hurt the people first

Among the many takes I’ve read on yesterday’s ESPN layoffs, the most incisive, I think, is this one from Tom Ley:

And so today’s layoffs seem to follow a kind of logic: If ESPN is bleeding money from subscriber losses, they need to offset the damage by making cuts elsewhere in the company. That doesn’t, though, really follow, mathematically. Look at the people who have been laid off today. Sure, it’s possible that veterans like McManus and Stark and Ed Werder were carrying hefty salaries, but no amount of fired reporters and columnists is going to put even the tiniest dent in ESPN’s rights fees. Add up all the salaries of the people who lost their jobs today, and how much of a single Monday Night Football broadcast does it buy? Ten minutes? Fifteen?

So, then, what was the point? The memo released this morning by ESPN president John Skipper is instructive. It was hollow and buzzword-laden in the precise way that is meant to speak to Disney investors who want to be assured that ESPN is still capable of “navigating changes in technology and fan behavior in order to continue to deliver quality, breakthrough content.” That’s what today appears to have been really about—assuring Disney stakeholders that ESPN is taking things very seriously and is prepared to keep itself lean and competitive. Don’t think too much about how we’re going to continue to pay rights fees with sustained subscriber loss! We’re making cuts! We have a handle on things!

I was still thinking about that post when, this morning, I read Annalee Newitz’s report on the people employed by Google and Leapforce to rate Google’s algorithms. I say “employed by Google and Leapforce,” but the situation is actually more complicated than that: all of the work the raters do is for Google, but they are officially employees only of Leapforce — which has just cut all of the raters working full-time back to 26 hours per week max, in order to avoid having to meet certain expensive conditions laid down by Federal law. Though it’s Google who benefits — and openly admits to benefitting — from these people’s work, Google won’t take them on as employees, even though paying them directly for their work, even at full-time salaries with full benefits, would be less than a drop taken from Google’s fiscal bucket.

Thus we see ESPN/Disney and Leapforce/Google operating on what has become one of the most fundamental rules of our current economic system: When things go badly, hurt the people first.