Dear Obama: Please Bash Me Like You Bash Wall Street

In recent weeks Barack Obama has come under fire from some high-profile plutocrats for his alleged “anti-business” attitudes.

First 3M CEO George Buckley, in a February 27 Financial Times interview, said that Obama’s instincts are “Robin Hood-esque,” and that he is “anti-business.”

Then Charles Koch, the right-wing billionaire and sugar daddy of assorted libertarian think tanks and foundations, said in the April 4 issue of The Weekly Standard that Obama is an “egalitarian” who has “internalized some Marxist models,” in particular believing that “business tends to be successful by exploiting its customers and workers.”  His brother David piped up that Obama is the product of “anti-business, anti-free enterprise influences.”

Frankly, I’m not all that surprised that a plain vanilla-flavored Fortune 500 CEO like Buckley would make such an accusation. After all, the fake enmity between big government and big business is central to the morality play governing American politics.

I say “fake” because it’s about as genuine as the conflict between the “good cop” and the “bad cop” in a police interrogation room. In fact big business has been the chief villain behind the growth of the activist state; as Roy Childs wrote in “Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,” liberal intellectuals have historically been the running dogs of big business. Corporate kingpins who complain about government being on their back remind me of Bre’r Rabbit hollering “Please don’t fling me in that briar patch!”

But I’m a bit surprised that the Koch brothers — centerpieces of beltway libertarian politics and finance — would conflate  “free enterprise” with “business.” It’s a distinction so basic that virtually everyone who uses the “free market libertarian” label at least pays lip service to it. Most professed libertarians recognize in principle that business interests can be the biggest enemies of the market, even if for many of them it’s a principle they don’t seem to observe in action very much.

Charles Koch neglects the possibility that the dominant businesses in our economy really do profit at the expense of workers and consumers. This is not, after all, a free market. It’s rife with the political means to wealth. Arguably the majority of Fortune 500 profits result from taxpayer subsidies, government-conferred monopolies like “intellectual property,” special protections, and entry barriers, rather than from peaceful exchange on the free market.

So why is it so inconceivable that a lot of businesses in the economy we actually live in might get their profits through exploitation? Unless, that is, the Koch brothers have some vested interest in pretending that the present corporatist economy really is a free market.

After watching Obama’s performance over the past two years, I find myself thinking of the Bearded Spock universe when I hear complaints about his “anti-business” bias.

Sure, Obama uses some egalitarian, anti-business rhetoric. It’s a great way of distracting people from the movement of his hands as he stuffs the pockets of big business with subsidies and cloaks them with all sort of anti-competitive regulations. And look at the folks he’s surrounded himself with: Emanuel, Geithner, Summers, Rubin, Immelt. Yeah, that’s quite a little Maoist study circle he’s got there.

I wish Obama was “anti-business” enough to match his rhetoric with simply moving toward the ideal of a free market by cutting the vast array of governmental subsidies to Big Business — but, then, that’s not what he’s there for.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory