Half Past the Month

April 13, 2021

I FOUND MYSELF at a luncheon some time ago where the speaker was a local businessman. The speech was like many I have heard in recent years: a mix of crony capitalism and social justice with a splash of mercantilism toward the end.

In his talk, civic progress depended on public-private partnerships (where risk is borne by that amorphous entity, the future taxpayer). Civic health depended on providing “equity” in hirings and appointments to rectify past wrongs, real or perceived, immediate or distant, and to act reflexively on any charge of racism or sexism, however shifting and expansive the definitions.

And, of course, be sure to wear a mask.

Afterward, I sat silent wondering how such a smart fellow could so blithely make recommendations for his community that if applied judiciously to his own industry would drive it to ruin.

Nonetheless, the applause was sincere and the businessman had reason to be pleased with his performance. “Solid,” pronounced the man next to me with the Rotary pin. I wondered if he knew that a hundred such executives at the national level are now taking a position relaxing local voting laws.

Right here I need to correct myself. The speaker was neither “local” nor a “businessman.” Rather, he was a corporate manager dispatched from afar, and although possessing a Masters in Business Administration hadn’t engaged in actual business (sales, marketing, production) for several decades, if ever. 

What he does is manage people and budgets, lots of people and big budgets. Nor is his job to make the company as efficient as it can be or even as profitable. His job is to meet the quarterly goals set by headquarters — no more, no less. That and of course accept luncheon speaking invitations from the natives.

“The most privileged CEOs of corporate America — those who sell us everything from soft drinks and sneakers, to professional sports and social media — now jabber to America about its racism, sexism and assorted sins,” writes the historian Victor David Hansen. The rules of CEO politics are transparent, Hansen says, “(They) never fear offending the conservative silent majority, who are assumed not to boycott or protest.” 

A former editor of mine referred to these as the new Babbitts, quoting a few lines from the famous opening of the Sinclair Lewis novel as he left for his lunch club:

“His name was George F. Babbitt. He was forty-six years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

But the comparison is unfair, Babbitt actually sold things. Nor is this to disparage our luncheon speaker. He works extremely hard. He is highly intelligent and often kind — charitable, his friends say. Women find him handsome and he possesses admirable people skills.

It is fair, though, to challenge the speaker’s presumed role — or perhaps assigned role — as our unelected moral and economic leader. And that challenge, please know, is made not to his abilities but to his incentives. 

Consider how you would make community decisions if your income and that of your children and grandchildren depended not only on the prosperity of your business, the one you own as the sole proprietor, but on the prosperity of the surrounding community for generations to come.

Now consider how you would make those decisions if you had been flown into town by a widely held corporation with limited, short-term goals and in a few years would be headed to retirement on the Carolina coast.

Such men and women can be thought of as “occupiers,” and that seems to apply whether or not their corporation was originally home-grown. And as Hansen suggests, it might make tactical sense for such a man or woman to entertain the views of the noisy and radical in the community, those most likely to disrupt the assuring, copacetic trajectory of those quarterly reports to shareholders.

So McDonald’s decision to quit fighting the $15-an-hour movement had little to do with sympathy for a hypothetical living wage and a lot to do with a newfound ability to automate and cut its labor force by half.

Being a CEO, you see, is all-consuming. The competition within and outside a company is brutal. Few have the time or inclination to personally research every policy issue that might come before a community. And once outside the grueling details of running a large organization, the thinking can run surprisingly shallow. Several thoughts expressed by our luncheon speaker sounded as if they were formed in a late-night bull session in the sophomore dormitory — inchoate at best.

Finally, corporate executives swim in social circles that are decidedly parochial compared with the generations of community- and state-wide connections that affix to a local family business. Our speaker’s brain trust on local issues might be nothing more than his wife’s guest list for the last dinner party.

None of this is to suggest that when the corporate executive stands up to speak at your next event or council meeting you shouldn’t listen with respect. He or she has earned it, for in their field they are knowledgable and influential. 

Also know, though, that the frumpy fellow in the corner in the porkpie hat and sloppy golf sweater whose great-grandfather built the corner grocery store may have a better handle on things generally. — tcl

Resources

Victor David Hansen. “Wealthy and Woke.” American Greatness, April 7, 2021.
Sinclair Lewis. Babbitt. Bantam Books, 1922.
Jon Miltimore. “Why McDonalds Gave Up the Minimum Wage Fight.” Foundation for Economic Education, April 29, 2019.
Heather Mac Donald. “The Bias Fallacy.” City Journal, autumn 2020.



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