Today’s announcement by conservative Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida ratchets up the right-wing Republican move to combat corporate activism on behalf of advancing employee relations and challenging the role of corporations to run their own affairs independent of state regulations.
The move by DeSantis, a 2024 potential Republican candidate, would assert state controls over independent corporate activities in terms of making their own financial and investment decisions that reflect an increasingly younger and racially diversified workforce and their investment preferences.
The target of conservative Republicans, including DeSantis, is to derail investment decisions that adhere to Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing policies, specifically in their pension and other corporate-owned funds.
The money in this battle involves huge sums. There is about $35 trillion in corporate U.S. pension funds and until recent moves by right-wing Republicans, corporations have had total independent discretion about how these assets were invested on behalf of their employees, especially those in enrolled in 401(k)s and pension funds.
But, Republicans do not like how some of the funds designated as ESG investments have been going. Specifically, they oppose ESG funds that avoid investment in oil companies, polluters, companies that employ slave labor, or have poor records regarding their treatment of women, children, the environment, or investing in certain nations, such as Israel. DeSantis’s pet target is “wokeism”, and companies that make investment decisions based on addressing companies that advance systemic racism and economic inequality.
Republicans Want to Control Corporate Investment Decisions
Recently, a group of Republican state officials attacked the investment firm, BlackRock, for its sustainable ESG investment policies, including its anti-oil company holding policies, that are part of its state pension fund clients’ investment goals. In a letter from 19 Republican attorneys general led by Arizona’s Mark Brnovich, the group said that ESG hurts the returns of their pension funds. The Republicans made that charge without providing any evidence
More specifically, the Republicans are coming to the aid of oil companies, most of who have been polluters for decades, and are now being excluded from ESG company screening criteria because of their past pollution and anti-environmental records.
To gain some traction, Republican state officials are adopting the guise of trying to protect state workers from what they view are investment policies that dampen returns. However, this is just posturing. Republican state officials have never gone on record as opposing the high fees and expenses, many of them hidden from plan participants, that are charged by hedge funds, private equity, and mutual fund managers who are state pension fund asset managers.
Instead, the Republicans want us to now believe they are concerned about state pension plan participants when most people can see this is another power grab to gain control over trillions in pension fund assets and direct them into pro-Republican industries, such as oil, gas, private equity, and hedge funds.
ESG investing has about $40 trillion in assets under management worldwide, and for good reason. It creates value for investors and helps achieve environmental goals. But to social and economic conservatives, ESG investing poses a significant threat to the unchallenged authority of corporations. To socially-conscious investors, ESG aligns with their personal beliefs and goals for themselves, their families, and their communities.
This power grab by Republicans and social conservatives is nothing new. As early as the 1970s, right-wingers have rung the bell that capitalism is under attack. In the famous 1971 memo to the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce, by Lewis Powell (later a Supreme Court judge), the Californian said the free enterprise system was under attack from liberal arts departments at college campuses, the New Left, television, Ralph Nader, the clergy, books, and intellectual journals. Looking back, Powell provided the fuel to start the culture wars that have become the daily fodder for the right-wing.
Republicans want us to believe they are concerned about state pension plan participants when people can see this is another power grab to gain control over trillions in pension fund assets
Powell wrote the Memo to the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s top lobbyist for the largest US corporations. He chose this group because these huge multi-national corporations were natural allies for Republicans. Powell knew that big business was always going to work with the Republicans.
Today, with ESG investing challenging the status quo, it looks like traditional investment managers who want to run the state pension funds with no outside oversight may have a new force to contend with.
Republicans Fear ESG As A Paradigm Shift
Right-wing think tanks now equate ESG with a major shift in corporate management and ownership. In an article in the right-wing publication, Imprimis, from Hillsdale College, (December 2021) Michael Rectenwald traces ESG to “stakeholder capitalism” that emerged in the early 1970s (at about the same time as the rise of social investing), and then to the the “Great Reset,” a term that appeared in 201 after the 2008 mortgage crisis.
In his version of the story, the “Great Reset” is a process where stakeholder capitalism (aka ESG) confronts the free market system and corporate control to advance “increased government intervention in the economy.” This theory also involves COVID and climate change, but Rectenwald also said it will lead to “corporate socialism” and what an Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “communist capitalism.”
ESG advocates have probably never heard of this, but it is a powerful theme in right-wing renditions of ESG. In Rectenwald’s telling, “stakeholder capitalism involves behavioral modification of corporations to benefit not shareholders, but stakeholders.” If this sounds familiar, it should; it echoes Milton Friedman. But there is more. The Great Reset means more state control, more immigration, more printing of money, higher taxes, job losses due to vaccine mandates, and more state control due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And all this includes ESG investing as a major problem.
Back to the Reality of ESG Today
While the “great Reset” may or may not unfold, the current focus of ESG opponents has been on the corporations that have disengaged from doing business with Russia. This means the role of ESG investing has now become the focal point for pro-free marketers, cultural conservatives, economic conservatives, and anti-ESG opponents.
Today, conservatives oppose ESG investing for four reasons:
- ESG policies detract corporations from their primary goal of making the most significant profits possible;
- ESG gives shareholders too much influence over guiding corporate policies outside of direct business operations;
- ESG is a threat to traditional corporate and political power.
- ESG is incompatible with free-market capitalism and conventional economic theory.
What makes the anti-ESG movement powerful is that it combines cultural and economic conservatives. By definition, ESG seeks to advance issues related to environmentalism, workplace diversity, corporate transparency, and the belief that corporations have a societal obligation that extends past geographical boundaries and how business practices will impact future generations.
In almost every area of ESG policies, these goals are challenged by cultural and economic conservatives. For instance, on the financial side, economist Milton Friedman in a famous New York Times op-ed on Sept. 13, 1970, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits,” argued that asking corporations to pursue social responsibilities beyond profit was akin to preaching socialism. This meant that corporations had to include expenses, such as protecting the environment or advocating for affordable housing, as activities that would interfere with market processes.
Under traditional economic theory, environmental pollution was considered an economic “externality” or an issue not related to business operations. Externalities are external costs to a neutral third party that arise due to an action effect of another party’s activity. Externalities especially include environmental items, such as air, water, and wildlife, that have poorly defined property rights, according to the Corporate Finance Institute.
Traditionally, corporations never paid for the costs of their environmental pollution unless the courts, and later, public opinion, forced them to act.
On the cultural side, conservatives “generally criticize corporate social and political engagement because of the sorts of causes corporations have tended to support as of late. These include issues, such as environmentalism, racial equality, and LGBTQ rights, which are on the other side of the culture war,” according to Abraham A. Singer, Director, Center for Applied Research at the Loyola Rule of Law Institute, Loyola University, Chicago.
In a recent example, Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, Singer said DeSantis”didn’t seem to take issue with Disney being politically involved, but it deigned to criticize his legislative and social agenda. Had Disney, say, criticized CRT or mask mandates, I doubt cultural conservatives would have an issue with it (whereas free-market conservatives who have a principled commitment to Friedman’s sort of claims might).”
Republicans Target the Magic Kingdom
At the economic level, conservatives opposed to ESG investing frequently invoke the names of conservative economists, such as Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian-British academic who advocated classic liberalism, and free-marketer Milton Friedman. Both taught at the University of Chicago, and they established the role of corporations in a free make economy. Milton Friedman famously said of Corporate Social Responsibility (the term used earlier for ESG investing) back in 1970, “a corporation’s responsibility is to make as much money for the stockholders as possible.”
Friedman was elevated to corporate economist superstar status because he theorized about the links between a competitive, free market, private enterprise, and capitalist system as the critical ingredients of freedom.
But Friedman certainly has his critics. One critic, Robert Ashford, specified the shortcomings in Friedman’s understanding of private property and economics. This criticism included how they distorted his free-market model so that “it created economic power in a plutocracy, perpetuated chronic underemployment of labor and capital, and suppressed the freedom of most people.”
Liberal economist Karl Polanyi also criticized extreme free marketers for their belief that the ascent of the markets could “lead to the end of politics.” In an article, Dan Pearson called this “a destructive fiction,” which was proven because self-adjusting markets failed to address economic inequality.
More Free-Market Critics of ESG
Another strong critic of Friedman, who specifically addressed the tension between the unbridled pursuit of maximum corporate profits and any social responsibility, was Nico Vorster. In his book, “An Ethical Critique of Milton Friedman’s Doctrine on Economics and Freedom,” Vorster took issue with Friedman’s amoral position that “the very foundation of a free society as the acceptance by corporate individuals of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”
Vorster went on to say that corporate executives “are not civil servants and have no right under their contract to act on their own preferences, to make discretionary decisions or to expend resources of the firm to achieve social goals that cannot be directly related to profits. Any social action would require a business manager to spend money rightfully the property of employees and even customers.”
Friedman also advocated that as long as corporations pay a tax, “there is no justification for permitting deductions for contributions to charitable and educational institutions.” This narrow band of thinking even extended to the environment.
As Vorst said, “Friedman’s separation of economics and ethics also has severe consequences for the relationship between the economy and the environment. Environmental degradation is, according to Friedman, acceptable insofar as the benefits exceed the costs to the people involved.”