The Business of America

The Business of America

…is not business. It’s being a society.

© Bryan Zepp Jamieson

October 20th, 2012

A favorite stance by Republicans and libertarians, especially this time of year when voter registrations are being trashed by Republican party operatives and the son of the Republican candidate owns the company that counts the votes in most of Ohio is that America should be run like a business. Just like they’re trying to do with the voting.

Why, by lying, cheating, and using economic force to get their way, they’re already trying to run America like a business, and this should be a clear and explicit warning to anyone who doesn’t want to end up as corporate chattel.

The notion, one that Mitt Romney explicitly stated during the second debate, is that if America is run like a business, by a businessman, it will be far more efficient. Efficiency’s a good thing, right?

The notion is one that rests very comfortably on bumper stickers and in Republican brains, but doesn’t bear any actual examination.

Running a country like a business is an absolutely horrible idea. It’s been tried before, you see. Holland tried it in the 15th century and eventually crashed, never to be a major power again. Italy tried it in the 1930s and 40s, with dismal results. The trains did NOT run on time. Indeed, they barely ran at all. Then Italy went to war for national glory, and all the trains got blown up. Spain has never quite recovered from the Franco years. China, while mouthing communist platitudes, is as business-oriented a country as you can find, and it is a huge-scale social and economic disaster waiting to happen. When that bubble bursts, hundreds of millions will die, and the rest of the world will be forced to see the conditions under which the Chinese lived as peons in a business state.

There’s a lot of problems with the whole notion that a country is better off run as a business. First, there’s the claim that business is more efficient. It isn’t. So much so that the only reason they can get away with such a laughable claim is that, unlike a government that has to account to the public, a business can hide all the inefficiencies and screw-ups that permeate virtually all major corporations.

It’s fairly easy to compare in areas where their roles actually do overlap. Take private pensions for example. Most have an administrative overhead of 30 to 40%, and one in three go broke. In Republican America they’ve become a joke, just a tax-free shelter that corporate interests can raid as they ripen, ripping off the employees. Social Security, now nearly 75 years old and, despite right wing propaganda, in robust health, has an administrative overhead of less than 1%.

In areas where government functions have been privatized, the work done invariably costs more, and is often of much poorer quality. A lot of support functions for the military have been privatized, a move guaranteed to ensure the country will lose wars. The result is grotesque. A general in a war zone is likely to have a lower salary than the guy who comes in at the end of the day and empties his wastebaskets and wipes off his desk, and the general can’t even tell the guy how to do his job. Not only does the guy cost more than a private would, but the company is charging premium rates for the guy’s cleaning equipment, and of course adding as much as 300% for “overhead”–i.e. just plain stealing. And the private probably would have done a better job.

I worked for a city once where they tried privatizing some of their janitorial staff. They decided that $15 an hour and benefits was far too much money for semi-skilled labor, and because the employees were union, they couldn’t bully them. The idea of janitors making $5.15 an hour who could be fired at will and brought their own equipment sounded enticing to city management, a crowd never noted for its brains or honest. So they won a union battle to try a six month test run, and hired one of those big janitorial outfits. They discovered that they weren’t only paying for minimum wage workers who were unreliable and unmotivated, but they were paying premium rates for equipment they couldn’t own, they couldn’t tell the employees what to do, and with profit margins and everything, it actually cost more per worker than having the union in-house team! And the work was of considerably lower quality as absenteeism, drug use and goofing off went through the roof. The experiment was quietly ended, although the diseased thinking that led to it has infected the rest of the country in the twenty five years since.

Then there’s the matter of the labor force. Companies can fire unproductive workers. What becomes of a worker is the worker’s problem. The rationale is that they can always find work elsewhere.

If a society “fires” you for being unproductive and no longer has any sense of responsibility for you, where do you go? In America, perhaps 60% of the population are working. The other 40% are underage, elderly, infirm, or disabled. In any given society, at least 1% of the population is too mentally ill to hold down a job.

Do you just leave them to die in the streets? What becomes of them?

Efficiency isn’t exactly a golden idol for most workers. It usually means that you do twice the work for half the pay, and the company makes four times as much profit. If you aren’t a company owner, do you see a problem here?

Then there’s the matter of costs. An “efficient” company outsources costs as much as it can. If it can cajole a township into providing it land tax-free, it will do so, in return for a promise of jobs that is only sometimes kept. Likewise support infrastructure, such as roads, sewers, power, and water. Large companies want free access to them. Let the taxpayers foot the bill.

America can’t externalize the costs of being a society, at least not for long. There are a lot of things that just aren’t profitable for companies to pay for, from street cleaning to bridge repair to scientific research. They don’t want to pay for people who can’t make their products or who can’t buy them. They don’t want to pay for mass transit and good roads, even though they directly benefit from both. They want to externalize all of that.

A country can’t externalize those costs. If it tries, it stops being a country in relatively short order.

There is this final element, the poisoned heart of capitalism. The only goal of a company is to maximize profits, and this means suppressing costs (low pay, cheap source materials, externalize costs) while charging as much as possible. To make this possible, it has to try to control its work force, its customer base, and the laws as much as possible. What companies want is a “super heroin”: something that is instantly and endlessly addictive, can be made for no cost, and which kills off people when they can no longer afford to buy it. Stripped of all the “America is business” malarky, that is the golden ideal of any capitalist: super-heroin. That isn’t just persiflage: in China, restaurants are routinely busted for adding opium to their food dishes, and it’s been known to happen in America.

Most countries that try this approach end up with a thin-scum of ultra wealthy and a heaving ocean of illiterate and beaten masses living in grinding poverty.

But given the hyper-competitive, ultra-efficient nature of American capitalism, a business-state is more likely to just end up building death-camps for the unproductive.

And then hiring cheap foreign labor to run the camps.

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