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Thursday, August 9, 2012

Now, just what was it you claim to have built?

When President Obama  suggested recently, in effect, that it takes a village to build a good, successful business, he struck the most sensitive nerve of America's true entitlement class, and it howled with indignation and rage that the false myth it has constructed around itself would be torn away to expose the true nature of much of American business.

Mitt Romney took up the comment and applied his business ethic to it  and, of course, falsified it.  Here is what Obama said in full context: 

“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”
Obama's offense was that he struck the most sensitive nerve of the corporate and business community.   The myth that he challenged is that business is the essential driver of the nation, which is dependent upon business to create the economy, and all employees should grovel in gratitude and obeisance for the jobs that business provides to allow workers to live.  The idea promoted is that the corporate hierarchy, a class of nobles, is needed to preside over the ordinary people.  This notion was applied from the time that the first white people came to America to be better off.  And it was debunked and resisted.

When the Virginia Company set up its colony of Jamestown, it designated Capt. John Smith to be one of the colony's leaders.  However, it sent along a number of "gentlemen" who wanted to function as overseers and managers, but it was Smith who is credited with saving the colony from starvation and total demise.  His biggest obstacle, he found, was the managing class that refused to participate in the strenuous, often drudged labor that it took to actually build a colony and make it run.  The "gentlemen of Jamestown" chaffed that Smith and the real workers did not give them their "deserved" respect.  In his reports to the sponsors back in London, Smith referred to them as "useless parasites" and chided the sponsors for sending them, saying repeatedly that  “twentie good workmen had been better than all them all.”  When the  Massachuseets Bay Company began to gear up for its venture, Smith advised it to avoid "such multitude of Officers, neither masters, gentlemen, gentlewomen and children as you have men to work, which idle charges you will find very troublesome, and the effects dangerous, and one hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as we were sent me that could do nothing.”

Thomas Jefferson was very wary about giving business a part in shaping the country.  At first, he was totally devoted to an agrarian democracy:

Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.  
He feared commerce because to satisfy the demands of customers, it causes business people to "depend for it on the casualties and caprice of customers. Dependance begets subservience and venality."  Eventually, Jefferson conceded that some business enterprise was essential to creating an economic system that sustained a nation, but he warned about the dangers of allowing the nation to be dominated by business:  “Money, not morality, is the principle of commerce and commercial nations.”

Although Jefferson was a slave owner, he nevertheless condemned a nation that built its wealth on slaves.  Making money by appropriating the wealth generated by other people's labor and sweat was to him an abomination to humankind, and abolitionists held that view.  Some puritan churches were split when congregants found that the pews in which they worshiped were produced with slave labor.  The belief that benefiting from the labor of other people was the ultimate degradation was shared by Lincoln.  Lincoln's father loaned the young-rail splitter out to others and then collected and kept the wages earned.  Lincoln resented this and his understanding of being deprived of the benefits of one's own work was the basis for his abolition beliefs but also his beliefs about the role of business.

The basic premise of the labor movement has been to give workers a voice and negotiating power in the distribution of the profit from their labor and talent.  To  establish and realize a right to negotiate a fair share of the wealth it generates, labor found that by withholding its labor, it could force employers to negotiate a fair distribution of the profits it generated.  However, business owners and operators have long chaffed at giving workers a voice in determining how profits should be distributed and they have harbored festering resentment at having to do  so.  Although some employers are given to grudgingly acknowledging the contributions that employees give to their companies,  they have real problems with the freedom, equality, and justice concepts in the workplace.  Consequently, when the economy become more global and cheap labor markets became more available, businesses could not wait to dump their American workers in favor of cheap labor costs and the absence of laws and regulations regarding the health and safety of workers.  Manufacturing in America was literally decimated, as American companies managed to rid themselves of the workforce they found so onerous. 

The anti-worker attitude has been set into law in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.  The anti-labor movement was launched when Ronald Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers when they went on strike and gave impetus to the trend that has seen the concentration of wealth into the upper 10 percent while the 90 percent of the population has seen a steadily declining share of wages and national wealth

A good portion of America has returned to the attitude that workers are a negligible part of the population, a bothersome group that is best done away with.  The feudal notion that the self-appointed class of nobles, the corporate hierarchies, provide the workers any right to live and the privilege of earning a wage has bloomed, and is a major premise of the Mitt Romney and the GOP.  They claim they create economy and the jobs.  If workers want to live, they had damn well subject themselves to corporate rule that is free from any government interference with rules that hold companies responsible for shoddy and defective products, for the health and safety of workers, or for the wholesomeness of the environment. 

America flourished with the industrial age and the development of a workforce which participated in determining its own destiny.  Work built America.  But the self-designated American nobility denies that.  It claims it build America and has special entitlements because it provides the capital and dispenses whatever freedoms and benefits that workers can aspire to.

It is hard to find a successful business that has not taken advantage of financial system the nation has provided, of the infrastructure, of the educations, and of the talents and efforts of employees.  But it claims an entitlement that gives it credit and control of the economy.

As with John Smith's "gallant gentlemen," businesses demand a "deserved respect" based upon their sense of entitlement.  The workers deserve no respect.

In this demand for entitlement, there are no bad businesses, no incompetent or crooked managers.  The near-failure of the American economy to which they brought the nation is a part of their entitlement to do what they wish with impunity.

And this entitlement to a failed nation is what they build.

History and the facts it records demonstrates that a successful society doesn't work that way.  But people are entitled to believe it does.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States