An against-the-grain polemic on American capitalism from New York Times bestselling author Tyler Cowen.
We love to hate the 800-pound gorilla. Walmart and Amazon destroy communities and small businesses. Facebook turns us into addicts while putting our personal data at risk. From skeptical politicians like Bernie Sanders who, at a 2016 presidential campaign rally said, “If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist,” to millennials, only 42 percent of whom support capitalism, belief in big business is at an all-time low. But are big companies inherently evil? If business is so bad, why does it remain so integral to the basic functioning of America? Economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen says our biggest problem is that we don’t love business enough.
In Big Business, Cowen puts forth an impassioned defense of corporations and their essential role in a balanced, productive, and progressive society. He dismantles common misconceptions and untangles conflicting intuitions. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, only 12 percent of Americans trust big business “quite a lot,” and only 6 percent trust it “a great deal.” Yet Americans as a group are remarkably willing to trust businesses, whether in the form of buying a new phone on the day of its release or simply showing up to work in the expectation they will be paid. Cowen illuminates the crucial role businesses play in spurring innovation, rewarding talent and hard work, and creating the bounty on which we’ve all come to depend.
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About the Author
TYLER COWEN (Ph.D.) holds the Holbert L. Harris chair in economics at George Mason University. He is the author of a number of explanatory and text books, including The Complacent Class, as well as writing the most read economics blog worldwide, marginalrevolution. Tyler is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, has written regularly for The New York Times, and contributes to a wide range of newspapers and periodicals.
Read an Excerpt
A NEW PRO-BUSINESS MANIFESTO
We live in an age when the reputation of business is under siege. Among Democrats, for instance, the word "socialism" now polls better than does "capitalism." But Republicans, while they pay greater lip service to some business ideals, are not in practice much better. Many of them have quite readily followed President Donald Trump into his attacks on free trade, immigration, outsourcing, and the American media (which is labeled "the enemy of the people") — all fundamentally anti-business stances.
Business, quite simply, has become underrated, and thus I am writing a contrarian book that ought not to be contrarian at all. All of the criticisms one might mount against the corporate form — some of which are valid — pale in contrast to two straightforward and indeed essential virtues. First, business makes most of the stuff we enjoy and consume. Second, business is what gives most of us jobs. The two words that follow most immediately from the world of business are "prosperity" and "opportunity."
Without business we would not have:
Ships, trains, and cars
Electricity, lighting, and heating equipment
Most of our food supply
Most of our lifesaving pharmaceuticals
Clothes for our children
Our telephones and smartphones
The books we love to read
The ability to access, more or less immediately, so much of the world's online information
And let's not forget your paycheck. "Meeting payroll," to invoke a now old-fashioned phrase, is nothing less than a heroic act. Someone or some group put in the hard work and thought up the innovations required to create a company from scratch — I know it's easy enough to take this for granted if you aren't the one who did it. On top of the paycheck, jobs are among our biggest sources of pride and a significant way to meet friends and establish social networks.
By the way, when I use the word "business" I mean simply "a commercial or sometimes an industrial enterprise," to pull a quick definition from Merriam-Webster. I'll use the more legally precise word "corporation" interchangeably, even though the two concepts are not strictly the same. A kid with a lemonade stand is a business but not a corporation. That said, for the purposes of this book I will be considering institutions that are large enough and formal enough for the two words to serve as effective synonyms. I fully understand that the word "business" often sounds better to people than "corporation," so if I sometimes use the latter it is also to shock some of my readers out of an implicit anti-corporate complacency.
THE PARTICULAR VIRTUES OF AMERICAN BUSINESS
We must take a moment to appreciate the particular character of American business. By global standards, its overall performance is remarkably impressive. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom and a group of co-authors studied and compared management practices in some of the major economies, including the United States. Their survey assessed how well a workplace uses incentives, the quality of performance measures and reviews, whether top management aims at long-term goals, whether top creators are well rewarded, and whether the firm attracts and retains quality employees, among other relevant metrics. These assessments were backed up by real-world results too, as the responses correlated with actual numbers on firm productivity, size, profitability, sales growth, market value, and firm survival.
So at the end of all of these measurements of management quality, which country comes out on top? The United States is a clear first, a testament to the scope and quality of business achievement in this country, the result of the efforts of both business leaders and workers. Not coincidentally, America is the global innovation leader in a wide array of areas.
Management really matters. Let's say we take two American plants producing comparable wares, but one of those plants is in the 90th percentile in terms of productivity, while the other is in the 10th percentile. The former plant will have a productivity level four times higher than the latter plant, due to superior management practices. It has been estimated that Chinese firms could increase their productivity by 30 to 50 percent and Indian firms could do so by 40 to 60 percent merely by bringing the quality of their management practices up to American levels.
And what might such improvements from the Chinese and Indians mean? America's relatively high level of workplace trust allows its companies to run with much greater efficiency. Trust allows businesses to decentralize decisions, so top managers do not become bottlenecks holding up progress. With trust, delegation to subordinates is much easier and more effective, and so businesses based on trust can scale more rapidly and have greater flexibility. In an environment with relatively high levels of trust, workers are more likely to see that rewards are based on productive contributions more than on cronyism. In these regards, the virtues of business productivity are human virtues as well, and both show up in record high levels of business output and also relatively pleasurable jobs. As human beings, we enjoy being trusted and in turn being trustworthy. So often we see that business virtues correlate with social virtues.
There is another reason American business has done well: the American economy is relatively effective, compared with other countries, in weeding out the worst firms through competitive pressures. The very worst firms in the United States just aren't that bad compared with the best firms, whereas for other countries the gap is typically much larger. This is another way of saying that Americans do the "creative destruction" part of capitalism — that is, the process by which people vote with their wallets as to which is the best restaurant, car, or suitcase, and the losers go out of business — better than the rest of the world. The problem with protectionism, which at first glance looks appealing because it claims to protect our workers, is that it becomes much harder for more productive businesses to displace the less productive ones, a fundamental source of economic progress.
Compared with other major regions, the United States also does the best job of funneling labor and resources into the best-managed firms. That is, successful American businesses can grow and extend their reach. For instance, an increase in management quality of one standard deviation (a statistical measure of difference) means, for an American firm, 268 extra employees on average. A comparable increase in management quality in southern Europe is associated with only 68 more employees in the firm; similar results are found after adjusting for differences in firm size. In other words, America is especially good at matching talent to talent and getting the most out of its biggest successes.
LESS POLARIZED AND MORE VIRTUOUS THAN GOVERNMENT
We can all admit that we are a nation sorely in need of virtue, specifically in our political realm. The growing polarization of today's politics has made our government at best hopelessly sclerotic and at worst prone to unpredictable lurches. This polarization has also spurred out-of-control political correctness and censorship, rampant racism and injustice, new waves of violent marches and shootings, and an array of indictments and corruption charges. Many features of contemporary America are wonderful, including the high level of trust in the corporate sector, but the weirdness in our government has been rising.
In contrast, the world of American business has never been more productive, more tolerant, and more cooperative. It is not just a source of GDP and prosperity; it is a ray of normalcy and predictability in its steady focus on producing what can be profitably sold to customers. Successful businesses grow dynamically, but they also try to create oases of stability and tolerance in which they can perfect their production methods. These oases help to attract and retain talent and make it possible for businesses to offer consumers a steady stream of "comfort products." Business helps carve out spaces for love, friendship, creativity, and human caring by producing the resources that make our lives not just tolerable but comfortable.
American big business in particular has led the way toward making America more socially inclusive. McDonald's, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and many of the major tech companies, among others, were defining health and other legal benefits for same-sex partners before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Apple, Pfizer, Microsoft, Deutsche Bank, PayPal, and Marriott, among others, spoke out or protested the North Carolina law that sought to specify which restrooms transgender people had to use; the outcry led to the eventual repeal of that law. This push for tolerance shouldn't come as any surprise. Big business has lots of customers and relies on the value of brand names. It doesn't want any group of those customers to feel put out or discriminated against or to have cause for complaint, not least because we live in an age of social media. Profit maximization alone — not to mention the consciences of some CEOs — puts big business these days on the side of inclusion and tolerance.
Larger firms, in particular, which you can think of as wildly successful businesses and thus embodiments of the logic of business, tend to be more tolerant of employee personal tastes than smaller firms. A local baker might be reluctant to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but Sara Lee, which tries to build very broadly based national markets for its products, is happy to sell to all. The bigger companies need to protect their broader reputations and recruit large numbers of talented workers, including those from minority groups. They can't survive and grow just by cultivating a few narrow networks of local white men.
I sometimes say that if you want to understand today's world, you will do better reading the sports pages — which reflect a basic day-to-day normalcy in American life — than the front page or political section. Sports, of course, are a form of business.
WHAT'S THE BEEF?
I have a complaint about America today, and it is simple: we don't love business enough.
It isn't just one part of the population that tends to look down on business. Here is a partial list of those segments of modern America that are often reflexively critical of business and at the very least view it with great suspicion.
Most young Americans hold highly critical perspectives on capitalism. In one representative poll conducted by researchers at Harvard University, only 42 percent of young adults between ages eighteen and twenty-nine supported capitalism, while 51 percent said they did not support capitalism. Most of the respondents were not exactly sure what they favored instead, but a stunning 33 percent endorsed socialism as an alternative. Even if they don't mean socialism as earlier generations would have understood the concept, they are not exactly signaling their love of the corporate form. Today there is probably more anti-business sentiment, most of all among young people, than at any other time since the radicalism of the 1960s.
Bernie Sanders Supporters
Although he did not win the Democratic Party's nomination in 2016, Bernie Sanders arguably was the candidate who generated the second-highest amount of enthusiasm in that election cycle. As I write, he is one of the leading candidates to win the party's nomination in 2020, though he will be seventy-eight years of age. And as the Democratic Party responds to the excesses of the Trump administration, Sanders's progressive ideals are proving highly influential.
Bernie Sanders epitomizes the anti-business left. A self-described socialist, he has called for breaking up the big banks and for the establishment of more worker-owned cooperatives. He blames the stagnation in living standards on the rapacious nature of American business. I think you can plausibly argue that an actual Sanders presidency might not be nearly as radical as some of his rhetoric; consider, for example, that he uses the word "socialist" in varying and often pretty generic ways. Still, ask yourself a basic question: Has Bernie Sanders said much of anything good about business in general or big business in particular? If not, why is he so unwilling to appreciate one of the most beneficial and fundamental institutions in American life?
The Media (and Social Media)
The media are perhaps the biggest villain when it comes to criticizing business, but it's not mainly about newspapers or TV stations being too left-wing. Virtually all media outlets have a significant bias toward negative news of all kinds, including news about business. So scandals, corruption, and abuse of workers all receive much more publicity than the normal, everyday massive successes of America's major corporations. "Corporations had another stellar day producing things and keeping people employed" just isn't a great news headline.
These days, it is common for major media outlets, including centrist publications such as the Financial Times, to run articles about the sins of the major tech companies. Rana Foroohar, for instance, stresses the negative when she writes of "the power of the big tech titans." In reality, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and others have provided Americans with some of their most amazing products, and sometimes for free or at very low prices. In terms of access to information, the world has been knit together far more tightly than almost anyone could have dreamed of two decades ago, and that may well be humankind's single greatest achievement within our generation. And yet we hear as a kind of drumbeat that these companies must be broken up, dismantled, or at least regulated much, much more stringently. If there is any good critique of business in these stories, it is that newspapers are running mediocre analyses to maximize the number of click-throughs, aided of course by the negative slant of some segments of the social media universe.
We're even seeing the reemergence of explicitly anti-capitalist media sources. Take the print and online magazine Jacobin, which recently published the following sentence: "In some cases, like the former Soviet Union, the failings of [top-down socialism] are nearly as deep as those of capitalism itself." This was in a piece by Mathieu Desan and Michael A. McCarthy titled "A Time to Be Bold."
Social media is part of the problem too. How is this tweet, from "Dina," for showing lack of gratitude toward business? "If you think about it. People with glasses are literally paying to use their eyes. Capitalism is a bitch." Shortly after it was posted, it had accumulated more than 257,000 likes, surely with more to come. But perhaps eyeglass companies should instead be applauded for competing against each other to make this service as cheap as possible. There is, by the way, a well-known economics literature showing that when state laws limit the advertising of eyeglasses, competition is damaged and eyeglasses become more expensive. Fortunately, the Federal Trade Commission struck down those laws, thereby helping competition to prevail and leading to lower prices.
Ordinary Americans Who Don't Trust Business Enough
Look at this 2016 Gallup poll about the relative amounts of trust Americans have in a variety of institutions:
Institution Trust "a great deal" Trust "quite a lot"
The military 41% 32%
Small business 30% 38%
The police 25% 31%
The church or organized religion 20% 21%
The medical system 17% 22%
The presidency 16% 20%
The U.S. Supreme Court 15% 21%
The public schools 14% 16%
Banks 11% 16%
Organized labor 8% 15%
The criminal justice system 9% 14%
Television news 8% 13%
Newspapers 8% 12%
Big business 6% 12%
Congress 0% 6%
Big business barely beats out Congress at the bottom of the trust ladder, certainly a sign that things aren't going very well on the trust scale — though our small businesses do very well indeed, coming in second only to the military. For many of us, big business suggests rapaciousness, the power to bully workers, and a cavalier attitude toward the well-being of their consumers. And yet big business on average pays much higher wages and offers superior benefits and workplace conditions compared with smaller business. In other words, arguably the biggest problem with American business is the politically incorrect truth that too often it simply isn't big enough and successful enough. It isn't ambitious enough or doing a good enough job boosting profits and growing toward gargantuan size.
Trump Supporters and the Conservative Right
Donald Trump often presents himself as a fan of big business and a representative of America's productive class. But big business also serves as his whipping boy. He is very happy to taunt businesses and business executives in his tweets (such as Carrier and Amazon). When push comes to shove, on the issues where Trump is in the wrong, do Trump supporters side with the man or with the better parts of American business? So far we've seen little evidence of a large-scale revolt against Trump's anti-business provocations.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Big Business"
Copyright © 2019 Tyler Cowen.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. A New Pro-Business Manifesto
2. Are Businesses More Fraudulent Than the Rest of Us?
3. Are CEOs Paid Too Much?
4. Is Work Fun?
5. How Monopolistic Is American Big Business?
6. Are the Big Tech Companies Evil?
7. What Is Wall Street Good for, Anyway?
8. Crony Capitalism: How Much Does Big Business Control the American Government?
9. If Business Is So Good, Why Is It So Disliked?
Appendix: What Is a Firm, Anyway, and Why Do So Many Workers End Up So Frustrated?