(Ben Green) #1

46 Time December 2–9, 2019

themselves newly interested in reform. The most
prominent and heralded instance this past year
was a statement by the Business Roundtable,
an umbrella organization whose members are
the chief executives of many of America’s larg-
est companies. For decades, the roundtable has
clung to a particular interpretation of the purpose
of a business—that it is solely to make money for
shareholders. With its new statement, issued in
August, the roundtable updated its view: “Busi-
ness Roundtable Redefines the Purpose of a Cor-
poration to Promote ‘An Economy That Serves
All Americans.’ ”

it was insPiring, limited stuff. What it
really revealed was how hard it will be for the old-
guard capitalists to change at all. The statement
was a call for every corporate signatory to decide,
voluntarily, to behave in ways more supportive of
people and the planet. As far as I know, no com-
pany, because of the statement, announced the cessation of practices in
lobbying, tax avoidance, employment or other realms. When I publicly
questioned the teeth of a pledge that reminded me of my own pledges
not to eat fries, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase
and chairman of the roundtable, contacted me. We talked on the phone
for half an hour. He was incredulous that I didn’t trust that the pledge
would mean action. I challenged him to give the pledge teeth. Why not
begin to lobby for proposals in Congress that would make “stakeholder
capitalism” the law, not just an airy promise? Why not excommunicate
companies that lobby for things contrary to the stated values of the
roundtable? He said the roundtable wasn’t a “police force.” When I put
to him that many signatories of this pledge to treat people better were
known to be fairly exploitative of workers, he pushed back with words
that illustrate that self-reformed capitalism is a lot like unreformed cap-
italism, but with better public relations. He said that he knew the chief
executives I was talking about, and that he liked
them; they were good people; he was sure they
were kind to employees. Plus, he said, “A lot of
people just don’t like to work.” (A spokes person
for Dimon later said to the Washington Post,
“These quotes don’t reflect the conversation.”)
In public relations, an important term of art
is “getting out ahead of the story.” If bad news
about you is coming, pre-empt it by telling the story on your terms.
The Business Roundtable’s move, long on rhetoric, short on support
for any actual reforms with teeth, seemed very much in that tradition:
get out in front of the backlash to extreme capitalism by proposing an
optional Capitalism Lite. Then there is the other classic way in which
the plutes get out in front of such backlashes: philanthropy. If you’re
Goldman Sachs, contribute to a financial crisis that costs millions of
men and women their homes and livelihoods, then give back (and
scrub your name) through something like the “10,000 Women” pro-
gram to mentor entrepreneurs.
Yet this year more people seemed to see through this take-and-
give playbook. A striking moment came in late March when New York
State, led by its new attorney general, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit
against members of the Sackler family and others whom it accused of
abetting the opioid crisis. In addition to alleging mal feasance in sell-

ing the drugs, the complaint made a claim about
the use of philanthropy to lubricate wrongdo-
ing. “Ultimately, the Sacklers used their ill-got-
ten wealth to cover up their misconduct with a
philanthropic campaign to whitewash their de-
cades-long success in profiting at New Yorkers’
expense.” The suit cited donations to many arts
institutions, resulting in Sackler wings and insti-
tutes and centers, while also serving to cleanse
their name in a way that allowed the grim ma-
chinery of drug peddling to grind on for years.
Then there was the Jeffrey Epstein case.
Epstein, the late sexual predator and maybe
tycoon, gave endless ammunition to plutocracy’s
critics. Here was a man who had allegedly traf-
ficked and raped children;
who had been convicted
of serious offenses;
and who managed,
through deftly ar-
ranged philanthropy
and social climbing,
to re-establish himself
in high society. Epstein ingratiated himself with
Harvard. He gave money to the Massachusetts In-
stitute of Technology and was given the chance to
meddle in its research—a phenomenon that one
writer aptly called “sugar-daddy science.” He even
spent a surprising amount of time with Bill Gates,
a children’s advocate who has since apologized for
his lapse in judgment. Yet what Epstein revealed
was less individual lapses than systemic rot in our
culture—especially at our universities, which have
become drive-through reputational laundromats.
As the chances have increased that a candi-
date outside the neoliberal consensus will win
the nomination, we have begun to see the Great
Plute Freakout of 2019. A wave of plutes have










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