Corporate Culture Vultures
March 26, 2012
Maybe I have been looking too closely at the 2012 Republican campaign for president. This is what I woke up thinking about today:
Many---perhaps even most?-- Americans believe that private businesses have their better interests at heart than their government does. How did we get to this point? Corporations provide jobs—yes—but that is not their fundamental goal. Their goal--as any honest business person will tell you-- is to make money for their owners, employees and stakeholders. The greater public good is not in their business plan—and thus whatever they do to improve the world (i.e., creating jobs, and offering us wonderful products and services) is an incidental by-product, not a goal. And whatever unpleasant things they have to do to competitively pursue their profits are considered fair to the game. They can end the jobs they have created, regardless of how productive or loyal the employees have been. Don't blame Mitt Romney for saying he loves firing people. That is a key part of anyone's corporate success. And they can pollute the public space within a certain approved parameter (there still are some embattled government limits on the noise, air, water and soil pollution they can spread), they can offer noxious products that cause all kinds of collateral damage to the inattentive consumers’ bodies and souls. It is simply not their business to care about people’s health, safety or pursuit of happiness—unless somehow those are incidental to creating the transactions for buying their corporate products and services.
The news media used to have a public service mission. Now news is more normally seen as a commodity created only for profit. Yes, people have always hoped and expected to make profits on it, but there was, at least in my experience in the 1970s-1990s US media, the “halo effect”—you would try to put true, useful, interesting news on tv, radio and the news pages, and by extension the advertising next to it, which was required to pay for the enterprise, would gain credibility. But this commercial propaganda was not the core of the business. Any time a news person says their organization is designed primarily to “provide eyeballs to advertisers” they are describing a distortion of the business model, losing the vital feature that made this industry different from others. Similarly, if we said a corporately organized group of doctors was only out to make money, and not to promote health, we would be disgusted and look elsewhere for our care. We need to hold accountable those institutions and individuals who are given special standing in our culture (i.e. the protection of the press under the first amendment, the respect for doctors as fact-based purveyors of scientifically-based benefits). If they have lost their public service edge—I’m not talking about their ability to make propaganda and profit, but their notion that they have to think about the benefit of the public as a whole—then they need to be called on it. We should not simply expect them to behave badly and accept this as normal. Do you hear me, Rupert Murdoch and Fox News?
To be sure, some businesses helped to create communities. But we have seen how in the current era, they have also left those communities behind. No one expects them to sustain the communities once the profits have failed. But we expect something better of government, even more than it can reasonably provide. We have asked corporations to fill in where government could not. Have they done a good job of this?
It has been widely observed that we have allowed the corporate culture to take over our public spaces. Teens gather in corporate malls, rather than art galleries or libraries (which have not been welcoming enough to them, compounding the problem.) I was particularly struck by the success of the corporate cultural coup when I saw twenty years ago how a group of companies took over the famous White House Easter Egg roll. It seems nothing is sacred, not even the White House lawn. It was full of banner displays advertising Jello and chocolate candy. At our US Embassies abroad, the July 4 receptions where we proudly display American might and culture, rely on donated products from commercial vendors who may or may not be a source of actual pride: How do you feel about having MacDonalds and TGIF Friday’s represent our nation to the political and cultural elites of the world? Is commercial success the only value system we want to express?
How did the military-industrial-corporate complex—which was called out by Dwight Eisenhower and then vilified by the counterculture movement of the 1960s—get back to the very top of our national culture? Of course part of it was the genial front man, Ronald Reagan, who was paid to shill for corporate America (“At General Electric, progress is our most important product!”) and made it the political ideology for generations to come. “Government is the problem,” he said with his famously appealing voice and smile. Yes, it was the problem for the wealthy, who had to pay taxes, and for the corporations, who had to curb their behavior to fit with environmental, fiscal and social regulations. It was not such a problem for those who required federal intervention to allow them as black people to go to publicly funded schools, and women needing the right to have their own bank accounts and choices over when and how to have children, and those who had to live on Social Security and Medicare, and those who got homes and educations through the G.I. Bill or even those who still fly in airplanes, an industry whose aluminum was developed by the US military during World War 2 and then turned over to the US private sector, and so on and so forth.
What is this zeal today—the Tea Party seems to personify it, and Santorum and Romney, along with the rest of the GOP candidates, project it to the presidential campaign—to crucify American government as the source of all of the nation’s ills? Do you believe that the inevitable bureaucratic snafus and scandals actually add up to a terrible negative force in society? That taxes are not a legitimate part of having roads, bridges, Social Security, and the police? Then you don't belong in a democracy, folks, or at least not the one set up in 1787 by the fathers of the American Revolution.
Do you want to live in a fantasy world that has been defined by people who want you to buy something? Why would anyone prefer to trust institutions and people who are not, by their actual legal responsibility, designed to protect the public good?
Just look at Google and Facebook, creating our new public gathering spaces, and selling our personal preferences to commercial vendors. These vendors are lying in wait to change our priorities, so we will care about their products instead of what we actually might need to build a better world. And look at the commercial outsourcing of our military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this the way to run our wars? Would I rather have my nation's military set up by the kind of profit –seeking people who created the runaway Three Mile Island nuclear accident (a large energy company) than the government employees who created the Naval nuclear submarine fleet?
Why have so many Americans fallen in love with the companies and the people who run them, who don’t love us back? Who only want to marry us for our money? Is it because they tell us we are safe and beautiful when we use their products? Why does anyone believe them when they tell us the government--elected by us-- is conspiring against us? Why don’t the Tea Party people take a close look at who is funding their movement? Why don't they ask questions about why these superrich white men are putting money into attacking the government? Who has the most to gain if the government goes away? And who has the most to lose?