Values of Commerce

One morning in the early 1990's, Rush Limbaugh said that businesses were not able to compete in the world market because affirmative action forced them to ignore merit and hire the feminist bimbos and the multicultural hangers-on who make everyone else work harder, while these parasites then complained of sexual harassment and discriminatory promotions. Bleeding-heart environmental restrictions hurt businesses, too.

I would like to point out that Rush combined several inherently contradictory ideas in his statement. First, he held up the concept of "success in business" as a standard, then he argued that social issues are the despoilers of the standard. I propose that his standard, the needs of commerce, creates the social issues in the first place. The values of commerce are not at all obvious or inhumane.


Let us begin with the simplest and most powerful piece of evidence. It was the demands of the employment market surging in the early 1960s that brought women extensively into the business environment in the first place. In 1960, 36 percent of all women over 16 were in the civilian labor force. During the next ten years, 8.5 million more women went to work, with 43 percent in the labor force by 1970. By 1980 over half (52 percent) were earning wages, and by 1990, 60 percent of women over 16 were in the labor force. Business was sucking up women disproportionately because of the shift from manufacturing to services. In the same thirty years, business added 34 million women employees but only 21 million men, helping to create the unemployment and homelessness that Rush Limbaugh blamed on laziness.

Limbaugh failed to see that the needs of commerce changed the nature of the home and the role of women. The same numbers can be found in all of Western Europe, and yet Rush thinks the change was a decline in morality. When we compare the figures for divorce in that period, we find that 8.5 million women were filched away by business but that the number of divorced women increased by only 1 million, while the number of female heads of household with children increased by only 700,000.

In the seventies, the trend of women entering the labor force did begin to show an effect that had no correlation to morals. A fresh batch of 14 million women went to work, while the the number of divorced women increased by 3.3 million and female heads of household with children increased by an additional 2.3 million. This shows that business needed women, and the consequences of that need followed by at least ten years. Affirmative action had nothing to do with these patterns. The first affirmative action case was won in 1972 in San Francisco, and it affected fewer than a half a million bank employees.

Business brought millions of women into the labor force for reasons of efficiency; commerce is purely meritocratic. The productive output of women was in demand by consumers, and business hired them regardless of moral issues or their presumed occupational inferiority.


Rush's prejudice against minorities requires a different approach, because the data on African-Americans and Latinos in the work force has only recently been collected by the government. None is collected on Asians. In the case of Asians it is hard to conceive of the same people who are filling our universities and starting a disproportionate share of new companies as being a drag on the business world.

In the 1980s, the number of African Americans and Latinos in the work force increased by 4.5 million, from 15 percent of the total to 16 percent, with people like Rush complaining all the way. Such a tiny increase could not have reduced productivity, especially when we consider that the jobs they hold have little to do with national productivity. African Americans and Latinos comprise 55 percent of our household cleaners and servants, 45 percent of our building maintenance crews, 35 percent of our nurses and orderlies, and 30 percent of our cooks and kitchen workers.

During the same time that a few more minorities entered the U.S. work force, the unbiased hand of American commerce reached out and bought $12 billion a year of goods and services from Africa and $42 billion from Mexico and Latin America, creating new jobs for a total of 28 million Latinos and 14 million Africans. Their skills and output mattered more to the world of commerce than Rush Limbaugh's opinion that they are lazy.

Lastly, I believe that much of the environmental changes evident in business are driven by the needs of commerce to satisfy the consumption interests of customers and reduce costs and not much by political pressure. American industry was able to reduce per-capita energy use from 1973 to the 1993, dropping from over 350 million BTU's to 300 million. If energy saving hadn't been introduced, energy would have cost Americans an additional 5 percent of the GNP, equal to the total of all corporate profits after taxes. The total of business expenditures on pollution control is less than one tenth of the amount saved in the energy sector. The government and the environmental movement had little to do with this environmental change.

Americans changed their eating habits without governmental pressure either, decreasing beef, pork, egg and sugar consumption over the last twenty years by 20 percent and increasing their intake of fish, low-fat milk, chicken, turkey and fresh fruits by significant amounts. (In fact, durning this time the government was promoting beef, milk and egg consumption.) Business readily accommodated this trend, and fast-food chains adapted by offering more low-fat dishes.

Environmental interests are not imaginary; Americans are strong supporters of outdoor recreation. We more than doubled our number of visits to national parks over the past 20 years and more than tripled the acreage of those parks in the same period. Business served those needs by doubling the number of boats Americans own, making the bicycle industry into a billion-dollar growth field with major exports, significantly increasing the number of flower gardens, fisher people, and attendees at amusement parks, especially in Disneyland profit type settings.

Environmentalism has become a growing industry. Commerce has seized the initiative in solid-waste management which has become a multi-billion- dollar sector; recycling has radically expanded; and two-thirds of all aluminum cans are now recycled voluntarily. A careful 20-year study by the Council on Economic Priorities has found that the most environmentally advanced companies in the lumber, paper, and utility industries have been the most profitable.

The most significant evidence that commerce has willingly adopted environmentalism is that Japan, in early 1992, publicly challenged the rest of the industrial world to catch up with them as they developed emerging clean-up and recycling industries. By 1998 they produced the worlds first two production model hybrid cars with extraordinarily good gas mileage and low emissions.(Toyota and Honda)

Rush, to put it simply, the nature of commerce is meritocracy. If you pursue meritocracy you will end up promoting ethnic diversity and multiculturalism and serving consumer's environmental concerns. If a woman can do a job better than a man she will be recruited; if an African can produce the same product at a lower price we will buy from her. Money and trade don't look very hard at skin color or existing prejudices, and the companies that understand consumer concerns about the environment will reap the profits.

Sources: U.S. Statistical Abstract International: Encyc. Britannica


Michael Phillips, 1995 (revised 2000)


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