There is a deep rot at the core of American fundamentalist capitalism. Over the years a greed-is-good mindset has taken hold across corporate culture. And CEO’s have taken the ball and run with it. They populate their boards with other CEO’s and they add layers and layers of executive structure between themselves and their workers.
Eventually they forget what they once knew (if they ever did) about what it was like to live paycheck to paycheck, to have no power over your own destiny, to feel like a cog in a giant machine whose work is “unskilled” –ergo, easily replaced by a hundred other people who would rather take your horribly paid job rather than continue to languish on unemployment.
I objected when Disney furloughed their workers not because they shouldn’t have, but because they should have waited as long as humanly possible to do so, since unemployment benefits are finite and the clock starts ticking the minute your are furloughed no matter how long the pandemic lasts. They furloughed workers as quickly as they did because there was very little cash on hand even after a year of historic profits.
Where was the cash? In the hands of executives and shareholders. 11.5 billion dollars went out the door in share buybacks enriching everyone BUT the people who worked hard to make this happen.
Think about how you manage your household. If you can, don’t you usually know you that have to keep at least some cash on hand for emergencies? You can’t predict any specific emergency, but you can predict with 100% certainty that an emergency is coming, because that’s how life works.
In fact, the years spent by American businesses racing further and further with each other to a bottom that they might never find, has left workers picked so clean that they did not have cash on hand, or enough food in their pantries, or good healthcare, or a mortgage that was not weighing them down, or a commute that was not wearing them out.
I could go on. Did you see how quickly the lines formed at the food banks? I wonder if any CEO would live for a day, a week, a month as one of own workers, just to find out? Because the callousness of the way they have treated the people who actively, every day contribute to the profits that the CEO’s credit their own genius for creating, has carved such a gulf between their two realities that I don’t believe folks in the C suite recognize these valuable people as members of the same species any more.
Disney furloughed its workers because they intend to lay many of them off, but they didn’t want the bad publicity that would come with layoffs, so they chose to take the heat of two medium-sized PR hits, instead of one great big one. Wait for it. Layoffs are coming.
I don’t expect Disney to pay people who don’t work for them, nor do I expect them to employ people in excess of what they can afford. But two things about that are important. The first is that, had they not spent the last two decades prioritizing “efficiency and productivity” in the form of smaller staffs doing the same amount of work, pressuring people out so as to discourage “seniority”, messing with people’s hours so they can’t claim the benefits of being full-time workers, the people whom they’ve cut loose would not have been so ill-prepared for the pandemic.
These people not only did not have any savings, many of them have been forced into high priced rented housing, many of them have had to look to pantries to feed their families, many shift workers were forced to delay healthcare or else work when sick because they’d not worked enough consecutive hours (because the were sick, duh) to even take advantage of the sick day policy.
So the first thing is basically I–and many, many others–told you so. Your business practices have turned what would have been a crisis into a cataclysm for millions of American workers. Congrats!
The second is when they furloughed workers who were already living close to the bone, they shifted the moral burden of caring enough about those who mutually create profits with them onto the state and therefore the taxpayers. Disney and others are asking us to pick up the tab for their years of whittling away at the dignity of the American worker so that they could transfer all that value WAY upstream to people like me.
Yes, people like me have essentially gotten rich off of the oppression–yes it’s a weighty word and I mean it–of the systematic stripping of dignity from millions of American workers. Because that’s how we were taught society works. Because that’s what the business schools told us to do. Because that’s what Milton Friedman said. Because only shareholders matter.
Greed-is-good business practices are morally bankrupt–not morally neutral or amoral as its defenders claim, partly because there is not such thing as morally neutral or amoral, but mainly because it has led the active erosion in the quality of life of millions of our fellow Americans, it has hollowed out our democracy and left civil society hanging on by a thread, and has led to a nearly un-crossable abyss between a teeny tiny minority of Americans and everyone else.
And it has not just allowed but encouraged the lucky few to believe that this is a just state of affairs.
I have an idea. Instead of paying yourself more money than you can ever use, what if you decided to make less and share profits more broadly? Is 10 million dollars a year enough for you? It sounds like a lot to me.
Imagine if Jeff Bezos weren’t so intent on being the first trillionaire, he only had a few billion dollars because he made a conscious decision to understand his relationship with his workers as one of mutuality and respect, rather than one like the kidney broker and his victim.
There is such a thing as too much money after all. I know it’s American sacrilege to say to, but there just is. How about we have a national conversation about the meaning of wealth? The meaning of work, and what the compact should be between employers and employees.
How about we try imagining that there’s a better way to do this. Because there is. And you know it. All it will take is some moral courage and yes, the most Disney word of them all: imagination.