Another “Black Friday” blitz of sales and shopping, some of it sadly of the violently “competitive” variety, has passed us by. Consumer spending for the “holiday” was at record levels, with online sales by major retailers leading the way and expected to continue with today’s “Cyber Monday” discounts.
This is ostensibly good for the economy, but a number of voices have been questioning the creeping commercialization of Thanksgiving. From employees of “big box” stores forced to give up their family holiday plans in order to open at midnight or earlier, to activists and business leaders who doubt the long-term sustainability of our present consumer culture, some important critiques have been leveled.
In terms of both the broader public good and big-picture economics, however, an important piece has been missing: the fact that an increasing share of some major corporations’ profits from consumer events like “Black Friday” aren’t going toward job creation or investing, but to attempts to influence and distort our democratic politics.
As Charles Kolb, President of the Committee for Economic Development (CED), an esteemed non-partisan organization of business leaders, recently told Dylan Ratigan, this political spending is basically a form of “rent-seeking” that isn’t good for business or for our democracy. Rather than competing in the marketplace or investing in economic growth, corporations seek a narrow advantage by garnering favored access to politicians and obtaining favorable policy outcomes—often at the expense of investing in long-term national priorities like education and infrastructure.
A landmark study of corporate governance released this month by the Investor Responsibility Research Center highlighted deeply problematic trends in this regard. The study, which looked at campaign-related spending and investor transparency among the S&P 500 companies, is fairly long and detailed, but some key findings highlighted at the report release (which I attended) are illuminating.