Joseph Heller’s satirical novel, Catch-22, published in 1961 and later adapted as a movie in 1970, addresses the absurdity and black humor that is often present in desperate situations. The book and subsequent movie highlight the dilemma of an American bombardier, Captain John Yossarian, in World War II who experiences the horrors of war and, as he nears the target number of missions required to be sent home, is told the necessary mission count has been increased, making him ineligible to leave.
In a desperate attempt to avoid continued exposure to the insanity of war and other officers around him, Yossarian invents creative ways to avoid combat missions and secure release from the Air Force. He finally declares that he is unable to perform his duties due to insanity but is told there is a “catch” in regulations that states if Yossarian is crazy, he doesn’t have to fly the missions, but if he makes a formal request to be relived of this duty, he is sane. This subject was reprised by Corporal Klinger who often cross-dressed and repeatedly pleaded insanity to appeal for a discharge from the army in the 1970s-80s television series M*A*S*H. In both cases, there was no logical way out of their dilemma.
The term “catch-22” has become a popular shorthand for any situation that involves an absurdity of conditions that defy logical resolution. In other words, you can’t solve a problem because one essential element of the solution is cancelled by another necessary condition. First time job seekers often run into the Catch-22 of employers requiring experience: No experience, no job… No job, no experience.
Such situations can become desperate and some faced with this take extraordinary risks, cheat or bend the rules. The expression, “desperate times call for desperate measures” is thought to have originated with the Greek physician Hippocrates (470 BC – 370 BC) addressing extreme diseases and cures. His observation is appropriate today as well.
A current Catch-22 involves the consequence of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a temporary lifeline for some businesses, especially microbusinesses. But it has become a catch-22 conundrum as well. The loan forgiveness provision is based on retaining or restoring employees with determination by head count and payroll. However, a problem arises since restoring employees is a long-term objective but PPP is a short-term solution. PPP funding is based on two months of pre-COVID-19 payroll and a bit more for rent and utilities, yet unemployment benefits extend for a longer period and currently include a bonus payment that may exceed what microbusiness employers can afford to pay, especially in times of economic stress.
This situation can result in asking a furloughed employee to make an untenable choice between uncertain employment and working conditions or a guaranteed unemployment check. Can micro-business outbid a generous government unemployment payment? This Catch-22 is complicated by confusing cacophony and discord between levels of government and the extraordinary circumstances of a lengthy and complex recovery from a worldwide catastrophic event.
All sides of the employer/employee equation are caught in an economic storm that will subside over time, but today is a critical juncture for both. Remedies for very small, microbusinesses are typically much different in scope and substance than larger enterprises, especially when additional responsibilities such as employees and their families are involved. While large companies can operate on economies of scale to maximize resources, an employer with five employees may not have that advantage. Hopefully long-term support of microbusiness will become a top priority at all levels of government and recognize the catch.