The danger of side salads

When corporate do-gooding actually makes things worse

Hello, Inklings!

I hope you’ve had a good week. I’m headed to the beach in a mask tomorrow. As Michelle Obama would say, “It is what it is.”

A quick thought for you, in the meanwhile.

For some time now, I have heard the same response to my critique of plutocrats and corporations and their gestures of do-gooding. Again and again, people push back with an argument bearing the words “at least.”

“At least they’re doing something.”

“At least they’re trying to make a difference.”

“At least they’re saying the right things; it’s a start.”

In reply, I have argued that certain good deeds by the richest and most powerful aren’t just empty and harmless, but dangerous — by abetting harm on a greater scale than the good being done, by laundering reputations, by helping to prop up cruel systems, by extending oligarchic power that should be reduced.

While I have approached the topic mostly through the kind of narrative reporting that is my method, there is a growing body of social science digging into this idea that much elite do-gooding isn’t merely hollow but actually makes things worse.

A fascinating piece in The Atlantic highlights the scholarship of Tyler Wry, a Wharton professor. He investigated whether companies that signed the lofty-sounding statement by the Business Roundtable last year, declaring a newfound commitment to the social responsibilities of business, behaved better or worse than companies that didn’t sign it. And what did he find?

As COVID-19 spread in March and April, did signers give less of their capital to shareholders (via dividends and stock buybacks)? No. On average, signers actually paid out 20 percent more of their capital than similar companies that did not sign the statement. Then, as the coronavirus swept the country, did they lay off fewer workers? On the contrary, in the first four weeks of the crisis, Wry found, signers were almost 20 percent more prone to announce layoffs or furloughs. Signers were less likely to donate to relief efforts, less likely to offer customer discounts, and less likely to shift production to pandemic-related goods.

Why? Because, the article suggests, of “moral self-licensing.” Performing a trivial act of do-gooding buys you space to do harm. It concludes:

[T]here’s reason to believe that such vocal calls for change from corporations could actually be worse than meaningless — and in fact damage the chances that corporations will follow through on meaningful change in the months and years ahead.

This research reminded me of another study I’ve been unable to get out of my mind since I came upon it last year. Researchers explored the relationship between support for small gestures to address climate change and support for a big structural fix — a carbon tax. The conventional wisdom — the “at least” theory, I would call it — is that these small nudges are gateway drugs to supporting more thoroughgoing change. Using better lightbulbs, recycling plastic bags, or other such nudges, as the authors call them, will put you on the road to proper environmental activism.

Not so, the researchers found.

“Across six experiments, including one conducted with individuals involved in policymaking, we show that introducing a green energy default nudge diminishes support for a carbon tax,” they concluded. How did the small good thing reduce support for the big good thing? By “providing false hope that problems can be tackled without imposing considerable costs.” And, the authors noted, the effect is not confined to climate: “The authors similarly find that introducing a nudge related to retirement savings reduces support for an expansion of social security taxes.”

Perhaps the most haunting of the studies I’ve seen concerns fast food. A group of researchers studied the menus of fast-food restaurants from 1986 to 2016. They analyzed 1,787 entrees, side dishes, and desserts at Arby’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Dairy Queen, Hardee’s, Jack in the Box, KFC, Long John Silver’s, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s.

In the 30-year period they were analyzing, fast food had reformed itself. There were salads thrown into the mix, nutrition disclosures, healthier sourcing practices. You’ve probably heard about some of it, because the fast-food companies love to tell you all the good they’ve been doing.

The question the researchers asked, though, was: What happened to the average item in this period?

And the answer was devastating. “The average entree weighed 39 grams more in 2016 than in 1986 and had 90 more calories. It also had 41.6 percent of the recommended daily allotment of sodium, up from 27.8 percent,” Tiffany Hsu of The New York Times reported.

The question the story left with me was this: If the overall trend of the menu was to the worse, to greater ill health in the customers being served, what work were the salads doing? How are we to understand their role? Were there just not enough of them? Or were the healthy items the enabler of the overriding trend toward less-healthy ones?

The moral of the story is: When you try to get involved and make a difference, make sure you’re not serving as the salad that enables the Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Sandwich.

Photo: Steve Parsons/Getty