Obama Wants Businesses to Put Their Money Where Their Mouths Are

| Tue Aug. 5, 2014 12:38 PM EDT

The Economist interviewed President Obama this week, and Clive Crook was discomfited by this snippet:

The Economist: We see a lot of business people and they do complain about regulation.

Mr Obama: They always complain about regulation. That’s their job....The business community does have broader responsibilities to the system as a whole. And although the general view today is that the only responsibility that a corporate CEO has is to his shareholders, I think the American people generally sense—

The Economist: Do you really think that's true? Because when I talk to corporate CEOs, that’s one of their complaints. If you ask for a complaint about the White House, they’ll say it is the attitude. Every CEO nowadays is involved in nine different social responsibility things—it’s ingrained in most public—

Mr Obama: Well, I think—here’s what’s interesting. There’s a huge gap between the professed values and visions of corporate CEOs and how their lobbyists operate in Washington. And I’ve said this to various CEOs. When they come and they have lunch with me—which they do more often than they probably care to admit (laughter)—and they’ll say, you know what, we really care about the environment, and we really care about education, and we really care about getting immigration reform done—then my challenge to them consistently is, is your lobbyist working as hard on those issues as he or she is on preserving that tax break that you’ve got? And if the answer is no, then you don’t care about it as much as you say.

Oddly, Crook is upset because he thinks this demonstrates that Obama is indeed anti-business, just as his critics claim. Here's what he has to say about that:

Interesting to see a politician accuse business people of insincerity. Even on the view that executives are entirely self-serving, by the way, you'd expect them to care a lot about education and immigration reform. Aside from that, how peculiar of Obama, pausing briefly from his busy schedule of political fund-raising, to criticize businesses for the effort they put into lobbying. If lobbying didn't work, businesses wouldn't do it. It works because politicians are receptive. That's their job.

Think about what we have here. The Economist interviewer is apparently taking at face value business complaints that they never get credit for the immense amount of social work they do. That's an odd bit of naiveté for a normally cynical business publication. Then Obama points out the obvious: what corporate CEOs say and what they do are rather different things. If you want to know what their real priorities are, take a look at what their lobbyists focus on.

Sensible enough, you'd think. But Crook doesn't agree. And here's the weirdest part: he thinks that it's somehow unfair of Obama to criticize business lobbying when, after all, it works. On this reading, the tidal wave of pseudo-bribery that lubricates Washington DC is beyond criticism precisely because politicians are so eager to accept all these pseudo-bribes. How can you be pro-business, and at the same time be critical of the endlessly parochial goals of corporate lobbying?

Those seem like perfectly compatible positions to me, so I don't really get this. Perhaps it gets to the difference between being pro-market and pro-business. These are rather different things, but they often get mushed together without much thought.

In any case, I have no doubt that Obama doesn't instinctively venerate the business community the way George Bush (or even Bill Clinton) did. Nevertheless, pointing out that most corporations aren't quite the social visionaries they claim to be is hardly evidence of anything other than a clear view of the world. After all, as Crook says, lobbying works. That being the case, surely Obama is right: if they really cared about the environment and education and so forth, they'd be mounting big lobbying operations and demanding that Republicans support them if they ever want to see another dime. But for the most part, they haven't. Money has spoken.

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