In November 1956, Time magazine explored a phenomenon that went by various names: “capitalism with a conscience,” “enlightened conservatism,” “people’s capitalism,” and, most popularly, “The New Conservatism.”
No matter which label one preferred, the basic concept was clear: Business leaders were demonstrating an ever increasing willingness, in the words of the story, to “shoulder a host of new responsibilities” and “judge their actions, not only from the standpoint of profit and loss” in their financial results “but of profit and loss to the community.”
I decided to dig out this piece and reread it after news broke this week that Burger King is buying the Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain Tim Hortons for about $11 billion. Once the acquisition is complete, Burger King plans to move its headquarters north of the border, where the statutory tax rate is lower than in the United States, in a maneuver known as an inversion.
The company has denied that it would get much, if any, tax relief from the deal and insists that it is acquiring Tim Hortons for a legitimate strategic reason—namely, to accelerate expansion in a super-competitive industry.
In this case, the Home of the Whopper may well be telling the truth. Yet whatever Burger King’s actual motivation, it’s not surprising that some people have reacted strongly, condemning the company as a “traitor” and urging a boycott of its restaurants. What they’re really responding to, deep down, is a growing sense that most American corporations care (to use Time’s phrasing from 1956) only about the profit and loss on their income statement, but not about profit and loss to the community.
Back when Time published that essay, big companies prided themselves on taking care of a full range of constituents: their shareholders, yes, but also their customers, their suppliers and their workers. Indeed, most large employers, as well as many smaller ones, began in the 1950s to forge a social contract with their employees that would solidify over the next decade or two: rising wages, guaranteed pensions, good healthcare benefits and stable jobs.
Like their 21st century successors, top executives of the ’50s weren’t typically fans of Washington playing too large a role in the economy. Implicit in the corporate social contract, in fact, was the view that most working people would find the security they were looking for as participants in the private sector, not as wards of the public sector. Companies practicing what was once called “welfare capitalism”—not the welfare state—would meet the bulk of their needs.
Nevertheless, Time asserted, “the majority” of businessmen in the Eisenhower era had come to realize that government “welfare programs help store up purchasing power in the hands of the consumer.”
“Unemployment compensation is desirable,” the magazine quoted Gaylord A. Freeman Jr., vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago, as saying. “Social legislation can add to the totality of freedom, increase the dignity of the individual.”
Few if any businesses—then or now—would willingly shell out more to Uncle Sam. General Electric, for instance, crusaded 60 years ago against what its president, Ralph Cordiner, termed “excessively high taxes.” But the company, which famously touted trying to serve the “balanced best interests” of all its stakeholders, also made a point of paying what it owed “with no bargains asked,” as GE vice president Lemuel Boulware put it. This, he said, was part of being “a good corporate citizen.”
Make no mistake: GE, where Ronald Reagan shaped much of his Washington-is-the-problem ideology as a corporate pitchman for eight years beginning in 1954, wanted smaller government. Still, it wouldn’t have dreamed of not paying its share.
Today, by contrast, GE does all it can to escape taxation, in large part through “innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore,” as the New York Times characterized it. And it is hardly alone. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has exposed how Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Caterpillar, among others, have all used various tax-avoidance strategies.
Of course, the social contract between employer and employee began to fray in the 1970s, and it has since been totally ripped apart. Myriad culprits are to blame, including rapidly advancing technology, heightened global competition, the weakening of unions and, perhaps more than anything, a horribly misplaced mindset that has elevated stockowners above all other groups.
“For some time now,” says David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution, “the ‘shareholder uber alles’ mantra has been crowding out the old-fashioned stakeholder notion.”
What sometimes gets lost in the discussion, though, is that this shift hits employees and communities not only directly but indirectly. The very same forces that have shredded the corporate social contract—once a robust private safety net—have also driven companies to deploy every possible tax shelter, thereby cutting their contributions to the public safety net. In all, the Tax Policy Center cites estimates that “nearly $1 trillion is held by U.S. corporations abroad, accumulated over time from booking income in low-tax countries.”
It is easy to overly romanticize 1950s corporate America. People of color faced terrible workplace discrimination at that time, as did women. Late in the decade, many big companies hardened their stance against organized labor, hastening its steep decline. Business culture could be rigid and stifling—the world of The Organization Man. Fear of communism and socialism, as much as altruism, was often at the root of corporate generosity.
But for all the faults of that period, an ethos has been lost. The University of Michigan’s Mark Mizruchi, in his book The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, describes it as “concern for the well-being of the broader society.” Notably, Mizruchi points to the 1956 Time article as a good representative of the ideas that then “dominated in the corporate discourse.”
“The majority of Americans support private enterprise, not as a God-given right but as the best practical means of conducting business in a free society,” pulp and paper executive J. D. Zellerbach told the magazine. “They regard business management as a stewardship, and they expect it to operate the economy as a public trust for the benefit of all the people.”
I think Zellerbach’s observation about what the American people expect of business remains essentially true in 2014. What has changed is the way that so many companies have turned so far away from this philosophy. That change makes Time’s portrayal seem like it’s not just from another age but from another planet.
Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University and anonline columnist for Time