Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, by Tyler Cowen (St. Martin’s Press, 259 pp., $28.99)
Economist Tyler Cowen begins his engaging and valuable new book, Big Business, by declaring that “we live in an age when the reputation of business is under siege.” That’s been true for at least 50 years. Recent books with “big business” in the title tend to decry how health care became a monolithic enterprise; allege that big tech companies feed a new age of “addiction”; describe how Big Food conspires against wellness; lament how college basketball turned into a machine; and argue that multinational corporations aided the rise of twentieth-century fascism and modern conservatism.
Mass culture has tied business to the whipping post for decades. A 1991 study, “Watching America,” found that while television networks portrayed two-thirds of all corporate executives as good guys until the early 1960s, a majority of CEOs represented on prime-time TV by 1980 were felons. “TV businessmen,” the study concluded, “constitute the largest group of murderers aside from professional gangsters.” Today, even a “conservative” outlet like the Hallmark Channel, which specializes in wholesome family movies, is likely to pit menacing big-business types against plucky independent bookshop owners, family farmers, or chefs struggling to serve organic food in a wasteland of corporate mush. No wonder, then, that big business is one of the least trusted of American institutions, ranking lower than labor unions, public schools, or even, in perhaps the biggest insult, the media.
But Americans don’t practice what they profess to believe. Consumer tracking surveys tell us that 95 percent of American shoppers spend money at Wal-Mart every year, though the retail giant has been derided as a downtown killer, exploiter of workers, and anti-union powerhouse since the mid-1980s, when as a young reporter I covered the company’s implausible rise. Close behind is McDonald’s, where nine out of ten Americans make purchases every year, despite a drumbeat of criticism about the quality and nutritional value of the chain’s food. Similarly, a recent analysis of consumer data ranked Facebook as America’s most hated company. Yet more than half of all Americans use it, and that number appears to be growing, albeit modestly.
Cowen has noticed the contradictions. Much of his book reminds readers just how valuable business (which often means big business) is to our lives, explaining why we patronize some of the biggest corporations even while we cast them as villains. “First, business makes most of the stuff we enjoy and consume. Second, business is what gives most of us jobs,” he writes. To accomplish these things in a world of intense scrutiny, businesses have worked hard to gain our trust. In one of the more provocative portions of a persistently provocative book, Cowen argues that businesses are on average more trustworthy than individuals—in other words, than many of us. IRS statistics, for instance, show that corporations are less likely to cheat on their taxes than individuals. While we deride big retailers like Wal-Mart, they incur tens of billions of dollars every year in losses from consumers and their own employees.
Then there’s the dicey reality of mortgage applications and other consumer submissions. Compelling evidence suggests that the mortgage meltdown of 2008–2009 was spurred at least in part by widespread misrepresentations among mortgage-seekers about everything from their income to what they intended to do with the properties they were borrowing to buy. Meantime, headhunters claim that about 40 percent of resumes for jobs at (what else?) businesses contain fabrications. In perhaps the most amusing hypocrisy of all, Cowen reports that the books most likely to be stolen from public libraries are books on ethics. It’s enough to make you want to hire a business to protect you from all the scam artists out there—and we do that, too.
Cowen addresses some common criticisms of big companies—that too many are monopolistic, for example, and that more should be broken up. Monopolies do exist, but many, if you look closely, are in heavily regulated industries where misguided government policies raise the cost of entry and allow a few companies to dominate. Health-insurance firms have consolidated into giants to deal with all the regulation now demanded of them. Cable television offerings were restricted for years thanks to local governments handing out exclusive territorial licenses. Only recently, with the rise of online streaming, has technological innovation created a path around the cable monopoly, decreasing prices. And, of course, housing prices have skyrocketed in certain markets because of inadequate supply caused by government restrictions on building.
Even when big tech firms ban us because we’ve been too provocative, at least by their ambiguous standards, Cowen argues that we’re still better off with the technology we’re left with than we were before. Wall Street and the rest of American finance get a similar treatment. The rise of civilization, Cowen explains, has gone hand in hand with the rise of finance. Despite skepticism about the power of banks during the United States’ early days, financial institutions played a pivotal role in building vast networks of infrastructure that supported the nation’s economy. American venture capital, Cowen argues, operates unlike investment in most other parts of the world, proving crucial to the funding of speculative endeavors that spur waves of innovation. The notion that our banks today are too big, he writes, is an overreaction to a single historical event—the financial meltdown of 2008 and the idea that some companies are “too big to fail.”
In his final chapter, Cowen tries to explain how business got so unpopular. It’s not an easy task with a single, neat explanation. Cowen thinks that big companies have made the mistake of asking us to think of them as individuals. It’s how they market themselves to us, especially in the age of social media, but that skews our judgment, raising our expectations of them. When we realize that they’re giants capable of transforming and disrupting our world, we become suspicious and tend to blame them for society’s ills.
I agree with much of what Cowen argues, though I think that there may be something deeper at work here. As Daniel Bell argued in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, European intellectuals and artists began in the late nineteenth century to reject the traditional values of the bourgeois ethic, which they found stifling. They became hostile to commerce and business, and their animus was reflected in high culture, especially literature, throughout the first half of the twentieth century. With the cultural revolution of the 1960s, those ideas found their way into the mainstream, where it became fashionable for a new generation of movie executives and other purveyors of pop culture to explore more transgressive themes, including those that questioned the institutions that employed us and furnished us with life’s essentials. The rise of post-modernism, with its “creed of pastiche and parody, of the idea that anything goes, of the enthronement of popular and low culture,” further entrenched an ethos that widely derides big business today. The average American, from a young age and into adulthood, can’t escape being battered by messages that reflect a deep hostility to the traditional strive-and-thrive American culture that big businesses, especially, represent.
In this environment, it’s rare to find someone today who writes, as Cowen does: “I have a complaint about America today, and it is simple: we don’t love business enough.” It’s a refreshing and necessary message.
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