Tuesday, 2 February 2010

There's always a bigger fish

I was sad to read about Kraft buying Cadbury. When I was young, my dad used to go down the Off-Licence and bring us back bars of chocolate. There was always something special about Cadbury's. It was like there was chocolate, and then there was Cadbury's chocolate and Cadbury's was real chocolate.

I've been through this too many times to genuinely mourn. My childhood was twenty years ago and the things which made it special are dying. That's just what happens.

What really made me think was a line in the BBC report:
Earlier, Cadbury workers had staged protests in London calling for government support to guarantee jobs.

There are two things wrong with that. The first I'll get to, but the second is that there's nothing unusual about that.

I have a friend who believes--passionately--in a version of free-market economics. He's never read a damned thing about the theory or history, but when he talks it's enough to convince almost anyone short of Karl Marx. His idea is of hundreds of businesses all competing for the same buck. The companies are small, dynamic and cut-throat. They form and disappear like bubbles in a glass of Pepsi. They respond to changing consumer and worker tastes like salmon swimming upstream.

It's a model which means you can't get too attached to your business because you may wake up one day and realise you need to change it beyond recognition. That means it's got to be cheap and easy to set up a business. It also means someone can go from being a CEO to a stock boy and back again in a week.

There's no fear keeping people in their jobs, so if you want to keep your employees you have to keep them happy. There's plenty of other places for customers to go, so you've got to keep them happy, too.

Who loses in this model? Prices will be higher, because bulk production suddenly becomes impossible. There'll be no more chain stores and each town with have it's own set of shops, so you'll have to learn each town's shopping ecosystem individually: There's none of that comfort which comes from being able to walk into a strange town and get a cup of your favourite coffee.

The big losers are the shareholders and the CEO's. Those guys who don't do any real work and get all the rewards. Those guys who decide to pay their workers the bare legal minimum and fire them for independent thinking. Everybody, everybody, will have to work for a living.

That's the way my friend talks about it, anyway.

The trouble we have with the system at the moment is that the power is in the hands of those shareholders and CEO's. Those people who never have to look their workers in the face and never have to watch the consequences of their actions, much less live through them.

Western history is a bloody, gruesome place. A lot of that blood and gore was splattered in attempts to give people some power in their lives. Free the serfs. Free the slaves. Establish a parliament accountable to its people. Give every man and woman--regardless of income--a vote. Now look what we've done with our hard-worn inheritance... The shareholders decide to sell, and thousands of peoples' lives are destroyed. Jobs are scraps flicked off the CEO's tables to keep their precious machines oiled. They'll flick them somewhere else, if they prefer. And there's nothing anyone can do to stop them.

I just think it's sad.

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