Photo: AP

Management experts speak of every company as having “stakeholders”—all of the different people affected by what a company does. If you can rearrange the hierarchy of stakeholders, you can change the world.

Here, I would submit, is the normal hierarchy of corporate stakeholders in this country now:

  1. Investors
  2. Executives
  3. Customers
  4. Workers
  5. Society

This is the tendency of unrestrained capitalism. Capital holds the most power and demands the most return. Powerful executives demand exorbitant salaries. Serving customers is prioritized to the extent that it creates profits (and, not to be too cynical, being the best at serving customers does create profits, whether you serve them on price, like Walmart, or availability, like Amazon, or luxury, or otherwise). Workers get the smallest wage possible that is sufficient to provide a labor supply. “Society,” a term too vague to really mean much to corporate America, is only important to the extent that pissing it off could lead to political or PR problems.

Now consider this hierarchy in reverse:

  1. Society
  2. Workers
  3. Customers
  4. Executives
  5. Investors

Companies do not need to turn themselves into charities in order to serve society. They just need to play their useful roles in the economy, and not act to actively hurt the rest of society in order to enrich themselves. Workers, whose lives are most tied to the companies, and who are the most economically vulnerable, are the ones who should reap most of the economic benefits. Customers should be served as normal. Executives will make more money than workers but will in exchange agree to put the needs of the workers before their own. Investors, who do nothing but provide capital, are due enough profits to keep the money flowing, but no more. They take risk, but they don’t work. Workers, who live paycheck to paycheck, risk the stability of their lives by depending on their employers, and they do work, besides.

The second hierarchy is dismissed as utopian by good red-blooded American capitalists. But it is not any more utopian than the first hierarchy. The difference is that the first is a utopia for capital, and the second is a utopia for people. (In this case, utopia just means “the arrangement that maximizes the relative good for the chosen groups.” There’s only a little bit of good to go around sometimes, and that’s life. This is a distribution question, not a fantasy.)

America has seen more than three decades of rising economic inequality. That translates to more power for investors and less for workers. We are now in the midst of a shift back the other way. Rising wages—won through hard political and protest campaigns, not through kindness—have investors wondering if corporate profits will take a hit, as labor costs eat into money that was previously distributed to shareholders as dividends or capital gains. Workers have been pushed too far down. They are slowly, slowly taking a bigger piece of the pie.

This debate, over whether rising wages will cripple the economy by bringing down investment returns, will be playing out for years to come. It will be at the root of many angry pronouncements from many politicians. Watch for it. And as we have this national debate, ask yourself: which hierarchy do you want to live under? Money shifted from investors to workers does not disappear. It does not go up in smoke. It is put to use by working people. It is spent, fueling the rest of the economy. It is taxed. In fact, it is taxed more than investment income is taxed.

Investors may be angry to see their returns decline. They may make threats about taking their money elsewhere. But if the return on capital everywhere declines, and is shifted to many millions of working people, investors will suck it up and keep investing. If they can only get 1%, they will still take that over 0%. It is to a large extent a political choice how much of the economic gains of our society we decide to allow to accrue to the investment class. When contemplating that choice, just think about who does the fucking work.