Comment: The Business of America

Liberals confront the charge that we are anti-business. Modern liberals like
to strike a "third-way" pose of being pro-entrepreneur and pro-market while
socially liberal on such issues as tolerance and the environment. Old-time
anti-corporate liberals, such as trade unionists and Naderites, are said to be
stuck in a 1930s time warp.

But every so often, politics offers a graphic reminder of why good liberals
are necessarily anti-business. Successful individual entrepreneurs and dynamic
corporations are certainly economic assets; the problem is organized business as
a political force--how it corrupts our politics, skews priorities, disdains
workers, and blocks democracy from carrying out the wishes of ordinary citizens.

The issue du jour is war profiteering. Corporate America and its Republican
allies have mounted a shameless Treasury raid masquerading as economic stimulus.
Their ploy may even backfire politically.

But this destructive role of organized business is the rule, not the
exception. On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I was marveling at the pristine air
and clear mountain views. When I first visited L.A., the normal weather was
smog--seemingly part of the topography rather than the result of raw auto
exhaust. The cure for smog, of course, was the Clean Air Act of 1970, followed by
even tougher state government controls. Needless to say, the auto and oil
industries fiercely opposed every advance in clean air. Today, clean air is
cherished even by SUV drivers. But industry lobbying nearly consigned Americans
to a future of unhealthy air, just as it still pushes the world toward disastrous
climate change.

On any constructive reform of the past century where current policy is now
well established and widely supported, history will record that business had to
be dragged kicking and screaming; that massive lobbying campaigns were launched
to resist the measure; that Congress was warned that the economy would be wrecked
and the Republic threatened. Social Security, despite the current business-led
campaign to privatize it, remains our most valued program. When Social Security
was proposed in 1935, business lobbies damned it as socialistic and it took
Roosevelt's supernormal majorities in Congress to win its enactment. It required
another three decades before the next large Democratic majority in the mid-1960s
could overcome business hysteria against Medicare and Medicaid.

The same basic story is true of rights for the handicapped, clean-water
legislation, worker health-and-safety laws, parental-leave mandates,
community-reinvestment requirements, antitrust legislation, minimum-wage laws,
safe and effective drugs--you name it. Organized business lobbies mightily
opposed them all.

But these are only the hard-fought measures that eventually prevailed. In
recent decades, as money has talked louder than voters, liberals have lost on
more issues than they have won. There is now a large agenda of deferred reforms
that most Americans want--programs that have been chronically blocked by
organized business, ranging from high-quality, universal prekindergarten
education and child care to campaign finance reform and national health
insurance.

And as organized business has lately gained political ground, many Democrats
as well as Republicans have become intimidated by fear of the anti-business label
and, with it, the loss of campaign contributions. The Democratic Leadership
Council has become both the official ideologue and Good Housekeeping Seal for the
proposition that modern liberals and Democrats need to embrace business. It is no
accident that the legislative bastion of Democratic pro-business conservatism is
the Senate Finance Committee, through which special-interest legislation on
taxes, trade, social insurance, and health care must flow. If you are an
opportunistic centrist politician, there is no better place from which to be well
rewarded for your moderation.

Which brings me to the theme of this issue of the Prospect, the wartime home
front. The country confronts a serious recession as well as public-health and
domestic-security challenges. All of this requires new public outlay. Business,
naturally, opposes new spending, much less federalization of airport security.

State budgets now face reduced revenues because of the economic downturn.
There could well be cuts of over $100 billion in state and local spending,
leading to layoffs and reduced public services. Rather than cutting back, states
need additional resources. Instead of indecent tax breaks for business, we need
emergency revenue sharing and federal replenishment of welfare and unemployment
reserves. Democrats have resisted some of the tax cuts but have been relatively
timid on the public spending. This reticence reflects, in part, the president's
wartime popularity; but at a deeper level, it reflects the entrenched power of
business.

So the next time you hear people call liberals anti-business, wear the label
as a badge. Remind them that every social advance of modern America has required
liberals to beat organized business bloody. Even as we celebrate individual
entrepreneurs, organized business needs to be neutered as a political force or it
swamps our democracy. To pretend otherwise is naive or disingenuous. This crisis
is no exception.


Editors' note: With this issue we welcome to The American Prospect Senior
Editor Ana Marie Cox, formerly with
Mother Jones and The Chronicle of
Higher Education, and Managing Editor Lisa Hisel, who joins us from the
Population Reference Bureau.

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