There’s an old joke about the definition of heaven and hell in Europe. I first heard it attributed to Malcolm Forbes, but that may be unfair. It goes like this:
Europe has changed since the joke was first penned, so apologies to European chefs, auto mechanics, police, bankers, and of course, lovers. I share this because it reminds me of the upside-down nature of heaven and hell in America.
In my view, heaven in America is where corporations focus on creating long term shareholder value, while being thoughtful stewards of the environment and the communities in which they operate. And governments, (local, state and federal) focus on representing the will of the people. To play this out, "hell," then, would be corporations focusing on representing the will of the people and government focusing on profit maximization.
So are we living in hell? The answer is decidedly yes. Check out a recent piece in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson that articulates an emerging “corporatocracy” filling a vacuum left by legislative paralysis.
Thomson reasons that a number of forces have come together to make Parkland more than just another school shooting and big corporations can no longer afford to stand on the sidelines. What’s interesting to me is that it’s not just the 20 or so companies that provided discounts to NRA members that have fled. The NRA/assault weapons divestment movement has expanded to include retailers such as Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and a division of Kroger taking action. Due to Congress' inability to agree on raising the gun purchase minimum age from 18 to 21, these retailers will do so themselves.
And just yesterday, a Vancouver firm, Mountain Equipment Co-op, announced it will no longer source any product from Vista Outdoor, a gun and ammo manufacturer that sells assault rifles through one of its divisions. The most interesting thing about this announcement is that Mountain Equipment doesn’t sell guns or ammo. They are a health, fitness and outdoor living company, and buy products such as Bushnell binoculars from Vista. Not anymore. A few hours later, REI indicated it would no longer be ordering CamelBak, Bell, Giro or any other of the 50 Vista Outdoor brands to sell in its stores.
As Joe Pinsker points out in an earlier Atlantic piece, "Brands are aware that in a hyper-partisan climate, it can be conspicuous not to weigh in on heated debates."
This particular “hell” makes a lot of sense to me as a values-aligned portfolio manager. There are many ways we screen companies based on off-balance sheet behavior, but #neveragain hasn’t been one of them. It’s tragic that it needs to be, but here we are. A question worth asking is whether this role reversal between corporations and government is just a temporary response to Washington gridlock or the more pervasive politicization of everything in America. If it’s the latter, and I fear it might be, it’s worth considering Delta Airlines, which last week cut ties with the NRA.
Several days before doing so, the Georgia legislature passed a sweeping bill that included in it a jet fuel tax break for Delta and other airlines. The Governor’s motivation for this tax break was to bring more flights into Atlanta and more businesses to Georgia. This tax break is said to be worth $40 million to Delta. Note, Delta is based in Atlanta and is the largest private employer in Georgia.
After news broke that Delta joined all the other corporate sponsors in ending the NRA relationship, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle announced he would kill any tax bill that benefits Delta until the NRA discount was fully restored. Feel free to read that last sentence again if it didn’t sink in. An elected official in Georgia is openly putting the interests of the NRA ahead of the economic interests of the State he serves over a measly airline discount to Georgia-based NRA members flying to NRA conventions. Furthermore, this comes at a time when Atlanta is a finalist to attract Amazon’s other headquarters. As you may have guessed, Mr. Cagle is gearing up to run for Governor, so maybe this is all just red meat for his base.
Keep an eye on this race as it will inevitably catch the attention of the #neveragain movement. Mr. Cagle’s campaign may serve as a litmus test as to which way the scales are tipping in this country. Perhaps the intersection of engaged corporations and this incredible activism rising from the tragedy at Parkland will restore heaven and hell to their proper balance.
Founder & Portfolio Manager
Thompson, Derek. “Why Are Corporations Finally Turning Against the NRA?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 26 Feb. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2018/02/nra-discounts-corporations/554264/.
Pinsker, Joe. “Patagonia, REI, and the Politics of 'The President Stole Your Land'.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 5 Dec. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/12/patagonia-rei-bears-ears-president-stole/547577/.
Evans, Pete. “MEC Says It Will Stop Selling Products from Gun, Ammo Maker Vista Outdoor.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 1 Mar. 2018, www.cbc.ca/news/business/mec-vista-outdoor-1.4557071.
Kosoff, Maya. “Did Republicans Just Give Amazon's HQ2 the Kiss of Death in Georgia?” The Hive, Vanity Fair, 1 Mar. 2018, www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/03/did-republicans-just-give-amazons-hq2-the-kiss-of-death-in-georgia.