SWPL ethical degeneracy in a nutshell with Tom Friedman and friends

Last month, while I was busy not reading Thomas L. “Flat Earth” Friedman’s hypomanic mishmashes of namedropping, mangled metaphors, man-on-the-street anecdotes, and half-cocked, arrogant economic and geopolitical pronouncements, I missed this neat encapsulation of how the American upper-middle and upper classes straight-up lost their remaining ethics and engagement with society at large. The way I came across this awful collage of nepotistic self-dealing, insipid self-help advice, and marketeering sleaze is sadly revealing. I found it through this morality-whoring career advice essay by one of Friedman’s fellow-travelers, a self-described “facilitator, speaker and trainer” by the name of R. Todd Bouldin. Keep in mind that Bouldin is a practicing attorney as you read these excerpts:

I technically have been unemployed since July 2009, but I don’t view myself that way. I am working all the time. Why? Because I gave up on full-time jobs. I still apply when I see an opportunity, but I don’t rely on it. I work part-time as an attorney for a hospitality company, allowing me to enjoy the practice of law without commitments to a large firm. I am now a consultant in leadership and learning for companies. I do career and life coaching for individuals. I even do some acting.

That’s the damnedest kind of unemployment, in which the idled worker holds down multiple payroll jobs. Protip: If a question on the LSAT asks whether employment on a part-time or temporary basis constitutes unemployment and you answer that it does, don’t count on admission to Pepperdine.

They know that your generation gets bored with companies after a while, and frankly, they get tired of your generation leaving them after they make significant investments in them. So the trend is toward low loyalty on both sides. Don’t bulk this trend. Enjoy it and work with it. This means that you are now your own brand, and you must market yourself.

Holy mangled pronouns. You are them, and they are you, and they are also them, all in a single sentence. Of course there’s no loyalty: who the hell are these people, or you people? How can one be loyal to the unidentifiable? I will, however, try not to invite Pablo Sandoval into this ad hoc employment trend, and I’ll definitely be sure not to invite that hella fat Polynesian dude from Hawaii Five-O. Oh, shit, the Big Kahuna is probably already in on this trend, just like Todd Bouldin, since it’s doubtful that he’s making a serious living as local color for Danno and the gang. I’d be highly surprised if that misspelling is a typo. I’d bet he’s ignorant of the proper spelling of “balk.” (Ed.: I’m an idiot, too. It’s “buck.” But at least I knew he was wrong, too.) That would be excusable if he weren’t an attorney. Would you want someone who can’t distinguish such common words from each other sending legal correspondence or submitting court documents on your behalf?

Finally, make sure that your resume and cover letter are written with excellent grammar and proper punctuation. Have a friend or two review your submissions. It really matters.

Counselor, advise thyself. Let’s return to renowned Arab proverb maven Thomas L. “This Ain’t Yogurt” Friedman. Few things more reliably make Friedman blow his yogurt than innovative people doing innovative things on this flat earth. In this case, the innovative youngsters happened to include Friedman’s daughter’s college roommate, a fact that Friedman had mentioned in his original piece about the entrepreneurs but omitted from his followup. Twice in a week and a half one of the most popular op-ed columnists in the world devoted a column to a business founded by a friend of his daughter’s, and the second time he decided not to disclose this conflict of interest. The gist of the second, disclosure-free article was that he had written about these young entrepreneurs the previous week, they had subsequently gotten a shitload of mail from jobseekers, and therefore he thought he’d publish a survey of the correspondence that they had received and the advice that they were offering the unemployed in response. Never mind that the entire column (save the first paragraph, which was a barely relevant introduction-cum-segue-setup about a recent New Yorker cartoon, and the last, which baselessly asserted that what he had just written was a perfect summation of the job market at large) was devoted to what had just become more-than-fortnightly free advertising for a headhunting service run by his daughter’s college buddy. Since most of us don’t have college buddies whose parents can advertise our startups in the New York Times op-ed section, we’ll just have to pitch ourselves hardcore. First, we’ll need internships:

Internships are increasingly important today, they explained, because skills are increasingly important in the new economy and because colleges increasingly don’t teach the ones employers are looking for. Experience, rather than a degree, has become an important proxy for skill, they note, and internships give you that experience. So grab one wherever you can, they add, because, even if you’re just serving coffee, it is a way to see how businesses actually work and which skills are prized by employers. Of course, for all these reasons, said Sharef, “it is almost as hard to get a paid internship today as it is to get an actual job.”

Let’s review this situation: Colleges are failing to provide educations that are of any professional use to their students, and employers insist on hiring only applicants with relevant skills, so it is the applicant’s duty to fervently seek out unpaid employment with these companies, likely in the capacity of private waitstaff.

Since so many internships are unpaid these days, added Sedlet, there is a real danger that only “rich kids” can afford them, which will only widen our income gaps. The key, if you get one, he added, is to remember “that companies don’t want generalists to help them think big; they want people who can help them execute” and “add value.”

If you can’t add value, add Sedlet. Notice that the preceding paragraph, which I reproduced in its entirety, conjoined two completely unrelated topics: internships being exclusively for rich girls who can rely on the old man’s money, and internships as ways to add value by executing the company’s HR generalists. Wait, that’s my Utopian fantasy, not Friedman’s; my bad. Paragraphs are supposed to conjoin related topics in a coherent manner, not cobble together a bunch of random thoughts about income inequality and managerial platitudes. Friedman’s writing is all kinds of shitty.

But what, they were often asked, does “add value” mean? It means, they said, show that you have some creative flair — particularly in design, innovation, entrepreneurship, sales or marketing, skills that can’t be easily replaced by a piece of software, a machine or a cheaper worker in India.

Hold on. Didn’t Friedman just tell us that we should be willing to serve our paid superiors coffee? Has that dolt never seen a Douwe Egberts machine? You put a cup under the spout, pull a lever, and out comes coffee. (Mad good coffee, by the way. Aside from hot and/or Legendary clinicians, Douwe Egberts is the best thing about having relatives in the hospital.) Is that too much work for the multitasking executive? Or is it too little being waited on by supplicants?

HireArt heard from many people, as did I, who have been out of work for six months or more and can’t get an employer to even look at their résumé. That is no coincidence. No employer will say this out loud for legal reasons, but if you’ve been out of work for six months or more, they won’t even look at you because they assume nobody else wanted to hire you. This is a tragedy that may need a public policy fix. In the meantime, what to do?

Here’s an idea: in the meantime, grab your Congressmen by the balls and twist. Letting elected officials ignore grave policy problems because they’re too busy whoring themselves out to business interests and showboating for wedge-issue wankers isn’t a tragedy; it’s shitty civics. Nobody here has discovered that he killed his father and has been fucking his mother. Finally, Friedman said something both ethical and sensible, but then he dropped it after a single sentence in order to shift the onus back onto the unemployed jobseeker and bungle what had been a coherent paragraph by appending an unrelated thought that belonged in the following paragraph, if it belonged anywhere.

For starters, said Sharef, “do not let yourself get to the point where you have done nothing for six months. Don’t let yourself go without building something on your own or taking an online course … to show that you have not been slacking off.”

Of course the long-term unemployed slack off; there’s a lot less for them to do. Many of the things they could do to fill their time cost money, which, don’tcha know, they’ve usually got a lot less of since they aren’t making any at work. I was a member of the long-term unemployed until a few weeks ago, and the idleness can be soul-sapping. I certainly did better when I was regularly engaged in some kind of work, but there are two crucial caveats here. First, the benefits that I derived from working for free did not excuse the reprehensible campaigns by my relatives to falsely justify my not paying me on the basis that I was just people helping people. Second, these benefits in no way justify asshat hiring managers for retroactively cracking the whip on people they presumptuously deem lazy when those people had good reasons to believe that no one wanted to hire them, often because their applications for work were repeatedly rejected, and by the way the economy sucked donkey balls. Friedman proceeded with a sentence about the importance of networking in one’s desired industry, followed by a lengthy paragraph on the same topic, including a litany of all the online courses and projects that one of HireArt’s clients pursued between jobs, eventually leading to his getting what Sharef called “an amazing job as a product manager,” in part because it was “actually hard to even tell that he was unemployed.” I might mention that a lot of people bridge gaps in their employment histories by making shit up. My guess is that this “amazing” “project manager” fooled some HR twits by eliding the hell out of his dates of employment. Let’s see what Friedman, or more accurately a bunch of e-mail correspondence transcribed by Friedman, had to say about job search mistakes:

What are the biggest mistakes? One, said Sharef, is a cover letter that tells an employer all sorts of things that the applicant has done but fails to explain how being hired would “add value” for that company. Two, she added: “Trying to be everything at once. I will speak to candidates, and they will say, ‘I am a great marketer and I’ve also been a college professor and I also know Excel and I was also once an Olympic ice skater.’ Employers don’t have the mental capacity to decide for you how you are going to help them in one specific capacity. It’s important to have a narrative that speaks to what you’re good at and what you can do” exactly.

Is it Sharef who expects the exactitude, or Friedman, or prospective employers? It kind of looks like an erratum that Friedman tacked onto the end of the paragraph so that it wouldn’t look like he was just reprinting a bunch of personal correspondence from a family friend. Quite fittingly, its real effect is to make Friedman look less coherent. He’s using a word that normally connotes precision to make himself look like a mushhead with no sense of literary style. By the way, guess whose promotional biography goes in the opposite direction from Sharef’s advice.

Finally, if you can’t find a job, try to invent one.

To paraphrase Tom Friedman, exactly. As I noted above, a lot of applicants just make shit up. Sometimes it works. Actually, I misleadingly bifurcated one of Friedman’s more coherent paragraphs in order to point out a possible Freudian slip. He had more to say on this topic:

Employers appreciate candidates “who’ve started their own businesses,” said Sedlet. “Even if it doesn’t work out, employers can see that you have passion and motivation — and it teaches a set of skills that have universal value: marketing, sales, product development.” Unfortunately, he added, “entrepreneurship is still the domain of the privileged and the young-unattached — unless you can start while you still have a job.”

Yeah, it’s “still the domain” of rich singles for those who are utterly ignorant of economic history. For much of American history the barriers to entry that Friedman and his associates take for granted simply did not exist. Many of them are the products of increasing regulatory capture and rent-seeking. Entrepreneurs who aren’t comfortable operating on the black or gray markets generally have to navigate thickets of red tape, much of it specious, in order to go into business. Banks have been shifting away from a business model in which they collect reasonable interest on loans extended to reasonably creditworthy borrowers upon due diligence to one in which they hoard deposits and bleed their depositors with junk fees. It hasn’t always been thus. That said, to be fair to Tom Friedman, it might understandably seem that way if one’s understanding of the world is derived from anecdotes about meetings with random waiters, family friends, businessmen, and whoever happened to be in the next seat on a recent flight. With respect to this notion that the unemployed should start businesses in order to empress hiring managers: are you fucking kidding me? “Even if it doesn’t work out” means either throwing family money down the Thomas Crapper or delinquencies on business loans, the latter resulting in a wrecked credit score and a very difficult time obtaining credit at market for any subsequent business ventures. That’s like saying that even if you suffer massive thoracic and abdominal trauma from a botched cliff dive, that cute local girl you fancy will be wicked impressed and will totally come visit you in the hospital and give you a blowjob. But the medical bills–What medical bills? You got the girl, man! Once they discharge you and your ribs no longer stab you every time you move, you’ll be tapping that!

So there it is — underneath all the headline employment numbers, this is what’s really going on out there.

No it isn’t. It’s a string of anecdotes from the founders of a single company that Friedman profiled twice because he’s lazy and unscrupulous and sees nothing wrong with cronyism, argument by unsupported assertion, craven supplication to unethical and unreasonable managers, abdication of all institutional responsibility in favor of Darwinian individualism, and sloppy misuse of anecdotal evidence. There are reasonable, and I would argue enlightening, ways to use anecdotes. Tom Friedman prefers ridiculous ones. The comment thread below this piece was a mixed bag. A number of the commentators excoriated Friedman for not disclosing his conflict of interest and made it very clear that unpaid internships are unlawful if they do not provide relevant professional training to the intern, displace paid employees, or provide a financial benefit to the employer. According to a commentator named Scott, the illegality of unpaid internships has been a matter of settled law since 1949. His wording was sloppy, but if the date is correct, that’s 14 or 15 years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The very existence of unpaid internships in their usual current form should be out of the question, except as something that consistently gets employers shaken down by plaintiffs for their hubris. (This has started happening to defendants including Charlie Rose and Ariana Huffington, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns into an avalanche of litigation in the next few years.) At the other extreme of the comment thread, one finds craven social climbers cheerleading Friedman and joining him in defending the system as just the way things are, and in encouraging job seekers to do what they gotta do: in other words, blatant moral relativism; and a fine individual who compared the long-term unemployed to spoiling meat in a supermarket. Friedman is a prominent public face of a huge cohort of wealthy careerists who are utterly amoral and ethically bankrupt in their work lives. These people accept jobs on flagrantly unlawful terms because they have no meaningful regard for the welfare of anyone other than themselves, and certainly none for their society’s economic losers. These people gravitate to each other. They praise each other for being winners, that is to say, morally vacuous conformists and social climbers. They drive labor culture and labor policy. Give them quarter, and we’ll get a full-strength banana republic. Give them support, and we’ll earn that fate.


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