Monday, July 25, 2011

"Figures on a Balance Sheet" or Things You Can See?

A week or so ago, I watched a torn-from-the-headlines Hollywood flick entitled The Company Men. Starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, and Kevin Costner, the film puts a Boston-area face on American capitalism in an era of recession. The official trailer gives you the idea of the story arc, which was obvious but ambitious. (Spoiler alert: I give away the ending in the next paragraph.)

Overall, Company Men is a heavy-handed, melodramatic, and predictable riff on corporate America. Ben Affleck's arrogant sales executive character gets downsized from his job in shipbuilding sales and eventually rediscovers honest manual labor by helping out his brother-in-law (played by Kevin Costner, who tries out the same terrible Boston accent that marred his character in Thirteen Days). Then, in the end, Affleck's humbled character gets a second chance to work in shipbuilding with his old boss, played by Tommy Lee Jones.

The hopeful ending fits uneasily with some underlying, deep, and undying trends of corporate capitalism that are condemned in the film. Among those trends, which continue today, are the avid pursuit of profit, luxury, debt, and power by corporate executive suites. If visual depictions of all this sound heavy-handed to you, well, you would be right. The Company Men explores some of the same terrain as Up in Air, but without the surprise plot twists or clever visual crafting. It's earnest but all too obvious.

Yet, however didactic the tone, the film's writers still do well to describe root problems with American corporations in an era of footloose global capital. In one forty second monologue by Tommy Lee Jones (my favorite scene) they nail what I consider to be the fundamental problem. As Jones walks with Ben Affleck through the dormant old shipyard, he points to an abandoned factory building and waxes eloquent about the past:
Two thousand men a shift, three shifts a day, six thousand men, held an honest wage in that room. Fed their kids . . . bought homes . . . made enough to send their kids to college . . . buy a second car . . . building something they could see--not just figures on a balance sheet but a ship they could see, smell, touch.
Anyone who's ever lived in a Rust Belt town full of empty old factories will feel this scene tugging at their heartstrings.

But there's a serious point being made here, too, which the writers clearly get by alluding to "figures on a balance sheet." A couple of years ago, I made a similar point in an article titled "Money or Business?" which started with the gap between the pursuit of profit and the craft of business. Essentially, I asked, should corporations pursue abstract figures on a balance sheet or the tangible goods intrinsic to the practice of their business (care for the product, for customers, for the community, all pursued virtuously)? I argued for the latter: corporations are involved in a corporate (communal) work, and should be working to pursue goods intrinsic to their businesses. In other words, good shipbuilding means attending to the excellent crafting of physical ships within the wider community, which could lead to profits as a desirable by-product, but the pursuit of profit for its own sake will corrupt the business by introducing the competition for a scarce good external to the practice of shipbuilding. By competing for profits, the corporation will be tempted to neglect its original mission of building excellent ships within its community.

Now, thanks to Jon Wells (the producer of the TV series ER) and his fellow filmmakers on The Company Men, the point is much clearer: the pursuit of a good balance sheet is not the primary pursuit of good business. Rather, a good business will first pursue the good, as manifested in something they can see, smell, or touch. And they will count profits as an added blessing.

Somewhere along the line, many corporations reversed that emphasis, putting profits before their physical business, and as a result we are all suffering. But it's never too late to return to sanity.