Column: How the left uses corporate America to evade democracy
Time was, CEOs of mighty enterprises shied away from politics, especially hot-button social and cultural issues. They focused instead on the bottom line. They maximized shareholder value by delivering goods and services to customers. Some businessmen still operate by this principle. In doing so they provide not only for their employees and CEOs and board members but also for the institutions—pensions, individual retirement plans, index funds, hospitals, philanthropies—invested in their companies.
That is no longer enough for many of America’s richest and most powerful. Suddenly, corporate America has a conscience. Every week brings new examples of CEOs intervening in political, cultural, and social debate. In every instance, the prominent spokesmen for American business situate themselves comfortably on the left side of the political spectrum. Shareholder capitalism finds itself under attack. Not just from socialism but also from woke capitalism.
These outbursts are not just virtue signaling. Nor is the left-wing tilt of corporate America merely a response to the “rising American electorate” of Millennial, Gen Z, and minority consumers. What is taking place is not a business story but a political one. What is known as “stakeholder capitalism” is another means by which elites circumvent democratic accountability.
Corporate managers find themselves at odds with at least 46 percent of the electorate. The divergence is not over jobs or products. It is over values. The global economy generates social inequalities as much as economic ones. Many of the winners of the global economy justify their gains by adopting the rhetoric, tastes, ideas, and affiliations of their cultural milieu. Their environment is inescapably center left.
Even so, the social justice agenda of corporate America is not only meant to appease voters, or even to placate Elizabeth Warren. Some of these businessmen really believe what they are saying. And they are beginning to understand that they have another way—through social position and market share—to impose their cultural priorities on a disagreeable public.
The trend began as a response to the Tea Party. In 2010 the “Patriotic Millionaires” began advocating for higher marginal tax rates. A few years later, when state legislatures passed laws opposed by pro-choice and LGBT groups, corporations threatened or waged economic boycotts. Large individual donations made up more than half of Hillary Clinton’s fundraising; for Donald Trump the number was 14 percent.
CEOs protested the implementation of President Trump’s travel ban in 2017. The following year, after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks, Howard Schultz closed stores nationwide so his more than 175,000 employees could be trained in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Earlier this summer, Nike pulled shoes featuring the Betsy Ross flag after Colin Kaepernick raised objections. Recently four major auto companies struck a deal with the state of California to preserve fuel economy standards the Trump administration opposes.
Business has provided ideological justification for its activities. In mid-August, a group of 181 members of the Business Roundtable, including the CEOs of Morgan Stanley, GM, Apple, and Amazon, issued a statement redefining the purpose of a corporation. “Generating long-term value for shareholders” is necessary but insufficient. In the words of Jamie Dimon, business must “push for an economy that serves all Americans.” A few weeks later, one of the Business Roundtable signatories, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, announced that America’s largest retailer would end sales of ammunition for handguns and for some rifles. Once its current inventory is exhausted, of course.
“We encourage our nation’s leaders to move forward and strengthen background checks and to remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger,” McMillon wrote. “We do not sell military-style rifles, and we believe the reauthorization of the Assault Weapons ban should be debated to determine its effectiveness.” Note the use of the first-person plural. Of Walmart’s 1.5 million employees, more than a few, one assumes, do not believe it is necessary to “strengthen background checks” or debate “the Assault Weapons ban.”
To whom does the “we” in McMillon’s statement refer? To everyone who thinks like he does.
“You have a business acting in a more enlightened and more agile way than government,” is how one MSNBC contributor enthusiastically describedWalmart’s directive. Left unsaid is why government has not, in this case, been “enlightened” or “agile.” The reason is constitutional democracy. The electorate, like it or not, continues to put into office representatives opposed to gun registration and to a renewal of the Assault Weapons ban. And these representatives, in turn, have confirmed judges who believe the Second Amendment is just as important to self-government as the First and Fourteenth.
Much of Western politics for the last decade has involved elites figuring out new ways to ignore or thwart the voting public. Barack Obama was following in the EU’s footsteps when he went ahead with Obamacare despite Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts in January 2010, and when he expanded his DACA program to the parents of illegal immigrants brought here as children despite Republican gains in the 2014 election and despite his own admission that he lacked authority.
James Comey’s towering ego and self-regard compelled him to interfere in the 2016 election with consequences we can only begin to reckon. Over the last two-and-a-half years, district judges and anonymous bureaucrats have impeded and obstructed the agenda of a duly elected chief executive. A few weeks ago a former governor of the Federal Reserve suggested in Bloomberg that the central bank should thwart Trump’s reelection. And in England, elite resistance to the results of the 2016 Brexit referendum and to the 2017 parliamentary invocation of Article 50 has brought the government into a crisis from which there seems no escape.
In such an environment, one begins to see the appeal of nongovernmental instruments of power. What might be rejected at the ballot box can be achieved through “nudging” in the market and in the third sector. If you can’t enact national gun control through Congress, why not leverage the economic and cultural weight of America’s largest corporations? The market, we are told, is not a democracy.
Oh, but it is. The market may be the ultimate democracy. “The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived,” wrote Joseph Schumpeter, “will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette.” Woke capitalists remain accountable to consumers and to shareholders. The audiences of ESPN and of the NFL cratered when those institutions elevated politics over consumer demand. Hollywood’s anti-American offerings routinely flop. Public opinion, in the form of popular taste, rules. Shareholders of publicly traded companies are a type of electorate. The companies that do not satisfy customers will disappear. Or shareholders will demand changes to management to prevent such an outcome.
The politicization of firms is a double-edged sword. The responsible stakeholder CEOs may have the best of intentions. They might assume they are doing the right things not only by their companies but also by their societies. What they fail to understand is that corporations acting as surrogates of one element of society, or of one political party, will not be treated as neutral by other elements, by the other party. By believing their superior attitudes will save capitalism, our right-thinking elites are undermining its very legitimacy, and increasing the severity of the ongoing populist revolt.
Something feels off in the timing of our debate over the economy. A loss of faith in free markets, among intellectuals and the public alike, was only natural in the 1930s. But today? Intellectuals on the left and the right are more convinced than ever that our economic policies are deeply misguided, at the same moment that unemployment rates and wage growth are the best they have been in decades. When Americans answer polls, they express less and less confidence in free-market capitalism — even as they express more and more satisfaction about economic conditions.
Perhaps people are evaluating these questions against different time horizons. They may, that is, think that the economy is performing well at the moment but has become less capable of delivering broad-based prosperity over the course of a generation. If today’s conditions persist long enough, then, the reputation of capitalism may recover.
Timing is relevant to our evaluation in another way. If our economy has gotten worse at generating sustained prosperity, worse enough to make a loss of faith in capitalism understandable if not justified, then it matters when this decline began.
In 2015, during the last presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton suggested that “for decades” the economy had been offering a worse deal for most people. Her explanation: “For 35 years, Republicans have argued that if we give more wealth to those at the top — by cutting their taxes and letting big corporations write their own rules — it will trickle down. It will trickle down to everyone else.” The election of Ronald Reagan, in other words, was the turning point. It followed that many of his policies should be reversed: The top tax rates should go back up and unions should be strengthened.
If economic conditions have been deteriorating for an even longer period, however, then merely reversing Reaganomics might not be enough. And it is common to run into claims, apparently backed by data, that suggest as much. The Pew Research Center notes that the average wage, adjusted for inflation, fell between 1973 and 2018. It had risen steeply from 1964 (when the data series began) through 1973. Then it dropped for roughly two decades, and over the next two recovered but did not get back to its peak.
If real wages have truly been stagnant for longer than most Americans have been alive, then the economy has not worked in anything resembling the fashion we expect. Economic growth has been mostly an illusion: We have more stuff only because more of us work, large numbers of women having joined the paid labor force. If this picture is accurate, we need to make radical changes either to the economy or to our expectations of ever-rising prosperity.
There are, however, two big reasons to doubt the stagnation thesis. The first is that non-wage benefits have become a larger and larger element of compensation. Perhaps they have become too large an element: The tax code encourages employees to get health insurance through their companies rather than take higher wages and buy coverage themselves, and there are reasons to think we would be better-off if the tax code did not do that. But non-wage benefits have economic value to employees, and so looking at wages alone will cause us to underestimate employees’ material welfare.
The second reason for doubt is that a common method of adjusting for inflation — the one used in the Pew numbers cited above — overdoes it. The center-right social scientist Scott Winship has been indefatigable in explaining why using the Consumer Price Index (specifically a measure called “CPI-U”) as the gauge of inflation is a mistake, and how it warps our understanding of economic trends. It overestimates housing inflation before 1983, and ignores how consumer behavior responds when prices change.
Since inflation compounds, small errors each year add up to major changes over decades. Use a better measure of inflation, one based on personal-consumption expenditures, and the average wage rose by 21 percent from 1973 to 2018. (Average compensation must have risen more.)
The data on median family income also show a reassuring amount of growth. The family in the middle of the pack in 2015 made 45 percent more, with the right inflation adjustment, than its counterpart in 1970.
But the same numbers may also explain some of the public’s dissatisfaction with the economy. Median family income grew by a spectacular 58 percent in the 15 years from 1955 to 1970, then grew another 11 percent from 1970 to 1985, and 24 percent from 1985 to 2000. But the median family income of 2014 was slightly lower than it was in 2000.
What happened is that after the turn of the millennium we went through an extended period of slow growth punctuated by one mild and one severe recession. Median family income dropped more than 7 percent from 2007 through 2011, the sharpest decline since this data series started in 1953. It did not recover completely until 2015.
We have had a few good years since then. But it is not surprising that during the last two decades many Americans came to feel that their economic circumstances were stagnant and insecure. It is not surprising, either, that many of them have the sense that things used to be better — or that a generation of young people who started their work lives in a slow-growth economy tend not to have positive attitudes toward capitalism.
Instead of five decades of economic stagnation, we have had two decades of weak growth. That record does not suggest that the pro-market policies of the 1980s and 1990s were fundamentally mistaken. It suggests, rather, that we have discrete problems that deserve to be tackled.
High on the list of needed changes should be a reform of our monetary regime. It failed badly over the last dozen years. In 2008, excessive fear of inflation led the Federal Reserve to signal that it was going to tighten monetary policy even as the economy was sinking into a recession. It kept monetary conditions too tight after the crisis hit, too, for example by encouraging banks to hold additional reserves. These policies made the recession more severe and the recovery weaker. That these failures are not more widely appreciated is symptomatic of the misguided thinking that continues to govern monetary policy.7
Reforms should be undertaken in other areas, too. Our higher-education system is not working for most young people. Our immense health sector includes immense inefficiency. Regions of the country with high economic growth have imposed regulations that make it prohibitively expensive for less fortunately situated Americans to move there.
So we are called to be ambitious, but not revolutionary. Capitalism does not need to be overthrown or even rethought. Rather, the principles that make markets work need to be applied to some areas where they have not been present. Our economic system does not need dismantling. But it does
by George Landrith • Breitbart
Trial lawyers trying to hold parts of the legal system hostage to make money is nothing new. It always happens the same way: a few creative lawyers figure out how to exploit legal loopholes; then abuse those loopholes to enrich themselves at others’ expense until someone stops them. Along the way, they come up with all sorts of creative justifications for what they are doing, claiming it’s actually positive and beneficial. Behind the scenes, they convince or pay off special interests to lobby for delays in changing the law that would close their loopholes and stop the cash flow.
Fortunately, conservative Members of Congress and state legislators can usually be counted on to lead the charge to dismantle the trial lawyers’ schemes. One of the last great examples was the passage of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) 20 years ago, over the objections of the lawyers and a Democratic president’s veto. That law reined in the frivolous securities litigation that was doing nothing but lining lawyers’ pockets. Today, this has been replaced by a new threat. Continue reading
The goal must be to find ways for liberty and the environment to flourish together, not to sacrifice one in the vain hope of protecting the other.
by Ronald Bailey • Reason.com
Human activity is remaking the face of the Earth: transforming and polluting the landscape, warming the atmosphere and oceans, and causing species to go extinct. The orthodox view among ecologists is that human liberty—more specifically economic activity and free markets—is to blame. For example, the prominent biologist-activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich of Stanford University recently argued in a British science journal that the environmental problems we face are driven by “overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption.” The Ehrlichs urge the “reduction of the worship of ‘free’ markets that infests the discipline” of economics. Continue reading