Business firms are not alone in making investments in the productive capabilities required to generate innovative goods and services. Household units and government agencies also make investments in productive capabilities upon which business firms rely for their own investment activities.
“Sustainable prosperity” denotes an economy that generates stable and equitable growth for a large and growing middle class. From the 1940s into the 1970s, the United States appeared to be on a trajectory of sustainable prosperity, especially for white-male members of the U.S. labor force. Since the 1980s, however, an increasing proportion of the U.S labor force has experienced unstable employment and inequitable income, while growing numbers of the business firms upon which they rely for employment have generated anemic productivity growth.
Stable and equitable growth requires innovative enterprise. The essence of innovative enterprise is investment in productive capabilities that can generate higher-quality, lower-cost goods and services than those previously available. The innovative enterprise tends to be a business firm—a unit of strategic control that, by selling products, must make profits over time to survive. In a modern society, however, business firms are not alone in making investments in the productive capabilities required to generate innovative goods and services. Household units and government agencies also make investments in productive capabilities upon which business firms rely for their own investment activities. When they work in a harmonious fashion, these three types of organizations—household units, government agencies, and business firms—constitute “the investment triad.”
The Biden administration’s Build Back Better agenda to restore sustainable prosperity in the United States focuses on investment in productive capabilities by two of the three types of organizations in the triad: government agencies, implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and household units, implementing the yet-to-be-passed American Families Act. Absent, however, is a policy agenda to encourage and enable investment in innovation by business firms. This gaping lacuna is particularly problematic because many of the largest industrial corporations in the United States place a far higher priority on distributing the contents of the corporate treasury to shareholders in the form of cash dividends and stock buybacks for the sake of higher stock yields than on investing in the productive capabilities of their workforces for the sake of innovation. Based on analyzes of the “financialization” of major U.S. business corporations, I argue that, unless Build Back Better includes an effective policy agenda to encourage and enable corporate investment in innovation, the Biden administration’s program for attaining stable and equitable growth will fail.
Drawing on the experience of the U.S. economy over the past seven decades, I summarize how the United States moved toward stable and equitable growth from the late 1940s through the 1970s under a “retain-and-reinvest” resource-allocation regime at major U.S. business firms. Companies retained a substantial portion of their profits to reinvest in productive capabilities, including those of career employees. In contrast, since the early 1980s, under a “downsize-and-distribute” corporate resource-allocation regime, unstable employment, inequitable income, and sagging productivity have characterized the U.S. economy. In transition from retain-and-reinvest to downsize-and-distribute, many of the largest, most powerful corporations have adopted a “dominate-and-distribute” resource-allocation regime: Based on the innovative capabilities that they have previously developed, these companies dominate market segments of their industries but prioritize shareholders in corporate resource allocation.
The practice of open-market share repurchases—aka stock buybacks—at major U.S. business corporations has been central to the dominate-and-distribute and downsize-and-distribute regimes. Since the mid-1980s, stock buybacks have become the prime mode for the legalized looting of the business corporation. I call this looting process “predatory value extraction” and contend that it is the fundamental cause of the increasing concentration of income among the richest household units and the erosion of middle-class employment opportunities for most other Americans.
I conclude the paper by outlining a policy framework that could stop the looting of the business corporation and put in place social institutions that support sustainable prosperity. The agenda includes a ban on stock buybacks done as open-market repurchases, radical changes in incentives for senior corporate executives, representation of workers and taxpayers as directors on corporate boards, reform of the tax system to reward innovation and penalize financialization, and, guided by the investment-triad framework, government programs to support “collective and cumulative careers” of members of the U.S. labor force. Sustained investment in human capabilities by the investment triad, including business firms, would make it possible for an ever-increasing portion of the U.S. labor force to engage in the productive careers that underpin upward socioeconomic mobility, which would be manifested by a growing, robust, and hopeful American middle class.
A portion of this paper draws upon my chapter, “The Investment Triad and Sustainable Prosperity,” in Peter Creticos, Larry Bennett, Laura Owen, Costas Spirou, and Maxine Morphis-Riesbeck, eds., The Many Futures of Work: Rethinking Expectations and Breaking Molds, Temple University Press, 2021: 120-151. A revised and updated version was prepared for a session, Toward A System of Corporate Governance for the Common Good in the 21st Century, organized by Ulrike Schaede, at the annual conference of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE), online, July 3, 2021. I elaborated this paper further as my contribution to a panel, Reinserting the Industrial Corporation into the Narrative of Business History, a special event of the Business History Conference. (BHC), which took place online on March 22, 2022. I thank The Many Futures of Work volume editors as well as participants in the SASE and BHC sessions for their comments. The analysis that I put forth in this paper owes much to interactions with Marie Carpenter, Matt Hopkins, Ken Jacobson, Lenore Palladino, Mustafa Erdem Sakinç, Jang-Sup Shin, and Öner Tulum of the Academic-Industry Research Network and Thomas Ferguson of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). I am grateful for research funding from INET as well as fellowships from the Open Society Foundations and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in support of this work.