Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Corporate Layoffs and the Occupy Movement

I personally have mixed feelings — an old-fashioned conflict of interest — about the Occupy Wall Street demonstration and the Occupy movement it has inspired. I agree entirely with the Occupy movement’s objectives of limiting corporate power so that economic life is more fair for everyone. I would hasten to add that the advantages that the largest corporations enjoy under the current regime are strangling the national and global economy. On the other hand, most of my income comes directly or indirectly from the big corporate system, including some of the giant banks. I wouldn’t mind holding on to that income stream, at least until I can get my mortgage paid off. If change comes slower, I imagine, I might adapt with less personal financial pain.

In my conundrum you can see why the Occupy movement’s time may have come. Think back to 1981, just before the White House kicked off the Reagan recession. Nearly half of U.S. adults were employed by the big corporations and their suppliers and resellers. But the Reagan-Bush years were also the era of downsizing, when corporations took the axe to whole departments and whole layers of management. And the layoffs and cutbacks have continued, especially in the financial distress that has gripped big business for the past six years. The most powerful corporations now provide the livelihood of less than one fourth of families.

This shift is especially poignant if you visit Wall Street. The financial corporations that once dominated this neighborhood (still known as the Financial District) and provided much of New York City’s income have been reduced by half in the last decade. They may still tower over Wall Street itself, but they are no longer big enough to control the politics and culture of the whole city, or even to find a use for the hundreds of mostly-empty office buildings within walking distance of Wall Street.

With fewer and fewer people benefiting from their success, the big corporations have fewer political supporters. The supporters they do have are less outspoken than before. Even if you decide to tie your lifeboat to Wall Street, you don’t want to tie it too tight. Only the most religious adherents of the corporate way, or those who are ready to retire anyway, are prepared to go down with the ship.

If your retirement is 50 years away, that is another matter entirely. Workers who are in the first half of their working lives find their lifetime financial self-interest opposed to the corporate system and especially to the subsidies and government-sponsored barriers to entry that protect the big corporations. You’ll make more money over your career if the current corrupt regime is swept away quickly. With corporations virtually in a hiring freeze over the last five years, most of the brightest minds among the under-28 contingent of workers are forced to find their way outside the system. Even without trying, they will easily overcome the old system within 20 years. But if they have decided it’s time now, how long can the old corrupt regime stand?