Big business rides the social justice wave

Cantillon: Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier walks off Trump’s business panel

A photograph taken on February 23rd, 2017, showing President Trump and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier during a meeting with manufacturing CEOs in the White House. Photograph: Getty Imagescc

A photograph taken on February 23rd, 2017, showing President Trump and Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier during a meeting with manufacturing CEOs in the White House. Photograph: Getty Imagescc

 

The resignation of Merck chief executive Kenneth Frazier from one of US president Donald Trump’s business panels has highlighted the growing tendency of corporate figures to weigh into political issues outside of the economic sphere.

With the exception of fiscal issues, big business has traditionally kept out of politics and social debate beyond lobbying on issues directly related to their industry. Yet in recent times, at home and abroad, we have seen businesses take strong public stances on issues that have little direct link to their operations.

The most interesting part of the phenomenon is that businesses are enthusiastically weighing into issues on the progressive or left-wing side, when the corporate world would previously have been closer to conservatives.

Frazier walked off Trump’s business panel in protest at the president’s lack of condemnation of the racist hordes in Charlottesville. Elon Musk previously walked off another panel over Trump’s ambivalence to environmental issues.

Go Daddy, the New York-listed web hosting service, this week told far-right website the Daily Stormer to find a new hosting service after the site wrote critically of Heather Heyer, the victim of the Charlottesville car attack. Google later cancelled the site’s registration.

Airbnb has taken out advertisements in Australia backing the rights of gay people to get married. At home, Twitter weighed into Ireland’s marriage referendum last summer, advocating a Yes vote.

IDA Ireland chief executive Martin Shanahan, one of Ireland’s highest profile gay business figures, also called for a Yes vote. Previously it would have been unthinkable for the leader of a State business agency to urge citizens how to vote on a social referendum.

Many of the vanguard of big business advocating positions on social justice issues are Californian internet firms. But not exclusively. Merck is a 125-year-old drug company with links to a company founded 360 years ago in Germany.

But are some of these businesses being selectively conscientious?

Google, for example, has previously sold free speech down the river in China in order to try and gain a foothold in the world’s second largest economy.

And it appears to be one thing for Californian web companies to take positions on the policies of governments, and quite another for those same companies to pay sufficient levels of tax so that those policies can be paid for.

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