Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Closing Time

I lift my glass to the awful truth
Which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth
Except to say it isn’t worth a dime
And the whole dam place goes crazy twice
And it’s once for the Devil and it’s once for Christ
But the boss don’t like these dizzy heights
We’re busted in the blinding lights
Of closing time
                                             Leonard Cohen


In the days of the Robber Barons like Andrew Carnegie, John Jacob Astor and John D. Rockefeller, their annual incomes were as individually outrageous as are those of today’s hired guns, the asset-grabbing CEO’s.  There is a difference though.  Carnegie and his like were owners. They were the guys who put together consortiums and their financial decisions were made and shaped in the image of their egos. Just as they had marble busts chiseled to outlive themselves, so they were committed to the long-term research, development and financing of their business interests; Carnegie at U.S. Steel, Astor (originally) in the fur trade and Rockefeller at Standard Oil.


There were strengths in that sort of commitment and great crimes against humanity as well.  My old daddy used to say that behind every major fortune was a crime. The old crimes were mostly of coercion; company stores, script and child labor. We have forgiven those early offenders, but Carnegie had to build a library in nearly every community in America as penance.


I don’t know what the new guys in town have in mind, but it ain't libraries. Guys like ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap earned his nickname by restructuring companies, selling off non-core business, firing staff then moving on. Stockholder value is everything in the business of clear-cutting corporations, corporate purpose don't mean a thing and hired guns are the weapon of choice.  Even Wal-Mart, that discounter we all love to hate hasn’t sold itself down the river as have so many American icons, bought, merged, repackaged, sold off in pieces and disparaged, all in the name of short-term profit. It’s small wonder GM trembles among carmakers.  The great wonder is that we have any corporate power left in a business world we have so mismanaged.


Three other ‘new guys’ made headlines this past week as Viacom sneaked it’s compensation disclosure under the door at the SEC . . . after the Friday market closed.  Viacom, which took such a bath last year that it lost 18% of it’s total share value, paid its top three executives $160 million for doing the damage.  Hewlett Packard paid  Carly Fiorina $43 mil to please stop ignoring her CEO duties and just go away.  So there’s a payday in doing good as a CEO, but the really major dough is paid for fucking up or chainsawing the body into disposable parts.  Today’s Harvard Business School graduate has been given, at great educational cost, a chop-shop mentality.  Where are those Mafia Dons when we can really use them as tenured professors?


It’s a pretty good bet that Dunlap, Redstone, Freston and Moonves (the Viacom three) won’t build any community libraries.  One doubts they will build anything, because the riches they’ve accumulated (stolen?) aren’t something they’ll boast much about except in golf foursomes.  Carnegie wanted his name known.


Redstone, Freston and Moonves wanted theirs slipped under the door at closing time.