Belt Your Old Man in the Mouth

The whole “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement–and some comments from family who are closer to the event than I–have reminded me of something I heard a while back and have meant to post but haven’t.  Hopefully timing will be everything and some will find this strange story helpful.

My old family business marketed some of its products through a network of specialised distributors.  One of the more interesting stores was our distributor for the Washington, DC, area.  The branch manager was quite a character and made doing business interesting, to say the least.  One day he related a story about one of his employees who complained about the fact that the family who owned the business, for some mysterious reason, always ended up taking what he felt was a “disproportionate” share of the revenue and exercising the privileges of ownership every now and then.  The complaints were endless; finally, the branch manager stopped the whining long enough to make a point.

“You know what you ought to do about all this?” the branch manager asked.

“What?” the employee replied.

“Go home and belt your old man in the mouth,” the branch manager shot back.  That was a conversation stopper; the employee was almost speechless.  The branch manager went on to explain the strange rationale behind his idea.  The basic problem was that the guy’s father hadn’t started a business or had some other kind of successful career, which forced his son to have to work in a place where grease and outdoor work were the order of the day.  The guy needed to quit blaming the owning family and put the liability where it “needed to be.”  The suggestion was obviously absurd (well, hopefully obvious) but the point was made.

I never figured out the animus people who work in a family owned business (generally, I thought, by choice) sometimes develop towards the family.  One of the more memorable moments in my negotiations with the trade union was the committee chairman’s remark that the one event that got him into trade unionism was when he worked at another family business and the ownership had the temerity to hire a relative.  He thought that was unfair and it inspired him to join and support the union, which basically takes away both employment at will and the employer’s right to promote in the sequence they see fit.  Family businesses can rise and fall on the relatives they hire, but to say it’s unfair (it is a family business, after all) is a stretch.

Make no mistake about it: our economy and financial system has many faults.  It allocates credit badly; it’s too much of a mandarinate to allow people of merit (such as dearly departed Steve Jobs) to rise to the top the way they used to; the regulatory system is too cumbersome and expensive; the tax code is too complex and contradictory for most taxpayers (to say nothing of the IRS) to know what it means.  But those who are attempting to occupy Wall Street won’t touch any of these problems.  Their idea is ultimately to redistribute wealth, which will supposedly make everyone happy.  Ultimately the underlying assumption is that everything that is wrong with our economy is someone else’s fault, like the underlying assumption of the griping employee near Washington (esprit de corps?)

But there are two sides to this issue.  Those who are on the “wrong end” of the economic system, before they starting pinning the blame, need to ask themselves a question: what can I do to make things better for myself while waiting for the system to figure it out?  Are my wasteful ways just feeding the people I hate?  Can I change the management of my own assets to make them go further?  Can I try to get off of credit, which lines the pockets of those at the top faster than anything else?  Can I change my work habits or even what I can do to broaden my income generating possibilities?    That process is a lot easier when we have churches which encourage their members to fill the God-shaped void in their lives with the Son rather than stuff, but I guess that’s one reason why those who profit off of profligacy don’t like churches like that any more.

There’s no evidence in history that purely collectivistic solutions lead anywhere but either a) universal poverty or b) the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the “vanguard” of the poor.  And it’s interesting to note that many of the woes of our economic system are created by the condition of our political one, where’s it’s really easy to basically bribe your way to the top.

It’s easy to think that protest movements such as this one will make a difference, but the difference they make may not be the one they think it will.  It may only transfer ownership of the society from one small group to another, while those who blamed one group of people merely shift their disdain to the new masters without thinking how they got there.  It’s a recipe for failure, and it makes no more sense than for those in the streets to go home and belt their old man (if they can find him) in the mouth.

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