End of an affair?

Spotlight on Corporate Governance
OECD Observer

An opinion poll in BusinessWeek magazine shows half of the US believing that what is good for business is not necessarily good for their country. Hardly surprising, you might think – except that the poll was carried out over two years ago, before the high-tech bubble burst and well before the recent corporate scandals. And the fact that the opinion poll was in one of the US’s main pro-business magazines meant that the results simply had to be taken seriously.

They were also quite unexpected. The BusinessWeek poll was wide-ranging, with respondents asked to agree or disagree with several given statements. The one that made the headlines was simple: in general, what is good for business is good for most Americans. Some 47% of respondents agreed with that statement, but 49% disagreed. This was much more negative than the previous poll conducted in 1996, when just 28% felt their interests and those of business were not necessarily the same. Another finding to ruffle corporate plumes in the 2000 survey was that 72% of respondents agreed that business had gained too much power over too many aspects of American life.

It was not all bad news for corporate America. Indeed, 68% of respondents agreed that American business should be given most of the credit for the prosperity that prevailed during most of the 1990s. However, one question might make worse reading if the poll was conducted today: when asked how much confidence they had in those running big business, only 19% had a lot of confidence, though as many as 58% had at least some.

Opinion polls have their limits, though the BusinessWeek survey at least suggests that, probably because of a backlash against globalisation as demonstrated at Seattle in 1999, the public image of corporate America was looking tarnished well before the scandals that erupted at Andersen, Enron and elsewhere. These scandals appear to have transformed that disillusion into a crisis of confidence.

Is it the end of the affair between America’s public and its business world? Probably not, though a more demanding public will mean the relationship may never be quite the same again. There is a coincidental footnote to add to this story: the issue of BusinessWeek in which this rather astonishing opinion poll appeared was dated 11 September, 2000.

• "Business Week/Harris Poll: How Business Rates: By the Numbers" in BusinessWeek, 11 September, 2000.

©OECD Observer No 234, October 2002

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