Opinion: The rise of aware capitalism

Here are two stories about corporate America’s current role in our politics and common life. In one, the country’s biggest companies are growing a conscience, prodded by shifts in public opinion and their own idealistic young employees, and becoming a vanguard force for social change — with the recent disassociations from the NRA by major airlines and rental car companies just the latest example in a trend that also includes recent high-profile corporate interventions on immigration and gay and transgender rights.

In the other story, corporate America just performed another bait and switch at the common good’s expense — making a show of paying bonuses and raising wages after the passage of the corporate-friendly Republican tax bill, but actually reserving most of the tax savings for big stock buybacks.

These are not two stories, though; they’re different aspects of the same one. Corporate activism on social issues isn’t in tension with corporate self-interest on tax policy and corporate stinginess in paychecks. Rather, the activism increasingly exists to protect the self-interest and the stinginess.

Between the Depression and the 1950s, threatened by communism and facing powerful unions and a New Deal-era majority willing and able to regulate and redistribute, corporate America reconciled itself to a family wage for its male-breadwinner workers and a certain modesty in how its upper echelons were paid.

There was a sincere patriotism woven in to this model, but also a lot of self-interest. The system defined by the so-called Treaty of Detroit, the labor-management agreements struck between Walter Reuther and the Big Three automakers, was well-intentioned but also self-interested, a necessary-seeming concession to political trends that might have threatened corporate independence and profits.

Over time, though, free trade, globalization and deindustrialization made that postwar system less economically viable; the decline of labor made it less politically necessary; and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s made its implicit moral values (heteronormativity for workers, a kind of penny-pinching puritanism for bosses) seem less congenial and more oppressive.

But at an accelerating pace our corporate class is now trying to negotiate a different kind of peace. Instead of the Treaty of Detroit we have the Peace of Palo Alto, in which a certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, is offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively.

Much of this signaling is sincerely motivated. I’m sure that lots of people in the corporate ranks at Delta or Alamo sincerely abhor the NRA, just as most of the people who demanded James Damore’s firing from Google or Brendan Eich’s from Mozilla regarded both as beyond-the-pale bigots.

But a certain amount of cynicism is also in order. It’s worth noting how Tim Cook’s willingness to play the social justice warrior when the target is a few Indiana restaurants that might not want to host same-sex weddings does not extend to reconsidering Apple’s relationship with many countries around the world where human rights are rather more in jeopardy.

In certain ways the Peace of Palo Alto won’t be fully tested until the next time the Democrats hold real power, when we’ll get to find out whether the left’s anti-monopoly forays have any follow-through — or whether corporate wokeness will suffice as a concession to the new spirit of liberalism.

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