In his new book “The Politics of Fortune,” Jeffrey Garten, dean of the School of Management, discusses the climate of American business in the wake of accounting mismanagement scandals and Sept. 11. Garten’s continued stance against thorough government regulation of corporations is representative of corporations’ amoral and self-serving mentality; no news there. But are lambs like Kenneth Lay, Samuel Waksal, and Martha Stewart cracked eggs in a good dozen, or is it the carton itself that’s warped?
Given the recent scandals at Enron and ImClone, one would expect Garten to allay Americans’ fears about fraud at the highest levels by calling for increased government regulation. Instead he stresses the importance of organized cooperation between the public and private sectors as well as the moral responsibilities of companies, continuing to insist on solely voluntary disclosure. Garten warns that, “Quite possibly, an excess of regulation will prevent the business community from expanding its range of products and services or otherwise exploiting dynamic market forces. This regulatory excess could jeopardize not only company profits but also economic growth.”
This is not surprising. In May 2001, Garten headed an “SEC-Inspired Task Force” addressing the question, “Do Investors Have the Information They Need?” Also on the task force was Kenneth Lay, former chairman of Enron, and Leonard Baker, member of the Yale Corporation. The primary recommendations concerning regulation were (stick with me here):
(1) Voluntary disclosure, which clearly allows companies to falsify information and mislead investors by with holding crucial information. The task force believes “that market forces will penalize companies that provide inadequate information relative to peers.”
(2) A “broad prohibition against private suits” which would encourage voluntary and fuller disclosure without fear of litigation. Unstated but implicit in the report is that the prohibition of litigation would enable gross mismanagement of funds, not to mention lawsuits from human rights and environmental groups, labor unions, etc.
A year before the Enron-Andersen debacle, Garten was recommending relaxed government regulations on disclosure. Now he is calling for a new vision of corporate America with a closer partnership with the public sector and an increased awareness of responsibilities. And sticking with voluntary disclosure. Garten has changed his tune somewhat in the wake of scandal, and of course everyone has a right to change their mind. Garten may have had a real change of heart, but he may just be blowing with the wind. During the days of “irrational exuberance” Garten was suggesting that the government curtail its minimal regulations, and in the face of a burgeoning mistrust of corporations he provides a new vision but cautions that we shouldn’t go too far.
Most surprising about the scandals that have plagued even God-fearing Americans like Martha Stewart is that America seems willing to believe the claim that the spate of corporate criminality is the result of nothing but a few bad seeds. Most people have been unwilling to question whether the problem is really systemic, whether the system of global capitalism encourages and rewards this kind of behavior. The invasion of Afghanistan and the potential war against Iraq have distracted most Americans from even approaching these questions. We feel so enmeshed in the stock market that we see no alternative.
Whatever one’s conclusion and conviction, the solution seems clear, and it is not Garten’s. While cumbersome government regulations could potentially inhibit economic “growth” and diminish speculation, voluntary disclosure and self-regulation give CEOs the moral decision-making power to go along with economic muscle. A friend told me a colonial joke the other day that seems applicable:
Q: Why does the sun never set on the British Empire?
A: Because God wouldn’t trust those bastards in the dark.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is a junior in Davenport College.