Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#292 / Meeting A Payroll

I remember a revelatory moment in which I first learned that my father might be a Philistine. (I later came to a different conclusion). 
The moment occurred, I think, when I was in my third year of college, and had decided that the War in Vietnam was abhorrent, that our country was wrong, and that I would not take any part in that war, even as a conscientious objector. My plan, in other words, was to refuse to submit to the draft in any way, and to manifest total noncompliance with the Selective Service System. I had fastened on a proposed course of action that was quite likely to send me to federal prison for five years. 
When I informed my parents of this decision at a family dinner, I caused great consternation, and I remember the conversation continuing between me and my Dad, as all the dishes were taken away by my Mother, whom I suspect was also paying close attention. My father, at this stage, was a successful business executive; actually, he was a business executive who had been so successful that he had already "retired" at age 45. I loved and respected my father, and had never previously had any intimation that he was a "Babbit," a Philistine, or either obtuse or insensitive. At one point in our conversation, though, complaining about how out of touch with reality the professors at my college were, my father said that these academics (upon whom he believed I must have been relying in developing my position on the war) "had never met a payroll." 
I remember being flabbergasted by that remark. I realize now (and I actually realized then) that my father was speaking out of great emotion and fear for what my recently developed conviction might mean for me, but such a platitude (with the implicit claim that the only thing that really matters in life is being successful in business) just floored me. As I say, I subsequently recovered my esteem and admiration for my father; he soon adopted the same anti-war position I had, and after he went back to law school and became a lawyer (one year ahead of me), he successfully defended me in court from what would otherwise have been the rather adverse consequences of my determination to defy the Selective Service System. I did, in fact, follow through on the plan that I had announced at this family dinner, refusing induction, getting arrested, going to jail - but never getting convicted of a crime, in large part thanks to my Dad. 
Today, for some obscure reason, that phrase about "meeting a payroll" came into my head, and it did so in the context of an appreciation of the incredible responsibility placed upon those who lead business enterprises. The responsibility to "meet payroll" means that those in charge of the business must make sure that those who work for the business, and upon whose work the business is based, are properly and consistently compensated. The "meeting a payroll" phrase, in other words, reflects a profound truth about the economic arrangements that underlie all business. Those who lead the business have a deep responsibility to make sure that the workers get decently and reliably paid. 
Today, as that phrase about "meeting a payroll" came into my head, I realized that our contemporary business leaders have often abandoned the responsibility inherent in that common saying. The 1% don't seem to admit any responsibility to "meet the payroll" for those workers who make it possible for businesses to succeed. Instead, they ship their jobs overseas or orchestrate workforce cutbacks. My father was appealing to this "meet the payroll" concept to tell me that I should only trust people who pay attention to their obligation to make sure that those who depend on them are not hurt, but protected. He raised the inquiry, by his statement, whether my college professors were taking account of my welfare, as they discussed their theories. 
My father's statement, way back then, was far off target in suggesting that my college professors were not to be trusted because they had never "met a payroll." It was not his finest hour, even though what he said was honorably motivated by his great concern for me and my future. But today, I would like to see a little more concern for "meeting a payroll" among the so-called "business leaders" who make their decisions not primarily based on maintaining the security and safety of the workers who make their businesses possible but on an effort to increase the amount of money going to those "investors" in the business who own the stocks. 
Making money for the stockholders, as opposed to "meeting the payroll," is a much less worthy endeavor, in my opinion. At least, you shouldn't automatically sacrifice "meeting the payroll" to raise the stock price by a few bucks. I think my father would likely agree.


  1. I wonder what are the comments I have made in the warmth of anxiety in the face of frightening announcements that have disconcerted and impressed negatively our children into their futures.

  2. There's a nice reflection for parents of all varieties, and in every generation! In the case I mention, I'm not sure that I'd characterize the impression made upon me by my father as "negative," however.


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