Community//

Too Dumb To Bail

We hail them as heroes and pay them slave wages

During the Great Recession, Congress decided that the banks were simply “too big to fail” I never understood why we as taxpayers simply gave tens of millions of our hard-earned dollars to keep these banks afloat.  Maybe they were too big to allow them to fold, but why couldn’t we have given them a loan, like we did General Motors and Chrysler, both of whom, it’s worth noting paid back their loans in full and early (netting the U.S. taxpayers a tidy sum)? And if these banks truly are too big to fail, why weren’t they forcibly broken up like Teddy 

Roosevelt did with his big stick and trust-busting policies? Instead, they were allowed to continue—still too big to fail and still too dangerous to do nothing.

But now we are looking at small businesses and pleading with unemployed people to save Pizza Hut and our other “small businesses” and I have to ask why? Sometimes poorly run businesses don’t deserve a bailout, or even a loan, back on the farm if a horse couldn’t pull its weight any more you took it out to the backfield and shot it.

In this country, we WORSHIP small businesses, and why? Because they employ so many people? Let’s look at that.  How many small businesses offer paid vacations? Sick leave? How many even pay CLOSE to a living wage? Some do and those that do are to be commended, these businesses deserve to survive and thrive, and to the extent that we can help them, we should. But I don’t think we should abet companies—small or large—that take all of the profits in good times but quickly resort to cutting salaries, unpaid furloughs, and benefit cuts, because “we’re all in this together”? No, we aren’t. And if your employees are making more money receiving unemployment than they did working, shame on you; you’re not paying a living wage.

I know of at least four restaurants that have gone belly up when the country was enjoying one of the longest periods of prosperity in history.  Why? Because they were poorly run—the service was deplorable, the prices were too high, and the food quality would make a crow turn up its beak. Should we have bailed them out? Throw money at them because they employed poorly trained waitstaff and cooks? NO! That is just throwing good money after bad.

Let me be clear, I am not considering sole-proprietors in the same vein as small businesses. I know and am a customer of many sole-proprietors and I am especially happy to do business with small businesses that are socially responsible, have good service, and good products, but why are we treating the good, “but for the pandemic successful” small businesses the same as we are the ones who are likely to just take the money and run. 

Saving a company that would fail even if there were no pandemic is just economically irresponsible.  Small businesses take a risk: if they take care of their customers and their employees they can build something of value that lasts, but if they are on the verge of failure and then the pandemic threatens to kill the business, I would say to you that we are just forestalling the inevitable.  

Let me give you an example of a corner market near my home.  For more than two decades a married couple ran the store.  I would walk my dog—who was always welcome at the store and to whom the owner always got a dog treat—and stop in for a couple of diet sodas; the same kind and same number every day. If on occasion they would run out of stock they would just run to the supermarket and by enough, so I could keep my routine. The husband worked the day shift (spending his evenings working at the local hospital as a nurse) and the wife worked the night shift and spent her days working for the city.  They had a friend who would fill in on rare occasions that both of them needed to be gone for an event.  

The store was a neighborhood gathering place.  There was Jim who took early retirement and lived half a block up the street only to become a fixture at the store. He would buy his newspaper and talk congenially about current events. Or Tommy, who hustled coupons to the store owners for a piece of the savings.  It was a sweet place that harkened back to the days where people got their news from their neighbors; hanging around barbershops, or hardware stores or even the corner bar…it was a place worth saving.

During the Great Black Out, they did business by flashlight and an adding machine. If all you had was a credit card they would note what you owed in a spiral notebook.  They knew who was good for it and who wasn’t.  In the midst of all that chaos and uncertainty, they were an anchor in our community and the epicenter of our neighborhood.  Businesses like this are worth fighting for.

Then one day the husband told me they were selling the business.  He was retiring from his job at the hospital and as much as he and his wife loved the store they were tired of the grind and wanted more time to just relax and who knows maybe even take a vacation once or twice. As sad as I was to hear the news I was glad to hear that they could now enjoy retirement.

They sold the business to a big, belligerent, retired policeman—you know the kind of person who spends thirty years bossing people around and bullying them into doing what they want. His name was Jack, and the first thing Jack did was tell the couple that he did not want any of their inventory.  The last day they were open they threw a big party and us regulars got drunk as monkeys on the beer that they couldn’t sell or store.  They sent me home with two cases and loaded me up with sundry can goods and plasticware that I neither wanted nor needed (except the beer of course). They wouldn’t let me pay a cent.  They said it was for being such a loyal friend. Not a customer, a friend.

Jack wasn’t much of a businessman. When I mentioned to him that he was out of the soda a drank he just bellowed. “Soda comes in on Thursdays”, to which I responded that I bought four bottles a day and asked him what he supposed I would do if he didn’t have it.  He just repeated “Soda comes in on Thursdays” but this time in that voice that policemen use with the undertone of menace which not so subtly tells you “or do you want to go to jail?”  I told this story to the owner of another party store which was equidistant from my home. He asked why I didn’t just come to his store for my sodas.  I explained that I had my dog.  He told my dog was welcome and I never went back to Jack’s place.  I started seeing all the regulars from Jack’s at my new soda source. Jim told him that Jack told him he couldn’t have him “hanging around the store bothering the customers”.

Within two months the store now owned by Jack, once the epicenter of our neighborhood was bankrupt and sold. It’s a chiropractic clinic now.  But if all of this hadn’t happened years ago and Jack was one month into running his business into the ground we would be bailing him out with tax dollars he would never have to pay back. 

We live in a world where we are forcing terrified workers who make minimum wage (or less) while millionaire celebrities and billion-dollar companies run television commercials calling them heroes. If they are heroes why aren’t they paid more? Why don’t we pay these heroes enough so that they can pay the rent, and buy groceries? We give billionaire tax cuts and thank yous to the people we hail as heroes.

This pandemic has pulled back the coroner’s sheet off the face of America’s character and it is embarrassing and sicken us all.

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