The Bottom Line and the Common Good

I’ve done my share of business-bashing on this blog–pointing out corporate overreach and bad behavior. But as Frank Bruni recently reminded us in a timely and excellent column for the New York Times, there’s a sunny side to greed.

Self-interest has contributed to sanity on a wide number of issues. As Bruni notes,

They’ve been great on the issue of the Confederate flag. Almost immediately after the fatal shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., 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.

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.

Bruni quotes a business consultant for the observation that successful businesses must be more responsive to the general public than politicians.

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.”

Does this sensitivity to the population outweigh the damage that some corporations do to the environment? Does it make up for others’ exploitation of workers? Of course not, but as Bruni notes, “it does force you to admit that corporations aren’t always the bad guys. Sometimes the bottom line matches the common good.”

And it should force those of us who think and write about such matters to make important distinctions. I get angry when people make sweeping generalizations based on race, religion or sexual orientation, because there is no monolithic group. Every human category includes assholes and saints and everything in-between.

That’s equally true of corporations and business enterprises.

The market provides many incentives for good behavior. As I noted yesterday, many existing public policies reward less salutary behaviors, and those need to change.

13 thoughts on “The Bottom Line and the Common Good

  1. I actually think it’s the true American religion. American business is the ground against all other activity in this country is figured. We’d nearly universally be appalled without its innovative speed and wealth producing capacity.

    That’s not one whit to say it’s overreach in areas like environmental pollution or resistance to upheaval in specific populations isn’t as assbackwards as ever. It pays to put labor sectors against each other.

    3 gold eggs- 2 brass.

  2. It seems to me that there is a difference between leading and jumping on the bandwagon. I’m happy that the corporations mentioned in your blog did take action and speak out against the confederate flag, but where were they on the subject two weeks before the mass shooting in Charleston?

  3. Thank you for recognizing the positive impact various businesses have had on public policy issues lately. Cummins is another who helped battle RFRA in Indiana. There is a list of companies I don’t patronize because of their political activities. Wal Mart has been one of those for a multitude of anti-worker, anti-public education, anti-environmental reasons, so I was pleasantly surprised when they decided to forego sales of confederate flags. Since I believe in positive reinforcement, I’ll cross their threshold one time, make a purchase, and tell their manager why so that they have some positive feedback for doing the right thing. But they still have a ways to go before they’re out of the woodshed.

  4. I recently received an email regarding the behavior of the big Wall Street Banksters. I did what I could do. I killed all my accounts with Wall Street years ago. I found one that refused to die this week and put a stake through its heart. Now… DONE with Wall Street Banks. They do NOT care about me but I can only do what I can do. It is when MILLIONS of us do the same sort of things…. then they care.

  5. I’ve been on a glorious trip through place and time and have much to report. Places of great beauty and meaning. Trecherous terrain and mysterious dark nights. Wonderful people to travel with and visit. Wonder abounding in all ways.

    It would be best if we could stay on this path so time worn and familiar but the scouts who live always where we’ll be soon report the path impassable. We have to find another. We’ll have to move off what we wish would continue and instead embrace the uncertain unknown. Everyone is concerned but they rely on their risk perceptions and know that comfortable can be risky and the unknown sometimes is the safest harbor. Proceed cautiously is the mood. We have much to do if we are to reach our destination with our spirits intact.

    While our lives seem mundane compared to the explorers of our stories they are filled with the same adventure of goals and unknowns and risks and success and mistakes and good fortune at the last minute. We have the instincts to survive and flourish in the long term and persevere in the short.

    Our present path is impassable though. If we continue on it despite our risk averse intentions the consequences will win.

    What from the past is salvagable? What is too big to change?

    Things that are fundamental to life’s existence are place, time, energy and matter. Let’s start there. We each and all live in a fixed supply of time and matter and a fixed stream of energy and an ever decreasing choice of place due to our number. Reality will impose and enforce those limits. We cannot win even a skirmish with reality.

    The scientific scouts ahead of us have informed us well. Unless we move rapidly to living within our energy allocation we will suffer consequences of place. Where we are and where we built will be rendered useless. Too close to the rising seas. Too dry for agriculture. Fire prone. Flood prone. Winds too powerful to build protection from. The bounty of the sea reconfigured by the imperceptible chemistry of acidity.

    Our matter budget is also in shambles. We are turning what we need into waste at a rate that is temporary. We change it or reality will. But it will not continue.

    Given unavoidable change this massive what tools have we that will still work for us and what must we discard as excess baggage?

  6. Re: the sunny side to greed

    Knowing that the New York Times is a publicly traded corporation listed on the NYSE as NYT, I’m occasionally left scratching my head when die-hard anti-corporation devotees depend upon the NY Times as their primary source for boosting the greedy evil corporation stance.

    As Mr Bruni noted in the article, “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.”

    Mr Bruni’s article is a refreshing assessment of corporations. Of course, corporations exist to make a profit, the NY Times included among those corporations, but let’s not forget those corporate directors or high-level employees often make foundational or personal donations using the monies they’ve earned from the corporations. The most recent IPS School Board election illustrates that strange phenomenon whereby a recently retired Director of Bain Capital living in Connecticut and the Walmart Family Foundation collectively donated over $20K to IPS Board candidates who ultimately were successful in their candidacies.

    There are two sides to every situation, to every business, to every corporation. I appreciate this post by Ms Kennedy, and I appreciate Mr Bruni’s NY Times article.

  7. @Pete,

    “I’ve been on a glorious trip through place and time and have much to report…”

    Your post was beautifully written, almost poetic. And, as an old high school English teacher, I’d make the same notation on your writing piece along with, “Son, this is simply beautiful, but I have no idea what you meant. Remember, write so the man on the street corner will understand your intent. “

  8. I have experienced great good from corporate America. Back when we were a democracy. We expected that democracy through our government to regulate business. And it did. Whenever they wandered too close to the line between beneficial and predatory (make more money regardless of the cost to others), regulation brought them back to our side of the line.

    Of course they complained like teenagers about being too restricted, not being treated as responsible.

    So a plan was hatched. Use their power of advertising. Denegrate the country and our government. Blare loudly trust us, distrust the people. Deliver voters to politicians on their side. Use the tactics created by the gun industry’s ad agency, the NRA, to build the brand of super patriot above the government. Pay Grover Norquist et al to keep the pressure on to shrink government to the size that it can be drowned in the bathtub. Play the racism and religion cards. Elect failures to office.

    Now we got what they wanted. It, predictably, worked for them and against us. Rewarding for them on the short term. Bad for us. America. The future. The redistribution of wealth.

    We’ve made our job harder but not impossible. And the stakes rose immeasurably when we learned that corporate America in the absence of regulation could lead us not to just a worse place but a devastating one with their control of energy and therefore the future our earth.

    Bummer.

    Now we have to undo all of that and go back to what worked. We have to reenergize and re-democracize politics. Our voices.

    We can.

  9. BSH, thanks for the feedback. Science is doing massive research on communicating better now that they have so much to say. One finding? Narrative is what people listen to. Feel. Science not so much. People don’t want reality. They want their story to be true even if it isn’t.

    Telling scientists to ignore reality is like telling birds not to fly. Discovering reality is what they do. It’s in their DNA. It’s their purpose.

    So, how to implant reality that is outside of the understanding of most when ignoring it has existential risks?

    Paul Revere did it on horseback but his audience knew the risks.

    Today most people don’t think of place, time, energy and matter as reality. They think that reality TV is.

    My goal is to become better using the tool of writing to deliver a crucial idea to the maximum audience. If I thought that singing would be more effective than writing I’d even work on that far though I’d have to go.

    I’ve told the science in uncountable ways to many, many folks who exist in, accept, but don’t understand reality and are perfectly comfortable in that position though it drives me crazy.

    I’ll accept anyone’s advice on more effective delivery though I’m mighty particular about the content coming from science.

    Thanks for the advice.

  10. Pete, thanks for not being offended by my stereotypical high school English teacher response. After years of reminding high school students including both the marginal writers and the creative writers to address the topic clearly and concisely, perhaps even restate the topic’s prompt, I found myself transported back to the classroom where 30 students of varying writing abilities needed a nudge toward addressing the topic in clear and concise language, the language that the man or woman on the street corner could comprehend. Actually clear and concise language is the meat of any scientific research abstract.

    A bit of levity from approximately 10 years ago in a high school computer lab where I was assisting a student to finalize a writing piece for his grade 12 writing portfolio. After a brief glance at his written document displayed on the monitor, I suggested a spell check before closing out his work. He was quite familiar with Microsoft Word and its many editing applications, so he completed one spell check which yielded no mistakes. Based upon my brief glance at his document, I suggested another spell check which, again, showed no mistakes. Asking his permission, I did a spell check on his writing piece, and again, no mistakes. Then, it hit me like a load of bricks, the computer’s spell check was set for English. There were so many errors in his document that the computer’s spell check did not recognize the document as being written in English. We had a good laugh at that point, as we both knew he had a documented Specific Learning Disability, but we didn’t realize the significance of his Specific Learning Disability. At that point, I suggested that he dictate his words, and that I’d serve as his typist.

  11. For many years my sister and I agreed that I would take care of numbers, she of words. As an engineer I was excused from being literate. She is a writer.

    Apparently I was OK with that arrangement because I had nothing to say.

    But I did and do know the critical science that makes anthropogenic global warming a certain consequence of exhausting fossil fuel waste into the atmosphere. I also know that is an existential threat to many powerful companies and millions of jobs. I didn’t know that they would resort to much more effective writing than mine to obscure facts to people who didn’t know the science. I also didn’t know that the language of science works with great precision among scientists but does not effectively communicate with non-scientists.

    What a mess dodging that fusilade of discord to avoid the certain disaster.

    Most science takes place out of sight and concerns the distant future and if it results in useful technology by that time it’s in the distant past. Nobody really needs to understand it. AGW is different. Everybody needs to understand it thoroughly or completely trust scientists to.

    So what you always knew BSH, that clear conscise communications were a critical skill, has become my retirement project.

    I have a long way to go but I have come a long way too.

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