Saturday, June 5, 2010

Other True Believers

Following from my last post, I need to say something about those on the "other side" of the equation, that is, those who while disparaging government glorify the "private sector." These types, most of them anyway, are really not all that different than those who hold out hope that government will be our salvation, in that they think that certain concentrations of power in the "private sector" will be our salvation. That is, they often argue, if we just get out of the way of "business," while turning almost everything into a business, including government, we will find the promised land. It is a rosy scenario, as rosy as that held by "pro-government" types about government. And, of course, if I raise the question, given history or our experience with government, why do some people continue to think that it, government, can be our salvation, it is also necessary to raise the question why, given our history with corporations and other large concentrations of wealth and, hence, power, some people think that what is euphemistically called "the free market" will be our salvation.

For a long time, even longer than most people know, questions have been raised about the impact of large corporations on human beings, as well as on society. Of course, most of these questions have been forgotten now, but no less a proponent of the "market" than Adam Smith thought that such a market would have deleterious consequences for human beings. Smith was a proponent of, among other things, unions but not unions that were solely concerned with working conditions. Rather, he saw unions as a means of offsetting the narrowness of the life of those called "laborers."

Of course, the disaster in the Gulf reminds us or should remind us of the limitations of a corporate or corporatized world. And what do we do as a result? Well, surprise, surprise, we turn to government....Oh, if only the government had done a better job of regulating the market place, the Gulf of Mexico would be clean today - which assumes of course that government could do "better" than it did. This assumption may be correct but it has to be addressed as a question first.

Not to burst the bubble too badly, but there are numerous cases of disasters happening even though everyone in government did her or his job. One of my favorites is of a baby who was placed in the care of the Department of Child Services [or some agency like that] in Illinois, physically in their custody, and it died. An investigation, an honest investigation at that, showed that everyone connected with this child - this "case" - did her or his job! And you might think that is amazing and probably untrue but it isn't either one. It too often goes unnoticed that governments, like corporations, fail when they do what they are suppose to do, when they do the best they can do. There is even a book with the intriguing title: "The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked." That is, the system worked as it was intended to work and the result was a disaster of immense proportions.

I would put this differently: Not only did the system work, it even brought us into Vietnam so to speak. That is, it would have taken someone who understood "government," its characteristics, its tendencies, to avoid this disaster and even then this person would have had to act in a way perceived as "irrational" in order to avoid this disastrous war. Here is a rather benign example. During WWII, the Navy constructed some buildings on the Mall in Washington, D.C. that were supposed to be temporary. Of course, as so often happens, they became permanent and were still there when Richard Nixon became president in 1968. Nixon thought them ugly and he instructed an aide to contact the Navy Department and have them taken down. So the aide called a meeting with some Navy personnel who knew the agenda. These Navy people came armed with books and charts demonstrating why it would be pretty near impossible and certainly unwise to take these buildings down. The aide was convinced and reported back to Nixon. Nixon said, essentially, "I don't care what the Navy said, order them to take those buildings down. End of discussion." And the buildings came down. But note that Nixon was acting "irrationally" from the point of view of the Navy and I would say government. He literally did not care what the evidence was offered; he wanted those buildings taken down.

Here is one of my hunches: Everything that BP did in the Gulf was, strictly speaking, rational. That is, based on their evidence, their course of action made sense and it would have taken a person thinking and behaving in an apparently "irrational" way to stand against that course of action. And, of course, unless that person had a lot of power, like Nixon had as president, her opposition would fail. People too often make the mistake of thinking that corporations have to buy the government's approval for their actions when, I suspect, they don't because they can defend their actions as "rational" and those in government buy into this rationality because, well, because it is their job to do so. It is how they are suppose to think and behave and so they do so.

Just a thought or two.....

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