Sunday, October 12, 2014

WE need to get past Us vs. Them

There was an opinion piece in today's NYT that I didn't read about how Germans don't like Google. The author claimed "The German voter-consumer will always trust the state more than he will any private company, no matter how ardently it insists on being a good guy." My first reaction was amazement that, just 70 years after the fall of the Nazi state, this could be true. But that's not fair, most Germans weren't alive back then, and the last 70 years have given us thalidomide, Bhopal, the Pinto - any number of horrific "corporate" offenses.

But also lots of government offenses, from the egregious and systemic evil of North Korea, Saddam Hussein's (and, I gather, al Maliki's) Iraq; to the small-minded/short-sighted or idiotic evil/dysfunction of extraordinary rendition, Tuskegee experiments; to the actions of individuals and groups of government officials that are either bad or stupid (countless corruption cases - I live in Cuyahoga County, Ohio so Jimmy Dimora looms large - and the media constantly brings us examples like the South Carolina state trooper who shot an unarmed African-American man for doing what he asked him to do).

There are a lot of people who know alot more, pay alot more attention, and are more thoughtful than I am about all of this, but anything I read has a political or other ideological axe to grind. There's always an argument lurking in the background that "corporations" are bad or "government" is bad and that makes it impossible for me to trust the overall line of reasoning that's too involved for me to dissect and make my mind up about. Oh for another four years to devote solely to study and thinking but sadly I had that opportunity 30 years ago and my not get it again for another 20....

In the meantime, I have to reject any "Us vs. Them" formulation - there's good purposes for government and governments that can fulfill them well.  There are good purposes for corporations and corporations that fulfill them well.  What I think all of us need to do is stop expecting institutional forms to embody our ideals.  Rather, let's understand how they work and how therefore to channel them productively.  For example, Ray Anderson (a CEO) noted in The Corporation that corporations are "externalizing machines" like sharks are killing machines.  That's not good or bad, that's what they do and it can be good AND bad.  IKEA taught us all to build our own furniture - "externalizing" the labor costs.  In the process, they made stylish furniture more affordable for the masses of us with more time than money.  But, as we all know, it's extremely rare for a corporation to seek to take responsibility for something they aren't currently responsible for and which will cost them money to take on, especially if they have competitors who aren't taking it on either.  Corporations won't simply give up the trillions of dollars of hydrocarbon assets on their books because they cause global warming.

But neither will governments.  Governments might be "internalizing" machines - they tend to take on more jobs and grow and, because they aren't generally regulated or competed against, can get fat and sloppy and even corrupt and evil.  I don't expect the US government to give up the revenue it gets from hydrocarbon drilling leases any more than I expect the companies doing the drilling to give up the leases.  Nor do I think the sloppiness that resulted in poor US oversight of BP drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico was all BP's fault.

And the problems are myriad at every level.  For every story I hear about price gouging or shoddy or abusive commercial practices or profiteering from government contracts, I hear about the incompetent police officer who injures an innocent person or the incompetent teacher who's been allowed to stifle student learning in the same classroom for years on end.  I don't blame police officers or teachers - they're almost all American heroes as far as I'm concerned.  I also don't blame local governments and schools - most are doing their best to serve their communities.  But I'm sure there's bad government, bad management, bad actors, and bad outcomes - just like there are unethical companies, managers, employees, etc.

Wouldn't we get farther if we spent our time identifying and propogating success, and identifying and addressing the problems, instead of demonizing whole categories of human activity, which really only raises the emotional temperature and (attempts to) score political points.  I'm done with "Us vs. Them" - tell me about "We."