“Bien sûr l’argent n’a pas d’odeur. Mais pas d’odeur vous monte au nez” – Jacques Brel
After sixteen years hosting The Daily Show, Jon Stewart’s parting shot channels the non-stop recorded Amtrak station warning, “If you see something, say something” but with a “Stewartian” comic nod to hypocrisy and intent to mislead. While Amtrak is focused on preventing outright larceny, violence and terrorism, The Daily Show employs humor to highlight the hijacking of America’s politics and democracy. In both cases, the pungent urgency of “now and how” forecasts an unsavory sociopolitical past fast becoming prologue unless smelling, seeing and saying result in practical showcasing by doing.
“If you smell something, say something” takes on even greater relevance emanating from the recent Security & Exchange Commission (SEC) rule to require over 3,500 large, publicly traded companies to include the ratio of CEO compensation against employee median wages in financial statements. With structural inequality stalking America (CEOs have jumped from making 20 times as much their employees in 1965 and 30 times in 1980 to earning 300 times as much in 2013), the SEC goal is to empower shareholders to measure pay scale differentials and decide who’s worth how much and why.
Following the 2008 financial crash and ensuing Great Recession, the argument for maintaining massively out of proportion executive salaries for publicly bailed-out banks, insurance companies and other failed risk merchants was that in a “free market,” high-priced talent was almost inelastic meaning it could place a maker-taker anywhere. This “semi-bluff” in Wall Street poker parlance was never called until now by regulators due in part to scorched earth resistance by CEO and boardroom beneficiaries but mostly by accompanying retinues of compensation high priests whose advice premium is measured as a percentage of the overall haul.
Think Jerry Maguire negotiating on behalf of professional superstar athletes. Previous and ongoing paltry public attempts to resolve this “prisoner’s dilemma” hew closely to actor Peter O’Toole’s self-fulfilling value proposition in the 1972 film, “The Ruling Class,” when he says he believes he is God because “When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.”
In full 2016 presidential campaign theater context, the SEC ruling represents an important first step away from regulatory and peer review sanctioned income inequalities and towards a slightly more integrated, “Solidarity Economy.” When shareholders are allowed to take a more in-depth look at how their companies function, the decision becomes easier to understand whether “it takes a village” or somebody really did “build it all themselves.” America is learning painfully in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and other unequal places that barrios or neighborhoods, villages, suburbs, cities and regions require more comprehensive and transparent forms of sustaining socio-nutritional investment including equal access to enabling infrastructure to irrigate communities, stabilize and regenerate economies, and combat the choking, poisonous weeds and walls of embedded structural racism.
Money, it turns out, can either be the root of all evil or the seeds of emerging prosperity with “rising up” the spiritual and practical antithesis of “trickle down.” Capital infusions without solidarity culture transfusions impede the human local living economic ecosystem to grow into something tangibly more than just the sum of under-utilized, under-nourished, disenfranchised and segregated parts.
Still mired in lobbying machinations to circumvent instead of learning lessons from the 2008 Great Recession, the U.S. financial sector has a long way to go before SEC rulings such as this one can positively impact the GINI index which measures inequality on a global scale. In the eyes of relatively paycheck-liberated shareholders, board members and corporate executives, America’s quarterly earnings reports “trump” all other metrics including the one whether an economy wholly dependent on individual consumption for 75% of its GNP is running out of both debt and equity qualified consumers. Think of this as predatory capitalism’s microeconomics version of first artificially fattening families and communities to better “eat one’s young.”
On one level, acknowledging a company’s entire pay scale spectrum from highest to lowest restarts missing in action, once upon a time solidarity formulas based on America’s founding principles. Cutting closer to the bone, pay scale transparency can begin to resolve growing ethical and societal disconnects between the legal status of rent seeking companies benefitting from “corporate personhood” while misclassifying, demeaning and commoditizing “separate but deeply unequal” persons within the workforces they hire.
Think Amazon’s “purposeful Darwinism” where Jeff Bezos’ 2015 metrics-driven ecommerce labor practices not only echo but surpass Frederick Winslow Taylor’s second industrial revolution (1880 – 1910) data cards in efficiency and cruelty. Both Bezos and Taylor adherents acclaim synergy and innovation while producing alarming levels of personnel burnout, medical injuries and turnover. Purposeful survival of the fittest doesn’t leave much room for those deemed less fit to produce if not consume and that’s the rub.
Mr. Stewart’s warning appears prescient in the subsequent Natasha Singer NYT piece, Twisting Words to Make ‘Sharing’ Apps Seem Selfless. Smelling out deliberately mixed “sharing economy” metaphors indicts the latest generation of corporate “hidden persuaders” for hire whose ruse and misuse of language and juxtaposed visual content confuses to misrepresent, divides to conquer and triangulates to entrap and repress. Almost concurrently, NY Times reporter, Anahad O’Connor, called out Coca-Cola’s “Global Energy Balance Network” which, like Climate Change debate deniers, prefers its sponsored researchers muddling causes and effects to favor “bottom-liners.” Jon Stewart could make this sound and look funny, but it’s really a slowly unwinding tragedy in infinite acts already playing at theaters near everyone.
On a macroeconomics level, misbranding the “sharing economy’s technology-enabled transactions as if they were altruistic or community endeavors” is not limited to the dark arts of marketplace consumerism. In progressive politics this strategy is known as another “What’s the matter with Kansas?” moment describing when anti-elitist conservatives allowed themselves to be manipulated by cultural and emotional symbols and then voted against their own economic self-interests. Think of this as the ideals behind the French Revolution morphing into the reign of Emperor Napoleon. Disenfranchisement of the masses is not new – today’s growing “gig economy” adherents or freelancers represent those who choose not to work on Wal-Mart and Bezos-like plantations.
Double standards are rampant and omnipresent. Rapid, constant technology developments combined with branding innovations on new media platforms produce faux commercial “app-altruism” and political “app-patriotism” users and abusers. Social media’s dark side undergirds the symptoms of a greater structural inequality disease that intentionally divides Americans into pigeonholed consumer nodes and then conspires to keep them there. To escape such digital economy imposed serfdom, perhaps the only way individual U.S. consumer-citizens can attain equal consideration under the law may be as “corporate persons” meaning everyone in America needs to incorporate personally (e.g. the motor-voter version of www.llc.com). If you can’t beat them, join them.
Equalizing the “sharing economy” risk profile between owners, consumers and workers avoids the kind of deeply-held democratic discontent that still reverberates following the 2008 Wall Street bailout where insane profits were privatized while inane losses were socialized and America’s paycheck-dependent classes lost $1 trillion of personal assets in the process. The publication, In These Times, reveals that “migrant workers in North America deploying hybrid strategies are increasingly finding that strikes and protests are earning them concessions” leading to a logical conclusion that both organized and alternative labor communities should “crowdfund” local and national labor strikes aided, perhaps, via an intellectual fusion between www.locavesting.com and www.coworker.org? If elites impose their standards, own the fine print and rent the inner sanctums, then “seizing the microphones,” storming the gates, and swarming en masse are what’s left for everyone else. There’s surely an app for that.
Socially distorting apps aside, it doesn’t have to be like this. Common ground against rent-seeking corporatists can be found by sharing integrated worker and consumer experiences. Neither are predestined to confront and compete. Collaborating workers and consumers equally vested in the same cooperative enterprise can exchange infertile false choices for fecund self-determination and greater inter-cooperation. Transparently awarded and grounded local equity rebuilds solidarity-infused living and humanizing economies proving workplace ownership is the original and ineluctable American system condition. One worker, one vote workplace democracy with freedom by design to choose and engage has proven instrumental to sustain the markets that matter.
Beyond smelling, seeing and saying, let’s do something.
Thank you, Jon.