2/18/2009

Paying for the Best

Summing up a Washington Post editorial, Harold Meyerson asked, "Is this any way to treat our best and our brightest? The guys who shuttered our industrial base, indebted us to Communist China, hooked us on plastic and subprime mortgages, bought our politicians, eluded our regulations, wiped out our retirement plans -- and then turned to us for help when their house of debt collapsed? Damn straight it is. Bring on the pillories." This comment was in regard to the banking CEOs' whining about being pay-limited to $500k if their failed companies took the bailout corporate welfare. Meyerson's entire analysis is worth reading and I've linked it to this paragraph. "The best and the brightest" is a label often applied to insanely corrupt and incompetent elites, from Greek times to today.

For greed and arrogance, it's hard to top the characters pretending to be wounded today, though. CEOs in every industry have been providing the nation with short-term thinking and bookie quality accounting systems since Reagan and the Republicans' "Contract on America." That collection of gangsters and conmen put a hit on the nation that it will take decades, again, to repair. Most likely, though, we'll do the usual American thing and give up on the repair job about 1/4 of the way through the work.

For some whacked reason, we appear to be unable to break our connection to royalty and religion. Americans, inheritors of Washington and Jefferson's "great experiment" in democracy, seem to crave queens, kings, princes, and princesses instead of equality, justice, fairness, and rational thought. We tossed off a reasonably competent Jimmy Carter for the royally incompetent Ronny Rayguns and his band of buffoons and criminals. A dozen years of stagnant economy and regressive taxation and corporate welfare, the country was broke and headed down the trash chute. So, the royalists relented and allowed a competent poor boy, Billy Clinton and his academics, to straighten out the financial and social mess crazy Ronny had left. Eight years of competence was clearly too much to stand, though. The country hunted down one of the least literate princes of the elite and assigned him and Ronny's leftover bozos the task of wrecking the nation's financial system and downgrading the talent in our federal government to something similar to the old Soviet Union’s.

The purpose in all of this idiocy is hard to determine. Maybe there isn’t one. It’s possible that, like all failed societies, we are committing suicide because we’ve had enough of success and democracy.

Listening to the wingers babble about “creeping socialism” and the terrible sacrifices being made by “talented executives” (probably the rarest species of human on the planet) has made me suspect that we might be the most gullible voting public in history.

First, let’s examine the “talent” being sacrificed. If these executives were so talented, they wouldn’t need federal handouts to fix the problems their brilliant leadership created for their businesses. In my experience (in two Fortune 100 companies and a variety of smaller enterprises), what appears to float to the top of the bowl is rarely cream. As in academic institutions, corporate bureaucracies are mostly “led” by men and women who have avoided the blame for catastrophes and who have taken credit for successes that had nothing to do with their own activity. In other words, politicians of the worst sort.

Even the dullest Apple Kool-Aid-sipper has to be smart enough to know that Steve Jobs is as far from being a designer, engineer, and product guru as Bill Gates is from an motivational speaker. Even the dumbest car guy knows that William Clay Ford, Jr. couldn’t design, repair, market, or drive a Ford car if his life depended on it. The collection of fools and criminals that misled AIG, Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, PNC Financial, and US Bancorp couldn’t balance a check book with Quicken and a literate assistant. Many of these CEOs are not smart people, but they are clever people. AIG’s Ed Liddy, for example, couldn’t manage a hotdog stand, but he can probably sell ice cubes to Eskimos.

Obama is finding it difficult to staff his cabinet with intelligent, experienced, reasonably uncorrupted people. In our current social and economic environment, it’s hard to find anyone who has become prominent in any area who isn’t one of these sharks. We, as a nation, are so wrapped up in wanting “anointed leaders” to follow that the people who are doing leading are left behind doing the actual work while the mindless figureheads take the credit. It takes time and energy to accomplish anything. It doesn’t take much of either to take the credit. When taking the credit becomes more rewarding than doing the work, you end up with the kind of system that we are seeing crumble before our eyes.

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