In the dire prophecies of science-fiction writers and the fevered warnings of left-wing activists, big corporations will soon rule the Earth — or already do.
Fine with me.
They’ve been great on the issue of the Confederate battle flag. Almost immediately after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, several prominent corporate leaders, including the heads of Walmart and Sears, took steps to retire the banner as a public symbol of the South; others made impassioned calls for that.
And when Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor, said that the Confederate flag at the State House should come down, she did so knowing that Boeing and BMW, two of the state’s major employers, had her back. In fact, the state’s chamber of commerce had urged her and other politicians to see the light.
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Eli Lilly, American Airlines, Intel and other corporations were crucial to the defeat or amendment of proposed “religious freedom” laws in Indiana, Arkansas and Arizona over the last year and a half. Their leaders weighed in against the measures, which licensed anti-gay discrimination, and put a special kind of pressure on politicians, who had to worry about losing investment and jobs if companies with operations in their states didn’t like what the government was doing.
And if it were up to corporations, we’d have the immigration reform we sorely need. Early last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce publicized a letter that urged Congress to act on “modernizing our immigration system.” It was signed by 246 enterprises large and small, including Apple, AT&T, Caterpillar, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, McDonald’s, Marriott and Microsoft.
Are these companies acting in their own interests? Absolutely. They’re trying to make sure that laws and local customs don’t prevent them from attracting and retaining the best workforce. They’re burnishing their brands in a manner that they hope will endear them to customers.
But those efforts, coupled with whatever genuine altruism and civic obligation some corporate leaders feel, have produced compelling recent examples of companies showing greater sensitivity to diversity, social justice and the changing tides of public sentiment than lawmakers often manage to.
Corporations aren’t paralyzed by partisan bickering. They’re not hostage to a few big donors, a few loud interest groups or some unyielding ideology.
“They’re ultimately more responsive to a broader group of voters — customers — than politicians are,” said Bradley Tusk, whose firm, Tusk Strategies, does consulting for both private corporations and public officials.
“If you’re a politician and all you care about is staying in office, you’re worried about a small group of voters in your district who vote in the primary,” he told me, referring to members of the House of Representatives. “If you’re a corporation, you need to be much more in sync with public opinion, because you’re appealing to people across the spectrum.”
And so, he added, “Ironically, a lot of corporations have to be far more democratic than democratically elected officials.”
Newsweek observed as much in a story published this week, noting that inclusiveness “may not be good politics in this day of polarization and micro-targeting, but it seems to be good business. And that is making the business community the sort of ‘big tent’ political force that neither major political party can claim to be.”
Major financial institutions were well ahead of President Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians when it came to same-sex marriage. The leaders of these banks and hedge funds lent their voices and considerable sums of money to its legalization in New York in 2011.
And Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom and other companies in Washington state worked to ensure passage of a marriage-equality referendum there back in November 2012.
Under the stewardship of Howard Schultz, Starbucks alone has been a paragon of corporate munificence and social consciousness in areas ranging from higher education to race relations. In 2011, Schultz used his corporate pulpit to bemoan congressional sclerosis and try to exert more cooperation among Democrats and Republicans on debt reduction; he succeeded in getting more than 100 other chief executives to pledge to withhold political donations until Congress made bipartisan progress.
Between 2010 and 2014, Unilever increased the fraction of materials it got from farms with sustainable practices to roughly one-half from less than one-fifth. And the software company Infor participated in a multimillion-dollar program to provide free tickets to Selma for American schoolchildren.
The list goes on. And while it doesn’t erase the damage that corporations wreak on the environment or their exploitation of workers paid too little, it does force you to admit that corporations aren’t always the bad guys. Sometimes the bottom line matches the common good, and they’re the agents of what’s practical, wise and even right.
© 2015 New York Times News Service