President Biden, though he has done many good things, and is trying to deal with a considerable number of problems handed to him by the previous administration, is still human, which means, he is capable of making faulty decisions. He can, like anyone, do things which will disappoint us, not of course, in such a way as to detour us from appreciating what he has done, but enough to remind us that no one person can and will do everything right. We shouldn’t expect it. We shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good, letting our disappointment have us forget the good which he is doing. We must not let such minor mistakes lead us to accept propaganda which tries to make him look like he is doing worse than he is, propaganda aimed at undermining his political future. Thus, while we can experience some of this disappointment in the way he approved the Willow Project in Alaska, we must remember, as Ella Nilsen on CNN reports, the project and issues associated with it existed long before he was in office, and many of the things in play imposed limitations on what he could or could not do:
The Willow Project is a decades long oil drilling venture in the National Petroleum Reserve, which is owned by the federal government. The area where the project is planned holds up to 600 million barrels of oil, though that oil would take years to reach the market since the project has yet to be constructed.
While he reluctantly gave in, allowing the Willow Project to go forward, it is important to recognize he did so while placing limits on where drilling could be done, so that ConocoPhillips will not be able to drill at two of the sites it wanted to use. Trump and the GOP would likely have given them everything. But, Biden did everything he could to limit what would be done in Alaska. Permits had already been given out, and so he found himself in a difficult position; instead of fighting, and possibly losing the fight, to override those permits, he did what he could to protect the region in a way he thought best. And so, he was able to make sure that 16 million acres would be blocked from being used by oil and gas companies in the future. Whether or not he was correct in thinking this was the best he could do, it is clear Biden wanted to do all he thought possible to protect the environment while understanding the limitations he was under.
Sadly, this is how things work in the real world. Leaders, even good leaders, will have to make deals; they will often have their hands tied, preventing them from doing what they, or others, think they should do. We should not be surprised about this. The ideal, perfection, is hindered by what is and is not possible. We can and will experience disappointment, but we should realize its true source so that we will not be manipulated to take our disappointment out on the wrong people. We should recognize the conditions which Biden found himself in, and who set up those conditions, and make sure they take their just share of the blame. Thus, our disappointment should not have us ignore the bigger picture. We should not ignore how much Biden has done and continues to do for the environment. And, as Maxine Joselow and Timothy Puko from The Washington Post explain, Biden, while giving in to the inevitable in regards the Willow Project, used the power and authority he had to protect the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge:
The Biden administration said Tuesday that it is withdrawing a land-swap deal that would have allowed a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a vast wild area in Alaska originally protected under President Jimmy Carter.
This reverses actions which Trump took to approve the building of a road which, though, had some limited benefit, would have caused too much environmental harm than the good it would provide:
A road through the Izembek refuge was originally approved under President Donald Trump in a deal with Alaskan officials, who have made it a priority to connect a remote town of 925 people with the rest of the state. But environmentalists have advocated against it to avoid fragmenting a pristine stretch of tundra and lagoons otherwise off-limits to motorized traffic. They have found a powerful ally in Carter, who has devoted more than four decades to the issue.
Biden, moreover, just vetoed a bill passed by Congress which sought to put back in place a rule Trump established which forbade retirement investors from taking into consideration the moral implications of their investments when deciding what they would invest in. They were told the only consideration they should have in making their investments is what would make the most profit. Biden still requires retirement investors to consider what is best for their clients, but he allows them to consider many factors in doing so, such as the environment, and not just those which would maximize profit. Tim Quinson in Bloomberg explains what Biden permitted, that is, what Congress, especially Republicans, tried to subvert:
The Biden administration reversed Trump’s plan and in November finalized a rule that permits retirement plans to consider ESG factors as long as they are in the best financial interest of plan participants and beneficiaries. The Department of Labor rule also provides options for workers and retirees who want to ensure the fund managers of their pensions consider climate risks and provide options to invest in sustainable businesses.
Thus, ESGs, that is environmental, social and governance factors, can be used as a part of the overall equation investors use in determining where to invest their clients’ money. Biden’s policy does not force companies to make particular decisions. They, rather, permits more, not less freedom, for investors, allowing them to take more things into consideration than profit alone. And, contrary to what Republicans suggest, ignoring ESG concerns, forbidding investors from taking them into consideration, can actually hurt, not help, their clients’ portfolios. Thus, Republicans not only show they are interested in limiting investors’ freedoms, their interference could lead to disastrous results.
While businesses should make a profit, that is not the only thing a business should be concerned about. Businesses should be interested in providing a good or service, providing for a real need, making sure that those who need what they offer, can afford it, and that its production does not lead to making things worse in the world. Businesses should embrace a holistic approach, one which looks after several concerns at once, and not just making the most profit possible. Certainly, businesses should be able to make enough profit to sustain themselves and their workers, but if they can’t do so in a moral fashion, perhaps it is better they go under. Pope Benedict XVI Caritas in veritate (¶40) is clear that businesses should be socially responsible, even if what is ethical might get in the way of making the maximum profit:
Yet there is also increasing awareness of the need for greater social responsibility on the part of business. Even if the ethical considerations that currently inform debate on the social responsibility of the corporate world are not all acceptable from the perspective of the Church’s social doctrine, there is nevertheless a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference.
And so, thinking only in the short term, and only about profit, is inexcusable; businesses should be about producing products which take care of some actual needs, that is, in providing some actual, needful good. They should not be about maximizing profits through exploitation – exploitation of the workers, exploitation of those who would use the product, or exploitation of the earth and its resources. Thus, Benedict continued:
What should be avoided is a speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise, its benefit to the real economy and attention to the advancement, in suitable and appropriate ways, of further economic initiatives in countries in need of development. It is true that the export of investments and skills can benefit the populations of the receiving country. Labour and technical knowledge are a universal good. Yet it is not right to export these things merely for the sake of obtaining advantageous conditions, or worse, for purposes of exploitation, without making a real contribution to local society by helping to bring about a robust productive and social system, an essential factor for stable development.
This is fundamentally what lies behind Biden’s ESG rule, and why his veto is important; he is making sure that businesses serve their complete role in society, a role which is more than that of an enterprise which exists merely to make a profit. Once we recognize this, then moral implications, such as how business practices affect the earth, and the future of humanity, can and should be taken into consideration by those making investments on behalf of clients.
There is more to life than profit. We are responsible to the world we live in, and businesses should, therefore, also be seen as responsible to the community, and indeed, the world at large. Even if it means they will make less profit by doing what is right, such as for caring for the environment, they should not find themselves at a further disadvantage because investors are told they can’t invest money in them. Sadly, so many who like to talk about freedom show no concern when people want to use their freedom wisely, that is, for what is good and just. They want to restrict business freedom; anti-ESG rules make it difficult, if not impossible, for businesses to take moral considerations seriously, for such rules, if followed, would demand they maximize profit at the expense of everything, including the world. Christians should be concerned about this, for this means their moral concerns, which should include environmental concerns, will not be allowed to have any say in the business world. Indeed, investors who find particular businesses morally reprehensible will be told they will still have to invest in them because of the profits they make. Thus, things which Christians think are sinful, like pornography, because they make a lot of money, will have to be considered, and moral considerations used to deny such investments would be verboten if the anti-ESG rule and its intent is kept in place. Shouldn’t Christians wonder about the religious liberty implications of that? Thus, on Feb 27, 2023, The Executive Office Of The President (Office of Management and Budget) offered a Statement of Administration Policy which explained the concerns which led Biden to create his ESG rule:
In 2020, the previous Administration issued a rule that had a chilling effect on retirement investment advisers otherwise inclined to consider environmental, social, or governance (ESG) factors when making investment decisions, even if the advisor determined that these factors were material to investment decisions. That rule stepped between workers and the investment advisers that they have trusted to protect their hard-earning life savings. The 2020 rule effectively stopped plan managers from considering all factors relevant to investment decisions that should be designed to protect the hard-earned savings they were charged to manage.
The 2022 Biden-Harris Administration rule makes clear that ERISA fiduciaries can consider factors such as corporate accountability and transparency, climate, and liability risks if they find them relevant to the analysis of an investment’s risk and return, in the same way that they would prudently consider other relevant factors.
To be clear, the 2022 rule is not a mandate – it does not require any fiduciary to make investment decisions based solely on ESG factors. The rule simply makes sure that retirement plan fiduciaries must engage in a risk and return analysis of their investment decisions and recognizes that these factors can be relevant to that analysis. If DOL were to revert to the 2020 rule, the federal government would be interfering with the market in a manner that stands in the way of retirement plan fiduciaries’ ability to protect these hard-earned retirement savings and pensions and unnecessarily limit the options available to retirement plan participants and investors.
While we might be disappointed in the way Biden capitulated on the Willow Project, we should not let it define him and our understanding of the good which he is doing as president. We should realize that he is limited in what he can and cannot do, and many of his decision engage those limitations; he makes decisions based upon all the factors he has to consider, using them to produce what he thinks is the best possible outcome. No politician, no leader, will make all the decisions we would make. We must accept that is how things work in the world. Prudential decisions will have to be made, some which might prove to be correct, some which might not. Just because Biden has made a decision we do not agree with, we must look at the overall good which he has done, and continues to do, and consider whether or not that would have happened if he were not in office. The answer should be obvious. While Biden is imperfect, he is doing what he believes he is able to do for the common good. He is working for the betterment of the environment. He is doing what he can to protect businesses which are interested in more than mere profits, to make sure they can be ethically as well as financially sound. We should applaud him for doing this. Heaven knows how much worse things will be if Trump, or someone with a similar agenda, were to become our next president.
Stay in touch! Like A Little Bit of Nothing on Facebook.
If you liked what you read, please consider sharing it with your friends and family!
N.B.: While I read comments to moderate them, I rarely respond to them. If I don’t respond to your comment directly, don’t assume I am unthankful for it. I appreciate it. But I want readers to feel free to ask questions, and hopefully, dialogue with each other. I have shared what I wanted to say, though some responses will get a brief reply by me, or, if I find it interesting and something I can engage fully, as the foundation for another post. I have had many posts inspired or improved upon thanks to my readers.