"Tell me," Carl Olson challenges, "how else can you reach almost three million people with an ideological statement for the cost of a postage stamp." It can be done, he notes, by a stockholder in AT&T simply by sending a proxy resolution to the company. AT&T will then include the resolution among others voted on annually by all the stockholders. If you own a share of stock, you own part of the company and are entitled by law to bring resolutions before the company's other stockholders.
Some people with a cause have been doing it for years. Proxy resolutions have been used to press for boycotts of nonunion companies and trade with South Africa. They are used to oppose nuclear energy, encourage socialist revolutions, and publicize a variety of liberal concerns. Olson is using the same tool but for decidedly different ends.
A conservative, Olson is passionately concerned about freedom in the marketplace and a little uncomfortable about personal freedoms. But in his rhetoric, he sounds much like the liberals who seek to influence corporate behavior through stockholder voting. Liberal economists have been complaining for years that corporate management has personal goals that do not always coincide with the best interests of the people. Olson agrees, but while leftists sloganize "power to the people," Olson says, "power to the owners." "The larger a corporation gets," he explains, "the harder it is to coordinate control by the owners. It's in the best interest of the whole economic free-enterprise system to ensure that the property owner has as much influence as possible over that corporation."
Eight years ago Carl Olson formulated three vehicles to advance free-market ideas through stockholder activism. Stockholders Against the Government Burden is the umbrella for a variety of actions aimed at furthering voluntary corporate disclosure of the costs imposed by the government. One example of his success in that area: General Motors adopted a policy of publicizing how much the government costs the company in taxes, regulatory requirements, and the unavoidable red tape. Olson's efforts also led to the disclosure by GM that it collects $5 billion a year in various and sundry consumer and employee taxes that are paid directly to government.
Olson or one of the many stockholders around the country who work with him is always introducing proxy resolutions to make the government burden more evident. Even if the resolutions don't pass, he notes, "they are terrific consciousness raisers." He figures that, on average, corporations pay over $1.50 to the government for every $1.00 distributed to stockholders. "We just try to hold that information before the stockholders and say, 'Guess where all the money is going, dummy.'"
The second organization, the Stockholder Sovereignty Society (SSS), works to increase owners' control of corporations. Olson complains that management has stacked the deck in its own favor and succeeded in making most corporate elections mere perfunctory ratifications. Olson has challenged the practice of counting all abstentions as votes in favor of management positions, of marking ballots with management's suggested vote, and of management's control of employee pension funds. Olson also works to make the minutes of annual board meetings available to stockholders. The SSS has taken on US savings bonds—a poor investment marketed by the government as a good one and often promoted to employees via company payroll deduction plans.
The third organization is Stockholders for World Freedom (SWF). The main thrust of this group is opposition to trade with the USSR and other Communist countries. He and those who help him are particularly outraged that US taxpayers are subsidizing trade with those countries through government-guaranteed loans. They have introduced proxy resolutions urging corporate boycotts of Communist dictatorships and disclosure of corporate contributions to organizations and individuals who are enemies of the free-market system.
Carl Olson did his undergraduate work in economics and engineering and then went on to get a masters degree in business journalism from Columbia University. His ideological roots are the works of the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand and the Goldwater campaign. Today, he is an accountant in the Los Angeles area.
The media love his trouble making. In particular, he and his group gained attention last year at Occidental Petroleum's annual meeting. Besides the usual proxy resolutions, they introduced a measure that would change the date of the annual meeting to any day other than Armand Hammer's birthday.
Even those who may not buy everything that Olson is trying to do must admit that he is using voluntary, non-government methods to accomplish his ends, and his innovative techniques hold great promise to those interested in educating the public as they change the system. One of Olson's tactics is to introduce resolutions to corporate stockholders supporting tax-reduction initiatives and urging corporate donations to antitax forces.
If only one stockholder from every corporation in America filed a strong ideological statement for consideration by the company stockholders, approximately 30 million people would get the message delivered to their doors. Olson says, "There's no limit to the number of issues that can be brought up at an annual meeting. What I've done is to encourage as many stockholders as possible to sponsor resolutions. I provide a little bit of help in pointing out how easy it is."
Carl Olson can be reached at P.O. Box 140, Woodland Hills, CA 91365.
Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Core of the Corp. Corps".