It’s not the best of times for American CEOs. True, the Trump administration is a generous, if mercurial, benefactor. There’s the deficit-boosting tax cut, the one that showered its generosity on corporations and the wealthiest Americans. Scores of regulations, covering everything from financial rules to environmental protections, are falling by the wayside.
But there’s a big problem: CEOs can’t get no respect.
It’s not just that they’re disrespected by Trump, who occasionally blasts them for moving jobs out of the United States. When former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz explored an independent run for president, he was all but laughed out of the race. CEOs are punching bags for presidential candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). They can also get raked over the coals by any random member of Congress, such as when Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) — who took over a seat in formerly conservative Orange County — ripped into JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon (2018 compensation: $31 million) for the low pay of bank clerks at the company he’s headed for more than a decade.
This provides a good framework for understanding a statement released by the Business Roundtable earlier this week, signed by more than 180 CEOs including Dimon and Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of The Post. It calls for “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders,” including employees, communities they are located in, suppliers, customers and, yes, shareholders. They will “foster diversity and inclusion.” This sounds kind of milquetoast, but in fact, it is, as Michael Hiltzik pointed out at the Los Angeles Times, a break with decades of putting stockholder financial interests in the first position.
So should we celebrate? Well, not so fast. You might notice that this statement does not include any requests for changes in the law, ironclad promises that they will reduce even further growth of their out-of-control pay (according to the AFL-CIO, the average S&P 500 CEO earned 287 times what the average worker made last year) or, well, anything that would make it legally enforceable.
When one looks over the list, a few names jump out. One is Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of the Fox Corp. That would be the same Fox Corp. that owns Fox News, where on Thursday — a mere three days after the public release of this statement! — former Trump press secretary and known liar Sarah Sanders signed on as a regular contributor. That’s also the network where Tucker Carlson called white nationalism a “hoax” a mere two weeks before the Business Roundtable statement was released.
Then there’s Dimon, who briefly claimed last year he would like to run for president but “I can’t beat the liberal side of the Democratic Party.” Perhaps that’s because Dimon and JPMorgan Chase have a track record of paying money to shut down claims by the federal government over such allegations as charging African Americans and Latinos higher interest rates on mortgages than white applicants. IBM’s Ginni Rometty is a signatory too, despite the fact that ProPublica made a strong case last year that the company’s commitment to diversity does not extend to workers ages 40 or over. I could go on, but you get the idea.
It shouldn’t take a lot of common sense to realize there are far better ways to help Americans deal with rapacious corporations and rampant inequality than putting faith in the promises of those same corporations’ leaders. Rather than sign on to this platform and call it a day, CEOs could, for instance, come out in support of the plan Sanders released on Wednesday that calls for a major increase in union membership for workers, sectoral bargaining (where employees of companies like McDonald’s and Burger King could sit down at the same negotiating table), an end to at-will employment and a crackdown on such practices as misclassification of workers to deny them overtime. They could also get behind a legislation out of California that would finally treat many workers in the “gig economy” (ride-hail drivers, for example) as employees. They could speak up for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, two agencies where rollbacks harming consumers and workers are coming fast and furious.
No doubt the signatories mean well — as I always like to say, very few people wake up in the morning intending to deceive or do wrong. But like most of us, they are blinded by their own self-interest. As a result, they are confusing a 21st-century version of noblesse oblige with substance. Call me cynical, but I’m guessing that within weeks, these companies and their leaders will be back to business as usual.