Several times in recent years I have said that while I’m certainly and unapologetically a progressive, I’m in no way, shape or form the kind of conventional “liberal” that a lot of people think I am. My views on a variety of issues simply don’t map onto our brain-dead, one-dimensional notion of “left” vs. “right,” and even the slightly more nuanced Political Compass fails to explain a lot of how I think. I suppose I’m instinctively a non-partisan oppositional type – that is, no party really reflects what I believe so I tend to stay mad at whoever is in power. As such, I have “caucused with the Democrats” for the past few years, and I trust the reasons are self-evident.
I begin with this because in the last month or two some of my progressive allies have been getting on my nerves. Case in point: the just-won’t-die AIG fake scandal. Many of the Dem types I read and occasionally interact with are fine people with noble intentions and a relentless commitment to working for a better and more equitable society, but not all of them have much in the way of actual experience and knowledge where the conduct of real business is concerned. Sometimes I find myself reading opinions and “analysis” that make me wonder what kinds of jobs the writer has actually had. Beltway progressive advocacy org: check. Low-level Congressional staffer: check. Job with for-profit business: not so check.
The unfortunate upshot is that some of these folks wind up talking out of their asses.
When the story of AIG’s $400K retreat broke, my colleague JS O’Brien, whose impeccable, unimpeachable progressive credentials are augmented by tremendous amounts of business experience and particular expertise as a compensation specialist for large corporations, penned an informed, reasoned, insightful explanation for why this wasn’t a scandal at all. I injected this piece into a raging debate on one of my lists, and followed it up with some comments of my own – because I, too, have spent a good portion of the past couple decades working in and with corporate enterprises of one sort or another. Here’s what I said:
It’s not about whether the thing COULD be done so much as it’s about whether doing it one way gets better results than another. What JS O’Brien explains in the post is dead-on – a big part of my job over the past few years has been sales training and I’ve worked one president’s club for a big company that was my client. Salespeople respond to money, sure, but you won’t believe the lengths they’ll go to in order to earn their way into the PC.
At the core, this is a math question. Spending $X might seem extravagant (and the one I worked was in fact quite extravagant), and it’s easy to point to it and say hey, that’s ridiculous (or even obscene, if you like). But if spending $X results in behavior that returns $5X, it’s not a bad deal at all. This is especially true when that $5X allows the company to expand, hire more people, enter new markets, and so on.
Additionally, that outlay goes to people who work for a living. Bartenders, grounds crews, all kinds of service types at the hotel and resort, and then you factor in the money these people spend shopping (often at local places) and on activities. For instance, the company I did the project for spent a small fortune with local tour businesses, like the mud-bogging tour I got to do. The kids running that tour were the furthest thing from fat cats, and the simple fact is that this one lavish corporate outing put a lot of money in the pockets of those that people like us are working on behalf of – if I might stereotype a second, the honest American worker.
By the way, the company I worked for at the time was a small consultancy made up of good people trying to survive some hard times (this was back in early 2004, I think, and the company was not in great shape). The money we earned was important to the firm and it was extremely important to a couple of people who worked there – myself included.
This is not as simple a case as the MSM has made it. I can’t say specifically in the AIG case whether the money they spent turned out to be a good investment, but in general it’s a common practice that produces results that are good for the people we care about.
Those in the forum who bothered to acknowledge me at all were dismissive, and one prominent member responded with something along the lines of: “Screw this. AIG should be hung.” I may not have his words exactly right, but this is the extent of his analysis. No evidence. No reasoning. No engagement with a single word that either JS or I had written. Just “fuck it – hang ’em all.” It was like trying to debate a pre-schooler.
And of course, you can’t debate a pre-schooler, any more than you can an ideologue.
(I should make clear here – because I don’t want to be guilty of knocking down straw men – that not everybody on the left [and not everybody on the forum in question, either] is as simplistic and, well, silly as the person I call out above. In fact, a couple people who’ve had business experience wrote to make roughly the same point that JS and I were making. So all isn’t lost – I’m just hoping to hear more from the latter than the former over the next four-eight years.)
Tim Reason, writing at CFO.com, points out how genuinely non-outrageous AIG’s latest sins against common decency really are:
Financial planners, of course, recommend insurance products to their clients, so this is a marketing event for AIG. Moreover, AIG managed to get 93 percent of the tab paid for by sponsors, and the financial planners paid a registration fee and their own travel. AIG paid the remaining cost — about $23,000 — out of pocket. That works out to about $153 per financial planner — an extraordinarily low cost.
$153 per potential channel partner? Damn, where can my company find that kind of efficiency?
Not only that, but “the company has canceled more than 160 meetings or conferences in the past month.” Reason asks, quite rightly: what are companies supposed to do? Quit marketing?
If they did suspend business operations and refrain from profitable activity – which is pretty much what we’re talking about here – what possible way would it benefit … well, anybody?
Nobody has to tell me about out-of-control corporateering. Part of working in this world as long as I have involves seeing stupidity, excess, wastefulness, stupidity, greed and stupidity. A lot of America’s convicted corporate leaders deserve what they’ve gotten, and unfortunately too many others have been allowed to profit from incompetence and bad faith actions that wrought severe damage in the lives of good, hard-working citizens. I wish the very worst for these and will support, as strongly as I am able, business and regulatory reforms aimed at ending the looting once and for all.
But I won’t sit quietly while allegedly smart people pretend that all business leaders are criminals and that every expenditure is treason.
In a follow-up piece, Reason acknowledges past instances of bad behavior by AIG but sensibly explains that punishing good behavior is counter-productive. He then puts the onus on the press, the politicians and public, explaining that
The inability of the media, the government, and the public to distinguish between corporate excess and ordinary business is the result of the very same financial illiteracy that got us into this mess in the first place.
Now that the Busheviks have been deposed us progressives find ourselves in a new role, and this is going to be a particular challenge for those of us whose brands have been defined by outsider bitching. We have to find ways of harnessing our intellects and energies to the task of governance, of driving policy and reform, of finding a balance between supercharging that which is good about capitalism while disabling that which is bad.
I hope I’m able to do my part without getting drummed out of the Enlightened Brotherhood, but if that’s how it has to be, well, I’ve never been much of a joiner, anyhow…