Posts Tagged capitalism

Private risk for public good

Convent StationIt may be a train station in New Jersey, but Convent Station is a nice place to be.

Situated along a relatively quiet stretch of track and a bike path in Madison, the building itself looks like something plucked from a Lionel catalog.

Yet this picturesque station serves nothing but the College of St. Elizabeth and, perhaps, a few guests from the nearby Madison Hotel. There’s another station about 2 miles away, built on a viaduct that runs through the center of town.

Today’s commuter rail planners would probably lay a concrete pad, plant some ticket machines, and call the job done. Luckily, the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad had greater ambitions.

Called simply the “Lackawanna” by train buffs, this coal-hauling line had one of the most impressive physical plants of any railroad in history. It pioneered the use of steel-reinforced concrete, which it used for everything from grandiose stations and bridges to humble signal towers.

It would have been cheaper to build a smaller, less substantial station for this somewhat unimportant location, just as it would have been cheaper not to span a valley at Nicholson, Pennsylvania with a massive concrete viaduct, or create an earthen berm to minimize the gradient.

NJ Transit commuter train leaving Convent Station.Yet the Lackawanna did all of these things. Even though the company no longer exists, its greatness is still evident in the Tunkhannock Viaduct, (currently unused) “Lackawanna Cutoff,” and the simpler dignity of Convent Station.

This mentality probably cut into the Lackawanna’s profits, but it made the trains run better, and impressed the public.

The idea of a private company spending more money than necessary just to, essentially, show off is an alien idea today, but it has great utility.

Today’s U.S. passenger trains are run by public agencies, which get their funding from taxpayers and are thus caught up in the toxic debate over government spending.

Yet it’s apparent, from the hope-tinged-cynicism surrounding President Obama’s intermittent support for high-speed rail, that people think this is important. It’s hard not to look at the systems of countries like France, Japan, and China and not feel like the U.S. should catch up.

However, those systems were created by the same mentality that drove the leaders of the Lackawanna: a singular focus on building the best railroad, period.

It also demands a level of corporate citizenship that today’s ultra-capitalistic cabals utterly lack.

At the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway–the world’s first–there was a banner that read “Private Risk For Public Good.”

We’ve all heard the line that corporations are only responsible to their shareholders. Good thing no one told the builders of Convent Station.

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All work and no pay

“Millennials” have a lot to answer for.

We don’t buy cars, and we don’t buy houses. All we need to do is refrain from having 2.5 children, and we’ll have destroyed the American Dream.

Analysts often attribute my generation’s spending habits to some form of contrary thinking, but there’s a simpler explanation: we have no money.

A recent article in The New York Times highlights the problem of unpaid internships, which have replaced many entry-level jobs, leaving young people with no way to enter the working world.

Some college graduates spend the rest of their twenties in a cycle of internships, with no ability to advance to real jobs and, of course, no money to show for it.

Employers seem to think that they can run businesses without employees or, at least, without paying them.

In addition to replacing entry-level jobs with internships, they’ve turned increasingly to freelance or temp workers for jobs even the most desperate person won’t do for free.

Since these people aren’t technically employees, a company doesn’t have to offer them benefits, or pay its share of certain taxes–like Social Security–that are regularly deducted from employee paychecks.

Then there was the tantrum some companies threw when the Affordable Care Act mandated that they provide health insurance for all full-time employees. They delayed the employer mandate, then threatened to eliminate full-time positions just to get out of the requirement.

Unpaid internships, the cutting of full-time positions, and oppressively-low minimum wages may be good for business, but they’re not good for society.

People are quick to judge someone who borrows too much, or makes an extravagant purchase they really can’t afford. Maybe we should do the same with businesses.

A business that makes money while keeping its workers poor is operating on as false a pretense as a janitor who buys a new Mercedes.

The latter would be judged irresponsible, so why shouldn’t McDonalds’ be criticized for claiming massive profits while refusing to pay its employees a living wage?

That probably isn’t going to happen It’s always easier to blame the individual than the organization, especially when the organization is judged according to different standards.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is in the news because of the comical list of companies that appear to be worth less than WhatsApp.

Nobody seems to have heard of WhatsApp, yet it’s worth more than some of the tech companies that produce the devices needed to use it, as well as Harley-Davidson, News Corp, and others.

Yet, like Facebook itself, WhatsApp doesn’t produce anything. It’s just an app.

It seems that actually making goods or providing services is bad for business, let alone taking care of employees.

And how can employees stand a chance when money is flowing to businesses that don’t even need to pay for factories or stores to operate?

Karl Marx said the only way for workers to secure their rights was to gain control of the means of production, but when nothing tangible is produced, what is there to take control of?

The economy is becoming increasingly ethereal; the rise of the Internet has made eliminating expenses the main priority of businesses, not being good at what they do, or playing a responsible role in society.

The fundamental purpose of a business is to make money, but when businesses make that their exclusive purpose, everybody loses.

The snide criticism of the “Millennial” lifestyle will probably turn to panic is this generation reaches middle age, and is still getting other people’s coffee.

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Is Chrysler still “Imported from Detroit?”

2015 Chrysler 200SIt’s funny what advertising can do when it’s not superficial.

Three years ago, Chrysler launched a Superbowl ad titled “Imported From Detroit,” emphasizing the obvious parallels between the carmaker and the city.

While most Superbowl ads feature animals and hijinks, this one was almost inspiring, even if the car it was meant to sell–the 2011 Chrysler 200–was pretty terrible.

For a moment, it seemed like corporate America could sympathize with the rest of America, instead of just finding ways to avoid paying taxes.

However, in the car industry, things change quickly.

Chrysler has established a modicum of stability thanks to its merger with Fiat, revamping its lineup and even producing daring new models like the Dodge Dart and Jeep Cherokee.

Earlier this week, Chrysler unveiled the 2015 200 at the North American International Auto Show in–you guessed it–Detroit.

From Eminem’s purposeful stare in that 2011 ad, you’d think this would be a fulfilling moment, a sign that a city and a car company are climbing out of the pit of doom, together.

In reality, it was just another car unveiling. Journalists were impressed by the new 200’s sleek European styling and high-tech powertrain, but it’s a car divorced from its surroundings.

Detroit, on the other hand, is worse than ever. The city declared bankruptcy last year, and now everything from its art collection to its workers’ pensions seems to be up for grabs.

I wouldn’t want to take a drive through Detroit in the 2015 Chrysler 200. I’d be afraid of getting car-jacked.

Of course, the solidarity depicted in Chrysler’s 2011 Superbowl ad was just an illusion; all advertisement is illusion. Still, it’s not easy to watch corporate fortunes rebound faster than civic fortunes.

Chrysler still has a long way to go to secure its future, but only its investors will be unhappy if progress doesn’t continue.

Corporations can (and do) fluctuate. Cities can’t afford to.

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Christmas truce: Part II

It seems like it would be better to begin the holiday season in good spirits, and to know when to end it. That’s why I’m proposing a sort of amnesty period once all the gift giving is done.

Today, I exploited the narrow window before a bad snowstorm to run a few errands, like any other Wednesday. However, since this was the day after Christmas, it was oddly sickening. After a month of crowded stores and endless commercials it just seemed like too much, and I don’t even celebrate Christmas.

I’m sure the people who work in retail that had to get up this morning and wait on customers returning the gifts their relatives had frantically bought weeks (or days) earlier feel the same way.

We live in a commercial society, there’s no denying that, so piling an extra helping of buying on top of our normal consumerist activities is like chasing a keg stand with a martini.

There’s nothing wrong with needing stuff, or wanting to give it to show affection, but after such a long slog maybe it would be nice to take a break. That’s why I’m proposing that Christmas and December 26 be a shopping holiday, where the stores are closed and we can focus on using our possessions instead of buying more.

This idea definitely belongs in the “it’s a nice thought, but it’ll never happen” category, but it’s nice to dream. Wouldn’t it be relaxing to have two consumption-free days, a counterpart to Thanksgiving and Black Friday? Balance is important.

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