Reimagining the Corporate Form

Occupy Wall Street has, in the words of John Paul Rollert, “come to embody a common sense that something is wrong with American capitalism.” The problem Rollert points to is not with capitalism itself, but with a particular American version that has ceased to work for broad cross-sections of its population. Given America’s Depression-level income inequality and near-record levels of public and private indebtedness, it is extremely tempting to focus on bad outcomes as the problem. The real issue, however, is that many of the economic and political structures that we take for granted repeatedly produce unequal, undesirable outcomes. If reformers seek to make American capitalism more inclusive, the focus needs to be on fixing these structures and getting the rules right.

It has been a steady mantra of Occupy Wall Street not to make demands of existing political leaders and institutions. But as Matt Langer explained, “the reasoning behind not making demands most certainly does not preclude making demands of our collective imagination.” Whether people prefer to work within existing structures or not, the next essential step is to understand how broken institutions and flawed incentives created this mess and to start imagining what structures can be built in their place. Where better to start than with corporations?
Current Structures and Their Shortcomings
Consider the role that our system of corporate governance has played in producing some of our current imbalances. Excessive risk-taking, stagnating wages, and the spike in executive compensation can all be linked back to a system of corporate governance that privileges management’s interests at the expense of other actors. It’s by no means an original observation to say that boards are under the sway of management. Indeed, the US is something of a global outlier in allowing a business’ president/CEO to appoint its board of directors, and in some cases the president/CEO actually serves dually as the chair of the board. Not only is the composition of the board not reflective of its owners, employees, or investors, boards are only subjected to a relatively relaxed legal standard. As a result, directors often find that their interests (i.e. staying on the board) are best served by taking a passive role and letting management make most of the choices. In light of this structural failure to limit conflicts-of-interest, it should be unsurprising then that the interests of employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders are, at best, secondary to those of executives. As Harvard Law Professor Mark Roe succinctly phrased it, “the US is managerialist, not capitalist.”
Current governance arrangements have had an enormous impact on the larger economy and on the distributive features of American capitalism. To begin with, the existing corporate governance system (in conjunction with other regulatory failings) has proven inadequate to keep excessive managerial risk-taking under control. Despite the Enron disaster, the fall of Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, and the near-collapse of many of America’s over-leveraged financial firms in 2008, we appear to have done nothing to address this issue. These risk-induced failures were repeated last week in the near-overnight fall of MF Global. As though nothing was learned, the star-studded MF Global board sat by and, in Steven Davidoff’s words, “executives were given free rein to take tremendously risky bets that brought the house down.”