Straight Talk about Corporate Social Responsibility

Critical thinking about “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) is needed, because there are few topics where discussions feature greater ratios of heat to light.  With this in mind, two of my Harvard colleagues – law professor Bruce Hay and business school professor Richard Vietor – and I co-edited a book, Environmental Protection and the Social Responsibility of Firms: Perspectives from Law, Economics, and Business.

At issue is the appropriate role of business with regard to environmental protection.  Everyone agrees that firms should obey the law. But beyond the law – beyond compliance with regulations – do firms have additional responsibilities to commit resources to environmental protection?  How should we think about the notion of firms sacrificing profits in the social interest?

Much of what has been written on this question has been both confused and confusing.  Advocates, as well as academics, have entangled what ought to be four distinct questions about corporate social responsibility:  may they, can they, should they, and do they.

First, may firms sacrifice profits in the social interest – given their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders?  Does management have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits in the interest of shareholders, or can it sacrifice profits by voluntarily exceeding the requirements of environmental law?  Einer Elhauge, a professor at Harvard Law School, challenges the conventional wisdom that managers have a simple legal duty to maximize corporate profits.  He argues that managers have freedom to diverge from the goal of profit maximization, partly because their legal duties to shareholders are governed by the “business judgment rule,” which gives them broad discretion to use corporate resources as they see fit.

If a company’s managers decide, for example, to use “green” inputs, devise cleaner production technologies, or dispose of their waste more safely, courts will not stop them from doing so, no matter how disgruntled shareholders may be at such acts of public charity.  The reason is that for all a judge knows, such measures – particularly when they are well publicized – will add to the firm’s bottom line in the long run by increasing public goodwill.  But this line of argument contradicts the very premise, since it is based upon the notion that the actions are not sacrificing profits, but contributing to them.

This leads directly to the second question.  Can firms sacrifice profits in the social interest on a sustainable basis, or will the forces of a competitive market render such efforts transient at best?  Paul Portney, Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, notes that for firms that enjoy monopoly positions or produce products for well-defined niche markets, such extra costs can well be passed on to customers.  But for the majority of firms in competitive industries – particularly firms that produce commodities – it is difficult or impossible to pass on such voluntarily incurred costs to customers.  Such firms have to absorb those extra costs in the form of reduced profits, reduced shareholder dividends, and/or reduced compensation, suggesting that, in the face of competition, such behavior is not sustainable.

This leads to the third question of CSR:  even if firms may carry out such profit-sacrificing activities, and can do so, should they – from society’s perspective?  Is this likely to lead to an efficient use of social resources?  To be more specific, under what conditions are firms’ CSR activities likely to be welfare-enhancing?  Portney finds that this is most likely to be the case if firms pursuing CSR strategies are doing so because it is good business – that is, profitable.  Once again, a positive response violates the premise of the question.  But for more costly CSR investments, concern exists about the opportunity costs that will be involved for firms. Further, in the case of companies that behave strategically with CSR to anticipate and shape future regulations, welfare may be reduced if the result is less stringent standards (that would have been justified).

Finally, do firms behave this way?  Do some firms reduce their earnings by voluntarily engaging in environmental stewardship?  Forest Reinhardt of the Harvard Business School addresses this question by surveying the performance of a broad cross-section of firms, and finds that only rarely does it pay to be green.  That said, situations do exist in which it does pay. Where one can increase customers’ willingness to pay, reduce one’s costs, manage future risk, or anticipate and defer costly governmental regulation, then it may pay to be green.  Overall, Reinhardt acknowledges the existence of these opportunities for some firms – examples such as Patagonia and DuPont stand out – but the empirical evidence does not support broad claims of pervasive opportunities.

So, where does this leave us?  May firms engage in CSR, beyond the law? An affirmative though conditional answer seems appropriate.  Can firms do so on a sustainable basis?  Outside of monopolies and limited niche markets, the answer is probably negative.  Should they carry out such beyond-compliance efforts, even when doing so is not profitable?  Here – if the alternative is sound and effective government policy – the answer may not be encouraging.  And the last question – do firms generally carry out such activities – seems to lead to a negative assessment, at least if we restrict our attention to real cases of “sacrificing profits in the social interest.”

But definitive answers to these questions await the results of rigorous, empirical research.  In the meantime, we ought to prevent muddled thinking by keeping separate these four questions of corporation social responsibility.

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Using Markets to Make Fisheries Sustainable

Around the world, over-fishing is leading to severe depletion of valuable fisheries.  This is as true in U.S. coastal waters as it is in many other parts of the world.  In New England waters, for example, after two decades of ever more intensive fishing, the groundfish fishery has essentially collapsed.  But, we are not alone.  According to the United Nations Environment Program, fully 25 percent of fisheries worldwide are in jeopardy of collapse due to over-fishing.  Clearly, something needs to be done.  Yet, what has long been considered the obvious answer – restrictions on fishing – has been shown time and time again to be the wrong answer.  The right answer is enlightened use of markets.

The fundamental cause of the depletion of fish stocks is well known to economists:  virtually all ocean fisheries are “open-access,” that is, fishermen – small operations or large corporations – can fish all they want.  These individuals and companies are no more greedy than the rest of us, but because no one holds title to fish stocks in the open ocean, everyone races to catch as much as possible.  Each fisherman receives the full benefit of aggressive fishing (that is, a larger catch), but none pay the full cost (an imperiled fishery for everyone).  One fisherman’s choices have an effect on other fishermen (of this generation and the next), but in an open-access fishery – unlike a privately-held copper mine, for example – these impacts are not taken into account.  What is individually rational adds up to collective foolishness, as the shared resource is over-exploited.  This is the “tragedy of the commons.”  What to do?

Government intervention is, alas, required.  Fishermen don’t welcome such regulation in their economic sphere any more than anyone else does.  And they have a point.  Conventional regulatory approaches have driven up costs, but not solved the problem.  And we know why.  If the government limits the season, fishermen put out more boats.  If the government limits net size, fishermen use more labor or buy more costly sonar.  Economists call this over-capitalization.  Costs go up for fishermen (as resources are squandered), but pressure on fish stocks is not relieved.

The answer is to adopt in fisheries management the same type of innovative policy that has been used for decades in the realm of pollution  control – tradeable permits, called “Individual Transferable Quotas” ( ITQs) in the fisheries realm.  Sixteen countries – some with economies much more dependent than ours on fishing – have adopted such systems with great success.  New Zealand regulates virtually its entire commercial fishery this way.  It’s had the system in place since 1986, and it’s been a great success, putting a brake on over-fishing and restoring stocks to sustainable levels ­- while increasing fishermen’s profitability!

There are several ITQ systems already in operation in the United States, including for Alaska’s pacific halibut and Virginia’s striped-bass fisheries.  More important, the time is ripe for broader adoption of this innovative approach, because a short-sighted ban imposed by the U.S. Congress on the establishment of new ITQ systems has expired.

The first step in establishing an ITQ system is to establish the “total allowable catch.”  The next step – and a crucial one – is to allocate shares of that total limit to fishermen in individual quotas that are theirs and theirs alone (read:  well-defined property rights).  Setting the individual quotas will not be easy.  The guiding principle should be simple pragmatism – using the allocations to build political support for the system.  Making the quotas transferable eliminates the problem of overcapitalization and increases efficiency, because the least efficient fishing operations find it more profitable to sell their quotas than to exploit them through continued fishing.  If you can’t catch your whole share, you can sell part of your quota to someone else, instead of buying a bigger boat.

In addition, these systems improve safety by reducing incentives for fishermen to go out (or stay out) when weather conditions are dangerous.  And it was just such perverse incentives of conventional fisheries regulation that were blamed for the tragic loss of life when a fishing boat was lost in a storm off the New England coast just a few winters ago.

Further, because ITQ systems eliminate the motivation for government to limit the duration of the fishing season, supplies available to consumers improve in quality.  Prior to the establishment of an ITQ system for Alaskan halibut, for example, the government had reduced the fishing season to just two days, but subsequent to the introduction of the system, the season length grew to more than 200 days.

A decade ago, environmental advocates – led by the Environmental Defense Fund – played a central role in the adoption of the sulfur dioxide allowance trading program that’s cut acid rain by half and saved electricity generators and rate-payers nearly $1 billion annually, compared with conventional approaches.  The time has come for environmentalists to join forces with progressive voices in the fishing industry and in government to set up ITQ systems that can keep fishermen in business while moving fisheries onto sustainable paths.

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A Tale of Two Taxes

Whether they are called “revenue enhancements” or “user charges,” fear of the political consequences of taxes restricts debate on energy and environmental policy options in Washington. In a March 7th post on “Green Jobs,” in which I argued that it is not always best to try to address two challenges with a single policy instrument, I also noted that in some cases such dual-purpose policy instruments can be a good idea, and I gave gasoline taxes as an example.

Although a serious recession is clearly not the time to expect political receptivity to such a proposal, the time will come — we all hope very soon — when the economy turns around, employment rises, and a sustained period of economic growth ensues. When that happens, serious consideration should be given to increases in the Federal tax on gasoline.

A gas tax increase — coupled with an offsetting reduction in other taxes, such as the Social Security tax on wages — could make most American households better off, while reducing oil imports, local pollution, urban congestion, road accidents, and global climate change. This revenue-neutral tax reform would exemplify the market-based approaches to environmental protection and resource management I examined in previous posts.

Such a change need not constitute a new tax, but a reform of existing ones. It is well known ­– both from economic theory and numerous empirical studies ­– that taxes tend to reduce the extent to which people undertake the taxed activity. In the United States, most tax revenues are raised by levies on labor and investment; the resulting reduction in these fundamentally desirable activities is viewed as an unfortunate but unavoidable side-effect of the need to raise revenue for government operations. Would it not make more sense to raise the revenue we need by taxing undesirable activities, instead of desirable ones?

Combustion of gasoline in motor vehicles produces local air pollution as well as carbon dioxide that contributes to global climate change, increases imports of oil, and exacerbates urban highway congestion. Can anyone really claim that — given a choice between discouraging work and discouraging gasoline consumption — it is better to discourage work?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a 50 cent gas tax increase could eventually reduce gasoline consumption by 10 to 15%, reduce oil imports by perhaps 500 thousand barrels per day, and generate about $40 billion per year in revenue.

Furthermore, this approach would be far more effective than on-going proposals to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which affect only new vehicles and lead to serious safety problems by encouraging auto makers to produce lighter vehicles. Also, remember that a major effect of CAFE standards has been to accelerate the shift from cars to SUVs and light trucks (so that overall fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold is no better than it was a decade ago, despite the great strides that have taken place in fuel efficiency technologies). As my Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein pointed out in The Wall Street Journal in 2006, the conventional approach “does nothing to encourage individuals to drive less, to use their cars more efficiently, or to shift sooner to new and more fuel efficient [and cleaner] vehicles.” A more enlightened approach ­— a market-based approach — would reward consumers who economize on gasoline use. And that is what a revenue-neutral gas tax is all about.

The revenue from the gas tax could be transferred to the Social Security Trust Fund and credited to current workers. If $40 billion per year from new gas tax revenues were transferred to Social Security, the payroll tax — the employee contribution to Social Security — could be cut by perhaps a third: a worker with annual wages of $30,000 would take home an additional $750 per year! The extra income would more than offset the cost of the gas tax, unless the worker drove over 35,000 miles per year in a car getting 25 miles or less per gallon. Rebating the gas tax in this way addresses the greatest concern about higher gas taxes — that they can hit hardest those workers who drive to their jobs. Further, a tax of this magnitude could be phased in gradually, perhaps no more than 10 cents per year over 5 years, allowing individuals and firms to adjust their consuming and producing behavior.

Proposals for gasoline tax increases in recent sessions of Congress would have dedicated the revenue to public spending (for transportation and other programs). A key difference is that the proposal I have outlined here is for a revenue-neutral change in which the gas tax revenue would be returned to Americans through reduced payroll taxes. To adopt some of the language I developed in my previous posts, such a change can be both efficient and equitable, and — for those reasons — perhaps even politically feasible.

Of course, such a scheme is not a panacea for U.S. energy and environmental problems. But it would make a significant contribution if enacted. On the other hand, political fear of the T-word in Washington may mean that it is never discussed seriously in public, let alone adopted. Most fear of taxes is due to politicians’ anxieties about asking their constituents to pay more. But an increase in the Federal gas tax, rebated through reduced payroll taxes would not cost most Americans any more and would have significant long-term benefits for the country. Still, fear of the T-word looms large; maybe it should be called an “All-American Ecologically Sound, Fully Recyclable, Anti-Terror, Energy-Independence Assessment.”

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