Saturday, December 26, 2015

2135. A Case of Bourgeois Socialism: A Moral Index for Capitalism?

By Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times, December 20, 2015
Activists outside Paul Tudor Jone II estate protesting the influence of hedge-fund managers. Photo: Andrew Sullivan for the New York Times. 
Paul Tudor Jones II, the hedge-fund billionaire, has a plan to reduce income inequality. He wants to rate companies on their probity, not their profits.

“The wealth gap, that’s the single most important issue in this country,” he said in September while unveiling Just Capital, a nonprofit organization that he created with Deepak Chopra, the spiritual self-help author and wellness entrepreneur who taught Mr. Jones how to meditate.

Just Capital will rank corporations on how well, or “justly,” they treat employees, society and the environment. The idea is to laud companies that offer better pay, happier workplaces and greater transparency — and perhaps shame others to follow suit.

This kind of moral index, Mr. Jones said, “could not only impact investors, it could impact consumers, it might impact the way companies hire, the way people go and work with companies; it will impact boardrooms, everything.”

The project began, improbably enough, in 2011 in the chic Manhattan design store ABC Carpet and Home when Mr. Chopra was whisked away from his salon in a friend’s chauffeured car to an Occupy Wall Street rally.

Today, with a presidential election looming and calls for the wealthy to pay more in taxes coming not only from populist politicians but also from billionaires like Warren E. Buffett, even members of the top 1 percent of the 1 percent are passionately inveighing against the wealth gap.

“The middle-class guy who’s making the $50,000 a year realizes, ‘I’m being taken advantage of,’ ” warned Carl Icahn, a corporate raider turned activist investor, in a video titled “Danger Ahead that he released in late September.

While there has not exactly been a groundswell among the wealthy to significantly raise their own taxes, Mr. Icahn and Mr. Buffett are among several of America’s prominent top earners who have endorsed changing the tax loophole that treats a large portion of private-equity and hedge-fund managers’ income — known as carried interest — as more lightly taxed capital gains and require it to be taxed as regular salary. In a statement responding to questions for this article, Mr. Jones said his “strong opinion” was that carried interest should be taxed as ordinary income.

“Billionaires see a backlash coming,” said Sam Wilkin, an economist and author of “Wealth Secrets of the One Percent.” Mr. Jones has experienced it firsthand. In March, the Hedge Clippers, a coalition of labor groups and community activists, marched on his Greenwich, Conn., estate to protest the influence of hedge-fund managers.

At the same time, some of America’s wealthiest are responding with an unprecedented flood of money into politics, largely supporting Republican candidates who have pledged to cut taxes. A New York Times investigation documented in October how 158 families were responsible for almost half the money raised in the current presidential race. People from the finance industry lead the list.

This year Mr. Jones said in a TED talk that traditionally there are three ways to change income inequality: “By revolution, higher taxes or wars.” His alternative is Just Capital.

Mr. Jones argues that income inequality is being driven by what he calls “shareholder hegemony,” the principle that companies first and foremost should satisfy investors. The solution is for companies to make social responsibility as important as profits and share price.

Mr. Jones, who declined to be interviewed, has a net worth Forbes estimates at $4.7 billion and was one of the few hedge-fund managers who foresaw the 1987 market crash. He is known for founding the Robin Hood Foundation, a charitable organization started in 1988 that raised $101 million last year for anti-poverty programs in New York.

Just Capital’s mission fits into an existing trend. Socially responsible investing, the favoring of companies that demonstrate environmental and social awareness, is a growing movement, driven in large part by the economic ascendance of millennials and women. As of this month, Morningstar said about 2 percent of the mutual funds it tracked were tagged “socially conscious.” Such funds “typically perform on par or a little better than conventional funds,” said Jon Hale, director of manager research at Morningstar.

Not all economists agree with Mr. Jones’s notion that monitoring corporate behavior would narrow the distance between the very rich and the rest. Mr. Wilkin, the economist, argued that inequity was driven not just by bloated executive compensation or the single-minded pursuit of profit, but also by what he called a two-tier economy in which some industries, like technology, finance and health care, soared ahead and left the rest behind. Just Capital, he said, was “wishful thinking that there is a market solution to income inequality that doesn’t involve increasing taxes.”

There are many nonprofits that seek to address income inequality. Mr. Jones and Mr. Chopra bring a waft of New Age spirituality to theirs. The Just Capital board includes Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post, and several wealthy business leaders who also are directors of the Chopra Foundation.

Mr. Chopra, in an interview, described his friend as being on a path of self-discovery. “This is an evolution for him.”

It all started with meditation. In early October 2011, Dylan Ratigan, an MSNBC anchor who later left to become what he described as a “sustainability entrepreneur,” was on his way to a private meditation session at Mr. Chopra’s salon in ABC Carpet and Home just as the Occupy Wall Street protests were getting started in Zuccotti Park. On an impulse, Mr. Ratigan told his teacher that he had a car waiting downstairs and asked Mr. Chopra to go with him to the park.

When they arrived, Mr. Ratigan asked the protesters to let Mr. Chopra speak. Some of them fiercely objected to letting a celebrity jump the line, but Mr. Ratigan prevailed, and Mr. Chopra led the crowd in a meditative prayer that, as he put it, “quieted the angry rhetoric.” That fall, he became a featured guest at several Occupy events and was so struck by the “perceived injustice” fueling the protests that he told a friend: “We need to do something about this.”

The idea for Just Capital emerged from a seminar Mr. Chopra held at Columbia Business School called “Just Capital and Cause-Driven Marketing.” A student suggested creating an index of companies based on their value to society, not quarterly profits. Mr. Chopra took the idea to Mr. Jones, whom he had met through Mr. Jones’s wife, Sonia, a yoga and wellness enthusiast.

Mr. Chopra, who wears crystal-studded eyeglass frames, blends spiritual and commercial success with celebrity hobnobbing — he does workshops with Oprah Winfrey and made a recording of love poetry with Madonna. “He’s very good at the diplomacy of wealth and power,” Mr. Ratigan said.

Mr. Chopra said that, so far, he had not received skeptical responses to the Just Capital idea, but he conceded that the jury had been small and “self-selected.”

Mr. Jones set up the foundation in 2013, hired a staff and underwrote a survey of 43,000 Americans to determine what people most valued in a company. The No. 1 factor was pay and benefits. (At No. 10 was creating jobs in the United States.) Next year Just Capital plans to publish a ranking of the top 1,000 publicly traded companies based on a scale derived from the survey. “Americans want a seat at the table,” Mr. Jones said at the September presentation.

There are many research firms, including MSCI and Sustainalytics, that examine companies for social responsibility, although their data is mostly reserved for clients and subscribers. Just Capital plans to make its ratings public at no charge.

Because Just Capital will examine only publicly traded corporations, Mr. Jones’s hedge fund and thousands of others like it will be exempt from scrutiny. At the Just Capital presentation, Mr. Jones said he checked to make sure his own company, Tudor Investment Corporation, was in line with Just Capital’s principles.

Tudor Investment employs about 400 people, according to a spokesman, Patrick Clifford. Its traders, of course, make well above a living wage.

At first, the wages of gardeners, dishwashers and janitors at Tudor were not included in the review because they are employed by subcontractors, not Tudor directly. When managers examined the salaries, however, they found that the firm had 16 subcontracted workers who were paid $10.50 an hour.

“It was literally eye-opening and embarrassing at the same time,” Mr. Jones said. He said he raised their hourly rate to $15.

For comparison, in Fairfield County, where Tudor is based, janitors who belong to Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union make $14.10 an hour, not including benefits, and $20.49 an hour with benefits factored in. According to the M.I.T. living wage calculator, the living wage for a single worker in the county is $12.78 an hour and for an adult with one child it is $27.72.

Last spring, Mr. Jones leased an office and bought a $71 million house in Palm Beach, Fla., in a state with no income tax. He also said he increased the percentage of profit the company donates to charity to 4 percent a year from 1 percent. According to CECP, an organization that monitors corporate giving trends, the industry median last year was 1 percent.

At the conference this year announcing Just Capital, a guest asked him if he was the best messenger to preach corporate altruism, given that “shareholder hegemony” helped make him wealthy. Mr. Jones had a ready reply. He had been rethinking the capitalist dream, he said, ever since hearing about the “giving pledge,” a promise made by Bill Gates, Mr. Buffett and others to give away much of their wealth.

“What’s the purpose of accumulating all this money when I’m just going to give it back to the people I conceivably took it from?” Mr. Jones said.

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