Big Business is One Thing — Corporate Influence is Quite Another!

That is basically the sum of Americans’ attitudes towards large corporations, according to a survey conducted by CNBC and public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. It gathered the responses of about 25,000 participants from 25 countries, including both rich and developing economies, regarding big business, its relationship with government, and similar issues (note that results for developing countries are skewed towards the wealthier and better educated citizens with computer access, and thus may be less representative — you can find the full report here).

The results, reported by the New York Times, were interesting in their nuance: although famously pro-business, Americans were nonetheless pretty skeptical when it came to the confluence of business and politics. When asked whether corporations have too much, too little, or just the right amount of influence over the country’s economic future, 48 percent of Americans chose “too much” — roughly the median between China, the lowest scorer at 24 percent, and Brazil, the highest at 63 percent.

Countries that are more concerned than America about big business’ role on economic future include the U.K., France, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Russia; among those that express more reservations than the U.S. are Italy, Spain, Australia, Germany, South Korea, Mexico, and Canada.

However, when the question regarding corporate influence was phrased in a different way, the results altered: when ask whether it a good thing or bad thing for corporations to be strong and influential, only 31 percent of Americans answered that it is a good thing, among the lowest of the countries surveyed, and well below the levels of major emerging economies like India, Mexico, Turkey, and China (in which 60 to 70 percent of respondents were favorable to greater business influence).

In fact, only Germany, Poland, the U.K., and Hong Kong were more cynical about companies having greater influence, although Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, and Canada were not far behind the U.S. in their dim view of more powerful businesses. Yet when asked whether corporate lobbyists exercise a high amount of influence over the national government, 59 percent of Americans responded in the affirmative, second only to Italy.

So what gives with this apparent contradiction? Times columnist Niel Irwin offers his assessment of the results:

When it comes to business exerting power over the economy, Americans have mixed views but are generally comfortable. But when it comes to business exerting power over government, they are much more exercised.

Americans aren’t antibusiness, in other words. They’re just against business having what they see as too much power in Washington.

Compare that with China, where citizens seem to view businesses as less powerful in terms of lobbying (only 19 percent seeing a lot of influence by corporate lobbyists, a full 40 percentage points lower than in the United States) but are more likely to believe it is good for companies to be strong and influential. One might imagine that Chinese citizens see less a phenomenon in which business overly influences government and one more in which government overly influences businesses.

Indeed, a remarkable pattern stands out. In some of the places where big business has the least power and capitalist economies are the least developed, optimism and support for the corporate sector is highest.

In Communist Party-led China, 74 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “it is a good thing when corporations are strong and influential, because they are engines of innovation and economic growth.” That is around three times the level of support found in capitalist paradises like Britain, the United States and Australia.

Indeed, when asked whether the role of corporations in the future is a reason for hope or for fear, the U.S. and most other rich nations expressed the highest level of apprehension; conversely, the greatest amount of hope in the corporate sector were in the emerging economies like Indonesia, China, Malaysia and India.

As Irwin notes, it basically comes down to the fact that the less developed a corporate sector is in a given country, the more hopeful its people are that it will be a force for the better. Perhaps this is because these nations have yet to experience the large scale of business malfeasance than the long-industrialized West; or maybe it reflects greater trust in private institutions as opposed to the public ones — in most of these nations, particularly India and Brazil, governments are far less trusted.

Of course, it bears reminding that respondents from the developing world represent a smaller and more elite proportion of their respective nations — perhaps the average worker in these countries feels far less hopeful and trustworthy towards their corporations? What are your thoughts?

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