Donald Trump may strike a populist, anti-big business note a la Bernie Sanders from time to time. But he also has a tendency to gloat over his own cutthroat business practices which, he claims, have made him rich. (How rich? Perhaps if he weren’t so secretive about his tax returns we’d have a better idea.)
When Hillary Clinton, in the first presidential debate, chided Trump for his apparent enthusiasm back in 2006 for a future collapse in the housing market – opening the way for profit-seeking scavengers to feast on the remains – Trump shot back, “That’s called business, by the way.”
A couple of years later the collapse did occur, with millions of Americans in the ensuing recession taking big losses in property values and investment accounts – even losing their homes and jobs. Amidst that misery, was Trump as happy as a clam?
There’s no way around it: The Republican presidential nominee has epitomized some of the worst aspects of high-stakes capitalism.
He has played the bankruptcy laws to maximum advantage, even if it meant “stiffing” people, as his Democratic rival Clinton put it, who are lower on the capitalist food chain. Think contractors, vendors, employees.
Judging from the modest info already made public, at least in certain years he has managed to avoid any significant federal tax liability – a taxpayer’s right, assuming laws are followed, but a strategy whose aggressive pursuit inevitably means pushing the envelope of tax-law interpretation. In other words, if the IRS thinks he’s gone too far, it can sue. If it has the resources and the resolve.
And we had to listen to Trump complaining about a lack of federal investment in roads, bridges, airports and so forth? When he doubtless has a battalion of tax experts telling him how, with ingenuity and gall, he can hold his tax liability to zero?
Do good, do well
By this stage, Trump has given us plenty of reasons to question his fitness for the White House. But reading between the lines, it’s also possible to see that his business-means-business philosophy sometimes has nudged him in a constructive direction.
For instance, when North Carolina was first roiled by controversy over the law known as House Bill 2, Trump said he thought guests at his fancy Trump Tower complex in New York should be able to use the bathroom they wanted. In other words, transgender folks should be able to use the bathroom of their chosen gender. It was a humane approach that also made business sense.
Trump since has backed away from that position, asserting that matters such as those addressed by H.B. 2 – involving the rules, or lack of rules, against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation – should be left to state officials to decide. He might as well have said that they don’t belong on the Oval Office radar, even if they involve fundamental questions of civil rights. President Obama, and also Hillary Clinton, would disagree.
But for stronger evidence that the American business community is perfectly capable of looking at issues in ways that blend private and public values, look no further than the broader corporate response to H.B. 2.
From the get-go, many companies that pride themselves on standing up for principles of equal protection under the law – principles embodied in the Constitution – have denounced H.B. 2 as discriminatory. Expansions and investments have been cancelled. North Carolina has been placed on what amounts to a quarantine, off-limits while the anti-LGBT contagion rages.
It was in that spirit that a consortium of investment managers on Sept. 26 called upon Gov. Pat McCrory and his fellow Republicans who control the General Assembly to reverse course on H.B. 2 and affirm the state’s respect for the rights of people who are too easily marginalized.
Otherwise, the group said, the prospects of companies in which they invest – companies that count on doing good business in North Carolina – will be dimmed. They said the law “is making it difficult for portfolio companies to provide the safe, open, and inclusive environment necessary for a successful workplace.”
Moral money managers
McCrory dismissed the criticism as coming from Wall Street hedge fund barons who presumably could look no further than their next quarter’s bottom line.
The governor may have a thing or two to learn about the concept, very much alive and well, of socially responsible investing. It may be news to him, but plenty of folks deciding where to park their money consider the values and priorities of companies seeking that business. When investment managers whose combined portfolios top $2 trillion say they have problems with a state’s discriminatory tendencies, it’s smart to pay attention.
Out front in the anti-H.B. 2 push are Trillium Asset Management of Durham; Croatan Institute, also of Durham; and the New York City Comptroller’s Office. Trillium’s commendable self-description pretty much speaks for itself: “A leader in shareholder advocacy and public policy work, Trillium leverages the power of stock ownership to promote social and environmental change while providing both impact and performance to our investors.”
The New York comptroller, Scott Stringer, got down to bedrock: “As long-term investors, we can’t sit idly by as H.B. 2 undermines fundamental human rights at our expense.”
There’s the challenge for McCrory and other diehard H.B. 2 supporters. Even while Republican candidates boast of the state’s recovery from recession – one boat among many lifted at least to some degree by a nationwide tide – they insist on retaining a law widely disparaged in the business community.
That community extends to include the college sports industry, which will deprive North Carolina of lucrative marquee events while H.B. 2 remains on the books. But even an economic and reputational blow of that magnitude has yet to bring any acknowledgment from the law’s backers of its discriminatory impact.
A fly on the wall at a top Republican strategy session might well hear: “OK, we’re taking a beating. But we’ve dug ourselves a hole so deep we can’t easily climb out. We’ll just have to hope our socially conservative allies will give us enough votes to squeak by.”
The whole H.B. 2 flap was orchestrated by those same Republicans in an effort to energize their base among conservative evangelicals and other self-appointed guardians of traditional social attitudes. But a clearer sense of the rights to which Americans are entitled, not to mention the calculus of the bottom line, would persuade them of H.B. 2’s folly. It has to go.