American capitalism was on a roll in 1962 when I started my
management-consulting career. Our country had overcome a major
depression, won and paid for a world war, created outstanding
colleges and universities, financed advanced educations for millions
of GIs, and built a huge number of effective corporations.
People remembered the wretched excesses of the wealthy and
powerful of earlier times and, through enlightened politicians and
legislation, created an economic system that was fundamentally fair
to both investors and workers. Not only did investors become
wealthier and more numerous, but a typical working-class American --
working only 40 hours a week -- could support a family of four.
Corporations were beginning to have a sense of moral
responsibility. Progressive managers believed that loyalty meant
something, and that it was earned and owed, by both employee and
owner. Executives all across the country shifted their management
strategy away from brute force, threats and intimidation, toward
improving the quality of work life.
Since they felt they had a stake in the business, millions of
workers put their best efforts into quality circles, productivity
improvement teams and special task forces to help their
organizations become more efficient and profitable. When they
expressed concern that their greater efficiency might lead to
headcount reduction, they were promised that, no, that wouldn't
Management consultants like me, business owners and high-level
executives explained that as productivity and profits went up, as
technology improved and as the economy grew, everyone would benefit.
After all, that had been the trend during the 1940s, '50s and into
the '60s. We had become a modern, enlightened country. Honest work
deserved to be fairly compensated.
Economists of the '60s agreed. They accurately predicted the
explosion in productivity that we are seeing today, and mistakenly
theorized that by the year 2000, workers would have a four-day,
32-hour work week, with more vacation time, better medical care and
Then the 1980s arrived with a vengeance. Apologists for the
wealthy and powerful sold a new set of values to the voting public
that allowed pro-business, anti-worker politicians to get elected.
They, in turn, changed our economy from one that benefited both
investors and workers, to one that now benefits investors at the
expense of workers.
Once the balance of power shifted totally in their own direction,
the moral values of politicians, business owners, investors and high
level executives mysteriously changed -- back to the way it was
pre-1930, when fairness and justice had no place in business
There's a corollary to Lord Acton's axiom about power: Greed
erodes moral values, and insatiable greed destroys them totally.
The revered guru of modern corporate values, Milton Friedman,
posed and answered his famous question: "So the question is, do
corporate executives, provided they stay within the law, have
responsibilities in their business activities other than to make as
much money for their stockholders as possible? And my answer is, no
they do not."
This is probably the most frequently quoted justification for
greed that today's corporate executives cite. They not only feel no
responsibility for how their actions and decisions affect average
Americans or their local communities -- they sanctimoniously claim a
moral superiority for holding such selfish values.
Since greed has now been proclaimed a virtue, investors can
confiscate the wealth that workers, professionals and low-level
managers have produced over the decades and invest it outside our
country -- purely to benefit themselves, and with no regard for
those who originally produced the wealth.
Workers have the same status as machinery and are steadily losing
whatever human rights they once had. It's a ruthlessly one-sided
arrangement. No matter how much workers improve equipment or work
procedures, they don't share in the benefits.
It gets worse. As a work group becomes more effective, it
increases the likelihood that some of their members will be fired,
and those who remain will have to work harder than they did before,
with incomes that don't keep pace with inflation. Workers are told
that "competition demands it" -- despite record corporate profits
and skyrocketing incomes for executives and investors. Of course,
executives and stockholders exempt themselves from participating in
the cost-cutting competition and get fabulously rich in the
Although we can't legislate morality, we can legally require
behaviors that voters consider moral. We also can destroy the
legislation that protects those moral values, and that is exactly
what anti-labor politicians, both Republicans and conservative
Democrats, have been doing for the past 30 years.