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This place matters

Monday, November 28, 2011

Zero-sum

I learned a new term from NPR last week: zero sum. The NPR show Marketplace has done a couple of commentaries from the so-called one percent. 
Now I've had something stuck in my craw* about the Occupy Wall Street since the movement started. I mean, I'm a liberal girl, I don't like corporate greed, I hate poverty. So what's been bothering me?
Well, commentator Robert Reich started me down the road to figuring it out. Reich argues that the OWS folks' mentality "plays into the false idea that the economy is a giant zero sum game, in which the top one percent wins and everyone else loses, or the reverse. But... if an economy is functioning correctly, everyone wins."

And he's right. Kind of. Of course, the economy is quite obviously not functioning correctly. And the big banks responsible for the economic collapse in the first place? They were the perfect illustration of the opposite of this dude's points. The upper-level folks made tons of money at the expense of the poor through predatory lending practices, then took home millions of dollars in bonuses after the bailouts, while people lower down lost their jobs. I don't have the world's best understanding of economics, but the banking fiasco seems like a textbook example of what Reich's talking about when he talks about the zero sum game.
While that's true, the OWS people aren't just protesting the banks and the other actual bad guys. Even their most articulate representatives are making arguments about the fact that the one percent have so much more than the rest of us, how the rich really ought to give some back. They don't care which rich. They don't care how they got rich. And this is where I agree with Reich. It is bad, of course, for an exec to make billions of dollars at the expense of others. But that's not the only way to make lots of money; and a lot of corporations (although I'd certainly argue they're in the minority) know that.
The company for which I work, for instance, demonstrates the correctly functioning economy that Reich talks about. In the small scale anyway; we've got no billionaires, as far as I know. The people above me on the corporate ladder get paid more than me, sure, but they're the people more directly responsible for my company's existence and continued success. And if those people aren't compensated according to their worth, they're not going to stick around. So their higher pay checks actually put money in my pocket, rather than taking money out of it.
The much-maligned Starbucks, by the way, long considered emblematic of corporate greed, operates very much the same way. Sure, there's a lot of douchebaggery - I think at giant corporations, that's a lot harder to prevent; however, Starbucks treats their bottom-tier employees better than the nicest locally-owned coffee shops on earth. Better than minimum wage pay, benefits, I think they even have some kind of tuition reimbursement system. Owners of the local places aren't more selfish employers, per se, but they're nowhere near successful enough to be able to afford benefits and stuff like that. Starbucks makes their employees' lives better by virtue of being successful. The execs at the top, the ones who make billions of dollars, are responsible for keeping the company successful and thus keeping the workers employed and well compensated. And if (and that's a big if) their corporate literature is to be believed, they're pretty good to their growers too. Starbucks is still evil, however. Oh yeah, I'm bringing up the burned beans again. What did coffee beans ever do to them that they need to scald them so? Their Breakfast Blend tastes like French Roast. Their Costa Rica tastes like French Roast. Their French Roast tastes like used firewood. Really? What kind of animal is capable of such crimes against coffee?
Anyway, my point is, and I think Reich's point is that being evil isn't the only way to make piles and piles of money, and the OWS kids don't seem to have any understanding of that fact. Most seem to be advocating a redistribution of wealth that would grind our economy to a dead stop, and I don't think that's the best option for anybody involved. Because smaller, less successful businesses can't afford to compensate their employees as well as bigger, more successful ones. The hippy dippy coffee shop or restaurant or boutique on the corner may be a kinder, friendlier place; but chances are they can't afford to pay their employees better than minimum wage. Because they're so small, it's possible they're getting paid less than minimum under the table because the authorities don't pay as much attention to small businesses. They often can't afford to sell fairly traded products, they can't afford to give people benefits, and they sure as hell can't afford to donate the gazillions of dollars to charities that the bigger, more successful companies do. 
So that's what's in my craw, at least in part, about the OWS kids. They're failing to distinguish good economic success from bad economic success. They're failing to understand that the richness of the so-called on percent isn't necessarily directly responsible for the ninety-nine percent. They're punishing the good corporations along with the bad and they're doing it really, really obnoxiously. 
In the end, it all comes down to this: corporations are only as evil as consumers allow them to be. I actually liked OWS's plan to get people to fire their banks. Those big banks that contributed to the collapse deserved to be fired. Deserved to have been fired long ago. And if the ninety-nine percent do their homework, find out which banks are good and which are bad, and then move their money in huge numbers, then they're a hell of a lot more effective than the unshowered masses littering Wall Street. By all means, don't shop at companies whose businesses practices you find morally objectionable. Convince your friends not to. Picket them if you really want to. But learn about their business practices and whether they really are evil before you start with the rhetoric. 




* I've always wondered what that means - it refers to something being stuck in your throat, craw being a word for a bird's throat.

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