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Christian. Skeptic. Ponderer. Sold on Western Civilization. Background in engineering and software. Rational, but not rationalist.
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Look closer. Think harder. Choose the sound argument over the clever one.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
The Big equals Bad Meme
(First, full disclosure: my company has one employee, me. I contract for companies of various sizes, from five employees to tens of thousands. I have no motivation to defend any company, and prefer a smaller government over a bigger one. I'm just thinking through things people generally take for granted.)
You hear big used as a pejorative. Big Tobacco. Big Oil. Big Pharma. Big Media. Big Government. Even Big Labor.
The implication is usually that big means bad, evil, certainly corrupt. Convicted, case closed, no appeal. It's as if we're asked to just assume that a big company's very nature--every fiber--is intrinsically evil. Public confidence with major companies is pretty low (just above law firms :-).
But why is big bad? Say you start a company and you're successful. Your company grows. When does your company cross the line from not-big to big? When does every fiber of your company's being suddenly, spontaneously turn evil? At 50,001 employees? 5,001? 501? 51?
Companies make wrong decisions, but each decision is made by people. Getting corporations to act with conscience has been a problem from the start. I'm all for finding ways to make that happen. That applies to big and small alike.
I'm partial to small companies, since I am one. But big companies fuel the economy. They employ lots of people and make opportunity for smaller companies. Big companies' dividends and stock values (think S&P 500) fuel investors and retirement accounts for lots more people.
Big can be bad:
- Bureaucracies are bad, whether in government or industry.
- Monopolies are bad: they're outlawed here in the US because they're not good for the general public. But there's a tension here, too: patent and copyright laws are written to give you, essentially, a monopoly for a period of time. The technological advancement that promotes is very, very good for society. (That has a trickle-down effect, too: by most measures, the poorest people in developed nations today have a higher quality of life than did the kings of France.)
- Bigger stakes means more temptation to steal or defraud. But there's temptation at all sizes, and most do resist that temptation.
- Statistically, just getting more people together under one roof means there are more outliers. The bigger the bell curve, the bigger the curve's tails. That curve could apply to criminal behavior, intelligence, etc. But statistics say both ends of the curve are brought in. (E.g., more conscienceless criminals, but more whistle-blowers, too.)
- Bigger companies tend to be less agile, have more inertia. (Part of the problem with bureaucracies.) But what's bad for the company itself tends to be good for others, rewarding their agility with opportunity.
- Socialism--the biggest of big governments--just doesn't work. It leaves its citizens in dire poverty and oppression. Similarly, big government (I believe at some point) consumes more than it provides in return.
A guy I know helped start a company, and now they have over 30 employees. At the company picnic last summer he looked around at his employees and their families and realized, "We've got a lot of people under our care." There's something to that.
Ponder some theology: I believe everyone's created in God's image, which means (among other things) an amazing potential for good. But everyone's a sinner, too: big, small, rich, poor, devout, pagan. Everyone. Which means an amazing potential for evil and self-centeredness, too. We're all in the same boat.
My point: Equating big to bad is prejudiced, and leads to fallacious thinking. That hinders understanding. Be skeptical of those using loaded phrases like that. Stick to reason.
P.S.: Tobacco is bad because it's bad for you, not because it's big. Would you think more highly of tobacco if it were produced by small, non-profit tobacco farmers' cooperatives?
(Please keep in mind that each commenter's opinions are only his/her own.)
Given that Big often is bad, I would tend to believe that the "Big is Bad Meme" is more stereotypical, than it is prejudiced. I think most people use "Big" in such a way as to conjure paralleles with, Big Tobacco, for instance, which is probably the first "Big". Granted, their statements may be prejudiced - they may not know about that which they are discussing or they may be ignorant of certain facts, but the use of the word itself, I think, is more to create an analogy, thus making it more of a stereotype.
In a roundabout way, I suppose, you could say that you're prejudiced yourself in that, whenever you hear someone use the word "Big" as described, it sounds to me like, when you hear people use it, you assume that they don't know what they're talking about and they don't have all the facts. They just might. ;)
P.S. - I don't think people generally use the word "Big" to describe a company until it's substantially larger than 30 employees. It is subjective, though.
P.P.S. - I would feel better about smoking cigars (and my pipe) if I knew that the tobacco was grown by a non-profit tobacco growers' cooperative. Actually, I don't think I'm alone here. Premium cigars are often premium because they're produced in a more traditional hand-rolled manner and not by a machine. Of course, you're probably only really talking about cigarettes...
P.P.P.S. - Why is it whenever people talk about smoking in public, all they concern themselves with are cigarette smokers? I'm held subject to the same smoking laws as a cigar smoker. I digress...
I agree with a lot of what scott says (not suprisingly)
I went to a crap party at the weekend which was raising money for the Basra Oil workers co-op
If 6 Billion people are good for earth, why not 60 billion? Because it's unsustainable.
If a farmer can grow enough food on a 40 acre farm to feed 400 people, why not have an agribusiness on a 4000 acre farm grow enough to feed 40,000 people? Because it's unsustainable. You just can't keep going on and on.
We live in a finite world with limitations. Big is not always bad (big opposition to Bush is a grand thing), but when it bumps up against and past limits, it is.
(and this from a die-hard anti-cigarette dude.
So where's the evidence? The evidence I see seems to be just the opposite: the vast majority of corporations seem to be playing by the rules. "Often" (your word) is pretty subjective. Most?
Scott: Given that Big often is bad,...
That's the whole point. It's not a given. Make a compelling argument to that effect before assuming it's a given.
Scott: you could say that you're prejudiced yourself ...when you hear people use it, you assume that they don't know what they're talking about and they don't have all the facts. They just might. ;)
Not prejudiced, but skeptical: I need reasons. If reasons accompany, I have something to evaluate. If they don't, that's fallacious.
Scott: is more to create an analogy, thus making it more of a stereotype.
False analogies are fallacious, too.
Dan: "Big," as used to describe corporations, factories, populations and policies, is often bad because "big" is often unsustainable.
That's my argument against big government. But what about, say, 100 million Americans, either employed by thousands of big companies or millions of little companies. I don't see one clearly more or less sustainable than the other.
I was surprised, too, that you both would think more highly of tobacco if it were produced by cooperatives. That's certainly your right, and I don't blame you for caring where your money goes. I make similar decisions sometimes.
But it's just as unhealty, whatever it's origins. (And tobacco companies, of whatever size or profitability, are wrong to try to mislead the public.)
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