Thursday, June 20, 2024

Despite imperfections of big business, the better choice is to hear them out

OK. We couldn’t avoid it any longer: it’s time to talk about AMLO and … Business (in my head I say “business” with a self-important British accent like Scrooge’s childhood professor in the Muppet Christmas Carol, and I encourage you to do the same … it’s the small pleasures these days, isn’t it?).

In a much-criticized but not unexpected move, President López Obrador has ordered “business” (yes, do it again) to continue to pay workers even if their businesses are shuttered. Many have responded with also-expected animosity, with one Tamaulipas business group going so far as to announce that they won’t be paying taxes or services during the pandemic in protest, and what we have to assume is a general inability to do so since we, the public, don’t have any proof either way. They are not happy.

I won’t lie. I share much of AMLO’s animosity and suspicion toward giant businesses whose leaders and executives take home monstrous paychecks and bonuses while many of their workers struggle to get by. The same goes, for that matter, for public servants who mysteriously have enough money to buy million-dollar condos in the U.S., but I digress.

As of October 2019, only 4% of Mexicans were making over 15,400 pesos per month, with 67% making between 3,080 and 15,400, and 29% making up to 3,080 pesos. I don’t need to tell you that these are not impressive wages, especially given the cost of living and how many hours Mexicans work compared to other OECD countries.

Ask how such inequality can possibly happen if they’re such fantastic pillars of the economy, and you’ll find most business leaders whistling as they twiddle their thumbs and look around the room avoiding eye contact. Or worse, trying to insist that, ‘6,000 pesos a month is so much money to those people, you have to understand …’

So forgive me for rolling my eyes when the Business Coordinating Council says, “We’ve always made workers, their families and the country our priority” while Coparmex chief Gustavo de Hoyos follows up with, “If the government supports companies, it will actually be supporting families.”

Still, there seems to be a disconnect here. As rich as individual business leaders may be, no business can keep spending indefinitely if there’s no money coming in the other end, no matter how much the highest-paid give up their own wages. Eventually, the money will simply run out. AMLO obviously knows this, which is why I think part of his “we won’t be bailing out big businesses” rhetoric is simply that — rhetoric.

But what exactly are “big businesses” to him? Does it have to do with how much profit they generate, or perhaps how many people they employ? If Mexican airlines, quickly heading toward bankruptcy, have to close, will the president accept partial blame for all the jobs lost as a result, or will he accuse them of having been too greedy before the crisis?

It’s certainly tempting to lecture them sarcastically that they “should have had at least six months of expenses saved and not spent so much of their money on expensive lattes” as rich people have been sanctimoniously instructing the poor to do for decades, but it’s really not a good strategy for a president.

He’s made good (if not vague) promises to help the most economically vulnerable weather the coronavirus storm. But I think it’s short-sighted of AMLO to set himself up as the enemy of business.

I’m not against wealth as a concept, and I don’t think the president is, either. But I am against vast amounts of it concentrated in the hands of a few while the majority of those who create it wind up with crumbs. I’m not saying that people who come up with business ideas and have the motivation, intelligence, and yes, privilege, to create something don’t deserve to live well. Investors certainly too will want more money back than they put in — I get that. So far, so fair.

But as Michael Moore famously asked in his movie The Big Ones when he was interviewing Nike CEO Phil Knight, “How much is enough? If you are a billionaire, would it be OK just to be a half a billionaire?”

My hope for Mexico and for other countries where the seductive lure of “the free market” has created way too many economic losers during a seeming economic boom is that from this crisis we can create something better: a more truly equitable system.

How might this look? First, we all need to expect that crises happen. It’s happening now, and some crisis or other will surely happen in the future. Let’s be ready next time!

Here’s a proposal: every company must put money aside in a contingency fund, the same way they do for social security, for example. This fund would be used to pay at least a percentage of wages to workers in the event that the business couldn’t function. They must also have a “bare bones” plan for what will happen if they must cease doing business for a time that will ensure that workers keep getting paid for as long as possible; to make this easier, the government could match funds.

And though I know I’ll be accused of being a socialist (I am! It’s not an insult!), a law that ensures that no top executive or owner make more than, say, 50 or 100 times the median worker’s salary —which is surely enough, especially for those who believe that their employees make “fantastic” wages — would ensure a more equitable distribution of the fruits of overall labor.

But AMLO: as imperfect as many of these companies are, they’re part of the fabric of society and of the economy; could we, perhaps, antagonize them a little less?

At least listen to what they have to say? A new future is possible, but we’ve got no choice but to work together to get there.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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