I happened into a conversation with man sitting next to me on a plane ten or fifteen years ago that today seems almost prophetic. It was one of those gradual conversations that can happen when you’re in a car or maybe in a stuck elevator for a long time with someone, where there’s no agenda or expectations and plenty of time to quietly think about what each other is saying.
The man was large, friendly, cheerful, in his mid-thirties, and a self-declared conservative Christian Republican. He spoke with some pride of his business career in upper management, first with a large retail chain and then with a grill manufacturer we’ll call CookBest. He was a business man on the move, in the club, with answers and confidence, proud of this “greatest and most productive country in the world.” I liked him. He seemed honest and candid, a good guy.
Two things we discussed made an impression on me. The first was that his company had recently moved its manufacturing business to China. He had all the numbers that explained the benefits of the move. Labor costs in the U.S. were higher than abroad so imports were underselling them by five percent or so. And if shoppers at Home Depot can buy essentially the same grill for five percent less, of course they will. To be competitive, CookBest had to make the move to lower their labor costs. Yes, lots of folks lost lifelong jobs, but what can you do. Their incomes, in the thirty to forty thousand range, had grown too high. After we both sat quietly for awhile, I asked him if he ever considered approaching the workers in the U.S. plant and explaining the problem and offering them the choice of taking a cut or losing their jobs to the overseas move. He was quiet for a moment and conceded the thought never occurred to him. After more silence, he explained that moving overseas is what everyone was doing. He seemed to be struggling within himself a little and I reminded him that I was a mediator and mediators just tend to think that way.
The second thing he said that caught my ear followed our discussion of the impacts of moving manufacturing jobs out of the country — specifically, the shrinking of the nation’s middle class. Again, with all his candor he just sort of blurted out, “So what’s the problem, why do we need a middle class?” He spoke this as though it was obvious to everyone in his club. I guess the rabble wasn’t as roused back then, because I don’t think he expected anyone, at least not me, to disagree. I said that I had always thought the middle class was something this country had done well, that while we had a thriving middle class we had unprecedented growth and prosperity. People were working hard, buying homes, and sending their kids to college. I said my impression was that everyone felt they were pulling together, building the country and economy together, in the boat together. I thought it was a big part of what made this economy and labor force so productive. There was not a hint of antagonism between us. We had plenty of space to avoid rubbing up against any edges and it felt like we both really listened to each other.
My sense was that he was taken aback a bit by the conversation. I know I came away thinking I’d been shown a window into the mind set of conservative businessmen. I heard beliefs and assumptions that helped me understand some of the differences in values I perceive between human interests and the “business perspective.”
It seems a large segment of our society has accepted almost without question now that what’s good for business is good for America, that what adds to the GDP is good for the economy, that what’s good for the economy is good for everyone. The Supreme Court has almost enshrined these beliefs with a decade or more of decisions, the latest but probably not the last being Citizens United. I think these are false premises that need to be challenged.
Business may be the engine of an economy, but an economy should support the needs and interests of people. An economy should serve a society, not vice a versa. Do you disagree with this? Do you feel yourself wanting to argue that a society without a healthy economy withers and fails, therefore society needs to serve the interests of business, of the economy? Just as a car is more than its engine, the interests of society are larger and wider than corporate profits, rising stocks, and a growing GDP. As we say, money can’t buy love and doesn’t bring happiness. It’s absolutely true that a car can’t run without an engine, but an engine without passengers is meaningless. The interests of business and society are interdependent and overlap a great deal, but they are not the same and at times can be in tension with each other.
This tension, I think, is the situation we face today with decisions about how to reduce the deficit. We can look for measures that increase corporate profits, large personal wealth, and GDP, or we can look for measures that serve the most pressing social needs of the most people. While these are not all mutually exclusive, the values underlying the choices are quite different. An economy designed to serve the interests of corporate profits will let people suffer. This is an inherent problem with capitalism. With all due respect to Libertarians who believe a free capitalist market can solve all problems, this may be true only if solutions include letting ecosystems collapse and people die in the streets. Like it or not, the only national institution or structure by which the corporate engine can be steered down a road of social justice and common welfare is government! It does so through various mechanisms of regulation and “spreading the wealth around” for the benefit of the whole of society. Whether it works poorly or well, it’s the only steering wheel we have. Business pursues its own interests. A government of, by, and for the people must look after everyone else’s.
Let’s refocus the discussions and debates: Instead of attacking government as “the problem” and denying that it has an important and permanent role in society, let’s talk about how to make it effective, transparent, and accountable. And, instead of focusing on the politics in our discussions of social and economic priorities and deficit reduction strategies, let’s talk about the values we are aiming for. This could produce a more constructive, more informative, and more compassionate process. Φ
Robert Rack is a lawyer and recently retired federal court mediator.