An economy of grinds
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.
Every once in a while you’ll run into one who can’t help but let you know how much smarter he is than you or anybody else in the room. Sitting at this lunch is about as pleasant for him as watching a cockroach crawl up his arm. He’d much rather be back working in front of his computer screen.
Since the princes are nicer and more impressive, it is easy to be seduced into the belief that they also are more trustworthy. That 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 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. The contrarians at the hedge funds made money betting against them. The well-connected 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.
In finance, as in other realms of business life, social polish doesn’t always go with capitalist success. Often it is the most narrow, intense, awkward people who start the best companies, employ the most people and create the most value.
Sadly, this recovery has been great for princes and horrible for grinds. The people who work at the big corporations are critical of the Obama administration, but the fact is they are doing very well. The big companies are posting excellent earnings. They’re sitting on mountains of cash.
The aspiring grinds, meanwhile, are dead in the water. Small businesses are not growing. They are not hiring. They are struggling to stay alive.
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.
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. They went to the same schools as the professionals and speak the same language. The grinds try to stay far away and regard the interlocking network of corporate-government schmoozing with undisguised contempt.
The upshot is that we have an economy that is inching toward recovery but that is not creating much in the way of new innovations and new jobs.
It’s not that the overall labor markets are shrinking. It’s just that very few grinds are bringing new ideas to scale and hiring workers to enact their us-against-the-world schemes.
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.
We’ve been mired in debates over macroeconomic models recently. But maybe the real issue is how we are going to light a fire under the country’s loners, its contrarians and its narrow, ambitious outsiders.