Corporate America – you didn’t build that – really!

Remember during the 2012 elections when President Obama said, “You didn’t build that.” He was talking to big corporate America. He made the point that billions of tax dollars go into building infrastructure critical to the success for all kinds of businesses. You know, things like highways so that goods can be transported, or communications, research and development. That’s not to mention the billions of public capital spent on education and training to prepare workers with the skills to actually build things.

After he said that, they had a fit in the corporate boardrooms and on Fox News! “Oh,” they cried, “not only did we build our businesses, but we too pay taxes.”

But the truth is (not even counting the billions of public dollars spent to support business), you still didn’t build that!

It reminds me of Michael Moore’s great program, TV Nation. They had a segment called CEO Challenge. Where CEOs were asked to do something with the product “they” make. For example the CEO of IBM didn’t know how to format a computer disk. It was obvious he didn’t build that.

Very few CEOs have any idea of the real work that goes into building the products that they sell. Very few owners and CEOs of big corporations have a clue as to exactly how their products are designed, tested, and built. Only in the smallest of companies do the owners spend real time in the workplace seeing or participating in actually building a product. So no, you really didn’t build that.

What the owners really do, for the most part, is provide capital. Sometimes they actually have a good idea that they then get others to bring to life and then get others to figure out how to build. Other times they take good ideas from people who really do the work. So, no matter how you look at it, teams of workers who organize, design, and actually do the physical work, build most things.

The other thing that owners do is take the bulk of the profits from the things that others build and from the work that others perform. Everyone who works making things or providing services for a corporation instinctively knows that the money made off of the goods and services they produce are higher than the actual costs of wages, machinery, services, and other overhead. Or profit wouldn’t be made. But owners (who think that they made that) claim all the profits.

You don’t have to be a socialist to see that they didn’t actually build that. Further you don’t have to be a socialist to understand that real democracy should mean that as a part of the team that actually built that, you should have some say in how that profit is distributed and spent.

Let’s call that social capital, as opposed to private capital. We need a much wider discussion of the idea of democracy and social capital in the modern world. It’s not only a question of higher corporate and wealth taxes that can be used for the common good of society. It’s also understanding that those higher taxes don’t only come out of the pocket of the corporation and the rich that didn’t build that, they also come out of the hard work of those who actually did build that. Not to mention that workers also pay taxes, often more than their employers.

Workers pay into social capital not only through their own taxes but also through their hard work that produces a large part of the actual capital that owners pay in taxes. It is only democratic that we have a greater say in how social funds are used.

Actually, that famous Republican, Abraham Lincoln, said it most eloquently: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

What a great, short argument for social capital! And that should mean more spending, not less, on education, housing, health care, and other human needs. It should mean more social capital for the common good.

Photo: (CC)


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.