February 15, 2009

Very Long and Very Boring

I'm restricting my tv watching to Comedy night and Lost from now on, so you may see a sharkier side to this blog for a while.

First, I'd like to apologize to all my down home fans for how cocky I look in our blog's title picture. I think the true cause was the sun and not feelings of awesomeness.

Now onto business.

The last few years have changed my worldview. Let me lay a bit of context before the narrative. I have two sides to me. One is anti-establishment. It's in my nature to take the less-beaten path and discover loopholes in the system, ignore rules I disagree with, cheer the underdog, and to feel a little gross about trends. But another side of me is thoroughly pro-establishment. When reading accounts of whatever oppressed group rebelling against the Man, I side with the oppressed morally and logically, but sometimes have to fight a defensive feeling of the Man, as if he is my true people somehow. I naturally sympathize with boss over union, cop over detainee, corporate defendant over small plaintiff, etc. Up until recently I reflexively trusted institutions and the heads that ran them. Not sure why this is, but growing up in a highly conservative place in a very authoritarian religion (and I use the A word in a very neutral, factual way, not a pejorative one), in a white-male dominated society probably has something to do with it.

So back to my leading statement. I've come to the conclusion that when it comes to macro issues, people (and most institutions) just don't know what the hud they're talking about. None of them. At least no one that you or I have conversational access to. In other words, if they are talking to you, you can go ahead and feel safe discounting everything they say. And most people don't even know what they are talking about on specific issues (e.g. Why is my car making this noise, who would win a fight to the death between a mountain lion and two timber wolves? Or what's the history behind every last American Jew being liberal or behind every last comedian being an American Jew?), but that's a discussion for another day. Most of us (again, on a macro level) lack vision and follow the program believing that the small, elite cadre of folks/institutions manning the helm have command of all the facts and are maintaining a steady course. I include myself in all this, of course. I know this isn't anything original. Commentators from Rand to Huxley, from both ideological poles, have been voicing one or another iteration of this from the beginning. But I hadn't personally experienced it yet in a big way, and I think that's what it takes for something to really take root deep in your psyche and conditioned responses. The road to my revelation began as I took a job with the nation's largest home builder*. I was about to graduate college and had developed a very recent interest in business, but had no knowledge of specific paths. A friend introduced me to the booming construction industry. They needed people with a superficial business education and a deep and wide knowledge of military history, so I signed on. My very well-reasoned rationale in taking this job was as follows:
-It was the only interview I had done so far and they offered me the job.
-The pay was much more than I ever expected out of college, since shark wranglers start out between 8-9 dollars an hour (not including bite pay).
-I thought "what kind of people work in construction? Dumb people. I'll be running the joint in 2 weeks."

I took the job. I was immediately struck by the enormous salaries and artificially inflated titles belonging to lower and middle managers of mediocre talent and education. My family can attest to my intense interest, from the age of 5, in the salaries of different jobs, so I thought I had a decent sense of what folks on different tiers in different industries made. But this industry wasn't anywhere near fitting my template. How could a director with GE/Siemens/Walmart/3M, someone with an MBA, muy experience and responsibility for 90 people make a total of 175K when a Pulte "VP" with little formal education, responsibility for 25 people, makes a total of 400-500K in a relatively unsophisticated industry. Didn't pass the smell test. I was working in Southern CA in the tract home building business in 2005. In other words, I was at the height of the height of the height of the bubble. I was standing on top of a jenga block tower, that were on top of a sugar cube pyramid, that was on top of the highest possible centimeter of the bubble. Everyone around me was buying as many houses as they could, and as expensive homes as they could get loans for. 85% of your friendly conversation with the average person was how they had made 70k in their house in the last 6 months. It was just crazy. Otherwise smart people were getting interest only and ARM loans and telling you that there was absolutely NO risk. None. It was just a free lunch. A free buffet. At the Siz.

Five or six months after I started the job, the bubble popped. But many of us in the industry bought the line that it had just sprung a temporary leak which needed to be patched before we could resume inflating it and filling our backyards with more pet white tigers and lazy rivers. Other big home builders started laying off. We were assured that Pulte had never had a losing year or done layoffs in it's 55 yr history. We were safe. In fact, this would probably benefit Pulte, as we were a more sound and fiscally conservative company and would surely grab market share from the other clowns. Then Pulte started laying off. Our brilliant and candid (truly, I'm not being sarcastic) CEO predicted it would bottom out and start to climb in summer of 07 ish. Every dept. thought it was the safest. No business can operate without finance. Salespeople are the moneymakers. You can't get by without superintendents to build the homes. Customer Relations has to always be around to service the warranties, etc (even I knew this last one was ridiculous. "Ok Board, who we gonna keep? The crew that builds the product, the crew that sells the product, or the crew that services the product for free after we've been paid for it? Hmm, better save the last one. Yep, definitely them."). Everyone was wrong. After each layoff the brass would tell the troops "wow, that was really tough, but you are left because you are the best and now we are 'right-sized' through at least... (fill in with some distant future date)." Then another unexpected round of lay offs long before said date. Same speech. Then another layoff. Repeat cycle ad infinitum. I think I saw 4 or 5 of these rounds before jumping ship. You know the rest of the story. Sub-prime mortgage meltdown, financial sector meltdown, credit meltdown, employment meltdown, consumption meltdown, world meltdown. A few people were honest and smart enough to admit they didn't know where all this was heading. They didn't have a Ph.D in finance, economics, organizational behavior, and political science, and even if they did, they still would be wrong more often then right. But most people actually think they usually understand what's going on and can accurately predict where things are going. In other words, 99% of what I heard experts and laymen say in the last 4 years has been bogus. Then you have a few other fairly recent institutional failures.

Clinton and Monica.

Clinton and 9/11.

Bush and Iraq.

Kindly Democratic congressmen/senators making possible the dream of every low-income person living the American dream of having a hummer and a $600,000 mortgage.

All the top financial firms in America buying as many of these sub-prime mortgages as possible.

Then people fall for Sarah Palin.

Then people fall for Barrack Obama. (who I happen to like so far, minus the recent stimulus, but still think most peoples' initial reasons for supporting him were akin to Beatlemania).

Then you have most of the media making complete fools of themselves and selling their last ounce of credibility.

Government, big business, big media, and a lot of us common folk made bad choices and now we're in a huge mess. How does that happen? I guess we all think someone else is driving the bus and that person must be a very competent, and if enough people are doing something it must be ok.

So, what have I learned from all this. I trust government far less. I trust conservatives far less. I trust liberals far less. I trust big business far less. I trust experts far less. I trust laypeople not at all.

I still love people and life and think this is a great world. I just think 99 out of 100 people are talking out of their bums 99 out of 100 times.

*Measured in terms of units sold, not revenue earned. More specifically based on units sold on 2/27/05 in Topeka, Kansas between 4 and 5:13 pm. Pulte Homes Inc. takes no responsibility for the repetition of the referenced claim, as such assertions are prone to a thousand interpretations and only used in recruiting and training to impress impressionable minds. Please destroy this after reading and try to forget we ever spoke of it.


Ryan and Andrea said...

This is hilarious & soooo true! This needs to go on Leno or something, ha ha. Maybe one of those circulating emails!!

Ryan said...

Wow, Kook, this is a thought-provoking and intelligent analysis. You haven't made this link explicit, but these observations have a lot to do with why I'm personally conservative. Not politically, but personally, i.e., don't fall into trends, if a principle was true ten years ago, it's probably still true today, etc. One thing that is becoming more and more obvious is that if anything, we are becoming more vulnerable to a herd mentality, and more willing to abandon first principles when the crowd seems to think it's okay.

Andrea W. said...

I really enjoyed reading that. I feel much the same, my natural trust in the government and institutions has really been shaken. I'm just sick about the stimulus and and earmarks and AHHHH!!! It's funny what we can tell ourselves about why even though it's NEVER been a good idea to be in debt it's totally different and great in this case, etc. I think our generation needed a serious wake-up call. I guess we've got one.

Rachel said...

If that took me thirty minutes to read, how long did it take you to write it?

All joking aside, I enjoyed it.

Rachel said...

If that took me thirty minutes to read, how long did it take you to write it?

All joking aside, I enjoyed it.

Rachel said...

Apparently I liked it so much that I decided to comment twice (or three times?).

Jana said...

Long? yes. Boring? no.

Pulte sounds just like the company Brad worked for before going back to school. "We just cut half of you but this year is going to be our best year yet"...just happy we got out before the cuts made it to his level of the totem pole.

And I've decided that most people out there are operating with the "it's not what you know but how convincing you are at ACTING like you know something" mentality.

Jo said...

I too enjoyed reading your thoughts, Chris. Not one bit boring, but thought provoking.

LOL--"deep and wide knowledge of military history"!

Eliza said...

you are so funny and so right on. I totally agree and it really is scary how suggestible we are and trusting (me, at least) in institutions, etc... Anyway, great post.

Jake and Emily Hutchings Family said...

so, are you calling me dumb?

Josh said...

Great post Kook, I agree with what you said. You know this world is a little screwed up when our sports stars like Alex Rodriquez get paid $28,000,000 a year play with a ball.

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