Call this column “CEOs are human, too.”
While you may be in tune with the primal scream coming from Occupy Wall Street, let’s not take pitchforks to the backsides of our business leaders.
In rational terms, the Occupy Wall Street protesters are infuriated about economic inequality. Behind that, they see an imbalance of power and a lack of accountability by big business.
In many of the protesters’ minds, CEOs are all-powerful. They get what they want out of Washington, make decisions solely with profits in mind, and don’t care a whit about their employees or millions of jobless Americans.
CEOs running big financial institutions did blow it in the housing bubble. The heads of GM and Chrysler made, well, wrongheaded decisions for decades.
Some CEOs fight hard to obstruct changes in safety laws, environmental regulations or business practices that benefit their employees, their customers or society as a whole. Some are paid way too much for the supposed value they create for shareholders. Others demand government subsidies or protection from competitors, yet present themselves as free-market paragons.
A primal scream is coming on.
The vast majority of America’s CEOs did not commit the egregious sins that have riled up the Occupy Wall Street protesters. They run their companies competently, honestly and often with compassion.
CEOs were just as shocked, stunned and scared by the Great Recession as the rest of us. They’re also buffeted by fearsome trends — globalization, technology and aging demographics.
You can’t blame them for hunkering down. Just as we’ve been forced to cut expenses to ride out tough times, so have they.
What CEO wants to manage a company during a recession, in a time of declining revenues? What CEO really wants to lay off employees, shrink research budgets, or put off exciting initiatives or new products that might grow their companies?
CEOs go down in history as great leaders for building records of doing just the opposite.
Let’s also realize that in reality, CEOs are not as all-powerful as feared. For one thing, look at how CEOs are depicted by Hollywood.
More importantly, think about this: In the last 50 years, we the people, the government, have mandated safer workplaces and vehicles, much cleaner air and water, and laws fighting discrimination in the workplace.
Government watchdogs routinely act against corporations, whether it’s shutting down unsafe food operations, suing companies for misbehavior, stopping mergers on antitrust grounds, and, yes, even eventually catching financial miscreants.
And here’s one last defense of CEOs: They certainly have little to do with America’s biggest problems anyway. They’re not to blame for its crumbling infrastructure, subpar schools or inadequately funded Social Security and Medicare systems. All of us are to blame.
Don’t think for one second I’m saying CEOs have it tougher than the millions of jobless. We can still grill CEOs about whether layoffs ultimately cut too close to the bone, damaging their companies’ brands and futures. We can still remind them that as much as profits matter, they also have a responsibility to the commonweal.
In the current climate, we can still prod them to spend the cash hoard some of their companies have built up.
(An aside: Those profits and cash hoard are bright spots. They’re helping stabilize the stock market, and that benefits IRAs, 401(k)s and pension funds. The cash will eventually flow back into the economy, strengthening the recovery.)
Does government win as many battles as it should against corporations? Depending on your politics, maybe not. Still, people are hardly at the mercy of run-amok capitalism.
If you really want to lessen CEO influence, examine the way government does business — confusing pun intended. In a poll last week by The Hill, just one in three likely voters blamed Wall Street for the country’s financial troubles, whereas 56 percent blamed Washington.
Government and corporations are indeed too closely linked. It’s not that government overregulates business. We need to defend and keep smart regulations. But regulations are often so confusing, vague and ever-changing that CEOs feel they have no choice but to deploy armies of lobbyists.
Over time, the cancer of crony capitalism, hosted by both parties, has taken over the body politic.
It comes in two varieties: In one, using campaign contributions or other forms of support, corporations influence legislators who want electoral victory at all costs. In the other, regulators end up allowing businesses to bend regulations in their favor.
We’ve lost all sense that the playing field is fair. That’s what the Occupy Wall Street crowd should really be screaming about.
The Washington Post analyzed contribution data and found that President Barack Obama has brought in more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies than all of the GOP candidates combined.