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The curious application of “accountability”

Jim says:

Hundreds of years ago, people in the western world fell into roughly two classes: the lords and the serfs (we’ll ignore the Catholic and Orthodox Churches). They were called by various names in different societies, but essentially there were the “haves” (lords) and the “have nots” (serfs). The “haves” held the “have nots” accountable for everything — there was no discussion about this until the time of the Magna Carta.

Fast forward to today and we have essentially three distinct groups in representative democracies: business entities (for profit and not for profit), politicians, and voters. Today, the politicians have become the arbiters of who is accountable and who is not: simply, their view is business entities are accountable for everything and voters are not only unaccountable, they are made to be “victims.” This allows the politicians to extract money from the nonvoters (business entities) whom they hold accountable for everything and use it to bribe the voters (not accountable for anything, but “victims”).

Politicians have help from their friends in the legal community as they perpetuate this concept. Politicians play the game by saying, “Let us help you by voting for us, you are a victim. We’ll take money from the fat cats (businesses, wealthy individuals) and give it to you.” Of course, such politicians are careful to not help the victims too much, for that would allow the victims to rise above victimhood and no longer need to vote for the politicians that placed them there.

This is not what this representative democracy was founded on. Not long ago, only a generation back in my family, it was considered an embarrassment to take largess from the government. It was considered a privilege to work for big business. Being a victim was a condition of shame, and accepting a handout from the government was beyond the pale — something only the lowest of the low would consider.

I am not here to say we do not have the genuinely needy and those in distress that modern society should find a way to help. However, that help should in most cases be temporary, as small as possible, and constructed in a way to preserve human dignity. Modern victimhood destroys human dignity.

Why does this matter? I know of no nation of victims that has ever been great, and by great I mean competitive. I know of no nation that has not held its businesses and industries in some state of importance (hence necessary to preserve) that has survived for the long term. The path the politicians in the United States are pursuing, their current curious use of “accountability” is not sustainable. It will lead to revolution from without or within. The golden goose that has been of such benefit to the entire world is being skewered.

One more modern use accountability also needs mentioning. That is the accountability of the myriads of bureaucracies and services governments at all levels provide. When one suggests they should be accountable, excuses fly. Yet, why should they not, except that they are monopolistic by nature and care not a bit for their customers — us. I dare say, and I think I could prove it if pressed, that government services as a whole could be much better and at the same time cost approximately one quarter their current expenditure and employ no more than half their current staffs if they were only accountable.

Of course, as long as they are allowed to be unaccountable (and there seems to be no plans to make them accountable), this will never happen.
Travis says:

I hope that I am correct in summarizing your position above as this: accountability is a virtue and business is benign – perhaps even enlightened. I agree with the first plank of your platform and disagree with the latter.

Accountability is integral to a functioning society. Legally, the rule of law requires that government enforces regulations with vigor and without discrimination. Ethically, integrity requires that community members follow through with their commitments. The collapse of housing prices in the United States provides a lens for examining notions of accountability.

Roger Lowenstein's article "Walk Away From Your Mortgage!" explores the different expectations placed on consumers and businesses in the current climate. Voluntary mortgage defaults are on the rise. These are cases where individuals can afford to make their mortgage payments but are simply choosing not to do so. For mortgages that are upside down (the resident owes more money on the loan than the property is worth), such behavior may well make economic sense. The government and banks are both hoping that a moral appeal will convince more mortgage-payers from pursuing this course. Officials from Henry Paulson to Barack Obama to industry leaders such as the head of the Mortgage Bankers Association have all argued that voluntary default is dishonorable.
I agree. Unemployment is a reasonable justification for default; a health crisis is a reasonable justification for default; changing market conditions and rising opportunity costs are not reasonable justifications. That is simply my moral position; I posit that a society where people meet their obligations is better than one where they do not. I understand there are compelling arguments in the other direction – money "thrown away" on a bad mortgage is money that cannot be spent on education, given to charity, or put to other good use. These arguments would be even more convincing were my own mortgage under water. Nonetheless, there is a community interest in people not abandoning their homes, and I hope that the vast majority Americans will follow through with their promises to repay their loans.

The impetus to cut and run may well come from observing corporate behavior. The myriad federal bailouts and the revolving doors between government, lobbying firms, and Wall Street create a sense of systemic unfairness, but standard businesses practices also diminish our faith in good-faith. Lowenstein points out that "Morgan Stanley recently decided to stop making payments on five San Francisco office buildings. A Morgan Stanley fund purchased the buildings at the height of the boom, and their value has plunged. Nobody has said Morgan Stanley is immoral — perhaps because no one assumed it was moral to begin with."

Businesses perform an important and necessary function in our society, but they are hyper-self-interested and need to be balanced by an active citizenry, a thriving noncommercial sector, and lean, smart governments. Businesses share plenty of the blame for holding the United States back from its full potential, along with disinterested citizens, a bumbling noncommercial sector, and corrupt or incompetent governments. I'm all for accountability, but don't pretend that politicians and voters are the only ones contributing to social ills.
In most instances, when "politicians extract money from the nonvoters (business entities)," businesses just pass tax costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices, Inefficiency often occurs when politicians try to fool the voters by assessing "business" taxes, increasing the costs necessary to raise a given amount of tax revenue – irrespective of the appropriate level. Citizens are the ultimate losers here – not the corporate interests.

Let me conclude with a couple of non sequiturs. Above, you write, "Not long ago… Being a victim was a condition of shame." Webster's defines "victim" as "one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment." If you are talking about reveling in victimhood and not taking advantage of your own agency, fine, I support an ethic of personal responsibility. But real victims -– those who have been maligned by the powerful -– should not be blamed or shamed, they should be restored to dignity with gentleness and respect. (I doubt that you disagree, I just want to be clear that "blaming the victim" is a harmful practice.) Finally, if you can deliver improved government services at a quarter of the cost and half the workforce, run for office; you'll be a hero.

Jim's wrap up:

The paperwork creating the business is benign, but the employees, from executives to janitors are not, and they are accountable (but only a few votes). Many, many businesses are not "enlightened" (GM, Chrysler, Enron, etc.).

I'll still contend, politicians want large masses of victims and have harmed society by making victimhood respectable, despite Webster.

Excellent example here in Atlanta last week. It snowed, and as usual there were accidents everywhere. A huge cry went up blaming highway departments for the condition of the roads (implying drivers who found themselves in accidents were "victims" of a poorly operated government service). My comment: "No, you are not victims, you are stupid, either because you did not know how to drive in such conditions, or because you went out in such conditions knowing full well you had no idea what you were doing."

Improving government service at a quarter of the cost and half the workforce is easy: allow competition. Charter schools, where parents can take their school tax dollars and choose schools that educate instead of being forced into an inept government system, is a place to start. Of course, teachers' unions, a powerful voting bloc, make sure this never happens.

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