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Posts Tagged ‘corporations’

In October, the New York Times ran a story comparing how older large corporations–the recently bankrupted Sears, in particular–were more generous to their lower-rung employees than are the newer ones–Amazon, in particular. Sears (the Amazon of its day) had offered more in wages, benefits, and stock options. The Times story failed to point out the important, and invisible to most Americans, sea change in business that fostered such differences: the triumph of “shareholder value.”

Shareholder value is the doctrine that officials of a publicly-held corporation must focus on maximizing the value of its shares rather than act in the interests of workers, suppliers, customers, the local community, society at large, the environment, themselves as managers, or the corporation itself. The ascendancy of this guiding principle since about 1970s has boosted inequality by making investors and management much wealthier and by weakening workers and localities. Dealing with this idea is one of the challenges facing those who seek to reverse growing inequality.

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Return on Investment

In 1977 or so, I was one of a number of social scientists who got a freebie from the U.S. government: use of a portable teletype machine that would allow me to send messages to other social scientists over something called “ARPAnet” – the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency computer network.

hck via flikr

It looked sort of like the device to right. I could type out messages on a roll of paper and someone else on the “net” – whatever that was – could get my machine to type their answers back to me.

The purpose of the loan was to see if scientists could put this kind of communication systems to good use, to find out if this “electronic mailing” technology would accelerate scientific collaboration and discovery. Given the expense of the device, I was to share it with the professor next door, Ron Burt (now at the University of Chicago Business School). It turns out that I didn’t have much to write over the ARPAnet, but Ron did, so he mainly held on to the device.

Thus, I was a minuscule – and not too helpful – part of a federal project that eventuated in the “World Wide Web,” the Internet, online commerce like Amazon and Zappos, social networks like MySpace, and cute kitten videos on Youtube. Our tax dollars have paid off. But for whom?

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