Who Our Masters Are

Picking a little more on the comments section of that Ars Technica article, commenter “exploder” decides to blame targeted killings on “corporate profits.”

This is a bit of a reach, but worth examining as an extreme case of a misconception that many more left-wing people have.  Obviously, nobody’s corporate profits are particularly enhanced by killing assorted people that the government vaguely believes to be in some way involved with terrorism — in fact, this is perhaps an almost uniquely not-impactful-to-business policy.  Assassinations seem rare enough that even defense contractors are probably not meaningfully impacted by whether they go on or not.

But a certain class of people are accustomed to believe that the government is captured by corporate interests, and the less discerning of them will make comments like exploder’s, in which they blame any government policy, or any one they disagree with, at least, on corporate influence.  That in itself is wrapped up in a common misconception among the left that “corporations” are this special class of demons, rather than “a way for people to pool resources.”

The truth of the matter is that corporate and business interests do have a significant — but far from majority — voice in government, and that in areas of particular interest to particularly powerful corporations, they have a lot of power.  McDonald’s apparently has or used to have an outsized influence on the USDA, for example (according to the book Fast Food Nation).  And the government does not generally want to pick a gigantic fight with a really big company (for a variety of reasons, actually mostly involving fear that the company will move jobs or monies outside the country, more than any kind of direct political retaliation).  But the political ruling class, the people who have the most power in terms of setting the boundaries of what is and is not within the realm of political acceptability, the people who push agendas like America’s quixotic and destructive “War on Terror,” are fairly distinct from the people who control America’s biggest and most powerful corporations.

This can seem untrue.  After all, the political elite tend to be quite wealthy, and in modern America, “quite wealthy” almost certainly means “has major interests in some corporations.”  We do see political patronage of this kind, and of course most or all corporations above a certain size lobby in their self-interest.  But the political elite, while “quite wealthy,” typically are not the mega-rich.  Romney, one of the wealthiest politicians of our time, isn’t even a billionaire.  The companies that the political elite control tend to be a smattering of mid-sized companies (Bain Capital, Romney’s company, is worth a few billion — around the same size as my former employer, NetSuite.  There are not the movers and shakers of the world).

There are serious billionaires who try to use their wealth to advance their agenda (the Koch brothers, Buffet, Soros).  But they notably don’t seem to have a ton of success.  None of those people are pushing the bipartisan agenda heavily in their direction.  They aren’t the transformative figures in US politics.  I think they’re mostly victims — the Stringer Bells to the Clay Davises of the true political elite.  The really wired in politicians take their money and claim to be working to advance their agenda, but only do so to the extent that the agenda happens to coincide with the politicians’ own.

And for the most part, I think that “talent for incredible success in the business world” and “talent for incredible success in the political world” just tend not to coincide (or perhaps it’s more about monomaniac interest than talent, but whatever).

There are powerful political masters out there.  They do have a bipartisan agenda that (usually) prevents radical reform in America.  They are dialed into the business world enough to make themselves rich as well as politically powerful.  But they are not beholden to “corporate profit” — they decide what they want independent of what’s profitable, and then if something terrible is happening to their own profits, they take steps to address that using a variety of tools.  There is bleed-over between the political elite and the business elite, and the business elite have far more power than any random member of the middle or lower-upper class (much less, of course, the poor).  But don’t make the mistake of imagining that if you could just tame corporations, you’d tame politics.  The relationship is, if anything, the other way around.


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