And a giant corporation will lead them: Why rely on business to help end the pandemic?

September 07, 2021, 9:00 AM by  Nancy Derringer

When the Detroit Regional Chamber convenes its Covid-delayed Mackinac Policy Conference later this month, it will require attendees to produce proof of vaccination to register. The usual suspects are balking, but the Chamber is standing firm. Its CEO, Sandy Baruah, had a kidney transplant in 2019, and is no doubt on anti-rejection drugs, i.e. immunosuppressants. He probably has a dim view of the trust-me-I-have-natural-immunity sermon preached by Covid survivors. Good for the Chamber.

Delta Airlines first helped deliver Covid vaccines. Now they're pressing employees to take them. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Delta Airlines announced last month that its unvaccinated employees are free to decline the shot, but it will cost them a weekly swab up the nose and a $200 monthly surcharge for their health insurance. The swab is unpleasant; the $200 will hurt. Good for Delta.

Other companies are following suit, after the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine. Good for all of them. It’s time to put this pandemic behind us, and vaccines are the clearest and quickest way to do that. If you need a vaccine to board a cruise ship, visit another country or even go to work, then more people will overcome their hesitancy, or bullheadedness, to do so.

In one way, it’s amusing. Many of the conservatives who have spent the last 40 years preaching the gospel of American capitalism are now reduced to staring at their shoelaces as these undeniably capitalistic organizations lead the country in a direction they don’t like. And when governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and Texas’ Greg Abbott push for laws that tell the private sector what it can or can’t do with work rules for its own employees, you can snicker at the rank hypocrisy. 

But at the same time, it’s unsettling. The fact-based policy-making process in the public sphere – i.e. self-government – is so messed up that we are relying on American corporations, not known for their expansive concern for the common good, to do it for us.

Corporations like these – large, multinational, customer-facing – have adocated for a variety of social causes that some conservatives have dug in their heels on. Same-sex marriage and civil rights for LGBT individuals are only one example. Climate change and environmental impact are driving the auto industry in the direction of electric vehicles and renewable energy. Expect worker safety and security to be a higher priority, not only in company policy, but in their lobbying, too; tax-supported universal preschool isn’t just good for children, but for working parents. And good talent is hard enough to come by as it is.

But Matthew Roling, an instructor at Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business, warns the rest of us not to get too complacent with these apparent good deeds.

“Businesses never do things for altruistic reasons,” Roling said. “It just so happens that the intersection of customers and talent align themselves (with business’ bottom line). Because the moment those issues diverge, they won’t be there to save us.”

In other words, Delta Airlines sees more profit to be made from a traveling, vaccinated population than from business and vacation travelers deciding Zoom meetings and the family car will do for another year or more. It’s not because they’re following the science. They’re following the money.

“In every single one of those board rooms, they’re doing the math, deciding how to side on these issues,” Roling said.

What’s more, “a lot talk out of both sides of their mouth,” balancing competing interests. In public, a CEO may be passing a check to a gay-rights nonprofit, but quietly writing another to a senator whose stand on corporate taxation is friendly to the balance sheet, and worlds away from Bernie Sanders'.

“On social issues, diversity and inclusion, and to a very mild degree on climate, you see big companies rallying around these issues,” said Roling. “But there are huge swaths of American business – fossil-fuel companies, Smith & Wesson – that don’t (care). There’s very little risk in consumer-facing companies, or those reliant on knowledge workers, to carry the flag for these issues.”

In other words, be careful who you delegate your policy wish list to. They don’t necessarily share every one of your goals.

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