Friday, October 28, 2011

Are companies responsible for creating jobs?

From today's Wall Street Journal. Check it out on the web for a video and a lot of right wing comments. Maybe add some balanced comments?

For anyone stepping gingerly through the encampment of Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan, it might be easy to dismiss the protest as just a living diorama of a 1960s Happening. That is, were it not for its intriguing challenge to American business, and Milton Friedman.

Let's stipulate that the demonstrators have a fuzzy agenda. It's a smorgasbord of gripes ranging from income inequality to poor housing to executive pay—viewed as out of touch with executive value, which maybe we should stipulate too. The protest is diffuse, and young, and cohabitating under tarps. A passerby guiding his three children through the thicket of tents is overheard saying to his wife: "Let's get outta here before the kids see something they shouldn't."

But what about one of the group's chief beefs: that business is falling short of its social responsibility, including creating jobs at home? Some politicians have given a nod of legitimacy to the protests. A CNN poll found that 32% of Americans favor the demonstrations while many others are still making up their minds.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist, blasted the very idea of corporate social responsibility four decades ago, calling it a "fundamentally subversive doctrine." Speaking for many capitalists then and now, he said, "there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game."

Companies shouldn't spend profits on unrelated job creation or social causes, he said. That money should go to shareholders—the owners of the companies. Pronouncements about corporate social responsibility, he added, are the indulgence of "pontificating executives" who are "incredibly shortsighted and muddleheaded in matters that are outside their businesses." And that indulgence can lead to inefficient markets.

What then to make of Howard Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, who in a letter earlier this month to fellow business leaders asked them to help "get Americans back to work and our economy growing again."

He described Starbucks's own growth and hiring plans—a net of several thousand new jobs—and announced a $5 million donation by the Starbucks Foundation to a group that helps finance local businesses. Starbucks will also encourage customers and employees to donate. He's calling the program "Create Jobs for USA." Occupy Wall Street would like this.

In a blog post last week, Mr. Schultz elbowed aside Mr. Friedman's triumph of profit: "Companies that hold on to the old-school, singular view of limiting their responsibilities to making a profit will not only discover it is a shallow goal but an unsustainable one," the post on the Harvard Business Review website read. "Values increasingly drive consumer and employee loyalties. Money and talent will follow those companies whose values are compatible."

Occupy Wall Street has challenged American companies to create jobs, not just profits, and that appeals to some CEOs. Is this just window dressing, a new spin on PR and marketing? A group of CEOs and executives from large companies, including Exxon, Cisco and McDonald's, echo Mr. Schultz's view, though perhaps with a tighter link between largess and corporate self interest.

The group, through their New York-based Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, highlights projects such as Wal-Mart's effort to reduce packaging in its supply chain (good for the environment, good for Wal-Mart's costs); IBM's "Service Corps," which sends young executives to help developing countries (good for the countries, good for scouting for future IBM business) and PepsiCo's program to train corn farmers in Mexico (good for the farmers, good for PepsiCo, which needed an improved supply of corn).

To do it right, the group says, companies should pick issues that "are integral to the achievement of larger business goals...issues that drive growth or reduce costs" and also help society. That's a higher bar than pure charity.

John Mackey, co-chief executive of Whole Foods, goes a bit farther. In a duel with Mr. Friedman in an issue of Reason magazine in 2005, he wrote: "From an investor's perspective, the purpose of the business is to maximize profits. But that's not the purpose for other stakeholders—for customers, employees, suppliers and the community. Each of those groups will define the purpose of the business in terms of its own needs and desires, and each perspective is valid and legitimate."

In that exchange, Mr. Friedman acknowledged the value of corporate goodwill in a community—and tending to it—and counseled business to stick to a tight definition of shareholder interest.

Mr. Friedman died the following year, but clearly his ideas on the subject didn't. Economic growth creates jobs, not the other way around, his adherents say. And it helps if government regulates less.

"Jobs are an input, not an output; they're a cost of doing business, not a goal of doing business," says William Frezza, a Boston-based venture capitalist and fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
"From the perspective of defending capitalism, if you accept the premise of your opponent that business has to give back to society, you've already lost," he says. "To put sack cloth and ashes on—you've delegitimized capitalism, which is the goal of the protesters. Businesses give back to society every day by pleasing their customers and employing their employees. There's nothing business owes other than selling the best product at the best price."

Down at the demonstration, they've broken out the incense and are starting the drum-athon again.

Over at Starbucks, Mr. Schultz is counseling his fellow CEOs that "business leaders have to step up and do our part."

And across America, the 14 million unemployed are waiting for someone to be right.

Write to John Bussey at

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