GENERAL Electric, almost the textbook model of a successful corporation, and the company whose shares are most widely owned and traded on the planet, seems to have suffered an alarming spasm of nonsense.
It could just be a blip in an otherwise glorious history of market performance or it could token brain death among GE's directors. The company has just issued a 75-page document outlining its corporate social responsibility or CSR as it is known.
This is much more than the amiable PR flannel so beloved of annual reports. GE is declaring it has diverse duties to groups other than its shareholders, "beyond compliance" is their telling phrase. Of course, all companies have to conform to the law and to the lesser laws we call regulations. GE proposes to do more. It is undertaking to apply its own Kyoto criteria to minimise emissions... not to trade them but to be "good corporate citizens".
Am I being too literal? Does it matter if corporations start yearning for candy-floss expressions of civic virtue? I believe it does. Companies have evolved as legal personalities expressly to maximise profits for their owners. The joint stock company, with limited liability, has been an institutional dynamo. It is reasonable to argue mankind, or its capitalist patches, have lifted themselves out of generations of poverty thr