Weird Scenes Inside the Archives: “‘Business As Usual’ Is Obsolete”

Vital Speeches' vast back issues cough up an eloquent defense of stakeholder capitalism—from 52 years ago.

Something a little different for the Vital Speech of this week. A serendipitous spelunking sortie into the cavernous archives of the 88-year-old Vital Speeches of the Day magazine yielded a strangely echoey find.

Guess the year these sentiments were uttered by an investment banker named Dan Lufkin, at a meeting of fellow businesspeople:

… the generation now entering the corporate world will never swallow the line that earnings per share is the measure of all things good. Sweetening the stockholders equity is to them insufficient justification for corporate existence. Though the generation of jobs and wealth is still regarded by them as the major concern of business, a growing number of young managers feel acutely that the profit motive and social responsibility are often in conflict. They argue persuasively that moral neutrality is inevitably immoral, just as we have argued for years that profitability without growth is inevitably loss. The corporation, they say, cannot operate in an ethical vacuum, but most include social responsibility in its decision-making process. …

No corporation can measure results solely in terms of its own earnings. It will be held accountable for the larger implications of its business activities; its internal environment; its concern for employee welfare; its ecological relationship with communities in which its plants and offices are located; its responsiveness to the pressing needs of the nation; its contribution to the rebuilding of the human habitation; its willingness to help break down the social and economic barriers which still exclude large groups of Americans from full participation in the benefits of our economic system … and finally it will have to display forbearance and self-discipline in evaluating the fruits of its own technology so that socially and physically harmful products are not manufactured simply because they can be manufactured.

“Business as usual” is obsolete.

That rather premature articulation of stakeholder capitalism was delivered to the Connecticut Chapter of The New England Council, on September 22, 1970.

Of course, years between its delivery and The Business Roundtable’s redefined Purpose of a Corporation in 2019 saw, among other things: Alex P. Keaton, Gordon Gekko, Jack Welch, Chainsaw Al Dunlap and Kenneth Lay. The advent of downsizing, rightsizing and mass layoffs. Tech and banking bubbles that burst (all at once and nothing first). And a dozen other corporate programs that were going to change everything, from diversity to empowerment to Total Quality Management to Lean Management to just-in-time supply chains and now to stakeholder capitalism!

I suppose one may greet such a discovery with a weary French sigh: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Or Ecclesiastes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

But we may also greet it with a gospel number: “Been runnin’ for Jesus a long time (I’m not tired yet).”

And perhaps even more usefully, CEOs’ speechwriters could quote such speeches, in new talks about stakeholder capitalism. 

This is not a new idea. Long ago, many civic-minded, rock-ribbed Republican business leaders believed they had the unique ability and a fundamental responsibility to consider the total impact of the their organizations, in the societies where they operated. Consider this speech, given more than half a century ago by a rock-ribbed Republican investment banker …

Professional propagandists and boosters ignore history; professional rhetoricians put it to use.

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