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Sen. Elizabeth Warren brings government muscle to corporate ‘accountability’

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It was in Godfather III where Al Pacino as Michael Corleone said it first and said it best: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” Before we were able to put away our party hats after celebrating the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in June, Missouri rejected a right-to-work measure at the state’s primary ballot box last week.

And now Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wants to do a federally legislated end run around Janus with a proposed bill she calls The Accountable Capitalism Act. She announced her proposed bill in an Aug. 15 Wall Street Journal essay. Despite what seems obvious in the title “Companies Shouldn’t Be Accountable Only to Shareholders,” Warren fails to mention “serving customers and clients” at all, but – in true social-justice, shareholder activism mode – instead says companies need to pay their employees more.

According to Warren, the Act would require that large corporations submit to a federal charter that increases the likelihood of legal actions taken against the companies:

Corporations with more than $1 billion in annual revenue would be required to get a federal corporate charter. The new charter requires corporate directors to consider the interests of all major corporate stakeholders—not only shareholders—in company decisions. Shareholders could sue if they believed directors weren’t fulfilling those obligations.

Stakeholders seems like nothing more than a weasel word for anyone who wants to cause mischief at any given company whereas shareholders have real, green skin in the game.

In other words, Warren wishes to deploy government muscle to bring corporations to heel in their dealings with employees. To quote Vito Corleone as portrayed by Marlon Brando in the original Godfather: “She’s gonna make corporate America an offer it can’t refuse.” All this because relationships apparently between employers and employees in the country’s largest companies heretofore have been unable to resolve these differences on their own. It’ll certainly take government tossing a horse’s head into the collective bed of America’s CEOs – at the expense, no less, of shareholders of whom some if not many are also employees of the companies dinged by antagonistic stakeholders.

Warren contrasts two statements made by the Business Roundtable. The first, in 1981, she characterizes as a common good that businesses “have a responsibility, first of all, to make available to the public quality goods and services at fair prices, thereby earning a profit that attracts investment to continue and enhance the enterprise, provide jobs, and build the economy.” In 1997, Warren writes, “the Business Roundtable declared that the ‘principal objective of a business enterprise is to generate economic returns to its owners.’” Somehow, readers are to infer this is a terrible, horrible, not-good thing. Shareholders making a return on their investments? Heaven forfend!

All this assumes shareholders are, to a person, all fat cat, Daddy Warbucks types and not simply working stiffs with a mortgage, kids in college, a five-year note on the car in the driveway – oh, and a 401K account. Sure, wealthy people also benefit from owning – say – mutual funds and retirement accounts, and why shouldn’t they? After all, CNN Money noted that Warren and her husband were worth between $3.7 million and $10 million in 2015:

The vast bulk of Warren’s wealth is held in mutual funds and retirement accounts with TIAA-CREF, a financial services company that provides retirement services to universities. The couple’s largest holdings are the ultra-safe TIAA-CREF Traditional fund, in which they each have at least $1 million. The fund offers three guarantees: you’ll never lose your principal, you’ll always get a minimum interest rate and you’ll receive a lifetime income stream.

That’s a whole lotta wampum. But the heart of Warren’s argument is that U.S. wages have stagnated to 1979 levels. It’s a serious problem, if true as a recent Pew Research Center concludes. But, it’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. As pointed out above, many middle-class workers today are squirreling income away in tax-free retirement funds – many of them matched by employers, no less – a reality that didn’t exist 40 years ago. And then there’s the benefits provided by employers to their workers, the costs of which vastly exceed what was spent as a percentage of corporate profits in 1979.

Isolating wages from benefits doesn’t seem like an honest argument. But have wages really stagnated as much as the Pew research suggests? According to the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship, the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers used by Pew aren’t reliable mainly because they tend to exaggerate inflation. Using Winship’s research, Ramesh Ponnuru writes in Bloomberg Opinion:

Pew appears to be using a measure of inflation called CPI-U, which is produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and used by many other researchers. But as Scott Winship, then an analyst at the Manhattan Institute, detailed a few years ago, that measure overestimates inflation — and vastly overestimates its cumulative impact over time….

The government produces a statistic that does not have these flaws and goes back to 1929: the PCE deflator. Use that better measure of inflation, and the flat trend line in wages since 1978 that Pew found becomes a 22 percent increase. Real compensation, including benefits, must have grown even more. (For those readers wondering whether that apparent progress just reflects growth at the top of the income distribution, Winship has calculated that workers in the middle of the distribution saw a 31 percent increase in compensation from 1967 to 2015.)

It seems Warren hasn’t ever encountered a problem real or imagined that doesn’t necessitate some massive government program to remedy it. In this instance, it’s not difficult to predict dozens, hundreds or even thousands of nuisance lawsuits brought on by social justice warriors and so-called religious shareholder activists aligned under the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility umbrella and other religious groups who consider business an inherent evil and are convinced companies are denying employees their “fair share” of corporate profits. Here’s hoping Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act winds up sleeping with the fishes.

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Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.

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