Americans would like businesses to start thinking about more than just the bottom line.
Most people say that major companies care most about their executives and their stockholders, a recent poll finds. But people would prefer it if companies put the interests of customers, communities and their own employees first.
The survey, commissioned by the Public Affairs Council, appears to tap into many of the reservations Americans have had about the business community in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent recession, when the profit-maximizing practices of large companies began to have visible consequences in the form of widespread foreclosure and unemployment.
A combined 81 percent of people in the PAC poll say that major companies put the interests of either their executives or stockholders first. And 83 percent say it would be better for companies to prioritize the wishes of customers, employees or communities.
The desire to see large companies act in a more public-spirited way appears to form much of the animus for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is approaching its two-month anniversary as a public presence in Manhattan and dozens of other cities, protesting income inequality, corporate influence in politics and what its members call the indifference of the wealthy to the problems of the lower and middle classes.
People in the PAC poll didn't take an entirely dim view of corporate America, with 61 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of major companies and 72 percent saying business generally do a good job of providing goods and services.
But 62 percent said that most companies make too much profit, and a full 76 percent say that companies usually overpay their executives.
Complaints about excessive executive compensation have become increasingly common, as the wealthiest fraction of Americans continue to earn more and more than everyone else.
The practice of peer benchmarking -- ratcheting up executive salaries not to reward good performance, but to stay competitive when other companies are doing the same -- has likely contributed to the present soaring rates of income inequality, where the top 1 percent of earners have seen their salaries grow at more than six times the speed of the middle class since 1979.
Besides questioning executive pay, another complaint of the PAC poll respondents was that companies should make a greater effort to address social problems, including those for which the government has traditionally assumed responsibility.
Seventy-six percent said companies should get more involved in relief efforts after natural disasters. Seventy-three percent said companies should do more to improve health care, 72 percent want companies to do more for education and 56 percent want companies to take a more active role in improving bridges and roads.
A full 80 percent said companies should do more for the poorest members of society, such as running food banks, free clinics and job training programs.
At the moment, there is no shortage of demand for such resources. Nearly 14 million Americans are unemployed, and the number of people in poverty is either 46 or 49 million, depending on what measurements one uses -- a record-breaking number in either case. Roughly 46 million people are on food stamps, and more than 17 million households had difficulty putting food on the table last year.