Acton Institute Powerblog

The God-Flies’ Big Conn

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It’s been a while since your writer began reporting on religious shareholder activism in this space. The term “religious” is used here to describe the vocations of the priests, nuns, clergy and other religious involved in shareholder activism – rather than serving as an accurate descriptor for essentially progressive political and social activities. These shareholder activists pursue agendas having little to do with the true nature of the faiths they no doubt believe, but too often relegate beneath their pursuit of liberal causes.

The above occurred to your correspondent upon following a link on the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility homepage. A quick click later, I was immersed in the progressive banalities of Rev. Jim Conn, “Spring Awakening: Uniting Against Climate Change” over at the website Capital & Main: Investigating Power & Politics. Rev. Conn’s essay champions what he perceives as a Risorgimento – a resurgent unification of political and social efforts. In essence, the Risorgimento Conn envisions applies to mitigating climate change by any means necessary, including shareholder activism as practiced by ICCR:

People with surplus incomes have been investing ever since the first stock market was invented, but now networks of socially responsible investors have gained clout in the marketplace. The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment acts as a research tool and clearinghouse of information for such funds. Their list includes a number of regular mutual fund companies that have established green or socially responsible investment services.

Design comes with action as well as conscious investment strategies. Organizations like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility file shareholder resolutions to urge appropriate corporate decision-making. They urge stockholders to divest from the bad guys and invest in companies not hurting the Earth, exploiting workers or creating harmful products. They have had a significant impact on corporate behavior — from food and water issues to workers’ rights.

Note the binary Conn creates between “bad guys” and “companies not hurting the Earth.” The retired United Methodist minister might do well to read Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuel – or any number of essays published by The Acton Institute championing cheap and plentiful fuel for raising living standards throughout the world – before demonizing energy companies.

Conn also mischaracterizes ICCR’s activism as primarily focused on fossil-fuel divestment. Instead, ICCR resolutions directed at the energy sector are a bit more of a rear-flank maneuver that attempt to force energy and fossil-fuel companies adopt practices that harm the profitability of the companies as well as dividends for fellow shareholders. In some sectors, such activists are referred to as “Corporate Gadflies” – because of the nominally religious nature of ICCR proposals and those of other such groups as As You Sow, your writer coined the phrase “Corporate God-flies.”

Thus far, contrary to Conn’s claims, these God-flies haven’t “had a significant impact on corporate behavior.” Reporting in this space last June, your writer noted that God-flies accounted for 29 percent of all shareholder proxy resolutions at the nation’s 250 top-rated companies. These resolutions received, on average, only 22 percent of shareholder votes. Furthermore, according to James R. Copland in the 2015 Proxy Season Wrap-Up, published by the Manhattan Institute’s Proxy Monitor project:

Among social investors, only As You Sow introduced more than five proposals in 2015 (seven). Many other socially oriented investors sponsored multiple proposals, however: social-investing platforms Arjuna Capital (three), Domini Social Investments (three), Green Century Capital Management (three), Investor Voice (five), Northstar Asset Management (two), Trillium Asset Management (four), and Walden Asset Management (four); religious investors Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes (two), Sisters of Mercy (five), Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order (two), Sisters of St. Dominic (two), Sisters of St. Francis (three), and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (two); the public-policy group National Center for Public Policy Research (two); and the Nathan Cummings (two) and Park (three) charitable foundations.

It’s doubtful 2016 will be any different. God-flies will continue to badger and pester other companies and shareholders while serving to diminish investment returns and Conn-men will continue to exaggerate the significance of their activities.

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Bruce Edward Walker has more than 30 years’ writing and editing experience in a variety of publishing areas, including reference books, newspapers, magazines, media relations and corporate speeches. Much of this material involved research on water rights, land use, alternative-technology vehicles and other environmental issues, but Walker has also written extensively on nonscientific subjects, having produced six titles in Wiley Publishing’s CliffsNotes series, including study guides for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He has also authored more than 100 critical biographies of authors and musicians for Gale Research's Contemporary Literary Criticism and Contemporary Musicians reference-book series. He was managing editor of The Heartland Institute's InfoTech & Telecom News from 2010-2012. Prior to that, he was manager of communications for the Mackinac Center's Property Rights Network. He also served from 2006-2011 as editor of Michigan Science, a quarterly Mackinac Center publication. Walker has served as an adjunct professor of literature and academic writing at University of Detroit Mercy. For the past five years, he has authored a weekly column for the mid-Michigan Morning Sun newspaper. Walker holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Michigan State University. He is the father of two daughters and currently lives in Flint, Mich., with his wife Katherine.