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Lambs and lions and politician
CORRECTED VERSION. There's nothing sensible about the right's fight with socially responsible businesses
“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together… “ Isaiah 11:6 (Edward Hicks, “Peaceable Kingdom,” c. 1834)
Next thing you know, lions and lambs are going to be lying down together. Leopards will be hanging out with goats, I tell you, and whatever else the prophet said would be happening at the end of time. I mean, so much is topsy-turvy these days.
It’s not only those Democratic-funded ads for hard-right Republican candidates — weird, yes, but obviously just a tactic aimed at getting weaker general election candidates to run against. But what’s with the Republicans, supposed advocates of law and order, threatening to cut the FBI budget, and making martyrs out of the goons who attacked the Capitol and the cops who were defending it? Or trying to block healthcare for military veterans? Then, this week, Alaska voters sent Sarah Palin packing, and elected a Democrat to Congress. It’s all quite odd.
But what really swings my head around is the mounting hostility on the right to the business community. Big business and the Republican party have been best buds for at least a century, ever since President Calvin Coolidge, the guy whose presidency just preceded the Great Depression, told a gathering of newspaper editors that “the chief business of the American people is business.” That kind of talk would evoke suspicion these days. If a latter-day Coolidge said it, he’d be vilified by the MAGA masses as a RINO.
Our friends on the right are saying that too many businesses are engaged in what some have called “woke capitalism.” MAGAWorld is mighty annoyed that a lot of companies over the past few years have begun to pay attention to not only their profit, but also to their impact on the society. Those corporations are making a point of reporting to investors and consumers about their actions reflecting social responsibility, and they’re luring investors interested in so-called ESG issues — environmental, social and governance matters. This has gotten big: In recent years, capital has been moving toward companies that are consciously taking steps to minimize their so-called “ESG risk” — to the tune of at least $35 trillion.1
That makes ESG investing one of the hottest areas in finance, according to Bloomberg News. What’s happening is that the people who decide how to invest huge pension funds and all sorts of other classes of assets are taking note of which companies are doing something about climate change or racial and gender equality or economic justice, and they’re rewarding those forward-thinking companies with their investments.
While this may strike many Americans as good news, that’s not how a lot of conservative politicians see it. Climate change, racial and gender equality and economic justice are not high on their agenda, so a pretty strong backlash has developed in some places. Companies that are admired by ESG investors, and employers that have taken stands against state laws limiting their workers’ freedoms, have turned into targets of the right.
West Virginia’s state treasurer — who is a Republican, like every top official in that state not named Manchin — is threatening to withdraw the state’s money from banks that are backing away from investments in coal. The Utah state treasurer calls ESG investing “corporate cancel culture,” and Mike Pence, who surely has a presidential campaign in the works, says it’s “left-wing” for businesses to pay attention to those issues and that Republican officials must fight it. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is in a feud with Disney, one of the state’s biggest employers, because Disney executives had the audacity to criticize a law DeSantis pushed through — the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which lets parents sue school districts if they don’t like the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms. By the way, DeSantis’ pique could put $1 billion in bond debt onto the backs of Florida taxpayers. Somebody ought to stop him from beating up Mickey Mouse.
Maybe the politicians are just doing what they’re told: the Republican uber-donor, Peter Thiel, calls ESG investing “a hate factory for naming enemies.” This is curious: If the phenomenon of a warming globe that imperils the homes, livelihoods and lives of tens of millions of people isn’t an enemy that we ought to name and fight, what is? Combatting climate changes seems not at all like hate; it’s more like loving the only planet we have, isn’t it?
That’s what makes this mystifying, because you’d think that it only makes sense for businesses to pay attention to such ESG issues as climate change. And, in fact, that seems to be the emerging view of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission: It is considering a rule that would require businesses to reveal the risks they face from a warming planet. A smart investor surely would demand that sort of information.
And, in fact, smart bosses agree. Three years ago, the Business Roundtable, the organization of major corporate CEOs, rather extraordinarily declared that corporations exist not just to serve shareholders, but also to benefit stakeholders — including consumers, employees, suppliers and the communities where they operate.2 It’s not that those CEOs think they’re running charities; they want to make a lot of money, but they recognize that their businesses will thrive only when all of America does. And they know that corporations now have extraordinary power over what goes on in our society.
“The American Dream is alive but fraying,” said Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase and the Business Roundtable chair at the time of the new declaration. “Mayor employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term.”
That’s not what right-wing billionaires like Thiel and hard-right politicians like DeSantis want to hear. They’re stuck on the economic philosophy articulated in the 1970s by Milton Friedman, who argued that the only thing corporations ought to do is maximize shareholder value. That notion — neatly aligning with the work of Ayn Rand, the literary idol of America’s political right — has been embraced in corporate boardrooms since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Is it coincidence that during these ensuing years, wealth has concentrated at the top of American society, our middle class has shrunk, the chance to save the globe from climate change has shriveled and our political relations have so polarized as to put our democracy itself at risk? Maybe the voters in 1932 knew what they were doing when they rejected Coolidge’s view of the primacy of business in America and chose a more thoughtful approach to governing a complex society. Maybe what’s needed now, rather than the legislative assault on corporate social responsibility that Pence and DeSantis and their ilk are suggesting, is an embrace of that very idea by citizens. Corporate leaders may need to be reminded, as quite a few obviously have already come to understand, that they ignore what’s good for the broad community of America at their own peril.
Ironically, the roots of socially conscious investing are often traced to the very religious tradition that is also claimed by the evangelical Christians who provide the core political support for America’s right-wing politicians. One example: John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, which grew in America specifically because of its focus on evangelism and a personal relationship with Jesus. In a powerful 18th century sermon, “The Use of Money,”3 Wesley insisted that profit wasn't for hoarding -- not for stock buybacks, a woke evangelist of today might say -- but for the common good. Here’s what Wesley told his flock:
“You do not own the wealth that you have. It has been entrusted to you for a short while by the God who brought you into being. … No more waste or luxury or envy. Use whatever God has loaned to you to do good to your fellow Christians and to all people.”
It’s not as though a commitment to social responsibility by businesses won’t leave plenty of money for folks who are already wealthy, or for those who aspire to be rich. It’s just honoring the simple notion that we each do better when we all do better.
Smart leaders, and the voters who support them, understand that the politicians and their benefactors who argue for selfishness don’t speak to either the moral tradition of America or the value of community that has been at the core of our nation’s growth. That’s our history, and we don’t have to wait until the Second Coming to decide that it’s where we must stake our claim.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Oklahoma City, Olka. (The Oklahoman, oklahoman.com)
Erie, Penn. (Erie Times-News, gorerie.com)
Burlington, N.C. (Times-News, timesnews.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Candidate demands teacher lose certification
The top education adviser to Oklahoma’s governor, who is the Republican nominee to be the state education superintendent, wants the state to pull the teaching license of a Norman High School teacher who resigned after the state enacted a ban on teaching certain concepts about race and gender. The former English teacher, Summer Boismier, had covered the bookshelves in her classroom when the state enacted House Bill 1775, which requires a teacher to verify that they had either read every book in their classroom or could provide two professional sources confirming each title’s age and content appropriateness — and that none of the books contain eight particular concepts on race and gender. The candidate, Ryan Walters, posted a letter on social media declaring, “There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom,” according to reporting by Nuria Martinez-Keel in The Oklahoman.
Funds arriving from historic opioid settlement
The nationwide opioid epidemic has been especially hard on small Rust Belt communities, but reporting the Erie Times-News by A.J. Rao indicates that some help is on the way. Last year a $26 billion payment was negotiated between several states and major manufacturers of opioids, and this week some of that money is finding its way into the coffers of Erie County, in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. County leaders are divided on how to allocate the money, but the first tranche of the $16 million that is coming Erie County’s way is arriving.
YMCA fighting academic lag from Covid
Student performance in Alamance-Burlington schools is down from 2019, according to reporting in the Times-News by Jordan Massey, which is likely attributable to academic disruptions caused by the Covid pandemic. So the local YMCA has launched a series of efforts in its after school programs to help kids gain critical skills. "Basically, the students that we ended up serving are the students that would've needed extra academic guidance even in school," a YMCA leader said. Part of the program is hot meals and snacks for up to 400 students a day, since research shows that student performance is affected by hunger.
…AND READ THIS, from Bill McKibben
From The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened , a terrific new memoir by the brilliant climate activist Bill McKibben (Holt, 2022):
“If you’re sixty, 82 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions have occurred in our lifetime. (For eighty-five-year-olds, the number only goes up to 90 percent, a reminder of how compressed in time the carbon explosion has been.) For three-quarters of your adult life you’ve known about the dangers of this climate crisis, but it hasn’t impinged much if at all on your lifestyle. But now: if we’re to hold the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the world promised in the Paris Climate Accords, the global lifetime carbon budget for someone born today will be 43 tons of carbon dioxide, about an eighth as much as for someone born in 1950. And even if they do the hard work to meet that target, they will still get to live their lives on a planet without an Arctic, where forest fire season stretches implacably on.”
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