Corporate Activism Is The Future Conservatives Want, Right?

As the wave of companies announcing they were cutting ties with the National Rifle Association following the shooting in Parkland, FL was cresting, the Georgia state legislature voted to rescind $50 million in jet fuel sales tax exemptions. The bill was squarely aimed at Delta Airlines, which was one of the companies declaring it would stop offering discounts to NRA members. Overlooking the inherent illegality of such a declaration, the bill was meant to appease the NRA and gun owners and express solidarity with them over (checks notes) the teenagers who didn’t want to die in a hail of bullets.

CNBC surveyed members of its Global CFO Council and found half believed they had a corporate responsibility to take some sort of action to reduce gun violence, while slightly more than half said they needed to do so specifically because the government won’t. What kind of action remains somewhat vague, with many companies saying they’ve made some sort of change recently. Citigroup announced it will not do business with companies that sell guns to anyone under 21 years of age along with other firearms-related restrictions.

At the moment we’re in a period where government regulations are being slashed left and right. FCC Chairman Ajit Patel, EPA head Scott Pruitt, Treasury head Steve Mnuchin and others in the Trump administration, as well as Republicans in Congress, want to strip as much power from the agencies they’ve been appointed to as possible. Gone is net neutrality. Gone are a handful of banking protections put in place after the Great Recession of 2008. Gone are consumer protections. Gone are guidelines around reporting of on-campus sexual assault. Gone are rules around dumping manufacturing waste.

In each case, the removal of these regulations, laws and guidelines is positioned as being good for business, which is now freed up to just focus on making money, which will supposedly trickle down through the rest of the economy. Nothing can stand in the way of maximizing profits, even if it means companies are able to engage in activities that would get a private citizen arrested and jailed. That’s an ironic reality given that Citizens United and other legal decisions have taken the view that private companies should be afforded the same freedoms as a person.

So, we’re told by Republicans Who Are Actually Libertarians, the free market will protect us. If people want to do business with a company that has reduced its use of plastics by 75% – or at least pledged to do so – over one that hasn’t, that’s their choice. The market will decide.

And it is. Taking a stand on a societal issue such as environmental protection, gun control, workers rights and others may be a controversial stand at the moment, but that’s changing. Survey after survey after survey shows consumers, particularly Millennials and those in the trailing generation but also others, want to work for or do business with companies that share their values and have publicly declared their position on important topics.

Why, then, are conservatives so upset? Why are lawmakers so upset with the banking industry for making changes that would restrict the flow of funds to gun companies? Why, as demand for renewable and clean energy drives more companies to get on that bandwagon, is the Trump administration (such as it is) putting its thumb on the scales of the free market to prop up the coal and nuclear power industries? Why would these lawmakers, such advocates of “let the people decide,” want to keep making it harder for companies to take a stand.

Aren’t these companies simply responding to feedback from the consumer? Shouldn’t the free market reward those who are willing to provide what the consumer is looking for?

Isn’t this, to borrow a phrase, the future conservatives want?

If those consumer attitudes continue into those generations’ later years, it will mean companies can’t just make a statement and hope everyone moves on, reverting back to old ways when the pressure is off. They will have to make long-term systemic changes to their practices on a number of fronts in order to retain and attract customers and therefore stay in business.

That means the justifications that have been offered for cutting regulations across agencies were sound. Government got out of the way and businesses were free from the onerous oversight, able to do what they needed to to continue operating and respond to the market.

The outrage over announcements relating to NRA discounts, restricted gun sales and other issues is due to those announcements being contrary to conservative ideology. Freedom from government oversight isn’t actually meant to leave companies to do whatever is needed. The assumption was that they would continue to benefit the wealthy and powerful while leaving behind the working class. Keep using tax cuts on stock buybacks and one-off bonuses, not on increasing wages or better benefits for part-time workers.

Conservatives displaying rhetorical inconsistency shouldn’t be surprising. According to their suspect ideology abortion should be outlawed so every child can live but after they’re born they’re on their own and can’t expect the state to help them in any way. There are almost innumerable examples.

It’s true that leaving public policy in the hands of private companies isn’t ideal. Putting the future of our infrastructure in the hands of a pizza chain means it’s subject to the whims of a private company, which won’t always have the public’s best interests in mind. But the main problem identified here is that the propaganda and public statements from business leaders looking to assuage the public don’t actually match the practices put in place by those companies.

The world’s richest men fighting for greater and greater tax breaks and are more concerned with their rockets – though even there they’ve stepped into an area because the government has largely abandoned it – than with not skimping hourly workers out of their wages or dealing with the crushing student debt load being accumulated, though a few companies are taking some action on that front.

Where the “let free markets decide” approach seems to have run into a wall is that it assumes the ideology of those over 60 – the Baby Boomers – will remain in place forever. Either that or they’re hoping to lock things in now to profit while they can and establish unchangeable models that will forever benefit the aristocracy. Those adherent don’t seem to have accounted for the fact that Millennials will outnumber them as soon as next year. The older generation is losing power and they don’t like it, so they scream when their plans go awry, foiled by those pesky kids.

This, though, is what they wanted. Businesses will adapt to the needs and wants of the market. It’s ever been thus. Lawmakers, particularly those of the conservative strype, should be ready for when the freedom they allow for is used against their own interests.

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