They — It Affects Our Thinking

I want to caution about the use of the word “they” in current policy debates. This use of “they” leads to a kind of understanding in our brains that might just be short-circuiting our ability to make rational decisions. How we understand a problem has huge implications for how we decide to solve those problems.
Let me use the current debate over providing a loan to the auto companies as an example of what I mean. Some people say that “they” – the auto companies – did bad things. “They” opposed higher CAFE standards. “They” pushed SUVs because SUV sales led to higher profits in the short term. “They” made cars that were not as good as Japanese cars. Therefore “they” deserve what they get.
But who is the “they” here? What happens to your thinking about policy solutions if you instead understand that SOME executives of these companies were able to get their hands on the resources of the company, and did things that increased their own personal fortunes, even as their actions harmed the long-term profitability of the companies? In fact THOSE particular executives might have already fled with the loot they got for themselves, leaving the car companies behind.
Do you see what I mean? In that first use of “they,” where you think of a company as some kind of a sentient being, a monolithic entity that makes decisions, you are led toward one kind of solution. Namely to let “them” fail and let “them” deal with the consequences of “their” decisions. The companies “deserve” to fail because “they” did certain things.
“Let them fail” ignores the millions of jobs at stake, the communities that those incomes support will be seriously affected, and that the country’s manufacturing infrastructure will be further degraded if the auto companies fail.
But if you think about it the other way, where certain individual bad actors were able to make personal fortunes off of their access to company resources and their control of company decision-making (and lobbying), we are led to very, very different conclusions about how to fix the mess we and our economy are in. In this mindframe the solution that presents itself involves dealing with the bad actors, and setting up rules that keep future bad actors from being able to cause companies to harm themselves and the country in their pursuit of personal gain.