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Pondering the universe


Business will not save us

Constitutionally, businesses are not set up to help anyone except themselves make more money.

The narrative from business lobby groups has been that allowing businesses to make more money by their own means automatically benefits people and societies, known as trickle-down economics. Moreover, their counter-argument against government control is that it will stifle innovation that will help people. Unfortunately for us, neither of these is remotely true. Under looser government controls, wealth inequality has grown exponentially in difference and concentration. And governments over the last century have been instrumental in the research that has really improved peoples' lives.

The so-called innovation prompted by business has been mainly about how to persuade people to be addicted to consuming products and services that are not conducive to having happy and healthy lives. Instead, it has created and spurred rampant selfish behaviour, obesity and body-dysmorphia, which all weaken the cohesiveness and strength of society. Instead of increasing the level of freedom and empowerment as is often claimed, people are less empowered and more dependent upon fast food, addictive technology and expensive services.

These, coupled with concerted and coordinated efforts to weaken the collective bargaining capacity of workers, has led to loss in real incomes and precarious employment for most. Decreasing government governance of business has weakened societies capacity to deal with systemic threats to those societies. We just have to look at the Covid pandemic to see that weak governments undermine our capacity to respond to and manage such outbreaks. While much noise was made by business groups to support them, they generally did not support the same help for their employees or other affected groups.

In short, businesses are not set up to be our friends, but a self-centred minority of people who have lobbied governments to not only leave them alone but also sabotage most of our ability to improve our own lives, individually or collectively, thereby dissipating our ability to challenge those in power. Their focus on money as the sole means of measuring our worth and the metering of our lives is leading us to the collapse of the environment and the societies dependent upon it. Without a deliberate change in direction, business is killing us.

Money businessβ–³

Business is a confluence of a lot of human activity, but its basic operations are guided by the hunt for money.

Because money tokenises value, when applied fairly to people, it is capable of allowing greater social mobility because it allows a greater range of economic interactions between people. However, without some intervention by governments to keep such interaction fair, it is open to abuse. In particular, those with more money can use it to increase their ability to manipulate the economic ability of others, and it is this that has led to the huge wealth inequality we see today. Money is not the real enabler here, but fairness.

CEOs have been successful in pushing the fallacy that they are indispensable to a company's fortunes and so should be receiving vastly outsized salaries and share benefits. Of course, no company even grew without the substantive expertise and labour provided by everyone else employed along the way, so let us dispense with the superhero CEO fantasies and just acknowledge that CEOs may provide a focus for critical decisions for a company, but are not critical in themselves. They are replaceable because a company depends upon the quality and ability of its systems to harvest employee efforts.

Money is a tool that can be used to aggregate effort but it doesn't inherently define what is worthwhile, though many have decided that it is worthwhile in its own right, hence the rise in cryptocurrencies that have no inherent worth. Unfortunately, the excessive focus on money has not only distorted the efforts of many people away from providing any benefit to society as a whole, but has diverted significant portions of societal and earth's material resources to it, further sabotaging a society's effort to support itself and those who cannot partake in the money game.

We must recognise the weaknesses within people and not expect that the force-multiplying capacity of business will not be used against our common wellbeing. However, we have also seen that government can be a force-magnifier for powerful people, so we need to find a means of tempering both so that business and government are not being used together to thwart our individual and collective ability to decide what we do with our own lives.

Broaden focusβ–³

While some businesses are (re-)turning to a more community consensus form of governance, until all are forced to do so, the most damaging businesses will continue unabated.

It is obvious madness to continue allowing such huge concentrations of power in businesses, but we have generally bought into the delusion that money automatically benefits us, even when the economic systems have been deliberately engineered to favour the economically advantaged and discriminate again the economically weak. The critical factor in the current system is the force-multiplying effect of corporations, so their governance systems must be the first target for instituting fairness.

Most business legislation and regulation has been applied reactively to curb particularly egregious corporate behaviour, much to do with ensuring shareholder returns, but some to do with protecting people and the environment. However, there has been nothing to make businesses contribute to making societies better for their citizens. Of course, business self-interest, or rather that of their leaders, has successfully resisted efforts to democratise them, let alone make them responsible to society at large.

A business is generally run as an autocracy, and, especially if it employs a lot of people, is a force magnifier for the person in control of it, vastly increasing their influence over the lives of others. When they group together to work to undermine efforts to challenge their dominance, they severely impact the fair working of society. Without controls placed on the extent of such autocratic power, and given how difficult it is for human beings to manage great power fairly, we have allowed a few to destroy the planet's ability to support us.

Many European governments support unions, with some even mandating union representation in management. While this is a step in the right direction, it still is not providing the paths for direct involvement by workers that worker cooperatives provide. Such cooperatives should be the norm if workplaces are to become fair and safe.

The force-multiplying effect of business undermines democracy because it allows a few to have a much larger effect upon societies than any gerrymandering or stacking of courts, both which would have been impossible without those few pulling the strings. It is clear that the outsized influence of business on political outcomes compared to that of individuals must be substantively reduced. That means that the opportunities for societal influence upon corporate governance must be increased, but how is that done without stifling business management?

Who's the bossβ–³

In a democracy, businesses are allowed by the grace of its citizens to exist, so those same citizens should decide what their scope and limits are.

Like with government, all citizens cannot be involved directly in making such decisions, so this has been left to their elected representatives. That has provided those with nefarious intent the opportunity to subvert the will of the people, particularly by providing huge contribution to political campaigns, if not outright bribes. Of course, who people elect has been subverted by the constant barrage of political and economic propaganda that pushes business as the superior means of societal improvement, all based upon money as the measure of success.

This means corporate financing of candidates should be banned, but most of that is done through the intermediary political parties. The obvious step is to disconnect political candidates' campaign financing from vested interests, so government should finance those campaigns evenly. Also, any political commentary should disclose the source of its financing so that people can see clearly who is trying to influence their choices.

As for the corporate governance itself, the obligation of businesses should be set to focus not just on direct shareholder value, but societal shareholder value, which includes all the financial and resource infrastructure without which business and the wider society it exists in would collapse. In this regard, the country in which a business operates must be considered a shareholder because of that investment.

The environment in which business operates needs to be stabilised so business financing should be stabilised. A large part of that in the corporate world is governed by stock markets, but they have been increasingly subject to hostile speculation. The only way to minimise that is to increase the time that shares must be held before they can be sold, say a year. That would eliminate the influence of the speculators while providing a fair degree of certainty for businesses that want to plan properly for their future. Stock exchanges could do this now, which would suit superannuation funds.

A key resource to be considered is the earth itself, and business activity must be constrained to preserve the ecological systems that support all societies. It is finite and any activity that will consume a significant amount of its resources, either individually or collectively, must be shown to positively improve the earth, as we will need all activity to participate in the recovery of the earth if we are to survive.

To take back control of our lives, we will need to both reduce the influence others can have over us and increase what we can have control over, as long as it doesn't disproportionately affect others' ability to do the same. Part of that is relegating businesses to being second class to people. That will require reframing laws and regulations to promote the wellbeing of people over business interests. Business interests are not currently peoples' interests, at least not in a way that improves their health or happiness.

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