C A P I T A L I S M A N D L A B O R
The wonderful world of down sizing may have all the apologists in the world supporting it with fine prose and subtle argumentation, but the simple fact is that each of those who argue for down sizing and re-engineering either have never been down sized or are the ones who are doing the down sizing, not experiencing it.
From my point of view, it is immoral as well.
As an emotional, highly personal complaint, this sounds persuasive. As an objective economic argument, it fails completely.
There's nothing "subtle" about the fact that a company which fails to earn a steady profit will go bankrupt, thus putting ALL its employees out of work. Better to fire some so that others can remain employed.
Attacking those who recognize this reality because they supposedly don't "care" as much as certain more "moral" persons is not only groundless, it's rude. "I'm correct because I recognize immorality and you don't" isn't an argument; it's an admission that one lacks a strong argument based on objective reality. Those with solid facts and reasoning to support their opinions should present them.
There is little more devastating, and little that preaches lack of worth to a person, like being canned because you have become superfluous.
"Superfluous" is an emotion word, not a rational argument. Layoffs don't happen because those let go were "superfluous" or judged to be worthless as human beings. They occur because the skills or functions of those particular employees were less valuable to their employer at a given moment in time than employees with other skills or performing other business functions.
That is emphatically NOT the same thing as "worthless." If I am a bricklayer and you are a neurologist looking for a partner, you don't have any use for my skills. My business function is unnecessary to you; there is no good reason why you should employ me (and very good reasons why you should not be forced to employ me). But just because you have no use for my business skills doesn't mean my skills are without value to someone else.
So it is with all businesses. Being laid off is in no way whatsoever a charge of personal worthlessness as you claim.
while in some cases, the ultimate result finds the individual better off than before, I doubt that happens more than five or ten percent of the time.
It [downsizing] substitutes materiality for humanity.
Your doubt is not supported by the evidence. According to a business report I read several months after the layoff of 40,000 AT&T employees--a period that generated much moralistic breast-beating and warning of Dire Consequences--approximately 80 percent of the laid-off employees had new jobs within a month. So of course these persons became better off than they were before--before, they worked for a company that demonstrated it did not need their skills.
As for the other one-fifth, some of them took early retirement, while others started businesses of their own which resulted in new hiring to further offset the layoffs . . . and which never would have happened without the layoffs.
Were there some persons for whom losing their jobs left them worse off for more than a month? Undoubtedly, and no singing the praises of layoffs should ignore this reality. Some people were worse off. As a fellow human being, I feel compassion for them; I wouldn't like to be in that position, either. (If it matters, I nearly was in that position in early 1998, when my employer became a target for a hostile takeover that surely would have resulted in massive layoffs. Had that happened, I assure you that I would still make exactly the same argument I am making here and now.)
But--and this is the point that matters--overall, everybody was better off after the AT&T layoff, and so it is in most (though not all) such cases. Everybody (a word I don't use loosely) in our society was better off because AT&T became a healthier company. We all profit by its continued existence. We all would have been worse off if it had been forced by someone's misguided notion of "compassion" to be a social welfare institution instead of a business. Failed businesses, even if the intentions of their directors are as socially pure as can be, employ no one.
It matters not one whit how "greedy" or "materialistic" some CEO or corporate board of directors may be. If that company is alive and employing people, it does infinitely more social good than a company whose noble and "human" chief leads that company into bankruptcy so that it no longer employs anyone at all. (Nor is the old "executive compensation" argument of any value here; by far the vast majority of any company's revenue--no matter how nice or nasty its executives--goes to employee paychecks.)
Of course it's upsetting to an individual when his or her stable income is threatened. But no one has asserted otherwise! Pretending that anyone has done so is merely going after a weak straw man argument; it avoids the real question.
The real question is whether more good is done by letting businesses make their own decisions concerning their corporate health, or by imposing hiring requirements on businesses in order to satisfy some outsider's theory of proper labor practices. Several hundred years of capitalism strongly suggest that, in the long run, trying to impose social utopias by force does far less good--and often far more harm--than defending the rights of businesses and individuals to freely negotiate the value of labor.
That's not being insensitive. It's being realistic about what has been proven to promote social good, and what feels good but fails.
I submit that realism is more helpful than questioning the motives of those who disagree with us.
will the U.S. ever face another severe depression, massive amounts of people lacking work, "Grapes Of Wrath"-style? If so, what do you think the government's role, if any, should be in helping people get back to work?
That, I actually don't have so much trouble with.
There's a theory I've been kicking around in my head for a few years that informs my thinking on this and other questions of the appropriate uses of centralized state power. It goes something like this: the Executive branch, like the military, is explicitly organized in a hierarchical command structure. In other words, an order comes from the single top dog; it is directed to an authorized representative of that executive, who develops policies and procedures by which individuals will do the work that is thought will achieve the stated goal.
The thing is, not every problem is best solved by a hierarchical power system. Particularly when we're talking about a government--and most especially a national government--applying a top-down approach enforced by the state's power to impose fines, jail time, and sharpshooters/tanks, there are times when it is more effective to employ persuasion to try to get individuals to voluntarily act in whatever way is thought appropriate.
In my view, most things fall into that latter category. As a general principle, we--individually and as communities, states and a nation--are better off when the national executive restrains itself from exerting its power. For some people (OK, I'm thinking the current crowd, but while some hands are meaningfully dirtier than others, no Administration's hands since Washington's are perfectly clean), this is very hard to do. How can an executive earn praise in the history books by restraining himself from action?
So they meddle. And instead of people exercising their powers of self-reliance--the powers that are directly responsible for making this nation what it is by insisting that every citizen demonstrate self-government--we are excused from responsibility for our actions, and even prevented from taking responsibility for our choices.
It has become a key part of my world-view that a government should do only those things which individual citizens in free association with one another either cannot or should not do for themselves. When it does, it acts against its own long-term best interests by not permitting and expecting its citizens to demonstrate intelligent and active self-government.
On that basis, I think most of what all three branches of the U.S. government have been up to in the past few decades is wrong. But "most" is not "all."
Specifically (yes, I'm finally getting around to answering your question *grin*), the hierarchically-organized Executive is probably exactly the right crowd to deal with truly national emergencies. It has the power to act, and--if matters really are that serious, as in a massively debilitating economic crisis--the right and responsibility to act.
The ends do not justify all means, however. There is no national emergency bad enough to require stormtroopers, secret police, or concentration camps; if these are the only means by which a nation can survive, then better that it perish.
Short of this, though... I'm inclined to agree that a real Depression would justify large-scale public works projects. Better some productive activity than none at all, even if the public confidence is too low to offer wages much beyond those necessary for survival. So yes, I'd support executive action in such a serious case.
Otherwise... call me skeptical.
There are some real *astards out there in the upper-echelons of certain businesses who don't see people, when they look at employees, but only see pieces of equipment. I'm throwing this out for discussion, not because I think the government should put any further restrictions on business, it shouldn't... in my opinion, but because I've seen the result when a gentle elderly woman who's worked at her job for over twenty years, is suddenly told to pack up and move out the next day because her employer has decided they don't need her department anymore,no notice... just pack up and get the hell out. The fear and anguish and disruption of a person's life is very real.
Quite true. What I wonder is, why do we even bring this up? Is there really anyone Out There who thinks otherwise?
The question isn't whether layoffs hurt individuals over the short run (they do), or even whether corporate executives may profit by layoffs over the short run (they may). The proper question to be asking is whether businesses have the right to make stupid decisions that hurt them in the long run. If they do, then we may all deplore the short-term results, but still accept their necessity to gain the long-term benefits of companies that survive by remaining profitable, keeping other workers employed. That doesn't mean ignoring an individual's pain. What it means is making large-scale public policy questions on the appropriate basis--not based on personal feelings or horror stories that are not representative examples of reality, but on objective observations and analyses of economic cause-and-effect.
If, on the other hand, we conclude that businesses don't have any right to be foolish; if we accept the twin assumptions that businesses--and thus the individual human beings who run businesses--are too stupid or evil to be allowed to make their own decisions as to what is in their best interests over the long run, and that consumers are too stupid to make "correct" choices as to which businesses to support, then we might as well just nationalize everything and let those wise and benevolent civil servants take care of us completely.
In which case the good and decent employers are prevented from being so, and no one else has any incentive to become so.
And we all lose.
People do suffer long-term hurt, especially the senior citizens for whom new work will be an incredible trial. Of course you can't force a business to keep employees that it can no longer afford. But business practices that are cruel to the individual need to be brought to the attention of the public, so that some pressure can be brought to bear on the corporate mentality.
Understood. And I hope you will understand in turn my pointing out that word "cruel" as being key here.
What's "cruel?" Suppose you're an employer who hits a bad patch. You can't afford to keep all of your employees; if you try, you run a high risk of going under completely and losing all your employees.
So what do you do? Your older employees are likely to be earning the most money (i.e., costing you the most in wages). You could let maybe three or four of them go; otherwise you'd have to lay off maybe five or six others. On the other hand, you don't want to be "cruel" to "senior citizens." But letting too many others go might cripple your business just in terms of how much work needs doing.
So what do you do?
Suppose you try to keep everyone... wouldn't that be "cruel," risking everyone's jobs?
Suppose you try to protect your older workers. Doesn't that mean you have to be "cruel" to lower-income workers, who probably need your paycheck just to make ends meet?
My point should be obvious by now, which is that there is no way to avoid being "cruel" to someone when employee costs are too high. When all the options are bad, the only proper course is to do what's best for the company. It means that someone is going to be hurt in the short term, and there's no way around that.
So the notion that letting people go to pursue the bottom line is always "cruel" is based on failing to consider the consequences of doing otherwise. Layoffs are not cruel, not when the bottom line is risking the bankruptcy that, instead of hurting a few people, would "cruelly" hurt everyone who benefits by that company's continued existence.
I think we need to be careful to consider that, as bad as things can be when there are layoffs, things can be much, much worse. A proper assessment of economic action considers all the alternatives, not just those which purport to avoid "cruelty" to a particular interest group.