A Shareholder, and a Citizen

The New York Times

Soon, possibly tonight, a federal judge will rule on the Justice Department's
antitrust case against Microsoft. But whatever the decision, it's only the first
round in this and related litigation.

That's why I've been spending my money lobbying Congress to cut the
budget of the Justice Department's antitrust division. I've also hired a fleet
of Washington lobbyists to persuade Congress that the government's
lawsuit is misguided and launched a "grass roots" Internet campaign to get
other people to send messages to their representatives saying the same
thing. I've sent money to Republican and Democratic campaign committees,
which will use it to benefit candidates sympathetic toward Microsoft. I've
even organized lobbying in state capitals to get the message out to state
lawmakers.

You see, I'm a shareholder of Microsoft. Not a big one, mind you. Bill Gates
may not even know that I'm one of his bosses -- but I am, because under
the law the company's first responsibility is to maximize the value my shares.

So all the money Microsoft has been spending lately lobbying and politicking
-- in part, my money -- has been spent on my behalf, just as if it were being
invested in a new software product.

However, I'm not happy about what I've been doing with my money. That's
because I'm not just a Microsoft shareholder. I'm also a United States
citizen, and I have goals other than maximizing the value of my stock.

I think it's a good thing that we have a Justice Department, and that
antitrust laws are enforced against powerful companies. I don't want to live
in a country dominated by the interests of big companies, even the ones I
own.

In short, I don't want Microsoft to maximize the value of my shares at the
expense of my values as a citizen. When I bought my tiny piece of the
company, I wasn't saying, "Take my money and do whatever's politically
necessary to give me a big return on it." I was only asking the company to
do whatever was technologically and economically necessary to give me a
big return.

Yes, I could sell my Microsoft shares and invest the money elsewhere,
following the age-old American principle that if you don't like it, leave. But I'd
rather not. I still have a lot of confidence in the company's ability to make
innovative software. Besides, it's getting hard to find a high technology
company these days that's not pouring money into politics. High technology
is becoming high influence peddling.

More important, lobbying efforts like Microsoft's violate an implicit social
bargain that major corporations have with America. For years now, big
companies have argued that they have no social responsibility to the public
at large.

Yes, most give some money to worthy causes and a few have reinvigorated
ailing urban neighborhoods. But these gestures are understood as good
public relations. When it comes to major business decisions, corporations
justify any action by claiming a duty to their shareholders.

By contrast, big companies in social democratic countries like Germany and
France, and in corporatist countries like Japan and South Korea, have overt
responsibilities to the public in addition to their duties to their shareholders.
Sometimes public representatives sit on their boards of directors, or big
quasi-public banks exercise certain powers over them, or community and
labor groups have direct input.

The American deal has always been that a corporation's responsibilities to
the public are better addressed in the legislative process than inside
corporate boardrooms. This division of authority has allowed us to exercise
our economic rights by investing in companies while exercising our political
rights by voting in elections. I can instruct Microsoft to increase the value of
my shares while also instructing my political representatives to pass laws to
make sure that a giant corporation doesn't harm anything I believe in as a
citizen.

Yet in recent years companies have been investing more and more in
politics. When a company like Microsoft uses extraordinary economic clout to
try so specifically to undercut a Federal agency, it crosses a divide.

Trying to shift government away from what citizens would like and toward
what shareholders would profit from raises questions about the larger social
bargain America has made with every giant corporation.

Microsoft may not realize it, but its political tactics are making an eloquent
case that it and other corporate behemoths should be either more directly
accountable to the public or busted up.

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