The Phony Feud Between Republicans and Big Business

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis struck back at Disney for declining to support his culture war demagoguery, some observers were quick to see this as evidence of a supposed rift between the Republican Party and big business.

The Washington Post ran a front-page story declaring that “growing numbers of state and federal Republican leaders today seem eager to clash with the country’s biggest corporations.” The article portrayed the Disney dispute and a few other examples, such as criticism of Delta Air Lines for opposing restrictive voting law changes in Georgia, as “cracks in the once-sturdy relationship between companies and a business-friendly GOP.”

A similar article in the New York Times was headlined “Rebuke of Disney is Sign of a Shift by Republicans Away from Big Business.”

Reading these pieces gave me a strong feeling of déjà vu. I was reminded of the commentaries that were published about Donald Trump during his first presidential race and after his election in 2016. Much was made of his supposed attacks on big banks, military contractors and pharmaceutical companies. This continued when Trump went after Amazon.com for its supposed sweetheart deal with the postal service.

It eventually became clear that all of purported conflict amounted to nothing of substance. Trump never followed through on any actions that would negatively impact large corporations. In fact, he pursued a thoroughly pro-business agenda of lavish corporate tax cuts and a relentless attack on regulation. The latter made life easier for payday lenders, brazen polluters and employers engaged in wage theft. While some major corporations expressed misgivings about Trump’s style or his rhetoric on other issues, they were thrilled to watch him fulfill their most ardent policy desires.

Trump’s evil genius was his ability to give his working-class supporters the impression he was promoting their interests while actually catering to the corporate elite.

I have no doubt that DeSantis and other Republicans now attacking big business are engaged in the same kind of political theater. The only difference is that, while Trump pretended to be an economic populist, today’s rising GOP stars find it more advantageous to spar with corporations over social issues. It is true that DeSantis got Disney’s special taxing district rescinded, but he will probably get it reinstated once he no longer needs the company as a political foil.

The GOP spats with corporations are made easier by the fact that much of big business these days is engaged in its own posturing. Under the rubric of corporate social responsibility or ESG, many large companies are speaking out on social and environmental issues, often depicting themselves as the vanguard of change. They may do this on their own initiative, or, as in the case of Disney, are pressured by employees.

Trump-style Republicans and politically correct corporations are both engaged in a kind of kabuki dance. DeSantis et al. are pretending to be moral crusaders when they simply pursuing their political ambitions. Large companies are pretending to be moral crusaders of another sort when they are simply burnishing their commercial image.

Reporters looking for serious corporate critics are not going to find them anywhere in the Republican Party—nor among most Democrats. The mark of a serious challenger to big business is someone willing to support efforts to curb corporate power. That means strengthening worker organizing rights, consumer protection laws, environmental oversight, antitrust laws and the like—not concocting phony disputes with companies to advance a misguided culture war agenda.

Corporations and the Ukraine Crisis

After the invasion of Ukraine brought sanctions against the Russian economy, the parent company of Japanese apparel retailer Uniqlo insisted it would continue to operate its 50 stores in the country. CEO Tadashi Yanai stated: “Clothing is a necessity of life. The people of Russia have the same right to live as we do.” A few days later, Uniqlo did an about-face, announcing it would suspend its Russian operations and contribute $10 million to the United Nations refugee agency.

Uniqlo is one of many corporations that have bowed to pressure to stop doing business in Russia. Oil majors BP, Shell and ExxonMobil are giving up multi-billion-dollar investments in the country. McDonald’s is temporarily closing hundreds of fast-food restaurants. Big accounting firms such as KPMG and PwC are abandoning the country, as are large law firms such as Cleary Gottlieb. Mastercard and Visa are no longer supporting credit cards issued by Russian banks.

A compilation by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and others at the Yale School of Management lists more than 300 Western firms that have announced curtailments of their Russian operations. The number is up from several dozen when Sonnenfeld first published the list on February 28. There are still some holdouts. Sonnenfeld lists about three dozen mostly U.S.-based corporations that are still doing business in the country.

The magnitude and the speed of the corporate exodus from Russia has been remarkable. In some cases, the companies have little choice in the matter, given the financial and energy sanctions adopted by Western governments. Yet for the most part, the moves have been reactions to widespread repugnance in the U.S. and Europe over Putin’s attack on Ukraine and the reports of atrocities committed by his troops.

Some corporations saw the direction of public sentiment right away and moved quickly. Others, like Uniqlo, needed more prodding. McDonald’s, for instance, made its announcement after facing calls on social media for a boycott.

Overall, the departures illustrate how, under certain circumstances, large and powerful corporations can be compelled to do the right thing, even when it will cause disruption and have negative financial impacts. In the past, companies have often rebuffed calls for divestment by citing legal complications. In the current situation, many are acting first and will resolve those complications later.

For now, our concern has to focus on the fate of Ukraine, but the success in getting corporations to change their stance on Russia should inform subsequent efforts. We are seeing that aggressive government action plus an unwavering public outcry can get large companies to do things they previously would not consider.

It is not easy to generate the same degree of urgency now felt over Ukraine, where millions of people are facing an immediate threat, when it comes to issues such as climate change, which much of the corporate world is still treating as something that can be addressed over many years.

Yet we have to try, and now we know that corporate resistance is often a lot more fragile than we expect.

Conflicting Goals at Starbucks

More large corporations are said to be signaling their commitment to environmental and social goals by including those targets in the incentive packages offered to their chief executives.

That’s the message of a recent article in the Financial Times, which highlights the example of Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, whose $20 million compensation total in 2021 was based in part on reducing the company’s use of plastic straws and lowering methane emissions at the farms producing the milk for its lattes.

Those are laudable goals, but they may also amount to another form of greenwashing. After all, in the case of Starbucks, the company’s proxy statement indicates that the lion’s share of Johnson’s bonus was still determined by conventional financial benchmarks such as profitability.

There is also the question of whether the alternative metrics are all appropriate. Along with “planet-positive environmental goals,” the minority share of Johnson’s bonus was also set by “people-positive goals.” According to the proxy, that includes factors such as diversity. Yet what about other employment issues?

Starbucks is now in the midst of a widespread union drive among its baristas.  Since employees at a location in Buffalo, New York voted for representation in December, organizing drives have sprung up at outlets around the country. A new union called Starbucks Workers United has reported that National Labor Relations Board petitions have been filed at more than 100 locations around the country.

These initiatives have not exactly been welcomed by Starbucks management. While claiming it will bargain in good faith with the Buffalo group, the company is employing some traditional anti-union tactics, such as mandatory meetings in which managers seek to discourage organizing.

Johnson set the tone for this himself. Just before the vote in Buffalo in December, he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he trotted out the usual corporate line that unionization would destroy the rapport between workers and management: “It goes against having that direct relationship with our partners that has served us so well for decades and allowed us to build this great company.” Around the same time, the company sent a text message to workers saying: “Please vote and vote no to protect what you love about Starbucks.”

It remains to be seen whether the company will continue to rely on this guilt-tripping approach rather than hard-core unionbusting. An indication of where things may be headed was the move by the company earlier this month to fire seven activists at a Memphis location, claiming they violated safety rules.

This brings us back to Johnson’s bonus. Will his handling of the organizing drive factor into his 2022 bonus? If he succeeds in blocking widespread unionization of the chain, will that be seen as a “people-positive” achievement?

In all likelihood, next year’s proxy statement will be silent on the union campaign, regardless of how it turns out. Yet Johnson will no doubt be rewarded financially if he thwarts the effort.

And that points to the problem with the employment aspects of corporate social responsibility practices. While companies have come to regard environmental goals as changes that everyone can rally around, organizing drives are another matter. Faced with the prospect of unionization, even supposedly progressive companies still act like the benighted employers of a century ago.

Until corporations such as Starbucks begin respecting the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively, they have no business presenting themselves as socially responsible.

Is Big Business an Agent of Social Change?

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020, Corporate America pledged to spend billions of dollars to address systemic racism. A new analysis by the Washington Post raises questions both about those commitments and the entire idea of relying on big business to address social problems.

Surveying the 50 U.S. largest companies (based on stock market valuation), the Post found that 44 of them pledged a total of $4.2 billion in donations and committed another $45.2 billion in loans, investments and other initiatives. More than one year later, the companies reported disbursing only $1.7 billion.

The slow movement of the funds should not be taken as an indication that the commitments were a burden on the firms. As the Post points out, the $4 billion cash portion represented less than one percent of the aggregate annual profits of the 50 companies.

Much of the $45 billion in other commitments, 90 percent of which came from Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, represented loans and investments on which the companies would make a profit. Moreover, providing home mortgages and other financial services in Black and Latino neighborhoods is something the banks were already supposed to be doing under federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act.

All this goes to show that the companies were not sacrificing very much in their racial justice commitments. Yet many of them have still dawdled in writing the checks. For example, the Post notes that Chuck Robbins, the CEO of Cisco Systems, tweeted in June 2020 that his company would be contributing $5 million to a handful of groups such as Black Lives Matter. The newspaper found that Black Lives Matter has not yet received any money.

It remains unclear whether Cisco and the other companies ever intend to make good on their pledges, even though they have already reaped the public relations benefits from the commitments.

Apart from the matter of reliability is the question of whether it makes sense to call on large corporations to help deal with matters such as systemic racism. Typically, this is framed as a debate between those who see big business as a potential force for positive change and those who argue that corporations should focus solely on creating value for shareholders.

There are problems with both those positions. The notion that the business of business is solely to generate profits, long popularized by the rightwing economist Milton Friedman, is not only amoral but simplistic. Corporations may find it beneficial to spend money on things such as charitable contributions or lobbying even if the immediate effect is to reduce profits a bit. Those expenses may very well lead to higher profits in the longer term by generating good will or changing public policy.

Some corporations, in fact, may seek to project an image of social or environmental responsibility as part of their brand—think Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, etc. When they make contributions to progressive causes, they are really engaged in nothing more than marketing.

Yet perhaps the biggest misconception in most discussions of the role of corporations is the assumption that big business is somehow part of the antidote to social and environmental ills. The truth is often that companies are a cause of those ills.

For example, when it comes to systemic racism, large corporations are hardly innocent bystanders. Many of them have decades-long track records of racial discrimination in the treatment of both employees and customers.

Many of these cases are documented in Violation Tracker. The database contains more than 3,000 entries on employment discrimination (of all kinds) with total penalties of more than $4 billion. These include actions by agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as class action lawsuits. Among the latter are multi-million-dollar settlements paid by major companies such as Coca-Cola, Federal Express, and Eastman Kodak.

Violation Tracker also has more than 200 cases in which companies were accused of bias in their dealings with customers—such as charging African-American borrowers higher interest rates than their white counterparts. These cases have resulted in more than $1 billion in fines and settlements. Among the companies involved in these matters have been MetLife, JPMorgan Chase, and Toyota.

All of this is to say that many corporations have much work to do to eliminate systemic racism under their own roof before being called on to help address the problem at a national level. When it comes to social change, big business often remains part of the problem rather than the solution.

Oil Giants Pressed for Changes Instead of Promises

A substantial number of large corporations would have us believe they are in the forefront of the efforts to address issues such as climate change, inequality and racial injustice. They brag about their commitment to corporate social responsibility and claim to be devoted to high-minded ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles in their operations.

There are two big reasons to be skeptical about this self-congratulatory stance. The first is that Big Business is often the cause of those problems, not the solution. The second is that the remedial measures companies claim to be taking often turn out to be illusory.

Two recent developments suggest that that corporations may be unable to go on running these cons. In an unprecedented ruling, a court in the Netherlands ordered petroleum giant Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon dioxide emissions sharply to align with the Paris agreement on climate change. This was said to be the first time a company faced a legal mandate of this kind. What made the decision even more significant is that Shell was held responsible not only for its own emissions but also those of its supply chain. This suit, brought by environmental groups, was a legal breakthrough for the climate movement.

Yet, the ruling was also consequential in that it challenges the notion that corporations should be allowed to make their own decisions on how to address environmental and social goals. And in that sense it rocks the foundations of ESG, which is built on the idea of voluntary measures. Companies have gotten a great deal of mileage out of making claims about what they have done or plan to do. Many of these statements cannot be verified, and there is no enforcement mechanism for holding corporations to their promises.  

Much of what goes by the name of corporate social responsibility is a method of warding off more stringent government regulation by claiming that the private sector can address the issues on its own.

Shell is a prime example of a company that says one thing and does another. On its website, the company claims that its commitment to sustainability dates back to 1997 and that it works “to embed this sustainability commitment into our strategy, our business processes and decision-making.”

Yet during this same quarter-century, Shell has been embroiled in an ongoing controversy over its practices in Nigeria. Environmental groups alleged that the company’s operations were responsible for a large number of pipeline ruptures, gas flaring and other forms of contamination that also contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. The Nigerian government responded to protests with a wave of repression, including the arrest and killing of prominent activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Shell denied it was involved, but critics pointed to the role played by the company in supporting the military dictatorship.

A lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands and four Nigerian farmers was filed in a Dutch court, alleging that spills from Shell pipelines damaged the livelihood of the farmers. The case dragged on for years, but in early 2021 the Hague Court of Appeal finally issued a decision on the case, ruling that Shell had to pay compensation to the farmers and install equipment to prevent future pipeline leaks.

Shell is not the only oil major on the hot seat. After years of leading the corporate climate denial effort, Exxon Mobil claimed to be changing its stance. It may have abandoned the overt denialism, but it resisted taking significant steps to reduce its carbon footprint. Now, institutional investors have run out of patience.

Led by an upstart hedge fund called Engine No.1, investors succeeded in electing two members to the Exxon board against the wishes of CEO Darren Woods. Those directors vowed to use their position to press the company to move toward carbon neutrality.

The two will be a minority on the board, but their election will make it harder for Woods to ignore the calls for Exxon to do more to address the climate crisis.

The revolt within Exxon and Shell’s legal setbacks will not by themselves transform business, but they are indications that large corporations may find it increasingly difficult to rely on vague commitments and instead may have to take concrete, enforceable measures to address climate change and other urgent issues.  

Toxic Corporations

Given the Biden Administration’s focus on the climate crisis, the announcement by General Motors that it will transition to an all-electric fleet, and the growing emphasis on sustainability among institutional investors, one might be tempted to think the United States is embarking on an environmental rebirth.

Despite some good signs, it is worth remembering that many large corporations—including ones that tout green credentials—are still spewing vast amounts of dangerous emissions into the air, land and water. Perhaps the best reminders of this reality are the data compilations produced by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

PERI recently released the latest version of its Toxic 100 lists, which cover air, water and greenhouse gas emissions. The lists are based on data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory and its Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The EPA publishes the data only for individual U.S. facilities, whereas PERI combines the emission amounts by parent company and thus reveals which large corporations account for the largest pollution shares. PERI’s approach is much like the one we use in Violation Tracker. It helps a lot that database wizard Rich Puchalsky of Grassroots Connection works on both projects.

There are a total of about 220 parent companies that appear on one or more of the three PERI lists. The Netherlands-based chemical company LyondellBasel Industries, which owns heavily polluting plants in Texas and other states, is at the top of the air list. Military contractor Northrop Grumman tops the water list, mainly because of the massive emissions at its subsidiary Alliant Techsystem’s facility in Virginia. The parent with the most greenhouse gas emissions is, ironically, Vistra Energy, which is heavily involved in renewable power generation and storage.

I was interested to see which corporations appeared on all three lists. I found that 16 firms have that dubious distinction. Not surprisingly, they include the country’s largest petroleum, chemical and steel producers.

Five of the group appear in the top 50 on each of the three lists: Dow Inc., Koch Industries, Berkshire Hathaway, ExxonMobil and Marathon Petroleum. Dow is the only one of these to be in the top ten of two different lists. It ranks fourth in water emissions and fifth in air emissions (as well as 44th in greenhouse gases). Koch Industries is in the top 25 of all three lists.

Dow’s position as the worst overall polluter comes as no surprise, given that the company has a toxic history that dates back decades and includes its notorious role in the production of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Its reputation only worsened after its 2001 acquisition of Union Carbide, which refused to pay adequate compensation for the thousands of victims of the 1984 disaster at its pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Dow was also embroiled in a major scandal involving faulty silicone breast implants.

The blots on Dow’s record are not all in the distant past. In 2019, for instance, it reached a $98 million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the State of Michigan and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe to restore areas damages by hazardous releases from Dow’s operations in Midland, Michigan.

You wouldn’t learn any of this background by reading the history section of the company’s website, which includes a page headlined “Sustainability from the Start: Dow’s Rich History of Environmental Stewardship.” As for the present, the site declares: “At Dow, we’re working to deliver a sustainable future for the world by connecting and collaborating to find new options for materials that make life better for everyone.”

This sort of greenwashing language is all too typical in the materials large corporations publish about themselves. PERI’s Toxic 100 shows that these companies have a long way to go before they can accurately depict themselves as paragons of environmental virtue.

Solving the Corporate Identity Crisis

Like the Republican Party, Corporate America is embroiled in a battle between its evil impulses and its better angels. Nowhere is this clearer than with regard to environmental policy.

On one side are the ESG proponents such as BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink, who according to the New York Times, is using his firm’s role as a massive institutional investor to pressure corporations to embrace sustainable practices. In his annual letter to companies, he called not just for vague aspirations but specific plans that are incorporated in long-term strategies and reviewed by boards of directors.

General Motors has just announced that it will phase out gasoline-powered cars and trucks and will sell only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035. The company will spend $27 billion developing about 30 types of electric vehicles.

At the same time, fossil fuel companies are going ballistic over the Biden Administration’s plan to suspend oil and gas leasing on federal lands, despite the fact that some 90 percent of exploration occurs on private property and is not affected by the executive order. Biden has also not called for a ban on fracking, despite allegations during the presidential campaign that this was his real plan.

The conflict within the business world was epitomized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which issued a press release that welcomed the Biden Administration’s focus on climate change while rejecting the leasing action.

There is also a corporate identity crisis with regard to employment practices, especially those in the high-tech sector. For many years, Silicon Valley companies had reputations as great places to work and were even accused of coddling their employees.

Now companies such as Amazon have replaced Walmart as the exemplars of bad employers. That image has intensified as groups of workers have begun to turn to collective action to address their concerns. Rather than embracing the right of employees to have a real voice at work, high-tech employers are adopting old-fashioned union-busting tactics. Amazon has even taken a move from the Donald Trump playbook by opposing mail-in voting during a representation election in Alabama.

The one clear lesson from the corporate inconsistencies is that ESG and other voluntary business practices are no substitute for strong government oversight. We should not have to wait until big business decides whether it really wants to help save the planet or will cling to fossil fuels as long as possible.

We should also not have to wait until giant companies decide whether they will treat their workers with respect or continue to regard them as little more than vassals.

It is thus encouraging that the Biden Administration is taking decisive action to restore effective regulation of both the environment and the workplace as well as areas such as consumer protection. Once agencies such as the EPA, the NLRB and the CFPB go back to enforcing the law in an aggressive manor, corporate ambivalence will become much less relevant and we can be confident that the entire private sector will feel pressured to do the right thing.

High-Minded Hypocrisy

As they push forward to fill a Supreme Court vacancy shortly before a presidential election, Republicans are putting on a master class in hypocrisy. A new report on self-proclaimed socially responsible corporations reminds us that the tendency to say one thing and do another can also be seen in the world of business.

The study, produced by consulting firm KKS Advisors and an initiative called Test of Corporate Purpose (TCP), looks at large corporations that were signatories to a much-ballyhooed statement issued in 2019 under the auspices of the Business Roundtable. That statement was meant to give the impression that big business is no longer concerned only with maximizing returns for shareholders and is promoting the well-being of other stakeholders such as employees.

Some of us responded to the Roundtable’s statement with skepticism, but KKS and TCP decided to put the 181 signatories to the test, looking at their behavior in dealing with the pandemic and the problem of inequality. Basing its analysis on news coverage of corporate actions, the report compared signatories and non-signatories on topics such as workplace safety, healthcare access, wage levels, diversity and environmental justice. The evaluations used data prepared by Truvalue Labs using the framework of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

The report’s conclusion is that signatories were slightly less likely to respond in a responsible way to the pandemic and slightly more likely to do so with regard to inequality—in other words, endorsement of the Roundtable statement did not make a big difference one way or the other. KKS and TCP put it this way: “our results suggest that corporate commitments to purpose are less informative about a company’s future performance on social and human capital issues than other indicators. What matters more is whether a company has a strong track record of proactively managing issues that may become material during a crisis, and whether a company is an early responder on relevant issues during a crisis.”

I’m not sure exactly what is meant by “proactively managing issue” and being an “early responder” may be a good or bad thing depending on the nature of the response. I also think the report goes too far in trying to use news coverage to assess and rank corporate behavior.

My preference is to use concrete evidence relating to corporate behavior—especially the extent to which companies have been found to be violating regulations relating to the workplace, the environment, consumer protection, etc.

When the Roundtable statement was initially released, I ran the names of the signatories through Violation Tracker and found that they accounted for more than $197 billion in cumulative penalties, with 21 of them having penalty totals of $1 billion or more.

Serious violators can also be found among the companies—both signatories and non-signatories—that receive the highest ratings in the KKS-TCP report, which groups the firms into four quartiles without listing specific scores. For example, included in the quartile with the best ratings is drug giant Novartis, which according to Violation Tracker has paid more than $1.5 billion in fines and settlements over issues such as the promotion of drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

That figure will increase to more than $2 billion next week when the database is updated to include recent cases such as one in which Novartis paid $642 million to settle Justice Department allegations relating to kickbacks and other illegal payments. Also in the first quartile are other repeat offenders such as the French bank BNP Paribas, whose Violation Tracker penalty total is more than $12 billion.

Until large corporations end their unlawful conduct, they have no claim to being models of social responsibility.

Exorcising Evil at Google

For the past two decades, Google’s Code of Conduct has included the phrase Don’t Be Evil. It used to be at the beginning of that document but now it is relegated to the end, appearing almost as an afterthought.

That turns out to be appropriate, given that Google can no longer pretend to be a paragon of virtue. The latest example of this move to the dark side is the announcement by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York State Attorney General that Google is paying $170 million to settle allegations that its subsidiary YouTube committed serious violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. It was said to have done this by collecting personal information from under-age viewers of online videos without their parents’ consent.

Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc. will be facing more headaches. There have been recent reports that a large group of state attorneys general are getting ready to announce a major antitrust investigation of Google, whose search engine is essentially a monopoly and which has dominant positions in other areas as well.

The company has already been targeted in Europe. Last year the EU hit Google with a $5 billion fine for abusing its control over cellphone operating systems, and earlier this year the Europeans imposed a $1.6 billion penalty for abusing its control over web searches.

Google’s misconduct is not all of recent vintage. In 2012 it paid a $22 million fine to the FTC to settle allegations that it misrepresented to users of Apple’s Safari Internet browser that it would not place tracking cookies or serve targeted ads to them, violating an earlier privacy settlement between the company and the agency. The following year it had to pay $17 million to a group of three dozen state AGs to settle allegations of unauthorized placement of cookies on web browsers. Around the same time it paid $7 million to another set of AGs for the unauthorized collection of data from unsecured wireless networks across the country.

In 2014 it paid to $19 million the FTC to resolve allegations that it unfairly billed consumers for in-app charges incurred by children without their parents’ consent.

For a long time, Google promoted itself as an outstanding place to work. Yet that image has eroded as well. In 2015 it and three other tech giants had to pay $415 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that they conspired to suppress salary levels by secretly agreeing not to hire one another’s employees.

Last year Google faced an unprecedented walkout by thousands of its employees around the world who were protesting what they saw as the company’s lax treatment of sexual harassment claims.

The positive side of this is that it inspired a new form of activism among tech workers previously thought to be too individualistic to act collectively. Google employees have also been outspoken on other issues such as providing services to the repressive Chinese government.

If the evil is ever to be exorcised at Google, it will be done not by a corporate motto but by pressures brought to bear by federal regulators, state prosecutors and the company’s own workforce.

High Standards, Poor Behavior

It is amazing how much attention is being paid to the Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation just issued by 181 chief executives of large corporations under the auspices of the Business Roundtable. We are supposed to think it is a major breakthrough that big business is claiming to do more than maximize returns for shareholders.

In fact, Corporate America has long given lip service to the notion that it has an obligation to other stakeholders such as employees, communities and suppliers and that it needs to promote sustainability in its operations. The language of the Roundtable statement could have been taken from similar pronouncements that have been made by the vast majority of large companies under the rubric of corporate social responsibility or a similar phrase. The website of Exxon Mobil, for instance, contains a page on its Guiding Principles, which are said to include adherence to “high ethical standards.”

The question, of course, is whether these high-minded statements have any real meaning—whether they result in more responsible practices or are designed mainly to let corporate executives pretend to be moral exemplars.

The answer seems clear. If large corporations truly had a commitment to their employees, they would not engage in so many exploitative practices and fight so hard against unionization. If they truly cared about the environment, they would take more aggressive steps to reduce pollution and address the climate crisis. If they truly cared about ethical supply chains, they would stop sourcing from low-road producers.

Not only are most large corporations far from ethical leaders—in many cases they cannot bring themselves to adhere to their most basic responsibility: obeying the law and complying with regulations.  

For the past few years, I’ve spent most of my time documenting corporate lawlessness by building the Violation Tracker database, which now contains more than 360,000 examples of misconduct that have resulted in $470 billion in penalties since 2000.

I ran the names of the 181 companies whose CEOs signed the Roundtable statement through Violation Tracker and, not surprisingly, the results were eye-popping. The signatories and their subsidiaries together account for more than $197 billion in cumulative penalties, or more than 40 percent of the total penalties from tens of thousands of companies.

Twenty-one of the signatories have penalty totals of $1 billion or more, and three with $25 billion or more. At the top of the list is Bank of America, with more than $58 billion in penalties from 128 cases largely involving mortgage abuses and toxic securities. JPMorgan Chase comes in at $30 billion from similar cases. As a consequence of its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other disasters, BP ranks third with $27 billion in penalties.

The list continues with other big banks (Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.), big utilities (American Electric Power, Duke Energy, etc.), big pharmaceutical manufacturers (Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, etc.), other big oil companies (Marathon Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, etc.), and others such as Boeing and Walmart.

It is significant that two of the worst corporate miscreants of recent years, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, are missing from the list of signatories. Perhaps they or the Roundtable realized that their inclusion would have detracted from the message.

Yet the track records of many of the other signatories are not much better. Large corporations that repeatedly break the rules concerning consumer protection, environmental protection, workplace protection, investor protection and every other kind of protection cannot profess that they are committed to serving the well-being of all their stakeholders. Until they change their behavior, their purported principles mean little.