What do you do?

Whether it’s the Duke of Edinburgh or the bride’s mum asking it, not everyone finds the “what do you do” question a comfortable one. It suggests that we are expected to “do” something that impresses the questioner and defines who we are. If you have an important job, a good career or a great talent, then you might not mind informing them. You may then want to describe what you do in a way that suggests it is worthwhile and fulfilling.  If you are not so lucky, and most aren’t, then you might prefer to talk about the Championship playoffs.

If we were to ask the question of a corporation, economic theory would suggest that the answer would be “maximise profit” and the actual activity would be irrelevant. They want to make money; that’s it.

We would probably think individuals with that outlook were pretty shallow and untrustworthy. You know, the sort that turns up as a contestant in The Apprentice, lining up to knife each other in the back to get hold of Alan Sugar’s money. With corporations though – they can’t do anything unless it is going to make profit. The need for a “business case” is ubiquitous and all those seeking to influence business have become inured to this.

“The Carillion school of management – maximise your bonuses and leave suppliers and staff to whistle – makes the magic appear more Voldemort than fairy godmother.”

Economic theory says there is a public benefit from the profit focus. It says the magic of the invisible hand of the market maximises public welfare if all companies only seek to maximise their profits. Indeed Friedman famously declared that companies “ought” to maximise their profit and having any other objectives was akin to socialism (which he – advisor to presidents Nixon and Reagan – didn’t think was a good thing).

But as we look around at the mega companies and banks that seem not only to control markets but also governments, the magic of markets seems pretty tarnished. The Carillion school of management – maximise your bonuses and leave suppliers and staff to whistle – makes the magic appear more Voldemort than fairy godmother.

And the markets have fundamental flaws on full view. For example, we would need several lifetimes to read and understand all the complicated contracts we have to sign to access mobiles, utilities and more. So where does that leave the idea of the informed consumer making choices?

Could there be another way?  Could we have corporations that were designed to deliver social and environmental outcomes as well as financial ones? How might they consider the interests of all their stakeholders, not just their shareholders?  Would this create corporations that provided better jobs because they would treat employees better and make them feel they were contributing to something worthwhile? Could they be trusted to treat their customers better?

In this issue we explore these themes. We interview Colin Mayer about his British Academy project on the future of the corporation, Matthew Taylor on creating good work nearly a year after his commission published its report on “Good Work” and Juliet Schor on the sharing economy.

You can also read how a community-based, not-for-profit company, B4RN, is delivering much faster broadband in the countryside than you can get in the city, how new forms of corporation are blossoming, how companies might practically be accountable to their stakeholders, how experts need to get over themselves, how not all work is equal and much more.

This might all seem like utopian thinking but remember we do expect, or at least hope that humans not only think of their own interests but to also think of others. We ask our children to share nicely. So maybe this is just about humanising our corporations rather than letting them dehumanise us.

Henry Leveson-Gower

Henry is the founder and CEO of Promoting Economic Pluralism as well as editor of The Mint Magazine. He has been a practising economist contributing to environmental policy for 25 …

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