Missing the Economic Boat

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The Company Men is a highly relevant film about the financial meltdown of 2008, when hundreds of thousands of workers suddenly lost their jobs to downsizing and company closings. As a work of entertainment, it's overly didactic and preachy, but as a social commentary it provides many insights and offers great fodder for conversation and debate about the economy and how to fix it.

The film begins with a montage of the homes and toys of the super-rich. The camera pans through wealthy neighborhoods of elegant mansions with their gleaming kitchens, high-priced antiques, luxury cars, fancy swimming pools, and garages full of tony sports equipment. These are people who know how to enjoy their incomes. In the background we hear a voiceover of news reports about the financial meltdown, when, for example, 53,000 Citigroup workers lost their jobs in a single day.

The film highlights three mid- to high-level employees of a fictional conglomerate who lose their jobs in the blink of an eye. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is a local boy who worked his way through college to earn an MBA and a well-paying job as a sales representative. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) is the head of a division that was once his own shipbuilding company, now owned by the conglomerate. Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is a 30-year veteran of the company who started as a welder in the factory and worked his way up to management.

All three lose their jobs to downsizing. One minute they're high-fiving each other about their golf scores; the next minute they're packing their boxes and heading out the door with twelve weeks' severance pay and the address of the Outplacement Center. There they sit in cubicles much like the ones where they worked in the company, only now what they're selling is themselves as they hunt for jobs that are increasingly scarce. As the weeks wear on, they become more discouraged, resentful, and scared. As Bobby complains, "I'm 37. How can I compete against MBAs fresh out of college who are willing to work for half what I was earning?"

What a swell guy! Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could work permanently for nothing?

The men's wives also become discouraged and resentful. At first, they all appear to be snippy housewives whose lives revolve around shopping and decorating, but each reacts differently to the news of her husband's layoff. One gets busy tightening the family budget and going back to work as a nurse. Another refuses to let anyone know, insisting that her husband continue leaving the house every morning, carrying a briefcase, and not letting him return until evening. A third marriage breaks up. In many ways, losing a job is as stressful as experiencing a death, and the reactions are as profound and as varied. Strong marriages become stronger; weak ones fall apart.

Writer-director John Wells has a definite point of view, and it is decidedly not in favor of people who make money by buying and selling. Borrowing a page from Marx's attitude toward money, he sees salesmen as useless middlemen who produce nothing and use nothing; they just handle the money. By contrast, Wells presents Bobby's blue-collar brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) as the film’s true hero. Even Jack's modest home, where everyone drinks beer instead of wine and plays football in the backyard, is presented as being more fun than Bobby's fancy home.

Jack is a homebuilder by trade, and he hires people to help him. Unlike the corporate CEOs, who earn their bonuses no matter how poorly the company has performed and then fire employees to reduce costs, Jack actually underbids a job that will barely break even for him, just so he can keep his workers employed. What a swell guy! Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could work permanently for nothing? The film’s economic assumptions are hardly plausible, especially its Pollyanna ending (which I won't reveal here). And it conveniently overlooks the fact that the construction industry has taken a hard hit in the recession as well.

As I watched this film I thought about the plight of the people with which it is most concerned, the upper-middle class who in 2008 were working hard and following a path laid out for them by the preceding generation. They are people caught in the middle — they aren't important enough to have golden parachutes, like the CEOs, but they aren't poor enough to be able to maintain their lifestyles through unemployment checks, Section 8 housing, and government welfare. They don't qualify for Medicaid or food stamps, but they can't afford to pay their mortgages, make their car payments, or keep up with tuition and insurance when they lose their jobs. People who build their dreams on debt and long-term contracts just can't cut back when times get hard. They have no way to weather a storm.

The government’s intervention has created an artificial imbalance in the marketplace. It's time for government employees and union workers to start feeling the pinch as well.

Another thought that came to mind is that private businesses have borne the brunt of this recession. They are the ones making the difficult decisions to cut back or close down. A select few corporations have been bailed out by the government, but at the expense of others that are forced to contribute to their own demise through onerous taxation that funds the privileges awarded to their competitors. The government’s intervention has created an artificial imbalance in the marketplace. It's time for government employees and union workers to start feeling the pinch as well.

The Company Men makes some excellent points about how hard it is to deal with long-term unemployment. Affleck, Jones, and Cooper play their parts with a dignity, pathos, and poignancy befitting the characters they play in this film and typical of their own talented careers. But Wells is woefully underqualified to offer solutions to the economic problems we continue to face.


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