desperate and as young people lose hope for the future, crime goes up. But all the business closures and abandoned houses have wrecked the tax base, so there aren't as many police on the streets as there were before.

Actions have consequences, and even the most die-hard economic libertarian narcissist should be able to see that it's in his self-interest to keep as many people employed as possible.

After all, if the only purpose of an enterprise is to maximize profits by any means necessary, then we have no cause for objecting to the Mafia, do we?

Good article and good discussion. It was encouraging to hear a perspective from Japan, the #2 economy of the world.

I say the Netherlands is the #1 economy in the world. They have an unemployment rate of 2.7% right now, they have universal health care (i.e. no uninsured), their poverty rate a fraction of the US, in a country of 16 million people they had 500 homeless. They have a high standard of living, an incredible public transportation system and transport infrastructure. Oh, and hey have tax rates around 60% strong labor laws, generous public benefits, and a great educational system that produces student who on average speak three languages. And to top it off, the place is beautiful. I don't think they have a lot of billionaires.

I say that's a successful economy. They may not have the highest GDP in the world, but they provide a high standard of living for the vast majority of their people. And they are proactive- the last time I was there they were working on rebuilding and modifying their dam and dike systems in order to cope with rising sea levels. We're still arguing about global warming and whether or not we can afford clean energy.

Again, take a closer look at Netherlands. Their unemployment rate is artifically low--they have the highest number of "inactives" in the EU--i.e., people not included in unemployment because they're not even trying. They probably have an unemployment rates closer to the EU long-term average of 10% (which we think is a crisis here). They also have a unique strategy of carrying wages that are just lower than EU neighbors so they siphon off work and employment from high-wage Germany, e.g. But in the final analysis, they benefit from about 1000 years of intensive commerce and wealthbuilding and even today primarily being an international trading company--very high value stuff. Just bumping up our taxes to 60% isn't going to bring that about for us. We're just a bigger country with lots of poor areas. Netherlands is like the country that Manhattan and Long Island might be if they seceded from the U.S. Sure their data would look pretty good.

Great article, Ms. Selix. I appreciate it and the discussion. Thanks to MinnPost.com for doing this kind of journalism.

//Again, take a closer look at Netherlands. Their unemployment rate is artifically low--they have the highest number of "inactives"

All of the countries in the EU measure unemployment the same way, the Netherlands has no more inactives than Germany. We have our inactives as well, if we count them (the U6 measurement) we have an unemployment rate around 16% instead of 8.9%. No matter how you cut it, they have way lower unemployment rates than we do. And their unemployed are way better off, they don't loose health care or become homeless.

//they benefit from about 1000 years of intensive commerce and wealthbuilding and even today primarily being an international trading company--very high value stuff.

The Dutch economy collapsed in the 1600s, and again during the great depression. After WWII they lost all of colonial income along with their colonies by the mid 1960's, they're not running on legacy. They don't know anything about wealth building and commerce that we don't know, they just have different priorities. By the way, many economist would point to Germany as the #1 economy in Europe if not the world.

We could implement the same safety nets that the Netherlands has, it just isn't a priority. We'd rather build stadiums for billionaires. We've had unemployment rates as low as 3% but you're right, the size and character of the Netherlands as a country make direct comparisons a bit dodgy. I didn't mean to invite direct comparison, I'm making a point about an economy with different priorities. Between it's tax rates, welfare programs, and national health care system, the Netherlands should be a wasteland according to our economists. Clearly it's not.

Let me start off by saying I enjoy all of your comments, whether I agree with the assessment or not. They're all very well thought out and you guys have some good points to make.

Would anyone mind if I play the part of the heretic and suggest that ROI is not the most important priority of a company? Before anyone grabs their pitch forks, let me spread a little hay on the ground to dry.

The perception in the U.S. seems to be that maximizing profits trumps all else. Anything that gets in the way of that goal is Bad and must be eliminated at all costs. Environmental regulations, or any regulations at all for that matter, are the work of the devil and simply stifles innovation. That's where we got the Republican mantra that government is bad, deregulation good, and any remaining regulatory agencies should be weakened and starved to the point where they’re ineffective. The philosophy is great for business as it maximizes ROI. But for society? Not so much.

Examples: We’ve had numerous food-borne illnesses in recent years, including most recently peanuts. Georgia, where the outbreak originated, has only 60 food inspectors to cover 16,000 processing plants. It doesn’t take a genius to do the math and see that facilities are only inspected every few years (at best) and follow-up on infractions lax.

Another case from the laze-faire robber baron days of the late 1800s. Saw mills here in Minneapolis dumped all their sawdust into the Mississippi River, to the point that riverboats had a hard time getting upstream through the morass.

Or raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember the Ohio River burning in the 1970s. There was such a toxic mix of effluent from plants on the river that the goo actually started the water on fire!

As someone wisely pointed out, the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. You can have an economy without an environment. But no environment? No economy. You can’t sell a product to someone who’s six feet under and pushing up malformed daises.

The business model for the past couple of hundred years has been to trash a place, leave the pollutants to drift downstream or down wind, and move on to a new place with cheaper labor and lax regulation. Great for business, but not so great for the places they move to.

Another poster mentioned that corporations are sociopaths. Anyone recall Enron? Call up the power plants and ask them to shut down for some “maintenance,” then watch the electric prices skyrocket as California goes through rolling blackouts. Never mind grandma sitting at home in 98º degree heat with her oxygen tank. Once again, it was a great business model and made a lot of money for the corporation and the people at the top. But pensioners got screwed when the house of cards burned down and the entire state of California and all the tax payers got stuck subsidizing Enron’s greed.

But wait, wasn’t I talking about why ROI isn’t important? Right, right… So ROI is
Important because it fosters innovation. It seems to me thoughthat Saab and other Scandinavian countries don’t have a problem with innovation, despite lots of regulation, high tax rates, and fantastic benefit packages for your average worker. Am I missing something here or does that blow the whole ROI is King theory out the turbo charger?

And kudos to anyone who has even read this far—you have my sympathy.