The U.S. public holds Big Business in shockingly low regard.
A November 2007 Harris poll found that less than 15 percent of the population believes each of the following industries to be "generally honest and trustworthy:" tobacco companies (3 percent); oil companies (3 percent); managed care companies such as HMOs (5 percent); health insurance companies (7 percent); telephone companies (10 percent); life insurance companies (10 percent); online retailers (10 percent); pharmaceutical and drug companies (11 percent); car manufacturers (11 percent); airlines (11 percent); packaged food companies (12 percent); electric and gas utilities (15 percent). Only 32 percent of adults said they trusted the best-rated industry about which Harris surveyed, supermarkets.
These are remarkable numbers. It is very hard to get this degree of agreement about anything. By way of comparison, 79 percent of adults believe the earth revolves around the sun; 18 percent say it is the other way around.
The Harris results are not an aberration. The results have not varied considerably over the past five years -- although overall trust levels have actually declined from the already very low threshold in 2003.
The Harris results are also in line with an array of polling data showing deep concern about concentrated corporate power.
An amazing 84 percent told Harris in a poll earlier in 2007 that big companies have too much power in Washington. By contrast, only 47 percent said that labor unions have too much power in Washington (as against 42 percent who said labor has too little power), and 18 percent who said nonprofit organizations have too much power in Washington.
These results have proven durable. At least 80 percent of the public has ranked big companies as having too much power in Washington since 1994. In 2000, Business Week and Harris asked a broader question: Has business gained too much power over too many aspects of American life? Seventy-four percent agreed.
The November 2007 poll also asked about support for measures to control corporations. These results are eye-opening as well, though perhaps not in the expected way.
Harris asked which industries "should be more regulated by government -- for example for health, safety or environmental reasons -- than they are now?" Only oil companies (53 percent), pharmaceutical companies (53 percent) and health insurance companies (52 percent) crossed the 50 percent threshold. Even the tobacco industry managed to escape in the survey with only 41 percent favoring greater regulation. These data trend significantly negative -- against greater regulation -- over the last five years.
Does this show that while people distrust Big Business, they equally distrust the government to constrain corporate power?
The U.S. skepticism to regulation is only skin deep. When polls present specific regulatory proposals for consideration, U.S. public support is typically strong and often overwhelming -- even when arguments against government action are presented.
- After hearing arguments for and against, 76 percent favor granting the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco, with 22 percent opposed.
- After hearing arguments for and against, 75 percent favor legislation that would significantly increase energy efficiency, including auto fuel efficiency standards, and the use of renewable energy.
- Eighty-five percent favor country-of-origin labeling for meat, seafood, produce and grocery products, and three quarters favor a legislative mandate.
- Seventy-one percent say it is important that drugs remain under close review by the FDA and drug companies after they have been placed on the market.
- And, from a Harris finding a week after the poll showing skepticism about industry regulation in general, the polling agency found that those who think there is too little government regulation in the area of environmental protection outpaced those who think there is too much by a more than 2-to-1 margin (53 to 21 percent).
What the Harris findings on attitudes to regulation do show is that the business campaign against regulation as an abstract concept has been very successful.
It highlights the need for consumer, environmental, labor and other corporate accountability advocates to defend the concept of regulation, and to connect the rampant corporate abuses in society with the deregulation and non-regulatory failures of the last three decades. There's little doubt that the general public attitude toward regulation significantly affects the willingness of politicians -- none to eager to offend business patrons in the first place -- to take on corporate power.