It is tempting to imagine that in late August when the chief executive of Fairfax announced to the Australian Stock Exchange he was eliminating five percent of his workforce he whipped this news from behind his back and brandished it like a rat-faced boy who has brought home his best-ever school report.

And he was right to do so. The ASX liked what it heard so much it ruffled his hair and pinched his cheek and rewarded him with a five percent share price hike. The correlation between these figures was so startling I wondered if he didn’t contemplate more and greater cuts immediately. If a five percent staff cut equaled a five-percent share hike, would a twenty-percent reduction translate to a twenty-percent increase in share price? If he were to sack everyone, that is, a hundred percent of the people at Fairfax, would that double the share price? And if so didn’t he have a responsibility to act? And would he then go chasing black marlin or tackle Scottish links courses in his redundancy, responsible as he was to his shareholders to hand himself a pink slip as part of that hundred percent?

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But, in truth, the Fairfax CEO isn’t the rat-faced weasel he’s painted in all this. He was confronted with the devil’s choice. Option 1: Devise a strategy to improve his newspapers and increase their circulation and thus their profitability. (And don’t go assuming more than one in a hundred CEOs can pull this trick off. It’s difficult.) Option 2: Slash costs=folk. (The other ninety-nine can do this.) The Fairfax CEO, we can deduce, is not a one-in-a-hundred type of guy. Hence the folk at Fairfax marshalling their paraphernalia. But as I said, I don’t blame him. Option 1 is a bitch. It can’t be looked square in the face by a man this size without he is crushed by despair and must lunch at a club with chums to replenish his self-regard.

And we shouldn’t be appalled at what this 5% share hike says about the market. Or that Fairfax’s CEO knew exactly what the market would do. It’s not news that capital despises people. That if capitalism could function without people it would. The moment a computer writes a half-decent book I’m in the dole queue right behind Tim Winton. People are expensive, troublesome and greedy unless they are Chinese coolies and even the coolies are beginning to sniff and bridle at their own degradation, so capital will shortly decamp for Africa and fall head-over-heels with the mother lode of dark-skinned destitutes it finds there.

But somehow I am appalled. Because the market knows nothing of the people to be sacked at Fairfax. In the EG section of The Age there may have been a young Lester Bangs just feeling his oats, about to open up and howl. At the Sydney Morning Herald there was possibly a young political reporter with the nose of Bob Woodward and the venom of Doctor Thompson cracking her knuckles over the keyboard. In the Spectrum section there was, maybe, a gen-Xer who had a handle on people and an ear for the zeitgeist just starting an editorship that would have seen her spoken of in the same revered tones as Harold Ross at The New Yorker. The market doesn’t know the people who were lost. The market only knows they were people and they are gone and Fairfax is richer for it. Josef Stalin once said: The problem is people. No people… no problem. Our stock market is in lock step with the old boy here.

Share price is a result of myriad independent decisions made by many different people: retirees in crocheted cardigans hunched over laptops shuffling their super hither and thither; bright kids out of private schools managing funds for their friends and their friends’ fathers; brokers with a glittering clientele and halitosis and a dream to paint; yachtsmen in lonely oceans buying and selling off a satellite; widows stroking lap-sat cats using shares as a bridge game. Chefs. Drug lords.

It gives you a brutal insight into the mind of your fellow man that enough of these people saw people as a problem and their elimination as a solution to make their elimination a windfall. That’s a truth you’ll rarely hear in a novel or a song. A truth you need a dictator or a stock market to tell.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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