Or just another word for nowhere left to work?

Russell Baker

September 08, 1993|By Russell Baker

IF YOUR ambition is to be fired, this is a great time to be an American.

Most of the big companies -- Eastman Kodak, IBM, Procter & Gamble and lots more -- are firing as though unemployment is going to be the biggest thing since Madman Muntz brought television to the American parlor.

The boss of any large corporation that hasn't fired at least enough people to make up an army division has a lot of explaining to do to his buddies down at the CEO Club.

"What's the matter, fella? Don't you believe in the end of the American future?"

In modern mushmouth, which now passes for English throughout America, the firing trend is called "downsizing." Downsizing makes a business "lean and mean."

"Lean and mean" is not mushmouth lingo. It's sports jabber, a teen-ager dialect spoken by grown-ups who want to sound dynamic.

"Lean-and-mean types gonna leave cleat marks all over your face, man." And so forth. If they run once big, now down sized companies, those companies gonna leave cleat marks all over the famous "worldwide competition."

"Worldwide competition" is a euphemism. Means foreign companies are beating American companies by using such devices as good national educational systems, government-approved cartel arrangements, superior management skills and/or sweated labor.

To review: Downsizing makes America lean and mean against worldwide competition.

And yes, puts army-size human masses out of work, raising the question that's hardly ever asked. Why not? Maybe because it's naive.

"Never be naive, no matter how naive you are." The law is as old as the story of the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes on. In fact it was enacted by that very same emperor as soon as he put some clothes on, made retroactive and cited as justification for giving the naive kid a good caning.

Nowadays of course we are too civilized to cane, so the punishment for asking naively pertinent questions is to be dismissed as a fool whose question doesn't deserve an answer.

Enough digressing. What is the shamefully naive question? This: "Doesn't all the firing mean there'll be even fewer people with money to buy stuff from lean, mean companies, thus making hard times worse?"

I trust nobody here will think I, personally, would ask a question as stupidly naive about economics as this. However, the ruin that was California needs mention.

The ruin seems to result from the downsizing of the national war machine, which results from the end of the Cold War. Downsizing in this case was morally delightful, but not otherwise uplifting for California, which turned out to rest on a vast plate of Pentagon contracts.

It's a little awkward to mention California's need for munitions money. That's because it brings up the highly awkward question of whether Hitler didn't also do us a lot of good by forcing America to arm for World War II.

Until then the Great Depression of the 1930s seemed determined to last forever. Hitler, war and munitions contracts put us back on the track to boom times, especially California, which seemed destined to boom eternally until the eternal Cold War suddenly turned as un-eternal as everything else.

Downsizing California's defense-contract work force has obviously made California lean and mean, though not yet in the cleats-in-the-face style. Lean, yes: The out-of-work usually get lean before prolonged bad diet fattens them up.

Mean, too: The new immigrants, welcome when they were cheap labor, are a bone in California's throat now that all labor is cheap.

Now comes more ominous news for the as-yet unfired. Vice President Gore, who is reinventing government, is reportedly going to call for cutting the federal payroll by some 250,000 jobs.

Putting the ax to the payrollers sounds dandy. After the joy of the axing subsidies, what will the 250,000 latest unemployed contribute to the economy? Not to worry.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, though a threat in the immediate future to the still-employed, will create a new boom in the long run, and, as John Maynard Keynes noted, in the long run we are all dead.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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