Friday, November 02, 2007

The "Corporate" Hook

There was a debate among the Democratic presidential candidates the other day, and one word (or variant thereof) showed up fairly often: “corporate.” Here is Barack Obama doing it first:

“And that, I think, is part of the job of the next president, is making Americans believe that our government is working for them; because right now, they don't feel like it's working for them. They feel like it's working for special interests and it's working for corporations.”

This statement was made, note, in response to a series of questions asked to Hillary Clinton about opening up the White House records from the Clinton Administration. It is, in other words, quite a bit of rhetorical distance to travel to squeeze the word “corporations” in.

Sen. Christopher Dodd was next, advocating a carbon tax to fight global warming. Now a carbon tax may or may not be a good idea, but what is striking is what Sen. Dodd always insists on calling it: a “corporate carbon tax,” a phrase he used three times. Now of course corporations are just pass-through vehicles, and a “corporate” carbon tax will eventually be parceled out to consumers, shareholders and workers. But economic literacy is no as widespread as one would like, and so this kind of hand-waving is distressingly popular. Interesting, Tim Russert did not think to ask the senator what the difference is between “corporate carbon” and the kind of carbon the rest of us emit.

Senator Edwards, the glibbest anti-corporate campaigner of them all, jammed the word in when talking about New Orleans after Katrina:

And contracts have been let to these multi-national corporations, instead of allowing the people of New Orleans to rebuild their own city.

The best thing that could be done to allow the people of New Orleans to rebuild the city is to completely crush the idea that the government will be their savior. In parts of New Orleans (and Mississippi) rebuilding is well-advanced, by free men and women acting on their own initiative. Vietnamese residents of New Orleans did just that (see here and even here of all places, for example) by explicitly deciding not to wait for government. But of greater interest here is the villain that Sen. Edwards here and elsewhere (with dreary frequency) invokes: “corporations.” More than any other candidate he tries to snag left-wing voters by repeated use of forms of this word.

In other contexts, other candidates have done the same. Sen. Clinton often talks about “corporate social responsibility,” by which she means running the firm in her interests rather than those of its owners. In each case, there is an attempt to depict some monolithic “corporate” interest (never mind that different kinds of corporations have different interests), and then to pit it against the “public” interest. This latter is unusually deceptive or dumb, in that almost any conception of the public interest – endangered squirrels and the people who really care about them vs. lumber and the people who really need it, today’s drug consumers vs. today’s drug producers and tomorrow’s consumers – is really a series of private interests that may or may not add up to 50% + 1. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society, only individuals, a remark for which U.K. progressives under the sway of collectivist gospel never forgave her. And Madison and other American Founders took great care to think of society as a group of many factions, which have to be counterbalanced and set against one another so that liberty may be passed on to the next generation.

But increasingly candidates are having none of it. There are “corporations” – the doers, the producers, the innovators – on the one hand and there is “the public” on the other. It is a disturbing trend, a recipe for destructive zero-sum political conflict. and bears watching.


Blogger Gold said...

That's a pretty piece of revisionism, Evan. But you might want to highlight this quote from the Village Voice article you link to:

"Whereas most of the semi-urban sprawl of the Ninth Ward was devastated by floodwaters—particularly the economically desperate Lower Ninth Ward—the higher-lying Vietnamese enclave was among only a handful of neighborhoods spared the brunt of Katrina's storm surge."

So yes, many neighborhoods in New Orleans have been rebuilt. In general, the higher elevated neighborhoods, and (ironically) some of the neighborhoods CLOSEST to the levees (since they were breached, floodwater tended to flow down). Others neighborhoods still look like war zones. To blame their devestation on a like of "good ol' fashioned can do America attitude," well, that's pretty douchy.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Evan said...

It's a minor point in the essay. But I was aware of the remark when I read the Voice piece. I was also aware that in every meaningful respect - homes and businesses and neighborhoods physically destroyed, implying a need either to wait for someone else to rebuild for you, or to get busy yourself - the problems are more or less the same for the Vietnamese and other residents. Indeed, there were many Vietnamese businesses and homes in lower-lying areas, and those folks have recovered too.

Physical destruction is one thing, destruction of the spirit is another. The Vietnamese pooled their resources, welcomed their new Latino neighbors as partners, and otherwise got busy with the business of life. Many of them, it ought to be said, saw far worse in Vietnam than the worst that Katrina could dispense, and this gave them the perspective to take charge of their own future. This attitude is why they succeed.

Culture matters, a lot. Only the willfully blind could contend otherwise.

1:48 PM  

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