Friday, July 10, 2009

Business is Not a Solution to Our Problem, Business is the Problem

The billions of dollars allocated by the Federal Government in bailout funds has been a lightning rod for criticism on both sides. This morning's news that AIG seeks government approval to grant their CEOs and top executives another round of bonuses could easily inflame liberals, conservatives, and taxpayers all. The article takes care to set out the fact that AIG might never be able to produce any return for shareholders, even after paying back the billions of dollars it has received from the government, a reality in no small part due to its retention of the infamous credit-default swaps that undermined the solvency of the entire financial system and helped create the economic mess in which we are currently stuck. That the company would have willfully refused to learn its lesson ought to illustrate that the private sector should never be viewed or advertised as the noble, virtuous counter-weight to that metastasizing mass of collective "evil" found on Capitol Hill.

What I have often wondered is how Republicans can legitimately continue to criticize Washington, D.C., as some kind of evil morass of corruption and inefficiency when the private sector has arguably proven itself more corrupt and more than willing to resort to illegal (and certainly unethical) means to perpetuate itself. This is an ancient talking point that dates at least back to 1980. Starting with Reagan's first term, the continual GOP drumbeat has been to assert that government is the problem and that it ought to be as small as possible so as to reign in its excesses. This is well and good until one takes into account that the corresponding, singular focus on the free market adopted then meant that the private sector grew larger and larger, corporations swelled to unprecedented sizes, and without sufficient regulatory oversight, they took frequent greed-driven liberties which contributed greatly to the economic mess of today. And, using AIG as an example, they are still more than willing to take these liberties, despite the devastating impact that their foolish practices made upon the lives of people in this country and around the world. Sainted capitalism is hardly any solution.

Furthermore, as MSNBC's First Read this morning reported, 40% of the stimulus took the form of tax cuts. Yet, neither Republicans, nor Democrats seem to wish to incorporate this interesting fact into their arguments and counter-arguments. One can understand why Republicans would choose not to bring it up---it doesn't suit their agenda and makes the Obama Administration look bi-partisan and conciliatory rather than unilateral and radical, as they like to paint it. But I still wish some Democrat would throw this fact out in debate, preferably with the American peoples' full attention. What gives Republican arguments some degree of veracity and heft is that the United States is a nation with a strong libertarian streak. Tied to those libertarian leanings are a long tradition of being wary and suspicious of government. Criticizing those in high elective office might as well count as a national pastime. Corruption scandals only validate those cynical reactions and, indeed, often times these reactions are quite justified.

However, what makes less sense is that people seem less inclined to feel any compulsion to vent their anger and frustration upon corporations and businesses. Perhaps this is because the past provides constant, numerous reminders of Federal government stupidity and waste, but we are still grappling with the notion of the huge, faceless corporation and it's partner in crime the multinational conglomerate. In a land until very recently dotted almost exclusively by small businesses (with a few notable examples), we still have a tendency to think of the private sector as being comprised exclusively of people we know personally and interact with on a friendly basis. In this idyllic, Norman Rockwell world, the grocer, the milkman, the tailor, and barber form a community of toilers working together in close proximity to each other. Government, in contrast, is a distant enterprise whereby, as this notion goes, we send representatives to make sure our needs are met and quite often find that their number one allegiance quickly shifts to the longevity of their profession, not to our concerns. The exact number of miles away from our communities they work seems to directly correspond to our dislike of them. To wit, state representatives are barely tolerable and national ones are utter abominations. Bred into us is a fear of strong centralized government based in some nebulous far away city where we have never lived, do not understand, and may never even visit.

However, the times of a primary focus on regionalism are no longer our own. We have discovered that it's difficult to cast aspersions towards businesses and business practices that require a degree in Economics to understand. In a changing world, where we are growing more intertwined with the global economy and not the regional one we still fetishize, our understanding of the process needs to change. By contrast, the world of government seems to be simple enough though it is rarely as easily explained or defined as we would like it to be. Along these same lines, if I could, I'd like to ask a GOP senator or representative a question on one of those talking head cable shows without them having the benefit to prepare first--I would ask, Why do you act like the sainted private sector is some kind of bastion of purity? I know he or she wouldn't really answer it, of course. Instead he or she would just spin out my query or evade the question altogether by talking instead about incompetent bureaucrats and government's wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars. So I suppose it's up to us, the ordinary citizens, to change the way we think and to adopt our attitudes to suit the present and the future, leaving the past behind.


jadedj said...

Excellent post.

I think that there is one other business image in addition to the Norman Rockwell idealized one. That is, many, many, many Americans (my wife for example) work for large corporations, or do business with them. Those American's thinking and attitude is one of self-preservation...that being, I need this job, don't rock my meal ticket. I fear this is deeply embedded in the American brain, and greatly affects the idea of real change

Comrade Kevin said...

Well said. But as I'm sure you'll agree, that's a more recent phenomenon that doesn't have the historical precedent that the Norman Rockwell view does. But as corporations continue to swell and grow, many people will be forced to contemplate their complicity in matters that might bankrupt us all someday soon.