Derailing Discussion about Jobs:

September 6th, 2010

All you have to do is bring up the phrase, “Free Market Economy”.

Bob Herbert’s column, “Of Janitors and Kings” was, as usual, a fascinating commentary about our society from the vantage point of newly unemployed, low-wage workers. Most interesting is the information which wasn’t printed. We don’t know why this Goliath corporation needed to lay off janitorial staff considering the amount of work that goes into building maintenance. We can take a good guess at this juncture that the lack of transparency in the situation is purposeful. The actual explanations would render the cheer-leading done by Limbaugh, Beck and Palin completely off-topic.

The comments left by readers posted below that NY Times Op-Ed are certainly proof of the conditioning that the mega-corporatocracy (as opposed to actual businesses which compete to offer goods and services in the marketplace) has imposed on our society. How many hours of radio do they buy up for the Limbaughs and Becks whose vast fund of well-compensated hatred is only exceeded by the absence of logic in their statements. Who was it that equated the practices of ‘Capitalism” with the phrase, “Free Market Economy”? A marketing genius, no doubt since the two are not at all the same. However, the term, “Free” is a buzz-word that automatically spurs positive feelings and condemnation of those who spurn the misuse of the term in that context.

Capitalism is an economic practice with governmental restrictions upon it to ensure fair competition. Monopolies and trusts (the actual inhabitants of the Free Market zone) are forbidden, not that anyone bothers to enforce anti-trust laws any longer. Capitalism is neither a form of government nor is it a replacement for government. The constitution for our Republic actually empowers Congress to intervene in business to preserve constitutional freedoms for citizens. The framers were well able to conceive of robber barons gaining undue influence over government and trampling the rights of citizens.

Capitalism carries a lot of responsibilities for both businesses and for consumers. It’s a contract through which satisfied customers reward good businesses with their hard earned dollars. Bad businesses are supposed to fail as good ones expand and can take on the losses of workers created in a changing marketplace. However, when bad businesses form agreements to conform to policies which place them in adversarial roles with labor, the contract with capitalism has failed. Multiple businesses may be technically separate entities but competition has effectively ended. It represents a decision that the trough is large enough for all to feed. Trough, indeed.

But what happens when the drive to rake in another penny per unit for the sellers, ends up decimating suppliers? What happens when the seller is such a large entity that their profits become losses for the population at large, mesmerized by low costs and hidden ingredients? We wind up with a market full of hazardous products which harm the workers who make them and the consumers who buy them. It leads to low wages, importing illegal labor and exporting local jobs into the hands of people who will not in turn, be consumers of US businesses by and large. It means increased underemployment and unemployment to be remedied by tax funded means to prevent starvation and homelessness. It means poor educational experiences for children living in poverty, diminishing hopes of future generations to surpass the last one.

Everyone is a consumer, including our mega-corporations. What happens when the largest institutions refuse to examine the practices of the smaller ones with whom they trade? Here, the firing of janitorial staff earning under $14 per hour, was of no interest to the giant who referred to the matter as belonging only to another ‘vendor’. Too many providers of essential services (such as cleaning) are forced to sacrifice their more experienced employees for cheaper workers in order to underbid for a contract which further threatens their stability as a business. This practice ensures a smaller pool of trained, secure workers which makes up a stable society. It basically renders the entire workforce a disposable commodity. Were we less of a capitalist society when good workers enjoyed longevity and advancement within their employment settings? Now that the workforce has increased in diversity, the fund of useful knowledge and willing hands is larger than ever. It eradicates the independence of labor which is essential to the growth of a large (politically active) middle class.

There is one circumstance in which “trickle-down” economic theory does work. If the upper echelons of the business world refuse to think about the source of their wealth, mindlessness proceeds the rest of the way down the chain.

How can a violation of sound business practices be made to sound acceptable in society? Simple. You begin to use the term ‘Free Market Economy’. That makes it seem as if corporations work alone in creating a healthy marketplace. If someone refers to capitalism at all, just throw out that ‘other’ phrase, “Socialism” and be sure you sneer as you say it. It can misdirect the conversation admirably and no one has to learn anything new. Ever. Let people infer that if business were just free of all regulation and taxes, there would be two jobs in every pot. Or some such rhetoric (I’m not old enough to recall the New Deal). We’ve had that for quite awhile now. How’d that turn out? Anyone? Bueller? Despite incentives to hire, businesses kept the profits from those incentives and got more for less out of their workers. As we already know, you get ‘less’ for ‘less’ and this has led to a slower recovery and poorer quality of production practices and merchandise.

In the meantime, make business work for their money. To the largest extent possible, patronize ethical businesses which pay a living wage while producing quality products and services with full disclosure of ingredients. Mindlessness may work for industry moguls with golden parachutes but citizens have to eat today and plan for tomorrow. There is a reason why we refer to working as ‘making a living’. The demand that one work only so that others can live (high on the hog if we go back to the trough analogy), is against every principle of capitalism. Unless mindlessness is contagious, citizens should think of the consequences for their consumer choices.

My commentary on this article:

Barbara Rubin, Ca.
September 4th, 2010

Mr. Herbert,

Thank you for bringing this to the attention of NY Times readers. This would have been a bit more effective if the information offered at the end of the column had been stated first. We have been left in the dark about the reasons for the lay-offs of janitorial staff at this huge enterprise.

Once businesses accepted a closer relationship with the general public, (e.g. issuing stock, accepting public monies for bail-outs or relying upon provision of public services for under-employed or underpaid employees), a need for greater transparency arose.

The public should not have the right to demand any company retain incompetent employees or hire more individuals than are needed for their employment rolls. However, what we have seen is that corporations are freely dispensing with necessary jobs and satisfactory workers in order to inflate the bottom line from ‘healthy’ into a form of corporate obesity which harms all consumers and tax payers. Businesses taking advantage of leaner times have seen additional profits in maintaining low staffing levels while requiring unrealistic levels of productivity for remaining workers.

Fearful of losing their minimal incomes or protesting the absence of benefits, protests are few as employees are reduced to the level of serf. Some part time work schedules are always changing, preventing many workers from obtaining second jobs, ensuring consistent child/family care practices or allowing for schedules to accommodate those seeking higher education and job training.

It is nice to think that a free market economy requires no awareness of such internal corporate workings. Unfortunately, the truth is that the corporations look to the public sector to provide health care, housing vouchers and other vital services which used to be part of the reward for putting in a day’s good labor. Does anyone know the high rate of asthma and occupational illness among janitors? It is quite high and tax payers have been paying the price for the use of harmful cleaning and maintenance products janitors are required to use because they are cheap and reduce the time which is actually needed to effectively and safely manage occupied properties.

The Free Market Economy has termed workers to be commodities instead of integral parts of the business culture. No one denies the rewards at the top will rightfully surpass the rewards of lower echelon workers with less training and responsibility. However, there are no unimportant jobs and none which should require any worker to live below the poverty line, depending upon public assistance for the basic necessities of life.

The Free Market Economy has become another code word for feudalism with a larger castle and deeper moat. Worker ‘ownership’ can only be stopped by public awareness of company policies so we can put the more obese corporations on diets of integrity and fairness.

Categories: Newspaper Commentary, NY Times, Published

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