Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
Standing and yelling and singing in Zuccotti Park only gets you so far. There’s a real way to “occupy” Wall Street that hits them where they live. Corporations are, amazingly, democracies.
We hand out millions of college diplomas that prove education in everything from microorganisms to law to engineering, but we don’t teach our children how to balance a checkbook, or, more important, how the investment world of Wall Street really works. This makes us ripe for rip-off by the con-men, carnies and hucksters that command Wall Street, and allows the kind of rampant, unaccountable use of corporations as personal fiefdoms by a handful of the self-anointed.
There is a way to beat them at their own game: Take command of the corporatocracy.
Last year we showed you in U.S. Economy 101 (in Plain English, with Humor!): How the GOP and the Media Are Shucking You how the hyperbole and myth that pumped up the phony Debt Ceiling debate that still infects Right-Wingnut thinking, worked. Now it’s time for our 102 course: How to make accountable the corporate “people” who control our political democracy.
Grover Norquist spent 35+ years the infiltrating the Congress filling it with moron Teahadis who are easy to manipulate so he can steward the devolution of government that he’s been seeking. It’s brilliant, in a dark, Darth Vaderish sort of way, but it causes one to think about how to make Wall Street and corporate America accountable.
Most people don’t know much about stocks and bonds, beyond what they hear on TV commercials between touch-downs or on Sunday morning political chat shows. Much of that is just fear-driven narrative to make you talk to the carnies and hucksters who want to sell you stuff that makes them money, and might make you a bit, if you’re lucky enough to find someone who cares about your existence enough. (Most don’t.).
They make it hard enough and scary enough that the blinders go on and you “trust” them. Serious mistake, but one made by millions daily because we are so poorly educated financially, and it intimidates us.
So here’s your big Econ 102 factoid: Corporations are, at least on paper, democracies.
When you buy a “share” of a company, you become a part-owner of that company. A very, very small part, true, as most large corporations have millions of shares of stock outstanding these days, but a part nonetheless.
It does, however, give you a voice. Every year, companies that issue public stock hold shareholder meetings, and you’re invited. You get a ballot, a pamphlet explaining what’s on the ballot, and information as to where and when the shareholders meeting is being held.
The Board of Directors, and the top management of a company stand for election. It is usually a rubber-stamp affair. Most shareholders don’t vote. Those that do vote by mail, or online. Few seldom attend the meetings. Almost none, percentage-wise, speak at them.
Some corporations have very uptight, secretive, restrictive kinds of shareholder meetings. Others, like Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, are more like shareholder Woodstock.
Mutual funds are the companies that most Americans or the 401Ks of most businesses feel comfortable enough to trust with their investment nest-eggs. They tend to have the largest “voice” in shareholder meetings.
Your $1000 and Bob’s $20,000 and Jane’s $100,000 from her decades old 401K come together behind someone who is supposed to go to bat for you. Mutual Funds, though, are Wall Streeters through and through. They will look at the financial interests of the company, but seldom, if ever, do they have much to say about the politics or giving of a corporation, unless the fund has some sort of stated social agenda, like being Green.
They should speak out more. You should speak out more.
Every year, I see on corporate ballots measures that Boards and management object to, that shareholders have managed to place on the ballots.
They will stick a recommendation of “AGAINST” or “NO” next to most shareholder-driven initiatives. Many I’ve voted for, as they tend to be pro-shareholder. Most people rubber-stamp the recommendations of the Board of the company.
You shouldn’t though. Via your rights as a shareholder, you can have a say on all kinds of things:
Corporate sultans get away with this stuff because they seldom, if ever, get called out on it.
You can make corporate boards and executive suites more accountable. Going to a meeting is good. Speaking at one is better, but there is a more effective means of getting their attention: Band together. With a large enough pool of voters, you can get corrective action on the company’s annual agenda. With enough shareholders, you can even press to get someone who represents your point of view seated on the Board of Directors.
Years ago, that would have been impossible. Who knows who holds what stock, and how much? How do you organize? Executives and Boards don’t like to lose control of their agenda, so they make it difficult for you to learn these things from the internal organization. The process was costly and time consuming.
Thanks to the Internet, and clever groups like Occupy Wall Street, the 99% can take control back of the money that they’ve been giving to the 1% through their 401Ks, their unions, and their own personal investments.
It’s time to network, speak up, and act up, intelligently.
Gaining access to the inside so a handful of street demonstrators can yell and scream and get ushered out may get you a news crew or two, but it doesn’t change the system.
A few attempts have been made to be heard on a corporate board by single issue folks who object to a pipeline, or a project that have gone this route, to little consequence other than the occasional newspaper headline.
This is where old Grover Norquist, his Teahadis, and the Libertarian Dead Billionaires who back them have been much smarter than Democrats.
You do not want to protest the power. You want to become a player that regulates the power from within, and changes the system.
Organize small shareholders. People like you and me that own a little bit of the company. Shareholders can assign another person, via a proxy, on their ballot, to cast their vote at the meeting for them. Network online. Find the shareholders of a wide variety of companies so our friends in the corporate boardrooms can’t prepare stonewall defenses. Find people who want to represent the 99%. Make them proxies. Have them attend the meetings with an attorney schooled in board room politics and Securities and Exchange Commission law.
Have an agenda specific to the company. Remember that this is a business, and to conduct yourself in a business-like fashion. Make a fiscal case for good political and social corporate behavior.
You want the 99% off of your back, Bank [BRAND HERE]? Put forth a resolution that for the bank to renegotiate home mortgages at current rates to reduce the red-line mortgage backlog. Get an action item on the ballot for the next election to prohibit the company from engaging in acts of corporate “personhood” in political giving without majority approval of the shareholders.
In larger groups, you can effect real change. Work with like-minded large stakeholders like mutual funds, which have their own agenda to grind. Coalition building can make a variety of positive changes to the old-boy dominated boardrooms of corporate America.
For those corporations whose CEOs believe that they live on Mount Olympus, free to do as they will, stick the same kind of monkey wrenches into their game that Grover and his pals stick into your federal Congress.
No benefits packages for upper management until certain changes are made, or targets are met, that bring the corporation into being a better “citizen.” End extravagant bonuses. Bring CEO pay down to Earth again, and give the money back to the shareholders who really own the business anyway.
Mutual Funds are also member organizations. Get enough shareholders of the fund together, and tell them what you expect from the fund in terms of requiring a higher standard in their investment portfolios. Get enough of the key mutual funds to make corporate citizenship a selling point of their investing, and you’ll see a whole new day in boardrooms that you still haven’t managed to affect through direct action.
As we found out when the Disney family took on the Mickey Mouse management of Michael Eisner, shareholders in large enough groups have impact on corporations, even with the many defenses and questionable end-runs of SEC rules that many CEOs and upper management teams engage in.
It’s easy to demagogue “corporate America,” to turn them into a bogeyman that you can rail at helplessly from the sidewalk, where you can’t do a thing but shout in vain as they toast you from the windows of their suites and flip you the bird.
Own the Street, and you own the guys in the suits. We already do, really, when you think about it. We’ve just been absentee owners who don’t realize what power we hold.
So your homework for today is: What stock do you own? What mutual funds? How can you find others like you? Start up sites on the web to unify. Make yourself heard at annual meetings throughout the land. Effect positive change in the companies in which you invest.
Watch for the companies’ saboteurs. They will be there too. Power protects itself.
My shiny two.