An interesting exchange occurred this morning while I was dressing to go to work. I mentioned to the C.S.O. that, contrary to expectations founded on past behavior, my employer was "picking up the tab" for the two days of Sandy's immediate wrath. That is, since the company had formally closed its campus, employees would not be required to cover those two days out of their accrued vacation or personal time.
Beth's response was immediate: "It's the right thing to do."
I demurred. There's no defensible argument that a corporation is morally required to pay its employees for not working. At least, there's none founded on any notion of rights with which I'm familiar. So we quibbled over the "right thing" notion for a while. Finally we agreed that, while no moral nor legal obligation to do so rests on a private concern, it was nevertheless the best thing to do:
- It eases the stresses on employees who might be living paycheck-to-paycheck;
- It makes it easier for those who've suffered storm damage to concentrate on that;
- For the reasons above, it builds employee morale and loyalty;
- It exhibits a public-service ethic.
What's that you say? A public-service ethic isn't something one should expect to find in a private firm? Well, that's as may be, but go back fifty years or so and any and every company whose employees had suffered a disaster such as Sandy would have behaved exactly this way. No one would have expected or predicted anything else; everyone would have been stern in condemning a company that did otherwise.
Give that a few moments' thought while I refill my mug.
In Albert Jay Nock's landmark 1935 work Our Enemy, The State, he describes the burgeoning change in attitudes among private citizens as regards the importunings of the less fortunate:
When the Johnstown flood occurred, social power was immediately mobilized and applied with intelligence and vigour. Its abundance, measured by money alone, was so great that when everything was finally put in order, something like a million dollars remained. If such a catastrophe happened now, not only is social power perhaps too depleted for the like exercise, but the general instinct would be to let the State see to it. Not only has social power atrophied to that extent, but the disposition to exercise it in that particular direction has atrophied with it. If the State has made such matters its business, and has confiscated the social power necessary to deal with them, why, let it deal with them. We can get some kind of rough measure of this atrophy by our own disposition when approached by a beggar. Two years ago we might have been moved to give him something; today we are moved to refer him to the State's relief-agency. The State has said to society, You are either not exercising enough power to meet the emergency, or are exercising it in what I think is an incompetent way, so I shall confiscate your power and exercise it to suit myself. Hence, when a beggar asks us for a quarter, our instinct is to say that the State has already confiscated our quarter for his benefit, and he should go to the State about it.
The effect Nock describes in the above was not limited to individuals; private firms that had demonstrated a legendary degree of paternal care for their employees were similarly affected. They steadily lost all inclination to see to any interest but that of their stockholders and managements. The sorts of corporate relief activities for which companies such as IBM had been world-famous slowly dropped off, in many cases to nothing.
One of the salutary effects of American participation in World War II was the partial revival of the public-service ethic among American corporations. This was in part due to the rebirth of the sense of shared danger -- quite a lot of Americans were in the line of fire at that time -- and in part due to federal "encouragement." (Washington controlled the commerce of the nation through war contracts and necessities rationing; it could dictate terms to virtually every employer in the country with little fear of being refused.) Thus, the nation came out of the war with a somewhat restored public-service ethic, from individuals to the largest commercial firms.
Fast-forward to 1960. Though much of the New Deal was firmly cemented in place, the huge public-works, make-work, and federal relief programs that had persisted through the Great Depression had been wound down, such that persons in need were once again dependent on their neighbors, local eleemosynary institutions, and the public-service ethic felt by American employers. At that time, what natural disasters occurred were met by the sort of "social power" Nock describes above; given the resurgent commercial vitality of the nation, there was no shortage of it. But the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations unwisely undermined the ethic once more with new federal social-service interventions, particularly Johnson's "Great Society" programs. Massive new federal intrusions into charitable action restarted the deterioration in public-service attitudes that had been reanimated during the war and the succeeding years of reconstruction.
Today, except for the very largest corporations, which are massively dependent upon the good will of federal customers and regulators, the idea that a private firm should display any sense of public service or beneficence toward its employees has all but vanished. Political considerations are paramount in all corporate decisions about acts of "charity;" far more often than not, the motive is to purchase the good will of legislators and regulators.
We no longer expect private firms to act as if "we're all in this together." For that matter, cultivating that sense among one's neighbors is harder than it once was: many who will pay it lip service in good times will, when crisis is upon the neighborhood, pull into their shells without apology. The attitude that prevails today is more or less "every man for himself."
I can't condemn that attitude from any sort of principled basis. Americans live with far more fear today than since the Great Depression / New Deal years. Fear tends to encourage self-protective behavior above all other impulses. He who has never felt fear for his own physical or financial survival cannot grasp its smothering intensity.
But we fear, largely, because our overweening governments have undercut our means of defense: of ourselves, and of our neighbors. This is as true of private companies as of any individual. When the State seizes half the earnings of the nation year after year, and then puts a good part of them toward making it progressively harder to earn, what else are we to feel? When the State dilutes the national currency with progressively larger issuances of debt obligations that must be purchased with freshly printed money by the Federal Reserve Bank, how are we to look forward with confidence?
If we are turning inward, willfully building defenses against calamity that would exclude all but ourselves, yet despise ourselves for our loss of fellow-feeling with what remains of our consciences, should all the blame fall on our own shoulders? Should we not look to the governmental tapeworms that suck away the resources that once bolstered our confidence -- that once made it thinkable to include others in our circle of care, just as they once included us?
The men who steer our corporate employers respond to the same influences. They're drained by the same tapeworms, in many cases more voraciously than what we suffer as individuals. Don't think too harshly of them.