Unlikely Do-Gooders: CEOs

Unlikely Do-Gooders: CEOs


Is corporate America going soft?

I was still trying to absorb the ramifications of a call for universal healthcare by the Business Roundtable–a collection of leading CEOs who famously lean Republican–when there was more shocking news: DuPont, GE, Alcoa, and seven other industrial companies were calling for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

What next–Exxon Mobil making a push for wind power? Lee Scott posing in Birkenstocks?

Coalitions and trade groups often paper their walls with platitudes backed by little muscle or conviction. It's important to appear to be on the right side of issues like healthcare reform, environmentalism, cheap foreign labor, and whatever else Lou Dobbs is bellyaching about, lest consumers boycott or politicians get the regulatory itch. But most of the time, companies just want to be left alone to make money, with minimal interference. That's what they're good at–not engineering socioeconomic reforms.

Something is different this time. The Business Roundtable proposal–dubbed "Divided We Fail," in an entertaining burst of corporate sarcasm–calls for healthcare for all Americans, in one of two ways: Either every consumer will be required to buy it, or every company will be required to offer it. A stringent mandate on companies–now that's not very laissez faire!

Even more interesting, the proposal is cosponsored by one group that's often at the other end of the bargaining table from management: the Service Employees International Union, which represents waitresses and hotel maids and some of the least privileged laborers in the country.

AARP, which backs the proposal too, is another strange bedfellow. With a bully pulpit before hordes of retiring boomers, they're lobbying for expansive healthcare for millions of retirees who will live long, costly lives. That's the very predicament that has saddled companies like Ford and GM with enormous healthcare costs that put them at a severe disadvantage with foreign competitors.

Obviously, the Business Roundtable isn't calling for corporations to bear an even greater cost for healthcare. Its job is to find ways to spare companies like GM from more catastrophic expenses. And it's looking for ways to spread the pain more evenly. So are the low-income workers represented by the SEIU, who often lack health insurance. So are the mainstream boomers represented by AARP, who usually have it–but feel they're paying too much and getting poor service.

Is there anybody left who still thinks our healthcare system is effective or efficient? Probably not. But there are plenty of groups who could stand to lose if it were fixed–doctors, hospitals, insurers, pharmaceutical companies. An upstart coalition of corporate and consumer interests won't solve the problem. But it's a turning point that demonstrates how factions are choosing sides and forming alliances in anticipation of a looming showdown. In one corner: Big Pharma and much of the medical establishment. In the other: major corporations, mainstream consumers, and disenfranchised workers. With some big guys now standing behind the little guys, it's starting to look like a fair fight.

The emissions-cap group has one of those blander-than-bland names–the U.S. Climate Action Partnership,–and most of its members aren't exactly altruistic do-gooders, either.

Oh, DuPont and GE and Alcoa may have a passing interest in curbing global warming. But they're passionate about minimizing the amount of regulation they have to face, and one national system governing carbon emissions looks a lot better than a bunch of different statewide systems, which is what's springing up now. And the solution they're proposing is a system of pollution credits that could be sold and traded in an open market, the way bond or currency traders do business. It would be a "market solution" after all.

But what's this–the National Resources Defense Council is a member of the group? And the World Resources Institute? And a lot of environmentalists support the plan? What's with all these unpredictable coalitions anyway?!

Maybe it's a better example of bipartisanship than we're likely to see out of Washington anytime soon. Smart environmentalists know they might, just might, be able to push meaningful reforms if they can get some of America's most powerful companies on board, even if the emissions caps aren't as stringent as some would like. The companies know that the enviros give them some credibility they'd never have otherwise and allow them to pre-empt less friendly measures.

Don't expect miracles. Corporations take an activist stance only as a last resort, when they think change is inevitable and can't be rolled back. And improvements in healthcare and environmental policy still have to get through the political meat grinder in Washington, which tends to reach an even lower common denominator than industry coalitions. But if CEOs are suddenly buddying up with service workers and environmentalists, something is changing.

--Rick Newman