9

An Inhuman Economic System

If someone is looking for material for a book with a title like Profiles of an Inhuman Economic System, consider what follows to be a contribution to the cause. It’s about a man I know whom I’ll call Joe. His wife told me his story.

Joe is an honest, conscientious guy who, a couple of years out of school, went to work for a very large, nationally known company. He wasn’t exactly crazy about his job, and after a while he became aware that the company was systematically extending preferment to women and minorities, while people like himself—ordinary white guys, that is—got short shrift. But by then he was vested in the retirement plan, so he kept on conscientiously doing his work.

Recently, after 28 years, he was let go with little notice and no severance. His performance was satisfactory—otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted nearly three decades. The problem evidently lay somewhere else—age and money, to be precise.

Joe is in his early 50s. The company is well aware that it can get somebody 25 years younger to do essentially the same work while costing it a great deal less in salary and health benefits. So, at an impossible age and in a dreadful job market, Joe was heartlessly canned.

His wife says that with hindsight you could see it coming for a long time. She traced what happened to her husband back to the era some years ago when the company went public and acquired stockholders. That’s when radical change set in. From there on out, she told me, the company managers had three priorities: money, money, and money. People didn’t count for much any more.

Lately, too (I’m still quoting the wife), Joe’s supervisor had begun setting standards of performance and productivity for him that others weren’t required to meet. Once again, hindsight may shed light on that: the company apparently was protecting itself against the possibility of an age discrimination lawsuit. If it found itself in court with Joe, its lawyers could say, “What do you mean, age discrimination? The problem wasn’t age it was job performance. See for yourself—it’s all right there in the personnel file.”

And so, in his 50s and with unemployment nationally pushing 8%, Joe is stranded high and dry, out of work and looking for a job. He’s getting unemployment, and his wife says she has plenty for him to do around the house. But when all the chores are done and unemployment runs out—what then? Joe has a lot of years ahead to fill.

Fortunately, his wife has a job that pays well and will keep them afloat. But if what happened to her husband happens to her, these people will be in serious trouble faster than you can say, “Food stamps.”

There’s a principle of social doctrine saying that the economy is for people, not people for the economy, but companies like this one have it the other way around. Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus speaks of situations where a firm is doing well financially but the human beings who are its “most valuable asset” are “humiliated and their dignity offended.” Rapacious and inhumane employers like Joe’s employer fit that description to a tee.

The advantages of our free market system are very real, but an incident like this one shows how people can and do get hurt. If those who benefit most from the market won’t regulate it and themselves, then—unfortunately–government must.


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C.


  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    Brilliant and sad article that writes of things as they are.

  • CDville

    The problem, i think, is that so many capitalists look at the short term cash flow rather than the long term health of the company and of the economy. I keep seeing corporations offer early retirement to experienced employees so they can hire the young and inexperienced for less. Since they are now paying one employee to work for cheap and another to not work for relatively cheap, cash flow is improved for a few years. Then they do the same thing, and they are paying two people to not work. Oops.

  • goral

    Nice article for an Obama ad. Of course the system has flaws and people get hurt. Don’t the young need jobs too? Don’t we want them to get going with their lives? Companies hire young employees not just to get more work but for new blood, fresh ideas.and to gain an edge on the competition.

    Joe has a wealth of experience, he needs to find a way to capitalize on it and not despair. The wife is doing OK..so he still has a cushion.
    The gov’t is not going to make it all better for Joe. The gov’t is the one who dictated to his employer to hire more women, minorities and other preferential ees. The gov’t saddled the company with more taxes, paperwork and regulations.
    The employer has to cut costs somewhere. Poor Joe is the victim of progressive thinking. The article now suggests that progressive thinking is the solution.

    All businesses are raising prices and cutting the largest overhead in any business operation – labor. They’re doing it because Obamacre is coming down the pike.
    Fifty one percent of Americans need a serious civics lesson, business lesson and a moral compass.

    Instead we get this shallow article about how poor Joe has nothing to live for.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-Struble/778084217 Bob Struble

    Noel. Accepting “things as they are” is not why Christians are like salt and leaven. Even a good secularist like G.B. Shaw could observe that “some men see things as they are and ask why. I see things as they never were, and ask why not?”

  • IntellectGetOne

    Beware those who bare false witness.

    Rarely does one find such one-sided bias on social issues like justice. But I find it here. You proclaim the company guilty, and somehow believe the exaggerated/expansive claims of Joe and his wife. Take for instance this line of yours:

    “the company apparently was protecting itself against the possibility of
    an age discrimination lawsuit. If it found itself in court with Joe, its
    lawyers could say, “What do you mean, age discrimination? The problem
    wasn’t age it was job performance. See for yourself—it’s all right there
    in the personnel file.”

    No court on God’s green earth would fall for something as stupid as that line. Not only do you presume Joe and his wife are legal experts, but you also presume that our court systems are full of foolish, stupid judges who will simply role-over when someone provides them the most disingenuous argument possible. Any lawyer, even a first year lawyer, would destroy that level of proof in about five minutes. Justice, if it is deserved, would be served easily and Joe would have been compensated. To think otherwise is beyond childish fantasy.

    Really, this piece is riddled with breaches of the simple commandment: “Thou shall not bear false witness.”

    I hope you will re-consider. I know neither YOU nor “Joe” nor the company. But I do know that the truth shall set you free.

  • Antony

    I agree 100% with the article, especially the last para. “money, money money” we are experiencing in India how individualism destroys Christian charity.

  • Mary Kochan

    I wondered how our readers would take to this. The responses shook out as I expected. it did seem rather contradictory for the writer to say on the one hand that there were no performance issues and then for the wife to admit that there were. Of course there’s no way for any of us to know which side is right.

    Companies do wrong by their people sometime, for sure. i have a friend who is an emergency room nurse. She has worked 8 years for one healthcare company. She was recently injured by a violent patient and the company has balked at giving her the treatment and compensation she needs. All she wants is proper treatment for her injury and pay while she recuperates and then to get back to work. After weeks of stalling, she now has to get a lawyer — something she never wanted to do.

    But the thing that struck me about this article was the passivity of the man in the story. He was unhappy with the company for years. i can’t help but wonder if he ever bothered to do anything to increase of develop his professional skills. If he was such a poor match for the company, he should have done something about it. The article implies he was stuck there because he needed the health coverage. As though there weren’t other jobs with insurance. It doesn’t really make much sense and while there are certainly a number of inhuman elements in our economic system, this example makes a poor illustration of them.

    • goral

      Companies do wrong by their people a lot of times, Mary. Sometimes it’s just the persons in particular positions that are more responsible than the company at large. Whatever the case, an employee must continue to better him/her self, and have contingency plans.
      An entitlement attitude is no way to survive and no way to grow.
      So many people realize their greatest potential only after they are
      let go from a “we’ll take care of you” job.

      God closes one door and opens another, In adverse circumstances are opportunities.
      Despairing in the face of crises may be a lack of confidence or training
      but it’s mostly a crisis of faith.

  • Mindboggled

    It is in just this type of situation that having good strong union representation would be beneficial.