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Opinion | C.E.O.s Should Fear a Recession. It Could Mean Revolution.

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In other words: no more Mr. Terrible Guy. Corporations are people, my friend, and it turns out that they’re really nice people, both interesting and interested, and we really must have them over for dinner sometime.

I spent a tedious few minutes this week trying to come up with an analogy to convey how thoroughly empty I found the Roundtable’s gesture to be. I think I got one: Imagine a co-worker has been stealing your lunch from the office fridge for years. Then, one day, he strolls in with a big grin and grand announcement. Maybe he unfolds a scroll and blows a trumpet. He has realized that “lunch maximization” might not have been the best approach after all, and he will now try to be aware of the wider consequences of some of his actions. Yes, he still really wants your lunch. Yes, he will probably still fight any efforts to prevent him from taking your lunch. But you should know that he also feels a tinge bad about how it’s all worked out. So, no hard feelings?

I mean: Yay? It’s nice that C.E.O.s have vowed to turn over a new leaf. But their statement lacks any call for greater structural changes in the American economy — changes to how companies are taxed or regulated, or how executives are paid, or how they should be judged.

And because a public corporation’s most direct incentives — including the C.E.O.’s pay — remain tied to stock performance, there’s no reason to believe that corporations will voluntarily move away from pleasing shareholders alone, despite the new, high-minded ideals. In fact, the fanfare surrounding the Roundtable’s empty statement could be read as an effort to stave off structural economic reform rather than accelerate it. It’s a way for the C.E.O.s to tell us that they’re on the case, so we don’t have to resort to something unthinkable, like a Warren presidency.

If I sound cynical, it’s only because I’m not a complete idiot. In the Trump era, America’s C.E.O.s have become masterful at talking out of both sides of their mouths. They’ll rush to issue virtue-signaling denunciations of the latest outrage from President Trump in order to please their woke, restless customer bases, while on the down low, they’ll champion his tax cuts and regulatory dismantling. And when the president gets too rowdy, they’ll tell him to knock it off over a friendly dinner.

It’s all a game to the moguls in charge. Their greatest fear is that we’ll stop playing.

Farhad wants to chat with readers on the phone. If you’re interested in talking to a New York Times columnist about anything that’s on your mind, please fill out this form. Farhad will select a few readers to call.



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