For their book, The Big Boys, Ralph Nader and William Taylor lined up interviews with U.S. corporate CEOs to get a sense of the mid 1980s business world as viewed from that lofty perch. In a way, little has changed since. The basic motivation remains, profit. But the presence of greed has undergone what could under-statedly be called an amplification. Manufacturing an actual non-sweat-shop product was still an on-going operation in the U.S. You could buy U.S.-made shoes, tools, autos, dishwashers, VCRs… Steel Plants were still forging those ol’ I-beams, but not for long. The more lucrative short cuts of the casino-financial world had not yet fully kicked in, where profit is generated by manipulating or betting on market fluctuations.
Corporate raiders were the rage in this time-frame, not quite as damaging or sexy but still, you could turn a few million and devastate a community of workers. Take out huge loans to buy a company, sell off select assets, downsize workers, shifting the company’s primary focus to servicing its debt. Very lucrative fees involved. A family-owned lumber company in the Northwest which prided itself on its labor relations and ecological sensitivity was taken over. The tried and true pattern soon brought the company to cutting old growth forest and laying off workers. As expectations for profits increase for one class, damage to workers and other “losers” naturally must make up the difference.
Big Boys does a series of nine portraits of movers and shakers, based on interviews although three CEOs refused interview requests. The elusive Roger Smith, he of the Michael Moore film Roger and Me, and two others had to be sketched from comments in the media, their public speeches and other sources. Moore’s film pointed out that GM moved profitable(!) plants to Mexico, leaving Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown, a near ghost town. Greed is camouflaged with a euphemism – Globalization. To illustrate the corporate, top-down mentality, the book describes General Motors, under Smith, using its clout to locate a new plant, with its massive parking lot, in the middle of an old established working class Detroit neighborhood. Other options were clearly available but the air up in the GM boardroom was obviously too rarefied for such considerations. Smith’s fleet emphasis was profits of course but on flash and style rather than reliability and safety. Nader credits Smith with delaying the introduction of the airbag by years through his dogged and obstinate opposition. The cost in lives was real and substantial but neither Smith nor GM was ever held accountable. As with the tobacco companies, literally murderous policies face, at worst, monetary settlements.
What GM did for Detroit, David Roderick of U.S. Steel, did for Chicago and Pittsburgh. Facing “reality”, as he saw it, Roderick made decisions that devastated neighborhoods with job lay-offs and plant closings, even demolishing rather than sell plants to workers who tried to organize to that end. This experiment was not to be allowed. Apparently tycoons will instinctively oppose the rise of any non-hierarchal institution, even if it hurts profits. No surprise really. Their political bed-fellows in D.C. fear the same in third world nations and will rush to crush any serious questioning of the “free market”.
Now you can imagine when we get to Dow Chemical’s Paul Oreffice that there’s going to be some impressive practice of the fine art of denial. Again, comparing the tobacco companies, when profits are threatened by reality reality is going out the door. In its place is summoned well-paid “experts” who can attest to this or that mirage in long-winded pseudo-scientific verbiage – just think Global Climate change debate on Faux News. The remaining personalities in this book are all very interesting but they none of them stray more than centimeters from the notion that Milton Friedman’s economic theories are figurative tablets of self-evident God-incised wisdom. Sort of mirror-images of Soviet Union officials at the same time in history maintaining the infallibility of Karl Marx… or was it Mother Russia? Somebody’s going to have to take the Question Authority bumper sticker seriously here and steer us away from Lemming Cliff, and soon. Occupy and Roll!