Don’t Read Their Lips

April 12th, 2018 by Phil Mattera

There have been times during the past 14 months when some people might have been tempted to regard big business as part of the anti-Trump resistance, based on the public stances that some chief executives have taken in response to the president’s more outrageous statements. A new report from Oxfam America shows that large corporations are not putting most of their money where their mouths are.

The Oxfam analysis compares the public rhetoric of 70 large U.S. corporations on topics such as immigration, diversity and climate change to the issues listed in their federal lobbying spending disclosures. It finds that most companies spent little or no money lobbying to reinforce their high-minded pronouncements.

Instead, they dispatched their armies of lobbyists to press for government action that would promote their own corporate self-interest, primarily through rollbacks in regulation and business taxes. For example, of the 70 companies only 13 (most tech firms) lobbied on diversity and inclusion, spending a total of $11 million. By contrast, 61 of the 70 lobbied on tax issues, spending a total of $44 million.

As Irit Tamir, Oxfam’s Director for the Private Sector, puts it: “Today’s CEOs have more appetite to align their company’s public image with specific sides in some of the country’s most contested and polarized debates. On issues ranging from gay marriage to refugee rights, executives across  industries have been pushed – or willingly walked – into the eye of the political storm. But when we look at what they are lobbying on behind closed doors, they really, really, really want to pay less in taxes while other issues take a back seat. Words matter, but actions – and lobbying dollars – still speak louder.”

Oxfam, which has done considerable work on corporate tax avoidance, finds it particularly troubling that so much of big business influence spending promotes policies that undermine public finance and contribute to the growth of inequality.

That’s certainly a valid point, but the report’s findings also highlight the reality that much of what is presented as corporate social responsibility is actually a smokescreen for more selfish practices. There is a parallel between this deception and that of the president.

Trump pretends to be a populist while actually promoting much of the conventional big business agenda. Corporate social responsibility proponents pretend to be social reformers while quietly lobbying for that same agenda. Moreover, the social responsibility initiatives themselves are often little more than image-burnishing measures and in some cases are designed to convey the dangerous message that voluntary corporate practices make stricter government regulation unnecessary.

The lesson from all this is that we should not pay too much attention to what either Trump or the big business reformers say and instead focus on what they are doing, which is to steadily dismantle the systems of regulation and taxation that are meant to keep predatory capitalism in check.

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