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Nichols: Breakup of business giants could help economy
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Without doubt, we are at one of the most critical points in our nation's history. How we deal with our current economic crisis will define our identity both now and in the future.

The eight years of the Bush administration, which had so much promise at the beginning, turned out to have an intelligence failure of massive proportions. The war in Iraq cost billions of dollars and more than 4 000 deaths of our American heroes. The war in Iraq was not only unpopular, it was politically damaging to the reputation of our country.

Other states began to see us as a bully cowboy nation carrying a big stick (our military and economic power) and not talking softly but yelling at the rest of the world to do as we wanted.

We helped draft the charter of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 while World War II was still going on in the Pacific. We have supported many U.N. efforts, but like all the other permanent members of the Security Council, we have used our veto numerous times to prevent the U.N. from undertaking projects we do not like. In fact, we stopped paying our fees to the U.N. operational fund for a period of time to protest activities we did not like.

We have talked about human rights. Eleanor Roosevelt led a successful commission to draft the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights. America is rightly proud of her accomplishment, but we have refused to ratify the two covenants on human rights that codified the declaration into binding international law obligations.

Similarly we have given support to concerns about global warming, yet we have found excuses not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

President Barack Obama has many problems that require his full attention. By trying to reform education and health care, create new jobs, protect the environment and bail out the banks and perhaps the automobile giants, while ending the war in Iraq by 2010 or 2011, is Obama moving too fast? Is he overloading Congress so that it will lack time to examine his proposals thoroughly? Is he proposing to double the national debt, and then to cut it in half? If we double then cut in half are we not right back to where we are today?

Obama is exceptionally good with language. His speeches are well-written and well-delivered. During the campaign, he talked about reaching out for bipartisan support. Now in power, does he sometimes fight for his ideas in such a stubborn way that he sometimes decreases bipartisan support?

If the stimulus tactic fails after throwing money at our sick giant institutions like the American International Group, AIG, with a total bailout (so far) of $170 billion, should we consider revising the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the merger guidelines of 1982, where the giant size of a business might make it easier for CEOs to restrain trade or avoid effective regulation?

AIG is a huge insurance giant with branches in over 130 foreign countries and almost countless American connections as well. It recently reported a quarterly loss of $62 billion, the largest in U.S. history. How can they lose so much money, beg for so much bailout and yet give out millions in bonuses that may be legal but are certainly disgusting and unethical? Does government control our industrial giants or do they control the government?

If AIG is so big it is out of control, would our system be safer if that corporate giant were to be broken into smaller segments that would be easier to regulate? Could AIG be the modern version of Standard Oil broken up in 1911 or AT&T ("Ma Bell") broken up in 1984 after difficult antitrust court battles?

And the same question could be asked of the automobile giants also in difficult times. Would they operate more efficiently as smaller companies, rather than remain supersized?

And of course business laws and industrial regulations need to be revised and be fully enforced by the various agencies charged with monitoring commercial activities both within the U.S. and offshore as well.

Our economy may be on the path to recovery, but we need to find out why things went wrong, and then take measures to fix the system so we avoid a similar crisis in the future.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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