Citizens without obligations?

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

“There’s no doubt that we’re a global company,” said John Dern, vice president for public relations at Boeing. “but we are first and foremost an American company. We have deep roots in American history and the American economy, and having an identity as an American company is very important for us.”

When asked what it was that made them American, however, most companies did not speak in terms of the permanent bonds between a nation and its citizens. Instead, some spoke of the history of their development, or talked in terms of statistical or legal information about their businesses (sales, employment, location of headquarters, or state of incorporation).

For example, when asked what makes the company American, a representative from Ford cited the fact that it “conduct[s] the vast majority of our research and development, produce[s] more than 2 million vehicles annually, and employ[s] more than 66,000 employees.”

A representative from Whole Foods cited the fact that the company is incorporated in the United States, “does well over 90 percent of [its] total business right here in the U.S.” and that “all of our Executive Team and almost all of our top 100 leaders…were born in the United States.”


National obligations?

When corporate representatives were asked directly whether their companies have national obligations, a few said “yes.”

For example, Greg Martin, the executive director of communications strategy and news operations at General Motors, said that GM does have “obligations to the country that go above and beyond our obligation to our shareholders.”

Some companies — even iconic companies like U.S. Steel — said that the question of whether they had national obligations did not pertain to them, because they do not consider themselves to be American at all.

Brewer of RadioShack said that while “[i]t’s hard to imagine what RadioShack might do to act in the national interest…I am pretty sure we would never intentionally act against the national interest.”

Jeff Noel, the vice president for communications and public affairs at Whirlpool, drew the line somewhat differently. Noel said that while the company has “a strong desire to be a responsible citizen,” it does not “have a duty or an obligation” to do so.

Most commonly, companies refused to respond directly to the question.

In an email exchange, for instance, Remapping Debate asked Molly Donahue, a spokesperson for Caterpillar, whether the company considers itself to be American.

“We are an American company that also operates globally,” she responded.

When Remapping Debate followed up by asking whether being American means that Caterpillar has any particular obligations to the United States, Donahue responded that the company had “no additional information to add as it relates to your question.”

Similarly, Allison Steinberg, a spokesperson for JetBlue, cited the company’s efforts to employ veterans as a factor that makes the company American. When asked whether that meant that JetBlue has particular obligations to the United States, however, Steinberg refused to comment further.

Chris Olert, a spokesperson for Consolidated Edison, said that the company does consider itself to be an American company, but when asked whether the company has any national or patriotic duties, he said, “Well, I wouldn’t say that.”

Boeing’s John Dern said that “serving the country and its broad economic interests is important to us,” but “I don’t know if I’d call it in a patriotic way.”

And some companies said that the question did not pertain to them, because they don’t consider themselves to be American at all.

Lynn Brown, vice president of coprorate communications at Waste Management, which is incorporated in the United States but also operates in Canada, said that the company considers itself “North American.”

Even some iconic American corporations took a similar line. For example, Courtney Boone, a spokesperson for United States Steel, said that the company does not consider itself to be an American company, but rather “a company with headquarters in the United States and operations globally.”

A shrinking sense of responsibility

Beginning in the 1970s, a number of factors combined to begin the erosion of that broader sense of corporate responsibility, Gomory explained. Most prominent among them, he said, were the end of the Cold War and the onset of rapid globalization, an ideological shift in economics and business schools towards the idea that the purpose of a corporation was the maximize shareholder value, and the alignment of the interests of corporate executives with shareholders through stock-based compensation.

In a paper he co-authored on the history of corporate responsibility earlier this year, Gomory cites two statements on corporate responsibility issued by the Business Roundtable.

The first, issued in 1981, maintains that corporations have a responsibility to “each of the corporations constituents.” The statement goes on to say:

Responsibility to all these constituents in toto constitutes responsibility to society…Business and society have a symbiotic relationship: The long term viability of the corporation depends upon its responsibility to the society of which it is a part. And the well-being of society depends upon profitable and responsible business enterprises.

The second statement, issued by the same entity in 1997, illustrates the way that corporate purpose had narrowed: “[T]he principal objective of a business enterprise,” the statement says, “is to generate economic returns to its owners,” that is, its shareholders.

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