Are corporations people too?

Speech to The Brandeis Business Investment Club, and Libertarian and Conservative Union
Brandeis University
Waltham, Massachusetts

February 4, 2013
By R.B. Scott

Well here I am at Brandeis….the Jewish equivalent of Brigham Young University. The good news is I can’t do worse here than I did there, despite the fact that I am what some might call DNA Mormon

But  wait: I am speaking to the Brandeis Business Investment club and The Brandeis Libertarian and Conservative Union?  I get it “Business and Investment Club,” sort of.  It’s a fact of life business attracts prospective students, sincere suits and bigger contributions.    

However, to a former student newspaper editor who can remember the 1960s even though he really was there, The Brandeis Libertarian Conservative Union strikes me as real irony, an oxymoron.

Back then, when I was young and strong, Brandeis seemed to foment student radicalism, leftist thinking, revolution. I am not as certain about the hand-and-glove collaterals of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, but I assumed them as well.  What I never assumed was that Libertarians and Conservatives would be welcomed at Brandeis, let alone encouraged.

My how times or perceptions have changed.

Seriously, thanks for the invitation.  And, more seriously, it is an honor to speak to you.  If you ever get around to reading my first novel…and probably my second ….and third too you will discover that the Jewish culture … its history …artistry …and productivity fascinate me.  I come from a long line of Mormons who happened to speak Hebrew and Yiddish. 

In fact my outspoken grandmother kept a kosher household, more or less.  For instance,  pork products  were as verboten in her house as cigarettes.   She used to lecture me “Hos-er dreck macht goyische kopf.”  For those who don’t speak Yiddish, the sanitized translation means: “Pig excrement makes gentile brains.”

As I say, I am very happy to be here.  

To adjust Josh’s over-the-top introduction, I was part of a small group – there were about 16 editors and writers in all--that founded PEOPLE Magazine. LIFE had folded a year or so earlier.  Some of us were desperate for jobs. So we created PEOPLE.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 

The year was 1974 –years before most of you were born (incidentally, this is my way of putting you back on your heels, positioning myself as an older,  wiser person, a man to be taken very, very seriously). 

A few years later I was writing a cover story on Muhammad Ali, which meant I got to spend another month with him, off and on.   One of the “on” moments was  traveling with him for a speech he delivered to graduating seniors at Harvard.  As he stood at the lectern in the Law School, he eyed prospective graduates before him warily, suspiciously.  Then he said something like this: “Imagine me, a high school dropout from Louisville speaking here at this geat seat of learning. They told me I would be talking to future doctors, lawyers, senators and perhaps even a president.”  He paused dramatically, waiting for his words to sink in, before delivering the punch line: “ “SO I DIDN’T BRING NO NOTES.”

As you can see I am not nearly as confidant as Ali: I brought a few notes.

Initially, Josh asked me to speak tonight because of a biography I wrote of presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  I wouldn’t have needed notes for that assignment.  I could talk off the cuff about Romney, his family and everything about him for hours. I have been following the Romney family since about 1964. Anyway, if I changed my stories as often as he does, I could probably carry-on for another day or so. No sweat!

But, having baited the hook, Josh switched the assignment a little.  It appears he now wants me to explain what Mitt meant at that state fair in Iowa when he told a combative young man: "Corporations are people too." 

Before I give that task a go, I should warn you that I definitely am not a libertarian.  Nor am I a Conservative in the sense that label is misapplied these days.  Neither am I a Republican.   Except for a fling at partisan politics in 1968 when I sort of ran the Eugene McCarthy (a liberal Democrat presidential candidate) campaign in Utah – a reaction to George Romney being squeezed out of the Republican nominating process -- I have been a registered and thoroughly committed Independent. 

To my mind, independents like me are fiscally and socially responsible.  As our nation's history unfolds, I hope that more “independents” like me will emerge because, in the end, independent thinking, approaches and actions will bring to an end the very serious divisiveness that that has plagued our nation for at least a couple of decades, perhaps even dating back to those Good Old Days when I was a student newspaper editor stirring the pot at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

I think my independent socially aware conscience and inclusive thinking I came from my Mormon roots.  Some people errantly suppose that I arrived at this point despite my Mormon heritage, not because of it.  

If you suppose that the theology of Mormonism supports only rugged individualism, you would be only partially correct.  

You would be more correct if you noted that it teaches personal accountability and responsibility; caring for yourself and your family; tending to the needs of those less able. 

Such principles are embedded deeply in Mormonism. They are not suggestions.  They are mandates. You simply cannot be a good Mormon and look the other way when someone puts their hand out. 

You are required by God to figure out a fiscally and socially responsible way to address the needs of the people Christ referenced in the famous New Testament parable of the sheep and the goats.

By implication, God demands that everyone feed his sheep.  This includes all responsible people and the organizations they form—churches, governments, and, yes, even, corporations.

The fact is, if they are well prepared and organized and have the will, churches and corporations are nimbler than governments.  They can respond faster to human needs than labyrinthine bureaucracies. 

Importantly, they are also better equipped to ascertain whether when the proposed “hand-ups” are amounting to nothing more than “hand-outs” that are transforming independent and productive men and women into chronically dependent wards of the state.

There are societal values to be reinforced in encouraging the former –independence and hand-ups -- and discouraging the latter—dependency and hand-outs.  Such challenges and responsibilities need not and should not become partisan political matters.

It would be absolutely wrong to assume that liberals are freer with their time and resources than conservatives.  Contrasting the Romneys consistent history of giving with, say, the Bidens makes that point about as clearly as it can be made. 

Each year, year in and year out, the  Romneys seem to have given away more than 15 percent of their income, more if you ad-in the generosity of family trusts  and not-for-profits they control or influence. 

By contrast, the Bidens gave squat. And seriously, this is not intended as a cheap shot. I have always admired Joe Biden. He’s a good man. But, facts are facts.

We could debate until the cows come home whether Romney’s fortune was ill-gotten or not.  To mix metaphors, those cows are already out of the barn, so there’s nothing to be gained by bolting his barn door ex poste facto. However,  we should take Mitt’s counsel and close a few absurd and unfair tax loopholes that give the wealthy advantages they really neither want nor need.

That said, there’s no question that every well-meaning effort to resolve society’s daunting challenges is filled with conundrums and riddles.  Some of you libertarians and conservatives may disagree, but, for instance, there is absolutely no question the government has a role to play in these efforts.  So do individuals. So do non-governmental groups. And, so do for-profit public and private corporations. 

Even though Mitt Romney didn’t explain himself very well – he failed to set-up the punch-line before he delivered it – CORPORATIONS ARE PEOPLE.

I will try to explain what Mitt didn’t.  If I succeed, perhaps Ann or Tagg will hire me as a speechwriter should they ever lose their minds completely and decide to run for the U.S. Senate or some other elective office.

It isn’t just a top down world out there in corporate America. People, the employees of any organization are its conscience. People are employed by corporations. The people are what make corporations “people too.”   

Good corporate policies often trickle up from the marketing department. Or from human resources. Or government relations. Or, because of the insistence of the elected officials and people in the states, cities and towns where the corporation operates.

Corporate involvement in the community is good for business. And, it is essential to the communities. Just ask any mayor. It is not enough to just provide jobs, although providing good jobs is very important too.

Need always drives the corporate decisions – the need for increased revenues, greater market share, goodwill, conscience, payback.

In the early 1980s, the marketing people at American Express got the company into the Cause-related marketing programs in a big way because they discovered it not only increased usage of the American Express card (good for the company and its retail customers), but generated funds for worthy causes in practically every major city in the United States.

The program also encouraged American Express employees to get involved in the organizations it supported through its cause-related marketing programs.

The causes AMEX supported themselves became the platform for feel good advertising campaigns that not only enhanced the company’s image and bottom line, and  generated contributions to worthy causes, and revenues and other benefits to establishments that accepted the American Express Card.

It was what is often called “a win-win“ deal for all involved.

Marriott’s Partnership with the March of Dimes in the 1970s.  Marriott wanted to open a new 200 acre family entertainment center in Santa Clara, California and The March of Dimes wanted not only increased contributions but the advertising and publicity they would get through an association with Marriott.  The partnership was an overwhelming success breaking records for both groups and proving once again that corporations could do well by doing good.

Philip Morris and the arts and sports in the 1970s and 1980sNew Federal laws prohibited Philip Morris and other tobacco companies from advertising cigarettes on television.    So the company turned to print advertising and got more deeply involved in the sponsorship of sports and the arts.

Say what you want about tobacco and the ethics of the people who promoted tobacco products knowing that they were killers, the fact is women’s sports would not have evolved as quickly as they did had not Billie Jean King persuaded Philip Morris to sponsor the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1970.  The same could be said of Philip Morris and performing arts groups at Lincoln Center.

In the early 1990s P-M was reported to contribute $15 million a year to the arts – to many innovative arts groups that most of corporate America wouldn’t go near: experimental dance groups that performed routines that some found erotic, even obscene.  The company’s involve dates back to the late 1950s and includes support for art museums, dance troupes, theatre groups and so on. 

At the same time, it was a major backer of Senator Jesse Helms, the most powerful conservative in the Senate, a supporter of Big Tobacco and a strident opponent of practically everything that anyone might rate “provocative and risqué.”

Practically every major corporation these days sees education as the key long term cure to poverty and homelessness in the U.S.   The question is how to level the playing field and provide continuity.   I'll name a few of the organizations that are trying, backed by support from individuals, foundations and, yes,  corporations too, perhaps especially.

The Partnership: a well established not-for-profit in Boston steers  promising young minority kids from the inner city into internships in major companies and funding for college. The long-term payout: corporations provide full time employment for the interns they trained.

Stepping Stones, another innovative Boston not-for-profit, has placed promising inner city elementary and middle-school kids, who have reasonable parental support at home,  into tutorial classes that leads to placement in top drawer private and exam schools.   Founded with inherited money from a major pharmaceutical firm and supported by donations from individuals and corporations, Steppingstone provides support services to ensure that Scholars thrive in middle and high school, ultimately graduating from four-year colleges. The Steppingstone Academy has been replicated in Hartford and Philadelphia.

Continuity and employee involvement have become key concerns.  Corporations don’t want to throw money just to be throwing it. They want to see evidence it’s going to produce results.  They want to be reasonably certain that there’s a long term opportunity, a contribution to be made. Sustainability is more than a buzzword.  One way to ensure success and sustainability involve employees from corporate sponsoring organizations in an active way, at the board level, as volunteers.

In short corporations, like people, make decisions to get involved in projects because they are WORTHY, NEEDED, BENEFICIAL, MEASUREABLE and SUSTAINABLE.

And they make these decisions when they are pressured by their own people, their employees – the conscience of the corporation. Sometimes they follow the good example of progressive companies that understand the importance of enhancing the lives of their employees, their families, their communities and the world.

If government were half as demanding, responsive and nimble it’s likely we’d have never heard of the Tea Party or Libertarians, or scoffed when Mitt Romney suggested that corporations are people too.

Thanks again for inviting me here.  Now I will be pleased to join the panel and attempt to respond to all your tough questions