People familiar with my professional history of conflict with the airlines may find it surprising that I would come to the defense of the CEO of United Airlines in its latest dustup. But here I go.
Oscar Munoz, the UAL CEO, was verbally challenged by a person described as an “activist investor” at its recent annual shareholders meeting because the airline, following the Parkland Florida high school massacre, ended its discount program for members of the National Rifle Association. The “investor’s” objections were reported by, among others, inc.com at https://bit.ly/2s4fQ1h and Bloomberg at https://bloom.bg/2s8mnaw. the story line being that some/many UAL employees were equally unhappy with Munoz’ statement that the NRA decision was made for “personal” reasons, namely, that a child of a United pilot had been killed in the Parkland shooting.
That decision was latched onto by the objector who was in fact not just a “lawyer with” the National Center for Public Policy Research but was in fact NCPPR’s General Counsel. His employer is a “conservative think tank” in Washington parlance, a tax-free organization, contributions to which are tax-deductible, despite its mission statement of
communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.
The NCPPR was set up in 1982:
to provide the conservative movement with a versatile and energetic organization capable of responding quickly and decisively to fast-breaking issues. Today, we continue to fill this critical niche through a top-flight research and communications operation driven by results and the bottom line. In the 1980s, The National Center helped change public opinion through vocal national campaigns aimed at supporting Reagan administration initiatives concerning the USSR, arms control, Central America and human rights. [emphasis added]
Before going further, I note for the record that I am one of those very liberal people that recognizes that the true and authentic conservative point of view regarding economics, the role of government and similar things is a responsible, if usually erroneous, alternative to the views of liberals who think like I do. Many intelligent and thoughtful people share some or all of the conservative philosophy and make rational arguments in support of that viewpoint. The sitting president and most of his enablers in the White House and Congress do not satisfy that definition, but that is for another day.
Now that my bona fides are declared, I return to the matter at hand. I understand the point of view that the primary job of a private business is to produce profits from its activities as a reward to risk-taking shareholders that have provided it with capital through stock purchases. But producing profits for shareholders is not, I suggest, the only function of private businesses which, broadly speaking, enjoy the benefits of public services, the protections of laws designed to prevent larger firms from conspiring against them, etc. They are permitted, sometimes subject to regulation, to consume vast amounts of public space, to exploit resources belonging to the entire nation and generally benefit from government support of their franchise. While there is tension about the amount and nature of regulation, there is, in short, a public dimension to the business of private enterprise that must be accounted for in any rational view of the role of corporations in American life.
So, what was the beef with United’s making a policy decision regarding how it would manage the discount component of its business? According to the reports, the NCPPR attorney said:
“I suppose you are ignoring the fact that the NRA had nothing to do with what happened in Parkland …. But, hey, congratulations on your virtue signaling. What exactly did investors get out of that?”
At least two observations are warranted.
First, the asserted “fact” that the NRA had “nothing to do with what happened at Parkland” assumes away the issue of responsibility for Parkland as if the truth of the matter were handed down on stone tablets. In reality, of course, a good case exists, and has been made repeatedly, that the gun culture promoted by the NRA and NRA’s success in preventing even the study of gun impact issues are elements in a direct line to the events at Parkland and the other mass shootings before and since. The NCPPR should save its smug presumptuousness for something else. The known facts about gun violence do not support their protestations of innocence.
Second, there is, of course, a potentially legitimate debate about whether private business corporations should ever do or say anything related to “political” issues. At least two points are relevant here.
One is that there is an inherent inconsistency between “keep businesses out of politics” and the “the free market rules and corporations should be able to do whatever they want, including risking the ire of customers and stockholders when they believe the public or their private interest warrants it.” Those positions are inconsistent.
Second, there is another fundamental structural inconsistency and incoherence in the “conservative” position that private business should stay out of politics. Many private businesses are perfectly fine being in politics as long as no one knows what they are doing, as in their role in funding SuperPacs under the aegis of the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Citizen’s United case. And when “conservative values” are at stake, as they allegedly are when NFL players kneel during the National Anthem, the Grand Ole Party is right there to tell those businesses to actively support the “conservative” position by punishing those players. Or else. So much for keeping businesses out of politics.
The inc.com article says that, based on emails received, the employees are against the NRA discount decision by 4 to 1, one retiree is quoted as saying that the “[A]irlines are very leftist.” That will come as a great shock to the airline managements that spend so much time and treasure in Washington railing against any form of regulation designed to protect consumers from deceptive price advertising. That is a subject for another day also, but the notion that the airlines are part of a left-wing political cabal is laughable. I will now laugh. Then I’ll cry at the staggering ignorance that pervades our political life and public discourse.
A trend now clearly exists toward corporate responsibility and, whether the NRA and its enablers approve or not, the practice is likely to have staying power over the long term. See, for example, “8 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Trends To Look For In 2018,” by Susan McPherson in Forbes, https://bit.ly/2GKeFJ7. Even some Republican businessmen who supported Trump in the past are now threatening to pull donations if the DACA program is not extended. https://politi.co/2klgIui
The NRA is, once again, on the wrong side of history on the issue of businesses in politics. UAL’s CEO Munoz has some good company and should … dare I end with this … stick to his guns.