Having corporations on our side is more of a mixed blessing than we thought

Having corporations on our side is more of a mixed blessing than we thought

When Bermuda decided to repeal marriage equality late last year, the uproar was deafening. A slew of celebrities, led by Ellen deGeneres, announced that they would boycott the country, despite the pleas of local activists not to do so.

Carnival Cruise Lines quickly became an ancillary target, because two of its lines, Cunard and P&O, are registered in Bermuda. Supporters of marriage equality ratcheted up pressure on the firm to do something.

So Carnival did. After waffling for some time, last week the company announced that it not only supported the effort to overturn Bermuda’s decision, but that it was offering legal and PR help and underwriting at least part of the financial cost of the challenge.

For activists in Bermuda, the partnership is an important step in bringing pressure to bear on the government where it most hurts: its dependence on tourism dollars. Carnival’s move also sends yet another signal that corporations are increasingly willing to take a stand on the right side when it comes to LGBT issues.

But Carnival’s move does raise another issue: do we really want to look to corporations for leadership on our issues?

Let’s face it: Carnival’s move was a business decision. You can call it a smart business decision and a boon to the fight for equality, but ultimately Carnival, like any company, is looking at the bottom line. Anything that can damage the company’s reputation is a headache that needs to be addressed.

Realistically, as with many other boycotts, the likely financial implication of boycotting Carnival was probably not all that big. The cruise line isn’t selling an everyday product and the number of people paying attention to the issue was (sadly) not all that large.

Take that number and then factor out the small fraction that were actually planning to sail on Carnival, and you’re left with a pretty limited group. What Carnival cares about is its brand reputation.

Tarnishing the reputation can add to a narrative of woe if other problems creep up for the company. And a story about corporate problems is the last thing that shareholders want to hear. That’s when they start taking out their concerns in the stock market, affecting the company’s market cap.

When it comes to social issues in particular, corporations are increasingly willing to take a stand.  Sometimes, like Carnival, they are caught in a controversy that forces them to take a stand. But corporations are one of the few actors in the public arena that can actually do something these days.

That’s why Americans are increasingly looking to companies for leadership. Congress won’t do anything about gun control, but corporations can do something.

Which is great. As far as it goes.

Corporations are also a big part of the problem. Corporate lobbyists have tremendous influence on legislation. At the same time that they are supporting LGBT rights, they are also revelling in GOP tax cuts that are boosting their profits to new levels.

Despite some well-publicized (and perhaps coordinated) bonuses to workers, executives acknowledge that the profits are going to line their own profits and those of stockholders, not of workers.

Of course, that’s really hitting corporations where they live. Republicans can expect to be rewarded with a bounty of campaign contributions as a result. Those same Republicans will do everything in their power to stop LGBT rights.

Of course, Carnival could have sided with the Bermuda government or just kept its corporate mouth shut. The company deserves credit for choosing the right side. But let’s not fool ourselves.

Looking to business for moral leadership is dangerous. After all, if we truly believed that business knows best, we’d have a businessman as president. And we all know how that’s working out.

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