"Managers Do Not Only Serve Shareholders"

by Ulrich Thielemann Thursday, May. 19, 2005 at 5:51 AM

"It is not legitimate to exploit every conceivable outsourcing chance. It is not legitimate to declare jobs superfluous to realize double-digit profits.. Profit cannot be the only maxim of good entrepreneural conduct.."


Interview with Economic Ethicist Ulrich Thielemann

[This interview published in: Nurnberger Zeitung, 3/11/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.nz-online.de/artikel.asp?art=313654&kat=4.]

[Banks post record profits and announce layoffs. Heads of health insurances enjoy enormous salaries despite savings pressures. What is going wrong? Nurnberger Zeitung spoke with the economist Ulrich Thielemann. He is co-director of the institute for Economic Ethics at the University of St. Gallen and has published studies on “Ethics and Success” and “The Market as a Principle.”]

NZ: Shouldn’t an economic ethicist despair in view of the latest manager scandal?

Thielemann: No. These blatant cases of misguided management offer abundant illustrative material for enlightenment in economic ethics. The economic ethicist thinks in right and wrong, not in good and evil.

NZ: What is right and what is wrong?

Thielemann: Josef Ackermann said: “Germany is the only country where those who create profits are taken to court although they should be praised.” A peculiar public interest fiction underlies this remark: Whoever is successful read from the balance statement of the firm or individual promotes the well being of everyone. Therefore Ackermann has a completely clear conscience (Ackermann is chairperson of Deutsche Bank that posted record profits and simultaneously laid off thousands of employees). He has a harmonious theory about how the market functions. Economic ethics starts here by showing the shortcomings of this theory.

NZ: How does a good manager act?

Thielemann: A good manager knows that economics is full of conflicts and that there are a whole series of claims giving rise to serious conflicts, above all between capital and labor. An integrated manager knows about these conflicts and does not simply iron them out with a harmonious market theory according to the motto: Everything that brings success is ethically all right.

NZ: How do you counter that?

Thielemann: Managers who practice integrated economics do not only serve one claimant group like the shareholders. Concerning the urgent current problem of shifting jobs to low-wage countries, it is not legitimate to exploit every conceivable outsourcing chance. It is not legitimate to declare jobs superfluous with the sharpest possible pencil to realize double-digit profits. One can be economically successful below the threshold of 25-percent capital profitability set by Ackermann.

NZ: Many firms justify layoffs as practical economic necessities. How can ethics and success be reconciled in such a conflict?

Thielemann: High profits show that practical necessities can never make doing what is ethically right impossible. However it could be unreasonable not to order layoffs – under existing conditions that can be changed.

NZ: Can an ethical boundary line be drawn between the pursuit of profit necessary for survival and reprehensible profit maximization?

Thielemann: Yes. Profit maximization is not justified a priori. Profit maximization means considering all claims only when this pays. Profit cannot be the only maxim of good entrepreneurial conduct. It is one important aspect alongside others. Whoever understands this as a manager practices a different economics.

NZ: In a report of the German ministry for families, children were recently described as growth factors. Does this reflect the spirit of the times?

Thielemann: We live in an age of the economizing of living conditions. In my opinion, German social democracy acts in a neoliberal way. By neoliberal, I understand that the state defines itself as a business whose only goal is to make society fit for the world market. All policy including family policy stands under the directing of increasing the competitiveness of Germany as a corporation. These are dramatic changes in attitudes.

NZ: How will our economic system appear in 20 years?

Thielemann: The future is hard to predict. We are actually at a turning point. The question is whether the global world market will be useful to society or whether we let things take their course. If we let things run their course, large parts of the formerly rich North and West will become impoverished because they cannot hold their ground to the competitiveness of the Far East. We will not only have to work longer. Self-assertion on the world market will dominate our life almost completely. This will be a genuine valley of tears.