Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Making A Difference

LinkedIn asks: "Are firms making a difference?" They note that companies have lined up to make their statements of support for anti-racism and social justice, and wonder how the public is taking these. Personally, if I see another random "Black Lives Matter" banner slapped on a random company homepage, I'll want to put my eyes out. But I get it. Companies have to be seen expressing concern and care. At least for the time being.

The Harris Poll "asked Americans how important it is that companies work to truly make a positive difference on specific societal issues and how much of a positive impact they have seen from corporate America." The present data on a wide-ranging basket of concerns, from "Good health and well being" to "Drug addiction," and show the percentages of respondents that said that it was "Very important that companies work to truly make a positive difference" and who said they were seeing a "Very Positive Corporate Impact." And they say that the primary takeaway is that: "What a company does is more important than what it says."

But in the end, the question isn't what companies are going to do. It's what we're going to do.

There has been a long-running debate in the United States over which is the chicken and which is the egg: Are social justice disparities driven by economic disparities, or the reverse? While, most likely, the correct answer at this stage of the game is that the two are inextricably intertwined, there is some ability to engage them separately. And there is some ability to lessen economic disparities, via increased domestic hiring. Companies can certainly do this. But that doesn't answer the question of why they would. Companies aren't going to spend money "to truly make a positive difference" in the country simply because the public at large doesn't want to. To a certain degree, the wealth of affluent Americans has been transferred from less well-off Americans whose jobs have been off-shored or simply eliminated. Advancing them to being better off than they are, let alone something approaching parity, would require redistribution. But if the pie isn't made any larger, than a redistribution of wealth is also a redistribution of poverty. And many people in the United States don't want an iota more than they already have. And the owners and shareholders of companies in the United States are most certainly in that camp.

Capital can flee from taxes and regulations, but it can't run from the simple costs of doing business if it wants to, well, do business. And increasing the costs of accessing the American public, and the money that they spend on goods and services is not a simple task. It takes a level of coordination and cooperation that it hard for a large and heterogeneous nation to manage. It's part of the reason the United States finds itself in the position it is now. And the wealthy capitalist class can afford to wait for the current consensus to break down, given that history shows that it's unlikely to last indefinitely. And if that changes, and the United States does manage to pull together, and stay together, long enough to drive genuine accountability, it won't be companies that have made the positive difference. It will be the public.

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