Corporate Responsibility, Part 2

Another area where corporations have increasing influenced the modern world and where their responsibilities are in question is in social issues. Lately, many corporations have made public their opinions on LGBT rights, most notably in North Carolina. This stance by corporations is driven almost entirely by profit and by keeping their own employees happy. LGBT consumers represent an enormous and under-exploited source of revenues for many corporations so it makes sense that they advocate for LGBT rights.

Worldwide, however, populations are not as sanguine in their debates about social issues. In Pakistan, for example, you may be hacked to death for promoting Western values of inclusion and human rights. Coca-cola may be all for LGBT rights in the United States, but is mute on the subject in Pakistan. As drivers of social change, a globalized corporation can pick and choose where it wants to make a principled stand.

The real fear is that ultimately a corporation may dictate what social norms are acceptable and which are not, that they will have more power than a government or other groups that do not have an explicit profit motive. Is it dangerous for social wellbeing to be tied to an entity that only acts in self-interest?

Currently in the United States the government is more than capable of enforcing basic standards of human rights and essential moral behavior, but around the world the power of corporations to influence and enforce social mores could lead to a moral relativism. This could have the ironic effect of reducing the acceptance of supposedly universal values of human rights which are advocated by globalized organizations because of the ancillary effects of globalization. The power of the consumer is the only possible way of putting effective pressure on corporations to promote the same values everywhere. In a globalized world the citizenry need to have an appreciation of the struggles of people in other areas so as to promote increased equality and spread universal values. Without the participation of citizens, a corporation, by reinforcing the views it sees as profitable, can increase strife between peoples and societies.

The Fading Importance of the Human

The key puzzles of identity and of our perceptions of our own physical bodies are changing due to the forward march of technology. As a matter of fact, our bodies and their importance in the functioning of society have largely been eclipsed by robots, and the assault on the dominance of the human mind is well underway. It seems that in the future the active participation of people may not be necessary for the well-ordered functioning of society at all.

The oddities created by the God-like knowledge of the fundamental processes of the universe are apparent just below the surface. Look at the advertising for exercise and eating healthy, for example. They are sold as balancing an equation that will produce optimal health and fitness. The body is increasingly seen as an object that can be perfected, that can be poorly or expertly crafted. Genetics will be able to be engineered for our children. Erasing imperfections and mistakes, our natural processes will be optimized.

Technology has distorted our views of ourselves and enlarged the gap between perception and reality. Technology and the proliferation of media have created a situation where more people are in poor physical condition while simultaneously being more concerned about their physical appearance and condition than ever before in history. More filters separate us from a direct perception of reality, and we are more and more living in a virtual world overlayed on the real one. We are already cyborgs, in a practical sense if not a literal one. We are attached to our smart phones and the digital world constantly and live entire aspects of our lives inside of invisible structures constructed of code that live inside of servers.

The upheaval caused by the lack of employment is only the tip of the spear being plunged into the heart of the human species. If fundamentally, the question of life is one of meaning, there will soon be no object for which there is meaning to contemplate. Our desire for perfection and ease will lead to the destruction of everything that makes humans human. Biology’s weakness is overpowered by the superior computing power and efficiency of robotics and digital memory. It is only a matter of time before we are entirely fused into computerized systems. More than jobs to do, people will need a philosophy that justifies our continued existence.

Corporate Responsibility

It has become clear that fewer corporations control larger shares of the market for both goods and services. This is obvious in industries such as banking, agriculture, entertainment, news, and pharmaceutical. The specialization of many corporations ensures that they will not face accusations of monopoly or collusion and therefore can legally dominate their market. With this fact in mind it becomes clear that people should ask: what are a corporations responsibilities to citizens and stakeholders? Are there new types of regulations that the government needs to put in place?

Before we can try to answer these questions it useful to look at the roll of the new dominant form of value-creation in the modern world: information. It is the most valuable thing on the planet, and probably only the second most vital piece of modern economies besides sources of energy. Data is gathered on individuals in order to better sell them products, to identify trends, to advertise more efficiently, to design more suitable products, and to fill their various desires and needs. Data is gathered from the natural world, from systems, and from markets in order to decide economic policy, where to drill for oil, when to send shipping, and how to organize ports and airports.

The digitization of information, vast quantities of information, is useless without a way to sift through them to pull out patterns and specific pieces of datum relevant to various topics. For consumers, the algorithms of Google (now a subsidiary of Alphabet) are the perfect example of a corporation brilliantly capitalizing on the mass information contained on the internet. Without Google the internet becomes a featureless ocean impossible to navigate. But the information flows go both ways, Google collects information on its users as it finds the information they seek. This gives Google enormous power and social influence.

Should people rely on Google’s internal conception of ethics and responsibility in safeguarding their data and influence? Google has touted its approach as “being profitable without being evil.” However, when conflicts between ethics and revenue arose, revenue won, this was the case with Google’s experience in China. Google complies with local restrictions on its products and searches in exchange for access. This clearly demonstrates that profit triumphs over the free flow of information.

Companies have a responsibility to place reasonable safeguards on users’ data but they do not have many restrictions on how they can use that data. In an information-rich world health care corporations, internet service providers, and companies that offer services like Google should be subject to regulation that protects the selling and use of their data, beyond the boilerplate agreements that consumers regularly and immediately sign for access to products.

The right to privacy is often considered sacred in Western societies and is enshrined in constitutions and declarations of rights. But privacy rights have not kept up with technology. More than government intrusion into privacy, corporate invasions of privacy have gone unchecked and largely unquestioned. Profit and the desire to advance a consumer-driven economic model have led corporations to horde and exploit data in almost unseemly way. It is time for governments to protect consumers from signing over the details of their lives to corporations whose services are impractical NOT to use.

Shakespeare Quotes and the Bull-Moose Party

On the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death I think it is appropriate to delve into the bard’s almost -sacred texts and present you with some of his finest wisdom: This above all: to thine ownself be true.

The only problem with this quote is that it is intended to show what a hypocritical blowhard Polonius is, as he spouts platitudes to his children and describes values that he clearly does not share. The point is that we forget context. When we reach into the multitudinous past of history and literature we try to find kernels of truth and sage advice that we can apply to the here and now. But often we learn nothing. That short quote, what does it tell you? Not nearly as much as the entire play (“Hamlet” by the way) does, which deeply examines the fundamental lack of knowledge of our world and of others that we face as we try to shape our lives. We cannot separate a part from the whole and gain much insight.

As the United States heads to a possible contested convention for the Republican Party, as well as its splintering, many writers have tried to find an analogy from the past that will inform our view of the present. The most popular, and recent, in “The Atlantic” today, is to look to Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. The admittedly light-hearted article suggests that Trump’s actions and rhetoric and a forcefully contested convention are nothing new and that the United States came through the chaos fine then and so should be ok now. This does not take into account the very different circumstances in play. The political parties have different platforms, Trump’s insurgency has not been outright dismissed by the Republican Party, the structure and concerns of the nation were completely different, and the institutions of the time were constructed differently. There is no precedent for what is happening right now in American politics and attempting to predict the future is risky.

When we do look to the past we can use it to inform our understanding of the present. We do this not by comparing actions directly but seeing their similarities on a fundamental level and using that to make broad conclusions about a current event, not a specific one about a specific instance. Guessing specifics is almost impossible. Saying that this has happened before without taking into account the completely different circumstances surrounding the event in question gleans little insight into what the consequences  of a modern-day contested convention will be. I am positive that, in context, it is apparent that this splintered Republican Party and a possible contested convention would have nothing in common with Teddy Roosevelt’s in 1912.

What we can understand from that historical analogy is that political parties are durable institutions and that outsized personalities may inspire unusual loyalty in their followers, besides that we face the same uncertainty that the Prince of Denmark did.

The Radical Left, The Intercept, and Perceptions of the American Empire

There is some debate as to whether or not America has an empire. Intellectuals, commentators, politicians, and journalists on the left and the right both claim that an American Empire exists, but have diametrically opposed views on whether or not it is a good thing.

Neoconservatives proudly proclaim that there is an American Empire and that it maintains free trade, keeps order, and promotes democracy and good governance across the globe. The political center (or at least the foreign policy center) acknowledges that the United States is the most powerful country on Earth and that America stands for “Western” principles and democracy, but shuns the Imperial language and the idea that the United States controls the world. The left, and especially the far left, also embraces the phrase, “American Empire,” but believes it stands for oppression, state-sanctioned violence, and secrecy.

The differing perceptions of American power are remarkably similar to domestic British opinion of the British Empire. That entity was brimming with contradictions. It was certainly and Empire, in the literal sense with colonies directly under the control of the British government, or surrogates of the British government, and it was built on the use and threat of ruthless and brutal violence. The Empire relied on subjugation and economic exploitation. But in many places the British, in essence, created local governments and nations where there had been none before. Britain advanced globalization, free  trade, and efficient bureaucracy based on the rule of law wherever they went. In many ways the British Empire sowed the seeds of their own destruction by creating nations that would eventually seek their independence. A revisionist historian, moving away from the vibrant pains and horrors of colonialism, with the perspective of time, may see the British Empire as an overall positive influence on the world, much in the same way that the Mongols are now seen to have spread trade and rejuvenation in the wake of their apocalyptic destruction of Asia and Eastern Europe.

When we look at the American Empire from this perspective it is possible to see how both the left and the right are correct. If America has an Empire, it has certainly placed its clients under a mild yoke. There is no direct control or oppression of citizens of foreign nations, just heavy influence. Our allies (who are also the primary victims of our bullying and cajoling) enjoy the protection of the United States military and can be sure that their economic interests will be pursued as long as they align with the American vision of free trade and the standardization of law. Our allies have often not had to get their hands dirty as the United States generally leads military and diplomatic endeavors that have benefits for the states under our influence. In all this the United States generally spreads an ideology and vision for the world which is, on the whole, better for the citizens of nations in terms of their personal and economic liberty than most of the United States’ rivals.

None of these positive things should erase the negative aspects of American Empire. The biggest problem here is the one of perception. Americans in general and the far right and center tend to have a blind spot where the negative actions of our nation in the world are concerned. This is where a publication like The Intercept comes into play. I believe a news outlet like The Intercept best exemplifies the radical left’s view of the American Empire. It is obsessed with the secrecy of the government, with the hypocrisy of the difference between our nation’s professed ideals and our status as the world’s foremost arms dealer. It exposes the tendency to discount or ignore the pain and suffering that our military actions cause. I believe that while this perspective is sometimes skewed and slightly paranoid, especially in the sense that they think any action taken by the government is sinister or driven by selfish, exploitative elites, it is a necessary counterbalance to the comfortable view of the status quo.

America’s influence will certainly endure on a global stage for generations, but public perception of the American Empire will determine, to a degree which seems surprising, the path that the United States takes on global affairs. The lesson of the British Empire is that it collapsed from without and from within by shifts in British opinion of their Empire. That’s why publications which espouse the negative and contrary view of the American Empire have an outsized inportance. If the negative view becomes the dominant one, the United States could very well retreat much sooner from the world stage than would otherwise be the case.