Page 5


sons wanting to invest their capital on a coordinated or cooperative basis. The public interest group would direct large blocks of investors into a few corporations, advise them how to vote their proxies, and even solicit votes from other stockholders. It really comes to this: must the profit motive be the only impelling force in our culture and economy? Is there no other basis for investing money? Investors of all sizes may cling fast to the old and seemingly proven system of using money only to produce more money. But unless I am deeply mistaken there are people of all ages, and particularly among the young, who could imagine things otherwise if offered the opportunity. Even foundations and institutions might find new ways of carrying out their responsibilities as major investors. The astonishing thing is that Ralph Nader’s groups and John Gardner’s Common Cause have not already developed such a plan. The profit motive may reign supreme, in part by default, until challenged by money itself, by our pooled resources. But investors remain worried, hesitant, unorganized. They would probably resist any kind of collective action, even on a small scale. Some believe that private gain is synonymous with public good. Some know better but see no course of action. Without some form of stockholding in the public interest we shall have failed our heritage. The most numerous and potentially the most powerful organized sector of the country is unionized labor. It seems to think and act in a manner just as selfserving as that of individual investors. Rarely has a union acted on any basis other than the direct benefit of its members. Should we expect more? Today we face a threat of inflation so devastating that none of us knows how it will finally affect us. Justified as it may be in the light of the rising cost of living; every strike adds to the forces that accelerate inflation. Is there no way of calling a halt somewhere to the vicious circle in which the sickness itself is cited as a justification for aggra vating the sickness? Conceivably there is a way to start. It would require a degree of vision and leadership that one finds rarely in any domain. But the proposition is worth laying out and examining. As I see it, unions could negotiate and if necessary strike to establish a new principle. According to this principle, profits in excess of a negotiated figure would have to be distributed in part back to the public in the form of lowered prices, and then, following a reasonable formula, to shareholders and to employees \(management and Accounting procedures would have to be carefully monitored. Without some such mandatory policy, prices may never settle down in time to cool off the economy; all sectors now plan on the assumption of inflation, and such planning, by fulfilling its own predictions, can build up into a force seemingly as unstoppable as nemesis or gravity. It is hard to envision even the most enlightened of corporations deciding unaided in favor of lowered prices and against increased profits. They are bound to pay off their stockholders, even if they are faceless. Government is unlikely to interfere with corporate profits and policies except through increased taxeswhich can also have inflationary effects. Under the circumstances only unions seem to be in a position to turn the tide. Their leverage of corporations, if exerted in the public interest, could produce a first step toward stabilizing prices. Genuine and equitable tax reform would have to accompany any such initiative. In order to make these demands, labor would have to display great restraint in asking for wage increases and other benefits. Union members and leaders have become so much a part of the economic system and of the status quo that it is difficult to imagine them deciding on such a course. And if they did, corporate management would vigorously resist any such invasion of their privileged domain. It would be a healthy and revealing fight. The odds against this proposal are obviously enormous. But the possibility is there, and few alternatives present themselves. President Ford’s economic summit convoked recently presumably assembled the best economic brains in the land; it produced only mummified proposals. George Meany speaks out in unmistakably defiant tones. The only trouble is that he has no more to suggest than the President himself. The crisis of leadership has almost transfixed us. The only way to break out of the spiral is for a powerful group to make personal sacrifices for a definite purpose in the public interest. Unlikely as the idea may sound at first, organized labor may be in a better position to do so than corporate managers, elected office holders, or the unpredictable herd of private investors. There they are: jeremiads and crackpot proposals. In the shuddering economic crisis we have now entered through our own actions, we cannot afford to brush aside any seriously advanced idea, not even if it flies in the face of deeply ingrained cultural and social habits. Furthermore, the real enemy lurks beyond the range of these two proposals. His name is waste planned, systematic, institutionalized improvidence with all our resources and energies. In 1830 de Tocqueville found the democratic merchants of America “heroic” in their efforts to conquer new markets. That system has now become demonic, seemingly bent on self-destruction. It will take time and an enormous wrenching of mind to bring us to our senses. Citizens will have to do far more than drive 15 miles per hour slower and plant vegetable gardens. We will have to mount an, imaginative attempt at mutual reeducation to expel the subtle demon of waste from our thinking. We cannot do so without leadership, little of which has declared itself so far. Honest unfearing journals everywhere will be essential. Happy anniversary, Observer & Co., from the Texas of my mind. And keep hammering. From 1962 1976, Roger Shattuck was an Observer Contributing Editor. JANUARY 27, 2006 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31