Contempt of Business?

In a recent review of one of my books, the reviewer stated that, for a “United Statesman,” I was remarkably contemptuous of business. The reviewer was not an American, obviously, and his views suggest that outsiders believe that Americans are far too pro-business, and that I’m an exception. Yet, I have to say that I never thought of myself as being contemptuous of business in general. Certainly, I’ve been contemptuous of certain sectors, such as finance and mortgage banking and Walmart-style corporations that exploit part-time workers, but corporations and businesses come in all flavors and types, ranging from those on which no amount of contempt would be sufficient to describe their actions to those who act in the manner one would hope all businesses and corporations might.

The problem is, in dealing with business, those meriting contempt and/or regulatory/legal actions to rein in their corrupt and self-dealing excesses are also the most visible, just as the most corrupt and violent individuals are often the most visible. In addition, often unethical or excessively self-serving acts are legal under existing law, which also points out the fact that law can only do so much, and usually does less because of the pressure on lawmakers by those businesses with great resources.

As I’ve stated before, I believe that no truly viable society can long exist without an economy based on at least some form of market economy, but in our world market economies come in all varieties and operate under differing cultural and social constraints. In some countries, the government controls tightly just what aspects of the market are permitted to operate and how. In others, it appears that business can’t be done without some form of bribery, and bribery is a part of their market economies.

Most western industrialized economies either frown on wide-scale direct bribery or theoretically outlaw it, but in the United States we pretty much turn a blind eye away from campaign contributions, which often have operated as either slush funds or deferred retirement accounts for elected officials, meaning that such contributions were nothing more than bribery one step removed. In any case, corporate involvement in the political system has become a larger and larger part of the market economy, simply because the political system sets the rules under which business operates.

And yes, I am contemptuous of those businesses and businesses who attempt to use political influence to tilt the economic playing field in their favor. But then, shouldn’t all of us be contemptuous of that sort of behavior, whether it’s “legal” or not?

Non-Starters

Why aren’t things improving in the United States for more people? Some recent studies give a seemingly simple answer with extraordinarily complex facets – because anything that would make a meaningful improvement can be, and usually is, blocked by some entity with the power to do so… and the United States has the most venues for blocking legislative or regulatory action of any industrialized country in the world… and those venues don’t even include the multitude of other options for stopping things from getting done.

For example, one reason [but not the only one] why Republicans opposed Obamacare was that the ACA didn’t include tort reform – putting a cap on outrageous medical malpractice legal settlements. Why Obama didn’t was because the lawyers opposed it, particularly trial lawyers, and they’re big contributors. Those who opposed tort reform claim that malpractice awards are the only check on bad doctors, which is total bullshit. Malpractice claims don’t stop most bad doctors; they just increase the cost of medical insurance for all doctors, most of whom aren’t bad, which increases overall health costs. Stronger rules for medical disbarment would do far more to rid the field of incompetent physicians than malpractice legal lawsuits.

Despite air pollution that is so bad in some areas that thousands are literally dying, air emissions standards that would make the air breathable have been delayed or halted for years because coal and power generation companies have the funds to block them. In Utah, which suffers incredibly bad inversions and air pollution along the Wasatch Front (where most people live), the utility lobbyists have successfully persuaded the overwhelmingly Republican legislature that tighter air standards would be bad for business, despite popular opinion that indicates something should be done.

Then take a look at Congress, in particular, the House of Representatives, where essentially the more conservative Republicans can effectively block legislation, even though they represent a minority of the American electorate, and where the NRA can influence representatives enough that measures favored by seventy percent of Americans can’t even get passed. In the Senate, either party can block – and has – legislation with national support.

Checks and balances are fine, but their application in practice has become a competition to see who can block what, rather than a way to work out differences and get something done.

“Market” Economies

As economists have observed for years, countries that don’t have “market economies” tend to have severe economic and social problems, but outside of textbooks, and even inside them, there’s a problem defining exactly what a market economy is. The traditional economist’s definition of a “free market economy” is one where a willing buyer and a willing seller agree on the price of a good, the idea being that government stays out of setting the terms of the transaction.

There are at least two catches to this definition. First, the term “willing” is usually constrained by reality. So if the only food market in town charges 50% more than the market in the next town, and you don’t have transportation and don’t want to starve, you may pay the prices, but how “willing” are you? In practice, of course, except in times of disasters, the various price differentials aren’t that great, but they do exist.

The second catch lies on the seller’s side. In practice, a seller of a good has to price a good at a level that covers his cost of production or acquisition, as well as his costs of selling it, with enough of a profit to support himself or his business. What has been historically overlooked to a great degree, if less so today, is that many of the costs of production have historically been foisted off on others and not included in the final cost of the good or service. The most notable example of this is air, land, and water pollution, and the costs of cleaning up after industry have become so great that most industrial countries impose regulations on the producers of goods limiting or prohibiting the creation and emission of pollutants. Industry, of course, has historically protested that such regulations stifle a “free market.” That’s not quite accurate. What such regulations do is to give a cost-of-production advantage to those producers who make their products in places with less costly regulations, which is why many multinationals have off-shored their production facilities. What gets overlooked in this “economic” debate are the costs of clean-up and the added costs of health care incurred by those living around highly polluting facilities.

All of this leads to the proposition that a “true” or a “full” market economy is only possible if ALL costs of production are factored into the price of a good or service. Obviously, this isn’t possible, certainly not at present in a world of over 200 nations with differing environmental and other regulations, but it should be used as a standard against which economies should be measured as to the degree of their compliance with market principles.

The idea of the so-called “free market economy” has come to mean in practice the amount of freedom a producer has to foist off costs on the rest of society. The amount of such freedom a producer has is largely determined by two factors – the regulatory structure, or lack thereof, in which it operates, and the amount of financial resources, i.e., capital, it has, which affects its power to influence regulatory oversight. If people who work for a producer or seller of goods cannot live on what they are paid – and that includes not only food and shelter, but medical care and other necessities – and society deems that those workers and their families need assistance to live, in effect the producer has shifted some of his costs to society as a whole, and everyone is taxed to pay for that assistance.

So, in point of fact, goods producers who complain that government regulations hamper the “free market” because those regulations force them to clean up their toxic or unhealthful emissions or by-products or require a living wage are complaining that they’re not as free to impose costs on society as producers in other states or countries are.

And that’s why there is a difference between a “free market” [or capitalistic market] economy and a true market economy.

Songs in F&SF

As most of my readers know, at least in some of my books, people actually sing… and the lyrics almost always have sections that rhyme. For some writers, apparently, this can be a problem. I was recently asked to offer favorable comments on a novel in which song and its singers were absolutely essential elements… and I never found a single rhyming line in any of the lyrics, and no discernible meter, either. Needless to say, I did not comment on the songs, and it was a pretty good book otherwise… but it still bothered me, because I expect more of professional writers – their songs should have meter and rhyme. There are some writers who are actually singers of one sort and another, ranging from classically trained opera singers to bar-room balladeers, and so far, at least, I haven’t seen any of them just toss out phrases and claim that they’re songs.

Heaven knows, the song lyrics in a book don’t have to be great, because the lyrics in most popular songs in most cultures aren’t great, and the folk songs tend to be comparatively straight-forward tales with couplet endings and common rhymes… and most have at least a chorus or refrain.

Some writers have copped out by saying, in effect, “they’re speaking another language, and the song rhymes in their language but not in ours.” Oh? Does that mean the author might not be “translating” the other things they’re saying accurately? If you can’t write proper lyrics… don’t. Just have the characters talk about “another folk song with the same old clichés” about whatever is a cliché in that culture. Or say that the singer’s accent or diction was so bad that the character has no idea what the song’s about. And if you really need a song to make sense, find an old folksong or something that isn’t copyrighted and then change the words to convey what you want in a way that preserves the meter and has a different rhyme.

The other thing about song and culture is that, generally speaking, the less technological the society is, the greater the role of participatory song and music in the life of the average person. Passive listening to song and music is a luxury reserved for the rich or well-off until cultures reach the industrializing level. That’s also why folk tunes have rhyme and meter – because when you’re relying on memory to learn songs, rhyme and meter make it far, far easier.

The same is also largely true of music as an organized form of propaganda. While the American colonists used satiric songs as a motivating tool against the British, and Sam Adams used them in rallies, organized and wide-spread use of music was limited by the lack of technology to amplify the music to reach larger numbers and create motivating spectacles. It’s not an accident that the Third Reich was the first government to choreograph public spectacle and music.

Music is always there in human societies, but how and where it is used, and for what, is greatly influenced by affluence and technology.

Just a few thoughts…

Legislative Foibles

The Utah State legislature completed its usual two month annual session last week. In the course of two months, the legislators increased just slightly the funding for education, but not enough to even come close to changing Utah’s position as the state with the lowest funding per student in the entire United States, or to increase the pay of teachers and university professors, among the lowest paid in the country – but they did approve 35% plus pay increases for the governor and top state elected officials.

Nor did the legislature do anything to deal with the air pollution along the Wasatch Front – where something like 80% of the people live and where winter air quality is so bad that healthy people are often advised not to exercise and asthmatics and those with respiratory problems literally take their lives in their hands by venturing outside. In fact, the legislature passed a bill that forbid any restriction on the use of wood-burning stoves, even at times of the very worst air quality.

The Utah Senate did pass SCR 4, a resolution declared that energy development and grazing were the “highest and best use” for the Cedar Mesa area of Utah, in effect stating that industrializing the Mesa through energy development should be prioritized over preserving sacred cultural sites, Native American traditions and a breathtaking natural landscape that draws visitors from around the world.

Because the legislature was concerned about the availability of drugs for execution through lethal injection, the legislature decided to revive death by firing squad as an alternative.

Oh, yes, the legislature also refused any expansion of the Affordable Care Act in Utah, even though the federal government would pay for it, and even voted down a far more modest proposal offered by the Republican governor.

To cap it all off, after all that, the legislature then approved a bill, and appropriated funds, to pay “stipends” to football players at Utah State – in addition to their full scholarships, for the ostensible reason that doing so would bring more tourism to USU and Logan, Utah.