On October 2, 2015, Gar Alperovitz writes on Yes:
Just three years ago, I worked with the staff at the Democracy Collaborative to write this article, which made a very basic point about the way systemic solutions to economic inequality were treated by the business paper of record, The Wall Street Journal. As you can see, business structures that directly democratized ownership of the economy received short shrift:
But three years later, as the crisis of inequality continues to deepen—and after Piketty and Corbyn and Sanders and Pope Francis—the WSJ seems to have changed its tune. The system question—that is, the question of how the ownership of capital should be structured in society that purports to be a democracy—is clearly on the table in a remarkable long essay published this past Saturday, written by the authorized biographer of Margaret Thatcher.
The piece begins with the simple imperative: “If Western countries want to disprove the dire forecasts of Karl Marx, we must think creatively about how to make the middle class more prosperous and secure.“
Let that sink in for a minute. The threat, according to this featured piece in The Wall Street Journal, is not just Marxists and their ideas, but the possibility that they might be right about capitalism after all. The author strikes the same note in his conclusion:
“[…] Marx did have an insight about the disproportionate power of the ownership of capital. The owner of capital decides where money goes, whereas the people who sell only their labor lack that power. This makes it hard for society to be shaped in their interests. In recent years, that disproportion has reached destructive levels, so if we don’t want to be a Marxist society, we need to put it right.”
And what is the alternative that this author sees as the way forward to avoid the hypothetical looming dictatorship of the proletariat? Simply put, the author insists that we need to “take ownership much more seriously,” and put democratic control back into corporate governance:
“Why are so few companies owned by the people who work for them, and why do both liberal and conservative political parties not offer greater incentives, such as tax advantages, for this to change? It is extraordinary that the joint stock company, the foundation of modern commercial and industrial wealth, is still so little influenced by the views of shareholders. This is perhaps most evident in the preposterous salaries paid, particularly in the U.S. and Britain, to top executives of public companies. If the owners of these companies truly exercised authority over what is theirs, this wouldn’t happen. If these enterprises had grown over the last 20 years at the same rate as pay for the men who run them (it usually still is men), no one would be talking of a crisis of capitalism.”
But even more strikingly, the author goes beyond the idea of shareholder democracy, and insists on a large-scale push to imagine and implement the democratization of wealth, not through redistribution, but through newly revitalized forms of cooperative and democratized ownership and control of our economic institutions:
“The Victorians were more imaginative than we are about principles of mutuality—credit unions, building societies, the cooperative movement. Such organizations feel creakier in an age when people want larger sums, faster. But is it really beyond the skill of our great modern business brains to develop these concepts and adapt them to modernity?”
Admittedly, this is a single article that does little in the long run to correct the systemic bias revealed in the graphs above: The WSJ is by no means running regular coverage of the growing number of experiments in community wealth building and democratized cooperative ownership that are emerging throughout the nation (yet).
But the oddity of the WSJ, bastion of capitalism’s most defended ideological heights, running such a forceful indictment of the current system and its tendency to reproduce and deepen levels of inequality inimical to democracy cannot be ignored: The system question may not quite be on the table in the mainstream media in the way it ultimately needs to be, but it’s getting close.
We must think creatively about “how to make the middle class more prosperous and secure” is the theme of this article. And yes, the disproportionate power of the ownership of capital has reached destructive levels. The owners of capital assets decides where money is allocated, whereas the people who sell only their labor lack that power; they are propertyless in the sense of owning productive capital assets that create wealth and produce income. This makes it hard for society to be shaped so that EVERY child, woman, and man can become economically independent citizens.
The right this societal failure requires that the system be reformed to lift the barriers to equal economic opportunity and create a level playing field based on anti-monopoly and anti-greed fairness and balance between production and consumption. In so doing, every citizen can begin to accumulate over time into the future a viable capital estate without having to take away from those who now own by using the tax system to redistribute the income of capital owners. What the “haves” will lose is the productive capital ownership monopoly they enjoy under the present unjust system. A key descriptor of such innovation is to find the ways in which “have nots” can become “haves” without taking from the “haves.” Thus, the reform of the “system,” as binary economist Louis Kelso postulated, “must be structured so that eventually all citizens produce an expanding proportion of their income through their privately owned productive capital and simultaneously generate enough purchasing power to consume the economy’s output.”
What we really need in this 2015-2016 presidential election period is a national discussion on the topic of the importance of capital ownership and how we can expand the base of private capital ownership simultaneously with the creation of new physical capital formation, with the aim of building long-term financial security for all Americans through accumulating a viable capital estate.
We need a recognition in America that we should deliberately begin to broaden the capital ownership base in a way that is consistent with the laws of property and the Constitutional safeguards of the rights of men and women to own property and be productive.
What needs to be our focus is to adjust the opportunity to produce, not the redistribution of income after it is produced.
The government should acknowledge its obligation to make productive capital ownership economically purchasable by capital-less Americans (the 99 percent) using insured, interest-free capital credit, and, as Kelso stated, “substantially assume financial responsibility for the economy through establishing and supervising the implementation of an economic, labor and business policy of democratized economic power.” Historically, capital has been the primary engine of industrialization. But as used, as Kelso has argued, has, as well, “been the chief cause of the institutional deformities that have created and maintained two incompatible classes: the overcapitalized and the undercapitalized.”
We need to arrive at a new market economy structure in which on one level the employees of a corporation could walk into management and demand, in collective bargaining, the use of a justice-based managed full-voting, full-dividend-earnings-payout Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)—not just to trade a single block of stock for wage concessions, but to redesign the future of the company and its employees. We need, as a society, the assurance that as a corporate employer grows, it builds ownership into its employees. All of them as individuals, not just the upper management, and not collectively! When people are in a position to earn the income produced by their physical capital as well as the wages of their labor, their company is in a position to be more competitive through lower labor costs and increased technological invention and innovation, while achieving higher employee incomes through the employee-owned productive capital.
Once this goal becomes the national political focus we will see an unbelievable discussion of workable plans to realize the goal. Remember that planning begins with a vision and a goal. This is not rocket science but it does require national leadership. Implementation requires amending a few laws that basically authorize the transactions that will broaden capital ownership paid for with the future earnings of capital investment. Allowing such transactions will provide incentives for profitable opportunities to employ unused capacity and promote stable and robust economic growth.
Still, after a half-century, we have no leaders with a growth strategy that could restore the economic productiveness of the American economy. The growth strategy I have presented is not new, but it has not yet registered in the minds of leaderless politicians and their advisors from the left to the right of the political spectrum and a population of people who have been mis-educated and mis-led by conventional economists from all the conventional schools of economics.
Economist John Maynard Keynes, whose Keynesian model is widely taught, falsely presumed that the only way to balance mass productive power with mass purchasing power is through a wage system––ignoring the possibility of democratizing future ownership of labor-displacing productive capital technologies and rising ownership incomes as a market-generated means of eliminating wage slavery, welfare slavery, debt slavery and charity slavery for the 99 percent of humanity. Kelso argued that the Keynesian model fails to recognize that “when capital workers [owners] replace labor workers as the major suppliers of goods and services, labor employment alone becomes inadequate because labor’s share of the income arising from production cannot provide the progressively better standard of living that technology is making possible. Labor produces subsistence at best. Capital can produce affluence. To enjoy affluence, all households must engage to an increasing extent in capital work”
It is imperative that leaders seeking new solutions cease the opportunity presented by the 2015-2016 presidential election to implement effective programs for expanded ownership of productive capital, and address the problem of education on this subject.
One of my favorite Kelso quotes is: “The low credibility of government and of all lesser institutions in America today is a consequence of our own increasingly hollow democracy. It is reflected in the rising domestic crime rate and the social and political alienation of people in all walks of life, except for the rich and their sycophants. The real collapse of American ideological leadership in the world can best be seen in the feebleness and confusion that characterizes American foreign policy. The handwriting on the wall is clear: America must rethink the meaning of democracy and set about within its borders to rationalize its economic policy into one that synchronizes the shift from labor intensive to capital intensive production, with universal capital ownership and the payment of the full wages [earnings] of capital to capital owners, so to restore economic democracy to our economy. We should democratize our plutocratic capitalist economy before we preach democracy to others.”
At one point in 1976, the discussion led to The Joint Economic Committee of Congress endorsing the two-factor policy to broaden capital ownership as an economic goal for America. The 1976 Joint Economic Report stated: “To provide a realistic opportunity for more U.S. citizens to become owners of capital, and to provide an expanded source of equity financing for corporations, it should be made national policy to pursue the goal of broadened capital ownership. Congress also should request from the Administration a quadrennial report on the ownership of wealth in this country, which would assist in evaluating how successfully the base of wealth was being broadened over time.” Unfortunately the Congress has never paid any attention to this policy, and the goal has subsequently been unacknowledged and unheeded by our plutocratic political leaders.
The stark reality is that we are in a depression reflected in rising “real” (not statistical) unemployment and underemployment and instability that we will never escape from until we change our economic policy. Increasingly, more Americans will not be able to ever purchase a home, due to the packed inflationary wage and welfare base factored into the cost of building homes, which inflate prices, and will be forced to rent their entire life or depend on government living assistance––not able to accumulate equity that can help to sustain them in their retirement years. And this is the new reality now facing people in the middle class. The uncertainty of holding onto a good job is frightening to an increasingly wider base of middle-class working citizens. When you factor in the average non-salaried worker, even with a government-mandated minimum labor wage rate of $10.00+ per hour in some states and cities, the outcome is grim. Never mind that consumer demand continues to dwindle because of insufficient income, solely tied to labor worker wages. The impact of the decline in consumer demand due to declining labor worker wages is that production will decline or desist without sustainable consumer demand. Furthermore, those corporations growing the economy, both nationally and globally, will expand globally with investment in new productive capital projects and seek “customers with money” abroad.
This is all coming about because we have severely mismatched the power to produce with the possession of unsatisfied needs and wants. Those capital owners who have unsatisfied needs and wants have ready access through conventional finance to get as much or more productive capital as they want. Our tax laws are designed to further benefit the 1 percent by providing enormous write offs and credits to producers (corporations) who are owned by the few, who already produce more than they can consume. Those who have only their labor power and its precarious value held up by coercive rigging and who desperately need capital ownership to enable them to be capital workers as well as labor workers to have a way to earn more income, cannot satisfy their unsatisfied needs and wants. With only access to labor wages, the 99 percenters will continue, in desperation, to demand more and more pay for the same or less work, as their input is exponentially replaced by productive capital.
But if we change direction and systematically build earning power into consumers, we have the opportunity to reverse the depression perpetrated by systematically limiting the 99 percent to labor wages alone and through technology eliminating their jobs. We need solutions to grow the economy in ways that create productive jobs and widespread equity sharing. We need to systematically make insured, interest-free capital credit to purchase capital accessible to economically underpowered people (the 99 percenters) in which the income from the capital investment is isolated until it pays for itself, and then begins to produce a stream of dividend income to the new capitalists. This can only be accomplished by enabling every person to have access to capital ownership and purchase the capital, and pay for it out of what the capital produces. It’s time good and well-intentioned people woke up and adopted a Just Third Way paradigm (http://cesj.org/learn/just-third-way/) beyond the greed model of monopoly, “hoggist” capitalism and the envy model of the traditional welfare state. This will promote peace, prosperity, and freedom through harmonious justice.