A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Public services can’t come from corporations

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., August 7, 8 or 9

Everyday transactions’ typical frustrations can happen despite helpful cashiers and clerks. But while conservative extremists sing the tired Ronald Reagan 1981 refrain, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” one wonders, “Oh? Then what?

Service, anyone?

While an absence of incompetence is appealing, the lack of accountability is not. Whether Tea Party Republicans or hard-core Libertarians, the notion of no government can conjure visions of a utopia built on anarchy’s philosophical concept of “voluntary association” or an “only the strong survive” chaos like TV’s “Walking Dead” with a different sort of cannibalism.


“America, Inc.”

That would be corporate control and authoritarian bureaucracy instead of elected government trying to balance social resources and community needs.

Corporatism’s idea of “serve” is like TV’s old “Twilight Zone” episode in which extraterrestrials’ book “To Serve Man” is ultimately revealed to be … a cookbook.

Teacher, journalist and novelist/screenwriter Leo Rosten said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honorable. It is to be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived."

A purposeful life is to serve, not sell.

Increasingly, regular Americans must cope with corporate priorities different from our own, or corporate meddling, ineptitude or inertia. Anyone who ever had to deal with pre-Obamacare health insurance, or cable or other utility companies, or banks or busy big-box stores, knows that the Corporate Way is not always useful.

It’s not designed to serve the public interest.

Rosten – who was born in Poland but grew up in a union household in Chicago and worked his way through the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics – was a progressive Renaissance Man. A prolific writer, he wrote books, articles and movies, from “The Washington Correspondents” (1937) and “Hollywood: The Movie Colony The Movie Makers” (1941) to pieces for The New Yorker magazine and The New Republic to “All Through the Night” with Humphrey Bogart, “Captain Newman, M.D.” with Gregory Peck and “They Got Me Covered” with Bob Hope.

Decades after this George Polk Award-winner’s career – he died in 1997 at the age of 88 – Rosten might be appreciated for his insight as well as his wit. (Rosten once remarked, “A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they’re dead.”)

For now, those who hate government but receive food stamps, Social Security or Medicare may consider: If they have a problem with a driver’s license, veterans’ benefits or a parking ticket, they can still appeal to a state legislator’s office, a Congressman or an alderman to intervene on their behalf, ideally. (Sure, it must be conceded, too many elected officials are more beholden to campaign contributors or the Power Elite, but representative government is at least supposed to represent citizens.)

In contrast, if there are problems with an insurer over an accident or injury claim, or a warranty from a national chain store, or an unsafe or fraudulent product or service, victims could go to corporate offices and demonstrate, but it’s likely they’d be removed, or detained and maybe charged with criminal trespassing, or threatened with a civil lawsuit – a sinister SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).

Despite flawed Supreme Court reasoning that corporations are people, corporations are artificial constructs responsive to upper management and shareholders (at least, a majority of those owning stock, like hedge funds). Corporations care about ordinary people only as consumers, and only maybe as vendors or neighbors.

Founder of the nonprofit RAND Corporation’s Social Sciences division, Rosten was a humanist as well as a humorist, and he offered lessons that echo today. One was that corporations stress what benefits them and ignore all else. Although he was writing about the motion picture industry, Rosten’s following passage could apply to Big Banks, Big Pharma or ’Net Neutrality-gobbling media conglomerates: “The dazzling spotlight which Hollywood turns upon its personalities throws into shadow the thousands who work in the movie studios – technicians and craftsmen, musicians and sound engineers, painters, carpenters, laboratory workers.”

Corporations exist to serve themselves. Absolutely.

Governments run by elected representatives exist to serve constituents.

That service makes some difference.

[PICTURED: Carol Siimpson cartoon from]

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