Tech mogul Marc Benioff has been winning media accolades for his declaration that “capitalism, as we know it, is dead.” The billionaire founder and CEO of Salesforce, a cloud-based customer-relations company, has launched an advertising blitz promoting his new book, Trailblazer, which calls for a “more fair, equal and sustainable capitalism,” as Benioff put it in a New York Times op-ed on Monday. This “new capitalism” would not “just take from society but truly give back and have a positive impact,” Benioff maintains.
Benioff’s belief that providing products to willing consumers “takes” from society is apparently shared by the 181 CEOs of the Business Roundtable, who rejected the traditional principle of corporate shareholder responsibility this August in favor of “stakeholder responsibility.” Benioff suggests that the Securities and Exchange Commission (or, as he put it in his Times op-ed, the Security and Exchange Commission) start requiring corporations to document how their actions affect this amorphous and infinitely expandable set of “stakeholders.”
Fortunately for anyone seeking to evaluate what the new capitalism might entail, Benioff has provided a concrete example of a CEO solving “social challenges”—the challenge in this case being San Francisco’s festering homeless problem. Salesforce is headquartered in San Francisco and is the city’s biggest employer. In 2018, Benioff, in conjunction with San Francisco’s most fearsome advocacy group, the Coalition on Homelessness, put a new tax on the local ballot to double the taxpayer dollars already going to the city’s main homelessness agency. Proposition C would impose an extra 0.5 percent gross-receipts sales tax on companies with more than $50 million in annual revenue, raising an estimated $250 million to $300 million, all of which would be funneled into the homelessness-industrial complex.
To Benioff, the issue was clear: “Are you for the homeless or not for the homeless? For me, it’s binary. I’m for the homeless,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. To some of San Francisco’s politicians and business leaders, the matter was less obviously binary. The city’s existing spending on homelessness was already marked by inefficiencies, according to Mayor London Breed; this new surge in taxpayer dollars lacked any oversight to ensure effectiveness and accountability. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey warned that the additional tax on tech startups would be unsustainable. Mark Pincus, cofounder of gaming company Zynga, tweeted: “Prop c is the dumbest, least thought out prop ever. Please get the facts and vote no.” The city comptroller estimated a loss of up to 875 jobs over 20 years.
Benioff immediately went ad hominem, weaponizing the primary progressive metric of compassion: the willingness to spend money (preferably other people’s). To Dorsey, Benioff tweeted: “Which homeless programs in our city are you supporting? Can you tell me what Twitter and Square & you are in for & at what financial levels? How much have you given to heading home our $37M initiative to get every homeless child off the streets?” Pincus got a similar demand to show the bucks: “Mark what’s your plan & what’s your contribution to helping our homeless? Tell us in detail what @zynga is doing for them now at scale & what your plan is?” For good measure, Benioff again played the child card: “We cannot wait any longer for a ‘better’ or ‘more fair’ plan. The thousands of homeless kids cannot wait.”
Such challenges to money-measured virtue are not easily ignored in San Francisco. Pincus took the bait: “Clearly i agree with you which is why @zynga was the first company to contribute ($500k) when you raised $10m for homelessness.” Predictably, a Twitter follower sneered that the amount was insufficiently compassionate.
Proposition C passed in November 2018. Benioff gushed that San Francisco must now “come together in Love for those who need it most!” He predicted the advent of a new era: “the homeless will have the home & help they truly need!”
But San Francisco has already sent billions of dollars down a bottomless well that only attracts more bodies on the street. Other West Coast cities are also experiencing rising street chaos, for the same reason: relaxed policies toward public-norm violation. The help that the homeless “truly need” comes from uncompromised expectations of civil behavior, not endless bureaucratic growth and ever-increasing government spending.
Benioff’s gigabytes of virtue-signaling for a misguided cause are a reminder of how little the skills required to build a successful company necessarily translate into insights about sound public policy. Benioff underplays the remarkable feat of creating business enterprises that respond efficiently to consumer demand, valorizing instead an arbitrary social-justice mission. Shareholders and society’s alleged “stakeholders” would be better off if businesses focus on their core competencies—in the process providing vital employment—and leave the social problem-solving to leaders with public accountability.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story appeared as a sidebar in the Autumn 2019 issue under the title “The New Scapegoat: Tech Entrepreneurs.”
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)