Posted: April 2004

Letters to the Editor

in response to:

Risky Business: Peter Sandman on
Corporate Misbehavior and Public Outrage

Interview in The Sun, Issue 336, December 2003, pp. 4–13.
Letters and response in The Sun, Issue 340, April 2004, pp. 2–3.

I admire Peter Sandman’s commitment to bringing disparate interests together through good communication. [“Risky Business,” interview by Gillian Kendall, December 2003.]   I wonder, however, if Sandman hasn’t been led by his corporate employers to think in terms of scarcity of resources. He says we should spend money where it will do the most good, as if we have to choose between worker safety, vaccinating Third World children, and environmental protections. Considering the enormous wealth in this country, shouldn’t we be able to afford all of these things?

I think Sandman has bought into the idea that corporations have the right to keep all of their enormous profits for themselves, and that if they do spend money on the environment or worker safety, it is only out of the goodness of their hearts.

Barbara Seguin, Beloit, Wisconsin

Peter Sandman reminds me of my friend Lloyd’s definition of a politician: “A politician, when he wants to know whether he has enough motor oil in his car, takes a poll of the bystanders rather than checking the dipstick.”

Sandman says that President Bush’s problem is that he communicated poorly and “sounded” overconfident about the war with Iraq. Sandman artfully dodges the real issue by saying, “All presidents lie,” ignoring the fact that Bush’s lies are provable and directly responsible for the death and injury of hundreds of American soldiers, an impeachable offense.

Sandman is the quintessential, values-neutral technocrat, contemptuous of people who still care. He’s not somebody whose advice I want on anything.

David Hupp, Portland, Oregon

It’s not for me to characterize as ill-gotten gain the $650 an hour that Peter Sandman makes from “speaking truth” to his corporate clients. Nor is it my place to tell him how to spend his money. But if he’s really concerned about the protesters “marching outside company headquarters, cold and wet and certainly not getting paid,” he might feel better about what he does and not have to rationalize so much if he tried sharing a little of that wealth with the groups they represent.

David Sowd, Canton, Ohio

Peter Sandman said that President Bush should have been more up-front about the expense and difficulty of undertaking a war in Iraq. I agree that this would have been a more straightforward approach, and one that I could respect, even though I disagree with the president’s policies. But would it have been effective for Bush’s purposes?

My sense is that the general public likes to believe that the U.S. is a powerful nation that will succeed in whatever it does. Clearly this is what Bush intended to convey when he suggested that the war in Iraq would be swift and successful.

Had Bush been honest, as Sandman advised, wouldn’t public support for the war have been lower? Can public officials be totally honest and still build support for their policies?

Sara Hall Phillips, Columbus, Ohio

Peter Sandman replies:

Barbara Seguin and Sarah Hall Phillips raise good questions. To Seguin: I do tend to think that corporations are entitled – even obligated – to use their profits on behalf of their shareholders. It is malfeasant for a corporation to give away its shareholders’ assets to worthy causes unless it can make a case that such philanthropy benefits the company and thus nurtures the shareholders’ investment. The other way we turn private profits to public ends is either by seeking voluntary contributions from individual shareholders or by taxing the profits and urging the government to spend the money on the causes we favor. Both are important, but taxes are the key. I believe Americans are under-taxed (my wife thinks I’m nuts), and we’re obviously more under-taxed today than we were before the recent tax cuts. It seems far more principled to me to push for tax increases than to take away companies’ right to do as they choose with their profits.

Phillips asks whether honest, balanced advocacy of a position generates weaker support than biased, simple-minded advocacy of the same position. Decades of research have shown that the answer depends mostly on two things. First, whether people are paying attention: the more attentive an audience, the better the results of a candid approach. Second, whether you’re looking for a quick success or a long-term commitment: advocacy that acknowledges the downside is more resistant to disillusionment later, when the downside becomes clear. I don’t know whether the Iraq war was a good policy decision or not. But overselling it almost guaranteed a boomerang effect later on (as we’re seeing now, especially on the weapons-of-mass-destruction issue). This, in turn, has maximized the chance that the U.S. will leave too quickly, and Iraq will unravel. I’d much rather have seen a more candid debate, ending in either an angst-ridden but firm decision to give it a try, or an angst-ridden but firm decision to stay out.

I haven’t got a response to David Hupp or David Sowd, except to say that people in the middle don’t usually win much respect from people who have picked a side. This is especially true of those on the battlements who find it emotionally threatening or ideologically taboo to consider the views of the enemy. (I don’t mean to suggest that this is necessarily the case for Hupp or Sowd.) Sometimes activists become more deeply committed to their conviction that companies won’t listen than to their desire to be heard. It is nonetheless important for companies to try to listen, and I try to help them do that.

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