vol. 2, #17, October, 1996
THE DILBERTIZING OF AMERICA
I've been watching our presidential and vice-presidential debates, and, though I've been impressed by the gentlemanliness with which they've been conducted, they still seem to be coming to us live from a different planet. These guys drone on and on about how doing this with taxes, or that with deregulation, will stimulate the economy and cause businesses to create jobs and astounding rates of growth.
Hello? Have none of them noticed that whenever the unemployment rate goes down, the bond market goes into a steep nose dive, and the Federal Reserve raises interest rates? Does anybody really think that Alan Greenspan, the head of the Federal Reserve, would let the growth rate go up above 4%?
And these businesses that are just waiting to be unleashed so that they can create jobs? That's not AT&T you're talking about. Or GTE. Or IBM. Or Aetna. Or any other of those companies that have been laying off workers, downsizing, contracting out work to cheaper suppliers, relocating plants, busting unions, raiding employee pension funds.
Nor is it Rockwell or Martin Marietta, who actually charged the taxpayers for their costs in laying off workers when they merged.
These are not companies that are in danger of going out of business. They are, in many cases, companies that are reporting record profits, whose CEO's are, with their stock options, receiving compensation in the range of $30,000,000. It's just that corporate management wants even larger profits.
It is possible that the disconnect between so many Americans and their government may be a result of the fact that government is no longer protecting them from such companies. After all, the first half of this century was marked by government regulation of corporations. From Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin Roosevelt, corporations had their power reduced by anti-trust laws. Companies were forced to allow their workers to organize and bargain. They were forced to provide a minimum adequate wage and to pay into a social security fund on the behalf of these workers.
In later years, the federal government intervened to protect workers from injury and death on the job. It forced companies to stop discrimination in employment--starting with the Help Wanted ads which used to be labeled "Jobs for Whites" and "Jobs for Negroes" and "Jobs for Men" and "Jobs for Women." Government demanded that companies let their workers know what dangerous substances they might be exposed to on the job. When companies obtained and used the private medical records of employees, government sought to protect worker privacy. When companies closed down factories and abandoned communities without notice, congress passed a plant-closing-notofication bill.
In short, for most of this century, the public believed that, when companies behaved badly to their workers and their communities, government would be a balancing force against corporate power. In a fight between the companies and the workers, we all believed that government was on our side.
Not any more. Republicans, Democrats--it doesn't really matter all that much anymore. They're all more obligated to big business than they are to ordinary people. They all have to keep Wall Street happy. And when bond traders are dancing in the streets, the workers--well, it's like Sancho Panza says: "whether the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it's going to be bad for the pitcher."
This sense of deep disaffection with Big Corporate American--and by extension, with the government that has failed to stop its worst excesses-- was confirmed for me recently when I read three books: Scott Adams' The Dilbert Principle, David M. Gordon's Fat and Mean, and Michael Moore's Downsize This!. Scott Adams and Michael Moore are both pretty funny guys. But their books, taken together, with Fat and Mean, present a bleak view of the world of the workplace.
I should mention that I am one of those happy people whose work is rewarding, whose workplace mission is clear, and whose management allows us to use our expertise to do our jobs well. But Scott Adams' corporate world is a very different place. The Dilbert Principle is simple: companies will move their least competent employees to the place where they can do the least harm, i.e., management. Thus the Dilbertized corporation is full of clueless managers, who don't understand what their purpose is, or what the people they manage do all day.
[cartoon: Manager says "I put together a timeline for your project. I started by reasoning that anything I don't understand is easy to do. Phase One: Design a client-server architecture for our worldwide operations. Time: six minutes."]
Nonetheless, these managers control everything about their workers' lives, from the pointless tasks they are asked to complete, to the degrading little cubicles in which they do them.
If that was only one man's view, we could disregard it. But what makes this book immensely sad is the interspersed e-mail from all those workers who read the Dilbert strip and said "Yes! That's my life he's talking about!" By putting his e-mail address in his cartoon strip, Scott Adams learned that it was no longer possible to write satire about the workplace--no matter how preposterously Dilbert's bosses behaved, there was always a real-life boss out there who did something even dumber.
David Gordon's book does a lot to explain why the Dilbert Principle is correct. He gathers together an impressive amount of documentation to show that, amid all the corporate downsizing, companies have not, in fact, become "lean and mean." Rather, what they have done is become increasingly topheavy, getting rid of more and more frontline employees--assembly line workers, retail clerks, sales representatives, etc.--but actually hiring more supervisory personnel. These companies have, instead, become fat and mean. (This may not ring true to many Americans, because the 1990's waves of layoffs included professional people and supervisors, making the middle class nervous about their jobs. But Gordon's statistics are hard to refute--over the past 30 years, far more people are doing supervisory jobs than frontline jobs.)
Gordon traces this to a historic preference in our country, and to some extent in the United Kingdom, for conflictual relationships between management and labor. He points to other countries where management spends a great deal of money on education and training for every employee, on a continuing basis, so that they can do their jobs better. Since this increases the value of every employee, management also makes every effort to keep the employees committed to the company, with good pay and generous benefits. What management gets in return from these employees is their loyalty and their ideas. Continuous improvement of the product and the manufacturing process is more likely when everyone's ideas and abilities are unleashed.
Gordon shows that American corporations have instead demonstrated a historic preference for distrusting workers, treating them as interchangeable units who are simply a management cost. Thus, American companies have resisted unions and resisted offering decent wages and benefits. Since this kind of treatment creates dissatisfied workers, it requires management to hire a larger number of supervisors to keep these disgruntled workers in line. The traditional American management approach has been a matter of using the stick (fear of losing your job) rather than the carrot (if the company makes more money, we'll all have better pay and benefits).
The consequence is that a whole lot of people in America are nervous about their future, and even more nervous about their children's future. People raised during the extraordinary prosperity of post World War II America came to believe that every generation would live better than the one before it, that working class children would become middle class adults with good jobs, that everyone who worked hard and played by the rules could own a home, send their kids to good schools, go on a nice vacation every year, and maybe have a few of the luxuries of life--a camper, maybe, or a boat, or a really nice car. And that they could do all this on the father's paycheck, while the mother stayed home and took care of the kids.
They believed that if they worked hard for their companies, their companies would take care of them. And they believed that the companies that supported their communities, and drew benefits from local government, would stay in their communities.
So when corporations began to close down even profitable plants, moving them around the world like so many pieces on a Monopoly board, there was an enormous sense of betrayal, of broken promises. And when profitable companies began to bust unions and lay off workers and clean out worker pension funds, they lost the trust and loyalty of American workers.
When government failed to step in and stop this, it lost a lot of loyalty and trust, too, I believe. Government left a lot of people feeling angry and betrayed. Politicians did notice the anger--and were careful to re-direct it against minorities, illegal aliens, gays, a government that wanted to take away guns, Democrats who wanted to increase taxes, etc. Maybe that's why, even when such politicians win, it doesn't satisfy voters--their solutions don't deal with the real problems.
Still, even though we're a country founded in an act of revolution, we don't much like the revolutionaries who want to save us. Possibly because most revolutionaries are so passionate, so black-and-white, so rigid, so humorless, so boring. So, well, Ralph Nader.
Which brings me to Michael Moore--the man corporate America seriously needs to fear. Downsize This! is a dangerously funny book. Moore is passionately angry at the corporations that have destroyed the American dream, and taken over the government by buying politicians wholesale. He hates the CEOs who he condemns as the ultimate "welfare mothers," taking huge amounts of government money for dubious purposes (he names names, too.) Even more, he hates the people who turn bewildered, betrayed Americans against each other instead of against the corporations who are at the root of our problems.
So what does he do? He creates Crackers, the corporate-crime fighting chicken. Dumb and funny, right? But wherever Crackers went, thousands of Americans turned out to tell Crackers about some dirty trick some corporation had pulled.
He tells people how stupid they are to let politicians turn us against each other--against immigrants and blacks and homosexuals--instead of focusing on the real culprits, the corporations and their servant political establishment. He gives advice on where are the good places for illegal aliens to enter the country. He sends checks to politicians in the name of groups like "Abortionists for Buchanan" and "The John Wayne Gacy Fan Club," and publishes photographs of the canceled checks. He suggests that American voters should eliminate the middle-man and vote directly for the lobbyist who has bought and paid for specific congressmen (and again, he names names). He suggests how to form a citizen militia that will go after the really bad guys--with consumer boycotts, with unionizing, with political organizing to take over the Democratic party and make it a party of the people again.
And Moore knows how to tell people this--with wicked humor, with words, with video, with film. The man is wacky, crazy, funny, and dead on target. He is an antidote to the Dilbertizing of America.
What we need is for our politicians to read the right books. These would be a real good start.
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