Business Culture


We live in political times of extreme intolerance for the views of others. The media increasingly negotiate the resulting political minefields and dodge the  sniper fire by framing what they are doing as reporting on “the debate” or “conversation” or on calls for “having a conversation”, “having a debate”.  The implication is always clear that “having a conversation” is a practical way to reach a middle ground, solve problems, find a compromise that both sides can agree on.

But is it? Is there any middle ground between the NRA and advocates for the regulation of firearms, for example? Where is the conversation when, following the Newtown massacre,  NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre stated that getting more guns in the hands of individuals was the solution to gun violence.

Where is the middle ground when Larry Pratt, head of Gun Owners of America, says that the main reason for owning guns is to defend ourselves against the government.  In this thinking, the American government is not America. For Representative Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) the US doesn’t  have a gun problem, it has a people problem.  Anyone who disagrees (in this “debate”) is pushing a political agenda. Huelskamp says he doesn’t exactly approve of children playing video games, but “I am not saying to pass a  single law about that because it would be politicizing the issue.”

It is unacceptable to say that passing laws is “politicizing” an issue.  “Passing laws” is why our founding fathers created an elected legislative body. That is democracy.  At its heart Republican extremism is an authoritarian movement. It is no accident that neither Wayne LaPierre nor the NRA President David Keene would take  questions at their press conferences. Accountability is a core value of democracy, not authoritarianism. A debate shouldn’t be about whether we want to be a democracy.

For the media endless talk about “debate” it is a way to cover themselves. They don’t have to expose that one side, and one side only, is incapable of moving off an extreme agenda.  We shouldn’t, however, avert our eyes from the clear meaning of what is being said just because it exposes the limits of “conversation” and “debate”.

“Having the debate” also means getting out of calling the facts.  The Violence Policy Center conducts research that finds “states with low gun ownership rates and strong gun laws have the lowest rates of gun deaths”: The NRA says that “gun free zones” have higher gun death rates. For the NRA, gun free zones are the problem.  It’s presented as a debate, except it isn’t.

It is important to follow other stories that just follow the facts. For example, the profit gun manufacturers (and hedge fund mangers) make off weapons sales.  LaPierre, in effect, opened a new business opportunity when he said the NRA would finance and fund a program called the “National Model School Shield Program” to train school guards.  This at a time when the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms has no workable data base of gun owners and registered guns because NRA will not let Congress pass the necessary appropriations.  The NRA doesn’t want to make Americans safer, it wants to make them less safe – for profit.

We don’t need a “conversation” with far right extremists, we need to talk about what they are saying.  What does it mean to say you need guns to defend yourself against (your) government? What is sedition? What constitutes incitement to violence? What is treason? And finally, what about exposing a right wing conspiracy to change America through cover organizations, funded by right wing billionaires, that push anti democracy laws in state legislatures and gett them passed. The American Legislative Exchange Council may drop pushing “Stand Your Ground” legislation after the killing of Trayyvon Martin last year and Stephen Feinberg of Cerberus hedge fund may drop Freedom Group Inc. gun manufacturers after Newtown.  But how many more are still out there pulling strings? We need information, not “debate”.

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Helen Dragas, Chair of the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, came to her position from a career as CEO of Dragas Companies, a real estate and construction firm. She brought to her position a reputation for resolve and decisiveness, which she demonstrated when she fired University President Teresa Sullivan with, initially at least, the support of 15 members of the 16 member Board. The Board was comprised almost entirely of individuals who, like Dragas, are heads of businesses or have business backgrounds. No reasons were given for Sullivan’s firing; the consensus opinion was that Dragas and some major donors wanted better cooperation from the President in bringing the University closer to a business model in its operations.

Dragas was appointed by a Democrat and has given money to Democratic politicians, so her action cannot be ascribed to a Republican Party agenda. However, it is hard not to see in this university leadership crisis the same downsides of a business background and culture at play that would be at play if Mitt Romney, touting his business credentials for the job, became President. It is hard to translate the goal of making money off of building and selling houses to nurturing the values of a great institution of higher learning. It is hard to translate buying up distressed companies, making money, often, off of their destruction rather than their improved operations, to guiding a nation to greater security and well-being for its citizens.

Autocratic decision-making style is not appropriate in either case. The Sullivan firing followed a secretive and abbreviated process that might be termed “model” CEO decision making. The firing immediately led to the resignation of one of UVA’s star academics, who clearly did not see his role as a division chief in a construction firm following orders. Romney has been noted for his secretive style as governor of Massachusetts.

Accountability for the Dragas decision and the swift reinstatement of President Sullivan came partly as a result of outraged student demonstrations in support of Sullivan. The chief mechanism for keeping a President of the United States democratically accountable are elections. If Romney is elected and doesn’t do well, then he can be “fired” at the next election. However, that scenario assumes that after four years of a Romney presidency, the lines of accountability will remain clear after outsourcing of government functions to corporate supporters and unlimited political money channeled from the top 1 percent to political campaigns. The chorus of students, professors, and graduates cannot turn around a national election. The answer is clear: we must work to re-elect President Obama.