Deeds and (Dubious) Seeds

July 30, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Prediction is pretty easy, at least about the past.* Take the case of Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben, as we all know (well, maybe not all of us, but those of us who follow important matters, i.e., the Steelers), was quarterback for Pittsburgh in two recent Superbowl seasons (2005-06, 2008-09. But has also behaved badly off the field – a motorcycle accident (sans helmet), sexual assaults.

This should have come as no surprise. The signs were all there, waiting to be read. At least, that’s the gist of the headlines in the story featured on page one of today’s New York Times sports section.
A Reputation in Ruins
Long before his recent troubles, Roethlisberger, driven by athletics, showed signs of a sense of entitlement even at a young age.
How could we not have foreseen this? According to the headlines, since childhood apparently, Ben had been a six-game suspension waiting to happen. Here’s the logic:
  • A few incidents of bad behavior show that Ben has some character/personality trait (recklessness, sexual assaultiveness).

  • Because personality is an enduring part of our psychological make-up, he must have had these traits long ago.
The trouble is that nothing in the actual story supports this idea. Young Roethlisberger appears as a very competitive athlete, constantly working on his skills, though as a red-shirted freshman in college he often skipped the 5 a.m. weight-training. He was shy with girls, very respectful of his parents, and he didn’t drink even at high school parties where others did. The worst that the article can find to say is that his competitiveness led him to focus on himself at the expense of paying attention to his teammates.

The story of Roethlisberger’s pre-Superbowl life has absolutely nothing that foreshadows what the NFL, in its suspending him, called “a pattern of behavior and bad judgments.”

Making assumptions about someone’s past may not be the fundamental attribution error, but it’s close. We start with the idea that behavior is caused by personality traits, and we add an assumption of life-course consistency – the child is father to the man. And apparently a headline writer’s heart leaps up when he beholds a chance to impose those assumptions on a public figure. The online version (“Ben Roethlisberger’s Journey to Notoriety”) carries this subhead:
The seeds of the NFL quarterback’s problems, including
accusations of sexual assault, were sown long ago.
What seeds? The story itself (by Thayer Evans), which gives no evidence of these seeds, is quite sensible. It’s the headlines that are the problem. I suspect that the headline writer skimmed the story rapidly if at all, saw that it was about Roethlisberger’s past, and plugged in the erroneous psychological assumptions, taking Roethlisberger’s unremarkable teen years and turning them into something seedy.

* “Making predictions is very hard, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra (unsourced)

Price and Consequences

July 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Penn Station news stand this morning. The young man ahead of me has stacked his two items on the counter – a book (50 Great Short Stories) and a pack of Marlboros. He shows an ID card to the cashier, an East Indian woman. He knows the drill.

She taps the Marlboro pack. “This is fifteen dollars,” she says

He pauses, then nods. “O.K.” He takes a twenty out of his wallet.

She rings up the sale. “Twenty-two sixty,” she says.

The young man seems puzzled for a moment. Then he brings out his wallet again and takes out a ten.

As I pay for my newspaper ($2), I ask, “Most people, when you tell them it’s fifteen dollars, do they still buy it or do they walk away?”

“Most no.”

“Because they’re going to quit, or because they can get it cheaper someplace else?”*

“No, I think maybe they go home and think about it.”

*The price at most places is $11 a pack. Philip Morris filed a federal suit yesterday against eight NYC retailers for selling counterfeit Marlboros.

The Kids Are Always Right

July 26, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In American movies and TV, the kids are usually more than all right. They are superior to adults in every way. As I tried to show in an earlier post, they are more intelligent, more sensible, and more competent.

“The Kids Are All Right” offers a variation on this theme. The film uses an old device – a stranger arrives into a group, and his relationship with each of its members makes for tectonic shifts, exposing fault lines in the group structure. In this case, the group is a family – a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and their two teenage children. The movie plot is set motion when the daughter having just turned 18, uses her new legal status, at her brother’s urging, to find out who their biological father is. So in comes Mark Ruffalo with a special relation to each member of the family. He is sperm donor to both mothers, biological father to both kids.

[For a better plot summary, watch the trailer.]

The movie isn’t “Ferris Bueller” (foolish, vindictive adults continually outwitted by clever teenagers), but here too, for the most part, the kids are right, and the adults are wrong. Brother and sister make the right decisions – each starts the film with an offensive friend, and each deals with the problem decisively. It’s the moms who can’t sort out the difficulties in their relationship. Jules (Moore) has never stuck with a career, and in the course of the movie she gives in to impulsive lust. Nic (Bening) is jealous and controlling and tends to drink a bit too much wine. Even their sex life keeps hitting snags and interruptions. Paul (Ruffalo) is cute and likable, but ultimately not much of a grown-up.

The kids are really a proxy for the audience here. Like the audience in the theater, the kids find out about all the adults’ missteps (they are constantly overhearing the grown-ups, either by accident or by design). And like the audience, even when the kids say nothing, they seem to be standing in moral judgment. The adults sense this too. If you see the movie (and it’s certainly worth seeing) try counting the number of times that the adults apologize to the teenagers.

Still, “The Kids Are All Right” departs from the usual child-adult scenarios of comedy (children outwit adults), romantic comedy (children manipulate adults), or drama (children redeem adults).* Instead, the kids learn that grown-up life is complicated and that relationships and people are not perfect. Or as Julianne Moore declaims to the family at the end, just in case someone missed the point, “Marriage is hard.”

*Only very rarely do we get an American film like “Parenthood,” where kids are just ordinary kids, and our sympathy lies with the parents who must endure and try to cope with their children’s shortcomings.

Underground Music

July 22, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you get from the rockabilly of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to the doo-wop of Franie Valli? Well, if you’re in New York, you can walk uptown from Million Dollar Quartet to Jersey Boys. Eleven blocks of separation, one stop on the subway.

There are more sophisticated ways of visualizing connectedness and distance. Christakis and Fowler create attractive graphics of networks of people – they have several in their book Connected – like this one of Facebook photos of 353 students – smiling (yellow), serious (blue), mixed (green).

A fuller explanation is here.

With music, you can be less scientific and use the London Underground map.

(Click on the map for a larger view.)

To get from Elvis to Isaac Hayes, you take the Blues/Country line and change at James Brown for the Funk line. Some performers offer more connections – they are more central or nodal.

The map was created by Dorian Lynskey in early 2006, so you probably already knew about it, but it was new to me. You might have mapped things differently. Lynskey has Michael Jackson on only one line (Soul) while Basemant Jaxx spans four (Electronica & Dance, Pop, Rock, Soul) and Bjork five.

If you don’t like Lynskey’s version, you can download the map into your graphics program and make your own.

Million Dollar Quartet

July 20, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet” seems to have been based on a photograph – this photograph.

Memphis, December 4, 1956 – Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash at Sam Phillips’s Sun Record studio .

The set of the show is the studio – an open stage with piano, drums, and microphones, a control room in the rear

The musicians are the stars, but Phillips narrates the play, coming downstage to address the audience, then slipping back into the studio or control room to be part of the scene. So it’s his play, and its message seems to be that this was the end of an era. Elvis had already left Sun for RCA, and Cash and Perkins, as Phillips discovers in the course of the play, were about to sign with Columbia.

But while this date might have marked the end of an era for Phillips and Sun Records, these performers, this studio, and the music they made epitomized the new era in music that had just begun – the era of rock and roll. It was equally a new era for the media that delivered the music, the era of records and radio.

The historical perspective of “Million Dollar Quartet” is disappointingly narrow. A more socio-historical Sam Phillips would have reminded the audience that only a few years earlier, most of the music people heard was not on records, it was live. Even the music on the radio was a live broadcast:
“Coming to you from Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook on Route 23, just off the Pompton Turnpike in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, we present the music of Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra.”
In fact, Sam Phillips had done just this kind of “live remote” in the 1940s from the Peabody Hotel in Nashville.

Nor were the songs so closely identified with particular singers. In Million Dollar Quartet, Carl Perkins voices his resentment at Elvis for stealing “his” song “Blue Suede Shoes” and turning it into an even bigger hit. That was something new. Before records became dominant, when the music business was live shows and sheet music, songs didn’t belong to singers. The Tin Pan Alley tunes, by masters like Gershwin and Kern, or lesser talents, were there to be performed by anyone.

But by the mid-50s, in the era of records, audiences for rock and roll wanted only the singer whose record they knew, and only that performance. On the old-style show “Your Hit Parade” (on radio, then TV), the top tunes of the day were performed each week by the same in-house singers (where have you gone Snooky Lanson?). But on new TV shows like American Bandstand, only Paul Anka could sing “Diana,” only Jerry Lee Lewis “Great Balls of Fire.” And they lip-synched to their own records. Audiences wanted it just the way they’d heard it so many times on the record or the radio.

A more sociological Sam Phillips might also have shown us a 45 r.p.m. record and reminded us that this recent bit of technology made records something teens could afford. You could take dozens of them to a party to play over and over again, something nobody would have dared do with the heavy and brittle 78s. The new 45s were light, cheap, and virtually indestructible.

But “Million Dollar Quartet” is not about that. The show is merely a vehicle for a greatest-hits medley. The other boomers in the audience may have been thinking about that yellow Sun label and remembering the first time they heard “That’s All Right” or “I Walk the Line.” I was also remembering when I was a very new assistant professor, opening the red-and-white issue of ASR and reading Richard Peterson’s article “Cycles in Symbol Production,” to which this post owes a huge hat tip. Ditto for his “Why 1955” (in the British journal Popular Music, 1990) which is more specifically about the coming of rock and roll and which you should read immediately if you can find a free download.

Summertime Blues

July 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why hasn’t Marginal Revolution done a “Markets in Everything” post on summer school?

In the fall and spring semesters, universities are effectively a cartel. Students are in the same position as New York restaurants looking for trash haulers when the Mafia ran that show. If you’re a student at Anywhere U*, and you want to take a biology course, you can’t go to another school to take it. Well maybe you can, but you will have to make some special arrangement. But at least you don’t have to worry that the Provost is going to pull you aside to have a chat about kneecaps and baseball bats. Aside from that, to a great extent, each school is the company store.

Then, in the heat of summer, the cartel melts, and higher ed becomes a free market. Students can shop around, while schools scramble to compete and offer what the market demands. And here is what the market, i.e.students, want:
  • online courses (i.e., courses where you don’t have to show
  • courses that don’t interfere with summer vacation,
    which means
    • courses that last only a short time – three
      weeks or so
    • courses that end by mid-June or that don’t
      start until the second week of August
  • courses that meet a requirement
In my department, we had to cancel four sections that require students to come to campus and actually be in a classroom with a professor. But an online course that fulfills a Gen. Ed. category and was scheduled in the “pre-session” (May 17 - June 3) sold out immediately. The in-person courses couldn’t compete with pajama courses – ours and those offered at other schools.

A market means competition and flexibility not just in scheduling but in pricing as well. A university nearby was offering a tuition deal – take one course at full fare, get a second course at half price.** They’re also charging an additional $120 fee for online courses, not, I suspect, because online courses are more expensive to run, but because it’s what the market will bear.

As technology increasingly loosens the bonds of time and place, and as students are free to move about the Internet, education will more resemble this summertime market. I have seen the future and it is summer school. These changes also mean that I need to revise my idea of what the university is all about. I’ve been clunking along with an outdated model, thinking of our enterprise as education. No doubt that goes on. Sometimes. But the better model is the economic one that sees teacher and students activity as commerce – not teaching and learning but selling and buying. Students aren’t getting an education so much as they are buying credits. And that’s what we’re selling.

*My favorite generic university name is the one coined by David Galef – U of All People.

** At least, this is what colleagues here told me. On the school’s website I could not find any specific offer, but the Website did have a link to “Summer Session, Discounted Tuition.”

Lies My Online Dating Partners Told Me

July 15, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

OK Cupid may not be the largest online dating site, but it has the best data analysis – not surprising since its founders are Harvard math grads. They use the demographic data their subscribers provide, and they can trace the paths of messages – who sends to who, who responds to who. Last week, Christian Rudder, one of the founders, posted some detective work they did to assess the truthfulness of their customers. For example, the height distribution of their male subscribers is about two inches to the right of the national distribution. Either the OK Cupid guys are an unusually tall bunch, or they were standing on tiptoe when they filled out the form. They don’t need Randy Newman to suspect that the shorter a guy is, the less interested women will be. And they’re right (up to about 6' 1") They may be liars, but they’re not fools. It’s not surprising that people stretch the truth and their height. But why would people on a dating site lie about their sexual orientation? Yet the OK Cupid analysts found a difference between reported and observed behavior, at least for those who put their orientation as “bi.” Less than 25% of men who claimed to be bisexual actually sent messages to both men and women.
(Click on the graph for a slightly larger view.)
More likely, they weren’t lying. My guess is that the younger men were using OK Cupid as place to cautiously explore their homosexual tendencies. Maybe they were truly bisexual and didn’t need a dating service to find women. Or maybe they were homosexual but hadn’t yet come to identify themselves as such. Rudder speculates that as gay men age into their thirties, they no longer need to claim that they are bisexual. But that still doesn’t explain why even among the older self-identified bisexual men, only about one in seven is looking for both male and female partners. The data on women do not show so dramatic a change with age. But as with the men, most women who identify themselves as bisexual send all their messages to either women or men, not both.

UPDATE, July 16:

There are lies, and then there are lies.

Prisons Then and Now – Plus Ça Change

le 14 juillet 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Bastille was a prison, and I assume that like most European prisons of the time, it was a miserable place. De Tocqueville’s ostensible purpose in visiting America a generation or so after the fall of the Bastille was to study our progressive prison system.

Some things change, some stay the same. The Bastille was torn down during the Revolution. Now the only prison still standing within the official Paris boundaries is the Prison de la Santé, built in 1867, and it was not much of an improvement.

On Bastille Day in 1944 an inmate uprising was brutally suppressed by the Vichy regime. Recently, a blogger at Invisible Paris, Adam, referred to its squalor as “Zola-esque” (that’s French for Dickensian). He saw it only from the outside, but an American reader who had visited her brother* there then wrote to Adam providing more detail.
Veronique Vasseur, the prison physician, told me that the cells were full of rats and lice. Suicide is rampant, and depression lurks in every crowded cell.
That was in 1994. A few years later, Dr. Vasseur published an exposé of conditions in the prison. According to the story in the Times,
Skin diseases were rampant because showers were only available twice a week, though temperatures sometimes soared to more than 100 degrees in cramped cells holding four prisoners each.

Inmates stuffed their clothes in the cracks in their cells to keep the rats out, and most of the mattresses were full of lice and other insects. Some of the weaker prisoners, Dr. Vasseur came to understand, had been turned into slaves by their cellmates.

But what caught Adam’s attention in the letter from the woman who had visited the prison was this paragraph:
There were many international prisoners there awaiting extradition to their countries. Remarkably they all felt that extradition to the US would be the least desirable outcome, and they were correct. La Sante is unsanitary, and frightful looking - terribly crowded and unhealthy, but somehow civil.
Some things stay the same – French prisons perhaps. Some things change – in 1830, America was the country whose prison system a young idealistic Frenchman might hope to learn from. Today, our prisons have such a bad reputation that even prisoners in a disease-ridden, rat-infested French prison want to avoid extradition here.

No 21st-century de Tocqueville will be coming to the US to pick up pointers about prison reform.

* According to the Website supporting him, the brother, John Knock, was caught in a marijuana sting. He was extradited to the US. He pled not guilty. He was convicted, and sentenced to “2 life terms for conspiracy to import and distribute marijuana, and 20 years for conspiracy to money launder.” He was a first-time offender.

Economics Made Simple - Unemployment Version

July 11, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Economics, as Tyler Cowen says, is “really, really, really . . . hard.” But there are simple versions of economics, and I don’t mean just Father Guido Sarducci’s five-minute- university version (this earlierSocioblog post has a link to Fr. Sarducci).

Here’s a letter from the New York Times arguing that current proposals to extend unemployment benefits will actually increase the unemployment rate.
The more government subsidizes unemployment, the more people will indulge in it for longer periods of time.
--Ryan Young, Washington, July 6, 2010
The writer is a journalism fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
When I read this, I assumed the writer was some smug, smart-assed kid (what is a “journalism fellow” at CEI anyway?) who had learned one or two principles in Econ 101 and had no sense of how real people think and act – people who have lost their jobs and are scraping by on $300 a week in unemployment benefits (the US average).

A couple of days later, the Wall Street Journal ran a full op-ed by Arthur Laffer, a well-known economist and not a kid, saying the same thing.
The most obvious argument against extending or raising unemployment benefits is that it will make being unemployed either more attractive or less unattractive, and thereby lead to higher unemployment.
Economists sometimes clarify principles by using simplified models. Here’s Laffer’s explanation of the effects of unemployment benefits.
Imagine what the unemployment rate would look like if unemployment benefits were universally $150,000 per year. My guess is we'd have a heck of a lot more unemployment.
Marx (or somebody) said that differences in degree eventually become differences in kind, but Laffer doesn’t think so. He is arguing that a few more weeks at $300 is just a smaller version of $150,000 a year for life.

He provides some evidence in this graph (note the compassionate title):

According to Laffer, the graph shows that “since the 1970s there’s been a close correlation between increased unemployment benefits and an increase in the unemployment rate.” [emphasis added]

Correlation is not cause. In fact, what I see in the graph is that the increase in benefits almost always follows the increase in unemployment. That’s exactly what would happen now. Unemployment goes up, people can’t find work, and Congress increases the amount or length of benefits. There is a correlation, but the cause goes the other way.

I have heard many politicians argue that because unemployment is high, we need to extend benefits. It’s much rarer to hear people say that they have chosen not to work because that $300 a week is just too tempting.

From Cheney to BP

July 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

When did the BP oil disaster (11 people killed, untold environmental damage) begin? The explosion occurred in April 2010.

But in 2001, one of the first things Dick Cheney did when he became president vice-president was to convene a task force on energy. The process was so important that the government refused to tell the public who was on the task force or who they were consulting. After all, in a democracy, it makes no sense to let the people know what the government is doing or who they’re doing it with.

The task force did produce an energy policy and a document that contains this prescient bullet point:
• Advanced, more energy efficient drilling and production methods:
— reduce emissions;
— practically eliminate spills from offshore platforms; and
— enhance worker safety, lower risk of blowouts, and provide better protection of groundwater resources
Nine years later, those chickens came home to roost, feathers drenched in oil.

There’s probably some larger sociological point here, maybe about how industries “capture” regulatory agencies, though capture suggests that there was some actual struggle going on. With the Cheney-Bush administration, that would be like saying that a rich kid “captured” the extravagant birthday presents he’d been whining for. In both cases, it would be technically more accurate to use the term gift .

(HT: Eric Alterman )

Writing Contest

July 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The InsideHigherEd table of contents listed:

Provost Prose
And the winner is . . .

I hadn’t read Ed in a while, so I thought they must have been running a contest with faculty submitting actual sentences from memos from their provosts.

Turns out, “Provost Prose” is a column written by an actual provost (Herman Miller of Hofstra), and his prose is surprisingly clear, readable, and non-bureaucratic. The column in question was about Hofstra’s Teacher of the Year award and whether a winner should be allowed to repeat, threepeat, etc., hence the title of the column.

But there should be an academic prose competition – like the Bulwer-Lytton awards. I used to collect particularly opaque gems of the genre, full of bureaucratic vagueness, but I must have deleted the file. Maybe some other more widely read blog would run the contest. Only authenticated memos from authenticated administrators. One hundred word maximum. All entries become the property of the blog. Offer not good where prohibited by law. Eyes on your own paper, turn off all cell phones, no flash photography, and if you have cellophane-wrapped candy, open it now.

Hot and Cold

July 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

How hot is it? It’s so hot that even though I know next to nothing about global climate change, I’m doing a post on it.

When there was a heavy snowstorm back in Februray, and the Fox news geniuses were saying that this snowstorm was burying all notions of global warming, I embedded a Daily Show clip pointing out the idiocy of using this single bit of anecdotal evidence.*

So instead of pictures of thermometers with three-digit temperatures today, here are two simple graphs from Climate Progress showing more systematic, long-term evidence on hot and cold.

*Jon Stewart should also have pointed out that the temperatures weren’t especially cold for February. There was just a lot of snow.

The Real America

July 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was thinking yesterday about Sarah Palin’s famous phrase, “the real America.” I was thinking about it at the parking lot at the beach, where, as we were unloading the car, a fortyish man wished my family a “Hyeppy Fourth of July,” as he passed, then went back to speaking Russian with his group. The beach itself had a diversity that I usually take for granted, at least when I’m not thinking about “the real America.” The Dominicans and Koreans and blacks, the Indian women in their beach saris, the older guy with a gold “ ח י” dangling on his pale chest, the Chinese families – they are the America I live in, and they seemed very real. So did the traffic jam as we inched along the Cross Island Parkway on the way home, and so did the all the thousands of people standing on the West Side Highway who came out of their apartments into the heat to watch the fireworks on the Hudson.

They are all real, but they’re not Palin’s “real America” and I think I know what she means: “real” in the sense of “ideal” – not a utopian, unattainable ideal, but one that actually exists.

A history teacher in my high school asked us who we thought of as the “typical” Mt. Lebanon student. The kid who got by far the most votes was the quarterback and captain of the football team, a High Honor Roll student who went on to Yale. He was real, but he was not typical. Even in my bell-curve-ignorant adolescence I knew that much.

In my own way, I too conflate the real with the ideal, and maybe you do too. I think that if you want to see the real me as a teacher, you should have been in class that day two semesters ago, when I presented the material so compellingly, and all the students were into it, asking questions, and suddenly getting it (also laughing at my jokes and making their own). Those other hours – the ordinary ones and especially the dreary ones – they’re not the real me.

I wonder if the millions of us sitting in traffic, on our way to a job in some Dilbert cubicle, are thinking that this is not the real America and not the real me. The real America is Palin’s real America, and you can read it in the names of our cars. But somehow the real America of those Sequoias and Comanche Explorers, Tahoes, Scouts, and Trail Blazers got trapped in this traffic jam on the Parkway in the same way that a transsexual might feel trapped in a man’s body although he is “really” a woman. In grad school, I knew a guy who was certain that he was “really” an NBA power forward trapped in the body of a Jewish 5' 10" math grad student.

As Palin herself acknowledged, in her dictionary “real” meant “best.” Here’s the longer version:
The best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.

Palin’s “real America” – Norman Rockwell, but with guns and NASCAR – does exist, and for many it’s an attractive picture. The trouble lies in thinking that those other Americans are not real or, as Palin says, are not sufficiently pro-America, and therefore do not have a legitimate right to govern, a view that seems fairly common among the Tea Partiers. The other trouble comes when you try to use that vision as a basis for policy.Those Norman Rockwell pictures have nothing in them about trillions of dollars in highly leveraged CDOs or the complicated politics, ethnic and violent, in the foreign lands we invade, or any of the other problems that government – real government – has to deal with.

Company Ways

July 1, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” was on TMC Tuesday night in honor of the centenary of Frank Loesser’s birth. The Broadway show opened in 1961, sort of a musical comedy version of William H. Whyte’s 1956 best-seller The Organization Man.

Loesser’s musical was light satire; Whyte’s book was sociology. But the message of both was that corporations were places that demanded nearly mindless conformity of all employees. Or as Mr. Twimble tells the ambitious newcomer (J. Pierpont Finch), “play it the company way.”
FINCH:When they want brilliant thinking / From employees
TWIMBLE: That is no concern of mine.
FINCH: Suppose a man of genius / Makes suggestions.
TWIMBLE: Watch that genius get suggested to resign.
Conformity was a topic of much concern in America in those days, in the popular media and in social science (as in the Asch line length experiments). Today, not so much.
the Organization Man, if he ever existed, is dead now. The well-rounded fellow who gets along with pretty much everyone and isn’t overly brilliant at anything sees his status trading near an all-time low. And all those brilliant screwballs whose fate Whyte bemoaned are sitting now on top of corporate America.
So wrote Michael Lewis in Slate 1997.

That’s one version. I don’t really know if the corporate climate is different today (where’s an OrgTheorist when you need one?). No doubt, “brilliant screwballs” can find save haven in corporations, at least in areas that require technical brilliance, and some may wind up at the top. But I wonder how such quirkiness survives in other areas like sales. Barbara Ehrenreich, in her recent book Bright-Sided, looks at corporations today – with their motivational speakers and “coaches” – and sees the same old demand for cheerful, optimistic obedience, especially in this era of outsourcing and downsizing.
The most popular technique for motivating the survivors of downsizing was “team building” – an effort so massive that it has spawned a “team-building industry” overlapping the motivation industry. . . .
The literature and coaches emphasize that a good “team player” is by definition a “positive person.” He or she smiles frequently, does not complain, is not overly critical, and gracefully submits to whatever the boss demands.
Or as Frank Loesser put it,
FINCH: Your face is a company face.
TWIMBLE: It smiles at executives then goes back in place.
Here’s the whole song from the 1967 film version:

The movie has another uncanny resemblance to today. The costumes and even the sets look like “Mad Men” – not surprising since both are set in the New York corporate world of the early 1960s. But there’s more. In the Broadway show and then the musical of “How to Succeed,” Robert Morse (Finch), rises to become head of advertising. Fifty years later, in “Mad Men,” Robert Morse (Bert Cooper) is the head of an advertising agency. (And he’s still wearing a bow tie.)

I asked my son, a “Mad Men” watcher, to look at the 1967 movie and try to identify the actor playing Finch. He couldn’t, at least not without a hint or two.