Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Last Truck

The Last Truck is an HBO documentary about the closing of the GM plant in Moraine Ohio. Like many of HBO’s recent documentaries this one is presented almost exclusively in the words of the people affected. Sometimes this approach works, and sometimes it doesn’t. This is one of the times where it worked.

The film covers the last few months of the plant as the closing date gets closer and closer. There is no struggle here. The end is a foregone conclusion and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The title of the show comes from the last SUV to come off the line on the last day. As each person performed his or her task for the last time, they followed the truck down the line until, when it was completed, there were 15 or 20 people assembled and taking pictures.

It was a sad show. Many of the people focused on had essentially worked at the GM plant their entire working careers. Most had developed a knowledge base and skill set that really wasn’t easily transferred. Many had believed they would ultimately retire from the same job.

When the plant closed 2700 GM jobs disappeared and probably three to four times that many in the general area that either did business with the plant or catered to the workers from the plant.

So what’s the bottom line here? It’s not the first major factory to close and it probably won’t be the last. I remember the Ford assembly plant in Mahwah N.J. that closed in the mid-seventies. It had always been a major landmark on trips to the parks in southern New York and then one day it was just gone.

So who’s the villain here? There is none really. This is just how a Capitalist economy operates. You have to prune the unsuccessful branches. Unfortunately, often that means people get hurt.

According to the Right Wing numb nuts, if we would only deregulate and give Free Enterprise free rein, those kind hearted Capitalists would take care of everyone by letting prosperity trickle down to the riff raff.

Yet, according to those same numb nuts, if the government introduces a public health care option, those hard hearted Capitalists will dump health care for their employees and force the public option into over subscription.

So which is it? Well, actually it’s both.

Henry Ford said something to the effect that the role of the industrialist is to make the best product possible, at the lowest cost possible while paying the highest wages possible. However what Henry glosses over is that first and foremost a company needs to be profitable because, if it’s not profitable, it goes out of business and everyone loses.

Making a profit is good and the workers that produce that profit deserve to be compensated fairly. When greed takes over and those in control use their position of authority to carve out an unreasonable share at the expense of others, that’s when things start to go sour. The problem of course is defining things like “fairly” and “reasonable.”

Clearly the major executives of a corporation, the individuals responsible for its health and viability, deserve to be paid more than an assembly line worker. Similarly, if things go unusually well, they are entitled to a larger share of the windfall through bonuses. The question is how much more?

In my opinion the degree of income inequality that exists in the United States today is a serious issue and a serious problem. Conservatives disagree and argue that the disappearance of the middle class is more statistical than real. The Conservatives, as usual, have their heads up their asses; 71% of Economists believe that income in the U.S. should be more equal and 81% believe that income redistribution is a legitimate roll of government. Yes Virginia, they’re talking about Socialism.

The numbers don’t lie. In 1967 the 95th percentile in median household income was $88,000. The 20th percentile of household income was $14,000 and the median, 50th percentile, was $33,000.

In 2003 the 95th percentile in median household income had increased to $154,000, the 20th percentile had increased to $18,000 and the median had increased to $43,000. That’s an increase of 73%, 28% and 29% respectively and things have gotten much worse since then.

Granted median household income can be misleading because some households may have multiple wage earners but still I think there is a clear indication here that something unhealthy is occurring.

A review of salaries indicates the same sort of thing. As of 2005, the average salary in the U.S. was $42,000. So how much should a CEO make?

In 1970 the average CEO made $700,000, this was 25 times the average production worker. By the year 2000 the average CEO salary had jumped to $2.2 million or 90 times the average production worker. If you toss in stock options, bonuses and other benefits, the average CEO makes about 500 times what the average production worker makes.

You will excuse me, but that is utterly ridiculous.

A Teacher makes around $60,000, an Engineer $72,000, an auto mechanic $37,000 and a doctor $132,000. The CEO of a successful company should probably make more than all of these but should he really be making almost 40 times what the average Teacher is making in salary alone before factoring in all the other goodies? My wife is a teacher and the only bonus she gets is getting to work into the night on lesson plans.

The dumb part about it is the yahoos that are yelling the loudest about “Socialism” are the ones that would benefit from it the most. I doubt anything could have helped those folks at the GM plant but the rapidly increasing disparity between what the top makes and what everyone else makes is an issue that needs to be addressed.

I really don’t care if you have a massive house, a sports cars and a BMW or two in the garage, a yacht and can vacation first class anywhere you damn well please. If you are making the right decisions, turning a profit and keeping thousands of workers employed, you probably deserve it. But, you don’t need a half dozen houses and a garage full of cars and, if you screw up, don’t expect a bonus while plants are closing and folks are losing their jobs.

The greed has to be reined in and if the Board of Directors or the Stock Holders won’t do it, then I say it’s perfectly ok for the government to step in and do a little income redistribution. If that’s “Socialism,” then so be it.

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