issue 246 - August 1993
The business pages are larded with language whose meaning is obscure and often
misleading. Doug Smith explores the jargon of the corporate world.
Level playing field
The argument for a 'level playing field' sounds like an argument for simple justice. International trade is a game played on a sports field. If the field slopes in one direction, one team has an unfair advantage. The field is thought to be tilted, for example, by a state that provides a subsidy to an industry, allowing it to reduce the price of its exports. Since states can't change ends every quarter the solution is to do away with these subsidies.
'Subsidies' are very broadly defined to include things like regional development programmes, generous unemployment insurance benefits and even publicly-funded health care. Trading partners can argue that because these benefits are provided by the state, employers receive a hidden subsidy. To level the field these programmes must be bulldozed.
During the 1980s advances in telecommunications coupled with extensive deregulation created a seamless international web through which money flows at the touch of a computer key. This high-tech global finance system allows investors instant access to the best investments. An unregulated marketplace allows each nation to develop its competitive advantage and provides the Third World with the investment it needs to develop.
By some estimates nearly a trillion dollars now changes hands every day on the foreign-exchange markets. The hands remain the same but they control more and more of the world's resources. The globalized market is highly volatile; national governments have lost much of their ability to control it. Unable to meet social demands they become prey to disorder as people look to their ethnic, religious or regional group for the protection the state once provided. In this sense globalized money markets contribute more to global fracturing than to integration.
In the weight-conscious West employers speak of shedding well-paid unionized jobs the way dieters speak of losing unwanted pounds. By 'downsizing' (making production 'leaner' and 'more efficient') companies are supposed to be getting smarter. They use the latest technologies to keep their inventory as low as possible and increasingly depend on outside suppliers. Sometimes this is referred to as a 'creative web of corporations'.
Downsizing is simply another word for capitalism's drive to reduce labour costs. Computer inventories make worker layoffs and recalls more frequent. Companies now recall people on a temporary basis rather than lay them off on a temporary basis. Whether in Singapore or Silicon Valley, the web is repressive and low-paying, not creative. 'Downsizing' is an admission that economic growth and high unemployment can exist at the same time.
Total quality management
This is a management approach championed by Western business consultants who see it is as the secret behind Japan's economic success - a shift away from scientific management ('Taylorism') which treated workers as mere automatons. Under TQM workers are treated as partners who are committed to the firm's quality. They are promised more autonomy and more variety in their work.
TQM and the variety of other names that it parades under - such as 'Quality of Working Life' - is designed not to enhance workplace democracy but to increase productivity and erode or eliminate unions. According to Japanese trade unionist Tsuzuku Ken, TQM has helped to pit workers against one another and ostracize dissidents. At Toshiba, he says: 'Workers are encouraged to inform against each other, and thus the entire workforce succumbs to the despotic rule of managerial authority.'
Structural adjustment programmes
Commonly called 'SAPs', these programmes imply working together with Third World countries to create economic structures which will help them regain control over their own communities. There may be 'structural' problems with their national economies now, but once they are 'adjusted' things will be a lot better.
Structural adjustment is neo-colonial rule imposed by international banks on behalf of Western and Japanese corporations. The plans demand reduced government services, lower taxes on high income earners, privatization of state-owned industries, increased agricultural exports and lower tariffs on imports. International Money Fund loans are withheld if a country does not accept the terms of these plans.
The movement to reduce government regulation hit full stride under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Reagan's treasury secretary William Simon claimed that 'regulation has slowly strangled key sectors of our economy'. Freed of Government red tape, industry was supposed to unleash a competitive frenzy of innovative high-quality goods.
We have seen the Exxon Valdez and the (appropriately named) Spirit of Free Enterprise disasters - there is no letup in the toll that industrial disease and accidents take every year. Deregulation of the airline industry led to an initial reduction in prices, but now the industry is in near-permanent crisis. Some airlines are so weighed down with debt that they have had to cut wages, lay off staff and scrimp on safety to stay aloft. In other cases airlines have gained near complete control of certain routes and can literally charge what the traffic will bear.
The Third World has SAPs, the West has 'deficit reduction'. Editorial cartoonists traditionally depict the national deficit as a malevolent octopus, threatening to crush taxpayers so impoverished that they have been reduced to wearing barrels. Because of the spendthrift ways of past liberal governments, we are told, all governments must decrease their levels of social spending.
The deficits of most Western governments are the legacy of punitive interest-rate policies rather than government spending. Interest rates are hiked to dampen demand and lower inflation. As a result currency values fall and overall debt payments increase. Cutting back government spending rarely does much to decrease the deficit since it weakens consumer confidence and increases demand for social services. Cutting government spending also creates a 'social deficit' as it reduces educational, social and health services; and an 'infrastructure deficit' as highways, schools and airports crumble.