Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Entitlement and Class Warfare

Bob Herbert, in the New York Times, writes a preposterous article making much ado about nothing into a class warfare, Us vs Them, Haves vs Have Nots piece.

"Martha Escobar is staring into the cold, dark, unforgiving eyes of destitution.

Ms. Escobar is one of 16 janitors who were laid off from their jobs at a luxury complex in Los Angeles that houses some of the wealthiest tenants imaginable. JPMorgan Asset Management, a unit of the vast JPMorgan Chase empire, manages an intricate investment web that owns the buildings. The layoffs were ordered by a maintenance contractor, ABM Industries."

Ok - let's notice right away that these janitors were fired by their contractor, not by the Uber Evil, Super Wealthy Slumlord, JP Morgan.  Perhaps an interesting article could be written if we found out WHY they were laid off - was it because they weren't doing a good job? (probably not) - was it so that their contractor could replace them with cheaper labor at a subsistence wage? (that might be something to get mad about)  But Herbert ignores the details and instead focuses on the peasant vs royalty angle that bears little relevance.

"What’s different about these layoffs is that the janitors are not going quietly. They have been vigorously protesting the callousness of their treatment — the way the rich people who employed them for the munificent sum of $13.50 an hour found it so easy to dump them on the scrap heap with the rest of America’s unemployed millions."

I still don't understand the issue.  If rich people want dirty floors and dirty toilets, isn't that their prerogative to have them?  Are rich people required to hire janitors to clean their toilets?  Should they be?  Of course not - but it's easy to find someone to hate and blame when there's a rich target around. (note: I'm not asking anyone to like JPMorgan - this piece is not about how great JP Morgan is, or how noble Jamie Dimon is)

"The janitors have marched and fasted outside the buildings they once cleaned. And Ms. Escobar and another laid-off janitor, Elba Polanco, were brought to New York City last week by the Service Employees International Union, which represents them, to bring their plight to the attention of Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase. Mr. Dimon has made a fabulous living by, among other things, borrowing enormous sums of money to buy companies and then hurling people out of work.

In the real world of America’s increasingly two-tiered society, you have to laugh at the idea of these janitors trying to get the ear of Jamie Dimon, who counts his wealth by the hundreds of millions. He is royalty, and they are from the peasant class. Mr. Dimon’s universe is orders of magnitude different from the one that Martha Escobar is scrambling around in. He talks to the Geithners and Bernankes and Larry Summerses of the world. The paycheck Ms. Escobar used to get wouldn’t cover Jamie Dimon’s dinner tab."

You'd also have to laugh at the idea of me getting the ear of Jamie Dimon, despite the fact that I'm an A-list financial blogger (relax - it's a joke!), or the idea of my father, a retired teacher, getting the ear of Jamie Dimon, or the idea of my uncle, who owns his own landscaping business, getting the ear of Jamie Dimon, or the idea of my neighbor, who is a Selectman in our town, getting the ear of Jamie Dimon,  or the idea of almost anyone else in America getting the ear of Jamie Dimon.  Still, somehow, Herbert tries to push through the steaming pile of crap idea that Ms. Polanco and Ms. Escobar were denied a sit down with Don Dimon simply because they were too low on the social hierarchy - because they were (cringe as you say it and wrinkle your nose) janitors.

"While Ms. Escobar and her former co-workers are being scorched by the flames of unemployment, JPMorgan Chase’s second-quarter profit this year — profit, mind you — was $4.8 billion."

What does JPM's profit have to do with it?  Either they want clean offices, or not.  Should they be required to hire more people just because they make more money?  Come on America - we need to get off this entitlement train.  Just because someone else has money doesn't mean they need to give it to you.  If Jamie Dimon wants to take a dump in a dirty toilet, or clean it himself, or consolidate the cleaning of the toilets into the summer intern's duties (doodies?) that's his prerogative.   He doesn't have to hire more janitors just because his company makes more money, or because he's richer than God.

"The palace guards asked if they had an appointment. They knew very well that an appointment was an impossibility. Ms. Escobar and Ms. Polanco were janitors. They were told to go away."

Ahh - this angle again - he even italicized janitors his time, emphasizing how the "palace guards," sneered the dirty word with contempt.  Of course, I already addressed this problem above.  It doesn't matter if you're a janitor, teacher, politician, landscaper, wall street trader, or top tier blogger - you're not getting an appointment with Jamie Dimon.  Janitor has nothing to do with it.

"I called JPMorgan Chase to ask why the janitors had been fired and if the company was open to negotiations that could result in rehires. The response was cold, cold, cold. A spokesperson said JPMorgan Chase has nothing to do with the matter. “It’s a dispute between a vendor and its employees,” he said."

Oh Mr Herbert - PLEASE tell me you called the vendor, ABM Industries to try to actually get some meat for this story... Please... Wait - you did!

"ABM Industries tried mightily not to respond at all, but when pressed, issued a statement through a public relations firm, Kekst and Company, saying discussions have been held with union officials regarding the workers. The company would not say if any could be rehired or why they were fired in the first place."

So we're right back where we started - we still don't know why these employees were fired, but we shouldn't let that get in the way of a little class warfare, should we?  Rally the angry masses!  We have a very wealthy (and thus, obviously, very evil) target handy, so let's attack him.  (I'm wailing now, try to picture it - I'm on my knees, tears streaming down my cheeks, fists raised in fury)  Damn you JP Morgan!  Damn you Jamie Dimon! You have so much money! Why won't you hire these poor janitors?  Why do you look down on the lower classes with such disdain?

Articles like this one from Bob Herbert avoid any attempt to address the real issue (Why were the workers fired?) and instead appeals to populist senses of Us vs. Them class warfare to stir up emotion, which solves nothing.



Onlooker said...

Agreed. The real issues at the root of Dimon's great wealth and JPM's huge profits and world dominance are our broken corporate governance, cronyism, the outsized financial sector that is gobbling up our economy, propped up by Uncle Sam (and the Fed, by extension), etc., etc.

But all that is too complicated and boring. Good old populism is so much more entertaining and easy to write into a fiery column.

We're screwed if we never somehow get around to dealing with our real problems, instead chasing down the blind alleys full of red herrings.

scharfy said...


Thought provoking angle by you.

However, there is a perceived injustice by the fact that recipients of Federal bailout $$$, and brazen GOV intervention, and corruption, has laid off janitors.

If some janitors @ the Googleplex got laid off, there's no story. People perceive Google as adding value, and JPM as a taxpayer subsidized entity.. That's the key diff.

The NY times angle is flimsy by the facts, but the populist ire they are invoking is real. Huge subsidies were handed out in 2008/9, and it was a top down dispersement.

Again, the story doesn't have the same pop if your uncle the landscaper lays off a few guys to make ends meet, but i'd guess he didn't get TARP loans...

Personally, I think JPM is a well run bank, but you'd have to be a fool to think they aren't beneficiaries of FED policies for over 20 years.

Its about the bailouts again....

Same sorry, written a different way, is when GM just opened a new plant in Mexico. People were like, WTF? that's not a good deal for the taxpayers...

Blue Moon said...

If I may add to Onlooker's point, I can almost imagine Herbert and Dimon having congnacs at the club laughing about this... "Hey Jamie, see my latest essay -- did you enjoy how I completely overlooked the basic, structural problems of the economy and instead focused on cheap symbolism? Yes, you're welcome."

Kid Dynamite said...

onlooker - I very much agree

scharfy - i see where you are coming from - as i've said many times, the biggest problem with the bailout is not that they encouraged moral hazard at the banks, but rather in the rest of the country, in an "I want MINE" entitlement attitude.

I don't think Herbert tried to make it about the bailout or recipient of gov't largess at all at all - I would have understood if he did. He made it about the wealthy vs the poor, which is ridiculous.

How many janitors should JP Morgan hire if they make $100MM in 2010? How about $1B? $5B? $10B? $40B? is there a correlation between profits and janitors? Of course not - it's asinine, and that was my point.

But What do I Know? said...

@ scharfy: Well put. I guess your response to these stories depends on your world-view: do Jamie Dimon and JPM deserve their riches because they were smart and worked hard, or did they acquire them through inside deals, government connections, and scamming municipalities. Or to put it in Atlas Shrugged terms: are they Galt's Gulchers or looters?

Once you take the government's money (or are perceived as having done so) you are fair game for this kind of story, IMHO.

Kid Dynamite said...

BWDIK - i strongly disagree with that. Herbert's entire article was about the constantly repeated thesis that Dimon et all don't give two shits about the people in question because they are lowly janitors (italicized by Herbert for emphasis!). That is patently incorrect, which is what I was trying to illustrate.

so, while there may indeed be plenty to be written about the means by which Dimon and JPM garnered their wealth, it's got nothing to do with Herbert's phony constructions of classism (is that a word?)

I'm not a janitor. I even worked on Wall Street. i was even good at what I did and made a lot of money doing it. Herbert would probably think I'm one of Dimon's boys. Guess what - Jamie Dimon would snub me too. It's got nothing to do with poor migrant janitors, despite what Herbert wants his readers to believe.

scharfy said...

Ok kid, I re-read the article and as you noted, its standard issue have/have-not populist journo-muckraking.

That being said, nobody seems to care when Sergey Brin buys a Ferrari, or Bill Gates buys an Island, Or Uncle Warren Buffet, or Sam Walton, or even the hedge funds who had the housing call right. Christ even the BP bigwigs can't spark anger like a good Citigroup/Goldman/AIG story...

So to my eyes, its not about money. Americans still love someone who "makes it big". (I think they still do)

Its about injustice. Or the perception of such. And the mega-banks exemplify this for many Americans.

(anyway good stuff, stirred up a heated debate at work!)

Kid Dynamite said...

scharfy - are you sure America still loves someone who makes it big? after all - remember my post a few weeks ago about people COMPLAINING about the uber rich giving away their money...

Yangabanga said...

right. on that point it seems that even to have money these days you are vilified and assume you got your money by screwing people over. as Kid says just look at the comments on his philanthropy post...

what bothers me is that this is a non-story that only became a story after the JPM angle. Clearly it isn't the UNION's fault. Bob Herbert needs to wake up and write a real article. This is the same kind of trash like the stripper "education" story being tied to Goldman Sachs.

wcw said...

KD, the key sentence here is, 'the [SEIU].. represents them.' Eyeballing relative column inches between capital and labor, not to mention the time series of national income shares, I wonder why you begrudge the janitors their token appearance in Herbert's column. Rooting for corporate profits is like rooting for the Yankees. Viz this little graph.

For the record, my complaint about the rich giving away their money was based on taxation. We've already spent the money. If we aren't taxing the rich today, and we're really not, then we'll tax those without political power tomorrow. Pace this one column, that will be the janitors, not the Walton heirs or the Koch brothers.

Unknown said...

Perhaps a story about how Mrs. Escobar's son is in jail for robbing a convenience store but Wall Street thieves who stole millions more are free and being bailed out by the taxpayer would have been a better angle.

Kid Dynamite said...

WCW - I'm pretty sure you know that I don't begrudge the janitors. They actually are a victim of something - and that's being made into pawns for Bob Herbert's absurd class warfare angle.

"Rooting for corporate profits is like rooting for the Yankees"

indeed - in modern day America. Well said.

But What do I Know? said...

@KD: You're right--I didn't put that very well. But while the specifics of Herbert's article are pandering and ridiculous (so what if Dimon met with the janitors--what would that do?) the general sentiment is going to strike a chord with resentful people--and there are a lot of resentful people right now who are looking for someone to blame, and Jamie Dimon should do his best to make sure it isn't him.

That more what I was getting at--that the situation looks very different depending on your view of how Jamie Dimon and JPM made their money.

Jonathan said...

"Haves vs Have Nots."

This whole argument, according to Ayn Rand, is the haves (free-market economy) and the have nots (mixed economies, socialism).

The New York Times is nothing more than a tool for the establishment that is anti-Free Markets and trying to separate the people.

This country is going down to the dogs. I agree with Onlooker, we're nothing but a corporatist society.

Maybe the Hindenburg thing will happen and wake people up.

Kid Dynamite said...

Jonathan - do you think the stock market crashing would solve anything? I think it would make things 10x worse...

Blue Moon said...


Wall Street ain't a free market... that's the problem. When banks are considered too big to fail and are supported with my tax money, I'm not sure what to call it, but it isn't "free market capitalism."

Subsidizing banks and subsidizing janitors are merely different sides of the same coin.

hey.randoms said...

kk, i'll be honest, didn't really bother to finish reading your or herbert's articles, or the other comments here...

that said, I actually do know Mr. Dimon, at least enough that he recognizes me by name, and his treatment in the herbert article is total bullshit. Just plain crap; festering pseudo-populist tripe generalized from some angsty bitch-fit he's been dying to release on "corporate fatcats" -- all projected onto a good man.
First off, you couldn't ask for a more approachable human being in that kind of leadership position. He's really salt of the earth. Maybe a bit aggressive when he needs to be, but we're not on the playground anymore kids. And he's controlling, but that should go without being said for anyone managing something akin to JPM. Honestly, I've got really nothing bad to say about the guy.
Herbert obviously has no clue who he's talking about. Aside from the ill-conceived character assassination, he invokes all the conventional fat-cat tropes and brings them to an extreme. "counts his fortune in the hundreds of millions"? Nope. Mr Dimon's not all that wealthy. Don't get me wrong, he's not starving, but it's more like $90-120m or so, and that's mostly from recent years of great performance as steward through rough and highly competitive waters at JPM. He certainly wasn't there when he was at BankOne, and he could make a ton more than that in a heartbeat if he didn't love being at the helm of his giant. This is all besides the point though -- just was using it to illustrate that Herbert's gross exaggerations and malignments of Mr Dimon extend past his excellent character, over his terrific and talented stewardship of JPM as a whole concern, and from a basic ignorance of the man himself. He's falsely conflated Dimon with the contrived ghouls of wall street that are such popular strawmen these days. Fuck that. Anyways, rambling here.
But seriously -- Bob Herbert: choke on your impotent populist rage.