CSR: Can we apply the same thinking to CA’s problems? - June 16, 2009

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been the buzz phrase repeated in response to any number of corporate misdeeds over the past few decades. In response to signs of rampant corruption and a failure of trust in corporate America, many have argued that the moral bankruptcy of many companies who put profits above people requires incorporating stronger ethics into traditional business models. By companies becoming more aware of and systematically accepting responsibility for the social consequences of their activities we should be able to ensure that the public interest is not sacrificed on the altar of private profits. Sadly, the economic and political crisis that has engulfed California of late has shown us that even those whose sworn duties are to protect the public interest are themselves in need of a new ethos.

For years, California politics has been dominated by a mix of interest groups who, despite their conflicting claims of only looking out for the interest of the groups and collectives they represent, have pushed America’s most dynamic state to the brink of financial collapse. From powerful teachers and correctional officer unions to influential business interests, the California budgetary process is dominated by groups who have burdened the state with spending allocations that are nearly impossible to cut and have led to spending increases that have far surpassed state revenue. While all of these interests groups no doubt believe that they are only looking out for the citizens they represent, they have collectively pushed California down a deep hole that it is sure not to climb out of any time soon. Perhaps most upsetting of all is the fact that state legislators from both parties have continuously assisted in this budgetary turmoil by holding strong to their ideological poles: Democrats rarely seeing a spending bill they did not like and Republicans rarely finding a revenue-boosting tax bill that they did like. There is no doubt that the majority of these interest groups and politicians are sincere in their hard-fought efforts for the citizens and groups of citizens they claim to represent, but their uncompromising “values” have been passionately pursued at the cost of all Californians.

Just as it was necessary for business models to incorporate CSR in order for businesses to become more aware of the social consequences of their activities, so too should the interest groups and political leaders of California develop a stronger ethos that looks to the interest of all Californians and not just the groups they represent. It is not necessary for interest groups and legislatures to compromise their values and abandon the passionate pursuits they believe so strongly in, only that they understand that without fiscal discipline these values and pursuits will themselves remain permanently endangered. To ensure that California lives up to its historical promise, these political players need to implement strategies and ideas that embrace fruitful and prudent budgetary compromises. These strategies will be much more apparent through a greater awareness and acknowledgment of the consequences of the political activity of both interest groups and the legislature. While it seems like an enormously heavy task, the only way to move beyond the Golden State’s current gloomy fiscal present is by abandoning the uncompromising irrationality that rules California politics today.

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