Eliot Spitzer To Speak on Corporate Social Responsibility at Harvard Club (Not a Parody)

SpitzerAt first, I thought it was satire. Client #9 is scheduled to be a “keynote” speaker at something called the CRO Summit in Boston on April 21. CRO stands for Corporate Responsibility Officer. Yes, major corporations actually have such a position. The organizers’ apparent lack of self-consciousness about Spitzer confirms our view that the so-called Corporate Social Responsibility movement isn’t about responsibility at all. Instead, it is about advancing a set of political positions.

And what better place for such a politically correct event than in a seat of privilege like the Harvard Club. Spitzer, son of a real estate magnate and a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School, should be right at home. To be fair, the Harvard Club is an alumni club and has no formal connection to the college. The CRO Summit organizers, a for-profit called SharedXpertise, are just renting the Club. Still, the imagery is too much!

Spitzer will share keynoting duties with Kenneth Feinberg, the federal government’s “pay czar.”

Dirk Olin, SharedXpertise Vice President, tells us that Spitzer is not being compensated, and that his participation was not cleared with companies like Dell, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Domtar that are paying up to $30,000 to be sponsors of the event.

When I asked Olin if he was worried that someone might object to Spitzer’s participation, he said, “Sure, he had his issues.”  Olin added that he thought Spitzer was “compelling in his apparent contrition.”

It has been said that America is the land of second chances. That may be true, and it is certainly a good thing. But this generosity of spirit is justified when the disgraced person tries to succeed at something else, far away from the scene of the original crime.
Spitzer was lucky. He was not criminally prosecuted for frequenting hookers, even though he could have been. Prosecutors no doubt concluded that the personal humiliation was enough. His conduct took place while he was New York Governor and Attorney General. His AG office prosecuted several high-end prostitution rings, just like the one he patronized. If Spitzer is now going to lecture the world on “responsibility,” is he really humiliated, or are we?

Spitzer’s defenders, even while acknowledging his faults, still maintain that he was one of few “white hats” at a time when greed and amorality reined on Wall Street. But memoirs and other book-length accounts of what actually took place are undermining that legacy. Spitzer was indeed the small investor’s champion when it generated good publicity and served his interests. But he could be quite pragmatic in dealing with someone like Sanford Weill of Citigroup, whom he could have charged with a crime but did not.

In a piece titled “Eliot Spitzer’s Mission Impossible” in the March 4 issue of Time magazine, Sheelah Kolhatkar examines the possibility comeback. She reports:

Spitzer…is bored out of his mind. (“When you have nothing to do all day, you eventually start yelling from the rafters,” he blurted when I first called him.) He is also frustrated, restless and desperate to get back into the arena but unsure how to do it or if it’s even possible, given the immense baggage he would bring to any new endeavor. He was one of the most driven politicians in America, a rocket powered by ambition and hubris. Now he’s like one of those windup cars stuck on the edge of the carpet, its motor grinding away, threatening to flip over.

No doubt, Spitzer welcomed the invitation to speak at the Summit. It is a small, but important, step forward on the road to respectability. That is why it is a mistake to give him such an opportunity.

Back in 2005, we tried to spark some debate about what’s called Corporate Social Responsibility by co-sponsoring a conference called CSR Reconsidered. We styled it as a “counter-conference” and held it across the hall from the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) conference in a Washington, DC hotel. BSR is a different outfit from SharedXpertise, but it hits up the same companies for money.

We explored these questions:

  • Does CSR distract business from business?
  • Is CSR an end-run around democracy for the political Left, which views CSR as a way to have businesses implement its radical social and political agenda?
  • Will CSR prevent economic and social progress in the developing world by establishing barriers for free enterprise?

These questions are even more important today. But I have a feeling that they will not be asked at the CRO Summit, and they will not be addressed in Spitzer’s speech.

I said in 2005:

I believe that corporations do have a social responsibility. It is to defend and advance the interests of the people who own the company, the shareholders. True responsibility is fidelity to one’s own mission, not someone else’s, or someone else’s political agenda.

Corporations also have a civic and moral responsibility to be good citizens. But that is not what CSR is all about. Instead, it is an agenda consisting of causes like “sustainability,” including global warming alarmism, even as global warming science is falling apart. These days, there is also a lot about corporate governance. Much of this is just buying cover. Companies like Citigroup bankroll the CSR movement, even as they are worst corporate citizens imaginable.