05 September 2007

Capitalism, democracy, and the online citizen

I took some time over the labor day weekend to read an article in FP Magazine by former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich called "How Capitalism is Killing Democracy," an adaptation of his new book. In it he writes about the tensions between investors, consumers and citizens, and has some rather unflattering things to say about folks in my line of work (subscription required):
Democracy has become enfeebled largely because companies, in intensifying competition for global consumers and investors, have invested ever greater sums in lobbying, public relations, and even bribes and kickbacks, seeking laws that give them a competitive advantage over their rivals. The result is an arms race for political influence that is drowning out the voices of average citizens. In the United States, for example, the fights that preoccupy Congress, those that consume weeks or months of congressional staff time, are typically contests between competing companies or industries.
Furthermore, on Secretary Reich's own blog, where he subtly and tastefully mentions (just in passing, mind you) his new book, he describes Corporate Social Responsibility efforts as "a detour... a frolic... a distraction," and getting in the way of government doing its job.

I know first-hand that Secretary Reich makes an important and accurate point about the influence of companies on government. There's no denying that much of the legislative process has been outsourced to corporate lobbyists. And while I never saw a bribe or kickback, I worked specifically on international trade and energy issues for a Senator on the Hill - which means I could typically trace the "sponsorship" of an amendment to a trade or energy bill directly to a company or trade association. (By the way, this was the case for Democrats as well as Republicans.)

I and others used to joke that it would be easier if Senators and their staffs traded in our wool suits and instead dressed like NASCAR drivers - at least then you could see all the corporate logos slapped all over our bodies, and you'd know who's paying us.

However, I've lobbied Congress and I've known hundreds of lobbyists. They actually add critical experience and perspective to a system in which the average Congressional staffer is in his mid-twenties, drastically underpaid, and has virtually no knowledge of the industry he's trying to regulate. And - this may shock you - they're actually decent people.

Rather than take meaningful steps to add substantial transparency to the process, Congress instead passes bizarre travel bans - we wouldn't want you visiting the companies and meeting the workers you regulate, after all - and gift bans that are intended to prevent the most egregious violations but actually do more to hinder the process. I think it was Congressman Barney Frank who quipped that lobbyists now work in a world where they could be indicted for "conspiracy to commit dinner."

The real problem is more and more lobbying and legislating is done in secret. Committee markups are closed. "Floor managers' amendments" are developed and inserted into massive bills overnight and voted on without anyone seeing them. Americans can't see the process, so when they want things done they look to the places where actions are staged but at least they're public - corporate social responsibility programs.

The consequences of this are apparent and research confirms what Reich asserts: Americans now expect businesses to fulfill the duties of citizenship and to address social ills to a greater extent than they expect the government to do so. Reich worries that the influence and interests of investors and consumers now outpace the concerns of citizens, and he makes a persuasive case.

But I don't think CSR is the problem - I think CSR is a combination of some folks in corporate America actually wanting to do the right thing (shocking!), and filling a void that the political process left when legislating and regulating went underground and the public portion of the process became little more than show.

I do think this is changing, both for government and business. Citizens - not just consumers - now use the Internet to harness their collective power and serve as a check on those who would put the interests of investors or consumers over those of citizens. And companies are exercising a new form of responsibility by speaking with online citizens and holding themselves accountable through important conversations. It's PR, but it's not just making a six-foot replica of a cashier's check and smiling pretty for the camera. There's actual accountability there for societal issues.

Of course, these tools are still so very nascent and one can argue Goliath is still beating David, but the pace of progress is truly unprecedented and increasing. Political bloggers on the left and the right, as well as non-partisan groups are all leveraging the Internet to raise awareness, and more importantly, prompt action on the most important issues.

I'd like to think that I and some of my colleagues are actually playing a positive role in this as well by directly connecting citizen bloggers with the business leaders who are contributing to (and, as Secretary Reich asserts, making) policy decisions that affect all of us. The Internet is facilitating discussions we never thought possible even a year or so ago. It's really just the beginning, but government and their corporate sponsors can no longer lecture to the rest of us.

What I'd love to see more of is the change in thinking that I'm starting to see through my work - when citizens have access to corporate and government decision makers and realize that they're contributing the discussions AND the decisions, citizens and companies view each other a little less as adversaries and a little more as partners in progress. It won't happen overnight, but I see incremental improvements each day.

No comments: