Given that progressives profess to hate corporations, why are our corporate leaders so progressive?
...Far from being agents of reaction, our corporate giants have for decades been giving progressives a great deal to celebrate. Disney, despite its popular reputation for hidebound wholesomeness, has long been a leader on gay rights, much to the dismay of a certain stripe of conservative. Walmart, one of the Left’s great corporate villains, has barred Confederate-flag merchandise from its stores in a sop to progressive critics, and its much-publicized sustainability agenda is more than sentiment: Among other things, it has invested $100 million in economic-mobility programs and doubled the fuel efficiency of its vehicle fleet over ten years. Individual members of the Walton clan engage in philanthropy of a distinctly progressive bent.
In fact, just going down the list of largest U.S. companies (by market capitalization) and considering each firm’s public political activism does a great deal to demolish the myth of the conservative corporate agenda. Top ten: 1) Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, is an up-and-down-the-line progressive who has been a vociferous critic of religious-liberty laws in Indiana and elsewhere that many like-minded people consider a back door to anti-gay discrimination. 2) When protesters descended on SFO to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, one of the well-heeled gentlemen leading them was Google founder Sergey Brin, and Google employees were the second-largest corporate donor bloc to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. 3) Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a generous funder of programs dedicated to what is euphemistically known as “family planning.” 4) Berkshire Hathaway’s principal, Warren Buffett, is a close associate of Barack Obama’s and an energetic advocate of redistributive tax increases on high-income taxpayers. 5) Amazon’s Jeff Bezos put up $2.5 million of his own money for a Washington State gay-marriage initiative. 6) Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has pushed for liberal immigration-reform measures, while Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz pledged $20 million to support Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Democrats in 2016. 7) Exxon, as an oil company, may be something of a hate totem among progressives, but it has spent big — billions big — on renewables and global social programs. 8) Johnson & Johnson’s health-care policy shop is run by Liz Fowler, one of the architects of Obamacare and a former special assistant to President Obama. 9) The two largest recipients of JPMorgan cash in 2016 were Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, and the bank’s billionaire chairman, Jamie Dimon, is a high-profile supporter of Democratic politicians including Barack Obama and reportedly rejected an offer from President Trump to serve as Treasury secretary. 10) Wells Fargo employees followed JPMorgan’s example and donated $7.36 to Mrs. Clinton for every $1 they gave to Trump, and the recently troubled bank has sponsored events for the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and other gay-rights groups, as well as donated to local Planned Parenthood franchises.
Even the hated Koch brothers are pro-choice, pro-gay, and pro-amnesty.
You may see the occasional Tom Monaghan or Phil Anschutz, but, on balance, U.S. corporate activism is overwhelmingly progressive. Why?
For one thing, conservatives are cheap dates. You do not have to convince the readers of National Review or Republicans in Valparaiso that American business is in general a force for good in the world. But if you are, e.g., Exxon, you might feel the need to convince certain people, young and idealistic and maybe a little stupid in spite of their expensive educations, that you are not so bad after all, and that you are spending mucho shmundo “turning algae into biofuel,” in the words of one Exxon advertisement, and combating malaria and doing other nice things. All of that is true, and Exxon makes sure people know it. The professional activists may sneer and scoff, but they are not the audience.
And that is significant, because a great deal of corporate activism is CEO-driven rather than shareholder-driven or directly rooted in the business interests of the firm. Like Wall Street bankers, who may not like their tax bills or Dodd-Frank but who tend in the main to be socially liberal Democrats, the CEOs of major U.S. corporations are, among other things, members of a discrete class. The graduates of ten colleges accounted for nearly half of the Fortune 500 CEOs in 2012; one in seven of them went to one school: Harvard. A handful of metros in California, Texas, and New York account for a third of Fortune 1000 headquarters — and there are 17 Fortune 1000 companies in one zip code in Houston. Unsurprisingly, people with similar backgrounds, similar experiences, and similar occupations tend to see the world in a similar way. “A new breed of chief executive is emerging — the CEO activist,” wrote Leslie Gaines-Ross, of Weber Shandwick, a global PR giant that advises Microsoft and had the unenviable task of working with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on the ACA rollout. “A handful of CEOs are standing up and standing out on some of the most polarizing issues of the day, from climate change and gun control, to race relations and same-sex marriage.” Hence chief executives’ joining en masse the great choir of hysteria on the question of toilet law in the Tar Heel State.
The old robber barons were far from being free-enterprise men: J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, like many businessmen of their generation, believed strongly in state-directed collusion among firms (they’d have said “coordination”) to avoid “destructive competition.” You can draw a straight intellectual line from their thinking to Barack Obama’s views about state-directed “investments” in alternative energy or medical research.
It is not difficult to see the temptations of that approach from the point of view of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett: The decisions they have made for themselves have turned out well, so why not empower them, or men like them, to make decisions for other people, too? They may even be naïve or arrogant enough to believe that their elevated stations in life have liberated them from self-interest.
Populists of the Trump variety and the Sanders variety (who are not in fact as different as they seem) are not wrong to see these corporate cosmopolitans as members of a separate, distinct, and thriving class with economic and social interests of its own. Those interests overlap only incidentally and occasionally with those of movement conservatives — and overlap even less as the new nationalist-populist strain in the Republican party comes to dominate the debate on questions such as trade and immigration. Under attack from both the right and the left, free enterprise and free trade increasingly are ideas without a party. As William H. Whyte discovered back in 1956, the capitalists are not prepared to offer an intellectual defense of capitalism or of classical liberalism. They believe in something else: the managers’ dream of command and control.
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