ESSAY

Week 3

“To Whose Benefit”

by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship

 

The word economics comes from a Greek word meaning household management, something I’ve done a lot of in my life. So you’d think I’d have a knack for it. But the truth is, like too many of us (especially women), I gave up understanding money and how it works in the world at an early age. When I try to make sense of it, especially when I speak with the people who are deemed economic experts, the words get slippery and elusive and I give up trying to understand what they even mean.

Futures. Financialization. Arbitrage. Hedge funds. These are not words or concepts that help me to feel clearer about my own or anyone else’s household management.

What I can see, without necessarily understanding the fine points of global trade, is that creating a world where multinational corporations are the ultimate rulers does not benefit anyone but the shareholders of those corporations. And further, corporations’ single-minded fixation on maximizing profits for shareholders isn’t even good for corporations.

However, I have been excited to learn about the emergence of benefit corporations, or “B Corporations,” a growing phenomenon in which businesses that actually want to do more than simply make money are able to incorporate differently. B Corporations live by a “Declaration of Interdependence”:

We envision a global economy that uses business as a force for good. This economy is comprised of a new type of corporation—the B Corporation—which is purpose-driven and creates benefits for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.

As B Corporations and leaders of this emerging economy, we believe:

That we must be the change we seek in the world;

That all business ought to be conducted as if people and place mattered;

That, through their products, practices and profits, businesses should aspire to do no harm and benefit all;

To do so requires that we act with the understanding that we are each dependent upon another and thus responsible for each other and future generations.

Of course, corporations don’t just sign this and hang it on the wall. To become a B Corporation, they have to undergo a rigorous evaluation of their practices, profits and practices. This social enterprise movement has enormous potential, but the degree to which profit-obsessed multinational corporations rule the world is still staggering. In the United States, the privatization of what used to be government services—the prison-industrial complex, military, utilities, water, schools, parks, highways, etc.—continues at an alarming rate.

In 2003, as the US poised on the brink of war with Iraq, an old college friend of mine who had returned to her native Iran after graduation came to visit. She hadn’t been in the United States for almost 20 years. I lived in Washington, DC, at the time, and her time with me followed visits with other friends in three or four other cities. On the first day of our reunion she asked solemnly, “When did corporations take over the United States?”

I was startled. Things had changed gradually and I hadn’t really noticed. Yet, she reminded me that only 20 years earlier, cities had not been so universally dominated by the same multinational stores and businesses. She was stunned that, having visited cities across the country, they all seemed so similar now.

I was taken aback by her observation. Yet that war with Iraq began to surface names of corporations which were hugely profiting, and whose contract workers were being paid a great deal more than military personnel doing similar work. My country, which had at least pretended to be “of the people, by the people,” was nakedly serving the good of the shareholders of corporations at the expense of its residents.

And, of course, what my friend could see in 2003 was just the tip of the iceberg. In the US, the Supreme Court has since ruled that corporations are people, with freedom of speech and “religious freedom” (understood as freedom to be homophobic in their hiring practices) among their many rights.

Corporate personhood undermines the humanity of actual flesh and blood homo sapiens. We have seen this starkly in North Dakota, where the water protectors, unarmed Sioux people fighting for their lives, demanded that a pipeline not desecrate their land and the Missouri River. Tax-dollar funded police have served not the people, but rather banks and oil companies worth billions of dollars. To protect their business interests, police have unleashed vicious dogs, used pepper spray and concussion grenades, and deployed water cannons in freezing temperatures. At some point the Sioux and their allies at Standing Rock began to be fighting not only for water but for humanity itself.

Real people are vulnerable. Our bodies, small bits of soft flesh, age and die. When Unitarian Universalists affirm the worth of dignity of every person, we are not including corporations in that religious principle.