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Shareholders of the world unite!

By enterfornone in Op-Ed
Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 10:23:53 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

We often hear about the big evil companies that are trying to take away our rights. If you listen to some, companies are faceless organisations that exist solely to create a profit regardless of the consequences.

But companies are really just collections of people like you and me. And while some of them are all about the dollar, according to this article a growing number small shareholders are using their power to stand up to companies in areas such as environmental issues and over the top executive salaries.

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According to the article 5.7 Australians own shares directly. Many more own shares as a result of superannuation and other investments. This means a significant number of Australia's 20 million population have some control over the companies that many believe are the real powers that run the country.

While most consider shares solely for their investment value, even the smallest shareholding gives a person at least some say in the running of a company. If these shareholders were to band together they could become a very powerful force. Imagine free software advocates buying up on Microsoft shares, Napster users buying into record companies, the chronically ill and elderly buying into drug companies. And imagine if these people decided to run these companies for the good of the people rather than simply for profit.

Imagine the sort of cost savings you would have if everyone who shopped at the supermarket owned shares in a supermarket chain. If everyone who used the phone bought into a phone company. Companies would no longer be able to take advantage of their customers because they would be run by their customers. Imagine if TV stations and newspapers were owned by the people and not the rich few who only tell you what they want you to see and read.

Can companies succeed if they are not run for profit. Certainly, co-operative companies have been running successfully for as long as for-profit companies. But are people willing to use their power to run existing for profit companies for the good of the people? Absolute power might corrupt absolutely, but distributing power into the hands of people who have more to gain by co-operation than by self interest it would be difficult for few greedy people to wrestle control from the many.

All it takes is enough people who want to make a difference.


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Shareholders of the world unite! | 28 comments (22 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
nope (4.00 / 9) (#2)
by Nyarlathotep on Mon Jan 01, 2001 at 05:02:23 PM EST

I doubt that share holder activism will really work since the "magnification of effort factor" lies on the side of "evil." Specifically, getting large numbers of stock holders to agree that a mild loose for their small investment would benifit the world is a lot more work then just getting one or two very rich stock holders to agree that any loose to their large investments would not be worth the help to society.

I mean look at all the trouble we have with elections and everyone has exactly one vote. It will just be much worse when a few "bad" people have 30% of the votes.

The corperations need to be opposed by bad PR, lost market share, the courts, and the legistature. Unfortunatly, the these things are all sensitive to money, so we should do things to reduce the impact of money on government, market share, and PR.


Campus Crusade for Cthulhu -- it found me!
The little guy (4.00 / 3) (#12)
by www.sorehands.com on Mon Jan 01, 2001 at 11:13:29 PM EST

The little guy doesnt have the impact on votes.

Stockholder meetings are dong and pony shows. The vote at the Mattel shareholders' meeting meant nothing. All the proxy votes is what decided the election (no recounts, no chad). If something came up for a vote at the meeting, it was selected by the board since they have the proxy on issues not on the proxy mailings.

But, with the internet lowering the cost of entry, setting up protests via a website may have some impact. It will at least warn and inform people about the issues.

Mattel, SLAPP terrorists intent on destroying free speech.
[ Parent ]

uh.... (4.00 / 4) (#16)
by chale on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 03:41:14 AM EST

interesting typo there about ponies. unless you were at a strange meeting.
When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world. -John Muir
[ Parent ]
a slip. (none / 0) (#27)
by www.sorehands.com on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 02:36:21 AM EST

Maybe it was a Freudian slip?

Either way, it would be true given some of the people there.

Mattel, SLAPP terrorists intent on destroying free speech.
[ Parent ]

nope (well sort of) (4.00 / 2) (#18)
by YellowBook on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 12:08:27 PM EST

The corporations need to be opposed by bad PR, lost market share, the courts, and the legistature. Unfortunatly, the these things are all sensitive to money, so we should do things to reduce the impact of money on government, market share, and PR.

I agree with you here, but I want to point out that being a shareholder activist gives you admission to a great place to drum up bad PR for the company's misdoings: at the shareholder meetings. If you can get press coverage for your blunt questions at a shareholder meeting, it's worth lots more than a press release from an outside activist group.

[ Parent ]
true (4.00 / 1) (#23)
by Nyarlathotep on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 02:03:35 AM EST

Yes, there is a reasonable chance that talking to the stockholders will find a few powerful people who care, but this will not really be an effective "protest" since these people will not really be willing to risk losing money. Plus, the people who do not care will simply assume that anything but the current activities runs a risk. Now, talking to the stockholders will be helpful if you can propose an alternative course of action AND they have a reason to take your couse of action. Specifically, if the company is getting bad PR from outside orginisations then you can show the stockholders minimal risk a way to avoid the bad PR. The key hear is that a combination of pain (outside "your evil" preasure) and guidance (inside "here is a better way" preasure).

Fighting the CPRM for hard drives is a perfect example of how to use stockholder activism correctly. Point to all the noise from the internet community and ask the hard disk makers to kill the standard. Killing the CPRM standard will not cost the drive makers any "on book" profits (just back room pay offs), but it will make stockholder feal less nervous about stock prices during the summer.

Campus Crusade for Cthulhu -- it found me!
[ Parent ]
Business and social responsibility (3.57 / 7) (#4)
by jesterzog on Mon Jan 01, 2001 at 05:42:52 PM EST

stand up to companies in areas such as environmental issues and over the top executive salaries

I'm not sure what's so wrong with "over the top" executive salaries. If a company deems it worth paying so much to get a certain person, what's the problem? It's inevitably because the person is worth paying so much for what the company is attempting to do, and the goal could just as easily be community-friendly as anything else. (Note, this isn't a criticism of the writeup, which is just describing the article.)

Other than that, I don't know if corporations really need people to force them to treat everyone nicely. A lot of them just need to be educated some more in better ways to do business. At least here, a lot of businesses have begun recognising over the past decade or so that treating people nice gets results.

It's an old idea that a businesses' responsibility is solely to the shareholders, but a much more modern idea that by respecting all stakeholders, all stakeholders get something back. (Stakeholder means anyone who is affected by the business, whether it's a shareholder, an employee, a member of the community, or anyone else.)

Out of four places I've worked (temping) in the last year, one of them has had cubicles for some of their employees - that was the one that I never would have worked out permanantly and their management was a bit screwed up. Even when I was a temporary postal worker shuffling letters from numbered boxes on one side of the corridor to numbered boxes on the other side, we still got treated really well. They don't want a high employee turnover because the longer people stay in a company, the more qualified they are to do whatever the company does.

There's also a lot of motivation for businesses to be good corporate citizens. (Check out Business for Social Responsibility.) Most notably if you screw up the community you're operating in, you won't get as much back from them either.

Yes I know there are exceptions, and maybe society still does need to keep an untrusting watch on them. I think that's more a case of archaic 50's management still hanging around.. which isn't very efficient.

jesterzog Fight the light

executive salaries (3.60 / 5) (#19)
by YellowBook on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 12:28:23 PM EST

I'm not sure what's so wrong with "over the top" executive salaries. If a company deems it worth paying so much to get a certain person, what's the problem? It's inevitably because the person is worth paying so much for what the company is attempting to do

I don't think so. I have the impression that CEO compensation packages have been ballooning over the past couple of decades in large part due to overlapping board membership which lets CEOs have their salaries set by their friends and peers.

Maybe this would be clearer with an example: consider three CEOs A, B, and C, who are the top executives of companies A, B, and C respectively. Each CEO is also on the board of one or more companies other than the one of which they are CEO. So:

  • CEO A is on the boards of Company B and Company C.
  • CEO B is on the boards of Company A and Company C.
  • CEO C is on the boards of Company A and Company B.

When executive compensation packages are decided on for each of these CEOs, the other two CEOs take part in the decision. There is therefore a strong motivation for A to vote higher salaries for B and C, apart from any consideration of class solidarity, which probably also plays a role. In this way, executive compensation packages are in the nature of a warm personal gift from the CEO to himself.

These kinds of incestuous relationships are ubiquitous in American (and presumably global) business. If anyone wants specific citations and data (on overlapping membership of corporate boards), ask me, and I will be able to dig it up tonight when I can go through my books at home. There's some basic news coverage at this link (with some indication that this trend may be declining in recent years, however).

[ Parent ]
Let them "waste" their money (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by Matt Hall on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 04:09:14 PM EST

If they truly are wasting enormous amounts of money on executive salaries, then it stands to reason that outsider competing firms will keep executive salaries considerably lower in order to increase margins.

Anyway, I don't buy into that. Among men of the upper class, there is no class solidarity or and rather little "friends before dollars". They may be on multiple boards, but every wasted dollar into their friends' pockets is one out of their own. Further, board members are liable to the stockholders they represent. What you suggest may actually happen in isolated instances, but it is not rational nor in their longer term self-interest to act as suggested.

To go a bit off on a tangent, class solidarity among the modern upper class is essentially nonexistant in economic affairs. To suggest so is ridiculous... I cannot think of a class with less of such motive.

[ Parent ]
executive salaries and the free market (4.00 / 1) (#21)
by YellowBook on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 05:44:36 PM EST

If they truly are wasting enormous amounts of money on executive salaries, then it stands to reason that outsider competing firms will keep executive salaries considerably lower in order to increase margins.

Yes, that's true if there are outsider competing firms. That's certainly the case with small businesses in competitive industries, which is probably one reason you don't see excessive CEO salaries in those industries. However, in the higher strata of the economy, I'm not sure there are such outsiders: there just aren't that many megacorps total, and their boards overlap heavily. Anyway, even the most obscenely inflated executive salary is not likely to be large enough in comparison to the company's total revenues for low CEO salaries to be a point of economic competition (scale matters here).

Among men of the upper class, there is no class solidarity.

Maybe not, which is why I only mentioned that in an aside. However, the setup above doesn't depend on class solidarity. It's in the personal self interest of any of the CEOs above to play the compensation package inflation game. While it may not be in the long-term benefits of the company, I don't really believe that that matters. Professional managers are increasingly mobile between companies, so I don't see why managers can be expected to place loyalty to a company over their personal compensation (especially given that the same process that inflates their compensation package can upgrade their golden parachute).

[ Parent ]
Interesting possibilities. (4.20 / 5) (#6)
by elenchos on Mon Jan 01, 2001 at 05:55:10 PM EST

Compare the Australian cases to the bemusing situation with Maxxam Corp., which has fought with strikers at it's Kaiser Aluminmum Plants here in Spokane, and battled environmentalists through Pacific Lumber. There have been various attempts to get them to change course through shareholder power, partially by activists, but also by those tired of the company losing money.

That last link is to a Fortune magazine article listing America's Worst Boards. Incidentally, another company on this list, for the fourth year, is AMD.

What to make of it? I dunno. How about this:
    By not prizing goods hard to get, you will cause people to cease robbing and stealing.
You make a couple of dangerous assumptions. (4.12 / 8) (#10)
by Christopher Thomas on Mon Jan 01, 2001 at 09:52:27 PM EST

You seem to be making a couple of assumptions that look fairly shaky to me, especially for your supermarket example:

  • You assume that most companies are gouging their customers.
    Some companies certainly are. However, most of the small and many of the medium-sized companies around here are operating on razor-thin margins. Force their prices down... and they die. Supermarkets, for example, aren't exactly a high-margin business. Figuring out which companies are overcharging is non-trivial, which leads into my next point:

  • You assume that Joe Sixpack can figure out what the best company policies are.
    Joe Sixpack flunked out of economics. Joe Sixpack will primarily care about low prices, and little about anything else. Joe Sixpack would promptly run most companies into the ground if given a shiny button labelled "press here to lower prices". This is a Bad Thing - we'd wind up with fewer companies and the same prices.

In practice, you'd need to have a group of people who know about the economics of running companies to explain to the masses what will happen when you tweak any of these numbers, or change company policy in any given way. You might also want to restrict voting to people who demonstrate some minimal understanding of the topic (though this raises fairness issues, and requires that the restrictions be continually checked for favouritism). In practice, Joe Sixpack wouldn't have the time or inclination to participate in meaningful decision making; he'd just want the shiny "lower-prices" button. Finding a solution here that works is very, very difficult.

Some kind of proxy scheme might work, with Joe Sixpack endorsing this or that lobby group that has, in theory, a clue about how industry works. On the other hand, cluefulness tends to be pretty random in existing lobby groups.

Good luck finding a workable solution. You'll need it.

(As an interesting aside, the same problems come up when you try to figure out how to fairly govern a country. Look at various countries' governments to see how well various implementations of voting do and don't work.)

It's all about voting with your dollar (4.80 / 5) (#11)
by vastor on Mon Jan 01, 2001 at 10:44:34 PM EST

Price gauging can vary though from area to area.

Like for example, studies have shown that Newcastle (where I live) has the best value groceries in Australia. Most likely because there are all the major companies present and the ease of which people can switch stores if they want to (public transport is decent and there aren't major traffic jams like you get in the capital cities as disincentives).

Presumably the stores here are profitable and providing a worthwhile return or they'd be closed down. Now certainly there may be reasons for groceries to be more expensive in other cities (they may have lower unemployment and need to offer workers more wages, higher costs for the store premises etc), but there should be recognisable ways of working out what a fair price is and what isn't.

Where there is a low barrier to entry you can normally rely upon benefits of scale to do the job. However things like airlines and CPU manufacturers can be quite different. Big corps can also engage in cross subsidisation - like MS producing internet explorer at a loss (back when it was originally made and had nothing to do with the OS at all) - so in effect MS Office/Win95 users were paying too much for those products to subsidise IE - a product nobody would pay for, telephone companies do similar things with bundling (if they're allowed to).

As for joe blow not being suited to micromanage companies - thats true, but there are for example superannuation funds which will direct the money into green or ethical companies and make sure they're run decently for you (if they do their job). If more people make sure that their money is managed responsibly then those funds managers will have the bulk influence needed to get these companies to change.

So working out which and where the corps are price gauging it is reasonably possible (especially if there is a good consumer watchdog organisation keeping an eye on things) and having a responsible third party funds management system take care of keeping the company viable but encouraging it to reform is a good way to bring about some change.

To go with your comparison to gov't, it'd be making it more like superannuation funds are the political parties that guide the politicians (CEOs of companies). People just need to pick a superannuation fund that will go for fairness (sustainable gov't policy) rather than one that goes for max profit that they can legally get away with (comparable to the cut taxes and slash services parties I guess).

[ Parent ]
Joe Sixpack buying stock in companies? (none / 0) (#25)
by rednecktek on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 03:56:50 PM EST

Not likely. I live next door to him. Nice enough fellow, but all he does with his money is work on his truck and buy beer.

I agree with your posts, but I believe the poster was trying to advocate taking a more pro-activte stance in the companies they use, to those who have the means to.

Just remember, if the world didn't suck, we'd all fall off.
[ Parent ]

Not quite right (3.50 / 4) (#13)
by TheDude on Mon Jan 01, 2001 at 11:34:12 PM EST

All it takes is enough people who want to make a difference.

I disagree. That statement should be "All it takes is enough people who go out and make a difference." Are there enough people who care enough about something that they do something to further it?

TheDude of Smokedot
Drug Info, Rights, Laws, and Discussion
Visit #smokedot on irc.smokedot.org

Sigh... (3.66 / 6) (#14)
by skim123 on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 02:06:56 AM EST

For-profit companies have something just like shareholders, if they are public or private... these "shareholders" are the consumers. It's called voting with your dollar.

Imagine free software advocates buying up on Microsoft shares

They can have the same impact by not buying Microsoft software.

imagine if these people decided to run these companies for the good of the people rather than simply for profit

Which they would have every right to try to do. Of course, when they do wrest control and attempt to run a "good" company, and the company goes under and out of business, who are these "good" people going to turn to since they over-invested themselves in these companies and now have worthless stock in a non-existent company? I'd be investing my money in a company with business sense, and the value of that company would increase and soar as these "good" companies went out of business.

Ok, so that may have the "greedy fuck" ring to it, and I am not like that. I just find it a bit disturbing when people try to force their moral values onto others. You view a company out to profit over serving the good of the community as a bad thing... fine, feel free, and associate with businesses that feel the same way, but don't try to muscle in on companies that don't want to do that. That's as bad as organized religion poking their nosy heads into peoples' lives and telling them how to live, what to do, etc.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

How can I express my self? (2.50 / 2) (#17)
by pkej on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 10:42:26 AM EST

This is something I care a bit about.

There is one problem with your "greedy fuck"-philosophy, a society is built upon the assumption that people contribute to the society, that one has rights and obligations. When greedy fucks start to muscle in on the little guy it ends in some kind of uprising.

Greedy fucks:

  • don't care about their obligations to those working for them
  • don't care about their obligations to the environment
  • don't care about their obligations to the individual
  • only care about their rights
  • only care about other's obligations to them
Corporations seems to extend their rights and reduce their obligations at the cost of the rest of society.

How is this done? By simply lobbying for the least common denominator. Examples:

  • workers in <western country here> are more expensive than <a poor country> thus we should change our way to better reflect their way
  • environmental standards are lower there than here, thus we move there
  • international rules should reflect the rules of <most lenient western country>
  • your rules should reflect their rules because you're a puny little country which we could buy up if we chose to, the "we might drop Norway if we don't like your rules" argument :)
  • we'll use other means to pressure you (the "Let the US government sanction on some urelating but very economic harmful issue to the offending ocuntry" method
And always the profit motive are put in front of everything else. I don't figure morality comes into this. It crosses into rights, human rights, international law etc. And the rights of all people to have fullfilling lives. You won't find that in the banana plantations in Latin America, gold mines in the Amazonas, and countless other places where profit goes before people.

Unfortunately many big (I mean the world biggest) companies are situated in backwards countries who pick and choose among which international threaties to follow or not, and/or countries easily bullied directly or by lobbying efforts.

[ Parent ]

Me too... (none / 0) (#22)
by skim123 on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 08:39:13 PM EST

This is something I care a bit about

Me too...

There is one problem with your "greedy fuck"-philosophy, a society is built upon the assumption that people contribute to the society, that one has rights and obligations

I argue that people have very basic set of rights: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness/property. Society's only obligation (and therefore, the only obligation of the members of said society) is to help ensure that others have those rights.

Second, I view corporations have the same rights as individuals, I don't differentiate between the corproation and individual. Should a corp. be able to violate a person's right to life? No. Should a person be able to violate a corporation's right to life? No. I am very Rand-ian, I believe that the best society is one that allows its members to freely trade amongst each other. If that means Worker X in Country Y will charge less to work, then Company Z would be wise to go hire Worker X, and, what right do YOU have to stop them? That would be synonymous to Company Z being able to stop you from buying Company Y's product since it was less expensive.

And always the profit motive are put in front of everything else

A corp (just like a person) must make money to stay afloat. You don't seem to besmirtch the individual who says, "I will work harder," or, "I will reduce expenses," in order to make a buck, so that he can get ahead in life, eat, provide shelter for his/her family, etc.

Now, if a corp threatens an individuals rights, then, yes, they should be punished. If a corp has slave labor, that is a violation of the slave's rights. If someone in a third-world nation is willing to work for two cents an hour, though, that's fair game. If my next door neighbor's kid is willing to mow my lawn for $2, what right do you have to step in and say that that vaule is too little, or too much?

A lot of people find my stance on social issues to be cold-hearted/greedy. (I am anti-minimum wage, anti-public education, anti-welfare, etc.) I am hardly such a person, though. I am very caring toward others, I just think that anytime anyone forces someone else to do something when that other person (or corp) was not violating another's rights, is a violation of that person's or corp's rights (if that makes any sense). So, I think it's wrong for the gov't to force me to pay taxes that go into a welfare program. If I want to help those less fortunate (which I do do on my own time, BTW), then I will donate my own time/money for programs I feel are worthwhile.

OK, so that got off on a bit of a tangent from your post, but it is all related. If you don't like Nike building plants overseas where there's cheaper labor, don't buy Nike shoes, encourage your friends not to buy them, etc. But the LAST thing that should happen is our gov't stepping in and making some law or ruling prohibiting Nike from doing various things that do not violate those three rights of others.

Money is in some respects like fire; it is a very excellent servant but a terrible master.
PT Barnum

[ Parent ]
2 cents an hour (none / 0) (#24)
by pkej on Wed Jan 03, 2001 at 02:52:36 AM EST

Nike don't care about workers rights, they shut down a plant if people get to organized and demand what is their due for their work.

People in the third world are _forced_ to accept low paying jobs etc. because we in the west don't give a fuck. Do you really think they enjoy getting payed shit while things are getting more expensive there as well?

Do you think that banana plantation workers in central america like getting sick from pesticides which are sprayed over the fields while they work? That they have to live in company cities and pay the company for their food?

There are a lot of companies doing this, and it is damn fucking sure that they infringing on people's rights. Companies don't care about nothing but their bottom line (because laws in for example the US lets their stockholders sue them if they don't). So they go where they can get a way with shit.

Or why do you think Shell is working in certain african nations? Why do Nike and other sports/clothes manufacturers go to third world countries? It is because people in power are easily bought to look away.


Don't give my any Rand crap, have you heard about the depression in the twenties and thirties last century? That's what you get when people can play around with the system. People today aren't in a position to take care of them selves if their local employer moves out. They aren't trappers or farmers, they've learned to work in a factory, or an office.

If everyone were farmers, trappers, fishermen etc. then I wouldn't give a shit about corporations, but they play around with real people who depend on work to get their lives going. And they are expected to learn new skills and constantly learning new jobs, getting a completly new education. Just to satisfy the whim of the money.

New numbers show that people will be expected to get a new job every three years now, and would need to re-educate for a new industry two to three times during their full working life.

The point I'm trying to make is that the demands on everyday people are getting higher and higher, and yet they live in fear for their jobs, in uncertainity, and are expected to be loyal to their employer and keep shut. Why aren't employers expected to be loyal to their employees? Why shouldn't they be held to at least the same standards as everyday people?

Corporations don't have the same right to life as people. They don't have any happiness they should persue. They should serve people and societies, not the other way around.

Finally, some states in the US (Missouri at least) have laws which limits the liability of corps with regards to environmental pollution (which happens to be done mostly in black communities). Just to get them there. Probably afraid of loosing jobs to other states/countries. That's what corps force countries to do. Lower their standards, because otherwise others will get dumped on.


[ Parent ]

Greed (none / 0) (#26)
by Robert Uhl on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 12:24:41 AM EST

A society is most definitely not `built upon the assumption that people contribute to the society,' at least not if it was well-thought out. Man is a rotten creature--we all act for our own ends. The proper society realises this, accepts it, and attempts to channel our individual greed and selfishness in the right direction. This means that when one group is able to force others to act to increase its own coffers, society steps in. When one man kills another, society steps in.

A society whose basic principal is `we're all pretty cool' will last just as long as it takes for someone with an IQ above room temperature to figure out how to ride the system and do well for himself at the expense of everyone else.

[ Parent ]

Numbers don't add up (4.83 / 6) (#15)
by streetlawyer on Tue Jan 02, 2001 at 02:51:58 AM EST

In most Anglo-Saxon economies, the vast majority of shares are owned by institutional investors (pension funds and insurance companies). This class of investor has a fiduciary duty to maximise investment returns, and always votes accordingly.

That's the problem that usually derails this kind of initiative. But some smart people think it can be made to work -- Peter Drucker certainly used to, and "shareholder activism" more generally has had a bit of success. Good search terms would be "Calpers", "Pension fund socialism", and "Pirc". Pirc is a corporate governance consultancy in the UK.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever

another perspective (5.00 / 3) (#28)
by _peter on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 01:56:15 PM EST

Some of you might be familiar with this already, but here's one CEO's response to a request similar to the one proposed here.

Shareholders of the world unite! | 28 comments (22 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
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