The debate over economic theory provides a classic example of how our philosophical convictions tend to follow our self-interest. We do not make up our minds about matters of principle in an ivory tower.
It is no coincidence that people in the import-export business and the workers at the Toyota plant in Kentucky champion the benefits of free trade. Nor that textile workers who have lost their jobs to foreign competition favor protectionist measures. Have you ever heard a longshoreman tell reporters, “I don’t care if it means I will lose my job. We have to stop these foreign importers from flooding the country with all these low-priced products I unload every day.”
There are exceptions, of course. I am sure that economic theorists such as Milton Friedman and Lester Thurow do not pause to look at the impact on their bank accounts when they set up their economic models. But then it probably does not make a dime’s worth of difference to their personal net worth if the free-traders or the protectionists are in the ascendancy in Washington. Their paychecks and royalties keep rolling in. And I don’t think they worry about the price of the goods on the shelves at Wal-Mart.
I was at a social gathering a few months ago with a group of friends of a friend where the phenomenon was in stark relief. The conversation moved from complaints about big corporations that did not care about the “average American” when they shipped jobs overseas, to complaints about trade union “fat cats” who were forcing up prices for the “little guy,” to complaints about welfare cheats who were living off the taxes of the “working man and woman.”
The folks were especially indignant about civil service workers who were getting “fat pay raises” and “plush retirement benefits” on “the backs of the taxpayers.” This last complaint was noteworthy, considering that everyone in the room was living on some form of redistributed wealth social security benefits, disability income, worker’s compensation payments, civil service pensions and Medicare. Government benefits were just and fair when they went to people who “really needed them.” Like them.
The fate of the major American newspapers is another case in point. The big liberal dailies the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe are feeling the pinch. Over the last few decades these publications could be counted on to make the case against greedy corporations that fired workers and shipped jobs overseas because of bottom-line considerations. Their editorials could be counted on to make the point that corporations had a social responsibility to their workers and their employees. They routinely scolded the Republican Party for adopting policies that emphasized profits and corporate efficiency rather than the public good.
Reality is slapping these publications in the face. Overall circulation of the major daily newspapers has declined every year since 1987. More and more Americans are getting their news from cable television, their iPods, and on the Internet. The advertisers have followed the audience. Whether this is a good thing can be debated. After all, the Internet sites are basically collectors of information gathered by the reporters at the major newspapers. What would Matt Drudge have to print on his website if the newspapers were not around?
But let us leave this last question for another day. The point just now is that the major newspapers are responding to their declining readership and revenues in the same manner as the greedy corporations they have criticized all these years: They are cutting staff. The Washington Post just announced a cut of 10% of its newsroom positions, in response to last year’s 12% drop in operating income and the fall of its Sunday circulation to fewer than one million copies. Last fall the New York Times cut 500 positions, the Boston Globe 160, and the Philadelphia Inquirer cut 15 percent of its newsroom staff.
In mid-March the sale was announced of the once-prestigious Knight Ridder chain of newspapers to McClatchy Co. Knight Ridder is the second largest chain in the country. What startled observers was not so much the sale as the fact that McClatchy was the only bidder. Rupert Murdoch gave his reaction in an interview in the British newspaper The Guardian on March 14th. He told the interviewer, “Power is moving away from the old elite in our industry the editors, the chief executives, and let’s face it, the proprietors.” He spoke of “Internet pioneers” who are moving us into a “second great age of discovery,” comparing them to Columbus and Magellan.
The ease with which the editors and publishers of these newspapers were able to flip-flop and adopt the cost-cutting measures of the greedy corporations they once criticized reminded me of a story that appeared in my local paper here in Connecticut a few years ago. It focused on student demonstrations on the campus of Fairfield University in support of the school’s janitorial staff. It turns out that the Jesuits who run Fairfield were not providing their workers with anything close to the “living wage” they were scolding American corporations for not paying their employees.
My reaction to the story was mixed. I must admit that I went through a short bout of schadenfreude, taking some satisfaction in the Jesuits’ bad press. It is always fun to see someone get knocked off a high horse. It is why we liked it when Jimmy Swaggart was caught with the girls of the night.
But I also sympathized with the administration at Fairfield. They are stuck in a dilemma. Their tuition costs are rising rapidly, placing the school beyond the reach of many middle-class Catholic families. The administrators have to find ways to be efficient, to keep costs down. The Washington Post and the New York Times are in the same boat. They can’t keep more workers on the payrolls than they can afford. If they raise their prices to keep these workers part of the “corporate family,” their circulations are likely to drop even further.
But the point is that these are the same dilemmas faced by the corporations routinely chastised by the liberal elites in the media and among the clergy for closing plants and outsourcing jobs overseas. No doubt there are corporate decision-makers who deserve to be taken to task for making decisions about their workers in a ruthless and unacceptable manner. But there are others who are as troubled by the consequences when they lay off their workers as the publishers of the Washington Post and the New York Times, but feel they have no other choice.
Those who attack corporate lay-offs and outsourcing should take the time to decide which category the company they are looking at is in before raking it over the coals. I may be wrong, but it doesn’t seem to me that the critics of corporate greed in the media and the clergy often take the time to do that; that they are more interested in staking out holier-than-thou ideological points than in getting the facts or being fair-minded.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)