Why the Chamber of Commerce Has Been Wrong on All the Issues -- For 99 Years and Counting
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There's a reason the US Chamber always gets it wrong: they stand with whoever gives them the most cash (in 2009, 16 companies provided 55% of their budget). That means that they're always on the side of short-term interest; they're clinically, and irremediably, short-sighted. They recently published a list of the states they thought were "best for business," and the results were almost comical--all their top prospects (Mississippi!) ranked at the very bottom of everything fromn education to life expectancy.
But that doesn't mean that business is a force for evil. Though the US Chamber claims to represent all of American business, their constituency is really that handful of huge dinosaur companies that would rather lobby than adapt. Around America, the local chambers of commerce are filled with millions of small businesses that in fact do what capitalists are supposed to do: adapt to new conditions, thrive on change, show the nimbleness and dexterity that distinguish them from lumbering monopolies. As Chris Mead, in an excellent history of the local chambers, makes clear, there are a thousand instances where clear-sighted businesspeople understood the future. Who lured the first movie producers to southern California? The LA Chamber, which sent out a promotional brochure in 1907. Why was the Lindbergh's plane called "The Spirit of St. Louis"? Because the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce raised the money--that was a pretty good call.
That's why thousands and thousands of American businesses concerned about our energy future have already joined a new campaign, declaring that "The US Chamber Doesn't Speak for Me." They want to draw a line between themselves and the hard-right ideological ineptitude that is the US Chamber. Some of those businesses are tiny--insurance brokers in southern California, coffee roasters in Georgia, veterinarians in Oklahoma--and some are enormous. Apple Computer, for instance, which has...a pretty good record of seeing into the future.
There's only one reason anyone pays attention to the US Chamber, and that's their gusher of cash. But the Chamber turns 100 next year, and it's just possible that a century of dumb decisions will outweigh even that pile of money. If you're trying to figure out the future, study the US Chamber--and go as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org, an environmental organization running the “US Chamber Doesn’t Speak for Me” campaign.