JOHN OSTRANDER: Widgets
Theories are great. I love theories. Usually they’re a wonderful conflation of thought and imagination. We all have our own pet theories on things and we teach them to do tricks or rub their tummies and have fun with them. For example, my sweetie, Mary, on a regular basis comes up with new theories of how the universe was created. They’re different each time and always fun. Sometimes they stumble near quantum theory and that gets a little spooky but, all in all, I enjoy them almost as much as she does.
My problem with theories is when they become ossified into dogma. This happens not just in religion but in all walks of life, including economics and business. Communism is a good example of an economic theory gone to dogma. One of its charming hypotheses was that, once communism had spread around the globe – as Karl Marx felt it inevitably would – all government would evaporate because we would have achieved the workers’ paradise. That theory, unfortunately, is not based on any human trait I’ve ever seen. Capitalism, on the other hand, being based on human greed, is and that’s one of the reasons it has survived and communism has not.
Capitalism and business, especially in recent years, have had their own bits of theories that are endlessly repeated like mantras until they too have become dogma. They’re applied whether they fit the situation or not, sometimes out of stupidity and other times from cupidity.
One of my least favorite bits of economic dogma is “They’re all widgets.” The word “widget” was coined, I believed, by playwright George S. Kaufman for his 1924 play Beggar On Horseback in which the protagonist must choose between his work as a composer and a steady but soul draining job in a “widget” factory. Since it was never defined, a “widget” – in the economic sense – is a synonym for “product” or, when dealing with a creative artist, the term “talent” is used. What it comes down to is that it doesn’t matter what the widget is, certain business and selling rules will apply. Soap, beef, talent, cars, drugs, beer, games, comic books, movies, TV shows – they’re all widgets. One theory fits all.
Except it doesn’t always do that. In 1989, Marvel was bought by Ron Perelman’s MacAndrews and Forbes; at the time, Marvel had maybe 70% of the sales of a very healthy direct sale market. Before Perelman’s little junket was done, Marvel was in bankruptcy and the market was in tatters. Why? Because they decided they were selling widgets. They didn’t need to know anything about comics or the market; they were going to apply sound business principles and make comics respond accordingly. (I had plenty of friends on the inside keeping me abreast of the latest theory.) Nobody could tell these guys nothing. Their business model was not simply Disney but McDonald’s which not only sells hamburgers but own the bakeries that makes the buns, the cattle ranches that supply the beef and so on.
Marvel started to bring its licenses inside the company with the idea that they would supply the product. Since trading cards were so popular, they would buy the trading card companies. They bought the companies after the interest in trading cards had already crested. Perelman’s suits were consistently behind the curve.
They decided to be their own distributors since distributors took a healthy slice of the money made on each comic sold. Using the business model, they sought to acquire the biggest distributor, which was Diamond. No go. So they went to the second largest – Capital. No go. So they finally wound up buying Heroes World. Just following the business model, folks. The thing is, everyone who did know something about the industry knew that there was a wide gap between Diamond and Capital and a chasm between Capital and Heroes World. Simply put: no one thought that Heroes World could handle the volume that Marvel was putting out – and they were right. But no one could tell that to Perelman’s cadre. They knew better; comics and its market were just more widgets.
They weren’t and later, in a New York Times Sunday business section article that tracked all the nonsense, Perelman conceded that the comics business was, perhaps, trickier than he thought. No shit, Sherlock. Maybe sometimes it actually helps to know something about the specifics of the market that you’re entering rather than assuming they’re all the same – that they’re all just widgets.
Perelman, it should be mentioned, made money on his Marvel holdings, if I recall correctly. Not all his investors did.
Which brings me to the second stage of my rant – supple-side (trickle down) economics.
The “supply side economics” theory, sometimes disparagingly referred to as “trickle down theory,” says that the way to stimulate the economy is to give tax breaks to the rich – and rich corporations – who will then spend more and this will “trickle down” to more, better, and higher paying jobs for those of us who are NOT in the highest tax bracket.
Personally, I’m tired of being “trickled” on.
I also don’t buy the theory. The rich like to stay rich by keeping their money, not spreading it around. The divide between the rich and the middle class as well as the poor is greater than it has been in decades – perhaps ever. The golden and platinum parachutes that the top executives have in companies are voted on by Boards of Directors culled largely from people in the same tax bracket. Originally, the parachutes were meant as “poison pills” to make hostile take-overs by other companies more difficult. Now they are expected as a divine right. Often, these benefits are not even tied to performance. A top executive can screw up a company and still be paid millions even if they are fired. Especially if they’re fired. If you screw up your job and get fired, you’ll be lucky to get unemployment.
When the top execs talk about making a company “leaner” by “getting rid of the fat,” chances are they aren’t talking about their jobs and/or bonuses they get or that of anyone at their pay level – they’re talking about you. Why? Because you’re a widget. Anybody can do your job, so far as they are concerned. When the top echelon at a company talks about outsourcing, they’re talking your job. When was the last time a top exec was “outsourced”? No, they get “transplanted” to, say, Dubai. Same guy, same job, different address. He – and it’s just about always a he and white – is irreplaceable… according to him and others like him.
Look, I’m not saying there aren’t or shouldn’t be general rules that can apply. There are in any field, including mine. As I said, I like theories, especially those culled from experience and/or observation that have been questioned and put to the test. That explain reality and don’t ignore it. Attempting to reduce everything to widgets is, to my mind, an exercise in reductio ad absurdam – meaning that the theory itself is taken to absurd conclusions, ones that can ultimately work against a corporation’s own best interests.
Look at mergers, especially the big ones. In theory, these big new companies should be global players, reactive to the markets they’re in, dominating their field. That’s all on paper, however. What you can wind up with is a bloated behemoth that is too big to respond to the market. It’s like these super-tankers; they’re too big to slow or even turn quickly.
The merger often is driven by market strategy with little or no thought given to how this new corporate behemoth being born is actually going to work. Problems often arise and it’s those damn widgets – the human factors. The two companies may have completely incompatible business cultures – the way that they actually do business. They may be like oil and water and don’t mix well. In theory, it shouldn’t be a factor; in reality, it’s a big one.
So why do these mergers happen? Because the ones making the deal are making big money. What happens afterwards is not their concern. The top execs get their golden/platinum/titanium parachutes. Because they make so much money, their first concern and loyalty is not to the company or the investors; it’s to themselves. A big multinational company has no loyalty to any one nation or government; it is a super-power in its own right. As the gap between the rich and the non-rich widens, it gets worse. If you’re not rich, you’re a widget – your purpose is the creation and consumption of widgets which supports the rich in their lifestyle.
If this sounds like I’m anti-capitalist, I’m not. I’m up for making money; lordy, am I up for making some money! Nor do I assume that every capitalist is an evil Scrooge. There have been enlightened capitalists throughout history. The only reason Chicago still has its gorgeous lakefront parks open and free is because of the efforts of one – Aaron Montgomery Ward. However, I think the widget concept is inherently flawed and, to my perception, dogmatically applied.
To paraphrase the title character in the classic TV series The Prisoner, “I am not a widget; I am a free man!” Sadly, I expect the only answer I will hear is the same derisive laughter he heard.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/.