Surprisingly, this survey appeared in the summer of 2006 – well before the financial meltdown of September, 2008 and the beginning of the most recent recession provoked a fresh tidal wave of stories about corporate malfeasance and the collapse of capitalism. In the last generation, public attitudes toward the business community have remained unexpectedly consistent and overwhelmingly negative, regardless of the vagaries of the stock market or the unemployment rate. For most Americans this antagonism begins in childhood, with school curricula that downplays the prominent participation of corporations, free enterprise and the accumulation of wealth in the development of the United States.
CENSORING AND SLANTING THE AMERICAN STORY
Even the most cursory examination of elementary and middle school textbooks reveals the present tendency to distort or ignore the role of business in building the country. Consider the national holidays celebrated in the course of an academic year.
--For Thanksgiving, kids learn all about the idealistic Pilgrims and their interaction with the Indians, but hear nothing about their obsessive concern to make their colony profitable or their sponsorship by a for-profit corporation back in England, the London Company.
--Our little ones prepare for Presidents Day by studying Lincoln the Great Emancipator and Washington, the military hero and Father of Our Country, but they spend no time acknowledging the deep business involvements of both men. Lincoln became prosperous and prominent (by the standards of his time and place) by pursuing a career as a corporate lawyer, specializing in representing railroads and other dynamic enterprises. Washington, meanwhile, became one of the richest plantation owners in the colonies through his land investments and the canny, hard-headed management of the resources he acquired after marriage to the wealthy widow, Martha; in contrast to his careless Virginia colleague, Thomas Jefferson, he cared deeply about his financial status and avoided debt and money-losing ventures.
-- In preparing for the fireworks of the Fourth of July, most kids get some exposure to the revolutionary slogan “no taxation without representation,” but never connect it to the background of nearly all our Founders as entrepreneurial merchants and farmers ready to risk their lives to prevent undue governmental interference in their business affairs.
-- Finally, we focus on the nation’s military history on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but seldom acknowledge that all the greatest victories of the United States owe as much to economic power and prosperity as to battlefield courage. The Union forces prevailed in the War Between the States because the industrial might of the North easily out-produced the Confederacy. In World War I, America rescued our struggling British and French allies as much with financial support as with a massive expeditionary force, and 27 years later the unprecedented manufacture of planes, war ships, tanks, landing craft and, ultimately, atom bombs played an utterly decisive part in crushing the Germans and the Japanese. In the forty-five year struggle against Communism in the Cold War, Americans shed blood (in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere) but finally prevailed through the vastly superior productivity and prosperity of our economic system.
When social studies classes teach stories about American heroes they will naturally include inspiring tales about the civil rights activism of Martin Luther King, of the pioneering feminism of suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, or the fierce resistance of Indian warriors like Tecumseh or Sitting Bull (who actually slaughtered members of the American military, but never mind). It’s even possible that new generations will discover the amazing contributions of “inventor” Thomas Edison, but they learn nothing about the fact that he actually spent most of his time and energy building major corporations to make sure he enjoyed the monetary rewards of his technological breakthroughs. No business leader currently occupies a place on the A-list in the American pantheon and if youngsters hear anything at all about the builders and bosses who made the nation the world’s dominant power they will study sneering accounts of their predations as “Robber Barons.”
By the time Franklin Roosevelt took over the White House for the first of his four elected terms, the hostility and scorn for the captains of capitalism had migrated from the magazines and salons of radicals and mandarins into the larger society’s cultural and political mainstream.
In his celebrated inaugural address of 1933, FDR himself not only warned about the paralyzing impact of “fear itself,” but denounced “the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods” in harsh and sweeping terms unthinkable for a major American politician of the 21st century. “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men,” thundered the new president, in unmistakably Biblical terms. “Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored conditions. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.
“They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
“The money changers have fled their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.
“The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.”
Amazingly, at a moment of acute financial crisis and uncertainty in the business community, Roosevelt sought to return confidence and vitality to the free market system by denouncing (repeatedly) the pursuit of profit. In his stirring speech, he presented no specific cures for the devastation of the Depression but he affixed unequivocal and exclusive blame for the national catastrophe on the “unscrupulous money changers.”
“CORRUPTION IS WHY WE WIN!”
Growing up in a family that worshipped Roosevelt (my immigrant grandmother kept a framed photo of the late president on her living room wall till the day of her death in 1961), I saw no reason to question FDR’s indictment of the “economic royalists”—that capitalist class denounced by the president’s distant cousin Theodore as “malefactors of great wealth.”
Cultural encounters – particularly at the movies --- reinforced the notion that great power in the business world normally meant great (and appalling) compromises in terms of basic decency and morality.
The most common template for Hollywood’s business-bashing involves some unlikely, underdog hero or heroine (generally played by a glamorous star, of course) digging deep for unexpected reserves of courage and pluck to do battle against some evil, all-powerful corporation. In “Norma Rae” (1979), Sally Field stands up against a corrupt, rapacious, union-busting textile mill; in “The Verdict” (1982), Paul Newman stands up against the corrupt, rapacious health care industry; in “Silkwood” (1983) Meryl Streep stands up against a corrupt, rapacious nuclear power company; in “A Civil Action” John Travolta stands up against corrupt, rapacious conglomerates associated with a polluting Massachusetts tannery; in “American Beauty” (1999) Kevin Spacey stands up against the corrupt, rapacious values of his supposed suburban paradise (and his corrupt, faithless realtor wife); in “The Insider” Al Pacino AND Russell Crowe stand up against a corrupt, rapacious tobacco company. Just in time for the upcoming market meltdown, 2007 brought two business-bashing Oscar nominees for Best Picture. In “Michael Clayton”, George Clooney stands up (somewhat reluctantly) to a corrupt, rapacious drug company, but in “There Will be Blood” no one can possibly stand up to Daniel Day Lewis, a flamboyantly villainous monster who becomes a wealthy, 1920’s oil tycoon by overwhelming everything else on screen (including the handsomely photographed natural scenery).
Lewis won the Best Actor Academy Award for his ferocious performance as an implacably evil entrepreneur (and fulfilling the prophecy, “There Will Be Oscars”), and in 2005 George Clooney won Best Supporting Actor for his role as a disillusioned CIA operative in yet another condemnation of corporations, “Syriana.” In this unapologetically anti-American film, U.S. oil companies represent the ultimate source of cruelty and injustice on the planet and earn even less sympathetic treatment than the CIA or blissfully determined, suicidal jihadists. Tim Blake Nelson plays an energy protective whose corrosive cynicism seems designed to make Gordon Gekko seem idealistic and pure-hearted. Rather than praising greed, Nelson’s character hails the power of corruption itself: “Corruption is our protection,” he helpfully explains. “Corruption keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around in here instead of fighting over scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win!”
Meanwhile, no big studio film went further in demonstrating the prevailing fear and loathing of big business than the 2004 remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” with a glittering cast including Oscar winners Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Jon Voight. The original 1962 film (and the 1959 Richard Condon novel that inspired it) centered on a Communist assassination plot that exploits an American GI brainwashed by the North Koreans. In the remake, the International Communist Conspiracy gives way to the International Corporate Conspiracy. The malevolent, brainwashing force in the new film (directed by “Silence of the Lambs” Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme) is a multinational business behemoth called “Manchurian Global” determined to seize total control of the American government. The film’s tagline, “Everything is under control,” made its underlying message unmistakable.
“THE PATHOLOGICAL PURSUIT OF PROFIT AND POWER”
In the same year, an acclaimed documentary, “The Corporation,” explicitly explored the same notion that big business had taken over from Communism as the true Evil Empire of our time, and a potent threat to all humane values. Screenwriter Joel Bakan wrote a book to accompany the film’s release, with a subtle subtitle -- “The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power” – that concisely summarized its point of view. Focusing on the legal theory that treats a corporation as a “person” before the law, the film argues that nearly all these business entities deserve diagnosis as dangerous, even murderous psychopaths. In praising the film, reviewer Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “viewers come away with the uneasy sense that the defeat of communism may very well have cleared the way for another form of heartless, godless totalitarianism to threaten freedom – governments of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.”
Some of those same diabolical corporations obviously dominate the television industry (as well the world of motion pictures), yet the tube has offered several decades worth full of negative stereotypes and sleazy plot twists involving businessmen. As long ago as 1987, a controversial PBS documentary called “Hollywood’s Favorite Heavy: Businessmen on Prime Time TV” (hosted by movie legend Eli Wallach) pointed to the tendency of major networks to portray corporate executives as felonious, ruthless, blackmailing, violent, lecherous, unfaithful, greedy and, frequently, murderous. The program cited studies at the time showing that on fictional network series (including dramas, soap operas, and even comedies), no occupational group so frequently committed major crimes so frequently as wealthy business leaders.
In 1994, the principals of the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs, S. Robert Lichter and Linda S. Lichter, reported on the results of thirty years of analyzing network TV shows in “Prime Time: How TV Portrays American Culture.” They concluded that “across the entire three decades of our study, business characters were consistently depicted more negatively than those in other occupations…The proportion of bad guy businessmen is almost double that of all other occupations… Businessmen are over three times more likely to be criminals than are members of other occupations…. Although businessmen represent 12 percent of all characters in census-coded occupations, they commit 40 percent of the murders and 44 percent of vice crimes like drug trafficking and pimping.”
The scope of the Lichter study (going all the way back to the presumably less cynical era of mid ‘60’s) and the date of its completion some fifteen years ago destroys the claim that lurid portrayals of corporate executives represent an appropriate and inevitable response to the devastation of the 2008 financial meltdown. All attempts to quantify the treatment of business characters demonstrate that even in eras of prosperity and progress (the “Go-Go ‘80’s,” the bubbly champagne years of the Clinton Boom in the late ‘90’s) the portrayal of the business world remained relentlessly and consistently disapproving.
Most recently, the Emmy nominations of 2008 showed that series which focus on corporate corruption win a disproportionate share of critical praise. “Damages” on FX won seven nominations (including Outstanding Drama Series) for its celebrated non-linear presentation of Glenn Close as a crusading attorney pursuing a class action lawsuit against a vicious CEO (Ted Danson) on behalf of his workers in season one, while season two focused on another “cutthroat case” against a greedy energy company. Another nominee for Outstanding Drama (and in fifteen other categories) was “Mad Men,” a dark, jaded, stylized look at the soulless manipulation and rampant, adulterous sexual exploitation in a New York advertising agency of the ‘60’s. “Dirty Sexy Money” (ABC, 2007-2009) won its own Emmy attention for its lurid portrayal of the fabulously wealthy, scandal-plagued Darling family, and made clear its cynical attitude toward the pursuit of profit in its very title. “Arrested Development” on Fox (2003-2006) received even more critical praise (including six Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe) for its off-kilter presentation of yet another deeply dysfunctional, criminally corrupt business family.
The television news departments affiliated with these same entertainment conglomerates powerfully and predictably reinforce the negative messages about the capitalist system. The Business and Media Institute sponsored a yearlong study of evening news programming on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox, monitoring the treatment of business issues between January 1 and December 31, 2006. Amazingly, in nearly two thirds (63%) of all business stories, business men or women never appeared to comment, even briefly. In those stories, a clear majority 57% (481 of 848) featured negative treatment of the commercial figures involved – employing terms like “corporate fat cats” or “crooks heading to the slammer.” The most popular attacks centered on monetary transgressions – unfair pricing, overly lavish CEO pay, or “obscene” corporate profits.
The bitterly negative portrayals of business ethics and accomplishment continue to bombard the public, unaccompanied by contrasting or countervailing visions of heroism or dynamism in the corporate world –a surprising imbalance considering that the source of all these entertainments remains one of the most ruthlessly competitive and globally consequential of all US enterprises.
BITING THE HAND THAT IS YOU
Why would Hollywood, dominated by a handful of shamelessly capitalistic conglomerates, regularly trash the free market system which allowed American media companies to conquer the globe? Why should movie directors, TV producers or Tinseltown stars, all of whom have benefited spectacularly from the business of entertainment, display such consistent negativity to the free market opportunities that made it all possible?
This isn’t merely an example of “biting the hand that feeds you.” In terms of the entertainment companies, it amounts to a case of biting the hand that is you.
According to Larry Ribstein, who teaches business law at the Illinois College of Law in Champaign, it’s not “business per se” that raises the objections of filmmakers, but the specific business people who control their projects. “Filmmakers’ main problem with capital being in control seems to be that the filmmakers are not.”
Every writer, director and actor in Hollywood cherishes stories about cruel, crude, exploitative treatment by lunk-headed executives and for many people in the creative community these encounters represent their only personal experience in the world of business. They naturally extrapolate recollections of these often unpleasant interactions toward a dim view of the free market system in general. As many entertainment insides will concede, the vicious, selfish caricatures of corporate bosses that turn up so frequently on TV and in films bear more than a passing resemblance to the studio or network honchos who may have cheated or disappointed by the projects’ principals in the past.
But if these business-bashing efforts amount to a form of revenge against the greed and ruthlessness of entertainment executives, why should those same executives grant regular approval to projects meant to attack them? Omnipotent corporate titans, in Hollywood and elsewhere, aren’t generally associated with a robust sense of humor about their own values and habits. The consistent investment in anti-capitalist diversions remains especially perplexing in light of the frequently disappointing box office returns for movies that demonize big corporations. Few movie-goers ever bought tickets (or rented the DVD) to see the propagandistic provocation “The Corporation,” for instance, while the big budget, high profile “The Manchurian Candidate” remake qualified as a major flop.
In part, the ugly view of the corporate system that emerges with such consistency from big corporations in Hollywood reflects the distinctively irrational and unpredictable nature of show business. As Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman famously concluded, the operating assumption for the entire industry is “Nobody knows anything.” In other words, each studio’s superhighway of gleaming, high-powered can’t-miss hits is littered with the twisted wreckage of costly and heart-breaking bombs, while sloppy stinkers that deserve neither respect nor affection often startle their own creators by earning inexplicable millions. Unlike the widget manufacturing business, the entertainment assembly line uniquely lacks any objective criterion of excellence. If a company succeeds with its new line of widgets, it’s generally an indication of the worthiness or at least the predictable public appeal of the product. If, on the other hand, you turn out inferior or unreliable widgets you stand a real chance of going broke.
No such logic applies to the entertainment industry, where Dreamworks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg freely acknowledges that success or failure depends on the inscrutable, erratic “movie gods” as much as any reasonable calculation, craft or planning. Every actor or actress, no matter how accomplished, realizes at the deepest level that his or her popularity may owe as much to a winning smile or burning blue eyes or long, lovely legs as to painstakingly developed thespian skill. In fact, many multimillionaire performers understand that undiscovered but ambitious young people who earn their few bucks as waiters or parking attendants might easily compete with the best in the business if ever given a proper chance.
The rewards of Hollywood, in other words, flow to studio executives and to the creative community alike in a random, fickle and manifestly unfair manner, which leads pop culture powerhouses who’ve gained their primary business experience within the entertainment arena to assume that capitalism at large is similarly random, fickle and unfair. If leading celebrities condemn the entire economic system as unreasonable, exploitative, ridiculous and deceptive they do so because they’ve experienced these qualities directly in the industry in which they toil.
A NATION OF EXCEPTIONAL BOSSES
The members of the mass media audience generally accept these stereotypical visions of corporate America in spite of personal experience that contradicts pop culture’s prevailing cynicism. Though every citizen cherishes at least a few horrifying or amusing stories about egotistical and abusive bosses, the overall levels of job satisfaction in the United States remain shockingly high. In his indispensable 2008 book “Gross National Happiness,” my friend Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University and the American Enterprise Institute collates a huge volume of data to reveal the underlying American attitudes toward work. “Dilbert cartoons, the sitcom The Office, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s bestselling book, Nickel and Dimed notwithstanding, Americans like or even love their jobs,” he writes. “Among adults who worked ten hours a week or more in 2002, an amazing 89 percent said they were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their jobs.”
What’s more, this overwhelming sense of contentment with their participation in the economic system cuts across all distinctions between blue collar and white collar, between the privileged and the powerless. “There is no difference at all in job satisfaction between those with below-and above-average incomes: Eighty-nine percent are satisfied in both groups. Similarly, 88 percent of people without a college education are satisfied. And people who specifically call themselves working class, those ‘nickel-and-dimed’ folks? Eighty-seven percent. The middle class, who television pundits and politicians say are so increasingly dispirited, are satisfied with their jobs as well, to the tune of 93 percent.”
Since many, if not most, of these respondents pursue their employment in the business world these upbeat attitudes appear to contradict the surveys that show overwhelmingly negative views of business executives. How could Americans report such high levels of pride and pleasure in their jobs when they express so little respect for the ethics or honor of the big shots for whom they toil?
The answer involves a media driven syndrome that spreads confusion in every corner of American life. Forty years ago Dr. Thomas Harris published “I’m OK, You’re OK,” one of the bestselling self-help books in the history of civilization. Unfortunately, most members of the public now embrace a very different concept – “I’m OK, but you’re in a world of hurt and trouble.” The great majority of people say they’re hugely pleased with their own family life, for instance, but then declare (by similarly huge margins) that the general state of the family is dire and desperate. Most parents express pride and satisfaction with their own children’s public schools, but assume that the rest of the education system does a horrible job. Voters overwhelmingly re-elect their own Representatives in Congress, but tell pollsters that Congress on the whole counts as a disgrace; they love their doctors and feel pleased (some 77%!) with their health insurance, but still assume that the system itself is broken and needs radical change.
The chief cause of these contradictions involves the common reliance on media for information about the world beyond personal experience. The individual American never counts on Brian Williams (or his colleagues) to assess the state of his own marriage, or health, or financial well-being, but still uses the images and messages from television to evaluate the situation in society at large. Inevitably, the media reports always emphasize dysfunction and difficulty and despair—tornadoes get better ratings than sunshine, and torture-murder attracts more attention than acts of kindness or philanthropy. The networks and the newspapers (as well as the new medium of the internet) don’t constitute a news business as much as they comprise a bad news business. When we acknowledge our blessings, and revel in our own freakishly fortunate lives, we become convinced that we’re far removed from our neighbors --- surviving on a tiny sun-kissed island of good fortune, while surrounded by turbulent and toxic oceans of despair. Regarding our elected representatives, or our children’s teachers, or our physicians, we assume that we’ve secured the only good and wholesome apple in a vast barrel crammed with rotten fruit. In the world of business, it’s far easier to assume that the head of your own company stands apart from all his colleagues rather than to challenge the prevailing assumptions about the corporate system itself. Like the smug citizens of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Woebegon, we’re convinced we live in a setting where “all the children are above average,” and function in a nation where all the bosses are exceptional.
GRATITUDE ABOVE GUILT
The prevailing view of a dysfunctional and desperate business system flows from widely accepted, endlessly repeated lies that directly conflict with the actual economic engagement of most Americans.
The crucial lies insist –
That capitalism and the free market system are dead – or dying
That when the rich get richer, the poor get poorer
That business executives receive gross overpayment for empty, lazy, corrupt and unproductive lives
That big business, with its global reach, is inherently worse for both consumers and workers than small business
And that government responds to public needs more reliably, more compassionately than the private sector
These pillars of conventional wisdom go largely unchallenged in academia and media where various experts and traditional critics of the free market eagerly emphasize the bad news about business. Nevertheless, many Americans feel instinctive doubt or at least discomfort with the ubiquitous smears against an economic system that allows us to plan, produce and dream.
Despite more than a century of socialist agitation aiming to purge “selfish” motives from every aspect of our society, we still rely on for profit companies in every moment of our lives. I couldn’t be writing these words without the computer company that produced the word processor, or the publishers who printed my sources, or the coffee distributor who provided fortification for the work. Even if you work at some supposedly noble non-profit enterprise, every element of your work depends on some productive capitalist venture --- from the car (or bike, or bus) that took you to work, to the lights and phones and desks and electricity essential to any office, to the building itself, to the food and plates and glasses in the lunch room. For entertainment, we’re utterly dependent on the competitive business system – to organize a nice restaurant, or a good movie at the local multiplex, or a trendy club, or a major league baseball game (and think of all the companies that worked on that scoreboard with its jumbotron, or the retractable roof, or the increasingly exotic fare available between innings, or the exercise equipment that trains the athletes, or their beautifully crafted mitts and bats and cleats.
One could argue that we only avoid the blessings of business in those hours that we manage to sleep, but even then we need someone to provide the bed, and sheets, and pillows, and alarm clock, and heating, and windows with screens, and Ambien (as needed). The literally hundreds of thousands of people required to delivery these goods and services may not see themselves as our benefactors, but they help and serve us nonetheless. As Adam Smith, the pioneer philosopher of capitalism, summarized human motivation more than 200 years ago: “It is not from benevolence of the butcher, the baker, or the brewer that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
To satisfy each of our needs in daily life requires processes of overwhelming complexity that for-profit business provides in seemingly effortless, organic fashion. The companies that serve themselves by serving others manage to bind us together in an intricate system of mutual demand and satisfaction. The pursuit of profit allows us to depend on one another and, in most cases, to rely on one another.
Far from the heart-hardening and spirit-killing processes cited by poets or movie producers who loudly lament the central role of business in our society, the capitalist system actually opens us to a greater sense of connection and even community.
And to a richer, more constructive, more youthful chance for risk and daring, applied to the ongoing romance of building a business.
I should have recognized these qualities in my father’s many decades as an independent businessman. It wasn’t just scientific breakthroughs that let him relish every day as a new adventure, nor was it the satisfaction of profit and financial progress (he did not die a wealthy man). He loved the sense of creativity, nourishing institutions that grew out of his own energy and imagination, turning out nifty high tech products that no one had ever shaped before. He also enjoyed the relationships, with colleagues, employers, even competitors.
He didn’t have time for the big lies about American business and so simply disregarded them even as he discredited them with his example. Even at a time of financial hardship and menace, a similar celebration about the big truths of our free market system will enable us to face the years ahead with inspiration rather than insecurity, and with gratitude above guilt.