Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Challenges of Revolution

The word "revolution" seems to be tossed about rather carelessly by some people.

Well, it seems that way to me, anyway.

I don't mean to say that it is a careless concept. Far from it. A revolution is serious business — by definition, according to Random House, "a sudden, complete or marked change in something."

Clearly, that wasn't an idle question the Beatles asked some 40 years ago, and it was asked at a time when revolution was almost literally in the air.

In fact (if you will pardon just one more musical reference), I have often thought that, when history has had enough time to absorb the revolutionary changes that were wrought in national thoughts and attitudes by the 1960s, the best song — if not the only song — a filmmaker could use as the backdrop for images of that time would be Carole King's "I Feel the Earth Move."

That's a song about the awakening of love and sexual desire, but it is also descriptive of the helpless feeling that can overwhelm a person when something that has been virtually an article of faith is being proven false — or, at least, inoperative.

Anyway, it seems to me the word revolution has been used somewhat frivolously since the days when the guidelines governing just about all of our social relationships — age, gender, race, religious, sexual — were (and, in some cases, remain) under a very public assault. It hasn't always been that way.

Eighty years ago on Friday, Gandhi launched his campaign of non–cooperation and non–violence against British rule of India with the Salt March to the village of Dandi — a truly dramatic and, yes, revolutionary moment in human history.

I've heard many things described as revolutions, whether they actually were revolutions or not. But the bar is set sorta high for genuine revolutions.

Other than an actual armed revolt, the only other kind of revolution that could have as wrenching and far–reaching influence on people as the social unrest of the 1960s or Gandhi's campaign that was ultimately successful in liberating India would be economic upheaval.

And that certainly seems to be what we are experiencing today.

At the moment, it is far from certain which side will emerge victorious. But a few basic facts are known. The most important, it seems to me, is that millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the recession began in December 2007.

Some of those jobs may return as the economy rebounds, but most probably will not. To date, few, if any, actually have.

Some of those jobs were shipped overseas, where workers do the same tasks Americans did but for a lot less. In some cases, their efficiency might be limited by their linguistic skills — but not always. In those situations where productivity has been hindered by language barriers, I suppose CEOs have simply looked at the balance sheet and seen that they were still saving money.

And some of those jobs were eliminated by emerging technology. From management's perspective, I guess, the best possible solution is to make a one–time investment in a machine that can do what one person (or more) did in the past. A machine will work nonstop and will not charge overtime. It just requires routine maintenance.

It's not the best solution for an unemployed American with a family to feed, but that isn't management's problem, is it?

That doesn't make it less of a problem, though, does it?

There isn't a day that goes by that there isn't a story in your newspaper, on your TV, on the internet about the impact that the economy is having on people's lives. The other day, for example, I saw a video on about an auto worker in Wisconsin whose plant closed down. Rather than accept a severance package, he took a job at a company plant in Texas — and began making a "1,000–mile commute" to work instead of selling his home for a loss in a bad economy.

In the end, though, the pressure of being away from his family for five days (sometimes six days) each week was too much, and the family joined him in Texas, vowing that their hearts would stay in Wisconsin and they would one day return. Well, they're young. There's still plenty of time (probably) for them to regain control of their lives and move back to the land they love.

It's becoming more of an impossible dream for older displaced workers.

There must be some way for these workers to remain a vibrant part of the economy. After all, the point behind revolution is to make things better for all, not to leave some behind so others may prosper, isn't it?

Maybe there is a lesson to be found in history that can be applied to the 21st century. It was on this day in 1794 that Eli Whitney received his patent for the cotton gin.

The cotton gin, a deceptively simple device that automated the tedious process of separating cotton seeds from cotton fibers, is considered one of the crucial inventions of the Industrial Revolution.

As anyone who has studied American history can tell you, the Industrial Revolution brought many changes to American life. The cotton gin came on its cusp, when patent laws were still emerging, and the ramifications of technological advancements were not always readily apparent, but, in hindsight, it can be said that the cotton gin rejuvenated slavery. Because slave labor could be devoted almost entirely to planting, maintaining and harvesting the crop, plantation owners could grow larger crops and reap greater profits, making slave ownership more sustainable.

In fact, in the half century after Whitney's invention, the slave population more than quadrupled in the South. Without the invention of the cotton gin, the costs of housing and clothing and feeding slaves might well have been impractical for many, and other choices might have been made.

It's possible, therefore, that America might have been spared the agony of the Civil War and, perhaps, the anguish of dysfunctional racial relations, particularly in the South, in the century after the war ended.

But, without the cotton gin, the Industrial Revolution might have been delayed — or, worse, might never have happened at all. America might never have become the economic power it became — and the story of human development would have been entirely different.

It may seem odd, then, that, while many plantation owners became rich thanks to Whitney's invention, Whitney himself and his business partner, Phineas Miller, did not.

Theirs is a cautionary tale. And it is one that I think is applicable to the field to which I have always gravitated, journalism.

Whitney and Miller were visionaries in their development of a solution to a production problem, and, consequently, they appear to have had one foot in the future — but they clearly had the other foot planted in the past. Their plan was not to sell cotton gins; apparently, it was to monopolize the market to a certain extent, by contracting with farmers to clean their cotton for them, in much the same way that sawmills cut lumber into boards for loggers.

Cotton growers resented this, especially once they discovered how simple the gin really was, and other cotton gins, based on the original design, began to pop up. Whitney and Miller tried to stem the tide by filing patent infringement lawsuits, but, ultimately, this devoured their profits because of the primitive state of patent law. Eventually, they went out of business.

So what relationship does this have to the newspaper industry?

Well, I have observed over the years that newspaper management responds to economic adversity in a predictable way — by cutting its payroll.

Even when the complaint is a decline in editorial quality.

Frankly, I have never understood how cutting the number of copy editors — the ones who are charged with checking facts and correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation errors — can possibly address that kind of issue. The only issue it seems to address is the bottom line, but never to the extent that it can solve the economic problems faced by a publication. It is a temporary solution at best.

It seems like even less of a viable strategy in today's economic climate. But that hasn't prevented newspapers from falling back on it, just as they always have.

Maybe their mistake was not realizing that this recession, coming after a decade of zero job growth, is different from the ones that came before.

The real problem, as I have written before, goes back many years — to a time when the internet was not the pervasive presence in American households it has become. Newspaper management's great failing was not anticipating the kinds of changes that the internet would force upon them and taking steps that would allow them to co–exist — perhaps, even, to thrive.

No one has a crystal ball, of course, but, even though I have no training in business administration, that seems like an obvious thing.

And here is something else that seems equally obvious to me.

These are times that require creative, innovative solutions — even if they are temporary — that will put people back to work. Hundreds of thousands of people who would prefer to be bringing home a paycheck rather than receiving unemployment assistance are, nevertheless, losing their benefits every week.

The times cry out for leadership like Franklin Roosevelt provided in the 1930s. Within days of becoming president, Roosevelt was addressing problems that had brought America's economy to its knees. When something didn't work, FDR tried something else. He never shifted his focus from his primary mission. His attention was unwavering.

That is the kind of leadership that America needs today — not the kind that gives momentary lip service to pressing problems while pledging to focus like a laser on them and then, at the first opportunity, turns its attention elsewhere.

That is the challenge of revolutionary times.

No comments: