The Business of Business in Washington
The American Farm Bureau's vicious opposition to addressing climate change is a good example of the different biases that affect trade groups. When someone like the AFB blasts out an angry press release, there's a tendency to say that "farmers" are against something. But that's not always the case.
Trade groups, for one thing, are biased toward their present membership, not their future membership. Global warming is projected to absolutely destroy America's crop production if given a hundred years to gather strength, but none of the AFB's present members, much less its present leaders, will be around by that point.
For another thing, some trade groups are more conservative, and others more liberal, than their membership. This has been a common problem with the big business trade groups: The type of people who come to Washington to lobby on behalf of corporate America are a lot more ideologically conservative than the type of people who run a mid-size electronics store, or a chain of groceries. This is, in part, why the Chamber of Commerce is losing members over its opposition to climate change legislation: The people who control the traditionally conservative Chamber have a different view of the world than the people who own Nike.
Another bias is that membership is often controlled by certain divisions within organizations that have different incentives than the broader companies. Many people, for instance, are baffled that corporate America isn't more enthusiastic about getting out of the health-care insurance business. But the folks who are making those decisions come from the HR departments of these organizations, and that means they're protecting their turf: HR is less important if there's no health-care coverage for it to manage. That's led to a lockstep opposition to a non-employer-based system that has baffled economists, and frustrated pro-corporate think tanks like the Committee for Economic Development.
That's why it's actually pretty important who helms these groups: Except in spectacular cases, like climate change and the Chamber of Commerce, the membership of these organizations tends to outsource their political thinking to the leadership of these organizations. Progressive leadership can take the group in a progressive direction and conservative leadership can do the opposite, even as the underlying membership hasn't changed at all. But relatively few young liberals come to town to work their way up the ranks of trade associations, so there's relatively less of them buried in the ranks of these places. And so "business" ends up quietly taking hard stands on fairly small issues that are actually of more interest to conservatives, but "business" isn't really spending its time thinking about this. Rather, the leadership ranks of the Chamber of Commerce are taking that stand, and the business community ends up along for the ride.
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