Sometimes I’m almost afraid to pick up the morning paper. Every day it seems that the news includes stories about another corporate merger, another multibillion-dollar deal, another 1,000 or so people out of a job and another good day on the stock market. It’s simply baffling how the front page has become the business page.
Something about these mergers makes me queasy. It might be the unthinkable amounts of money trading hands. Or maybe it’s the fact that people cheer when their stock goes up 15 cents a share, instead of considering that many talented, long-time employees will be given a pink slip. More importantly, news of mergers is annoying because Americans are beginning to get used to it.
Mergers and acquisitions are supposed to excite us capitalists. All of the business majors, I’m sure, become giddy talking about stock deals and larger chief executive officer salaries, hoping to someday become a part of it.
After all, bigger companies supposedly mean good news — stronger financial health for the company, increasing stock value and often international partnerships. As many fiscal conservatives see it, we should feel thankful that the private companies are growing and not the government.
But corporate America is getting overweight. The companies are growing fatter and shrinking in number every day. Meanwhile, Americans watch and wonder if someday capitalism itself, exhibited by company fat cats, will eventually rule out competition. Maybe we’ll only have three companies in the United States someday: Microsoft, Disney and Time Warner.
In the past year, merging companies have included everything from banks to book publishers and each one is a record-breaking money deal. Mergers also create a chain reaction — if one company finds a partnership, others in the same industry will feel nervously obligated to do the same.
When companies merge, they find themselves with overlapping jobs. In other words, hundreds and often thousands of middle- and lower-rung employees get the shaft. Labor unions that represent some of these employees have never seemed more ineffective. From Northwest Airlines’ mechanics to last summer’s UPS strikers, the media increasingly seems to portray these employees as a burdensome inconvenience to daily business.
With profits and mergers making headlines, big companies have launched their big stars, too. Suddenly spurred by growth projections, CEOs have become superstars. People recognize some corporate executives like Bill Gates and Ted Turner just as easily as their favorite movie star.
And these CEOs, who receive unbelievable perks and bonuses each year, reinvest their money into “cool” companies like movie studios and professional sports teams. We live in a society in which a Mickey Mouse company owns professional hockey and baseball teams.
This seems strange — no, it is strange. But really, who’s surprised anymore?
Most of us have come to accept that Disney bought the Anaheim Angels baseball team, even though executives just recently stopped calling the team’s uniforms “costumes.” When large companies gobble up smaller ones from different industries, sometimes it simply doesn’t work.
The intangible heart-and-soul factor explains why this is the case.
For example, most Minnesotans could care less if the Twins move out of town. Financial issues with the team have alienated fans. Some businesses simply need a more personal touch.
We, as employees and consumers of large conglomerates, want to feel that we are cared for. We want the warm and fuzzy feeling. We want to feel that the owners and managers have pride and homespun knowledge about the products they sell.
Imagine, for example, if every town were like Dinkytown. The small businesses there may not have the polished, fancy appearance of larger chain stores, but they provide an unmatched charm that makes shoppers want to spend their money there.
In Dinkytown’s family-owned shops, you are treated as if you are part of a community, not a demographic sales group. The buildings have history; the customers are regular and the owners usually have time to chat with you about local University news.
In Dinkytown, you can buy used textbooks and paperbacks. Leaving the store, you feel like you’ve made a good, honest deal, instead of the raw, next-in-line feeling you have at the University bookstores.
The coffee shops are filled with students and professors, either penciling in the crossword puzzle or studying for an exam. It’s where everybody knows your latte and the people behind the counter don’t bark espresso orders and shove you aside.
At Al’s Breakfast, you can sit at the counter and share the Sunday paper with the stranger next to you. Sure, you might have to wait in line for a seat, but you don’t mind because it’s a good place to watch people, anyway.
If you’re out of milk or ketchup, you can run into House of Hanson without feeling like a rat in a mega-grocery store’s aisles. And if you feel like drinking something other than milk, there are plenty of bars down the street from which to take your pick.
Up until a few months ago, you could walk into Gray’s Campus Drug and find the few household items you left at your parents’ house. Unfortunately, Gray’s, a long-time establishment in Dinkytown, recently closed its doors. Its gutted space on the corner of 14th Avenue reminds passersby that it’s just another casualty to mega-stores like Target.
I’ll take Dinkytown any day over the strip-mall chain stores, but the mom-and-pop stores must halt their downward spiral. While we may become used to reading about the daily handshakes among corporations, losing places like Gray’s should never sit comfortably with us. Losing them is losing a part of our community — something no corporation can replace.
Sara Goo’s column appears Tuesdays. She welcomes e-mail at [email protected]