Playing by the Same Rules (2012 Dec)

by Barry A. Liebling

Among the most recognized archetypes in popular culture is the boss of a gang of criminals – sometimes referred to as Mr Big, the head gangster, or the Godfather. In fictional books, in theatrical films, and probably in real life this character is responsible for a string of nasty actions including murder, physical assault, and extortion. Typically when the boss commits – or orders his stooges to commit – a horrible crime he says something like, “nothing personal, it’s just business.”

The “just business” comment has become a platitude, and most people have heard it so many times that it has no impact. Why do gangs of criminals do terrible things? The default answer is that they see it as just business.

What is the veracity of the hackneyed phrase? It is false – a description that is the opposite of what is really motivating the crime boss. Pay attention to the movies, books, and authentic news accounts about organized crime. Rather than having the demeanor of a rational, calm business professional the big boss is driven by unreflective, unchecked, emotional rage. The criminal big shot is brimming with hatred. He reaps tremendous satisfaction from vanquishing his personal rivals and steam rolling over innocent victims.

In fact, the head gangster is following a path that is inconsistent with the concept of doing business. Instead of building up trust among those he deals with he cultivates fear, resentment, and the desire for revenge. It is no coincidence that crime bosses are frequently killed by their own people.

What does the gangster gain by endlessly repeating the slogan, “nothing personal, it’s just business”? If the listener (an intended victim, a partner in crime) even partially believes the lie the listener is disarmed. There is no need to be hyper-alert and on guard because the boss is just doing business. He is not driven by malice, only by a desire to optimize his prizes. A disarmed listener is easy prey.

On a more subtle level some gangsters are attempting to evade reality – trying to convince themselves that they are not really bad. Genuine business people trade value for value, are honest, do not deal by force – all traits that a criminal who is ashamed of himself might wish he could obtain by denying his true nature.

How does this apply to the political arena? In that world there are numerous platitudes that are obviously false. It can be difficult to recognize them because you hear them – or read them – so often that they barely register.

President Obama justifies many of his policies and proposals with the notion that everyone should play by the same rules. This can be quantified by doing a Google search where entering “Obama, 2012, play by the same rules” yields more that 240,000 hits. Also, it is noteworthy that “play by the same set of rules” was prominently mentioned in his 2012 State of the Union speech.

The appeal of the “same set of rules” phrase is powerful because it suggests justice. It implies that the government will treat all citizens equally. It is a refutation of the double standard. It promises that praise and rewards for good actions and criticism and penalties for bad behavior will not relate to personal or group identity. Americans who are truly fair-minded approve of the policy that everyone should adhere to the same rules.

It is significant that when you pull back and look at the positions of President Obama, the Democratic Party, and members of the left you will find the exact opposite of “play by the same set of rules.” For progressives the dominant theme is to craft and enforce customized rules – more harsh for those that are despised and more generous for those in favor.

Start with taxation. Raising taxes on the rich and not on everyone else means different rules for different citizens. Giving a break to the “middle class” and exempting low earners altogether is certainly not the “same rules” for everyone. In fact the progressive tax system – where the more you make the higher your tax rate – is diametric to the idea of “playing by the same rules.”

President Obama is very proud of the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts which he claims saved the auto industry. But “playing by the same rules” would mean that every company near bankruptcy is eligible for a federal rescue – not just the two largest with politically-connected union memberships.

After Obama Care was passed many companies complained that compliance would mean they would suffer financial hardship. The administration granted waivers to more than one thousand companies – perhaps those companies that were most supportive of the president. “Same rules” implies that either no companies or all companies receive waivers.

The administration gave large grants to the failed Solyndra and other “clean energy” companies. But not all companies in the category received federal assistance. Was government money deliberately funneled to those that support the president?

What does President Obama gain by endlessly repeating the slogan, “play by the same rules”? What will he lose when more people recognize his evasion?

** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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