The U.S.S. Free Enterprise

James Carville’s research team recently conducted a series of focus tests among evangelicals, Tea Partiers, and Republican moderates. The results are…well, they’re worth reading. A lot of conservatives are worried, rightly or wrongly, that the America their kids are growing up in isn’t the same as the America they love. Whether that version of America ever really existed is up for debate — as John Oliver once pointed out, “Of course things were simpler back then; you were children” — but that’s another topic.

There’s one particular statement, from the focus group members’ comments, that stuck out for me, and that’s this:

The whole middle-class-up economy format is completely ridiculous. Because who’s
going to give the middle class their money? The upper class. The middle class isn’t
going to make money coming out of nowhere. They’ve got to get a job. And who gives
the jobs? The rich people. So if you take all the rich people’s money, they’re not going
to be able to give anybody a job. Just it’s so backwards. He keeps talking about a
strong middle class. I don’t want a strong middle class. I want to make all the middle
class rich people, because then you’ve got even more rich people who can give more
jobs. It’s like a – it’s just ridiculous. (Tea Party man, Raleigh)

That. That right there. The mindset behind those words is a huge part of the reason why the economy’s out of balance right now. It’s wrong on the surface, and it’s wrong underneath.

On the surface, you’ve got the idea that the upper class “gives the middle class their money.” Just gives it. As if the work you do every day of your life is irrelevant, and any amount they pay you for it is a privilege, a favor. There’s the idea that the plan is to “take all the rich people’s money.” All of it. Spoken like a man who doesn’t know that the top marginal income tax rate is less than half of what it used to be. (As of 2013, it’s 39.6% on anything you make over $400,000. From World War II to 1963, it was over 90% on anything you made over $300,000. Over 90%. Under a Republican President. “But the wealthiest Americans are taxed more on capital gains than on marginal income!” Yeah, and most of the capital gains tax rates are lower too.) And the idea that the entire middle class (what’s left of it) can all become millionaires — well, it’s an attractive fantasy, which is why it gets votes, but to paraphrase David Wong, “You’re intentionally conflating ‘anyone can get rich’ with ‘everyone can get rich. You can’t have a society where everyone is an investment banker. And you can’t have a society where you pay six figures to every good policeman, nurse, firefighter, schoolteacher, carpenter, electrician and all of the other ten thousand professions that civilization needs to survive (and that rich people need in order to stay rich).”

And that last point is something Tea Party Man up there completely ignores, or doesn’t think of. It doesn’t occur to him to ask how rich people get rich. How they stay rich. Where their money comes from. Here’s a hint: Businesses need customers. And they need employees to move their products to those customers.

A man who hires you, no matter how fancy his suit might be, isn’t doing you a favor. He isn’t sharing his wealth just for the sake of sharing it. He’s making a business investment in you, a mutual agreement between you and him. He’s paying you to spend your time providing him a service that generates value for him. That service might be running the register, or it might be wining and dining multimillion-dollar clients, but whatever he’s paying you for, he’s doing it because he expects you to create more wealth for him, by utilizing the resources of his business, than he pays out to you. If that deal’s good enough for you, you sign on, make him money, and take home a paycheck. If the deal isn’t good enough, you find someone who pays you what you’re worth. If you turn out to be a bad investment on his part, he cans you and looks for someone better. If you do well, he invests more in you (if he has any business sense, at least).

Nothing wrong with any of that. It’s part of how capitalism works, and it does work (at least when people don’t cheat at it). But here’s the point: Your boss needs you, or someone like you, just as much as you need him.

Without him, you don’t get paid. That’s true and obvious. But without you, or someone else like you, his products don’t move, or don’t get made in the first place. His clients go away. His phones don’t get answered. His office gets jammed up with paperwork. Or hell, maybe his toilets stink — that can be just as big of a problem, if he’s got important visitors. Sure, if you’re the second assistant fry cook at a cheap fast food place, your skills aren’t very valuable (because anyone who walks in can learn them in a day), and you’re easy to replace if you leave. But if your boss’s business makes its money from selling cheap fast food, he needs someone to make it for him. That’s why he writes the checks.

So Tea Party Man is half right there. “The middle class isn’t going to make it’s money coming [sic] out of nowhere.” But neither is the upper class. 

Remember what they used to call the big-shots of business. “Captains of industry.” Men like Henry Ford, who made it a point to pay his workers enough to buy his cars. Or Milton Hershey, who sold his own houses rather than lay off his work force in hard times. These were men who knew what it took to keep the economy healthy: (1) Well-run businesses, and (2) a consumer class with enough disposable income to keep money moving through those businesses. Compare that to a business like Hostess, which raided its workers’ promised pension funds while every one of its last 6 CEOs gave himself a 100%+ pay raise. (CEO pay in general has grown over 100 times faster than the average employee’s pay since the 80’s, but we’ll get to that.)

It’s a fitting word, “captain,” because a well-run business is so much like a ship’s crew. It doesn’t matter that they go by and is not very marine like but every member, including the captain, has a vital role to play. The captain needs skilled personnel — engineers, navigators, electricians, communications officers — and he needs hardworking Joes and Janes to handle the lifting, the plumbing, the cooking, and the mopping of the floors. Those jobs might not be glamorous, or necessarily skilled, but they reason they exist is because they’re just as vital to the running of the ship; people get sick if the place isn’t clean.

So then what does the captain do? A good captain gives the crew clear, wise direction and efficient organization. He earns the crew’s trust, and he trusts them. He puts the right people on the right jobs, keeps them up to date on their training for those jobs, and makes sure they stay fresh and motivated enough to do them. He uses his people skills to help his crewmen build rapport as they work together. When every crew member can trust every other member to play their own vital role with all their skill, dedication, and initiative, that’s when the ship runs smoothly.

But the sailing gets choppy if a captain confuses “working under him” with “working beneath him.” If a captain doesn’t respect his crew, and treats them as disposable tools instead of as professionals and people, the crew will, at best, half-ass their jobs, all the while looking to either jump ship or mutiny. A bad captain ignores his crew’s concerns, tells them they’re lucky to be on his ship, wrings every drop of sweat from every one of them, and if they press their concerns, he just replaces them with someone too desperate or dull to complain. Even if a bad captain does maintain his power, his half-assed crew (or the quarter-assed crew he hires to replace them) will almost inevitably run the ship onto the rocks.

And the problem isn’t just with bad captains alone. A lot of people enable those kinds of captains with that same belief; the idea that anyone’s who’s not a captain, or at least a captain in training, is just some replaceable drone who doesn’t matter.

It’s a very toxic belief, and to break away from the ship metaphor for a minute, too much of our corporate and political culture today is infected with it. Too many people see ordinary company employees as losers, people who don’t have the skills or the initiative to work for themselves — so they have to submit to other people, and thus have to put up with whatever their bosses throw at them. (Of course, someone might say, if they don’t like their jobs, they can leave — and go find another job, in today’s job market, that pays well enough to cover their bills/mortgage/kids. Yeah, easier said than done.)

Maybe they don’t want to be business owners. Not everyone does. In a country built on the dream of “being whatever you want to be,” it doesn’t make sense to have “business owner” as the only “real” option. And even if you look down on them regardless, even if you don’t care who they are as people, what they want out of life, what they say to their significant others every night, what their hopes and problems and tiny little victories are — one simple fact remains.

If they’re not motivated, either because they’ve been mistreated personally or because they’ve seen so many layoffs, they won’t do their best work. They won’t return your investment in them as well as they could. And that’s fixable. Easily. Be a good captain, someone they’d give their all for willingly. Someone they’d follow anywhere. Just be awesome. And when there’s a need, help them be awesome too.

At its best and brightest, the U.S.S. Free Enterprise is the greatest ship the world’s ever seen, big and powerful enough to carry humanity all the way to the stars. But only if its officers — and the crew, every part of the crew — understand each other well enough to appreciate good work, to earn each other’s gratitude, and to foster bonds of mutual respect.

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  • oldngrumpy1

    Do you know why WalMart found it so easy to establish a business in ever medium sized community in America and take away the customers of small business? Let me tell you that it went a lot deeper than just cheap goods. When WalMart first began their expansion and “super center” business model they carried a lot of American made goods, or they carried the same brands as the mom and pop stores that mostly worked through distributors with protected territories.

    The major reason many mom and pop small businesses lost their customer base so quickly in those small communities is because they were jerks. They paid their employees, (the ones who weren’t family) minimum wage and they treated them like chattel. As long as they were the only game in town in their field they did well, and commanded whatever price they could get by with. As soon as there was an alternative, their customer base jumped ship, and they got a good price in the bargain. The towns had watched these “captains” for decades as they took frequent cruises, trips in their massive motorhomes, and generally played the part of feudalistic overlords. Their kids never got in trouble for their many misdeeds, and the local government generally bowed to their wishes.

    In other words, we didn’t get too riled up about the inequities of the wealthy until the scale became enlarged. I contend that there is nothing new about any of this, in spite of it being portrayed as if it just began. The top management and CEOs of these “evil” companies are simply the offspring of the wealthy from the old paradigm. They got their free ride to the best schools and took their nasty attitudes to a higher plane that their jerk parents did.

    There is very little “self made” wealth in the world now. It’s all inherited by the foulest examples of humanity that a materialistic society could conjure, and inherited from their generational counterparts. The fouler the people and deeds involved, the larger the fortunes. This problem for the middle class won’t change until it learns not to continue making Frankensteins, and that will take a societal shift of paradigms that starves the monsters and dumps their carcasses by attrition.