Thursday, October 07, 2004

Mathew Manweller: Conservative Academics Weigh In, Way Out

This op-ed piece by Mathew Manweller, a political scientist at Central Washington University, has been making the rounds of the internets. As an argument for reelecting Bush, it's excellent fishwrap. The "don't change horses in midstream" argument worked in 1944 because FDR was winning the war against Germany and Japan - notably, in alliance with numerous powers, including Britain and the Soviet Union. Contrast October 1944 with October 2004, when every day brings more proof that the MBA president is utterly incapable of understanding, much less winning, the "war on terror." See, for instance, the revelations about giant quantities of missing high explosives in Iraq. America will be safer if Bush is fired and Kerry hired.

But then again, you can't expect much careful reasoning from an academic - even a poli sci type - who can make ludicrously unhistorical comments like this one: "America has always been a nation that rises to the demands of history regardless of the costs or appeal. If we turn away from that legacy, we turn away from who we are." God.

Manweller goes to assert that if we elect John Kerry, "Bin Laden will recognize that he can topple any American administration without setting foot on the homeland." You'd think someone who teaches courses on the Constitution would understand the distinction between a lawful election and "toppling" a government, but I guess not. By way of winding this up, he states that being an American means that "you accept a set of values and responsibilities," but offers no examples of such values and responsibilities might include, short of voting for Smirky and Snarly. I won't (preemptive wars) even guess (slaveholding) what else might be in there (interning Japanese-Americans), for fear of proving my own bias (disenfranchising black Floridians).

(Interestingly, Manweller himself is also proof that the "liberal academy" is as much a mirage as the "liberal media." Look for instance at this hyperlink from his home page: a Michael Moore-style documentary purporting to show how lib'ral them universities are? Give me a break, wingnut kids. Go use your Mini-DV tapes for something interesting, like a study of beer bongs.

Engineering programs, economics and poli sci departments, business schools, and religious colleges are all typically much more conservative than the liberal-arts departments that come in for so much criticism as bastions of tenured radicals. More to the point, at least nowadays, business and engineering schools are often far richer than history or English departments, and thus far more influential in shaping undergrad minds. Anyone who has taught undergrad business majors knows this. And it's not a bad thing! Trying to teach American history to marketing and accounting undergrads is fascinating and rewarding, and, in my experience, one which has reciprocal rewards. I can better understand the world they are shaping by choosing to become entrepreneurs, IT experts, managers, and so forth - the world I share with them - and they can, hopefully, learn that that world is not coterminous with forecasting spreadsheets, XML code, creative briefs, or business plans.)

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


As a historian of business and technology, I'm fascinated by the emerging battle between the U.S. and the European Union over subsidies to Boeing and Airbus, respectively. The E.U's trade commissioner is dead right to say that "election-year politics" is one reason for American negotiators' decision to charge the E.U. with illegal aid to Airbus.

Beyond that, though, the conflict is a huge window into an almost unknown facet of modern political economy: the abidingly collaborative ties between the nation-state and corporations. With few exceptions, the relationship between governments and businesses is viewed as a conflict which extends back to the origins of the modern state in the European Renaissance and still appears in myriad forms: tax policy, labor law, the military-industrial complex.

As that last example shows, though, the state-business relationship is only rarely and superficially a conflict. Both governments and corporations are giant, rich, and powerful organizations with deeply vested interests in maintaining their own specific (but overlapping) kinds of power. War is one area where states and businesses obviously collude; high-technology innovation is another. Making new things is so expensive and risky - and has been since the highest technology was a war galley - that only states can subsidize businesses which want to make those things. Most observers mention only money when they describe those subsidies, and there is a great deal of money flying around now. According to a 1992 agreement between the U.S. and the E.U, the maximum monetary subsidy to their respective big-plane builders is a whopping 33% of the cost of a new plane. As the two firms try to develop their respective jets (the Boeing 7E7 and the Airbus A350), that percentage is astronomical: $3 billion to Boeing for the 7E7 alone ($23 billion since 1992!).

This focus on money, though, obscures two other key issues. First, other forms of government support are far more subtle and arguably more important to companies. Stabilizing an economy, for instance, is an challenge which only governments have ever been able to meet, but it is the crucial accomplishment which permits enterprises to reliably make money and even to exist. (A state's use of political power to seize or destabilize an economy is, accordingly, anathema to corporate interests: witness Russia, where Putin's growing political power is predicated on the erosion of real corporate power like that of oil company Yukos.)

Second, looking only at money obscures the fact that the lines dividing companies from governments are themselves fairly obcure, and beg the question: where does a company start and a government end? On its face, it seems an odd question. Since various kinds of resources and power do flow back and forth between a state and a business, the two institutions must have some sort of separate existence. And they do. But the separateness is that of two symbiotic organisms (or two parasitic ones, with - I'd argue - the state as the host), not the separateness of two deer or - as the free-marketeers would have it - the separateness of a lion and a wildebeest. The contretemps between the U.S. and the E.U. over Boeing and Airbus demonstrates that there is really no such thing as a "private enterprise," at least in the big modern economies. Engaging in capitalism simply requires too much of too many things for businesses to exist apart from governmental support of one form or another. Imagining or assuming or pretending otherwise - as, apparently, both the U.S. and the E.U. may be doing here - is simply bad thinking, and likely to do more harm than good.