By Michael Carroll
Too often, we lack balance when we talk about businesses and their owners. I came of age in the late 1960s and early '70s, an out-of-balance time. Back then, a good part of public opinion was very critical of business and business people, sometimes unfairly so.
There was a popular song at the time by a guy named Ray Stevens called "Mr. Businessman," and it was pretty rough on folks with that title. Here is a little sample of the lyrics:
Itemize the things you covet
As you squander through your life
Bigger cars, bigger houses
Term insurance for your wife
Tuesday evenings with your harlot
And on Wednesdays it's your charlatan analyst,
He's high up on your list
Forty years ago, businesses and business people were not widely admired or portrayed very favorably. They were tolerated in those generally prosperous economic times, but if you went to the movies or listened to the radio, you did not often come away with a positive image of business.
Times have changed. In the last few decades, the public-image pendulum has swung drastically in a more business-friendly - at times, business-worshiping - direction. If you followed the Republican National Convention last summer, you might have concluded that almost everyone in America - at least everyone who mattered - owned a small business.
The category was large and elastic. It included mom-and-pop stores as well as hedge-fund managers, and even at times the multimillionaire Republican presidential nominee. Everyone of social worth was a heroic small-business person. It was difficult to tell what dollar amounts made a business large or small, and I suppose that was no accident.
We may have fallen out of balance once again. It often seems that we all owe everything to business and business owners. We should remain silently and humbly grateful, because "job creators" are responsible for all that is good in society. Criticize or even question this, and you run the risk of being tagged a class warrior.
This is not the first time in our history that we have gone a bit overboard in uncritically worshiping business. "The chief business of the American people is business" were the famous words of our 30th president, Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge; at least he said something memorable when he broke his legendary silence. A year after he left office, though, the stock market crashed, and the worst economic depression in our history began.
Now that the election is over, I hope it is safe to talk about businesses large and small, and the people who run and work in them, without screaming out discussion-stoppers like "class warfare," and the like. And as clever as writer Matt Taibbi's comparison of Goldman Sachs to a "vampire squid" might have seemed, I would be happy to give it a rest in the interest of calming the waters.
Maybe we can now recognize that most people who run businesses are neither saints or devils. There may be heroes and villains among them, but by and large I suspect they are just people trying to get by. And I suspect the same holds true for the folks who toil in those businesses but do not own them.