Daily Archives: January 13, 2004

The Myth of Corporate-Style Governing 3: Owning the Community

The Myth of Corporate-Style Government, Part 3

There is a general belief, spoon-fed to us with our Wheaties from the time we can chew, that running the govt “like a business” is a Good Thing: it means better service, lower costs (read: “lower taxes”), more attention to the needs of customers (citizens), more efficient management of resources, and less bureaucratic fol-de-rol. Businessmen have been fairly successful selling this idea in the political arena and pointing to their business backgrounds as the right preparation for making a messy, corrupt behemoth of a govt into a lean, mean, corporate-style machine that will finally provide all those things we think govt lacks. We believe this because, after all, isn’t that how businesses survive? Aren’t those things what they’re good at?

As it turns out, no. These supposedly bedrock business fundamentals are as much a myth as Sysyphus or St George and the Dragon. Most businesses, especially corporations, survive not through providing better or cheaper products and services but despite providing neither. Instead, they usually rely on a combination of sales tricks, industrial theft, lies, the unethical or even illegal destruction of their competition, and cozying up to the local political machine in order to obtain special favors that will give them a competitive advantage.

While corporations are infinitely more sophisticated at these games, they are as common with small, local businesses as they are in giant global corps; the level of involvement is merely a matter of degree. One representative example:

In the town where I used to live, there was a restaurant next door that specialized in breakfasts and lunches. It opened at 5am and closed at 2pm. It was the only place in town that did so. The food wasn’t very good and the service was abominable but it was the only game in town if you wanted breakfast. The owner was also a landlord–he owned several apartment buildings as well as the restaurant–so he was, in that little village, a power; what you might call the Big Frog in the Small Pond.

One day, the owner of the other restaurant in town (which had opened at 3pm and served only dinner) decided to try competing for the breakfast market and began opening at 6am. The food was better, the menu had much more variety, the service was sharp, and the prices were almost identical. People began to shift over and Owner A started losing business. He didn’t like losing business.

Now, the myth would suggest that A’s next move to counter this new competition would be to improve the quality of his food and speed the quality of his service, right? But that’s not exactly what happened in the real world. In the real world–

***Within a month, Owner B was getting visits from the Health Inspector nearly every day and was being cited for one bogus or picayune violation after another each time.

***The police started towing cars parked behind B’s place, claiming that it was now a short-term (15-min) lot and any car that stayed longer was staying illegally and would be towed–this despite the fact that there had been no notification, weren’t any signs to that effect, the lot had never been “short-term” before, and the meters all had 2-hr limits on them.

***Owner A went to the Town Planning and Zoning Boards to complain about the extra traffic downtown that was being generated by B’s new hours. The Chairs of said Boards, not to mention several of the members, had been recipients of A’s largesse in the form of political contributions–an area of concern B had neglected–so nobody was surprised when the Zoning Board announced its intention to re-zone that part of Main Street–just that part–to eliminate “public eating facilities” in order to ease the “traffic congestion” invisible to everyone but A, and the Planning Board announced a proposal to annex B’s property for a new police station.

There were hurried meetings between all participants and an agreement was struck: B went back to his original hours and both the re-zoning and the proposed annex died quiet deaths. To this day, the community has been deprived of a decent place to have breakfast and A’s sub-standard joint is once again the only place in town to get one.

I could relate similar tales about practically any business in that town, as well as many other businesses in many other towns with which I have been acquiainted over the years. If you’re honest, you could do likewise.

My point is that business is not and never has been the bastion of efficiency, honest competition, and a level playing field that it claims for itself. The fact–not the myth–is that business is always looking for short cuts, is unconcerned about the effect of those short cuts on the community, believes that govt is nothing more than a tool to enforce their interests and uses it that way, and that they compete far more often on the field of political favoritism than they do on the field of product or service superiority–which is usually an afterthought at best. Putting people with that background and those beliefs into govt is the same as putting a fox in charge of your henhouse, and anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a corporate-sponsored fantasy. The reality is that they bring the same habits, attitudes, and practices to govt that they used to foist their businesses on an unsuspecting public, chief among them the use of that govt as if it were a wholly-owned subsidiary of their corporate selves.

All you have to do to prove this to yourself is look at the present Admin, loaded to the gunnels with ex-corporate leaders, promoters, lobbyists, and spokespersons. Staffed by corporate types, its decisions are almost universally pro-business even when they are clearly and obviously destructive of the public interest.

Environmental protection under the Bush administration often seems to refer to the political environment and not the stewardship of the nation’s precious resources. In the latest attack on existing safeguards, the Interior Department is quietly gutting yet another legal safeguard against the wholesale pollution and burial of streams in Appalachia by the strip-mining industry.In 2002, the administration essentially repealed a longstanding provision of the Clean Water Act prohibiting the dumping of mining wastes in streams. Now, under what is advertised as a “clarification” of the law governing surface mining, the administration is eliminating a ban dating from the Reagan era against mining activity within 100 feet of a stream.

Taken together, these two rollbacks can only encourage and accelerate the horrific process called mountaintop removal, which has already buried about 1,200 miles of Appalachia’s vital streams under mammoth piles of bulldozed waste. This serial decapitation of the coal-rich hills has long been a matter of furious conflict between the mining industry and the residents and environmentalists defending the life and beauty of the Appalachian hollows. Hundreds of square miles of mountaintops have been dynamited away, and dozens of communities bought out and buried.

The new regulation changes a standing prohibition against mining within 100 feet of a stream if it will degrade water quality. In the future, mining companies will be required to respect the buffer zone merely “to the extent practicable.” This is an open invitation to industry to ignore a rule that, as a practical matter, has been routinely abused as regulators looked the other way.

Result of the conflict between industry interests and public interests? You might want to visit the Appalachians soon if you want to see them before they disappear. If you live there–move. Or fight. There’s no third option.

If you insist on putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, you’ve got no right to be surprised when your chickens die, one by one:

Now that the first case of mad cow disease in the United States has been confirmed, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman’s subservience to the agribusiness interests she once served as a lobbyist is no longer merely troublesome. It’s dangerous.Veneman was put in charge of the Department of Agriculture by President Bush because he knew the longtime advocate for the genetic modification of food, factory farming and free trade policies that favor big agribusiness over family farmers and consumers could be counted on to choose the side of business interests over the public interest.

Veneman did just that when she announced that mad cow disease had been found in the United States. Instead of offering a realistic response to the news, she was still doing public relations for agribusiness. She declared the case was isolated, praised the USDA for a “swift and effective” response, and discounted any risk to human health.

Unfortunately, because of the USDA’s lax approach to inspections and regulation, Venemen has no idea whether she is right.

Neither, needless to say, do we.

We don’t live in the corporate myth, we live in the real world. In the myth, strip-mining–which is highly inefficient as well as destructive–would have been replaced by better methods in response to economic and social realities. It wasn’t. In the real world, the strip-mining industry used its govt connections to avoid any such changes. In the myth, FDA inspection procedures would have been tightened to protect the health of the govt’s customers. They weren’t. In the real world, the industry used govt to duck responsibility and provide itself with some needed PR while it ignores the improvements it clearly needs to make.

What we must learn to remember when corporate types rave on about the “virtues” of running govt “like a business” is that they’re speaking from an extremely narrow perspective–their own–and that our interests are not only secondary, they’re not even on the list. To a corporate type, “What’s good for us is good for the country” is a sacred, unchallengable mantra, an article of faith, and a rule of life. They bring it into govt with them, and they run the govt on the basis of it.

Stop kidding yourselves. A fox is always a fox and acts according to his nature, no matter what he claims when he wants your hens. If you believe him, he will take what he wants and you–and your children–will starve. And he won’t even say, “Thank you.”