A few months ago, the world lost one of the Good Ones—a great professor, often referred to as Professor Grumbles in my blog, passed away. A professor of German, he was at various times a colleague, my department head, and a mentor—but always a friend. According to Facebook, I have hundreds of friends, but in reality, in my life I have had maybe a dozen friends like Grumbles. I know I've written about him earlier this summer, but I haven't gotten over missing him.
To say that Grumbles was not very fond of businessmen would be an understatement. I used to tease him that he thought that the old Frank Capra movie—It's A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stuart—was a documentary. At times, I think he actually believed that all bankers were exactly like Mr. Potter.
I am politically more conservative than Grumbles was, and as a businessman who went into education, I had a lot of real world experience that he never had. This led us to frequent and protracted discussions about all things financial, especially while he was my department head.
A lot of our discussions were about the minimum wage. Grumbles didn’t understand why businesses just didn’t go out and hire a whole bunch of unemployed people “to fix the economy”. His wife ran a small art gallery and when I asked him why she didn’t hire an extra dozen people, he always replied, “Well, that’s different. She can’t afford it.”
He never really understood that the same reasoning applied to Exxon as it did to his wife’s gallery. He was a perfect example of what the anthropologists used to refer to as the “One, Two, Many Theory”. Cultures develop words for one and two before they learn to count, and for anything more than two, they use a word that translates out to many. The Australian Walpiri or the Amazon Piraha tribes would be examples.
Grumbles could understand the economics of running a business with one or two employees, but when it came to a company with many employees, he switched to magical thinking. Unfortunately, he eventually got an unavoidable reality lesson.
While Grumbles was the Department Head of Languages, the state raised the minimum wage. The state—or at least the fat, bloated plutocrats who made up the Enema U administration—did not, however, increase the departmental budget. During the next departmental staff meeting, I pointed this out to Grumbles and reminded him that this meant we would have to reduce the number of work-study students employed by the department.
“Why?” he asked.
“We can’t afford them all,” I answered. “The budget is too tight already.”
“Who will do the work?” he asked. He clearly did not believe what I was saying, expecting that I was teasing him. (Which, I admit, was pretty much a hobby of mine.)
“We will have to make the remaining students more productive and also do some of the work ourselves—and I expect—some of the nonsense required by administration just won’t get done. We can start by ignoring the annual room allocation report.”
“We can’t do that,” Grumbles said. “They expect us to report progress.”
“We can report that. But, the wages went up 25%, so we are going to have to reduce hours by that much. We simply cannot afford all of the students.”
If you read the conversation above about five times, that was pretty much like the conversation that Grumbles and I had. For years, he had been told that there was no connection between wages and the number of people employed and he really believed this. He just took it for granted that, somewhere, there was a greedy businessman who would be forced to steal a little less “excess profit” and pay the little guy his “fair share”. When I pointed out to him that as department head, he was the greedy businessman—or as close in this scenario as we could get to one—it was like watching a child discovering the unreality of Santa Claus.
Nevertheless, Grumbles still didn’t believe me. For several minutes, he tried working the math himself. The number of students times the wage multiplied by the hours….Eventually, he had to admit to the reality: We just couldn’t employ as many students as we wanted. (And the financial need of some of our truly indigent students did not matter: we were going to have to keep the students who were the most productive in order to get the work done.)
One of the endearing things that I liked about Grumbles was this innocence. A lot of his views on the economy were not very practical, certainly weren’t based on experience, but without those views, he wouldn’t have been the person he was—the friend I loved. (I wouldn't have wanted him to change and I suspect he wouldn't have wanted me to change, either!)
“Isn’t there anything else we could do?” he asked.
“We could start charging students a lab fee to take the courses, but this would raise the price of tuition.”
“No, we can’t do that. Tuition is already pretty high.”
“You could ask the faculty to donate money. Of course, they won’t do it, but you can ask.” We both knew this wasn’t going to happen. Less than half the department donated to the department scholarships and they sure weren’t going to donate money for student salaries.
“Why not cut the number of hours each student works by the same amount, so everyone could keep a job?” Dick asked.
“That way, no one would get the amount of money he needs and the students would no longer qualify as full-time work-study students, so they would lose benefits, and our better students would probably look for a job somewhere else, leaving us with the least productive employees,” I answered.
Note: Among other assorted benefits in New Mexico, students employed in the work-study program for 20 hours a week automatically qualify for food stamps, regardless of financial need. This is true even if they live in the dorm (including a dorm lacking cooking facilities!) and they use a meal plan to eat in the cafeteria.
The department eventually reduced the number of students employed. I suspect that, somehow, Grumbles always thought I was secretly responsible. It certainly didn’t change his political views in the long term.
While Grumbles finally accepted why the department had to lose a few student employees, he never transferred this situation to the rest of the business world. He never accepted that there was a correlation between the cost of labor and the number of people employed.
Which is understandable—I strongly suspect that, deep in their hearts, most adults still do believe in Santa Claus, at least a little. (Even me.)