Making Myths

Making Myths

One of the major drawbacks of writing daily – as opposed to weekly, which we did for decades – is that we sometimes allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good.  Because we don’t have the time to over-think stories, research them extensively, dip into the vast recesses of Western Civilization to find precedents, and then write and rewrite them time and again until they’re perfect(ish), we find ourselves taking really good and important stories and shelving them.  We always plan to return to them, of course, but we rarely do.  They’re too important to do a quick hit on, we tell ourselves.  We have to take some time, flesh them out, and give them the treatment they deserve.  But instead, they just…fade away.

What follows here is one such story, something we have followed and tried to write about several times since last October but never explained well enough or fully enough to justify subjecting you, gentle reader, to it.  We don’t want it to fade away, however, and we’re not sure anyone else is going to write about it, largely because we’re not sure anyone else has our take on it.  In many ways, this is a very personal story.  But it is also far bigger than us and therefore deserves an airing.

Last Thursday, The Hill published an article by Saul Elbein, their Austin, Texas-based reporter who covers farming, energy, water and climate finance.  According to Elbein, the pushback against ESG is all part of a grand conspiracy funded and directed by nefarious forces, in this case, fossil fuel companies:

The recent Republican push against sustainable investing likely originated in a backroom campaign by the fossil fuel industry in states like West Virginia and Texas.

(Editor’s note: That word “likely” is doing some HEAVY lifting here)

Its tactic: to tar moves by the financial sector to weigh the climate risks posed to the oil, gas and coal businesses as “discrimination,” according to internal documents obtained by InfluenceMap….

That campaign began as a failed 2021 attempt to get West Virginia to ban banks that figured into loans then-obscure metrics around environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. 

But over the past two years, the approach has gained rapid ground, as the ESG issue has bloomed into a major focus of state Republican politics and a key battleground in the national culture wars. 

The documents obtained by InfluenceMap — which date back to the first attempts to craft anti-ESG legislation — reveal fossil fuel companies’ role as the major driver in the fight against sustainable finance.

Later in the article, Elbein specifies that this alleged campaign began in February 2021, which is interesting.  If you check the publication date at this link, you’ll see that something else happened in February 2021, something else that may or may not have had an influence on the awareness of the “then-obscure metrics around environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.”

We dunno.  It’s weird.  We think that the timing is interesting, although not because we think that we personally set things in motion.  It’s just that…if the fossil fuels companies started this stuff, then shouldn’t they have started it before the book was published, or maybe even before it was written?  That would make sense to us.  But then…what do we know about it?

Anyway, as it turns out, this isn’t the first time that a journalist has uncovered the conspiracy behind the pushback against ESG.  The catch is that last time someone did so, the culprit was not the fossil fuel companies.

On October 12 of last year, The New York Times ran not one, but TWO profiles of Leonard Leo, the former vice president of the conservative legal organization the Federalist Society.  Although Leo has been a prominent political activist for decades, the Times decided that his “new” variety of activism deserves increased scrutiny.

Leo, you see, had become interested in ESG, and that, the Times decided, was simply over the top.  Although reporter Kenneth Vogel conceded that “Mr. Leo has become a boogeyman,” and his copyeditor admitted – in the headline of the second profile, nonetheless – that Leo’s “network” is “increasingly powerful” but is also “not easy to define,” they nevertheless went to press with this:

The ambition, tactics and impact of Mr. Leo’s network are illustrated by its campaign to punish some of the country’s biggest corporations for pushing environmental, social and governance causes, known as E.S.G., that generally align with a Democratic agenda….

It is difficult to trace the support from Mr. Leo’s network and CRC for the anti-E.S.G. campaign. Filings that might shed light on it likely will not become public until next month or possibly next year. Even then, the flow of cash could be obscured since dark money is often routed through multiple entities….

A particular focus of the anti-E.S.G. campaign has been BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, which has been at the forefront of an effort to push companies to respond to climate change by reducing carbon emissions….

The attacks on corporations are reminiscent of a memo written in the early 1970s for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by the future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. He argued that to offset a leftward tilt in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences and from politicians,” the business community needed to fund conservative political institutions.

We don’t know about you, but this whole thing suggests to us that Vogel’s editors at the Times would have been well served to do what Elbein’s editors at The Hill did, that is, make themselves familiar with hedge words such as “likely,” “maybe,” “possibly,” and “kinda coulda.”

To be honest, we don’t doubt for a second that the fossil fuel companies have been keen to push back against ESG or that Leonard Leo would be likewise interested and invested in the issue.  But that doesn’t mean that they started it or that there is a grand conspiracy afoot.  Take it from us.  For starters, these people cannot come to an agreement about the source of this dastardly conspiracy.  And that, in turn, suggests that the conspiracy angle is self-debunking.  Additionally, and more to the point, they can only come to their conclusion that the pushback is political by truncating the timeline (i.e. “Lying” about how and when this all took place).

The pushback began loooong before the conspiracy peddler’s acknowledge.

They don’t care, however.  The media and its allies have an agenda – and an ironic one at that.

In The Dictatorship of Woke Capital, I briefly discuss the process of “myth creation” as described and advocated by the turn-of-the-century leftist Georges Sorel and as practiced by the political Left for more than a hundred years since.  I also discuss in detail how this myth-making process was used to turn Milton Friedman’s simple, anodyne description of the role of a corporate executive into an all-purpose antagonist for those wishing to add a superfluous “social purpose” to capitalism.

Between The New York Times’ dubious and ineffective identification of the ESG pushback as the primary purpose of Leonard Leo’s non-profit network, Sustainalytics’ subsequent insistence that Vogel’s investigation inarguably demonstrates that the anti-ESG campaign is “coming from conservative activists,” and the new documents that inarguably demonstrate that the anti-ESG campaign originated with fossil fuel companies, we believe that we are witnessing, in real-time, the effort to create the foundational narrative of the woke capitalist myth: “We’re out here trying to save the world, allowing investors to do well by doing good, and then they came along and ruined it all with their politics.”

The creation and acceptance of this myth is critical for the forces of woke capital for at least a couple of reasons.  First, it enables the practitioners of ESG to maintain their dubious claims of fiduciary responsibility.  If they can define fossil fuel companies and “conservative activists” as the source of the politicization of capital markets, then they can continue to insist that their imposition of public policy outcomes on the nation without consent is merely an attempt to detect and protect against long-term risk.

Second, this effort allows woke capitalists to demonize anyone who criticizes ESG and its anti-democratic, anti-market agenda as the “real” enemies of shareholders, stakeholders, and their collective well-being.

The past couple of years have been exceptionally unkind to the practitioners of ESG and woke capital.  The premises undergirding their arguments have been shown to be fantastical, even as the markets have punished them for their “non-recognition of reality,” (to borrow a phrase from Eric Voegelin).  Their only hope, at this point, is to change the debate, to direct the focus of the conversation away from their own heavy-handed and inarguable failures and to mysterious dark-money conservatives and J.R- Ewing-esque oil and coal barons.

This is all a myth, of course, and the making of it must be countered.

Stay tuned.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
[email protected]

Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.