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Business Roundtable Issues Statement On The Need To Help Deal With Income Inequality

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The nation's most powerful business executives have issued what amounts to a new mission statement. It moves away from the view that shareholder profits trump all other goals. The new statement out today and signed by executives on the Business Roundtable asserts the following. Quote, "Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity." Back in 1997, the Business Roundtable said the main objective of a business enterprise was to generate economic returns for its owners. Reporter David Gelles is following this story for The New York Times. He's with us now.

Hey, David.

DAVID GELLES: Hi.

KELLY: What prompted this statement? Why now?

GELLES: For years now, business has been getting more and more wrapped up in some of the social and political debates roiling this country. And at a moment when Senator Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are really pointing fingers at business, CEOs finally realized they needed to try to recast the public's perception of what it is business is here for.

KELLY: Practically, does this change anything? What does this mission statement actually do?

GELLES: What they're trying to do is not so much say - every one of these companies is going to adopt a certain policy. Instead, what they're trying to do is redefine how the public thinks of what businesses are here for. For the longest time, there's been this notion that the primary role of business is to increase shareholder value. Finally, businesses are getting around to saying, maybe that's not all we're supposed to be doing. Maybe we do need to be taking care of our workers. Maybe we do need to be taking care of the environment. Maybe we do need to be taking our suppliers and treating them fairly. Now, again, these are lofty sentiments. But we have yet to see is exactly how the Business Roundtable proposes all these companies go about doing that.

KELLY: Right. I can imagine some people listening might listen to the lofty sentiments and, even if they like them, say, how about some not quite so lofty but more practical sentiments like maybe pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage or paid paternal leave or other things that might practically help the lives of employees of these big corporations?

GELLES: I spoke to the CEOs of many of these companies today, and they'll all be quick to point out, hey. We actually do take pretty good care of our workers. And, hey, we do have lofty and laudable parental and family leave. I think what we're seeing, though, is a real disconnect between what individual companies do and how the broader business community is perceived by the public because we can see, even if one company has a great leave policy, we're still at a moment when the divide between rich and poor is widening in this country and at a moment when the environmental problems we're all facing collectively are getting worse. And so what they're trying to do and are going to have to figure out is how to translate this sort of collective sentiment of goodwill into real action that everyday Americans sense when they go about their daily lives.

KELLY: Would I be completely cynical to ask if these CEOs might still have their eye on the bottom line in the sense that if they are seen as, quote, "good companies working in the greater public interest" that that might, ultimately, be good for the bottom line?

GELLES: I don't even think that's cynical. They would agree with you. They would say that, hey. If we take good care of our employees and we take good care of the environment, ultimately, in the long term, we're going to have a better and more sustainable business.

KELLY: That's David Gelles, business reporter for The New York Times. He's got a column there called Corner Office.

David Gelles, thanks.

GELLES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEI, THE FIELD TAPES AND PORT GEORGE'S "BORDERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.