21 August 2006

Creepy Scary Must-Read Analysis

Jane Smiley's been batting out dead-on analyses of Our Leader. Here's the latest. A juicy piece of it:

One thing you have to ask yourself, faced with American corporate culture, is, what is it about Americans, in particular, that makes them so indifferent to consequences, especially the consequence of doing harm to others, over and over and over? Why did those big tobacco folks persist, for fifty years, in poisoning their customers and attempting to get more customers? Was that what Jesus told them to do?

I bring up Jesus because many, if not most of these companies are headquartered in red states, states proud of their Christian heritage. Big tobacco is (or used to be) located in the south, big oil in Texas, big ag in St. Louis, Minnesota, and Iowa. If Christianity abounds in these states, and people working in these corporations, and running them, are professing Christians, and these people give themselves a license to steal and destroy every day of the year, what does that say about Christianity? Let me tell you. It says that Christianity, especially American Christianity, is the religion of death. Or it says that corporate culture is one thing and religious belief is another, and the religious side is powerless to confront any of the deadly sins perpetrated by the corporate side. But either way, American corporations are set up, not to "create wealth", but to plunder the wealth of everyone not powerful enough to stop them. And the rest of the world understands this. Why do they hate us, again? Oh, yeah. Our values.

When George Bush was elected, the big industries breathed a happy sigh. Finally, they had a "CEO president". The implication of that phrase was that Bush would know how to run the company, to reduce labor costs and outsource various services. The fact was that neither Bush nor Cheney had ever actually succeeded in business, but that was a detail. Failures though they were, they were steeped in corporate ways of thinking, and they owed a lot to big oil, big war, and big ag. They showed immediately that they knew how to do business in the corporate way by cheating in the 2000 election (let's call this "deregulating themselves and their governing behaviors"). This was the true mark of a "CEO President"--do what you can get away with, dare the others to stop you, act always as a predator rather than as a custodian of the common good, because according to theorists of the "free market", there is no common good. Thank you, Milton Friedman. And it doesn't matter how well or poorly they run the government. As they drive it into the ground, they are still acting as good CEOs in the American tradition, preparing their own golden parachutes, sticking it to the suckers (customers, suppliers, stockholders, citizens, soldiers), and treating the property of the corporation (for example the US Army) as their own private stock.

Deregulation has made this debacle.

This is what I remember about the 1980 election. When I got up the morning after and found out the result, I stood in front of my television and wept. I was right to do so. Ronald Reagan busied himself deregulating everything he could--the airlines, the savings and loans, the protections of consumers and workers, health care and the health of the nation itself, the industries that people relied upon for jobs. Babies, children, old folks, farm animals, you name it, he made their lives worse. Possessed of a nice ranch of his own, he assigned James Watt to wreck the environment for everyone else. And he just kept smiling. Americans loved it. He died a couple of years ago with the reputation of a saint. Why would that be? Well, he made Americans proud of themselves again, but for what? Profligate waste? Ignoring every sign that the era of big oil would someday come to an end? Accelerated destruction of natural resources for the sake of Conspicuous consumption? An increase in the number of homeless people in big American cities? Worthless fiddling in the concerns of other nations, like Nicaragua? Is it the US that gives corporations a bad name, or corporations that give the US a bad name? In 1980, the Republicans invited the corporate elite to have it their way. The world we have now, violent and selfish and brutal, contaminated and in danger of environmental collapse, is the world they made, both by actually dismantling the regulatory environment and by letting powerful people get in the habit of thinking that doing whatever they felt like, no matter how grossly harmful, was their right and their privilege.

American corporations always defend their activities by pointing to how innovative they are. This is especially galling when the food companies and the ag companies do it, because they have no good innovations to offer and never have. Olestra? Margarine? Dr. Pepper? GM foods? Roundup? Roundup Ready seed? Salty, fatty fast foods that have ruined the health of millions of Americans? High fructose corn syrup? Chickens raised in cruel and inhuman conditions, contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria? Rice carrying carotene supposedly invented to help starving children, except that children below a certain percentage of body fat can't metabolize the carotene? Whoops! A nice bowl of regular old brown rice and some tofu would work better, but no ag company can figure out how to own all of it. Or a piece of pumpernickel bread and some aged cheddar. Since humans know how to feed themselves, the only thing that the ag companies can do is introduce deceptively marketed products and take for themselves money that might have gone to feeding someone. Oh, yeah, and they can irrevocably change the world so that all biodiversity is reduced and destroyed. Once again, you've got to ask, are they inhumanly evil or inhumanly short-sighted? Oh, well. They are always wrapping themselves in the flag, so it must be the American way.

And it is. American corporations are uniquely free to do business in an irresponsible manner because of what you might call a typo in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which uses the word "person" without defining it as a human being. Since then, corporations have repeatedly interpreted their personhood in their own favor--they get to have the rights that humans have, such as free political speech (bribing candidates with contributions), but none of the consequences (mortality, moral reciprocity, full liability for bad actions). The result is all around us and threatens to destroy us.

A hundred years ago, the rapaciousness of the business elite spawned a century of war and social conflict. The power of Socialism and Marxism was in the rage people feel when their means are stolen from them, when they are duped and fooled and used as cannon fodder by people like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, when the world they live in grows more and more inhuman and self-evidently stupid. That rage is growing now. Anarchists have been replaced by suicide bombers. Marxists have been replaced by Islamicists and lefty bloggers. But, of course Bush and Cheney and the capitalists have empowered their own opposition because the human pattern is the same. The war machine, as in Lebanon (epitomized by aerial destruction) is just as clumsy as it ever was. You cannot torment and injure and murder and disfigure people into liking or agreeing with you, only into going underground while they prepare their revenge. You cannot treat people, even people who don't speak your language or dress like you, as suckers and babies (as in, taking candy from a baby). The average person knows this, but CEOs and CEO Presidents apparently do not. The fact is, the day Ronald Reagan was elected and the corporations decided to roll back the regulations that limited their power, greed, and egomania was the day they doomed themselves and all of us, because it was the day they began living the lie that there are no consequences to corporate activities. By deregulating themselves, they made sure only that the consequences of their misguided policies would be bigger--global climate change rather than higher gas prices, contaminated gene pools rather than lower profits from pesticides, global famine rather than localized corn blight, tens of thousands dead in Iraq rather than higher R and D costs, the death of the Ford motor company rather than a shift to less profitable, more fuel efficient cars. The list is endless. And their defense of what they do gets harsher and more shrill. We are given to understand that if they don't have their way at this point, conflagration in the middle east--war with Iran, possibly nuclear--will result. What kind of person plans such a thing? Inhumanly callous or inhumanly stupid? We have our answer--a CEO President, someone who epitomises both qualities.

Regulation was good because it rationalized not only business activity and human governance, but also because it rationalized the way the business elite saw themselves. It did not simply confront power with power, as Marxism did, it took details into consideration and broke up the huge gamble that is capitalism into a plethora of smaller gambles with perhaps fewer profits but also fewer consequences. You may have bought a piece of swampland in Florida, thinking you could develop it, and subsequent understanding of the ecosystem may have lowered the value of your particular piece of property. Too bad you had to eat that investment and come up with some other use for your acquisition, but your business failure is not a reason to destroy the Everglades. Too bad you put your R and D into SUVs, but that is not a reason to destroy Iraq, endanger Israel, and bomb Iran.

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