Matt Levine discusses:
- Traditional and progressive views of the role of corporations
- How a narrow desire to raise shareholder value keeps frauds from capitalizing on investors who appeal to higher causes.
- Compartmentalizing your job from your personhood as a necessary convenience
Primacy of Corporate profits
Friedman, along with Michael Jensen and William Meckling, is probably the person most associated with the theory that—as his famous article put it—“The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase its Profits.” In this theory, managers of a corporation have a singular duty to the shareholders to maximize their economic return as far as possible (while complying with the law), and if managers pursue any other objective—treating workers well or being good environmental stewards or standing up for what they believe in—at the expense of shareholder value, then they are misbehaving. Of course, there is plenty of room to argue that pursuing those other objectives actually enhances shareholder value. And there is much to be said for Friedman’s view—which is also after all Adam Smith’s view—that by focusing on economic profits, a company will maximize the amount of social good that it does, simply because the normal way to maximize profits is to figure out what people want and then sell it to them.
Including More Stakeholders
It is popular, these days, to criticize that view. The corporation is a political construct, embedded in a society; it has many stakeholders whose interests it needs to consider, not just shareholders. You see this criticism everywhere, from attacks on stock buybacks to Elizabeth Warren’s call for “accountable capitalism.” In its more extreme form, you can see shareholder-profit-maximizing corporations compared to science-fiction robot villains, or to psychopaths: If you value only profit and nothing else, then there is something inhuman about you.
That probably overstates matters. If you come to work and focus on maximizing the profits of your company, that probably doesn’t mean that you’re a psychopath. It probably just means that you have a job. You compartmentalize things a bit; your work does not contain the entirety of your personhood; it’s a thing that you do because you need to make a living. In this sense, a company whose philosophy is “we will sell products that people want for more than it costs us to make them so that we can make a profit and increase our share price” is rather psychologically healthy. That is a good goal to work on during business hours Monday through Friday, and then leave. It is a modest, reasonable, businesslike goal. Obviously there are large contested margins, and you shouldn’t do psychopathic things to pursue that goal, and some people do and that’s bad, but for the most part “shareholder value” is the sort of mission that inspires people more or less the right amount. If you go around murdering people to maximize shareholder value then, yes, you are a psychopath, but most people aren’t.
The Difficulty of Accounting for Intentions
But there are other goals. Those goals are bigger, and you can wrap your whole personhood up in them, and you can believe that those goals are so important that they can justify anything. If Facebook’s goal is to maximize revenue by selling targeted ads to clothing companies, and you find out that it has features that enable genocide, then you shut down those features because the ads just aren’t worth it. If Facebook is about the “noble mission” of “connecting people,” then the tradeoffs are murkier. If “Facebook is truly the only company that’s singularly about people,” then … what even … how do you measure how about-people it is being? If you’re the singular company whose focus is people, then whatever you do is sort of necessarily good; your end is so vague and noble that it can justify any means. And for all that Facebook’s meddling with Instagram and WhatsApp seems to be driven by straightforward ad-revenue-maximization considerations, it’s worth saying that Facebook isn’t really answerable to shareholders and that its explicit ideology rejects shareholder value as a goal. “Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote when it went public. “It was built to accomplish a social mission.” Okay!
Grand Visions Can Be Weaponzied, But Shareholder Value? Not So Much.
I am late to it, but I just finished reading John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” the story of the fraud at Theranos Inc. and his work to uncover it. Theranos—in Carreyrou’s view, and the view of federal prosecutors—issued tens of thousandsof blood-test results to real patients using technology that it knew didn’t work, endangering those patients’ lives. There are a lot of passages in the book about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes inspiring and cajoling her employees to work harder, to get with the mission, to override their moral objections to faking the technology and push ahead. None of those passages mention shareholder value or profit maximization. They mention Holmes’s vision of revolutionizing health care to save lives and treat cancer patients. If you want to inspire people to do terrible things, it is very useful to sell them on a grand vision, a higher purpose, a noble mission. Shareholder value is nobody’s idea of an inspiring mission. That’s what’s good about it!”