Well, they’re at it again. The 1% have spoken about feeling persecuted, and in response the liberals are persecuting. One side says we’re punishing success, the other side says we’re increasing income inequality. I’m not sure this is getting us anywhere. Scratch that. I know it’s not.
Obama said, “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be solved by what’s right with America.” The populist way of saying that is: there’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be solved by Americans. Certainly we’ve seen populist responses to our problems. The outrage after the Lehman Brothers collapse was a populist response. The Tea Party was a populist response. Occupy Wall Street was another populist response, and many have written about the commonalities between OWS and the Tea Party. Many more have donned a populist mantle – like just about everyone writing an opinion column in major media.
Where’s the focus? Capitalism has inviolate precepts. Communism has a manifesto. Populism doesn’t even have a wristband. If people want to stand up for the common people and change the balance of power in Washington and on Wall Street, they’re going to have to do a little better than whine.
I have an idea that I’ve never heard before, though I assume someone else came up with it. It’s an idea that I feel could attract OWS-ers and Tea Partiers in equal measure. I propose it here as a conversation-starter. Perhaps someone else can tell me why it hasn’t happened, or what happened when someone else proposed it.
Let’s start by recognizing that Washington isn’t going to help America. That system’s broken. They can call us in ten years when they’ve fixed it. Let’s also accept that capitalism isn’t going to be replaced – that in fact we need it for democracy and freedom. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with voting with our wallets. To boycott a business, any business, is to express the very essence of capitalistic freedom.
Not that I’m suggesting a boycott, exactly. More like a prefer-cott. Or a half-cott, if you will. Let me explain.
The basic idea is to split the Fortune 500 in half. To stop patronizing 250 of them. Now, to determine who’s in the Top Half and the Bottom Half, we’d create a Virtue Index. Before I continue, I have to say: if you’re one of these people who wax on and on about the virtues of small businesses and insists on spending your money on small businesses, to quote a current movie, EVERYTHING IS AWESOME. Keep up the great work. But also keep in mind that your money finds ways to the Fortune 500, sometimes when you don’t mean it to.
The Virtue Index would be rather a simple thing. Public companies would be judged by a number of categories, let’s say ten. For each category, the company would get a ranking from 1 to 10, 10 being the most virtuous, for a total possible score of 100. After all 500 companies have been ranked, we’d publish that list on some site (feel free to reserve some of the choice terms on this post, like virtueindex.com or halfcott.com or whatever), and then buy ads encouraging everyone to stop handing money to the bottom half. Get a few celebrities to endorse the idea, and it could turn into the next Kony 2012.
This is the opposite of Communism, because it has nothing to do with government. True libertarians extol “creative destruction” – that’s this. True capitalists love the idea of two businesses looking at each other in a mall as one fails because customers prefer the other one. That’s all this is. But organized.
What are my ideas for the categories for the Virtue Index? Well thanks for asking. I even gave it a cute acronym for you to follow along – I.N.V.E.S.T. F.A.I.R.
Independence from government subsidies – With me so far? We’re all against corporate welfare, right? This might be slightly hard to measure, with tax breaks and such, but there have been enough Congressional bills on corporate welfare (that never went anywhere) that we can just use their metrics.
Nationalism – Keeping jobs in America. We know some companies will have to export jobs. We just prefer the ones that don’t.
Veteran-first hiring policy – You heard me. Give the job to a vet first. Hire the non-vet only if one’s not qualified or available. They sacrificed enough for our country; it’s the least we can do. Got it?
Equality/diversity on the board, and in hiring – You know what this is. Boards of directors with all white men aren’t getting ranked above a 5 here. Not least because those boards from those old Bullwinkle cartoons didn’t make a lot of great decisions.
Sustainability – To keep ideologues of all stripes on board here, let’s not tie this to acknowledgement of global warming. Instead, the ranking is based on sustainability, on a simple rule your mother taught you about not leaving things more of a mess than you found them. You don’t have to believe in climate change (though you should anyway) to want the businesses in your 401(k) to be long-term sustainable – you should already be insisting on it.
Transparency – We want to see the books. Hollywood does it. Silicon Valley often does it. Put all the numbers on some part of the official website. Let McDonald’s keep its secret sauce (I think we know it’s ranch), let Coca-Cola keep its formula (another big shocker), but in general, we should know a lot more than we do. Don’t make Edward Snowden drop more bombs.
Family-friendly policy – You know what this is. Of all the items on this list, I expect most of the Fortune 500 to score well here – most will get at least a 5 on this. Work leave, child care options, subsidizing employee insurance…that all comes under this heading.
Animal welfare – Don’t freak out, right-wingers. Did you not see that my top 3 categories were pro-military, pro-patriotism, and anti-government handouts? Also, this category won’t affect all that many companies – yet it affects enough (Wal-Mart sitting there at #1, Costco, Target, Safeway, Tyson, etc). There is no reason that in 2014, corporations have to be cruel to animals to turn a profit. I don’t see animal abuse as a partisan issue, perhaps I’m crazy.
Investment in virtue – This is the trickiest one, because the algorithm will change. One of the problems with the Fortune 500 is that they’re over-invested in each other. Even if we were to stop handing money to some of the douche-iest companies, the big banks and the financial companies would have a stake in extending them special credit lines…unless we have this ranking. Probably it would be less about rewarding the virtuous and more about punishing people with money in, say, the Bottom 50 (not 250). We might have to be careful with proportion because everyone’s portfolio is diverse; the score might be based on Proctor & Gamble not putting more than 51% of its money in a real vampire squid like Goldman Sachs.
A potential problem this brings up is that all the given members of a certain industry – say, finance or oil – will fall into the bottom 250, so what are we supposed to do, not invest and not put gas in our cars? One solution would be to migrate to a more small-business version of the same service. Failing that, the Virtue Index will have to recognize the best of the worst – for example, perhaps Conoco will score above Chevron and Exxon and Shell – and suggest that if necessary, go best-of-worst.
Reeves/Robin Hood-ism – Talk about taking the red pill. Keanu Reeves was paid several bajillion for The Matrix films, and he wound up giving most of it to the below-the-line talent. Why didn’t Keanu just re-write his contract so that Warner Bros. would pay the same people (their own employees) directly? Because despite appearances, Keanu lives in the real world; Warners wouldn’t have agreed. By the same token, there’s nothing stopping the highest-paid CEOs from simply handing over half their ridiculously inflated salaries to the rank-and-file employees. But let’s not insist; it would be enough simply to negotiate in advance, and hope the board is more enlightened than Warners – instead of making 200x the salary of their lowest-paid employee, how about 100x (still double than anywhere else in the world), and pass on the savings? Or fine, just reward the ones that refuse to make more than, say, 50x their lowest-paid employee (like Howard Schultz at Starbucks). This one won’t take long to rank; the 10s and the 1s will make themselves rather obvious.
Other categories leap to mind, like charitable giving or actually making stuff (as opposed to just moving money around). But this isn’t meant to be a specific prescription, just a populist conversation-starter. What would happen when the Bottom 250 adjusted themselves to move into the Top 250? Well, we’d rank again, until every American has a job and we get the society we want. Why isn’t this already being done?