Saturday, May 7, 2005

MH - More on Corporate America and Conservatism

I’m always delighted to find bloggers who agree with me . . . wait a minute, let me start over again.

I’m always delighted to find bloggers who touch on areas of interest to me. As I mentioned yesterday, this is such a great way to be introduced to new ways of thinking and new sources of information.

Case in point is the blog Caelum et Terra, which I discovered courtesy of Veritas. In it, Maclin Horton links to Stephen Bainbridge’s “The Conservative Case Against Wal-Mart.” Professor Bainbridge’s post is excellent (here he quotes law professor Stephen Presser and adds some thoughts of his own):

Note carefully this line: the "policy of encouraging incorporation by persons of modest means 'facilitated the growth of a viable urban democracy by allowing a wide participation in businesses that could most advantageously be organized as corporations.'" By trampling small businesses underfoot, through its mix of volume pricing and subsidies, Wal-Mart and its ilk undermine the possibility of "wide participation in businesses." Prospective entrepreneurs are thus pushed out of fields like retail.

Of course, maybe Wal-Mart makes up for that by buying products from small entrepreneurs in places like China. But do we really want to encourage our nation’s most likely future superpower rival to further build up its economy with massive trade deficits?
This hits right on the points I’ve been trying to make in my series on Distributism, as does the commentary by Maclin:
I spend a lot of time railing about the enormous blind spot which American conservatism has about big business. And for that matter the left is pretty blind, too, in a different way. Pardon me for stating the obvious--to me this is about like observing that water is wet--but big business is no friend of conservative values (to say nothing of specifically Catholic values) either in principle or in practice.
Now, by coincidence, this was not the first time I’d seen Professor Bainbridge’s blog. It’s amazing what you can stumble into when you’re looking for something else – I was following a link from Ramesh Ponnuru at NRO regarding that debate over David Oderberg’s column suggesting W. has a greater appreciation of some traditional moral values than JPII. This led to my first look at the Prof’s blog, which in turn led to a link to an article he’d written: Corporate Decisionmaking and the Moral Rights of Employees: Participatory Management and Natural Law. Not surprisingly, this deals with questions of employee participation in corporate governance and whether or not it justifies government intervention.

This is like Christmas morning if you’re interested in this topic, and I think most of us should be, considering the impact our workplaces have on our lives. Some people have scoffed at my "crusade" against Corporate America - "you're making too much of it." My first thought was, “Vindication! I’m not crazy! There is an issue here!” That’s not to say that everyone writing about this agrees with everything I say, or vice versa. It does mean that I’m not the only one who thinks there are important Catholic moral issues on the line, that they strongly translate to the effects Corporate America has on our culture, and that they are not (or should not) be incompatible with conservative political thought.

Going back to Caelum et Terra, I next find this post by Maclin, which touches on one of my original posts, “The Indignity of Work”:
Throughout the document [he refers to a software agreement document], the words "resource" and "resources" are used in place of the words "person" and "persons" (or "people")--even in contexts where the reference is not to resources that might include persons but specifically and only to persons. E.g. "a resource must log in to the server."
Remember my contention – we started to go downhill when personnel departments were renamed “human resources.” When a person becomes a resource, we subtly begin to dehumanize that person, and pretty soon they wind up being little more than a statistic. It appears Maclin has the same concerns.

Finally, linking back to some of the questions implicit in the Wal-Mart debate, there was this article at NRO, written by Meghan Cox Gurdon. Amidst this mostly wry look at her very first trip to Target, she shares some of her apprehensions about buying products made in China:
I have to say; it's an odd sensation to fall consciously into the grip of one's greediest impulses, to feel them tapped by cunning manufacturers in what is, after all, a largely hostile power. Walking the floor of this popular store, I feel like an Indian, trading Manhattan for a handful of shiny beads; I feel like Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, accepting enchanted Turkish Delight from the White Witch. I am aware enough to be worried about the consequences, but gluttonous enough to gobble what I'm offered. And, like I say, I do need sunglasses.


Like a Seventies-era mother, hesitating over an open vial of tranquilizers, I wonder: Is this really a good idea? What is a thrifty, patriotic consumer to do? Should I avoid buying Chinese products so as to help reduce the U.S.-China trade deficit and reduce the chance that eventually they will shoot at us with weaponry purchased with our own dollars? Or is it preferable to buy Chinese products, trust in the benefits of competition, and hope that the brutality of communism is like every other problem, and will improve if you rub enough money into it? Should the modern American woman have an opinion on the yuan, the jiao, and the tiniest of fens?
She talks to a family friend who’s also a government official knowledgeable about such things, who reassures her that she shouldn’t feel guilty about this:
"The People's Liberation Army is largely out of the consumer export business," he says. "So China's military machine is not benefiting from your purchase of sneakers and napkin rings from Target to the degree you might think. The machine is benefiting from the overall development of China's economy, but at the same time, China's interests in employing that machine in ways that counter U.S. interests are increasing at a more rapid rate than the military is expanding."

I don't know about you, but I find that a relief. He goes on: "The vast majority of goods produced for sale here are done so with foreign direct investment, so China's trade with the United States is truly benefiting the growing middle class in China and the investor class in the U.S. Those $10.99 sneakers are contributing to someone's freedom and your husband's retirement fund," he says: "Shop to your heart's content!" I imagine saying this to my husband.

Yet I am still uneasy. "But — what about American producers?"

"It is better to buy American if you can," says the S.G.O., his voice taking on a hint of the old cod liver oil, "But frankly it would be best to save your money. The deficit, as you know, is partly a function of our low savings rate and domestic economic strength. You could keep wearing your old sneakers, bank the $10.99, thus increasing the funds available to invest in this country and... reduce our deficit with China! Ta-da!"
As I say, this is mostly played for laughs, but the way she continues to come back to it, the way her conscience keeps on considering it, makes me think she’s trying to make a more serious point here. How many times have we run into the same situation – the end justifies the means, the economic impact of what we do outweighs any moral qualms we might have. Or, more crudely, the almighty dollar trumps everything! If it’s good for the economy, it must be good for us! Who cares whether or not it’s good for society?

It reminds me of a disturbing conversation I once had with a fellow Catholic over the policies followed by the company he worked for. Although this company contributed to groups that supported abortion and provided homosexual partnership benefits, he insisted that the good the company did outweighed any bad it might be responsible for. “We do a lot for the community,” he said. “Plus our products are family-friendly.”

Swell, I thought. Your company is family-friendly, yet your corporate management contributes to groups that want to murder members of your core constituency before they have a chance to be born, and encourages movements that want to break up the family altogether. I didn’t say that, of course. What I wanted to ask him was if he’d been to confession lately, but I didn’t ask that either. As I said, he was a fellow Catholic. I didn’t say he was a friend.

My point is that what his company really found family-friendly was that they could make a lot of money off of families. The fact that their corporate-giving philosophy would, if carried to the ultimate, eliminate those consumers never entered his mind.

But beyond that, there’s a larger point, the idea that you can buy your way into Heaven. Catholics have been hit by that charge many times by our Protestant brethren, not always without merit. In this case, we’re talking about some vague idea of equilibrium, that there’s a mystical scale somewhere that weighs the good and bad we do, that somehow each act carries equal weight, and that at the end of the day if the good outweighs the bad we’ve somehow been justified in our actions. I admit none of us is perfect, but it’s not so easy to ignore those “bad” things (if, in our dictatorship of relativism, there’s really any such thing as “bad”). As Shakespeare pointed out, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” The Sacrament of Confession is designed to forgive us our sins; it does not remove the consequences of those sins from our lives and the lives of others.

Regardless of the good we do, we will be called to account some day for the evil we do. Hopefully, we can come up with a better explanation than, “Yes, but did you see our bottom line?”

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