American Express Stock – The Courage of the Apolitical CEO
A reader proposes making “Basecamp” a verb. He’s referring to a Chicago-based software startup that became famous overnight when it asked employees to stop bringing their politics to work, even offering generous severance to any who felt squelched by such a stricture.
According to some news accounts, one-third of the company’s tiny staff promptly resigned, though unknown is the proportion who were simply opting for a six-month paid vacation while hunting their next coding gig. Explained co-founder
David Heinemeier Hansson
: “Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.”
This birth of sanity might be said to have some surprising takers.
the Georgia Democrat, in her now famous and timeless USA Today op-ed, surreptitiously changed the wording a week after publication to imply opposition to Major League Baseball’s unpopular withdrawal of its All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest of a new state election law she herself opposed.
She basecamped, though without the forthright courage of the leader of the software company.
Google basecamped before it became a verb, desperately and imperfectly trying in 2019 to backpedal from the vituperative internal debates it once encouraged, which threatened to turn the company into an outpost of the California penal system, in which life is ruled by identity-based gangs.
Self evident is the wisdom of not allowing extraneous political debate to hinder workers from getting their jobs done but a collateral consideration, exemplified by the Two Kens, should also not be ignored. This is the problem of business leaders needing to be seen influencing the public on issues about which they have no expertise and, worse, no motive to think about seriously.
The two Kens—
of Merck and
an ex-CEO of American Express—are lionized for leading corporate opposition to the Georgia law, though accounts of their heroism never wrestle with the inconvenient fact that Georgia’s new voting law is more permissive than both Georgia’s old voting law and the laws of many blue states.
A different kind of Ken, if he were going to criticize the Georgia law, would say what’s the right way to organize a voting system to reproduce, decade after decade, confidence that the reported outcome reflects the votes that were cast. The questions aren’t easy. If most ballots are no longer cast under watchful eyes in public polling places on Election Day, our elections become black boxes. The results will have to be taken on faith. Losers will be tempted to float cheating claims they know can’t be resolved. Did either Ken show any sign of thinking through these nuances before sounding off? Of course not.
Virtue-signaling is a tired but effective term; almost all human behavior, except when we’re at our very best, absorbed in a task, is partly about display. And, axiomatically, when pressure to conform is highest, the incentive to investigate before adopting an opinion is lowest.
But aren’t business leaders acting from a normal profit motive? Aren’t they simply trying to appeal to customers when they speak out on political issues? If so, then CEOs aren’t necessarily bringing expertise or even honesty to a public question. They certainly aren’t being brave. All too obviously, in many cases, their opportunism doesn’t even seem voluntary. Fear and career survival are the evident motives.
New York Times,
in a display of cowardice for the ages, fired a veteran reporter for innocently speaking the n-word in the course of inquiring into an accusation brought to him concerning a third person. The paper’s leaders,
Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
got themselves off a sticky wicket; they continue to enjoy their positions and the rewards that come with them.
National Football League commissioner
in full knowledge of the evidence, imposed one penalty on
for domestic violence, then a sterner penalty after an embarrassing tape found its way to TMZ. Mr. Goodell continues as NFL commissioner; he evidently does a good job for NFL owners, on whose behalf he falsely accused Mr. Rice of lying (as later shown by a league investigator) to justify the flip-flop.
who fired a loyal deputy for saying the n-word in an innocent and perhaps necessary conversation about when Netflix would and wouldn’t tolerate the n-word in fare put before the public.
These “leadership” acts, under different circumstances, any decent person would be ashamed of, but heading an organization involves a certain amount of bleep-eating. That’s corporate life. It’s foolish, in most of today’s cases, to interpret CEOs speaking out on extraneous political controversies as anything other than evidence that fear and conformity have come to play too big a role in our political discussion.
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