Where Are the Rational Greedy Bastards?

Why is big business so enthusiastic about another Bush term? Yes, corporations have gotten a few fat tax breaks and regulatory rollbacks, and more face time with the president than do White House security guards. But on the issues that count, the current administration and its allies are undermining the foundations of American business.

Consider the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office now says it will total more than $420 billion this year, with no end in sight. George W. Bush promises to halve it over the next four years. Wall Street knows that's rubbish, which is partly why the stock market is stuck in neutral. There's just no human way he can cut the deficit and also deliver on his promises to make his tax cuts permanent and adjust the alternative minimum tax, while at the same time chasing terrorists, paying for the new Medicare drug benefit, maintaining agribusiness' subsidies, and financing all the other things hardwired into the Bush budgets. Privately, CEOs and Wall Street bankers fret about the mounting red ink. They remember what happened to the economy under previous Republicans, and they know supply-side economics is bunk masquerading as a free lunch.

Or take Bush's go-it-alone nationalism. Most big businesses are global. They depend on worldwide networks of consumers, suppliers, and investors, so they need international goodwill. But under Bush, the United States has become the global village's town bully. Bush has thumbed his nose at long-standing allies and turned his back on every international organization and treaty that stands in his way. The CEO of an American-based clothing giant told me that his firm is “playing down” its U.S. parentage “in light of public opinion” where it does business abroad. CEOs and Wall Streeters also see the steady decline of support for free trade around the world, another casualty of the current unilateralism. And they see the slide in foreign investment. Foreigners are investing less in America because global investors are worried about the direction this nation is heading under W.

And then there are the right-wing evangelicals. Today their fanaticism is directed at the entertainment industry, makers of contraceptives, and stem-cell researchers. But will they stop there? Their next targets could be the advertising industry, makers of cosmetics, perfume, and alluring clothes. After all, American business packages sex in many forms. And not just sex: A large portion of our gross national product is based on appeals to what might be called the baser instincts. American business is the giant engine of modernism. It embodies innovation and experimentation. It celebrates appetite and pleasure. Right-wing fundamentalism in America could easily take the form of a backlash against pleasure-filling capitalism, as has fundamentalism elsewhere.

Given all this, why are so many CEOs and Wall Street bankers enthusiastic about Bush? One investment banker with Democratic leanings offered me the only explanation he could think of. “It's greed,” he said, simply. “They love the tax cuts. They just want to keep more of their money.” And what of all the long-term dangers I've enumerated? “They don't think long-term,” was his snap response.

But not even this explanation seems totally convincing. After all, America's tycoons did far better under Bill Clinton than they've done under George II. Their salaries soared and stock options ballooned. The end wasn't fun, of course, but that was because the market had reached unsustainable heights. But during the Clinton years, stocks still tripled in value. After four years of George W. Bush, the Dow has barely moved. A rationally self-interested greedy bastard who never thought about the future would far prefer the Clinton years to another four years of Bush, even with Bush's tax cuts. John Kerry promises to continue Clinton's economic policies, so the greedy bastard should line up behind Kerry.

The answer has more to do with ideology than with rational thought. The Bush administration is filled with CEOs who speak the language of big business. They're at home with spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. They make “hard” decisions. They stick to their guns. The deficit may be out of control, the world may have turned against us, right-wing religious fanatics may be beating at their doors, their own stock portfolios may be disappointing. But their friends are in the White House, and, it seems, that's all they really care about.

Robert B. Reich is co-founder of The American Prospect.

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