Friday, July 15, 2016

Hating Government, Mistrusting Business

As European Union regulators have pressed global (American?) social media/Internet biggies to levels of privacy protection, local content quotas, and suppression of the power of their size, the EU anti-corporate bent is/was very clear. Facebook, Microsoft, Netflix, etc… and most of all Google… shuddered under the pressure, the litigation, the anti-business regulations and the elevation of consumer rights that seemed, to Americans at least, somehow anachronistic in an era where data and information appeared to flow like the Gulf Stream. As recently as July 14th, the European Commission added to its ongoing antitrust assault against Google: “The European Commission has stepped up pressure on Google, alleging that it abused its dominance in internet shopping and restricted competition.
“It also accused Google of stopping websites from showing adverts from the search engine's competitors… And it strengthened an existing charge that Google favours its own comparison shopping services in search results.”, July 14th. While the Brits were a little more pro-business than continental Europe, that was only a very small part of the motivation for the Brexit secession.
Indeed, while American antitrust laws punish companies that try to dominate markets through mergers and acquisitions, or fix prices in collusion with other biggies, they do not force companies that grow into bigness organically to break up. But in Europe, the mistrust of corporations drives European regulators to direct a litany of controls and restrictions against businesses just because they have become big, no matter the reason (just becoming big draws EU antitrust ire). While there are national sacred cows, a national manufacturing signature industry like Germany’s automotive sector, there is a general European belief that government is the people’s genuine representative and that the corporate mandate to operate primarily for the benefit investors is intrinsically suspect. In short, the general trend in Europe is to trust government and mistrust business.
On the other side of the Atlantic, at least in the United States, both houses of Congress and a majority of state governorships and legislatures are controlled by a party committed to mistrusting government and sanctifying corporate ambitions even where they clearly conflict with some pretty obvious societal goals, like pollution controls, minimum wages, paid maternity leave, unionization and job security. Even in jolly old England, where political/economic separation from the rest of Europe is now a harsh reality, there is still more faith in government than business. Does that stem from the general difference between the primary democratic model in Europe, a parliamentary structure, vs. our clear separation of the executive and legislative branches, or something much deeper?
To my mind’s eye, you can trace that GOP/Tea Party aversion to government to our pioneering roots. Spend time watching the Western Channel – an amalgamation of old movies and television series – and you can begin to see and feel the values of a nation built on a notion of self-reliance, a strong belief in God (nature was often the determiner of life and death in the old world of Midwestern and Western agriculture) and a deep resentment of any authority trying to contain that rather dynamic spirit.
Distances without links of communication and contact, isolated ranches and farms, fostered this notion of “taking care of yourself with God’s blessing” and a resentment of people who couldn’t cut it on their own. Sure there were communal barn-raisings and get-togethers, but these were based on local values without any government mandate. The passion for guns, that part of American that routinely dismisses the “well regulated militia” opening phrase of the Second Amendment, is solidly linked to this rural pioneering heritage.
But the world has increasingly been driven by the needs of large and rapidly-growing gatherings of non-agricultural residents – cities – and not political units (like our “states”) based on miles and miles of open agricultural or natural land. Europe is a particularly heavily urban area, sharing little with the vast open spaces of so much of America. Nevertheless, as urban and diversity values reflect the massive growth of big-city America, it appears that this GOP/Tea Party rural value emphasis is simply on the wrong side of history.
In the meantime, this schism between old world rural and modern urban values, the laissez faire attitude about letting business do whatever it needs to do to grow, are tearing this country apart. We are constantly being challenged to take sides in bitter political realities, and if we make such choices, we are contributing to a reality that may actually break this nation apart, shearing areas where rural values remain sacred from regions where modern values are paramount. We fought the Civil War over parallel divisions, and except for slavery, the values differences that created that conflict – killing more Americans than the combined military losses of World Wars I and II combined – are as deeply divisive today as they were in the time of Abraham Lincoln.
The battle of cop-on-black killings, and then Dallas, are just one powerful example of this ripping apart. “Law and order” vs “equal and color-blind justice.” “Just days after the United States celebrated its 240th birthday, people in interviews across the country said that the nation increasingly felt mired in bloodshed and blame, and that despite pleas for compassion and unity, it was fracturing along racial and ideological lines into angry camps of liberals against conservatives, Black Lives Matter against Blue Lives Matter, protesters against the police. Whose side were you on? Which victims did you mourn?
“In a televised interview, the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations blamed President Obama for waging a ‘war on cops.’ On social media, others confronted the discrepancies in the everyday lives of black and white Americans, hoping understanding would lead to conversations and action.” New York Times, July 9th. Most Americans are fully aware of how bad things have become: “Sixty-nine percent of Americans say race relations are generally bad, one of the highest levels of discord since the 1992 riots in Los Angeles during the Rodney King case, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.” New York Times, July 13th. And there are other signs.
The rural values distrust of government is growing so fast in some areas that even simple things like public education are signs of “socialism” that are un-American. In 2010, conservative Kansans (clearly the majority of that state) began calling public schools “government schools,” a clearly negatively-charged term. Governor Sam Brownback, claiming that “trickledown economics” would make everyone richer (including government coffers), led a move to slash state income taxes. Despite the fact that that Reagan-era supply-side economic theory had been largely discredited by most of the mainstream economic community, the state legislature followed suit. As predicted, “trickledown economics” failed miserably, and government coffers emptied at an alarming rate. A huge deficit loomed.
The “government” school system was suddenly woefully underfunded, but many legislators and the Governor seemed content to let the school system unravel, letting those who could afford private education resort to that choice instead (or allow wealthier communities separately to fund public education), relegating those without the money to pay for those better primary or secondary schools to a “government” school system that was underfunded and falling apart.
In May, the Kansas Supreme Court “said that the Legislature’s current funding formula ‘creates intolerable, and simply unfair, wealth-based disparities among the districts,’ and gave the Legislature until June 30 to find a solution.” New York Times, June 24th. Fund or close the schools in July, the court ordered. Reluctantly, the legislature complied, and the governor signed the bill into law. But their great divide between uber-conservatives and those who actually believe that there is value to many government programs is an excellent example of a values battle that is looking increasingly like the kinds of unyielding ideologies that frequently break nations into smaller countries, voluntarily or through violent rebellion.
“Davis Merritt, a columnist for The Wichita Eagle, said in a column in May that state legislators’ ‘deaf and blind’ ideology was threatening public schools… ‘Some have begun to call public schools ‘government schools,’ a calculated pejorative scorning both education and anything related to government,’ he wrote.
“That elicited a response from Bob Weeks, the host of ‘WichitaLiberty.TV,’ a show about Kansas politics and public affairs… ‘It is surprising to me that liberals and progressives object to the term ‘government schools,’ ’ he said on the show. ‘They like government, don’t they? These people want more taxation and government spending, don’t they? Well, when we think about our public schools, we find they have all the characteristics of government programs.’” New York Times, July 9th.
Is the struggle a battle of labels and linguistics or signs of a rather severe unwillingness of opposing factions to compromise and find middle ground, evident in the gridlock that has rendered Congress a fairly meaningless glop of political recalcitrance? Are the factions just digging in their heels?
“It would not be the first time that conservatives have used semantics to sway public opinion, experts said… George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has been tracking the trend for decades. He pointed out that the right has been more successful than the left at framing issues related to abortion, health care, labor unions and the concept of government itself, among other issues, with carefully contrived catchphrases: ‘Tax relief.’ ‘Pro-life.’ ‘The Democrat Party.’ ‘Death panels.’ (‘Obamacare’ was originally an attempt by the right to saddle President Obama with the repercussions of the Affordable Care Act, until he embraced the term himself.)
“Besides coining phrases, Dr. Lakoff said, the right has co-opted certain words — a practice that was demonstrated, he said, in President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, which used ‘freedom,’ ‘free’ or ‘liberty’ 49 times in 20 minutes. ‘The right has taken over the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty,’ ’ Dr. Lakoff said.
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, recalled the 1986 speech in which President Ronald Reagan framed perceptions of ‘government,’ to great effect. ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,’ he said.” NY Times. Can Americans put aside these deeply-felt differences and find unity again or is it time to prepare for the “big break-up” of the not-so-United States of America?
I’m Peter Dekom, and I fear there are a very large number of Americans to have prioritized their ideological mandates well-above the notion of national unity.

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