Occupy! Precise Language

I read an article this morning on Alter.net: Capitalism’s Dirty Secret: Corporations Don’t Create Jobs, They Destroy Them

It bothered me. But it’s not the only one that has bothered me. Though I agree with and support the Occupy! movement, I am troubled by the sloppy coverage of important issues, even as they attempt to do the important work of rebalancing power in this country.

What bothers me: this article is full of broad generalizations and blanket statements that do not apply to all corporations. It troubles me that Americans (in general) are becoming more and more imprecise in our language even as we try to have serious discussions about important things like corporate greed, which is not practiced by every corporation.

The term “corporation” represents a legal status. There are MANY small businesses in this country that have corporate legal status. I have a small, privately-held corporation with 3 incorporators and 4 employees (which include the 3 incorporators)–we created 3 jobs in the last 6 months. We have an employee-ownership model. The only way to earn a paycheck in our corporation is to work in a revenue-producing job–no outside shareholders get any of our revenue; it all goes back to the employees. It’s like a co-op. And our little corporation is not that unusual–there are thousands of them out there; most of them really small.

But the only corporations that seem to be getting any press these days are the big ones that have gone wrong, robbing the employees to feed the shareholders. Those corporations (though big, and holding the power to make or eliminate thousands of jobs each) are not nearly as numerous as the thousands of little corporations that are still classified as “small business.” The latter are the backbone of America. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration:

“Small firms:

• Represent 99.7 percent of all employer firms.
• Employ half of all private sector employees.
• Pay 44 percent of total U.S. private payroll.
• Generated 65 percent of net new jobs over the past 17 years.
• Create more than half of the nonfarm private GDP.
• Hire 43 percent of high tech workers ( scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and others).
• Are 52 percent home-based and 2 percent franchises.
• Made up 97.5 percent of all identified exporters and produced 31 percent of export value in FY 2008.
• Produce 13 times more patents per employee than large patenting firms.” (http://web.sba.gov/faqs/faqIndexAll.cfm?areaid=24)

Many of those firms are small corporations, because the legal status of corporation provides a variety of liability protections for the incorporators (protecting personal assets if the business goes bankrupt, for example), as well as tax incentives for creating those jobs. This is good–we want to encourage people to go out and create jobs, don’t we? And obviously, many people have done this, at the small-firm level.

My concern: that the continual misuse of language (generalizing the evils of big businesses like Goldman Sachs by the persistent use of one word which encompasses ALL businesses with the legal status “corporation,” regardless of their size) will ultimately backfire on the little corporations who are doing good in the world by creating lots of local jobs and keeping the profits in the pockets and communities of the employees.

Extremism in any form always has unintended consequences. The extreme misuse of language even in the vilification of enormous corporations doing illegal and economically destructive things could bite small businesses in our nether regions, furthering the very problem that the Occupy! movement is trying to correct. Choose your words carefully.

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