Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 15, 1999
Rising tide sinks the smallest boats
In our drive to simplify life, the world has become so complex that we rely on experts and managers to make the big decisions for us. Call them bureaucrats, technocrats or systems people, they are the western version of the Chinese mandarin trained to have an abstract rational solution to every problem.
Critics of the management system say the experts are the problem and that many disasters of the 20th century can be blamed on the folks with all the answers.
Most western corporations are now controlled by managers, not owners, who, in the words of John Ralston Saul, are "free to apply the theory of unfettered capitalism as if it were a perfectible abstraction, not a human reality."
The latest buzzword coming out of right wing tanks is "denominator management." What this really means is that if you want to boost your productivity, you have to bring down the cost of the denominator.
"The denominator," critic Armine Yalnizyan explained at a Vancouver interfaith conference, "turned out to be people, in every case." Managing, in other words, means cutting costs by employing fewer people or paying them less in order to keep and attract investors.
A couple of years ago the Jesuit Centre came out with a controversial poster which depicted Canada's wealthiest CEOs, their salaries and the number of people they had laid off. In October 1988 Paul Tellier laid off 3,000 workers, for a total of 18,000 in four years, thereby reducing the CN workforce by 50 per cent. Share values soared and Tellier was named CEO of the year by the Financial Post.
CEOs have been trying to outdo each other in the new management techniques and are rewarded with salaries as much as 150 times the average income of their employees.
The lean mean machine brings prosperity to some and redundancy to others who, according to one CEO, "aren't going anywhere and can be called back whenever the traffic goes up."
Last year the 33 top corporations in Canada cut 216,000 jobs or about 35 per cent of the labour force.Yet there is a $21 billion surplus in the EI fund. Efficiency is not about benefitting the largest number of people but is measured in returns on investment.
The biggest 200 corporations in the world have twice the economic clout of the poorest four-fifths of humanity. Their combined sales surpass the combined economics of 182 countries. That is, all countries minus the big nine.
For more than a decade we've been fed the line that "a rising tide lifts all the boats," meaning that less government and greater reliance on market forces would unleash unparalleled economic growth which would benefit all.
And indeed the GDP has expanded by almost 18 per cent since the last recession and there are more affluent Canadians today than there were a generation ago. There are also more poor Canadians than before.
Average family incomes are lower today than in 1981. For 20 years the economy has been growing but prosperity and growth have not translated into equity. Disparity has increased, both nationally and globally.
Yalnizyan comments that "you can't rely on a process that feeds on injustice and inequality and expect that - by speeding up the process - you will end up with a more just and equal society."
But the experts tell us: "if you're not on the fast track, you're left in the station washing toilets." There are a lot of questions we need to ask each other as we allow ourselves to be managed into ever greater efficiency: For what purpose, whose benefit and at what hidden cost?
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