A big idea from and for Elizabeth Warren

Last night, Elizabeth Warren described corporations in a way that met my own long-held definition. Which is: corporations are amoral.

She did not say they were evil; nor would I. She was precise in her language. Corporations — big business, if you prefer — are not purposefully responsive to considerations of a civil society. As Warren said last night, if a company could “save five cents” in manufacturing a product by moving production out of the U.S. to Mexico and firing thousands of workers, they’d do it in a heartbeat.

That’s because the purpose of business is making money. Making a profit. Making that profit grow quarter after quarter, year after year.

This is reality. In the course of doing business, a company may do evil, may produce something that harms people, but harming customers is not its central purpose. Obviously.

I loved the way Warren describes this central problem of our economy: how do we convince business to behave morally, even as it goes after profits?

We know how to regulate business for the good of people — although the Trump administration is doing its corrupt best to decimate our regulatory agencies for the sole benefit of corporations. But what can we do to force corporate culture to embrace an ethical dynamic, along with its profit-making dynamic?

Yesterday, even before last night’s debate, the Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin covered someone who has an answer. In “An Idea: Rein in ‘Sociopaths’ in the Boardroom,” Sorkin talks to a retired corporate lawyer, Jamie Gamble, who “has had an epiphany since retiring nearly a decade ago that is so damning of his former life that it is likely to give his ex-partners a case of agita.”

A few socko points in this piece:

[Gamble] has concluded that corporate executives — the people who hired him and that his firm sought to protect — “are legally obligated to act like sociopaths.”

“The corporate entity is obligated to care only about itself and to define what is good as what makes it more money,” he writes in the essay. “Pretty close to a textbook case of antisocial personality disorder. And corporate persons are the most powerful people in our world.”

[Gamble] doesn’t blame his former clients, exactly. He blames the law.

Perhaps most significantly, he has devised a provocative new governance rule that he believes will fix what ails corporate America, although he acknowledges in his essay that his idea “is likely to seem insane to senior corporate executives and boards of directors.”

Companies, he suggests, should “adopt a binding set of ethical rules, approved by stockholders and addressing the key ethical dimensions of corporate life” including:

■ Their “relationships with employees.”
■ Their “relationships with the communities in which they produce and sell.”
■ Their “relationships with customers.”
■ Their “effects on the environment.”
■ And their “effects on future generations.”

Once the rules are in place, he writes, “any shareholder could sue the board of directors for violating the ethical rules — just as any shareholder can today sue the board of directors for violating the maximize rule.”

Then Ross writes, “There is something rather elegant about Mr. Gamble’s concept.”

Elegant? OK, but it’s also a thrill.

I hope Elizabeth Warren has read it. Actually, why do I have a feeling that she knows Jamie Gamble?

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