Salvo 06.02.2021 15 minutes

Fighting Woke Capital

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Our biggest institutions are blocking us from pursuing a good American life.

Editors’ Note

The following text is adapted from the keynote speech delivered at the “What to do about Woke Capital?” conference sponsored by the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life, held in Arlington, Virginia on May 18, 2021.

I thought I’d start today by sketching out a vision for what we should be about in the conservative movement in the twenty-first century, because I think it’s useful to anchor ourselves, not just in first principles but in the lives of the people affected by those principles, and then I’ll talk about why I think “woke capital” is such a problem.

I think that we should fight for the right of every American to live a good life in the country they call their own, to raise a family in dignity on a single middle-class job. It’s a simple vision: If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to live a good life in this country that is your own, that was built by your parents and grandparents, that will be inherited by your children.

Now that’s of course more complicated than it sounds. I think it requires that we respect our history so people are anchored in the traditions of this country, so they can teach their children those traditions, and so they can pass on a feeling of rootedness in their own community. That’s why we worry about the assault on our history and our schools. I think it requires that we give our children and ourselves the right to speak openly and participate meaningfully in this democratic society of ours.

That’s why we worry so much about censorship, whether it comes from the government or whether it comes from the big corporations. I think it requires that we live and have work that has dignity and is meaningful. That’s why we worry about our trade and economic policies, so that the people who do work hard and play by the rules actually have good jobs. That’s why we worry about our foreign policy, so that we don’t send people to wars that have no connection to our national interest and end up depleting our country of our most useful resource: the young men and women who fight for our military. All of these things, all of the battles that we fight, complicated as they are, affect this question of whether we’re enabling the people, the citizens of this country, to live a good life in their own nation.

Now, I happen to believe that the biggest obstacle to accomplishing this vision is woke capital, which of course is the topic of conversation today. And I believe that those of us on the right need to wake up to what’s really going on, because in practice, we have lost—and I hate to sound cynical, thoughI think I’m just being realistic—nearly every institution in this country that actually matters. We have lost the academy, we have lost the media, we have now lost the government, and we have lost the business and financial institutions too.

That’s what woke capital is really about. If were trying to define this term and understand what it means, it’s rooted in the fact that the biggest businesses, the most powerful institutions, the most powerful banks in this country have aligned themselves against us. Now that is an obvious fact, you see it in a number of ways. A couple of years ago Stacey Abrams said, about a Georgia abortion restriction, that this was a bad bill because it was bad for business. That was the argument of our new corporate, neoliberal class. And she was right. This is something that those of us on the right have to accept. When the big corporations come against you for passing abortion restrictions, when corporations are so desperate for cheap labor that they don’t want people to parent children, Stacey Abrams is right to say that abortion restrictions are bad for business.

But what that means for those of us who want to protect the dignity of the unborn is that we should be for abortion restrictions, even if they are bad for business. We should support the dignity of human life, even if it means the corporate class doesn’t like it. That is a simple and unavoidable fact of the era that we find ourselves in.

But I think no moment illustrated what woke capital meant for our country better than the riots last summer tied to the Black Lives Matter movement. Now we all know the ideology that underpins this movement. Woke capital is when companies and businesses are more invested in a movement like BLM than they are in traditional American principles, and they are. And if you peel back the onion, what you find is that the businesses that are most connected and most devoted to destroying our values are also benefitting financially from it.

Insurance companies in Minneapolis, which saw hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth, black and white, destroyed by those riots, have consistently underpaid the premiums to the owners of the businesses who had their lives destroyed. In one example, a guy had to pay $140,000 to have the rubble from the business that he built carted off by the city of Minneapolis, and his insurance company reimbursed him to the tune of about $40,000.

Now who was one of the biggest funders of the Black Lives Matter movement? The insurance companies. They refused to pay their own clients’ claims for their damaged property while at the same time they were making that damage more likely by funding the movement that was causing it.

The best example, of course, is Jeff Bezos, one of the largest funders of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the tune of millions of dollars. Now who benefits most when small businesses on Main Street are destroyed? Who wants to see their competitors unable to deliver goods and services to people so they get it delivered in the Amazon box? Jeff Bezos. There is a direct connection between woke capital and the plunder that’s happening in our society today. The people who are invested in destroying America via our corporate class are also getting rich from it. This is an important piece of the puzzle to understand.

Now why is this happening? This is a really important question and I know that we’ve had some very good conversations today about what’s driving it and what’s going on. But I want to offer three suggestions for what’s driving woke capital. I’ll try to be brief here.

The first is the rise of the digital over the hands-on economy. If you look at the companies that are most woke, that are most aggressively anti-American and anti-conservative, they are the companies that operate in the digital realm. If you’re manufacturing something, if you depend on cheap energy, if you’re building something with your hands, or employing those who do for shipping goods from one part of the country to another, you are fundamentally less woke than the digital technology oligarchy that’s trying to destroy the country. You see this consistently. Now sometimes of course, those companies can be woke too, and sometimes there’s some digital technology entrepreneurs who are not woke. But by and large, the digitalization of the American economy is one of the biggest drivers of the “wakening” of the American corporate class.

A second factor is the rise of globalization. So the companies that are most invested in the American nation-state, in the people who live here, in the laborers who build and make our goods, those people tend to be far less woke than the people who are employing people overseas, who are more committed to overseas regimes.

I’ve heard of a banker who was asked by a union leader, “Don’t you worry about all the projects that you’re funding that are causing the destruction of American jobs? You’re shipping jobs overseas, funding the Chinese regime, making it easier for the Chinese middle class to rise and harder for the middle class in your own country.” And the banker’s response was telling, and I think we should take it to heart. He said, “I have international shareholders. I have international customers. I have international investors and I have international clients. I am not an American company. Why do I care about America more than anyone else?”

That attitude is driving a lot of the woke corporate class. Because when you’re invested in American workers, when you depend on American customers, when American consumers have more power over you than the Chinese regime, if your laborers are people in my hometown, Middletown, Ohio, and not Chinese slaves in China, than you are fundamentally more attached to the American nation-state, you can’t criticize it in the same way, and you face different incentives.

Finally, the allocators of capital themselves are going woke. Across our country we have non-profits, big foundations that are effectively social justice hedge funds. The Ford Foundation has $14 billion in assets under management. Their leadership is serving on many of our corporate boards, and of course the corporate boards of some of our biggest companies are serving as the leadership of the Ford Foundation. They’re investing in are Critical Race Theory, they’re investing in the racial division all across our country, and they’re invested in all of the progressive social causes of the moment. They are one of the biggest investors in the Black Lives Matter movement that destroyed many of our towns and cities last summer.

Now if a middle-class American wants to sell his house that he lived in for 30 years and makes a profit on the sale, he has to pay taxes on the gain, over a certain exempt amount. But if the Ford foundation sells $200 million of property in an investment transaction, they pay zero tax, because our public policy has enriched and prioritized the foundations and the non-profits that are destroying our country. This matters because if you work in private equity, if you’re a hedge fund manager, or if you’re just a business that needs money to operate, you have to go to these people to get the capital to do what you need to do.

One of the biggest capital allocators in the world is that woke social justice hedge fund known as Harvard University, which has over $120 billion under management, which funds some of the most destructive ideologies all across our country, which literally trains the next generation of priests in the woke seminary that’s dominating our professional class. That university’s endowment pays not a dollar of tax, it has no obligation to draw down the principle. It is literally ammunition for the left. And we, through our public policy, have empowered that endowment.

I don’t mean this to be exhaustive, I can’t possibly sketch out everything we have to do on the question of woke capital, but I think there are some obvious solutions, and it should start from a fundamental premise that if you are fighting the American nation state, if you are fighting the values and virtues that make this country great, the conservative movement should be about nothing if not reducing your power, and if necessary, destroying you.

We cannot let the people who are driving this country into the ground continue to benefit from special benefits, from tax breaks, from subsidies, or from liability protections. That is the simple rule that we should follow. Harvard University’s $120 billion endowment is ammunition for our enemies, and we can’t let the enemy have that much ammunition or we’re going to lose. It’s that simple. This principle should guide all of our policies. If you cannot go after the pocketbook of these people, if you cannot make them pay, then you are accepting defeat. It’s that simple. We’re never going to beat them unless we go after them.

We should eliminate all of the special privileges that exist for our non-profit foundation class. If you’re spending all your money to teach racism to our children in their schools, why do we give you special tax breaks instead of taxing you more? When Biden raises taxes, the rich won’t pay the brunt of this. They’ll give money to their foundations, which will use it to push their progressive agenda. They’ll be saved from the consequence of the tax increase even as it will empower institutions that hate us. We need to stop that. The decision to give those foundations and those organizations special privileges is a decision made by public policy. We need better public policy, and a willingness to actually go after the institutions that are trying to destroy the American way of life.

We need to reorient our entire economy towards the real economy, and not towards the digital economy. It is striking how much the digital economy dominates in our public policy. To give you just one basic example, there’s a high-quality manufacturer in central Ohio that makes natural gas compressors. Their corporate tax rate, like everyone else’s, is 21 percent. Ask them what their effective tax rate is, and they’ll tell you it’s 21 percent. They can’t hide their assets. They can’t pretend their assets exist somewhere else. They’re making things in the state of Ohio, employing good Americans in good American jobs. Ask Google or Apple or Facebook what their effective tax rate is, and it’s somewhere between zero and 10 percent because they can pretend that their digital assets are located overseas. Our very tax code is biased against the companies that are most invested in the American nation state.

That has to stop. We should have a different preference, and a different goal: go after the companies that are destroying this country and reward the companies that are building it. That’s what public policy is about, and if we’re unwilling to use those levers, we should get out of this business altogether.

The globalization point has been beaten to death in the last five years, but I’ll beat it to death a little bit more because I think it’s important. Recall that banker and what he said about his international customers, shareholders, and employees. We should take that person at face value. If that person doesn’t believe that he’s an American institution, or part of an American institution, we should treat him like that. if you are more invested in regimes that hate this country, if you’re more invested in workers in slave camps in China than the people in my hometown, no more tax breaks, no more tax cuts. We should be raising their taxes if they’re shipping American jobs overseas, not cutting them. That’s how you fight them, that’s how you fight them with the pocketbook, and that’s how you make them pay. It’s that simple.

Globalization was a choice. It was a choice that we made to make it cheaper to hire Chinese slaves than American workers. It’s not cheaper for our country. It’s not cheaper for the people suffering from heroin overdose deaths at record numbers in our country, or for the millions of children growing up without fathers in the home. We made the choice to destroy our communities. We’ve let the Chinese do this, it was our leaders’ fault, and only public policy is going to fix that problem.

I think it’s important to go after the human resources bureaucracy. If you are actively teaching racism in American schools, in American corporations, if you’re creating a hostile work environment because you have to tell everybody that they need to deconstruct their privilege, or they need to sacrifice or repent of their whiteness, then you are committing what should be a violation of the law in this country, and people should be able to sue you. We have used the human rights bureaucracy to impose Critical Race Theory on our corporate class. We could use it to enforce the opposite. Again, we just have to be willing to use the power that’s been given to us and go after these companies where it actually hurts.

I’m a realist but I’m also very hopeful about this country because we have a constitution, and we have a constitutional republic. And the gives that gives us the power to fight back against woke capital. Every time I see congressional republicans haul Google or Facebook or Amazon or whoever it is, before their committees, they whine at them, they complain at them, they criticize their practices. But we’re so unwilling as a movement to actually do anything. It’s not enough to tell Google, “You’re being bad.” Clearly, they don’t stop being bad. We have to punish them for being bad. If they’re going to keep on fighting against us, then we have to fight against them. It’s that simple. We have to be willing to use the power granted to us by our constitutional republic.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from Abraham Lincoln in 1862—a period of this country’s history that was much darker than the one we confront today. “The fiery trials through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility.”

It may not be as bad as it was in the 1860s, but we’re all going through a fiery trial. The people in this room are the people who are going to be at the vanguard of the conservative movement that actually fights back against our enemies instead of just taking it. Because if our enemies are using guns and bazookas, we damn well better fight back with more than wet noodles. We need to use the same means if we’re actually going to win this fight. And I’m not in this to lose, I’m in this to win.

The people of this country, whether they know it or not, depend on the institutions of the conservative movement to accomplish their objectives, to serve their interests, to make this country the sort of place where a good guy, working hard and playing by the rules, can raise his family as he sees fit on a single middle-class wage. That’s our vision, and it’s up to the people in this room to accomplish it. I remind you of Lincoln’s words. We have the power in this country. We have the power in this constitutional republic, and we bear the responsibility to use it to save this country. Let’s get to work. Thank you.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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