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The Meaninglessness of Your Work

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America has become a second rate power. Our trade deficit and fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. In the days of the 'free market' when our country was a  top industrial power, there was accountability to the shareholders. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the man who built this industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today management has no stake in the company. Altogether these guys sitting up there own a total of less than 3% and where does Mr. Cromwell put his million dollar salary? Certainly not in Teldar stock, he owns less than 1%. You own Teldar Paper, the stockholders, and you are being royally screwed over by these bureaucrats with their steak lunches, golf and hunting trips, corporate jets, and golden parachutes! Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over $200,000 a year. I spent two months analyzing what these guys did and I still can't figure it out. One thing I do know is this paper company lost $110 million last year, and I'd bet half of that is in the paperwork going back and forth between all the vice presidents.

- Gordon Gekko, Wall Street (1987)

Many people don't remember that speech. Not because it isn't memorable, but because it doesn't have a really snappy quotable line, and because it's followed by the "greed is good speech." But, if you want to see why the American economy is in the toilet, that speech by Gekko sums it up.

It's not the housing bubble, it's not foreign competition, it's not regulations, it's not the greed of the 1%, and it's not taxes. It's the fact that the fastest growing sector of the economy is bullshit. Paper pushing, unproductive, middle management bullshit. And, it's been this way for decades. We now have companies where there are managers who manage no one but other managers, who themselves only manage managers, and those managers likewise are only managing managers.

Do you know how many levels of management hierarchy you need to have a "senior executive vice president?" You have a senior vice president, an executive vice president, and then above them is the senior executive vice president. That's five whole levels of hierarchy. (You only counted three? It's vice president, by definition there's a president above him, that's four. And, there's an implied vanilla vice president below the senior vice president, that's five.) Five levels of management, and we haven't even hit the director, deputy director, assistant deputy director, and senior team lead.

To make matters worse, when you get to the bottom of the whole heap, to someone who actually does something, there's a good chance that person is in a department like HR, which isn't involved in making the company's end user product or service. HR, compliance, tech support, secretaries, and yes, even the legal department, they don't work on making the company's product, they're the baggage train. Not saying that you can get by without them or that they aren't useful, but that we need to look at just how much of our economy is dedicated to something other than making things. (Not necessarily physical things, but anything, widgets, services, information goods, art, or just improvements to existing things.)

And what are these people dedicated to doing, if not developing the end product? Their primary job function is to keep their job. Just keep your head down, don't make any noise, get a lockstep promotion fifteen years in, and then leave with your retirement savings another fifteen years after that. Somehow our economy has come to see this as a virtue. We look at things like "job creation" and the average pay for a college graduate and pat ourselves on the back about how great the economy is doing. Not this year, of course, but over the course of the last few decades, that's what we've done. What we haven't done is ask what these people are actually doing with their lives.

Yes, there's always some noise about how America doesn't make anything any more, and how manufacturing is suffering, but we only hear complaints because the people losing manufacturing jobs aren't landing in cushy lower-middle management white collar positions. People in white collar office gigs rarely complain that they don't make anything. If they did, their boss would notice and probably let them go, so shut up, and don't say anything.

If this has been going on for decades, how did the economy keep growing for so long? Because some of the people at the top, the ones making the big decisions, some of them are actually pretty smart, and a lot of the folks at the bottom, the ones doing all the grunt work, they're pretty good at what they do. They were so good that they carried the unproductive middle along with them.

Now what we're seeing is that the unproducitvity sector is just too large. The productive cannot build a strong enough economy to support them. And just to be clear, while some of the people at the top are really great leaders, there's also a lot of CEOs that follow the same don't-rock-the-boat mentality of middle management. They're riding the tide, too, just with more money than their subordinates.

Millions of people who produce little or nothing with their lives. But, at the same time they're doing something else - they're consuming resources. Food, plastic, fuel, land, you name it. They're not just not contributing, they're hurting the economy. Where making a widget used to require feeding an employee three squares a day, now making that same widget requires giving him three squares, a half dozen managers, and a half dozen support personnel their three squares, too. Not to mention the two government widget regulators who need to eat. That's not efficiency.

There is a way out of the mess, but it requires a lot of people to radically change their lives. We have to collectively make a huge trade, between security and meaning. What we've been building is job security. Amorphous titles with no authority and no responsibility. It worked, for a while. But, that short term stability is unsustainable in the long run. People have to be willing to give it up and pursue meaningful work, something where you understand what it is that you do, how you contribute to making something that someone else will use, and preferably in a position where a ten year old can draw the line between you and the end user.

The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be 'survival of the unfittest'. Well in my book, you either do it right or you get eliminated. Teldar Paper is doomed to fail. Its diversification into casualty insurance has not worked. Its crown jewels are its trees, the rest is dross. Through wars, depressions, inflations and deterioration of paper money, trees have always kept their value, but Teldar is chopping them all down. Forests are perishable, forest rights are as important as human rights to this planet, and all the illusory Maginot lines, scorched earth tactics, proxy fights, poison pills, etc. that Mr. Cromwell is going to come up with to prevent people like me from buying Teldar Paper are doomed to fail because the bottom line, ladies and gentlemen, as you very well know, is the only way to stay strong is to create value, that's why you buy stock, to have it go up. If there's any other reason, I've never heard it.

That's all I'm saying...it's you people who own this company, not them, they work for you and they've done a lousy job of it. Get rid of them fast, before you all get sick and die. I may be an opportunist, but if these clowns did a better job, I'd be out of work. In the last seven deals I've been in, there were 2.3 million stockholders that actually made a pretax profit of $12 billion. When I bought the Ixtlan Corporation it was in the exact same position Teldar is today -- I turned three of its companies private and I sold four others -- and each of these companies, liberated from the suffering conglomerate has prospered. I am not a destroyer of companies, I am a liberator of them.

[Read more from The Robot Pimp]


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