Monday, January 9, 2012

Good Green Living

My bank is committed to me. How do I know? Because they told me so.

I got a letter from my North American bank yesterday where they “restated our commitment” and then segued to a bit about the financial landscape changing, at which point I didn’t have to read further to know fees were increasing.

With the letter came a little brochure, all in green type to illustrate how much they care about the environment while they’re sticking it to me with “the best customer service around.” They even renamed my checking account “LifeGreen,” whatever that means.

Why does my bank think I care whether they give a damn about the environment? Do they think that because six tellers take part in a neighborhood cleanup every year this means that the bank loves the environment? The bank loves green type, though. That much I’ll concede.

This is no American disease, unfortunately. Estonian companies, banks included, tend to believe that if they print enough brochures using the color green, or send enough smiling employees around to talk to schoolchildren, then we’ll all embrace them as great stewards of society.

“Our company really does a lot of CSR stuff!” a smiling Estonian capitalist told me not long ago, assuming that the acronym has become part of the vernacular. CSR, for readers who don’t work in a megacorporation engaged in wringing the maximum amount of blood from each customer, stands for Corporate Social Responsibility. It may be defined as all the feelgood stuff a company does to distract you from the real business they’re in: making money.

Back in a former life I attended an American graduate business school. On the very first day when they issued me a supply of starch for my shirts and a shiv for intramural sports, we learned what would become our mantra: The goal of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value. Ethics were not mentioned anywhere, though the topic was later briefly taken up by a professor who noted, “If your mama didn’t raise you right, then nobody here is going to be able to help you.”

While the profit motive may not always be pretty, it certainly is pure. It is easy to understand, and when we accept that this is the mission of private enterprise then the behavior of business is hardly a mystery. But when we attempt to convince ourselves that a corporation can have the public good at heart, then what’s called for is a Tough Love rehab program. (If you doubt me, buy some shares in a big company and attend shareholders’ meetings. Or make a career in them: If your employment hasn’t been coldly terminated at least once, then you haven’t had much of a career.)

So it has always troubled me when I get the polished CSR patter from a PR hack, since the truth will not be held against them by any rationale being. Corporations perform a needed function in capitalist society. It’s not necessary that we love them, only that we understand them. Let us recognize that a wolf does what it does. And that even an animal-loving farmer has to, from time to time, shoot a wolf.

If you still don’t believe me then visit your neighborhood CEO’s house and check out his bookshelf. With a few exceptions, you’ll not find Eat, Pray, Love, but rather a veritable Special Forces library on inflicting quick death. The Art of War, The Prince, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, How to Win Friends & Influence People. Not to mention a pile of books by Jack Welch wearing his famous shit-eating grin.

What ought to be on every proper citizen’s bookshelf is a copy of Twain’s What is Man? The dialogue between the Old Man and the Young Man can get tedious, but sometimes we all need to be beat over the head with a shovel. Twain’s point: Any help I give you is because it makes me feel good. And what’s wrong with that?

The charitable work of corporations should be viewed much like the charitable work done by fraternities at American universities: They do it because when they do screw up — and they inevitably will — society will tolerate their dark side more if it is mingled with a history of good deeds.

On my university campus, a handful of fraternity brothers committed a gang rape. The guys who participated called it “pulling a train” and it was not the first time they did it, though it might have been the first time the act clearly fit the legal definition of rape.

Certainly, the group’s community record didn’t save them – they were aided more by a victim who did not want to endure the publicity of a trial – but the boys played their trust capital to some advantage. It was nothing more than a PR program in action, executed by a group of 20-year-old boys.

To say that if you add 30 years to those boys, remove a (small) bit of testosterone, and then you have the makings of a corporate boardroom would be unfair. There are some real gentlemen in business who are well able to keep their Johnsons in their pants. But don’t doubt that boardrooms are full of people who know well enough that things can go wrong, that one day their tanker may run aground and poison an ecosystem.

Would we really think less of a corporation which admitted that “Our objective is to make a pile of money, though some innocent folks may get helped along the way”? Or perhaps more reasonably: “We’re out to make a pile of money, and if along the way we can help others without getting too distracted from our primary mission, then great.” I think we’d embrace such honesty.

I don’t mind when they preach that the profit motive does not preclude bettering society, but they lose me when they name products “green” or want publicity for giving a bicycle to a crippled kid.

In a candid moment with an industrialist, he will not utter the phrase, “You know, if these unions will step out of the way, we’d treat these workers just fine.” He will more likely tell you that unions are a pain in the ass, but they’re necessary to keep him from abusing his workforce as if they were slaves in Egypt.

The Occupy Wall Street movement saddened me at first. When I visited their website, those who were often featured in front of the camera weren’t the most articulate. They hardly appeared qualified to take over the institutions they wanted to see reformed, and they often seemed on the edge of beginning a sentence with, “Dude…”

Now, though, it seems they’ve gained momentum, improved their speaker roster, perhaps by reading books like Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia or Michael Lewis’ The Big Short while they’re camped out in the financial district.

But there is real power in Dudespeak when backed by raw intelligence. I keep waiting for the TV camera to find someone who uses the opportunity to articulate why Alan Greenspan is the “biggest asshole in the universe”* (Taibbi’s claim), and then quote Greenspan’s 1994 Senate testimony or take up the complexities of moral hazard in perfectly digestible terms.

More good news is that heavyweights like Paul Krugman are adding their voices, and the movement is no longer limping along with only Hollywood celebrity backers.

On the homefront, what’s disturbing is not local Estonian corporate hacks waxing on about CSR and green culture – indeed, they’re just doing their jobs – but rather when a journalist writes it down. But I guess even the most jaded journalist can get caught up in the spirit of the moment with all its attendant Team Spirit bullshit. Plus, he’s got to file something. For better or worse, though, Estonia’s history of corporate abuse is no longer than its own history of independence, and therefore we are possibly still too eager to swallow whatever nonsense corporate leaders feed us.

But I do wish we’d recognize more that CSR and green culture are mere flavors of the month. (CSR is a term from the 1960s, and it comes in and out of fashion.) I can almost guarantee that in ten years, when absolutely every public and private corporation is using green type, then the one who uses black will be called a marketing visionary. Black. It’s the new green.

Perhaps you believe Estonian corporations are moving down the Scandinavian socialist path and will be different. That it’ll be capitalism with a human face; a kinder, gentler wolf. Personally, I’m in favor of making sure the farmer is well informed. And always sufficiently armed.


*Taibbi also called Greenspan a “…gerblish mirror-gazer who flattered or bullshitted his way up the Matterhorn of American power…” Now who, except maybe Greenspan himself, couldn’t love a sentence like that?