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Are new corporations  bigger bad wolves?

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By John Bartlit

The name “Big Bad Wolf” rings scary alarms in voters’ heads. The left and the right reply to fears with fears about big corporations, a big army, big unions, big government and big donors to big campaigns. Metaphors of politics picture Big Bad Wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing or lying in Grandma’s bed. Small wonder that big corporations incite voters to cry, “Grandma, what big teeth you have.”

Big corporations indeed need a thorough look to figure them out. Big companies have grown through the centuries and brought society hoped-for benefits and unwanted side effects.

The first Industrial Revolution began in the 1760s in Britain, evolved through the 1840s and came later to the US.

Many histories come to mind. People produced copper, steel, oil and aluminum and, with them, crafted faster reapers, tractors, cars, trucks and airplanes, later on with radios in them and radars at airports. With these products, people grew and shipped better produce at good prices for more people. Jobs grew. Corporations grew – Big Farming, Big Finance, Big Pharma.

The unwanted side effects emerged more slowly. Producing the basic materials does things to natural land, air and water, which worsen when sales grow. Sales kept growing. The good prices, good products and good jobs grew big markets. Corporate wealth grew and, so, stockholders and pension plans. Monopolies would sprout, which brought legal controls on monopolies.

Laws to control the unwanted side effects were the next to evolve. Some of the corporate wealth is spent on ways to curb unwanted side effects. Another part of it is spent resisting laws, which would further curb unwanted side effects.

Uses for money are a mixed bag.

Part of the wealth is given to Big Philanthropy. Harvey, the plain small town where I grew up, was home to one of the 106 town libraries in Illinois (like those in 1,689 home towns throughout the US) that were built with funds given by the steel giant Andrew Carnegie. Often I trod the wide wooden stairs up a flight to the great labyrinth of books.

Today, we are early in the industrial revolution of a new kind, the Digital Age. Societal insights emerge as we sort out what is the same and what differs between the former times and the big new age.

The first similarity in each era is that eager buyers were quickly attracted to the benefits of good prices for new products, while the unwanted side effects grow with little notice until they have spread widely.

A striking difference we see is who the harmful effects harm. The older harms disrupt nature’s ecosystems. New-age harms disrupt people and the ways they interact with each other. The new age also employs a smaller range of job skills.

The disruption of ecosystems pushed science to learn much more about how ecosystems work. In the same way, the new harms will lead to better understanding of how humans interact.

Links already are noticed between increased use of social media and worrisome shifts in human behavior. We learn about users’ addiction to computer games and social media.

Worse yet, we learn how big corporate creators of digital services – Facebook, Google, Amazon – design products that aim to be addictive. Businesses invent and sell digital nicotine and opioids, so to speak.

Big old corporations and their CEOs are pigeonholed as conservative and are big donors to the Republican Party. Their clout is a real sore point.

Big new-age corporations and their CEOs are pigeonholed as liberal and are big donors to the Democratic Party. Their clout is a real sore point.

The lore of corporations is older than our nation. In search of election victories, campaigners divvied up that extensive lore to fit pieces in the cramped pigeonhole of each party. Since 2000, corporations have evolved anew and again show the complexities of corporate issues.

With all things considered – jobs, goods, harms and regulating, solutions entail much more than fits in anyone’s pigeonhole.