These nuggets come from a new study, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for the Public Affairs Council, a non-partisan association of corporate and non-profit public relations executives. The survey, to the considerable surprise of those who commissioned it, found a strong majority of Americans—61 percent—with a favorable impression of big business. By contrast, 35 percent expressed a favorable view of the federal government. Younger Americans, ages 18 to 34, were even more positive about business, with 71 percent expressing favorable views, compared with 54 percent of Baby Boomers, ages 47 to 65, and 52 percent of those over 65. Technology companies ranked at the top of the trust list; health insurers, pharmaceutical companies and banks were at the bottom.
But this positive view of business did not translate to a positive view of business executives. More than three-fourths of those surveyed said big companies did not do enough to restrain corporate pay. And, echoing some of the “Occupy Wall Street” rhetoric, three-fourths said too much power was concentrated in the hands of a few large companies and 62 percent said major companies make too much profit.
For all the Republican talk about government regulation stifling businesses, more of those surveyed thought there was too little regulation than too much: 35 percent to 27 percent. In 1996, those numbers were strikingly different, with 35 percent saying business was subject to too much regulation and 19 percent believing there was too little oversight. In the new survey, 47 percent of those questioned thought there was too little regulation of banks and other financial institutions, 46 percent said there was too little environmental protection and 45 percent said there was not enough government action in the area of consumer protection. A different question about government regulation, however, yielded a contradictory result. Asked which was the greater threat to the economic well-being of middle-class Americans, government regulation of corporations or the power of the corporations themselves, more than half cited government regulation.
The tensions here are fascinating. Americans are both corporatist and populist, well-disposed toward businesses even as they disdain those in charge for excessive greed and inadequate honesty. Likewise, they are hostile toward and distrustful of government—while wanting government to see it be more aggressive in regulating the corporations in which they put more faith.
Is the public confused or conflicted? “People distinguish between how they view companies and how they view people who are getting rich running them,” Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, told me. To this extent, the Occupy Wall Street protests can be understood as consistent with the survey findings. “The thread that carries through is unfairness and greed, not that capitalism is bad or business is inherently bad,” Pinkham said.
As to the mixed view on regulation, Pinkham suggested, the public “may be more pragmatic than we give them credit for”—simultaneously worrying about the impact of regulation in an uncertain economy but understanding the importance of it for the long-term good. If so, politicians in both parties may be over-reading the seeming anti-regulatory mood.