Forget tea parties. Bring a pitchfork to a shareholder meeting.
If you want a revolution, hold corporate elites accountable.
San Francisco — President Obama is taking on unaccountable corporate elites this month. Why aren't you? You probably own shares in these companies; your government doesn't (at least not yet).
Those Tea Party people are right to rage. But they're reenacting the wrong revolution. When Louis XV's war debts drove France into bankruptcy, people chafed at taxation, yes – but also railed at an impaired financial system, high unemployment, scarce services for war veterans, conspicuous consumption, and public detachment on the part of an entitled elite. Sound familiar?
In 1789, heads rolled. Today, you're getting rolled.
Anyone with a 401(k) or pension should visit at least one shareholder meeting this month with a pitchfork – or at least a plastic picnic fork – and demand accountability from the corporate elite, particularly in the financial sector, before they eat any more of your lunch.
We seem resigned to raising the first generation that may not do better than its parents. Why? Because we let elite money-changers become our new nobility, building empires trading vaporous financial abstractions, deliberately blind to the risk they still inflict on public solvency and your hard-earned retirement savings.
Succored by government, America's business and financial elites have assumed a pervasive ethic of entitlement – and suckered the rest of us.
Their "innovations" triggered a massive redistribution of wealth – upward. Mortgage banking became a masked predators' ball. Credit-card terms picked commoners' pockets. And still the middle class dances along, while derivatives and junk debt inflict the largest global economic disaster in seven decades – forcing federal guarantees of $11 trillion so far.
Feeling bailout fatigue? The elites just party on. CEOs from Bank of America to Wells Fargo just proclaimed inflated profits through accounting foolery. And last month, for the first time, credit default swaps (CDS) directly triggered a bankruptcy, the largest in US real estate history (General Growth Properties).
This particular event raised moral hazard to an art form. Typically, lenders who want to recover their money work to save troubled businesses. But with CDS, lenders can cash in if a business goes bankrupt. Thanks to federal bailouts, these bankers voted their board seats to force a bankruptcy, and then cashed in using money you paid in taxes.
Imagine home insurance agents rushing to a burning house and bribing the fire department to shut off the hoses, so they can bet on it burning to the ground – and then collecting profits from taxpayers when it does. This makes the Somali pirates look principled. At least they take the direct approach.
Government efforts to clean this up have only intensified the corruption. A top government inspector just declared the Treasury Department's "Public-Private" cleanup plan "inherently vulnerable" to fraud, collusion, and money laundering. And the Feds have launched nearly 20 criminal investigations into fraud, tax evasion, and insider trading among bank recipients of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The revolving door between Wall Street and Treasury has spun like a top for decades. Is there a cab driver anywhere in D.C. or Manhattan who didn't see this coming?
The entitlement ethic isn't limited to bankers. All CEOs now average 344 times the earnings of employees – up eightfold since 1980, and entirely unjustified by stock performance. Among the 500 largest companies of the past 50 years, the Corporate Executive Board found that 90 percent of them experienced a stall in growth – on average losing 74 percent of their equity value over the following decade.
Forget "too big to fail." Big company CEOs fail to create jobs. For decades, job creation has been highest at the smallest companies, and negative among businesses with more than 5,000 employees. So if they're not paid for long-term stock performance, and they don't create jobs, why are big-company CEOs so entitled and protected? Is it because board directors are too comfortable or cowardly to question them? Or because we haven't raised our voices?
Where is the informed, civic equivalent of the pitchfork-wielding crowd? No corporate plank walks for mismanagement; no perp walks for misrepresentation, misappropriation, and fraud?
Show us more rebellions like Bank of America's last Wednesday, where pension funds and "ordinary" shareholders (who own these companies) ousted Ken Lewis as chairman. This was a too-rare exercise of the most vital right in modern capitalism: the right to reform – and where necessary, remove – ineffective management.
To give the next generation any chance to do as well as we have – since it's not clear that the administration plans to start making the hard decisions – Congress could start with a few easy ones:
First, install serious independent oversight over the TARP and "Public-Private" bailout schemes. Second, double the ludicrously low 15 percent tax rate that hedge fund operators pay, to resemble rates paid by middle-class wage earners. Third, limit corporate deductions for executive severance ("golden parachutes"), since taxpayers shouldn't pay ineffective CEOs to go away. And finally, while government shouldn't cap compensation, shareholders should – by demanding "claw-back" provisions that dock managements' future payouts if earnings deteriorate due to short-term accounting fakery.
There was a time when monarchs unresponsive to the people were deposed. Are we anywhere near an inflection point where we strike a better balance between self-interest and a just society? Or will we forever accept the overweening entitlement ethic of the moneyed elite – even when they make fools and paupers of us all?
Mark Lange is a former private equity executive. He's bringing a plastic fork to shareholder meetings.