Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who Do You Trust?

What is it about conservatives? I'm constantly running into these weird conflicting narratives. Ideologies that seem to be in complete opposition to each other. One of the strangest is the Government vs. Private debate. It's no secret that it's accepted conservative dogma that the government is usually wrong and that it does more harm than good. Basically an overall distrust of government involvement, sometimes elevated to an almost paranoid level. Yet the same people who can't say the word 'government' without spitting, seem to have utmost trust in the conduct of the private sector.

I recently commented on a story related to the EPA and ended up in a 'conversation' with someone who seemed to believe that the EPA was following some grand "Obama Doctrine" and "Imposing their societal designs on free and prosperous people, dictating how we live, controlling our every movement in our personal life." Yet, on the other hand, "the Free markets are a wonder and transform society into a prosperous, innovative, imaginative society."  So while the government is bad and untrustworthy, trying to control our every movement, the free market is the panacea from which all good comes. At least according to more than a few conservatives.

Can they actually be completely missing the problem with this argument? Big Government is bad, yet Big Business isn't? Why is Exxon any more trustworthy than Congress? What makes General Electric more noble and honest? I think it goes back to my theory that perception is 9/10 of reality. We're bombarded by all the stupidity, the wastefulness and the corruption of our government on a continual basis. The news trumpets it and comedians mine it for laughter. But with big business, it's different. Unlike the President, the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, most of us have no clue who's heading up Bank of America or Wells Fargo. Go up to any random person on the street and ask them their thoughts on Brian Moynihan, Jamie Dimon or Vikram Pandit and note the blank expressions.  Yet these men run the top three financial institutions in the country (B of A, JP Morgan Chase & Citi Group respectively) with combined assets approaching six and a half trillion dollars!  Functionally, these are three of the most powerful people in America, yet few even recognize their names. Add to that the fact that when a business does something wrong you rarely hear anything about it. Just about every financial firm has been fined repeatedly, even over just the last few years, for wrongdoing and outright fraud, yet they are usually able to finagle a simple fine without actually admitting any wrongdoing. This is something that boggles my mind, actually. And the fine is usually far less than what the company made by using those shady practices in the first place, thus providing no incentive to do the right thing in the future.

So naturally, we perceive business as being more upstanding, because Conan O'Brian hasn't done many jokes about Goldman Sachs latest $22 million fine. You see the joke is that they conspired to  . . . never mind, it's not really that funny actually. I understand that we like to look up at these money making machines in awe, but simply being successful doesn't make you trustworthy or moral. In fact, I've been lectured on more than one occasion by someone telling me that I shouldn't expect corporations to make moral decisions! So if they can't be expected to do the right thing for anyone but themselves, then why would you extend them such trust? The only thing Citi Group can be trusted to do, is make money. And it's that very laser focus on profit, above all else,  that should inspire extra oversight and not extra latitude.

Look, I don't have any special trust in government but contrary to the conservative narrative, government does do some things right. Scenic gems like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are protected and remain open to any American to enjoy, without being draped in mansions and sprawling resorts. Criminal plots are stopped and their perpetrators removed from the streets by the FBI and Federal Marshals every day.  American seniors are able to get basic health insurance, rather than facing the gauntlet of private providers, because of Medicare. Rivers don't generally catch fire anymore and companies can't release known toxins into the atmosphere since the EPA was signed into being by that liberal icon Richard Nixon. We have few outbreaks of food born illness since the FDA started setting standards for food preparation, and when they do occur they are quickly tracked to the source and dealt with.

Government can be overbearing. It can be wasteful. It can be corrupt, but it also performs many services that we all take for granted. The free market also provides many invaluable services to individuals and the country at large, but it is also willing to ignore the common good and long term effects of their activities in the quest for profit. Neither is wholly good or wholly bad and neither can be trusted to operate without supervision. The Founders knew that about government and that's why they constructed the American system with interlocking checks and balances. We have to stay vigilant and do the same with big business, because they represent just as much of a danger to the nation as an overbearing federal government.

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