Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 April 2008

The Dilbert Effect, or Don’t Knock Hope

Classical economists like to talk about labor as a “factor of production.” But labor isn’t a thing, a bare abstraction. Workers are people. As our nation falls into what looks like the worst depression since 1929, we are about to discover precisely what that means.

As any coach, military leader or sales person will tell you, motivation is the key to good work. People work best when they respect their leaders, when they can make a difference, when they can see the difference that their work makes, and when they think they are getting a fair shake. All of those factors—once an indelible part of the American dream—are now failing. The result may be the biggest unconscious labor slowdown in human history.

You might call it the “Dilbert effect.” One reason the cartoon strip “Dilbert” is so funny is that we all recognize ourselves in it. We all have had stupid, selfish and clueless bosses at some time in our lives. Even the best and most diligent of us has slacked off, played practical jokes and sometimes even sabotaged real work in counterproductive—but very human—acts of disobedience and revenge. When we lose all respect for and confidence in our leaders, we become slackers and practical jokesters, even saboteurs.

Isn’t that precisely where we are as a nation today? Our society has become “Dilbert” writ large. Our president and co-president have proved themselves stupid and clueless, repeatedly denying reality that everyone else can see. The leaders of our financial system were so stupid they could not see that loaning money to people with no evidence of ability to repay might produce financial obligations of uncertain value. Apart from Steve Jobs’ iPhone, we have not had a major commercial product innovation in several years. We rely on Japan for our consumer electronics and cars, India for the folks who (badly) man our telephone queues and back offices, and China for just about everything else except industrial machinery and large airplanes, which we still make. Even Boeing is now months behind on its new “Dreamliner.”

Can you name any segment of our society that has not suffered from overconfidence, hucksterish marketing, poor management, lack of self-restraint and failure to maintain good contact with reality?

Most of us have not slacked off yet. We are still in shock. We all drunk the cool aid. We believed that we could win any war—no matter how poor our planning and strategy, no matter how few resources and how little sacrifice we were willing to devote to it. We believed that we can compete with anyone, no matter how badly our system of education has failed, how much our infrastructure has decayed, and how poor, hungry and well educated our competitors may be.

We began to believe our own myths, so embedded in our cinematic psyches. We are slowly coming to understand that we are not actually Rocky, Rambo, Superman, Spiderman, the scientific genius in Back to the Future, or any of our many other cartoon heroes. We are only men and women, and we’ve believed our myths of intrinsic superiority far too long.

Some of us still believe that hard work can overcome anything, even abysmal leadership, nonsensical strategy and belief in cartoons. Like the horse in Animal Farm, we meet adversity by gritting our teeth and working harder.

But too many have done that for too long. The best of us are becoming exhausted. Some hold down two or three jobs just to maintain the same standard of living their parents once enjoyed with one. Over the last several decades, workers have increased their productivity mightily, only to see no real increase in their income.

Highly educated professionals work harder than ever before. Doctors see twenty patients an hour and no longer do their own office interviews, let alone make house calls. Lawyers, health-care providers and executives all endure the tyranny of cell phones, pagers and Blackberries, staying “on call” 24/7/365, even while supposedly on vacation. With work occupying all our “free” time and commuting times increasing as affordable homes get farther and farther from town, we no longer have time for our children and parents, let alone for friends or quiet contemplation.

Even members of Congress are not immune. Several recently opined that the real reason for gridlock is not divergent ideology. Instead, it’s that members no longer live in D.C. but commute to their home states once or twice a week. Like the rest of us, they are so busy traveling and juggling their over-stressed personal lives that they no longer see each other socially. They no longer have time for the informal meetings, dinners, drinks, poker games and “down times” that once lubricated business in Washington and allowed members to appreciate each others’ merits and human qualities, despite differences in policy. Like the rest of us, members of Congress have become automatons on a treadmill run by hucksters and occasionally by morons.

We have all sold our human souls for a simple premise: by putting our heads down, minding our own business, working harder, enduring ever more frenetic and stressful lives, and (at the high end, at least) earning more, we will all be better off. Our Calvinist conservatives, including John McCain, think salvation lies in more of the same.

But there are limits. What happens when we are all working at or beyond our personal limits? What happens when it becomes evident even to the willfully blind among us that working harder is not getting us farther, and that the premises we once believed in are lies? What happens when our ship of state drifts into shoals because too few are minding the rudder and the compass?

You don’t need polls to understand that we have a massive crisis of confidence. It’s not just Dubya and Dick, or Bear, Stearns. In the last several years, Congress, the Supreme Court, our intelligence services, the Catholic Church, the energy industry, the automobile industry, financial institutions, our system of primary and secondary education, our Department of Justice and our emergency services (in Katrina) all failed us. The last major institution in our society that still works—our military—is under unbearable stress, with impossible missions, insufficient resources, abysmal civilian leadership (until recently), and the realistic fear of insufficient care and support when exhausted and battered troops come home.

As for making a difference and being able to see it, how many workers today can say that? Few of us make anything tangible anymore. Most of us who do have become automatons, part of the assembly line. Many of us work in fields like advertising, public relations and political consulting, where a significant part of the work product is lies. The health-care professions are so over-stressed and bureaucratized that few in them have time or leisure to appreciate the real differences they do make in human welfare. About the only workers who can really take personal, direct pride in their work these days are writers, artists, construction workers and makers of customized furniture and clothes.

And do we feel we are getting a fair shake for all our storm and stress? The “leaders” get richer and more powerful while the rank and file stagnate. The ratio of CEOs’ salaries to those of the average worker is higher than at any time in our history, and the highest it has ever been in any time or place in human history, except perhaps the most gilded eras of the Mongol Empire and ancient Rome. Real wages have stagnated for as long as most workers can remember. Even the “elite,” with lots of higher education, feel a sense of futility as highly skilled jobs begin to migrate overseas. As the “recession” deepens, computer programmers, educators, webmasters and scientists will find themselves in unemployment lines and begin to doubt the mantra that education cures all.

The likely outcome is predictable. Human beings are not machines. They don’t break; they rebel.

It is too early to speak of revolution. Over 70% of those polled think their own personal financial situation tolerable. But a national slowdown seems inevitable. When people are killing themselves to get ahead and don’t, eventually they will stop hitting their heads against the wall. The will spend more time with their friends and families and begin to act like the underlings in “Dilbert.”

So, in the midst of this mortgage crisis, collapsing housing bubble, credit crunch, and moral crisis in national leadership at every level, we can expect a pervasive retrenchment in commercial and industrial productivity. People simply won’t continue to knock themselves out once they see they have nothing to gain. Some may work harder out of fear—fear of losing their jobs and becoming destitute. But fear is hardly the best or most creative motivator.

How bad will it get? I don’t know. In a separate post, I’ve estimated that the mortgage crisis and housing bubble alone are about a $120 billion problem. On the numbers, that’s not a hard problem to solve.

What scares me more is the human reaction. We are all getting fed up, each in his or her own way. Today 81% of us think we are on the wrong track.

We live today in a sea of euphemisms. We like to speak of “recession,” rather than “depression.” But the term “depression” is apt for what is coming precisely because it describes our collective psychological state. It mirrors the same term used in medicine and clinical psychology. You are “depressed” when you feel abused and worthless and think that nothing will ever change. That’s precisely what many workers feel and think today. Their number will only grow as the economic crisis deepens. After repeated abuse—whether perceived, real, or self-generated—people give up and play, or they play tricks.

You can already see the trends. Many of our commercial, financial and industrial leaders no longer think about making things better, even if only in their industry. They think only “how can I get mine?” That’s the clear message from Enron, Bear, Stearns, and Countrywide, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Even a great corporation like Boeing gets in the game. In fierce competition with Airbus, it makes promises it can’t keep. One of the most well-run, productive and innovative organizations in human history can no longer meet its schedule. Whether it’s bad management, overconfidence, or just bad luck, the whole world can see. And I won’t even mention the tanker-plane scandal.

Our youth, so-called “Generation Y,” want great responsibility, high pay, and interesting work with short hours and low stress. In job interviews, they are quite open about these goals. The subjects of discipline and self-restraint apparently never come up. As we frenetic Boomers retire and our Calvinist “Greatest Generation” dies, these trends will only accelerate. Workers led by the new moral paragons will slack off.

Will a change in national leadership make a difference? I don’t know. We may already be too far gone. Too many lies have been told, too many myths believed, too many stupid mistakes made, too much greed and thoughtlessness revealed, and too many promises broken, including some in our Bill of Rights.

Moreover, our amoral zeitgeist reinforces itself. The more workers perceive leaders acting solely in their own interest, the less they believe in common values like hard work, discipline and self-sacrifice. The more lesser leaders see the greater (including our top executives) acting like hucksters and working only for themselves, their cronies, or their social class, the more they do likewise. We may already be in a vicious cycle of societal decay that has no end short of national calamity.

And yet, and yet. People are not entirely rational. Hope can be a powerful motivator. A dose of hope and inspiration might jar us out of our funk and lethargy. Perhaps someone used to telling the truth, who personifies hope and the American dream, can inspire us to believe in the dream again, no matter how much our current leadership has tarnished it.

There is only one candidate who might be capable of doing so. There is only one candidate who has the clear vision, good judgment, self-restraint and moral character to restore our national values. We all know who he is. It certainly isn’t Hillary, whose judgment has been wrong on every major issue, and who has lied repeatedly to inflate her résumé. Another huckster and self-promoter like her would just about do us in.


As luck or fate would have it, today’s Dilbert strip expresses precisely the theme of this essay, with Scott Adams’ usual brilliant wit. Every manager should read it to understand what is yet to come.


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  • At Mon May 19, 09:12:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dilbert read it has moved to http://www.dilbert.com/2008-04-06/

  • At Mon Jul 14, 10:25:00 PM EDT, Blogger jay said…

    Belated thanks for the new link. I added it above, but I had trouble getting the second row of the strip to appear on my Mac. The second row showed only for a few seconds, but I was able to print the whole strip from that link.


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