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Corporations and the Conventions

Robert B. Reich

At the Democratic convention last week, I kept bumping into two different kinds of corporate professionals. Most have headed over to the Republican convention this week. One type says its job is "public affairs;" the other, "government affairs." They sound similar but the jobs are quite different.

The "public affairs" types are at the conventions to bring attention to their companies' commitments to social responsibility. Many of them have hand-outs and fancy brochures touting all the good things their firms do. The "government affairs" types are at the conventions to build their companies' political influence. They're the ones in the sky boxes with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

The two types often work for the same big companies but they seem to operate at cross purposes. For example, I met a public affairs person who talked about the great strides his company was making in green technologies. But the government affairs people from the same company have been actively lobbying against environmental laws and regulations.

Another public affairs person was touting her companies' dedication to its communities - gifts to local schools and playgrounds, for example. But in the sky boxes were lobbyists from the same firm that have been demanding tax abatements from those same communities, as a condition for keeping jobs there. And those tax abatements have meant less revenues for local schools and playgrounds.

Other public affairs people told me how much their firms value their employees, giving them more flexible work schedules and extra days off. But the same firms have been lobbying against paid family leave.

I'm not suggesting hypocrisy. I mean, it's entirely possible these companies have voluntarily taken on corporate social responsibilities and don't want the government to force them to do any of it. Or maybe the left hand of corporate public affairs doesn't know what the right hand of government affairs is up to.

But I can't help thinking that if these companies took social responsibility seriously, they'd put a brake on their lobbying and influence-peddling. Maybe they'd even avoid spending so much on political conventions.

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Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His 12th and most recent book is "Supercapitalism."

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