Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Age of Corporate Rule

So here's my usual word of warning for a post in which I'm likely to ramble a bit about politics and the world.  Read at your own risk...

So I was reading this column from David Rothkopf last week in Time about his views on what sort of actions might be required in order to help "fix" capitalism in a way that might help revitalize not only the America economy, but the economy of the rest of the world as well.  Rothkopf had a well written piece which touched upon a number of the reservations, concerns, and fears that I've been feeling for quite a while now about the balance/interaction between corporate and governmental power.
To begin, Rothkopf tried to underscore exactly how much power corporations have these days.  He points out that many multinational corporations have more economic and financial clout than the governments of a significant number of smaller countries, and that even in large, industrialized nations, corporations have managed to take advantage of outdated laws and loophole technicalities to leverage themselves into unrivaled positions of political power and influence (the 14th Amendment was created in order to protect First Amendment and due process rights for human beings, but corporations, wrapping themselves in the legal fiction of "personhood" have appropriated civil rights for themselves that have allowed them to influence the machniations of government in ways that were never intended).  Corporations reach across international borders to play countries off of one another during business disputes, and multinationals exploit the tactical advantages of operating in various nations while simultaneously trying to avoid the obligations of various operations by sheltering assets and taking advantage of political and governmental protections in one country over another.
One of my main points of agreement with Rothkopf was in pointing out that the fear and mistrust that many citizens have in regard to their government probably ought to be directed at least as strongly toward the private sector, given the influence that corporate interests exert on governmental institutions and society in their relentless pursuit of profit.
In particular, I really liked this quote:

"The current argument that larger government impinges on rather than protects or advances individual liberties is a far cry from the ideas that fueled England’s Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution. It ignores the fact that the void created by smaller government is often not filled by “liberty.” When matters like the global environment or regulation of derivatives trading are left entirely to market forces, for instance, outcomes tend to serve the most powerful because markets neither have a conscience nor do they ensure opportunity. Rather, they seek efficiency, and efficiency loves scale, and enterprises that grow to scale become elephants stamping out opportunities around them."

The argument that any action undertaken by the government inherently impinges upon liberty has grown tiresome, especially when coupled with the notion that virtually all action undertaken by private markets have a natural tendency to enhance freedom and liberty.
Rothkopf reminds us that efficient, powerful businesses will tirelessly seek to do the one thing that any truly successful business exists to do- make money.  Businesses may project an image of being "green" or socially conscious or morally enlightened, but, in the end, a private sector corporation exists to make money.  If it doesn't make money, it ceases to exist, and although it may sacrifice some short term profitability in order to build a brand or secure long term public relations victories, in the end, a private company will always be about effectively producing money.  If a company isn't going to make money in either the short or long term, it's either going to go away, or it's going to undergo changes that will allow it to become profitable.
And this need to pursue profit isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Of course, corporations provide us with the goods and services that give us a high quality of life.  They sell the things that they want and need.  Corporations are extremely useful creatures. 
But they're beasts of burden that, if left unbridled, will ultimately run human beings over or turn on them if those human beings are standing between the companies and the profits that they hunger for.  Corporations aren't really concerned about clean air or water, working conditions, wages, or fairness in the marketplace.
The fact that corporations exist in order to produce profit really isn't a negative feature unless the public loses sight of this existential characteristic and begins to believe private sector propaganda about the endless benevolence of the free market versus the inherent liberty-crushing, stifling nature of government.
As Rothkopf pointed out, corporations love efficiency, and, at times, profit minded efficiency runs counter to human interest.  The most efficient corporations may grow into giant, monolithic entities which manage to use their economic power and political clout to drive smaller competitors out of the market.  Wages, job opportunities, and benefits may stagnate as fewer, elite groups of large, robust corporations come to dominate and control the marketplace (a process made easier if they get too strong a voice in government and are able to stifle competition).   

At any rate, I'm not here to lead some sort of communist charge against corporations.  I'm all for the successful operation and strength of the private sector.  I still believe that our capitalist economy has helped to make our country a powerful, safe nation with a high standard of living.
But I've just been annoyed with all of the trash talking about our evil government lately, and I'm tired of the romanticization of the private sector.  I'm worn out hearing about how everything would be so much better if super rich individuals and corporate America were just left alone to run wild, free, and unfettered. 
Free market capitalism is great, but I'm still entirely comfortable with the role of government being one of setting regulations on the activities of private businesses and limits on their power.  In fact, I tend to think that corporations have already exceeded their appropriate boundaries in many areas (corporate involvement in politics in the post Citizens United era being one prime example).
Mostly, I'm just tired of the fact that everyone is so paranoid about the government wrecking the economy and our lives when there's another, maybe even scarier, 800 pound gorilla in the room.

So that's it.  Nothing revloutionary, I know.  Rothkopf's short piece just resonated with me. 
Hope you're having a good day!


The League said...

Theodore Roosevelt would agree with you. That is not an endorsement for you to begin wearing pince nez, but its worth noting that we're far enough removed from the reasons for the rise of Unions and the reasons a Republican president who stood to gain from the success of corporations (but who was impossibly independent in thought) began breaking up monopolies.

The same ideas regarding indebtedness to corporations existed then as they do now.

I will never understand the concept of believing that the market sorts things out. We have hundreds of years of human history to suggest that the vast, vast majority of us will lose out in a scenario in which benefiting shareholders is the only moral to which we should adhere.

J.S. said...

I like your comment- partially because it involves Teddy Roosevelt, but mostly because you acknowledge the awesomeness of my position.