Monday, 15 July 2013

Downturn Abbey

[Previously on Downturn Abbey: Lord Eton found out his banker cousin had lost him almost a million pounds and he would henceforth be only the third wealthiest billionaire in the country. He told his butler that all the staff’s wages would be reduced and everyone downstairs must learn to tighten their belts.]

Butler: Your papers, M’Lord.

Lord E: What depressing news have we today? I see my stocks have risen by a measly 7%. I’m afraid we have to cut back further, Tompkins.

Butler: As you wish, M’Lord.

Lord E: Tell the staff that they will be limited to one meal a day from now on. And this winter, we can’t afford to heat their quarters, so they should save up to buy some thicker clothes.

Butler: Anything else, M’Lord.

Lord E: The party Lady Eton and I are hosting next week, I want it to be a more lavish affair than ever. It wouldn’t do for people to think my position is in any way diminished by my cousin’s buffoonery with my investment portfolio. So make sure we have absolutely the most expensive wine, and the finest caviar. And arrange for the London Symphonic to play in the garden.

Butler: I’ll see to it straightaway.

Lord E: Before you go, Tompkins, tell me, do you think the birthday present I picked out for Dame Elizabeth Crompton is too common? I dare say she must have a fleet of yachts already.

Butler: Would you like me to cancel the order?

Lord E: No, we can give the yacht to Miranda when she graduates next year. But what shall I give Lizzy instead? Oh I know, book her on one of those ghastly space tours to the moon. It’s absurdly costly, I’m told, and something so vulgar would be just her cup of tea. What’s the matter, Tompkins, you don’t approve?

Butler: I wouldn’t have an opinion about such things, M’Lord. Forgive me, I was just remembering a news story I heard on the wireless this morning.

Lord E: Well, do tell.

Butler: It was about a butcher who terrorised his family. He made his ten children do all the work, but while he had a luxurious life with the money he made, and enjoyed the best cut of meat, he kept his children locked up at night in a cold dungeon and only threw them scraps every now and then to keep them from starving to death.

Lord E: Tompkins, that’s a tall tale if I ever heard one.

Butler: How so, M’Lord?

Lord E: If there were ever such a butcher, his children – and you said there were ten of them – would simply have to get together to give him a good beating, kick him out and end his petty tyranny. Isn’t that right, Tompkins?

Butler: Never a truer word spoken, M’Lord.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Anti-Social Enterprise

It should be no surprise that businesses, like the individuals who run them, are found all along the moral spectrum.

There are those who integrate the pursuit of financial success with the aim of safeguarding the wellbeing of those affected by their operations (i.e., their workers, customers, suppliers, local communities, and the environment). They do this with a variety of means: worker representation on the board; employee ownership; worker/consumer cooperative structures; asset locks tied to community benefits; independent audit of social (as well as environmental and economic) bottom-line measures; and the investment of their surplus to meet defined social ends instead of channelling any of it towards personal profit.

But there are also many corporate executives who not only fail to give due consideration to wider social concerns, but who have no compunction about hurting others in the process of expanding their own wealth and power. Gambling away other people’s life savings; putting employees in highly dangerous working conditions; turning consumers into addictive wrecks; pricing the poor out of essentials such as homes and energy; polluting our air and water; the list goes on.

Indeed near the irresponsible end of the spectrum, the difference between a successful entrepreneur and a shameless racketeer may simply come down to whether one has enough money and connections to get the law suitably changed.

Of late, quite a few of the corporations, which have been screaming for the state to get off their backs (so they could make more money off the backs of those unprotected by the law), have taken to donning the label ‘social’ as though it were an amulet that can protect them from all criticisms. Thus we hear of their top-level commitment to corporate social responsibility, and their dedication to generating social value. But the only fitting characterisation of them where the word ‘social’ has a place is Anti-Social Enterprise.

Unfortunately, some conniving politicians support anti-social enterprise because they can benefit from the latter in terms of campaign funding, financial dividends, or future board positions. They plot to remove regulatory ‘red tape’ so these businesses can do as they please. They pretend there is no significant difference between socially dependable and routinely irresponsible organisations.

But anti-social behaviour should be no more tolerated in a firm than in an individual.

Any decent political party concerned with building a responsible economy will understand that for socially minded businesses to thrive, a level-playing field must be cleared of the negative practices deployed to undercut them. Unless anti-social behaviour such as exploitative wage-setting, pollution, marketing of unsafe products, tax dodging, corporate funding of political collaborators, are systematically tackled, the conscientious entrepreneurs would be crowded out by the corrupt and the callous.

Furthermore, no anti-social enterprise should be allowed to get away with deceiving the public by proclaiming their ‘social’ credentials when all they possess is a shameful if well-disguised track record of deceit and exploitation.

Enterprise can indeed be a force for good, provided its anti-social elements are weeded out.