Monday, May 21, 2007

Corporations and National Assisted Suicide

“Nation” has no meaning for corporations, except as providers of a secure environment. In this sense, corporations are the athlete’s foot to the feet of nations: they rely on nations, to be sure, for the conditions of their existence, but they are beyond any human morality of loyalty to person or place. Corporations, especially large ones, follow only the most abstract logic, viewing a world wiped free of sentiment, attachment, meaning. Corporations view nations the way germs view bodies: through the ever-selfish question, “Which one gives me the most of what I want?” and the opportunistic “Which one is convenient at this time?”

One need not look to the thuggish deeds of “Kenny Boy” Kenneth Lay or the self-serving imperial style of Jack Welch to prove this point: the most mainstream of companies undermine their host nation and government whenever convenient. A recent Washington Post article details the way General Electric has, through spending huge amounts of money renting high-value legal advisor-whores, overwhelmed the ability of a resource-poor government to resist its version of a new corporate tax structure. The upshot of this revision – originally meant to close loopholes that cost the government billions in taxes every year – ends up widening the loopholes so that the loss to the government is more that double what it was. The fungus of athlete’s foot spreads whenever it is able, regardless of the feeling of the host. Legal mechanisms do not prevent a corporate behemoth from swaying state legislation to benefit itself, for money allows GE to exploit its knowledge of law and eventually even rewrite law to its own liking.

Beyond the outrage of a big corporation investing legally in tax-code rewrites that undermine the state and the public interest, there is the greater outrage that the new tax code-in-waiting tends to reward corporations that invest overseas. In other words, the government, its decrepit writing hand guided by corporate lawyers, has allowed itself to implement a tax law that is tantamount to slow national death. Assisted suicide. Not only will quality jobs gush out of the nation at a higher rate – something already happening for quite a while – but the state itself will slowly suffocate for lack of tax revenue. The crucial work of regulation and enforcement, like white blood cells in a body, will slacken further, allowing corporations engorged on new wealth to rewrite law even more. And the body weakens. GE is bringing good things to light, I suppose.

Of course, this is a process conservatives celebrate. They enjoy using melodramatic Biblical-sounding phrases like “starve the beast” to play up their heroic acts. Such phrases cast themselves as heroic Bilbo Baggins against the great Smaug of government. They like the self-glorification, the pretense of doing God’s work while swinging open the public treasury to soft-handed corporate bandits. Of course, conservatives will not admit that starving one “beast” is done at the behest of another, and far worse, beast, one not in any way (except symbolically) committed to the public good: the corporations. They pretend to be acting for principle only. Instead, conservatives paint a picture as idyllic as Hobbitton, with birds chirping and sun shining. In their world, the weakening of government will make everyone freer and happier: despite no taxes for repairing roads or enforcing laws, business – especially of the small, Jimmy Stewart-led kind – flourishes. There is no mention of the enormous pod of dragons flapping their wings slowly in to blot out the sun and turn citizens into temp employee serfs. For if the government were bad, at least it was a dragon publicly committed and bound to work for the good of the people. The new dragons in power are bound to a higher law: the bottom line.

Commentators rarely point out the irony of conservative lawmakers describing the government as a beast to be starved. We rarely hear discussed the oddity that the very government they serve is considered evil. One can only suspect that there is something up their sleeves, some power play, for these Washington players to talk of government service out of one side of their mouth and bash the government as evil out of the other side. These men are servants of the beast – but disloyal servants, servants elected to serve the public good but slipping poison into the food of the dragon committed to that very good. They play a slippery game, these soft-handed friends of corporate power. They hide their elitism by wielding axes, or killing animals, or driving big cars, but turn over their hands and you will see as soft a hand as was ever made. A hand made only for cellphones and lattes – to be sipped strictly in private.

I pointed out above that companies pay fealty in one way to nations and governments: symbolically. Nike or Coke or Pepsi are good examples. They make money off their “Americanness.” But in what way are these global corporations really American? Most of Nike’s labor force is paid peanuts, peanuts American workers would never accept. Nike is conceptually American. For this reason only does its headquarters stay in the US. If Nike were located in the Cayman Islands – as many less publicly visible US companies have done – its bottom line, related closely to its image, would suffer. Not that the top echelons of the company, who are American, would mind much commuting to the island for work, as they own their own jets. The only thing they would lose in such a move would be a smudge on the company’s American image, which translates to a hit on its stock value. And that is the only thing that matters. In what way is such a company American? In its extremely polarized power structure, of princes and peons? In its exclusive devotion to self-enrichment? In its slavish devotion to a properly attractive image?

In Taiwan, I have found more evidence of my thesis that corporations need a nation, any nation, but particularly a compliant one. One of my students, JJ, whom I teach 9:20 on Saturday morning, described to me the incredible scenario of a Taiwanese company evading national law by setting up a puppet company in China purely through person to person contacts. Nothing at all is written down. National law be damned! If evasion will produce a profit, then we will verbally direct the establishment of a puppet company on the mainland. We will get in good with the Reds, bribing them handsomely, giving them a nice cut. And nothing is written down. UNC is a burglar in the Taiwanese house. They pay taxes to a government they are dedicated to undermine. UNC does not hate the government, though. Does athlete’s foot hate the person trying to limit it? No. there is no ideology for any of this, in the sense that ideology is a human cultural set of values. No – the drive of corporations, benefiting certain elites, is strictly impersonal: the bottom line. An abstraction rules all.

If corporate actions tend toward a condition of political anarchy, where power devolves more into the hands of corporate warlords, will our men in Washington cheer and announce the death of the beast? And will they proclaim a new era of harmony, between lords and employees? And will they then step down selflessly, consistent with their stated mission of serving the people by killing the beast? Or will we find them installed in corporate boardrooms, smiling out at the little people who voted for them back when voting was said to matter?

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