There's a fable we tell ourselves about the U.S. in the mid-20th century. In this tale, almost everyone had a good, secure, decent-paying job in manufacturing, thanks to the power of unions and the dominance of American corporations. Then, the fable goes, the rich used their money to seize control of politics and dismantle the old system, raiding companies in the name of shareholder value and turning the once- proud U.S. middle class into a nation of temps.
Much of this is a myth, of course. Manufacturing provided less than a third of U.S. jobs in 1953, and declined steadily from that point on. Unionization began declining later, but peaked at only about 35 percent of the workforce. There were always a lot of outsiders looking in on those good jobs.
But like all fables, this one has a grain of truth. Since the 1970s, when the U.S. turned toward shareholder capitalism, inequality has soared, as has economic insecurity. Gross domestic product has continued to grow at a steady clip, but almost all of the gains have gone to top earners.
This has many people, especially liberals, pining for the old days of the corporate welfare state, when companies were -- supposedly -- run for the benefit of all stakeholders, not just shareholders. If corporations remain yoked to the service of shareholder value uber alles, it will be very hard -- probably impossible-- for labor unions to regain the bargaining clout they once possessed.
Those liberal voices are now merging with others who say that shareholder capitalism has damaged the health of American industry. Shareholders, they say, are more short-term thinkers than managers, so shareholder capitalism has reduced investment in research and other projects that pay off big in the long term. Max Ehrenfreund of The Washington Post reports: "The problem, some say, is that while the heads of corporations focus on immediate profits, they ignore their companies' prospects for expansion and vitality in the long term, whether by declining to pay for employees' training, neglecting research and development, or refraining from building new plants and factories. Over the decades, the results would be an economy that is less robust all around...
"Skeptics are finding an audience in Washington...A commission at the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington recently produced a report on improving living standards for the poor and the middle class, which dedicated several pages to the debate over shareholder value...one of the chairs of the commission was Larry Summers and the founder of the center is John Podesta, a veteran Democratic strategist who is advising Hillary Rodham Clinton."
I share many of the liberal concerns about the plight of the middle class. But I'm deeply skeptical of the idea that it's time for a move back toward corporatism.
My perspective comes partly from my time in Japan, a country that in many ways is still more corporatist than the U.S. ever was. Japan's corporate boosters, such as the late Akio Morita of Sony, used to boast that Japanese companies look far into the future -- something the new corporatists want U.S. companies to do. Japanese companies also traditionally made thin profit margins, and handed out cash to employees in the form of yearly bonuses and guaranteed seniority pay raises.
The problem is, the Japanese system has come under extreme strain lately. The pressures of international competition have slowly eroded that lifetime employment system. Companies such as Panasonic, that once talked of 700-year business plans, have been forced to spend all their energy reacting to short-term challenges posed by the rise of powerful competitors such as Samsung. Meanwhile, inequality and insecurity have risen. Long- term thinking and stakeholder capitalism proved to be very thin armor against the twin onslaught of globalization and rapid technological change.
Finally, it looks as if Japan might be throwing in the towel and moving away from the 20th-century system, with a new corporate governance code that places an emphasis on profit and shareholder control. Given this move, which in hindsight looks long overdue, should the U.S. really be moving in the opposite direction? Perhaps the pendulum swung too far toward shareholders in the U.S., and not far enough in Japan. Perhaps we do need to find some way of mitigating the extremes of shareholder capitalism, just as Japan is trying to inch toward it gradually.
But I think we need to be very careful. The rise in inequality and the stagnation in middle-class incomes might not have been the result of U.S. politics. It might have been caused by the pressures of globalization -- the billions of new workers dumped on the global labor market by the end of the Cold War -- and the advances in information technology that allowed American companies to harness those workers.
If that was what caused the woes of the neoliberal age, then the move to shareholder capitalism was probably just a necessary response. We should think twice before undoing that move.
Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for finance and business publications.