Alan Chartock: I Publius
So I was talking to my dog, Murray, who learned how to speak English at the Literacy Network of South Berkshire. Murray is getting a bit older now and is so smart! It’s wonderful to have a dog who gets very upset when I am attacked by some despicable human. He has a really cute bark.
“Hey, Pops,” he said the other day. “I see that GE is going to stop matching their retirees’ contributions to not-for-profits. Will that hurt the not-for-profits in the Berkshires and everywhere else in the country?”
“I don’t want you to get upset, Murray. There will always be enough for your very expensive dog food. My bet is that WAMC public radio will have enough to get by since the people who are dependent on the station are always so generous. They are not about to desert that which they listen to and depend on. On the other hand, there is no question that some folks will be deterred by not having their money matched and it may well be that some of them will not contribute.”
“But, Pops,” the beautiful little dog continued, “General Electric is a big corporation. They have plenty of money to keep on doing this and what’s more, they are having plenty of problems in the Berkshires. Now they have reached an agreement to clean up the river and get their PCBs out of the water, but they want to bury the chemicals in local Massachusetts towns. The state has agreed to this although it is causing considerable local consternation. How would you feel if you were being forced to have PCBs dumped into your neighborhood? It does seem a little stupid to be pulling back on their commitment to nonprofits now, since there are so many of them in the Berkshires.”
Murray, his pink tongue hanging out, went on. “Pops, if you were running GE, what would you do?”
“Well, Murray, this has become a huge story in the Berkshires. One local paper ran the story about GE’s refusal to match employee gifts at the top of their front page. In fact, it hardly seems worth it for them to do what they are doing.
“General Electric has grown big and unwieldy. Under erratic leadership they got off on the wrong track. They could never get back to the preeminent position they once held in American commerce.
“You know what, Murray? When businesses begin to fail at the macro level, they begin to ‘save’ by cutting the small stuff. Nothing could be a greater indicator than that propensity to save at the edges and risk whatever good will they once enjoyed. I admit that I went into the books to see how much WAMC received from GE. It really wasn’t that much but it always made me feel grateful that they were being selfless. After all, two cities that I know well — Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Schenectady, New York — were both left devastated after the GE pullback. In those cases we saw the devastation that can occur when a city puts all its eggs in one basket and the basket breaks. I’ve seen too many instances of a company pondering whether to cut out its free coffee or start charging for parking. The problem then is that people who watch these things begin to smell the whiff of failure.”
“I guess some people reading this may be led to believe that it’s all sour grapes over the loss of some public radio money. While I am not happy about that, there are going to be a lot of really needy not-for-profits out there that will be hurt. This is what happens when a once-great company falls on to hard times and everyone starts to suffer. It’s all about octopus-like tentacles. Sad.”
“Pops,” said Murray, “I see what you mean.”