The Illogic of Leanness and Meanness

By George P. Brockway, originally published November 2, 1992

1992-11-2 The Illogic of Leanness and Meanness Title

1992-11-2 JK Galbraith                EDITORIALWRITERS and speech makers are fond of the expression “lean and mean” (or, sometimes, “mean and lean”). I suspect it is the rhyme that appeals to them. They can’t possibly be allowing themselves to think about what happens to people who work (or used to work) for lean and mean corporations. They can’t possibly give a satisfactory answer to the question John Kenneth Galbraith asks in Affluent Society: “Why should life be intolerable to make things of little urgency?”

Nor can they possibly be wondering whether lean and mean corporations make this a better world to live in, even for their customers and their stockholders. St. Augustine wrote: “Every disorder of the soul is its own punishment,” and meanness is certainly a disorder of the soul.

Yes, I know: We are told we will have to be lean and mean to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. Some commentators say that the global economy and the competition are already here.  President Bush inclines to this view; President-elect Clinton inclines to this view; and I suspect that Citizen Perot had something similar in mind. At any rate, he had a lean and hungry look.

Fifty years ago another self-made man, Wendell L. Willkie, had a vision of One World in which we would all help each other. Willkie was a lawyer and CEO of a giant utility holding company before he became the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate (Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior, called him the “barefoot boy from Wall Street”); he was no starry starry-eyed innocent. Yet his touchstone was cooperation, not competition. The world seems to be different now, and not as nice. What happened?

It is, I think, a case of Samuel Johnson being right again: “Hell is paved with good intentions.” The economic situation we find ourselves in is mean enough to have at least some of the attributes of hell, and it is paved in part with free trade, a theory whose intentions were the best in the world. I say “were” because I’m not so sure they’re all so good today.

Practically every economist is in favor of free trade, and the fraternity has been joined by a broad range of right-thinking, public-service citizens groups, from the Council on Foreign Relations to the League of Women Voters. The argument for free trade is simple and strong: All of us are consumers, and therefore benefit from cheap consumption goods. Tariffs, subsidies and the like increase the costs of consumption goods, and therefore are bad. A less materialistic reason for open international trade is that it is said to make for peace, although perhaps not in the Middle East.

The foregoing arguments, including Willkie’s, may be classified as general or ideological. There are also technical arguments in support of free trade – for example, the theory that cheap imports are both anti-inflationary in themselves and anti-inflationary in their competitive pressure on domestic prices. This notion was a favorite of former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A. Volcker. The most famous technical argument is David Ricardo‘s so-called law of comparative advantage. Unhappily, there isn’t sufficient space here to discuss this “law,” except to say that it consists mostly of exceptions[1].

For the moment I merely want to register the point that each of the arguments, the ideological and the technical, depends – as does standard economics generally – on three assumptions: that full employment actually obtains here and now, that chronological time does not matter, and that all public questions are, au fond, economic questions (or, as Marx had it, that the state will wither away and need not be taken seriously).

Free trade as an ideal has had a long run on the American political stage, starting at least as early as the Boston Tea Party. What has happened recently is not inconsequential. Even as late as 1950, imports were less than 5 per cent of our GNP (exservices): currently they are running at about 16 per cent. Until 1977, American exports generally exceeded imports; I don’t have to tell you that the situation is different now. Nor do I have to read you a list of American industries that have been decimated by foreign competition. Those who say that the global economy is upon us are not far wrong. I am persuaded, however, that what they propose to do about it is indeed far wrong.

Essentially, they make two proposals. The first is the lean and mean thing, to which I will return. The second involves empanelling a committee of government officials, bankers, businessmen, economists, engineers, scientists, and the obligatory representatives of the general public (but not including Ralph Nader) to recommend research and development projects to the government, and then to pass judgment on the results of the research and propose ways of implementing the development of approved ideas. The government’s role would be crucial, because of the antitrust laws and because the research is thought likely to cost more than any corporation, regardless of its size, could afford. In addition, it is observed that the largest corporations tend to devote less and less money to research.

The scheme has both practical and theoretical flaws. The chief practical flaw is that whatever good ideas the committee might come up with would be immediately available worldwide. Just as the American television set industry quickly slipped into the Pacific sunset, so would the new wonder industries.

It is inconceivable, for instance, that giant American corporations would be excluded from the marvelous new industries thought up by the committee. Our giant corporations, however, are not really American; they are multinational. They are motivated by the self-interest of the stockholders (in the conventional theory) or of the managers (in Galbraith’s view); in either case, their devotion is neither to the nation nor to the nation’s workers.

Consequently, upon learning of the miraculous new product along with everybody else, if it is truly miraculous, the responsibility of these corporations to their stockholders or to themselves would require them to start producing it in the least expensive way. And where would they do that? Wherever in the world they found the most stimulating subsidies, the most alluring tax rates and the cheapest labor.

Wherever in the world that might be, it would not be in the United States of America, for the inescapable reason that, at least so far, the American standard of living is higher than that of any other first-rank country. The cheapest labor will not be found here unless we destroy ourselves. On the MacNeill Lehrer Newshour a few months ago, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills seemed to believe the Mexican poverty rate was only about 11 per cent (ours was 13.5 per cent two years ago and has undoubtedly risen since). She must have been thinking of some Mexico other than the one I’ve visited.

A MINOR practical flaw in the committee scheme is inherent in the very idea of creating such a group. Schumpeter counted the mature corporation’s addiction to committee decisions a prime reason for decline, and we all know the absurdity that would result if a committee tried to design an animal. Perhaps more important, we know from experience that a committee is quickly co-opted by those with the liveliest immediate interest in the outcome of its deliberations.

In the proposed body the industry and banking representatives may not be the smartest or the best informed, but they surely will have their minds concentrated on the fate of their sector of the economy, and they will certainly wield the direct and indirect power that comes with enormous wealth. In Japan, captains of industry respect the authority of even minor bureaucrats; in the United States, money talks.

Beyond this, the committee approach has a serious theoretical flaw in that it contradicts the very reasons for its formulation. These, it should be kept in mind, are (1) the decline of American industry because of foreign competition, and (2) the presumed impossibility or unacceptability of self-protection in any form.

The conventional charge against self protection is that it interferes with and distorts the natural course of trade, thus making for inefficient if not altogether wasteful use of resources. Publicists reinforce the charge with the cliché that a man knows better what to do with his money than does some bureaucrat in Washington. Yet if the charge and the cliché were valid, there would be nothing to be done about the decline of American industry. It would be natural and inexorable. Further, it would assure the “efficient” use of resources and be a necessary contribution to the wealth and happiness of mankind. Some people would no doubt be hurt by it, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

On the premises, there is no more place for a reindustrializing committee than there is for self-protection. If the committee wouldn’t interfere with the natural marketplace, what would it do? Its whole purpose is to interfere in a large and comprehensive way. The logic of the scheme is absurd. Major premise: American industry is being ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: A committee should be empaneled to interfere with the free market. What kind of logic is that?

The lean-and-mean logic is similar. Major premise: The American standard of living will be ravaged by foreign competition. Minor premise: Self-protection is unacceptable because it interferes with the free market. Conclusion: We should make corporations lean by firing people, make them mean by working the surviving employees harder for less pay, and thereby make ourselves miserable without help from anyone else.

I find it odd that standard economics, based as it is on self-interest, should find self-protection invariably reprehensible.

The New Leader

[1] This link includes references to the Law of Comparative Advantage in other Dismal Science articles

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