Harnessing the power of capitalism for the greater good

While the midterm elections were largely seen as a referendum on President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE, the fact that each election is seeing an increasing host of political outsiders win office suggests that larger forces are motivating the electorate.

America’s federal government has not seen this type of revolving door turnover since the Gilded Age. In America and around the globe, voters across the political spectrum are swinging wildly for a solution to a deeply felt problem — the increasing disparity between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us.

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Many Americans, and even some of the wealthiest individuals themselves, recognize the problems mounting due to this growing chasm. Many citizens are feeling that the government and the entire economic system are increasingly weighted against them.

This same problem existed at the turn of the last century, leading to the income tax and the creation of the social safety nets.

However, with the House shifting to Democrats and both parties moving further from the political center, it’s likely that Americans of any political stripe who are desperate to see the federal government advance any major initiatives in response to their significant concerns are in for a frustrating two years.

Fortunately, Americans have a long, proud legacy of using their own pocketbooks, private organizations and corporations to push forward where government fails or drags its feet.

It is likely that ideas emanating from the private sector will be at the core of any successful effort to ameliorate economic disparities and increase citizens' interest and ownership in the direction of our society and economy.

In our new book, "Citizen Capitalism: How a Universal Fund Can Provide Influence and Income to All," my co-authors and I offer a proposal to make one such idea a reality. Our plan envisions the creation of a national mutual fund — dubbed the Universal Fund — composed of equities donated by corporations and individuals. 

We demonstrate that the Universal Fund embraces broadly held American values such as equality and transparency, while at the same time addressing broader societal concerns, such as racial inequality in wealth and troubling disparities in financial market participation.

Unlike the typical mutual fund model, in which one must buy into the fund in order to participate (a model that favors relatively wealthy and self-selected investors), the Universal Fund would be free and open to every U.S. citizen 18 years or older.

Each participant would receive share ownership simply by registering to become a citizen-shareholder, just as the right to vote is a privilege available to any citizen who complies with the voter registration process.

Those who choose to sign up to participate in the Universal Fund would receive a share in the fund, along with proportional voting rights, which will allow them to participate meaningfully in the decisions of major corporations.

They will also receive the right to income as a share of any fund distributions. Shares in the fund could not be traded but would be held indefinitely, making the Universal Fund the quintessential long-term shareholder, which would address issues with corporate governance now driven by opaque proxy voting and focus on short-term profits.

Unlike Universal Basic Income (UBI) proposals, the Universal Fund does not rely on government funding or forced redistribution. Instead it is built through the voluntary participation of willing funders and participating citizens.

There is very good reason to believe that the private money is there to get started and that the individuals and corporations with the means to donate to the Universal Fund will be motivated to do so once the structure is in place.

At this point, naysayers will typically say that this has never been done and is therefore impossible, or even that this is some kind of a move away from capitalism toward socialism. This could not be further from the truth.

In fact, the secret power of the Universal Fund is that it honors the brilliance of capitalism and harnesses its power as a tool for building a more inclusive and better future.

The Universal Fund is without a doubt a big, bold idea. But it is also eminently practical: It deploys the existing rules and structures of capitalism, not government, to give all citizens a direct influence on corporate actions, which in turn will have broader benefits for society as a whole. 

Americans are starved for big ideas with the potential to move the country forward and honor common American values. With the 2018 election behind us, a Universal Fund is one big idea that both Democrats and Republicans can get behind.

Tamara Belinfanti is a professor at New York Law School; co-founder of the Ethical Shareholder Initiative; and a 2013 Aspen Ideas Scholar.