Saturday, June 04, 2005

Corporate America vs. The American Dream

It's sad to think about how the relationship between corporation and employee has changed in America. At one time, you rarely saw people switch jobs; they took care of their employer and the employer took care of them. There was a sense of duty and honor on both sides. Things are different in the present. It's common to see people switch jobs with great regularity.

What changed, and what caused such change? That's a question with perhaps many different answers. Corporate America will say employees are selfish and greedy and job hop to secure a better financial position. Workers will say that corporate America started it first, by laying off droves of employees while corporate heads got rich. Like him or not, if you've been in corporate America for any length of time since the 80's, you've got to have some appreciation for Michael Moore's sentiments when he refers to Roger Smith's move to offshoring in Roger and Me, sarcastically saying, "Roger Smith was a genius." I say to the pointy haired ones, "Yes, employees job hop to secure a better position, but that's better than doing it by selling your soul."

I'm not sure what side of the chicken and egg question comes out ahead in that argument. But I do know that the rich have been getting richer and the poor getting poorer for a long time. And it's a trend that needs to change before there is no middle class. I'm not an economics expert but it seems to me the middle class is the foundation for nearly every society we've seen. George Carlin joked that there are three classes: The rich make all the money, the middle class does all the work, and the poor scare the middle class into keeping its jobs. Carlin can be goofy at times, but in this case, he's right.

Do all the work! Is that all the middle class does? I said in an earlier post that you can't really be a good leader without some decent followers. Ever worked on a team where there were lots of people who thought they were king? I've seen it and it's not pretty. Too many chiefs and not enough indians, goes the saying, although perhaps the more politically correct version of that should say, "Too many Ghandis and not enough Patels." Damn it, someone has to do the work! We're a long way from the day when we have to worry about robots being able to make the human race obsolete, so that means there better be a middle class around to get things done. And when you think of America, after all, isn't the "work ethic" one of things that always comes to mind?

What would a world without a middle class look like? It depends on where you are. If you're one of the rich, it looks pretty damn good. You don't have to work and the masses will do anything for an opportunity to eat the crumbs off your seat cushion. But if the distribution stays the same, then it will mean that the rich will be outnumbered 9 to 1. Of course, the politicians will be on the side of the rich, so the poor won't be able to count on tanks and soldiers to support their thoughts of revolution.

What's the point? Just that perhaps for America to protect itself, it may have to alter the concept of the American Dream. That's an arrogant term anyway, since to improve and advance one's self isn't a goal indigenous to American soil. It should be termed the Human Dream, or perhaps the Human Aspiration. America was just fortunate it was in the right place at the right time, with the right people, and um, a powerful military, to make things happen. It became the geographical embodiment of this Human Aspiration. The land of opportunity.

But the world is changing. As more of the countries in what Dr. Thomas Barnett calls "the non-integrating gap" begin to come to grips with their disorder and civil wars, as more countries like India produce educated lower-cost alternatives to American labor, soon the "American Dream" will begin migrating to other parts of the world. Where before wars and political instability made countries infertile ground for the Dream, now there are more places where it can happen. The laws of supply and demand dictate that naturally the world's best and brightest won't need to make the pilgrimage to North America to make their lives better.

To combat this, perhaps America must make the transition from a country of great expectations to a country of great managed expectations. And this brings me back to corporate America, but also to the population as a whole. Our future leaders are going to have to convince people that exponential company growth and profits in an age of subdued American supremacy aren't realistic. They'll have to show that the Japanese have it right when the difference between the lowest worker's salary and higest executive's salary is a factor of 7, not 70 (and that number is even higher now in America - I'm quoting numbers from the 1980's). No human being is worth that much money. And not all the rich end up being philanthropists like Paul Allen, funding advances in aviation and spaceflight technology, or Bill Gates, funding biomedical research. Excessive money can sometimes be like excessive time; it finds not-so-nice places to trickle into, like politician wallets.

We need to learn that perhaps it's unrealistic to expect such gross gains from our stocks and even in our personal lifestyles. I know it sounds horribly un-American here, but how expensive would medical care costs be if doctors decided a Toyota Camry was good enough for them instead of a Mercedes? Maybe that's a bad example. But if everyone had more modest expectations (not that they gave up on improvement, but learned to not sacrifice all for strictly monetary gain) then perhaps you wouldn't see such greedy moves on the part of corporation heads. And perhaps their usual excuse, that they're doing it for stockholders, would stop holding water.

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