Jack Lemmon, one of America's most gifted actors, has made a career of portraying men torn by the conflicts of work. In "The Apartment" (1960), he is an ambitious young executive plotting advancement by making his apartment available to his superiors, who use it for a string of affairs. By 1973, in "Save the Tiger," Lemmon is a small-time clothing manufacturer who confronts the choice of going bankrupt or raising needed cash by burning one of his factories and collecting the insurance. In 1979, Lemmon plays the manager of a nuclear plant in "The China Syndrome" who locks himself in the plant's control room rather than let the utility run the reactor at full capacity, a decision he believes will bring catastrophe.
What makes Lemmon so convincing in all these roles is that he is not a natural rebel. He longs for conventional success but, at a certain point, no longer is willing to play by the established rules. In "The Apartment," he falls in love with the personnel director's mistress and, ultimately, won't allow himself to be used: he reclaims his apartment key and loses his promotion. In "The China Syndrome," he gets shot for his convictions, and the small businessman of "Save the Tiger" decides that survival (and arson) must prevail over conventional boyhood standards of morality.
All this is a very roundabout -- and ultimately relevant, we hope -- way of reflecting upon Big Business Day and the questions it unavoidably raises about the nature of the individual's place in the economic system.
You might have missed Big Business Day, which would more aptly have been called Anti-Big Business Day and was (generally speaking) another Ralph Nader Production. As a media event, it didn't receive all that much attention. That alone tells you something. Despite the persistent hostility of many intellectuals, public attitudes toward business are increasely ambivalent. Opinion polls show that although the public isn't keen on Big Business, it is even less keen on Big Government and Big Labor.
What people instinctively recognize is that corporations have changed significantly in the past 50 years. Although the conflict between capital and labor hasn't disappeared, it is considerably muted. Gone are the most violent labor management confrontations. Two industries where conflict was most bitter, steel and autos, have accommodated themselves to powerful unions. The iron law of wages virtually has been repealed; most corporations follow pay practices that roughly attempt to keep workers even with inflation.
Increasingly, corporations serve as miniwelfare organizations, doing the things that individuals once expected to do for themselves: saving for retirement, paying health costs and, in some cases, tending children in day-care centers. For major corporations, fringe benefits now account for as much as one-third of labor costs. And, of course, there is heavy government regulation of corporate behavior: of employment practices, of pollution, of advertising truthfulness, of safety in the work place and, in some cases, of the quality of products.
Most of this change has come reluctantly, and none of it means that corporations suddenly have turned into philanthropies. But compared with 50, or even 25, years ago, their power is considerably diminished and their humanity substantially increased.
We are only beginning to appreciate the political implications of this evolution. Big Business Day represented a nostalgic effort to recapture the convenient antibusiness framework in which "reformist" politics operated for nearly a century: If something was wrong with the economic system, government could "reform" business wrong with the economic system, government could "reform" business -- bust the monopolies, regulate the railroads, write child labor laws -- and set things right. But this operating assumption no longer works, not only because business has changed but also because the side effects of change aren't universally good.
More sensitive corporate wage behavior helps perpetuate inflation. The pattern of union-management accomodation has resulted in some extravagant labor cost increases that are ultimately destructive to both labor and capital. Autos and steel, again, are conspicuous examples. Even in their current depressed state, both industries have accepted three-year wage increases of between 30 percent and 35 percent. If you wonder about plant closings, part of the reason is excessively high labor costs that price products out of the market.
Likewise, it is now apparent that many of the problems that prompted social regulation don't stem from the private ownership of business. Even if all firms were nationalized, we still would be asking ourselves how much we are willing to pay for less pollution or more protection against possibly cancerous products -- and finding the answers no less difficult.
But the more fundamental problem is the nature of modern economic organization, which is big. Though large enterprises are condemned for impersonal decisions that disrupt peoples' lives, the more basic reality is that the emergence of big organizations -- big government, too -- has provided a degree of economic security unprecedented in the industrial era. Most large industrial organizations endure; they weather the market's storms.
And therein lies the contradiction. As larger employers provide more security, they also become more enslaving. Accumulated fringe benefits make it more difficult to leave. As we assign more individual responsibilities to employers, we become more dependent. And dependence breeds not only loyalty but also resentment.
We come back to the individual's role in the economic system and all those characters portrayed by Jack Lemmon. The question faced by each is essentially the same: Is he trapped? The small businessman of "Save the Tiger" symbolizes the rough and tumble, uncertain world of atomistic competition; it gives more freedom, but less security. But the more secure world of the large organization creates its own different demands that, sooner or later, must be faced, as they are in "The Apartment" and "The China Syndrome.
There is no easy exit from this chamber. Substituting government for private enterprise is no answer. Government bureaucracies are even larger and more rigid than private bureaucracies. Despite the enormous economic advances of the past 20 years -- advances that only a fool would deny -- the question of entrapment exists for most of us. Like Lemmon's characters, most of us are not rebels, but the question gnaws. Probably no economic system is capable of making it go away.