Once again, Rhode Island makes a Forbes list. Last time around, Providence made 10th Most Miserable City. This time, we’ve hit the top — as Worst State for Business. But this may say more about them than about us.
As always, Forbes’ metric is somewhat curious, even before examination. Forbes loves to make lists like this, but the results can be perplexing, and the methodolgy dubious. Last year, an otherwise objective comparison of nations by “tax burden” scored them according to a perhaps less objective (if the choice of words is any indication) “misery index,” with such hellholes as Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, France, and Norway at the top. By coincidence, these same miserable states also routinely rank high on The Economist’s Quality of Life Index (which, in case it’s not clear from the name, means that they’re awesome places to live). Countries that placed high on both lists are also, according to Forbes, among Europe’s Happiest Places, have The Best Minimum Wages in Europe, and have some of The World’s Happiest Cities — making them, confoundedly, both the most and least miserable at the same time.
But it’s not just Forbes that seems confused. In PBN’s article, Ted Nesi finds it “somewhat surprising” that despite our being the worst for business, we ranked in the top half for quality of life, at #21. (Forbes also ranked Providence #12 among America’s Thriftiest Cities, though we ranked 165/200 for Best Places for Business and Careers, 5th Most Overpriced, and 4th Most Stressful. And we topped their list of Cities Where It’s Hardest to Get By. Thankfully, we made #2 for Unemployment Pay.)
It should be no surprise to anyone that there’s a relationship between wages, taxes, and quality of life. But why does there seem to be an inherent conflict between the interests of business and the interests of people? Can’t we just get along?
A big part of the answer lies in how modern businesses function, with a rabid focus on the bottom line. Profits are great, but stock corporations rely on constant growth, to the detriment of all other considerations. In fat times, everyone supposedly benefits; in lean times, such as now, everyone must suffer. But the suffering isn’t equal: In terms of individual sacrifice, the rich do suffer less. Sure, Bill Gates lost $10 million in one day on the market. But he still wasn’t worried about how he was going to buy toilet paper, meet his mortgage, feed his family, and pay the electric bill. The rich can tumble spectacularly on paper, but they’re not in danger of going hungry or homeless — unlike countless much smaller casualties in this most recent economic dive.
In olden times, the word “company” referred to a group of people working together for common goals. In theory, a business operates for everyone’s mutual benefit — the owners, the managers, the workers, and the community. In practice, it’s often considerably less equal, with workers and the community often getting short-shafted, while those at the top seem less impacted: If Lifespan is so tight that they have to consider a pay freeze, why is CEO George Vecchione the highest-paid healthcare executive in New England, making nearly $3 million? This company, just one example among many, does not seem to have an equal emphasis on everyone’s gains from its enterprise.
In the larger scope, there’s a terminal failure to the theory of stock capitalism, as it relies on an assumption that infinite growth is possible. Logically, this requires an infinitely exapandable market, which in turn demands infinite resources in an infinitely great world — which we don’t have. Sooner or later, it must run out, and the gravy train must end. While the mechanisms and mechanations of Wall Street were seen to reach dizzying heights of inscrutible complexity in public hearings last year (to the extent that even some of the giants of finance admitted they couldn’t make sense of it), in the final analysis it all really comes down to a global feeding frenzy, in which some hope to win and most are sure to lose. The concept of enough simply doesn’t exist in this reality, and that’s why temperance and fairness go hungry while greed and corruption gorge.
One way to balance these forces is through government regulation. Businesses (and Forbes) hate it, it’s often done poorly, and invites all manner of corruption and political shenanigans. But at least in theory, it gives The People some measure of influence over the proven inclination of big businesses to exploit workers and communities. For all its many frustrations and hazards, this is the only thing we have going right now.
Another way is the system that used to be in place ages ago, where all enterprises were publicly chartered. In this model, community service was inherently required, or a business could lose its charter. While that didn’t stop the shenanigans entirely, it did dampen them considerably.
I don’t have any easy answers. But it seems obvious that until and unless we stop thinking of business and people as natural enemies in common environments, neither willl have real and meaningful peace, pleasure, or prosperity.