The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Modern Meritocracy Isn’t Worth Having

Meritocracy is the simple argument that the best person for the job should do it and that our system tends to put the best person for a job in the position.

Some jobs are more important than others, and should be paid more as a result, both to get the best person to do it, and because the best person will contribute more.

The problem with these arguments is simple: It ain’t so.

The best paid people in our economy, generally speaking, are those in the financial industry: bankers, shadow bankers, brokers and so on.

They caused a world economic crisis with their venal and idiotic behaviour in the 2000s. They currently can’t find enough good things to do with all the money they control, so interest rates are moving negative.

They are manifestly incompetent at their jobs–if the job is to do anything but enrich themselves. They cannot be the best people for the job, because they would all be out of the job if governments hadn’t bailed them out, and indeed most of them would probably be in jail if the law had been enforced.

They are paid better than those who managed the financial industry in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, who manifestly created a better economy, including higher growth rates.

Paying them more, then, has been correlated with them doing a worse job at everything except making themselves richer, and they only even managed that by corrupting the government to bail them out of their mistakes, and with endless government support, with Greenspan, Bernanke, Yellen, and so on endlessly doing whatever was necessary to keep financial markets growing in size. (The Greenspan Put.)

Studies, meanwhile, have found that the higher a CEO’s pay, the worse their company performs.

It seems that perhaps the best paid people in the world aren’t the most meritorious, except by the rules of jungle. If one wants to argue that you “eat what you kill” as Wall Street does, then all merit constitutes is the ability get a lot of money.

Merit = money is the actually state of meritocracy in the world today. Oh, there are exceptions, you can say “surgeons” or something, but they aren’t the best paid people in the world, are they?

Meanwhile, as I like to point out, if the janitor doesn’t show up, people get really, really upset, while if the CEO takes a week off most people won’t notice or care.

Seems people really, really don’t like cleaning toilets, but doing so is really, really important, and we don’t pay, errr, shit for doing it.

But, you cry, “Ian, any idiot can clean a toilet.”

Well, I’m not so sure about that, but what is true is that most janitors are competent at their jobs and most banking executives are good only at making themselves rich. They are net drain on society, massively, while janitors provide real value and are able to do their jobs.

Teachers, nurses, garbage men, civil engineers, construction workers, etc, etc., all do things that matter. When they don’t do them or do them badly, we’re fucked.

Bankers do something that matters, too. The problem is that we clearly pick completely incompetent or corrupt bozos to do the job, who then pretend they are the best of the best, destroy the economy and the environment, and reward themselves with money that would make 19th century robber barons blush.

Meritocracy is a wonderful idea. We all want the best person for each job to be doing the job, or at least, someone who is competent at the job doing the job.

But that’s not what we have. What we have is a Kakistocracy: A society run by the worst, most corrupt people. Bush, Obama, and Trump weren’t the best at running society, they were just the people best at getting into office. The people running Wall Street aren’t the best at allocating money for social benefit, or even for creating the largest actual economy, they’re just the people who fought their way to top and then appropriated the largest share of money for themselves while shattering the world economy.

They are the best only at seizing positions of power, which give them access to money. That is all.

If meritocracy is just, “The more money you have, the more you deserve to have more money,” which it is at the moment, it’s nothing worth having.

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Pelosi Moves to Impeach Trump


Open Thread


  1. Mark Pontin

    Ian wrote: ‘They are manifestly incompetent at the job if the job is to do anything but enrich themselves. They cannot be the best people for the job, because they would all be out of the job if governments hadn’t bailed them out.’

    That’s naive, Ian. There’s much truth in your claim of financial elite incompetence, but you’re also discounting the effects of the 1-3 percent of the population who are psychopaths and who cluster particularly in the c-suites.

    Sure, psychopaths think short-term, which often effectively translates into incompetence.

    That said, however, study after study has examined the economic recovery since the 2008 GFC and every one shows all the gains going exclusively to the 10 percent, who are overall now richer than they were before the GFC and significantly richer now compared to the general population than they were pre-2008.

    Funny about that, huh?

  2. Herman

    When it comes to things like politics and economics, the “best person for the job” depends on who you are talking to. For wealthy Americans, Obama was probably a pretty good president. He got the country through a major recession with little social unrest and change that would harm the elite. So from an elite perspective, Obama was a good president. However, for the majority of Americans he was not a very good president.

    We really need to get past the idea that there is some public good out there and we just need to find good, competent people to enact the best policies. Politics is inevitably about the clash of various interests. If I have to choose between people who work against my interests, I would actually rather have incompetent people in charge of society than competent people who work against my interests. At least with incompetent, corrupt people I might have some wiggle room to buck the system.

  3. Beta

    The key takeaway is that pundits are a lot more like CEOs than janitors.

  4. bruce wilder

    the best person for the job should do it

    It may be tangential to Ian’s point, but there’s something about that phrasing that I suspect means something to someone inclined to the worldview of a reactionary conservative, which I would not find plausible or congenial.

    It is that “best person” thing, as if the critical thing in performance was some property or inherent quality of the person, a virtue — merit = virtue

    There is something to the analytic idea that allocating resources to productive activity matters. It is what conventional economics argues: efficiency in the allocation of resources is facilitated by markets where prices are competitively bid.

    But, it is not the only thing, and in most circumstances it is not even the most important thing, in achieving performance or beneficial outcomes.

    Having the most capable person in a certain role, exercising power and discretion, is not helpful to society, if they keep insisting on doing the wrong things. The more competent evil is, the more damage evil does.

    I think distributing big bucks in finance has attracted some very intelligent, ambitious and well-educated people to the financial sector, but it is has not motivated them to behave responsibly for the society as a whole.

    By various institutional reforms that lifted the up-side potential for exercising power in finance, it not only increased the incentive for private actors to take risks and put the down-side on society, but it also made it more difficult to attract talent to roles in the public and the private regulatory institutions as well as more difficult to maintain the incentives for public-spirited action and integrity.

    My point is not to rehearse what presumably we all more or less know about the deleterious effects of rising incomes and wealth in the FIRE sectors. My point is about the rhetoric of merit as value and virtue.

    I think people of certain worldviews might be inclined to think that Ian is implying that meritocracy is possible — that the problem with our meritocracy is that there is so little of it in practice. But, if only we tried harder . . . .

    I don’t think meritocracy is possible, because I do not think personal virtue, or even personal talent, dominates social organization and institutions. We build systems and the systems fail.

    In a very real sense, paying financiers and bankers and CEOs too much more than everyone else is itself causing the system of finance to fail society. Not because paying so much fails to attract talented and highly intelligent, often well-educated and skilled people.

    I take Ian’s point that the tournaments that get set up in pursuit of the platinum ring of corporate power or financial management power does both attract ruthless sociopaths and advantages ruthless sociopaths, who tend to have the attributes necessary to win such tournaments. But, I would make an additional and complementary point: it is not usually possible to organize to make the kind of profit that can finance sky-high salaries and bonuses.

    The idea that business corporations can be set the task of “maximizing profit” with no attention paid to imposing effective constraints necessary to making sure that the profit is not simply a transfer from some victim of bad behavior.

    It is necessary to ignore the subverting of the system and the removal of constraints against costing society to make the argument that business success and profit is coincident with success and benefit to society as a whole.

    A doctrine of meritocracy in the absence of a doctrine of corruption and criminal behavior is pretty scary. But, it seems to be an easy illusion to create, when one focuses on personal virtue and not behavior and roles in institutional systems.

  5. Anon

    Anyone who knows how to do housework well and throughly knows that it’s harder than sitting at a desk for 8 hours each day. My mother cleaned toilets for most of her career when she wasn’t waitressing or flipping burgers. I now make four times more than her highest paid salary, and I have more unsupervised free time at work than she ever did. Even if you compare white collar positions, it’s usually the person making the most money who delegates as much work as possible to lower paid minions. Brainpower is valuable, but I’ve met very few managers who are geniuses or who couldn’t be easily replaceable.

  6. anon y'mouse

    i would rather question whether there is such a thing at all. the idea is born out of quantification of all things, and considering human activity like machine activity. setting uniform standards. all measures are set by someone setting up what kind of measurements to use, what is considered a passing or failing grade, and thus these systems of measurement are highly subjective trying to appear to be thoroughly objective. or worse, they are actively set up as systems of oppression and discrimination, masquerading as something else. or worse, we wipe out the ability for most people in this society to even form or acquire “merit” through their own actions by impoverishing them.

    the reality is that many people could possibly by trained to do most things that need doing in this society, if they are actually interested in doing them (financial remuneration being just one, and not even the primary motivation for interest, according to psychologists). there are very few things that require superhuman abilities.

    and there is absolutely no knowing if the janitor could well have been a great surgeon without the class and opportunity barriers that set up and reinforce these systems of “merit”. or perhaps he could well have, but didn’t desire to because in his off-time, he is really a great jazz musician or something that doesn’t pay all that well.

    i am surprised that people so desire to maintain this system of valuing humans according to better or worse. i wonder at times if this stems right back to Western Civ 101–the greeks and their disdain for all of those who did technical things. even artists did not deserve praise in their system. actually physically doing things, instead of merely thinking about them, was subservient. since these dudes derived their freedom to think about deep topics from countless servants and slaves, it kind of wasn’t surprising that their value system was that work (“efficient cause”) was worthless, being based on purely physical things that anybody could do, but they didn’t have to. if you don’t devalue the things done, how can you devalue the persons who do them enough to own and order them about? the ability to think deep thoughts is brought about by not having to worry about cleaning toilets (although some people who are extremely intelligent can and do both simultaneously), so you think they would have realized their dependence upon these base activities a bit more.

    but the real problem is viewing the people as base because they are engaged in menial tasks, and then viewing that as ALL those people are capable of doing. we have no idea what those people are actually capable of doing, and sometimes neither do they. the system hasn’t allowed them to even try, or contemplate trying.

    perhaps we haven’t come too far in 2000 years.

  7. Hugh

    Time to drag out Reinhold Niebuhr’s comment on all this (Hint: it’s a con.),

    The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterised by universal self-deception and hypocrisy. The unconscious and conscious identification of their special interests with general interests and universal values, which we have noted in analysing national attitudes, is equally obvious in the attitude of classes. The reason why privileged classes are more hypocritical than underprivileged ones is that special privilege can be defended in terms of the rational ideal of equal justice only, by proving that it contributes something to the good of the whole. Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold. The most common form of hypocrisy among the privileged classes is to assume that their privileges are the just payments with which society rewards specially useful or meritorious functions.

    From his Moral Man and Immoral Society, published 87 years ago (1932).

  8. The janitor – the sanitation engineer – is of greater value.

    I learned the hard way in the computer business that middle managers don’t necessarily need to know anything about what they’re managing, they’re bullies. Sanctioned bullies. All they need to know is to bully. That and a drunk’n dullard functionally illiterate population prone to superstitious fantasies and there… is your meritocracy.

  9. Steve Ruis

    So true. I am fascinated by the attempts of the overpaid to justify their pay. As part of the primacy of shareholder value campaign, people were sold on the idea that CEO’s should be remunerated in stock, so that they would have a stake in the company and serve the company’s goals better. Of course, all this did (as was the original intent, I think) was to get the CEO to focus on share price above all other goals. This benefits shareholders and CEO’s and nobody else it seems.

    And still these lightweights glorify themselves and praise themselves for the “value added” they bring, which they actually do not. As you point out a janitor strike at a company would have more impact than a CEO strike. Therefore I have come up with the “CEO Pay Rachet” as a way of reducing the harm of inflated CEO pay. It works like this: go to your CEO and ask him to take a 50% cut in salary. (Actually you can suggest a bigger or smaller cut based upon your assessment of his pay.) If he refuses, go to the First Vice-CEO and offer him the job at that pay rate. If he bites, furlough your current CEO and install your new, more affordable one.

    If you balk at the loss of high level skills provided by the old CEO, do this as an experiment to see if those high-level skills are real or imaginary. And, you can always put the development of high-level skills in the new CEO’s job description, upon which his evaluation and continued employment will hinge.

    If the First Vice-CEO turns you down over loyalty to the old CEO, go to the Second Vice-CEO (or whoever is one rung farther down on the org chart.

    Repeat as necessary.

    BTW If one looks at those making a billion dollars of “salary” a year and one considers the number of typical work hours in a calendar year, one comes up with a remuneration of $532,000 per hour. This means these paragons of business earn more in one afternoon than I did in 40 years as a college professor. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is worth that level of compensation. Well, maybe the janitor.

  10. bruce wilder

    i have to object to the “janitor is worth more than the CEO” thesis: it is a lazy gesture at best, styled on the paradox of value: water v diamonds. And, it misses what i would regard as the critical distinction between the job of janitor and the job of CEO: scope of responsibility and power.

    the janitor is a cog in the system; the CEO is responsible for designing and managing the system.

    it is true the the CEO is not directly “producing” anything. the system performs functionally, producing its outputs and outcomes. the CEO’s “work” is the work of power. maybe i should write that with a capital-P? the CEO is a politician, maybe a statesman of sorts, a storyteller, a creator of fictions and social constructions.

    the janitor cleans, takes out the trash.

    the problem with meritocracy as sociology or philosophy is that it ignores the ontological reality of politics, for a ridiculous kind of moral theology where there is no system and inherent virtue — “merit” of the person — tells. that’s not the way it is — outcomes are products of systems of social cooperation. the virtue of the people pulling levers in those systems are not important to the quality of system outcomes. that is not a productive way of thinking about social systems, whether you are focused on their success or pathology.

    even the janitor’s merit does not really matter: what matters is the system in which he is embedded and supervised and directed.

    that an apology for power and how it is exercised (and the results) is a disguise and a distraction should not surprise, but it probably should not be debated either. merely contradicting the thesis of meritocracy is not a sufficient critique of what is a bigger lie that attempts to hide the reality of power pervading our lives, power frankly we need even as it betrays our trust and expectations of it and which, apparently, we do not take seriously enough to insist on speaking about it realistically

  11. StewartM

    Meanwhile, as I like to point out, if the janitor doesn’t show up, people get really really upset, while if the CEO takes a week off most people won’t notice or care.

    Oh, it’s worse than that.

    At my job, even a hourly paid employee must secure approval for taking any vacation, particularly 2 weeks or more, whereas one of our previous CEOs took like *3 months off* to ponder whether or not he wanted to retire. 3 months!!

    So–which one is really more indispensable??

    Now–one of the reasons why those supporting production must secure approval before taking their earned vacation is that they’re so few of them–my company, like nearly all US companies run by Wall Street, is chronically understaffed. People here who complain about the lack of good employment opportunities in the US while defending capitalism are simply wrong, because if my company is any guide, we could easily productively employ at least 25 % more workers who actually do REAL WORK, both college-educated and non college-educated. In fact, for one of our support labs, when manufacturing inquired “how much more more to hire an extra analyst per shift??”–and these are jobs that don’t generally require college, mind you–when told they replied “that’s not much” and were willing to pay for it out of their own budget. Ah, but they couldn’t pay for it, they’re not allowed to, as Wall Street (aka the capitalists) essentially controls what our upper management can and can’t do, and every spare penny we make MUST be handed over to the Masters of the Universe so they can gamble with it and crash the world economy (again).

    This is also why the ‘good jobs’ have disappeared. It’s not just the trade treaties and outsourcing, though that’s a big part too, but also that US companies–at least those not in gamed markets or engaging in rentier behavior—are denied the ability to invest in R&D, in new capital, in new infrastructure, and to properly staff themselves to be competitive in the long-term. They are, in Ian’s words “heating the house by burning it down”. This is directly a consequence of moving to a more ‘pure’ form of capitalism, to what capitalism really is–investor control over firms and prioritizing short-term stockholder value above everything else.

  12. Mark Pontin

    Steve Ruis wrote: ‘If one looks at those making a billion dollars of “salary” … one comes up with a remuneration of $532,000 per hour. This means these paragons of business earn more in one afternoon than I did in 40 years as a college professor.’

    Nobody earns a salary of a billion annually. Billionaires are billionaires because they own assets — in J. Bezos’s case, he’s the primary founder of Amazon and owns whatever percentage of its stocks that he currently owns; in B. Gates’s case, because he took his Microsoft-generated wealth and invested across a wide class of asset realms; while Warren Buffett even pays himself only $100,000 annual salary at Berkeley Hathaway.

    I’m making this point not (merely) to be pedantic by wanting real-world factuality here, but because the real discussion you’re trying to have here isn’t about whether anybody is worth a billion but whether capitalism should exist at all.

    In that discussion, the criticisms made by StewartM (just above me) of the kind of capitalism we have now are — of the kind of organizational structures produced when finance governs society, stunting investment in the future for short-term looting in the next quarter — seem to me most relevant.

  13. Willy

    Common sense dictates that there’s a correlation between the cycles of anacyclosis and a cultural tolerance for sociopathy. I’ve seen this happen in even small companies, which went from visionary competence to cronyistic ineptitude after the original founders sold out to some larger entity.

  14. bruce wilder

    anacyclosis, yes

    the boss can go on a three-month vacation, because the system that coordinates everything productive is on automatic — which is as it normally should be. that was a boss who had done his job well, not a boss who wasn’t doing any job at all.

    as generations pass, or control passes from one set of hands to another, it is not uncommon for a business to pass from founders who understood what made it all work to managers, who — although they work there every day — do not have a clue.

    one of my favorite restaurants — an Italian restaurant, old school with a certain formality despite its strip mall location — passed from two brothers who retired to one’s son and a nephew, both of whom had worked in the restaurant on-and-off since they were teenagers, and who promptly ran it into the ground with renovations and change in concept that failed miserably. my gym — an independent — failed when it was taken over by its long-time manager, who was a bit of a martinet; policies that were adaptive to their particular circumstances in the market were replaced by the kind of rigid (and superficially “fair”) rules that the manager was comfortable with; disaster ensued. my neighborhood bar failed when it passed into the hands of its long-time manager, who had been great at leading the team and training and disciplining the staff, but turned out to be a total dick when someone was not supervising him.

    The janitor is not the guy who makes the system work as a system. The CEO may not be either, but if the CEO is not, then a catastrophe may be waiting to happen, a Thomas Cook collapse or a Boeing 737 Max. Even though the janitor continues to take out the trash.

  15. Ian Welsh

    And all of those were small businesses with immediate feedback. I worked for a large multinational whose CEO was marginally incompetent. He ran the place down, but left after having rewarded himself millions. His executives did well, and most of them weren’t that good. The CEOs who destroyed Wall Street banks walked away with hundreds of millions, the ones who got bailed out were even better off.

    Jack Welch, who was feted as a great CEO was an incompetent blowhard, but he did things that generated money NOW and long term destroyed the company. Yet he got paid tons and was regarded as wonderful and a model to emulate. (Turning GE into a bank was stupid, and so was firing the “bottom” 10% of workers every year. – and yes, I said so at the time.)

    The boss of a small biz isn’t a “CEO” as I or most people use the term. You run a restaurant, you’re just the boss even if somewhere you’ve got a piece of paper which says CEO.

  16. nihil obstet

    The issue with incompetent bosses is that being boss is made desirable by better pay, higher status, and more pleasant working conditions. As a result, people whose motivation is pay, status, and pleasantness manipulate to get the positions. Why, therefore, do we continue to defend the belief that we ought to gift bosses with incentives that attract incompetent bosses who are competent manipulators?

  17. StewartM


    Maybe if it’s ‘the system’ which is the thing that keeps things going, ever think that maybe said ‘system’ had been set up long before said CEO ever took the reins? That is more often the case, none of these companies were created from the ground up by the people in charge.

    So then it *does* fall back to my point–just as Anatole France once mused, if France’s notables ever disappeared in a flash, France would surely grieve, but France itself would not be tangibly hurt in the slightest–our previous CEO could vanish for three months and things hummed on without him. By contrast, if an assembly line worker needs to take off at all he/she can be denied, and they require special approval for more than 2 weeks. Sure seems the latter is what is vital, not the former.

    You might argue that incompetent igherups can screw things up mightily, and in a sense you’re right, but anyone who’s ever worked in a manufacturing facility also knows how vital having smart, knowledge, and dedicated people on the shop floor is, and what (very!) expensive screwups can occur if you don’t have these. And despite the fact that many of these just have high school educations, they are NOT stupid; they can and do learn to do pretty amazing things (the old timers could and did rebuild and repair complicated pieces of scientific machinery when it failed).

    It’s something akin to the situation in hospitals, the relationship between doctors and nurses, where the new guy out of medical school who comes in talking to the nurses like they’re stupid results in the nurses folding their arms to say “ok, Mr. Smartypants, you figure this out”–and after about two weeks, the new doc is pleading “HELP ME, PLEASE”. The nurses are the ones who run a hospital, and it’s the people who do all the grunt work who are the ones who run a manufacturing site. You speak of a ‘system’–well, there is it. It is there, but it’s run by the people at the bottom, and it’s the people at the top, not the bottom, who can more easily be jettisoned without harm to the organization (which is why Ian’s point about Jack Belch Welch who did do a lot of damage to the people who actually ran GE and made it work, is very apt)..

    It also seems that the people at the bottom win hands-down on competency, compared to their peers in the corporate suites.

  18. Tariq

    I find it fascinating that the conversation\’s gone on for so long without referencing the first work that coined the term “meritocracy”, which would have been Michael Young\’s The Rise of the Meritocracy.

    Not only because he provides like a solid definition of what the term “meritocracy” is: which is not that “the best person is hired for a particular job”, but that one\’s position in society is determined not by accidents of birth, or wealth, but simply by a single, simple equation that define\’s one\’s merit:

    Merit = Intelligence + Achievement

    What\’s interesting was that Young created, in his speculative work, a world where nothing else mattered but this simple equation, by eliminating bias towards seniority, age, and even money… where the only thing that mattered to one\’s position was this inescapable measure of one\’s worth. I mean, none of his mechanisms would have worked, and he kept the gender bias, if only because he recognized that he lived in a world where men could and have historically taken the credit from and stolen the labor of women.

    But the thing is, the meritocracy he created remains the platonic ideal of meritocracy, which wasn\’t corrupt, where literally the best-educated and most intelligent people rose to positions of power, and the government was ruled by a brilliant ruling technical elite, in ways that were (arguably) better than they had been in previous democratic regimes…

    …and that system still fell apart.

    Because the issue isn\’t the question of who we grant these rewards and power to, but how much power we grant, and whether those who are subject to this power are, either ethically or practically, given any recourse or ability to resist.

    I read that book a few years ago: as a writer, Michael Young isn\’t the greatest, and honestly his message got lost in the subsequent decades, much to his dismay. But if anything, his book is a great example of how, even as a platonic ideal, meritocracy was never going to work.

  19. bruce wilder

    well, yes, Stewart, it has occurred to me that the people running a long-established company may not understand (or care) what keeps it going. i gave three examples of small firms from my personal experience, where the transfer of control to a new manager triggered decline and fall.

    as Ian observed, these being small firms, “immediate feedback” was available. of course, immediate feedback is always available, but as companies get larger, more distractions and complications compete for attention.

    the decay that sets in as people in the hierarchy focus on pleasing the boss instead of doing the right thing for the business is well-known. that is one reason why i think that political anacylosis, as suggested by another commenter, is an appropriate model for some aspects of the situation. the class prejudices that lead managers to monopolize information and deliberately create b.s. jobs compounds the pathology.

    i did have some experience in the auto business and have many stories. i remember a case that got some news attention, where an assembly line worker, who had been enthused by participation in a process improvement program, was found to be responsible for punching holes in the gas tanks of thousands of cars. he had found a better way to staple the carpet to the floor in the back. oops.

    i remember a case in a diesel engine plant, where some floor supervisors humiliated a new MBA, by convincing him that he had to act quickly to prevent a shortage of spark plugs from shutting down the plant.

    anyway, I would not conclude that executives are superfluous. i would conclude that society is usually served best by executives who have incentives to be conservative (in the sense of cautious and prudent) and to take a long view and have the intelligence to continually monitor how the system is working and what kinds of unintended “outputs” are being produced. for this, I would think it best to put some fairly low ceilings on cash compensation, so that ambitious people do not have the option of taking the money and running. if there best option is a twenty year career at the top, with compensation heavily weighted toward social status, and reputation for achievement and away from the rewards of looting

  20. Hugh

    As Niebuhr said, merit is a justification for privilege since those who define what merit is are precisely the ones who benefit from it.

    Neoliberalism has essentially turned the definition of a well run company on its head. The goal or bar used to be to deliver the best product at the best price. Nowadays everywhere I look it is to provide the crappiest product at the highest price it can get away with.

  21. StewartM


    i did have some experience in the auto business and have many stories. i remember a case that got some news attention, where an assembly line worker, who had been enthused by participation in a process improvement program, was found to be responsible for punching holes in the gas tanks of thousands of cars. he had found a better way to staple the carpet to the floor in the back. oops.

    I have similar stories. However, I would preface that many of these screwups tie back to one or more of several backdrops:

    1) The old, knowledgeable, people who knew not to do this were all pushed out the door for Wall Street-motivated cost savings, and replaced with lower-paid, less experienced people who did not know you could do that. Or even worse, contract labor.

    2) Cuts were made to staffing (again Wall Street-motivated) so that workers started to improvise shortcuts in order to keep up production. In some cases–the GM Lordstown plant in the 1970s–the production schedule was ramped up to an unrealistic degree, based on some manager far-removed from the shop floor, such that the workers *simply could not keep up*. The GM quality problem from that plant in the 1970s originated not from ‘no good lazy UAW workers’, which was the common rightwing meme, but from the simple fact that the production line was going to fast for the workers to complete their jobs.

    You can read about it more here:

    How? Line speed, for one. At Lordstown’s usual pace of 60 cars an hour, assembly line work was hard, but doable. In fact, GM could quite reasonably have squeezed out a few more cars per hour by upping the line speed to a pace of 65 or even possibly 70. Instead, management cranked up the pace to a dizzying speed of 100 cars an hour. “It deemed these moves to be reasonable because the Lordstown lines had been designed to build up to 140 cars an hour,” writes Ingrassia in Crash Course.

    In other words, Godfrey’s plan wasn’t to boost productivity by making it easier for workers to do more, faster. Instead, it was simply to force them to do so. This was unheard of, then and now, says O’Hara. “We’re the only plant in the whole world, in the whole history of auto manufacturing, that ever did 100 an hour.”

    The line speed-up meant assemblers had to cram the same work they used to do in 60 seconds into a mere 36 seconds. To keep workers in sync with that frenetic pace, the higher-ups instituted new rigid disciplinary measures, explains Russo, stepping up harassment and threats.

    “GMAD was known as a kind of gestapo, no-holds-barred, ‘if you don’t like it get out of here’ approach,” he says. (In addition to studying Lordstown labor history, Russo has some firsthand experience with GMAD’s methods, having worked at a Michigan Oldsmobile plant during the division’s reign of terror. He recalls the foreman telling him, ‘Shut up, college boy and do your job,” when he suggested ways of improving workflow.)

    Many of GMAD tactics seemed shortsighted—and sometimes downright petty. Employees who flagged flawed parts got a chewing-out from supervisors, even though cutting corners on quality would wind up raising warranty expenses, eating into profit. Foremen forbade the widespread practice among Lordstown workers of covering for each other on the line so that everyone could take breaks, says Kenneth Picklesimer. “Managers just started being real jerks,” he says.

    Yet to the common rightwing meme, this was all the auto workers’ fault. Never mind those same ‘no-good lazy UAW workers’ would also later produce Chevy Novas (1980s versions) at the California factory run by Toyota, which were at the top of the quality and reliability. Toyota’s production method empowered lowly line workers to stop the production process if they saw something going wrong, instead of being forced to turn out crap for Wall Street profit margins.

    3) In combination of these two things, and often as a result of them, morale declines. This is especially true if what often also happens are announcements, say, that employee benefits are being slashed, that pay freezes are being enacted, at the same time that the executive team is getting massive compensation increases even though workers are being told that the company is in dire straits and sacrifices must be made! They’re not stupid, they can see through the lie.

    I also don’t think that managers are superfluous. In fact, many–probably most–aren’t stupid. The problem is that the way our economy is run, the primary job of managers has become making a group of powerful people happy–i.e., the investor class–who have no knowledge of the details and don’t care about anything than short-term profit. I can think of no more damning indictment of our economic system is that it often gets very smart people to do stupid things, and moreover things that they will privately admit are stupid, routinely.

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