The grand artifice

Imagine the freedom that you’d have as a billionaire. A million dollars invested in a high-dividend oil company stock would yield a steady annual dividend of $40,000 or so. A billion is a million times a thousand. We’re talking money, enough not only to buy our parents houses in the South of France, but third houses in the South of England. You’d be able to chill with Russian oligarchs and Gulf oil sheikhs in the toniest parts of London. There would be no need to limit yourself to a single semester studying abroad in, as one of my college lunch buddies rather smugly put it, the “Royal Borough of Kensington.” You’d have the freedom to rededicate your life to something other than working for a living. You’d be able to afford the priciest whores on the face of the earth, and, if wisdom didn’t seem like something worth attending to, spending the entire swing shift every night consorting with them. Other than war zones and places under severe weather at the moment, you’d be able to hail private jets like taxis in Midtown Manhattan and fly anywhere in the permanently inhabited parts of the world. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about the extra cost of a nonstop flight to Newark, the poor man’s Teterboro, over an itinerary with layovers in Denver and Houston. You could devote your waking hours to meditation, or to scholarship, or to charitable works, or to aristocratic farming, or to fine woodworking, or to something in the Fossett/Kennedy tradition of fooldhardiness, like flying experimental aircraft over the Sierra Nevada without instrument certification.

Billionaires have the world as their oyster. They can do anything. This is why they spend their days exchanging strategy e-mails full of garbage-ass “management theory” catchphrases. They don’t just have their PR mercenaries write that sort of intellectually deadening bullshit for public consumption; they use it themselves, in their own private correspondence. It speaks to them. Where Megan McArdle is afflicted with some kind of psychosocial or moral impediment to living in truth as a rich girl who can rely on the old man’s money, these guys suffer from a more purely intellectual impediment to even recognizing truth. What can be done for, or about, leading businessmen who sincerely believe that Thomas Jefferson would have supported their attack on the academic independence and probity of his beloved University of Virginia because he was a “change agent?” Drill through the alluvial bullshit into the bedrock, and it turns out that there is no bedrock, just an innermost layer of more bullshit, and the soi-disant public intellectuals who buy themselves platforms to promote their spurious ideas about “strategic dynamism” are so deep in it that they no more recognize it as bullshit than a fish recognizes water.

There’s no exposé to be written about Pat Robertson reading the Investor’s Business Daily on Operation Blessing flights to his diamond mines in West Africa. There’s no deliberate con to be exposed. The local notables aren’t cynically distributing Parson Weems hagiographies and McGuffey Readers to the useful idiots while reserving an Index of dangerous literature for themselves. They’re reading stuff that’s even worse than what the more intelligent little people are reading with the blessing of their propagandists. They’re reading and writing e-mails full of shit that they could have learned from the self-help section at FedEx Office, on their own time, beyond the usual gaze of the press. They’re believers.

They’re dragging us down with them. Thomas Frank mentioned university administrators reading Who Moved My Cheese? I remember hearing a lot about this book at the time of its publication (in 1998, so I must have been fifteen to seventeen for the great hubbub, although I recalled being younger than that), and I remember thinking that with a title that stupid, the book had to be stupid. Skimming Wikipedia, I’m pretty sure that I was right about that. It has to be one of the crudest, most poorly disguised works of social control ever written. It isn’t about George Washington’s preternatural, if historically bogus, honesty before the cherry tree; it’s about a room full of cheese that is magically replenished until one day it isn’t magically replenished anymore because another room in a different part of the maze is being magically replenished instead, and how it’s counterproductive to be bitter about (this part must be inferred) some asshat in management “disrupting” one’s economy. It’s worse than Snakes on a Plane. Samuel L. Jackson slaughtering a motherfucking infestation of motherfucking serpents on a motherfucking commercial aircraft, or something to that effect, is at least badass, if gratuitous; this stuff is just stupid, and on top of its sheer stupidity it’s intractably self-serious. Sam will admit that he’s been in some dumbass films; he doesn’t care. He isn’t moralizing a frightened, financially destabilized middle class with parables of mice and men.

The magic of the bottomless cheese supply inadvertently reveals one of the great prejudices of the US middle class, one that has been hardening since at least the mid-seventies. This is the assumption that the productive activity allowing bougies to bullshit each other for a living just happens, somehow, but one wouldn’t want to be involved in making it happen because doing that would be low-class, so there’s no real point to even understanding it. The magical cheese supply had been in one place, and then suddenly it was moved somewhere else, and the problem was that the entitled creatures eating it weren’t enterprising and dogged enough to chase it down again. Nobody in this story tended or milked cows, or cut and bucked hay, or made cheese, or sold it, or put it out on the evening snack tray, but the problem wasn’t that the economy was nothing but useless eaters; it was that it was nothing but useless eaters who wouldn’t hustle for their supper. The economy is just something that happens. It happens at somebody’s hands, of course, and we have reasons for ignoring this.

Hola señor, me llama Pedro Huilsoñez. Yo tengo tu queso, señor.

Can you smell what the Rock is not cooking because it’s just a fucking cheese plate? By the way, you’re an entitled, insolent little shit for expecting three hots and a cot, like you’re in the goddamn Army.

Remember, this is a moral fable about mice in a cheese maze for adults. We’re all just mice in the maze. Some shithead will move the food supply no telling where, just because, and it’s our solemn duty to hustle after it. If we fire you, it’s your own damn fault for not putting on a game face and hitting the pavement like a winner. Managers bought this garbage in bulk and handed it out to their subordinates. It’s no wonder we have workplace shootings. Take a grunt to the jungle, lieutenant, and you may just get your ass fragged. Better run somewhere else, maybe.

The little people react to this environment by becoming amoral. The incentives hardly allow for anything else. If résumé padding and inflation aren’t enough, there are services that will create a backstory for their clients from scratch, complete with fake business websites and “former supervisors” who will obligingly take calls from real hiring managers and offer glowing references. This is the sort of spycraft that one might expect to use after being hired by the CIA; instead, clients use it in order to land jobs in marketing and outside sales. It might be good for pulling a fast one on an ISI station chief, or it might be good for pulling a fast one on some ditz in HR.

Businesses do roughly the same thing, of course. Applicants don’t normally use advertising services to burnish their images, but businesses do. They’ll lie about working conditions, office culture, managerial culture, morale, company policies, anything, and the only credible information an applicant can find about any of this is either from a friend on the inside serving as a mole or from whistleblowers. Companies all just wanna hire big rock stars, but wouldn’t you know, I’m Chad Kroeger. Look at this résumé; every time I do, it makes me laugh.

What the hell got into Joey’s head? As a manager demanding only the best for jobs that will never be better than mediocre, you asked for it, and you got it. Reward bullshit artistry, and you’ll get bullshit artists. I’ve never worked for a grower who referred to blueberries or wine grapes as “deliverables,” even though they’re at least as deliverable as a groundwater contamination report. One of the sanest people I knew at the environmental consulting firm did these weird cloak-and-dagger acts, shit like pulling a teabag out of a box in his desk like it was a slip of paper with directions to a partisan encampment in the forest outside Auschwitz, but it was just a little something to spice up a job that he didn’t really care about one way or the other. He wasn’t having a mid-life crisis like the other lifers. Where did he see himself in five years? Pulling another teabag out of his desk, probably, but not that that mattered to him. He may have been the only person in any sort of managerial position in the office who didn’t give a shit about the political situation. Shit could go down, long knives could be unsheathed and sharpened, but he’d end up somewhere, probably, and he’d have his tea supply. The others could melt down over the disappointing trajectories of their “careers;” he’d just grab his trench coat and play midcentury noir with his Earl Grey.

It probably helped that line management didn’t expect dude to be billable. He was our safety guy. He may have worked hard, but I’m not convinced. The line managers, meanwhile, flipped out over deliverables more than they actually delivered anything, and not much of it was objectively worth delivering in the first place. The state regulators demanded the reports, but they weren’t edible if push came to shove; they might as well have cased out vacant lots on the east side of Harrisburg for dandelions if they wanted to be objectively productive citizens. If the deliverable is blueberries, you either picked them or you didn’t, but that’s why no one calls it a deliverable. Maybe there are some real dipshits who do, but I’ve never met any.

I shouldn’t dog on environmental consulting so. Some of the work I did was worthwhile, after a fashion, and a lot of it is really just about taking stock of situations that might be bad. Gasoline diffusing into household groundwater wells is bad news, and there’s no way to know for sure that it isn’t diffusing from a tank that has been known to leak without taking a look. There is no objective need to refer to the ingredients of gasoline as “constituents of concern,” but we were told to call them that because herp derp.

The Baffler article about management theory in higher education describes intellectual disabilities much worse than I ever witnessed as an environmental consultant, and much, much worse waste and fraud. There were some slackers around the office, and I turned into one of them as it hit me that the job seriously sucked and was next to meaningless but that I also didn’t trust my bosses enough to be honest with them about any of this. There were some featherbedders and cronies doing favors for cronies, and there was at least one apparent extortionist who probably kept her job despite gross incompetence and misconduct by threatening the then-office manager, a much better person and a much better employee, with a discrimination suit for firing her. The company was not, however, structurally corrupt. It was just a bit Dilberty and dysfunctional.

Higher education is full of people who make their livings by doing minor edits of textbooks each year and then selling the “updated editions” for one or two hundred dollars apiece. One publisher tried to lowball Thomas Frank for the rights to republish an essay that he had already published on a free website; the publisher wanted to include it in a $75.95 textbook. The administrative apparatus of American universities has swollen while the faculty has been pushed into a miserable existence as minimum-wage adjuncts. Students and their parents approach college education effectively as a Joel Osteen-approved advance-tithing racket, paying $160,000 or more (or, increasingly, going into that much student debt) in order to secure credentials that allow them to gross ten or twenty times the principal over their lifetimes without graduate education. Many of them apparently assume that they’d make nothing at all as high school graduates and are really on track to gross marginal income of $10 or $20k over their earnings with a high school education; the actual return on investment, before interest, may be less than the tenfold return promised by Pastor Joel for advance tithes to the Lord our God.

The administrators are moving the faculty’s cheese and then blaming the professors for being upset. It’s an incredibly immoral arrangement. It’s morally unsustainable, and it’s financially unsustainable. Some of the worst people who could possibly infest the academy are eating the seed corn. The lenders are probably a decade or so, maybe quite a bit less, from holding the bag on unrepayable student debt. Some poorly stewarded schools will take the fall with them.

Think about the contempt that these people feel for the instructors who keep their schools’ academic operations, their raison d’être, from sputtering to a halt. They’re increasingly refusing to pay high yeomen’s salaries, ones in the range of $80-120k per annum, to their most loyal faculty. Instead, they’re consigning their faculties to penury and lavishing salaries on useless, self-deluding bullshit artists and a parallel cohort of craven racketeers, including themselves. It’s Brezhnev-style looting by apparatchiks, just as Firehat says. But where’s our Gorbachev?

Much of this pathology comes down to the middle class not wanting to work. This makes tragic sense for a country that was founded as a federation of slave states and has remained functionally a slave state for most of its history. The middle class assumes that menial jobs will always suck, and consequently these jobs continue to suck. Bougie abandoned meatpacking after a bitter fight sometime around 1990. It used to be a solidly middle-class occupation with tolerable workplace injury and death rates; these days it’s a bloodbath for the staff, not just the animals, a return to The Jungle. Cesar Chavez, the child of dispossessed American yeomen from Arizona, tried to reform labor relations on the big Western plantations, but to little avail. The wretchedness of these jobs is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’re territory that no one with an established civic stake in the country is willing to claim, and so they’re left to the most lawless elements, a combination of desperate peasants and whip-hand planters, foremen, and capitalists in the worst Gilded Age sense of the term.

Look at the mythology surrounding hip tech companies if you don’t believe me about the American middle class being lazy. Someone involved in the marketing believes in laziness strongly enough to deliberately showcase it as a major selling point for these companies. Look at all the carrying-on about how these companies have foosball tables in their common areas. I used to play foosball at lock-ins at the Lancaster YMCA. These lucky bastards, we’re told, play it for a living.

How the hell does one get anything done at work if one spends the whole workday at a foosball table? This is left unsaid, but it’s implied, and it’s an ugly message at heart. The messaging looks incoherent because these visionaries, admired for their great visions and all that, are shown playing children’s table games instead of doing work. For once we are not expected to resent them for goofing off, even though they’re goofing off on company time, which is nominally a serious no-no in the ostentatiously nose-to-the-grindstone American workplace culture. The hidden message, however, is that these techies are a higher life form with no need for normal structure in their lives to get work done. It’s immune to the temptation to play foosball all the live-long day. They’re self-starters. They know how to balance their work lives between doing whatever inscrutable and unsaid thing they do for actual work and the rock wall, where they’re always shown in the promotional literature. Why isn’t there a rock wall at your meatpacking plant? Because you aren’t cool and evolved and successful meritocrats like them, that’s why. Also, you’d be too damn tired from cutting meat to climb anything but the stairs to your apartment. There’s also the implication that these people are creative-class divas who need office perks like that to function because their work is, like, really brainy and shit. Aeronautical engineers at Boeing might be sort of brainy, too, but if they don’t get a rock wall at work, it’s because they work for Boeing, not Google.

The idea here is that these hipster shits get to play ping-pong for a living because they’re better than you, because they work hard and play hard and you just work nights at Cumberland Farms for a third of the minimum base pay at Google. And they get to eat for free at a world-class employee cafeteria while their company pays contractors minimum wage to drive doubledecker commuter buses because they’re worth it and their bus drivers aren’t. They have cause to be so supercilious; they’re Miss Daisy, and whoever the fuck that guy is, he’s just driving them, and probably living in Richmond.

Where on earth do they get the money? Google gets quite a bit of it from the Deep State, which is why its founders are allowed to base their 767 at Moffett Field. Some of the goofier companies may just be running glorified group embezzlement rackets on venture capitalists. I’d be critical of this if they were ripping off anything but venture capital. There’s also the question of why anyone would dump orders of magnitude more money into a goofy marketing outfit just because it has a website and therefore claims to need office space in SoMa. The money has to be coming from somewhere, but where? My guess is a combination of government subsidies and sweetheart deals and spare cash from early employees who cashed out of companies with respectable, viable product lines (HP, etc.) and got bored with widows-and-orphans stocks. Risking it on some bro dipshit running a fog machine must have been sexier than doing dividend reinvestments on P&G holdings or waiting for mutual fund distributions. When the market heated up, the New Paradigm flim-flammers got an additional infusion of cash from marks in flyover country who cashed out their own P&G holdings to get in on the next big thing, but this doesn’t seem to explain much of it. It’s probably more like the founder of a successful hardware store reinvesting his surplus in a bullshit artist son who sells titles to square inches of Alaska. It looks like good money chasing after bad, the saving grace so far being that there’s just so damn much money sloshing around.

The real economy? The one keeping salad greens in stock at Whole Foods? That’s just brown workers keeping the company in the black. It’s just Pedro Huilsoñez restocking the cheese. If he rechristens himself Pete Wilson, then he may move it. And really, this country is great at letting non-Cesar Chavez Mexicans join Whitey. The only reason Chavez was denied admission was that he insisted on being a yeoman, not a managerial-class thug. He was merely the wrong kind of American for polite company.

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