Saturday, December 11, 2010

For Joe, Who Loves Business and Opposes Government.

Joe, healthy societies cost money. You can't have a safe neighborhood, a stable bank account, reliable electric and telephone service, courts that give recourse to the law equally, schools that prepare kids to become responsible and self-reliant adults, clean water, safe medicines, untainted foods... without lots and lots of money. This is the case everywhere. And almost everywhere, people do NOT have these things.

People on the Right tend to talk about taxes in ideals, as in, "it's not the role of government..." or "people shouldn't rely on institutions..." These are legitimate thoughts and are of course true. They also tend to focus on government waste, inefficiency, lousy programs, etc. as areas to tap for needed funds for the legitimate purposes of government.

But in business, if an idea, a product fails, it gets shut down, changed, or the business as a whole fails. In government, there is no luxury of starting over - or failure, for that matter. You can start a business a thousand times. You can fire workers. Increase, decrease, or eliminate benefits. Change prices. Put profits in foreign bank accounts, thus improving the bottom line.

But we started our government once. And we did a damn good job.

A digression, if I may: I am a social worker. I work waaaay down on the ground where the stomachs and assholes (not the personalities, the actual body parts) dwell. It's not enough to say that government should create the conditions for free markets and then get the hell out of the way. We can't fire citizens no matter how poorly they work or how sick or dysfunctional they become. If we try, they end up costing us more, as social failure is far more expensive than even the most generous nanny state. Even the bottom line supports liberal social policies, when spun out over the long term.

The strong will always devour the weak, as in nature. Except that in nature, millions of years of evolution produced the conditions that prevent the shark from eating every last herring (or whatever), whereas in our business world, it's shark eat herring and herring be damned. Only government prevents the annihilation of the herring. You and I are the herring, BTW.

Jesus, can I beat a metaphor to death or what?

Unlike business, every adjustment in government has to be done while the populace experiences the effects of the failures or successes and vicissitudes of daily progress in real, live time. Also, the mission statements of businesses do not include protecting everyone from injustice or providing for the common welfare. It's hard to make a profit without losers as well as winners.

And it should be so. And it is good -- as long as the powerful are prevented from the outright purchase of government - which, I think we can agree, has more or less happened in America. Especially since "Citizens United," a case that was not about citizens but PACs, and no one was united at all.

The Right tends to think of wealth as achieved in spite of, not because of, government programs. If this were true the whole world would be as wealthy as we are, because the one things that separates America IS our form of government and its specific programs. The irony is that the very protections that keep capitalism from devouring itself and collapsing are the ones which the business class hate the most. If CEOs were mandated to consider a business cycle of, say, two generations, as opposed to tomorrow's stock price or next month's financial reports, the society would be healthier and there would be far greater sustainability. Greater equality and social justice would be a by-product.

The petroleum industry is a perfect example of the disconnect. Only by looking at the short term does it make any sense to pursue more and more oil. We know someday it'll be over, but the markets open at 8:00 on Monday and if the business is to thrive, it has to do so NOW. And, as in any war, in business you go to war with the Army you have, as Rumsfeld once said.

Creating a more perfect union and deriving a steady flow of profits are often in conflict. Which is why both the markets and the government have their own experts, their own proven methods. The canard that a successful CEO is by definition a qualified political leader is just that, a canard. Looked at another way, on December 4, 1933, Joe Kennedy was the greatest criminal drug dealer in America. On December 5, 1933, he was a patriarch of a majestic political dynasty. Quite a transformation, except that the only difference was the ending of Prohibition. The man's abilities and qualities were the same.

I have great sympathy for those on the Right, whose answers to tough problems are simpler and more viscerally satisfying. The problem is, as history tells us, when spun out to their logical conclusions, the strong will always exploit the weak until either revolution, monarchy, oligarchy, fascism, or totalitarianism prevail. Good policies that include a robust social safety net and vigorous regulation of business prevent revolutions of the unwashed masses, and keep the CEO safely and happily in his mansion and boardroom.

And that takes lots of money. Dillinger robbed banks because that's where the money was. We tax the rich for the same reason.


nomis said...

love your point... not sure about some of those metaphors (though I do like herring. The one in the wine sauce.)

That was Willie Sutton who went for the money, not Dillinger. I'm a bit confused on that last point. Is that a threat at gunpoint to those who have the money? I'm having a hard time seeing how this would be a good policy? Or is it that we need to have good policies to prevent this type of outlaw culture?

DW said...

Neither. Lazy writing.

DW said...

You know what? I'm reading this post over, and I notice that I didn't attribute a quote to Dillinger. I never claimed he said he robbed banks because that was where the money was.

And for the record, I wasn't mistakenly denying Willie Sutton his due -- I was co-opting (you might say plagiarizing?) his quote, then not attributing it, AND getting it wrong.

Wake up, People!