Many media and political talking-heads tell us that if government would only “get off the backs” of the “job creators”, they, the real-life counterparts of Atlas Shrugged’s capitalist hero John Galt, could spark a vigorous job recovery in what used to be a smoothly-running, humming U.S. economic engine,
The heads insist that if the government backs off, the U.S. economy would not just get back on track; it would race forward like a super-sleek bullet train with nothing but thin wind as resistance. What’s more, job-creator champions declare, once the J.C.s are set free, there would be a real chance that the bullet train will be built in America.
All that’s needed, the argument goes, is for the job creators to be unleashed, like equally sleek greyhounds at the track, which means being free to try to do what they do best: win. Letting and getting them off their leash is smart, or so it is argued: Give them tax breaks instead of applying tax brakes; simplify, if not scrap cumbersome and byzantine tax codes; reduce the piles of government-mandated paperwork so they can make us all piles of money instead; and, perhaps above all, deregulate their businesses.
Flogging the Seductive Wooden-Cross and Overseer Metaphors
On-track sleek bullet trains, unleashed greyhounds—sounds good, and very similar to the seductive metaphor of “getting government off our backs”. But what assurance is there that “getting off our backs” will work the same way as removing a heavy wooden crucifixion cross would?
The soothing NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming)-manipulated sensory associations suggested by “getting off their backs” has a crafted feel-good aspect, since, after all, isn’t dropping a frightfully heavy undeserved cross not only a restoration of freedom and justice, but also sheer physical relief? Notice the subliminal rush you feel in contemplating not only the visual image, but also the muscular sensation of relieved tension, of getting something off your back—both literally and figuratively, whether it’s a 100-pound sack of peat moss, your boss or your nagging mother-in-law. It’s maybe even better than the exhilaration that you sense dogs feel when unleashed and cavorting in a park.
Yet, there’s a serious problem with all this talk of “getting government off the backs” of the job creators—a problem that immediately becomes obvious as soon as the implications and presuppositions of doing precisely that are made explicit. Moreover, to see what the problem is, you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics. All that is required is a pause that is long enough to ask what “getting government off our backs” actually means.
Setting aside the pseudo-physical sensation of imagining removing something oppressively heavy from your back, you should consider the institutional and moral associations of the metaphor of “getting off the backs” of job creators. The psychological and institutional association that is seductively flogged by champions of deregulation and tax-exemption of the job creators is precisely that: flogging. Regulations and regulators, tax codes and tax minions are portrayed as harsh overseers who use the lash and the leash to drive the economy—alas, into the ground, their more cautious, less politically conservative critics warn.
Hence, urging that government get off the backs of entrepreneurs, investors and other job creators has a dual visceral appeal: 1. the purely sensory one of relief and empowerment upon having something physically heavy removed from one’s shoulders; 2. The institutional and moral appeal of the repeal of slavery. To imagine how good it would feel to be entrepreneurially free at last, just imagine sitting through a future screened sequel to Atlas Shrugged titled Atlas Chugged: the Big Train that Could.
Jockeys, Mules and Himalayan Treks
On careful reflection, however, the comforts and pleasures of savoring this load-lifted freedom and intoning “Get off their backs!” can be short-lived and seen to be illusory, or at least definitely not guaranteed. Consider alternative, cautionary and in some sense opposite imagery that is just as readily associated with getting off someone’s or something’s back:
Getting a jockey off the back of a race horse: Not a good idea, if you want that horse to win. How many thoroughbreds will, all by themselves and left to their horsey thoughts and whims, motivate themselves to beat the conventionally prodded Grand Preakness panting pack? Ask yourself this: Which horse is likelier to win a race—one with a jockey “on its back”, goading and guiding it, or one that is riderless, less motivated and unguided? Perhaps government is, at least in some instances, the (quint)essential jockey.
The concept of a racehorse in a horse race has as an absolute prerequisite the creation and enforcement of race-track rules and regulations. Hence, if “Get off their backs!” is interpreted as a horse-race spectator cheer, it flies in the face of substantial required regulatory oversight that governs horse races. Accordingly, the idea of a “deregulated Kentucky Derby” run by horses as win-creators with nothing and no one on their backs is a regulatory and performance oxymoron.
In 1998, when Brooksley E. Borne, then chair of the federal Commodities Futures Trading Commission, urged the Clinton administration to regulate OTC derivatives (especially swaps), she was opposed by a phalanx of opposition, including Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan (who later said he was mistaken) and Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers. Their reasons? CFTC oversight could, these opponents suggested, create “legal uncertainties” and “stifle financial innovation”—not to mention stifle job, profit and bonus growth on Wall Street, which is where Rubin was employed both before (Goldman Sachs) and after (CitiGroup CEO) his Treasury tenure, and where Greenspan was, for a number of years, a researcher (Brown Brothers Harriman),
Thereafter, in 1999, backing what hindsight has shown was clearly a second and, in this latter instance, a demonstrably wrong horse, Summers endorsed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which effectively repealed the Glass-Steagal Act of 1933, legislation that had mandated the separation of investment and commercial banks. Trumpeting that 1999 legislation, Summers said, “With this bill, the American financial system takes a major step forward towards the 21st Century.” (It was that later legislation that permitted banks to use depositor’s savings to participate and speculate in the subprime-mortgage market that precipitated the 2008 collapse of financial and housing markets.)
(Note: What are called “naked credit default swaps”, one common form of derivative, are bets that pay off only if a company or other entity fails, much as third-party insurance policies on your health, life or home pay off for someone else only if you lose one or more of these. Utterly perversely, the institutional and other bettors therefore profit from, pray for and have an incentive to covertly engineer such failure, just as bettors who would be allowed to bet against a horse will win only when that horse loses.
Ironically, in 2008, two years after Summers stepped down as president of hugely endowed Harvard University, $1 billion of a $3.4 billion Harvard investment in derivatives evaporated as a paper loss that required borrowing to meet the university’s margin call.
Now, almost four years later, like a lame race horse that has lost its jockey, the entire global economy is lurching, gasping or at least fearfully holding its breath under the ironically staggering weight of an estimated $66 trillion pyramid of derivative-casino bets that can produce only paper wealth. Considering widespread nagging doubts that credit default swaps (CDSs) are a nag, what are the odds that the CFTC-free CDS market is going to be a “winner” for as well as in the global economy?
In other and comparable cases, the crucial consideration will always be whether government regulations (and taxes) are indeed more like jockeys than like wooden crosses—a distinction that will sort out and categorize whatever the ultimate macro-economic outcome of the ongoing derivatives pile-up is going to be.
Getting a load off the back of a pack mule: Again, not a good idea if the mule is supposed to do what a pack mule is supposed to do—namely, be freighted with something valuable on its back to further the common good, if not its own interests. If the mule analogy is entertained, “getting the government off our backs”—or at least off the backs of the “job creators”—would mean making it impossible for us or them to do the jobs which we or they as economic workhorses are employed to do or undertake ourselves. That would make us pack mules galloping ahead without packs, adding zero economic value through our uncontrolled, load-free, free-loader running.
The difference between the mule and racehorse interpretations is that whereas the horse (i.e., a job creator) will be unlikely or unable to win without a jockey (i.e., governmental regulation), the mule will be unable to even function and register as a pack mule (i.e., job creator) in virtue of not living up to its name and job. Either way, there is serious economic loss or risk.
For example, if a government eases or eliminates certification and licensing for federal medical specialists such as Army hospital psychiatrists or psychologists, the predictable increase in the numbers of practitioners will be offset by the equally predictable failure of many of the new entrants to meet the earlier criteria that appropriately defined their professed profession, just as a pack mule that is never burdened with a pack is a pack mule in (undeserved) name only.
Getting a backpack off the back of a backpacker: At some point in my first and last trek through Nepal’s stretch of the Himalayas, I handed over my backpack to a paid porter, so I could enjoy a less encumbered although still tiring three-day climb up to the Annapurna base camp. Minus the backpack, did I become an exemplar of truly untrammeled and free individualism, John Galt-style? Or, instead, had I transformed myself into a helpless dependent burdened only with a guilt-ridden sense of cash-purchased entitlement to backpack-free trekking, shifting my personal responsibility as a rugged individual onto the shoulders of some other agent (the porter), whom I expected to do for me what I was perfectly capable of doing myself?
(Fortunately for Lalbadu, my porter and guide, my pack was merely a bulky, but very light nuisance, weighing less than ten pounds. Following “the way of the warrior”, I generally like having my hands free when I roam.)
In getting that pack off my back, I may have marginally “liberated” and “unleashed” my warrior physical energies; but what damage did I do to the vaunted independence that this new freedom was supposed to enable and equate to? Sometimes we can be become free in one sense at the cost of our independence in another. If that backpack corresponds to governmental regulation, then the possibility opens up that in freeing the job creators, we may be sacrificing their independence.
How can that be? Ask any D.C. lobbyist. If their job-creating client company gets a tax break, a favorable ruling on deregulation or even government subsidies that free up some of the client’s capital, that company is going to have a huge incentive to continue currying favor with its congressional or executive benefactor(s) and will remain dependent on the good will of the latter. That creates, perpetuates and/or reinforces a state of dependency. So, here too, the price of freedom is forfeited independence.
Then there’s the entirely different case of a solo Himalayan backpacker, “warrior” or trekker without a porter. In that instance, getting the pack off the back means big trouble—much less, if any, food and water; fewer emergency medical supplies, batteries and dry socks; no tent, wind sheet or sleeping bag. As hollow assurance, being told that the government is going to get the pack off your back can’t be topped—except by the Himalayan peak that you might not live to reach if caught in a blizzard without the necessary backpacked gear.
In governmental terms, this could be illustrated by the scenario in which government “backs off” and completely privatizes and optionalizes pension, health and other insurance plans, making them purely voluntary at both the corporate and the employee level, eliminating any corporate contribution to or employee source deductions for employee benefits and protections. Without much of a stretch, it is easy to see how being “relieved” of this “burden”, like dropping off a burdensome backpack halfway up Mt. Everest, could, in short order, lead to a catastrophe, or worse, despite whatever expansion in hiring budgets it may facilitate.
With these three counter-interpretations and cautions in mind, the moral of this story should be evident: Before you get on board the deregulation-and-tax-breaks-for-job-creators bandwagon or bullet train, be sure to pay less attention to the associated feel-good imagery and NLP-induced sensations of having something off your back and more to the real, detailed costs and consequences of getting what you’ve wished for.
Like any other metaphor, “Get government off our backs!” is a red or at best checkered flag to be unfurled and waved at the start of a race toward understanding, not automatically at and as its finish.