In Middlemarch, Edward Casaubon spends his life searching for the Key to all Mythologies. An equally great work of literature, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, concerns the quest for the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
Key? Meaning? Don’t make me laugh.
Take the stock market. No, really. I mean it. Help yourself.
The market or the packing crate?
I grew up in a middle-class American family. (I auditioned for richer and European-based families but got turned down.) In the 1950s, rich people had portfolios, middle-class people had pensions, and poor people had poverty until they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. No one could find the bootstraps, so hardly anyone made it out of poverty.
Then companies started cutting back on pensions, and for years now working people have been told that if we don’t want to spend our sunset years in a packing crate, we’d better get into the market.
Of course this has nothing to do with the fact that Wall Street loves investors who don’t know what the hell what they’re doing. No! That’s just a crazy coincidence!
I try to do the right thing
So in the 1990s, I began to consider investing. I’m a freelance technical writer, i.e., “not rich.” To be able to lend anything to Wall Street, I needed to earn more. But Alan Greenspan said that if I pressed for higher wages, I’d create “inflationary tensions.” This was also happening when I tried to squeeze into my size-6 jeans.
The market thrives, Mr. Greenspan explained, when there are so many people out of work that employees are too worried about losing their jobs to ask for more money. The market wants some people jobless and the rest of us scared.
I didn’t want to give my money to an institution like that, but I wasn’t getting any younger and the packing crate loomed. So I drove an old car, wore cheap clothes, etc., and put the money I saved into the stock market.
And in 2000, when a friend at Hewlett-Packard called and urged me to join the company, I agreed, though I prefer freelance work to being an employee. It was the responsible thing to do.
A CEO does the wrong thing
Six months after joining HP, I got a glowing performance review. Okay, you couldn’t see it in the dark, but phrases like “excellent editor” and “self-directed” were bandied about.
Three months later, I lost the job I’d been begged to take from a company that, in the past, had never done lay-offs. It wasn’t personal. In 2001, under then-CEO Carly Fiorina, HP laid off more than 30,000 people.
Meanwhile, Fiorina’s pay rose by 231%. No, that’s not a typo. That was her reward for changing the admired HP Way of founders Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard to “my way and the highway.”
In 2002, the U.S. chief executives who got the biggest pay raises were the ones who did the best job of laying off people, cutting pensions, and moving operations offshore to avoid U.S. taxes.
And now back to my story
Though chastened to learn that I wasn’t indispensable, I wasn’t worried. Several HP managers called to say that they wanted to hire me back as a contractor.
And then they started getting laid off.
It took me 3 ½ years to get another job. (I applied for hundreds.) Meanwhile, the stock market fell and took my savings with it. Many people who’d given their lives to Hewlett-Packard lost everything. They had a lot to say last year when Fiorina ran for the U.S. Senate.
But if I hadn’t joined HP, if I’d stayed freelance, I would probably have been out of work anyway, without the severance package and the unemployment benefit that kept me afloat for the first year.
A few dollars but no sense
So I lost my job but was still comparatively lucky. And if you’re a CEO who shafts both the U.S. government and your employees, you’ll earn big bucks.
And if you’ve got money in the stock market – and once again, I do – you’ll want the market to go up, which means that a lot of people have to be jobless.
The part of me that wants a better deal for people less fortunate than I am is in conflict with the part of me that wants to stay fortunate, or at least to avoid the packing crate.
If any of that makes sense, if there’s any key or meaning, then I can still fit into those size-6 jeans.
*sits sadly contemplating a pair of torn-at-the-seams jeans*Illustrations: “How the state of poverty is agreeable”: Diogenes in his barrel and Crates of Thebes who gives up wealth for virtue, from The Book of moralities of Jacques Legrand; Wall Street postcard; pigs; Big 4 hits — all in the public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.