If American corporations are, as the Supreme Court ruled in 2010, citizens entitled to free speech and other rights from the nation, what corresponding obligations to the nation do these corporations have?
"For individuals, we've always thought that citizenship entails a balance of rights and responsibilities," said James Post, the co-author of Corporate Responsibility: The American Story and a professor of management at Boston University. "Does it still mean the same thing for corporations?"
In an effort to find out whether American corporations are the kind of "citizens" that believe that they have national obligations, Remapping Debate contacted the representatives of more than 80 corporations. Most had no comment, a striking finding in and of itself.
And among the corporate representatives who did comment, most were unwilling to say that their corporation had any obligations to the United States, let alone to define any such obligations with specificity.
Moreover, representatives of some American multinationals said that their companies do not even identify themselves as being American in any sense except that they are legally incorporated and physically headquartered in one of the states of the U.S.
This has not always been the case. According to numerous experts, the managers of American companies used to feel strong national and social ties (see box titled "When obligations went with benefits").
The disintegration of that sense of obligation raises crucial questions for policy makers as to whether and how to reinforce those ties, and as to what special priviledges, if any, should continue to be offered to corporations that are nominally "American."
According to Post, the question of whether American multinational corporations have national obligations, and if so, what those obligations are, is “one of the most central and least recognized public policy questions of our time.
Remapping Debate reached out to corporations of various sizes in a range of sectors, from huge, iconic multinationals like General Motors and Boeing to smaller, primarily domestic companies like JetBlue and RadioShack.
The majority of the fifteen corporate representatives that responded said that their companies did consider themselves to be American. "I think that most of RadioShack's 30,000 employees would say that it is an American company," said Kirk Brewer, head of corporate communications at RadioShack. "The brand has been part of the American landscape for a long time, and the roots of today's company stretch back more than 90 years."
"There’s no doubt that we're a global company," said John Dern, vice president for public relations at Boeing. "but we are first and foremost an American company. We have deep roots in American history and the American economy, and having an identity as an American company is very important for us.
When asked what it was that made them American, however, most companies did not speak in terms of the permanent bonds between a nation and its citizens. Instead, some spoke of the history of their development, or talked in terms of statistical or legal information about their businesses (sales, employment, location of headquarters, or state of incorporation).
For example, when asked what makes the company American, a representative from Ford cited the fact that it "conduct[s] the vast majority of our research and development, produce[s] more than 2 million vehicles annually, and employ[s] more than 66,000 employees."
A representative from Whole Foods cited the fact that the company is incorporated in the United States, "does well over 90 percent of [its] total business right here in the U.S." and that "all of our Executive Team and almost all of our top 100 leaders...were born in the United States."
When corporate representatives were asked directly whether their companies have national obligations, a few said "yes."
For example, Greg Martin, the executive director of communications strategy and news operations at General Motors, said that GM does have "obligations to the country that go above and beyond our obligation to our shareholders."
Brewer of RadioShack said that while "[i]t's hard to imagine what RadioShack might do to act in the national interest...I am pretty sure we would never intentionally act against the national interest."
Jeff Noel, the vice president for communications and public affairs at Whirlpool, drew the line somewhat differently. Noel said that while the company has "a strong desire to be a responsible citizen," it does not "have a duty or an obligation" to do so.
Most commonly, companies refused to respond directly to the question. In an email exchange, for instance, Remapping Debate asked Molly Donahue, a spokesperson for Caterpillar, whether the company considers itself to be American.
"We are an American company that also operates globally," she responded.
When Remapping Debate followed up by asking whether being American means that Caterpillar has any particular obligations to the United States, Donahue responded that the company had "no additional information to add as it relates to your question."
Similarly, Allison Steinberg, a spokesperson for JetBlue, cited the company's efforts to employ veterans as a factor that makes the company American. When asked whether that meant that JetBlue has particular obligations to the United States, however, Steinberg refused to comment further.
Chris Olert, a spokesperson for Consolidated Edison, said that the company does consider itself to be an American company, but when asked whether the company has any national or patriotic duties, he said, "Well, I wouldn't say that." Boeing’s John Dern said that "serving the country and its broad economic interests is important to us," but "I don't know if I'd call it in a patriotic way."
And some companies said that the question did not pertain to them, because they don't consider themselves to be American at all.
Lynn Brown, vice president of coprorate communications at Waste Management, which is incorporated in the United States but also operates in Canada, said that the company considers itself "North American."
Even some iconic American corporations took a similar line. For example, Courtney Boone, a spokesperson for United States Steel, said that the company does not consider itself to be an American company, but rather "a company with headquarters in the United States and operations globally."
What about the rights and benefits of citizenship?
According to several observers, American corporations, even those with substantial international operations, reap innumerable benefits from being incorporated in the United States and being considered American "citizens."
"American corporations are benefitting enormously from being thought of as American citizens,” said Richard Sylla, a professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University (NYU). "And lots of policy gets made with the goal of helping American businesses, with the assumption that there is some relationship based on mutual obligation."
Some of those benefits, Sylla said, are very direct and tangible. "You have the full force of American military and diplomatic power backing you up," he said. "You can't put a price on that."
Sylla also mentioned that the Department of Commerce, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Export-Import Bank "exist only to find ways to give American companies an edge in global markets."
Other observers cited a variety of other benefits that American corporations receive.
Wayne Ranick, the director of communications for the United Steelworkers, pointed out that American corporations "benefit from the infrastructure that is publicly financed, employees who are trained and educated, and the largest consumer market in the world."
"There are a lot of benefits that get taken for granted,” said Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. "The stability of the U.S. government and the size and reliability of the U.S. economy are great benefits for companies."
Lynn Stout, a professor of law at Cornell University, said that the U.S. legal system was another great, under-appreciated benefit for American corporations. "In terms of the quality of judges and the speed and efficiency of decision making, we have the most appealing legal system in the world," she said.
Greg Martin of General Motors acknowledged that the company had benefitted very directly from policies such as the government bailout of the automotive companies in 2009, but also less directly from the country's investment in research and development, skilled domestic workforce, and "the spirit of freedom and aspirational values that permeate American society and make it possible to succeed here."
But most companies had a more difficult time explaining the benefits they had received. Several companies said that they had benefited most from being perceived abroad as being an American company, which helped them to sell their products in foreign markets. Lynn Brown of Waste Management cited government regulation that made it more difficult to operate municipal landfills, which "essentially allowed the company to come into being."
According to Richard Sylla of NYU, "it's revealing that the benefits they cite are so self-serving. It shows that they think of themselves as opportunistic entities, not participatory members of society."
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