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The Atlases are Shrugging!

July 15th, 2010 by Mike N · 3 Comments · Politics, Uncategorized

The Wednesday July 14th Detroit News carries an op-ed by NYT writer David Brooks who wants us to know there are two kinds of people in the business world. But Mr. Brooks, like so many in the educated class, has a hard time forming concepts in any hierarchy or at least doesn’t want us to. So he presents his case in the pictorial form of princes and grinds: (some of my comments in brackets)

“If you go to business conferences, you know that at lunch it is definitely better to be seated next to a prince than a grind. Princes, who can be male or female, are senior executives at major corporations.
They are almost always charming, smart and impressive. They’ve read interesting books. They’ve got well-rehearsed takes on the global situation. They can drop impressive names as they tell you about their visits to the White House, Moscow or Beijing. If you’re having lunch or dinner with a prince, you’re going to have a good time.
Grinds, on the other hand, tend to have started their own company or their own hedge fund. They’re often too awkward to work in a large organization and too intense to work for anybody but themselves.
Over lunch, they can be socially inert. You try to draw them out by probing for one or two subjects of interest to them. But as often as not, you find yourself playing conversational pingpong with a master of the monosyllabic response.”

So CEOs, COOs and CFOs are fun people to be around even though they don’t accomplish much worth talking about and the grinds who go from rags to riches by their own effort are dull, boring and culturally brain dead. But:

“Since the princes are nicer and more impressive,[speak for yourself brother-MN] it is easy to be seduced into the belief that they also are more trustworthy.
This is false.
During the past few years, for example, the princes at Citigroup, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers behaved with incredible stupidity while the hedge fund loners often behaved with impressive restraint.
As Sebastian Mallaby shows in his superb book, “More Money Than God,” the smooth operators at the big banks were playing with other people’s money, so they borrowed up to 30 times their investors’ capital. The hedge fund guys usually had their own money in their fund, so they typically borrowed only one or two times their capital.
The social butterflies at the banks got swept up in the popular enthusiasms.[Created by whom?-MN) The contrarians at the hedge funds made money betting against them. The well-connected [to what?-MN] bankers knew they’d get bailed out if anything went wrong. The solitary hedge fund guys knew they were on their own and regarded their trades with paranoid anxiety.”

There are lots of equivocations and evasions in the above not the least of which is the notion that successful hedge fund ‘guys’ are driven not by knowledge, expertise, or experience but by “paranoid anxiety.” This article reveals an enormous lack of understanding of capitalism and economics.

Mr. Brooks treats most things as the given as if they were causeless. What are grinds? What causes them to come into existence? What are their requirements for survival? What conditions create princes?

Mr. Brooks’ choice of the image of ‘prince’ for CEOs is premised on the notion that CEOs don’t earn their fortunes just like princes don’t. Princes are born into their station in life and serve at the pleasure of the king. It is true that some CEOs of today would not survive in a laissez-faire economy. These are of course the James Taggerts and Orrin Boyles of business and it is their image that Mr. Brooks is attaching to all CEOs. In fact, he has all the facts he needs to infer that mixed economies don’t work and should be abolished but he won’t infer it:

“The princes can thrive while the government intervenes in the private sector. They’ve got the lobbyists and the connections. The grinds, needless to say, don’t.
Over the past decade, professionals — lawyers, regulators and legislators — have inserted themselves into more and more economic realms. The princes are perfectly at home amid these tax breaks, low-interest loans and public-private partnerships. The grinds try to stay far away and regard the interlocking network of corporate-government schmoozing with undisguised contempt.”

So why don’t you regard it with contempt and call for the end of such networks Mr. Brooks?

Alas, no matter how much evidence he sees and provides to us, it won’t penetrate this mindset:

“Princes can thrive in a period of slow, steady growth, but grinds need a certain sort of psychological atmosphere. They need a wide-open economy with plenty of creative destruction.[!!) They need an atmosphere of general confidence, so bankers will feel(?) secure enough to lend them money, so big companies will feel(?) brave enough to acquire their startups, so they themselves will feel(?) the time is ripe to take on their world and show their brilliance to all of humanity.”

This is plain contempt for the human mind. A ‘certain sort of psychological atmosphere’ is the knowledge that one is free to think and act on one’s thoughts. ‘Creative destruction’ is a snarky way to refer to invention. That all these grinds and their bankers engage in feelings instead of thought, reason and logic, is a direct slap at intelligence as such. Lastly, that producers produce in order to ‘show their brilliance to all of humanity’ is a smear of producers as such. It projects an image of an egomaniac gloating over his invention which will show the world how great he is.

In closing, Mr. Brooks offers no suggestions on how to ‘nurture’ grinds, just pessimism:

“It’s just that very few grinds are bringing new ideas to scale and hiring workers to enact their us-against-the-world schemes.[notice the adversarial context and productive effort as ‘schemes’-MN]
For jobs to recover, the grinds have to recover(!), but it’s hard to see how that will happen so long as households are still so leveraged, government debt is still so unnerving and the business climate is still so terrible for entrepreneurs.”

Translation: “Atlases, you’ll just have to heal your selves.”

3 Comments so far ↓

  • Andrew Dalton

    David Brooks is one of the worst commentators out there, by far — on par with Paul Krugman, although for reasons that are more epistemological than directly political. The new book on neoconservatism showcases some awful quotes from him.

  • dismuke

    Brooks is pathetic. This is also the guy who wrote about Obama:

    “I remember distinctly an image of–we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.”

    Brooks is one of those people whose pretense at self-esteem is based on him fancying himself as being part of and champion of that special “educated class” elite that does NOT drink the sort of coffee served in truck stops and gas stations.

    Observe his obvious contempt for those he calls the “grinds.” It is really no different than a typical elitist’s disdain for people such as plumbers and janitors. They grudgingly and abstractly recognize that plumbers and janitors ARE necessary because SOMEONE has to make the volumes of crap and garbage they leave behind magically go away. But they would much prefer not that such unfortunately necessary people stay as out of sight as possible. The only “little people” that they want anything to do with are pathetic, helpless wretches that will enable them to savor a feeling of noblesse oblige.

    The “grinds” in his view are little more than unfortunate necessities that help keep this word going – in the same way that factory workers, truck drivers, plumbers and janitors are necessary if the economy and civilization are to continue. but now the “grinds” are bitching and are refusing to do what they are supposed to in order to fulfill their purpose in this world: get back to work in order to produce Brooks and his buddies a good standard of living so that they can get back to their important job of ruling the world and telling everybody else what they need to do.

    In Brook’s worldview, the “grinds” are little more than truck stop and gas station coffee drinking types whose money and talent, unfortunately, enables them to buy their way into events, conferences, hotels, restaurants, cocktail parties etc and rub shoulders with their social betters – and threaten to subject people such as Brooks with their boorishness if he is so unfortunate as to end up sitting next to one of them.

    Hey David – I’ll bet you spend half your day in your New York Times office googling for mentions of your name and that there is a decent chance you might actually see these comments: If so – well, David, YOU are the one who is vacuous and has little of interest to say. Beneath your pretentious, superficial gloss there is….nothing. Nothing but a bunch of pretentious notions of grandeur to convince yourself that you are important and special and better than the “grinds” of the world. Your writing career is little more than a pathetically public attempt to rationalize your pretense at self-esteem and your alleged superiority.

    YOU are the bore – and the boor. YOU are the one who thinks about, writes about and has nothing more to talk about than superficial fluff such as creases on people’s pant legs, the names they are able to drop, the faraway places they have visited, the books praised by your New York Times colleagues that they pretend to have read etc.

    Ever pause to consider that the reason you find that the “grinds” you so clearly disdain are “socially inert” is because they have nothing to say to YOU because, unlike you, they are NOT superficial? What VALUE would any of them have get from talking to someone like you who is going to look down their nose at them no matter what anyway?

    Perhaps they realize that in any attempt to have a serious conversation with you, you would just go back to superficial nonsense that has little purpose other than to make YOU feel good?

    Perhaps they realize that, behind all the smoke, mirrors, posturing and pretentiousness, you are an intellectual LIGHTWEIGHT and that any SERIOUS conversation about anything that they consider to be IMPORTANT would probably go right over the top of your head?

    You see, David, it is not the “grinds” who are pathetic and the social inferiors in this world – YOU are. They have self-esteem and self-confidence. You only pretend to have it. THEY are the ones who make the world go around – you and your buddies are nothing more than parasitical poseurs who loudly try to take the credit and, in fact, erect nothing but obstacles and burdens upon those people you despise but who, nevertheless, make your very existence possible.

    Gee, David. Probably not a good idea to google your name – you might learn the truth about yourself and have to go through more effort than usual to evade it. So right about now, you just might want to run down the hall and have a nice chit chat over a soy milk latte with one of your Walter Duranty colleagues at the dying, financially troubled newspaper that you work for which is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

    You can have a nice conversation about Michelle Obama’s organic garden – and speculate about what sort of books she might be taking with her on her “working vacation” and what sort of dress she will wear at the State Dinner that her husband is really, really wanting to host in order to honor Hugo Chavez. We, of course, already know, thanks to you, that her husband’s pants will be meticulously pressed and creased just right. And, in the end, that’s what REALLY matters in this world, isn’t it?

  • Antacid

    My uncle is one of the “grinds” he’s referring to. He owns (started from scratch, actually) a successful fabric printing and graphics design company in southeast Louisiana. When the “Obamacare” laws passed, he had to refrain from filling some vacancies because it would have been too costly to provide the health insurance mandated by the law. I know this doesn’t surprise anyone here, though. It’s just another illustration of what’s going wrong here.