By Bob Litton
“There is one person in charge of every office in America and that person is Charles Darwin.”
— Charlie Grandy, The Office, “Get the Girl”, March 2012
Let me clarify one thing from the start: I admire people who venture their time and their money into starting up an honest business. The rest of us less prosperous people — commonly known as the “proletariat” — depend on the risks such people take for our own livelihoods. Also, many honest business owners are active in civic affairs and in other ways invest their time and energies in community service. Please note that I emphasized the word “honest”; I did so because there are many business people who are not honest, and even among the ones who are honest in the legal sense of the term there are some who are yet not honest in the ethical or moral senses. It is these latter two types that I intend to discuss here.
One of my brothers was a partner in a carpet store in Dallas beginning in the early 1960s and continuing until the late 1980s, when a severe recession, a few foolish business decisions, and his gambling addiction caused him to lose the carpet store. However, what happened to cause him to fail is not my message here. I want, rather, to go back to the early years. A primary reason for my brother’s and his partner’s early success was that they had found a fairly sound niche: second quality and dropped patterns carpets. There are several ways of making second quality carpet in effect first quality, which again is not my topic. The point here is that for a couple of decades my brother and his partner had a prosperous business which naturally enough brought forth the attention of competitors.
The carpet store was on lower Greenville Avenue in Dallas, Texas. In the early 1960s, lower Greenville was a relatively cohesive and varied community: Besides the carpet store, there was a movie theater, a shoe repair shop, a snug mom-and-pop grocery, a Greek diner, a barbecue café, an auto supply outlet, and a couple of working-class bars. That neighborhood was almost like a small town. There was also a small furniture store — a latecomer — right next door. The owner of the furniture store, apparently noting how much traffic my brother’s store was drawing through a well-placed ad in the local newspaper’s weekly TV program guide, began stocking a few rolls of carpet. Then he painted red, curved arrows on the sidewalk outside his door. He added lettering that said “Carpet In Here”. Note that there was nothing illegal in his tactic, just unethical. And silly.
A couple more related anecdotes I’ll share with my readers.
In the late 1990s, I tried my hand as a “cold-calls” salesman of printing. I had my own territory in East Dallas, part of which included the medical district around Baylor Hospital. The sales spiel I had from Minuteman Press, a respectable chain, was a good one: brief, to the point and yet inclusive of convincing product detail. I adlibbed a small amount to make the material better adapted to my approach, but not much; didn’t need to. Still, I wasn’t very successful. Part of the reason was the fact that I am not a forceful salesman, but another telling reason was that another printing firm had pulled a “dirty-trick”. The competitor had somehow managed to “seed” their own special-sized stationery in doctors’ offices so that bills on standard-size paper would not fit into the envelopes; the doctors’ offices would have had to toss out all their remaining stationery in order to use my company’s product. There again, you see, no illegality; just unethical practice.
I was recently discussing such business practices with some acquaintances at one of our local coffee shops here in Alpine, when one of my companions added an anecdote about his brother, a real estate agent in Abilene, Texas. He said his brother had had a nice home advertised for sale for several weeks, but no one was coming by to look at it, even though a sign in the yard was clearly visible to passersby. Eventually the brother discovered that one of his competitors had managed to have a “closed” stamp printed across the advertised listing. Need I point out again that no chargeable offense had taken place here, only an unethical tactic.
I recognize that all the above involved “dirty tricks” among small businesses. However, anybody who has kept up with the larger enterprises will recall that the corporate realm is an even more dangerous territory. I will refer to one here that hits close in two senses: it occurred in my home town and it involved two newspapers — temples of my profession. I even worked briefly for both while a university student, once at the Dallas Times Herald as a “copy boy’ in the classified ads department and once at the Dallas Morning News as receiver of reports from “stringers” at high school football games.
Being essentially a liberal myself, my sentiments were partial toward the Herald, which had a highly regarded editorial page, although it seemed to me that the hard news stories at the News were more fully developed. I was ignorant of the economics of the media wars in Dallas until I learned, sometime in the 1980s, that the Herald had lost its anti-trust suit against the News. The Herald claimed that the News had inflated its subscription numbers in order to increase its advertising revenue. Then the final blow to the Herald came after the News’ parent company, A.H. Belo Corp., bought the rights to 26 United Press Syndicated features (mostly comics), all of which the Herald had regularly run. The Herald was subsequently sold to two other companies before Belo bought it for $55 million on December 8, 1991, and closed the paper the next day.
Belo’s victory was decidedly Pyrrhic, however, because in 2004 the News admitted that it had in fact under-reported its subscription decreases, over-stated its Sunday circulation by 11.9 percent and its daily circulation by 5.1 percent. The News paid advertisers $21 million in restitution. That penalty hurt Belo so much that they had to lay off 250 workers, 150 of them at the Dallas Morning News. More layoffs occurred in 2008 and 2009. Not all this damage, however, can be attributed to the News’s inflated subscription reporting; the general recession that began in 2008 must be taken into account as well. Also, the Herald’s demise was probably already in the cards, since television was dominating evening news reporting and the Herald’s owner at the time, the Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Company, neglected to concentrate on reportage of the suburban areas, where most of the newspaper-reading public had moved. There it is: another instance of not criminal play, perhaps, but of unethical play.
As I wrote in the beginning of this essay, I am not against honest business. I am only cynical about unethical business practices, of which there seem to be way too many examples. And it really nauseates this observer when he hears, and reads in editorials, all the prate about “free enterprise” and “the invisible hand” of the “open, competitive market place”. There is no “competition” when one enterprise employs heavy-handed and non-quality-related ploys to drive another out of business. The one who wants to be the “maker of a better mouse trap” does so by inventing a more efficient mouse trap, not by sabotaging his predecessor’s factory. We don’t have capitalism or free enterprise here: We have legerdemain, piracy, and monopolism.
As usual, I have a radical palliative — or at least a partial palliative — for this disease: Eliminate all prizes and awards related to business except one: The Proven Record of Honest Business Dealings for the Past Year Award.