Making Corporations The Change Agents To Jumpstart Economic Mobility

In an environment where wealth inequality is a political issue, this piece makes the case that the best approach is not more government redistribution programs but rather having companies extending share ownership far more broadly. Author Mundell discuses an original way to encourage more widespread employee stock ownership.

Guest post by William A. Mundell

In his last published work, John Steinbeck, that great chronicler of the working class, mused that Americans never embraced socialism because the poor didn't expect to stay poor; they instead viewed themselves as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires."

Today, the mood is more somber. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that intergenerational mobility in the U.S. is on average no higher than in Europe. A recent Gallup poll found that Gen Z respondents were almost equally split on whether they view capitalism or socialism more favorably.

Decades ago, Congress made an earnest effort to head this off. With America’s wealth increasingly concentrated in companies, it forged a bipartisan consensus to incentivize companies to extend share ownership more broadly. By rewarding nonexecutive employee performance with company stock—in addition to wages—employees get a pro rata claim on all the future profits the firm earns. Wealth creation through equity ownership is profit sharing both now and in the future.

Imagine, for a moment, that instead of today’s gig workers and their companies being locked into a never-ending transactional dance over their status, that top-rated Uber drivers had the opportunity to earn stock in their company.

Yet despite research demonstrating mutual benefits for corporations, shareholders and employees, and elaborate government incentives (especially with ESOPs), broad-based employee ownership has barely migrated outside of Silicon Valley. Conventional wisdom points to the complexity of the ESOP program, but tinkering with it over time hasn’t helped, and meanwhile the need grows more urgent.

Before reaching for yet another government fix, shouldn’t we first see if a fully informed market can produce a solution on its own? Outside of ESOPs, there isn’t enough public reporting of employee ownership data, even for publicly traded companies. And that means there is no transparent scorecard, no easy way to compare one company to the next and, of critical importance, no way for companies to compete with each other on employee-ownership adoption.

To create that scorecard, we must make currently invisible employee-ownership data visible to all Americans. The tool required is a public-facing Employee Ownership (EO) Index, in effect, a “company Gini coefficient” that measures employee stock ownership within and between companies. The power of such an index shouldn’t be underestimated. In addition to potentially impacting market value, it’s a way for companies to signal their good intentions.

The ESG (which asks stockholders to consider a company's commitment to environment, social and governance issues when making investment decisions) taught us just how sensitive corporations are about their reputations, even with regard to societal problems they aren’t fully equipped to solve. In contrast, broad-based employee ownership is completely within their control and totally consistent with profit maximization. The EO Index offers both companies and the public a flashlight to reveal which companies are leading, which are following and which are impeding change on this defining issue for the future of democratic capitalism in the U.S.

Our nonprofit organization, Work to Own, along with a team from Harvard Business School and other leading institutions, is releasing a first-ever Employee Ownership Index for the S&P 500. Though it will require further refinement because of the data limitations, we believe it will create a new market standard for measuring broad-based ownership that will encourage a race to the top.

The SEC could greatly improve the robustness of the rankings by mandating that companies disclose employee stock compensation by income cohort, but until then, Work to Own will be supplementing our existing measure with surveys of the leading companies to produce a more definitive ranking of the S&P 500.

The more robust the tool, the more empowered companies will be as change agents, and the less demand there will be on government to expand redistributive programs. For while progressively larger rounds of redistribution have improved the living standards of the poorest Americans and strengthened the safety net, they haven’t solved the economic mobility problem and, arguably, have imposed huge costs on the efficient functioning of the market economy.

Rather than continue this course, we must find solutions that expand wealth from the bottom up. Then, and only then can the founding vision of America be restored, and, as Steinbeck described in another essay, can the working class once again be “temporarily embarrassed capitalists.”

—William A. Mundell, Founder and Chairman of Work to Own, and Chairman of Neurosphere Entertainment.