General Electric Co.’s decision to cut off financing for a few dozen gun retailers will impose “an insignificant and immaterial” effect on GE’s balance sheet, but the gun gambit provides this most politically attuned corporation in America an opportunity to thump its breast in another display of corporate sanctimony.
GE told the Wall Street Journal last week that fewer than 75 retailers nationwide — small shops selling primarily guns and ammunition — will have to find other capital sources to finance customers’ gun purchases. Meanwhile, GE will continue to provide credit to gun buyers at Wal-Mart Stores — the nation’s biggest retailer of guns and ammunition — Dick’s Sporting Goods and other retailers with extensive lines of firearms and related equipment.
It’s just this kind of ploy that inflames passions of gun-rights advocates who see GE’s maneuver as another example of corporate elites pre-empting citizens’ decisions on what is best for them and their families.
To be sure, GE has legitimate emotional reasons for its decision. GE Capital is based close to Newtown, Conn., the site of the shooting that took the lives of 26 children and educators in December, and GE exec Peter Lanza is the father of Adam Lanza, the shooter who killed those people.
But we’ve seen GE clothed in civic virtue before, motivated by nothing more than crony capitalism. In 2010, GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt was front-and-center among CEOs recruited by President Barack Obama to proclaim that the chafing between big business and big government had been soothed. Soon after, amid much fanfare, Mr. Immelt was named head of the President’s Council of Jobs & Competitiveness, which never met with the president and evaporated after four meetings and a boilerplate report.
GE was out beating the drum in 2011 for another Obama agenda item, cap-and-trade, a system to limit man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. And what better example of civic probity to save the world from the effects of global warming than to provide federal subsidies for GE’s wind turbines and solar panels?
By May 2011, even Mr. Immelt realized he over-hyped the dangers of climate change and over-promised the benefits of green technology. He told an audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “If I had one thing to do over again, I would not have talked so much about green. Even though I believe in global warming and I believe in the science . . . it just took on a connotation that was too elitist. It was too precious, and it let opponents think that if you had a green initiative, you didn’t care about jobs.”
But sometimes GE just can’t help itself when it comes to deciding what’s best for consumers, as when it pushed effectively for a federal ban on its own GE-brand incandescent light bulbs and to substitute more-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs (100-watt incandescents were restricted in 2011, 75-watt bulbs were phased out in January and restrictions on 60-watt bulbs take effect next year). Not to worry. GE-brand CFL bulbs are in production — in China.
GE’s decision to cut off financing for gun shops will do nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill and others who would do harm in this country — few of whom buy weaponry on credit in the first place. Given GE’s history of playing the finger puppet for liberal causes, its determination to hinder gun ownership at some retailers but not at others is suspect at best. At worst, it’s another display of corporate elitism.
[First published by Crain's Chicago Business]