My column a few weeks ago ("War On Business And Innovation") drew scores of thoughtful and passionate e-mail responses and online comments. There appears to be three schools of thought: those who think "big business" is inherently overbearing and/or corrupt and needs to be monitored like convicts on work release; those who think "big government" is stifling this country's entrepreneurial élan and wielding regulation and antitrust law for political gain; and those who sit somewhere in the middle.
Several readers chided me for getting "ideological." Broad business and economic discussions don't belong in a business technology publication, I was reminded, as if senior IT execs read us only for the latest product news.
One reader, staking out the comfy middle ground, demanded that I apologize for suggesting that a dangerous anti-business faction has emerged in the U.S. Most people, he says, just want fair and reasonable oversight. That response is fair and reasonable enough, but if the "war on business" is mostly a figment of my capitalist imagination, who exactly am I offending by suggesting that extremists are exerting more power and influence?
Case in point is a new crusade against Google by Consumer Watchdog, a "nonpartisan" advocacy group. Its knickers are (understandably) in a twist about Google's practice (since stopped) of collecting data on private Wi-Fi networks, but Consumer Watchdog seized on that misdeed to lash out at a range of other offending Google practices--from its alleged copyright violations to its alleged abuse of its alleged search monopoly to the cost it allegedly inflicts on society to maintain its "energy-eating server farms" (yes, even non-smokestack-variety companies are now considered carbon-footprint Sasquatches).
All that acrimony came in response to a Google white paper, issued after "Wi-Spy" became public, that claims the vendor generated $54 billion in economic activity in the U.S. last year. Everyone else realizes that vendor white papers are all about positive spin, but this advocacy organization can't let it go. Google "is following the classic corporate evildoer's playbook," Consumer Watchdog drones, adding: "This is what every big corporation does when they are under fire." In other words, big corporation = evildoer, so let's knock it down a few pegs.
Responding to my column of a few weeks ago, where I used another big tech company, Apple, as an example of rampant anti-business sentiment and noted that Apple was under government antitrust scrutiny for excluding Flash from its iPad and iPhone platforms, one online commenter found the linkage "feeble at best." Yet since that column was published, Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal have reported that the Federal Trade Commission is moving ahead with an investigation of whether Apple's business practices hurt competition in the market for mobile device software.
No matter that Apple has offered a mobile phone for only three years and has a minority share of that market. Trustbusters told The Wall Street Journal that it's critical to rein in companies before they corner markets--effectively clamp down on them in anticipation of their dominance. By that logic, fed trustbusters should have gone after Digital Equipment in the 1980s for its presumed minicomputer market dominance and Priceline.com during the dot-com boom for its presumed name-your-price market dominance, and they should go after Amazon.com today for its presumed infrastructure-as-a-service market dominance.
Commenting on an over-the-top blog on another Web site that suggested Apple is replacing Microsoft as the "alpha predator of the tech world," one tormented soul compared Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler--"all totalitarian, predator sociopaths"--then suggested they be lined up against a wall. Just the lunatic fringe? Perhaps, but we're witnessing a lot more of this lunacy lately.
One e-mail letter writer sees the anti-business posturing as more than a fringe movement: "In my entire working life of over 40 years, I've never seen such an anti-business climate. Like many of the current polarizing issues, it's amplified by the bloggers and politically motivated, spouting off about 'even' playing fields and other fantasies of life. Business (big and small) used to be a core principle of being an American. Now it's becoming, what can the government tax from others to provide for me?"
Good And Evil
Do I think all or even most businesses are as pure as Ivory Snow? Of course not. But I also don't appreciate the cynical view of one online commenter who insisted that business, "by its very nature, must be unethical--the only ethics or values other than that of profit which a business adheres to are ones imposed from the outside." Yes, businesses are self-interested by nature and even law, but self-interest and ethical behavior are consistent with sustainable prosperity. Flouting the law and screwing customers and partners have never been viable long-term growth strategies.
One e-mail writer staked out a more tenable middle ground: "Publicly traded corporations are under legal obligation to maximize profit, but that is precisely why it is foolish for consumers, employees, or public officials to be overly trusting of them. ... Certainly, this obligation should cause voters to be wary of the efforts made by corporate lobbyists and lawyers to shape the law to the advantage of their employers. ... I certainly don't think that there are many corporate executives that can be fairly characterized as sneering villains, but neither do I think that many have or can have much resemblance to the enlightened captains of industry featured in 'pro-business' propaganda for the past century and a half."
My point was and is that the egregious exceptions (the likes of Enron and WorldCom, or more to the point, CEOs Skilling and Ebbers) aren't the rule. And the likes of Google, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft can and do make bad decisions and exhibit bad behavior, but we need to evaluate and punish their actions selectively and intelligently, not spray entire industries with a fire hose full of regulations and penalize individual companies for their capitalist tendencies.
Another online commenter nailed it: "The reaction from some ideological quarters is, in the face of malfeasance, to label capitalism and profits as inherently evil. For a government official not to understand that the government makes money, via taxation, on profits, and therefore highly profitable companies are actually a good thing for humanity, shows a frightening disconnect between ideology and reality."
The commenter, who goes by the label "Chris," waxed more prosaic than I did on the virtues of a free market: "Capitalism, especially capitalism existing within a democratic society, relies upon an educated and informed populace, as does democracy, if it is to be channeled for the good of society. I cannot imagine ever thinking of even a purely conceptual model of capitalism as an ideal. It is a tool, the most productive tool found thus far for enabling human ingenuity and 'good greed' to maximize potential benefits for society as a whole." Referring to the BP fiasco, he wrote: "The environmental destruction resulting from 'bad greed' has no more to do with capitalism than Chernobyl has to do with Communism. Human beings, not ideologies, commit harm and pursue selfishness at the expense of the good of society."
Not bad for a guy supposedly just interested in speeds and feeds.
VP and Editor in Chief, InformationWeek
To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.