Bankers, consultants and other parasites

I have been wondering why I have been working so hard. Why everyone seems to work so hard. It cannot solely be that we are all avaricious capitalist swine. Why do half the people I meet seem to take it as read that professionals work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week? Why has "Get up or get out" become a truism of career development rather than a rather silly Wall Street catch-phrase?

Your correspondent has the answer.

Well, I have a few bits of an inkling of an answer, anyway.

The problem is at least in part people like me. Bright people who, like people everywhere, find it easier to criticise what someone else is doing that to do it ourselves. When our culture was relative poor, and people relatively isolated, you either ploughed the fields and scattered, or died. The only viable way of making a living was to make something, transport something, or sell something.

However the growth of communication and cultural wealth means that there comes into being a fourth type of person - the optimizer. They do not make, transport or sell anything, but rather try to get other people to make, transport or sell stuff more efficiently. The optimizer creams off some of the extra profit resulting, and so keeps themselves in business. Typical examples are banks and time-and-motion 'experts'. But companies like telephone banking and insurance groups are also founded by optimizers. They do not produce anything (not even insurance or banking) - they just find a quicker, cheaper or better way of taking it from supplier to demander.

With this fourth level of activity comes the need for a fifth - information providers. A limited amount of information has always been useful, but now you need to know a whole lot of stuff about market projections and what your competitors are doing so that you can decide (or rather, the optimizers can decide) whether you could be doing it better. The two, optimizer and information provider, are combined in the consultant, i.e. me.

Ah, you cry, but do these people not do something useful? Sometimes they do. But there is a limit to how much optimizing you can do. After fine tuning a business to the last 10%, is fine tuning to its final 1% worthwhile? To 0.1%? The answer is almost always 'no'. But the optimizers have to continually promise improvement (otherwise they are out of a job), so they invent new ways of optimizing, and push them. And they also invent secondary ways of optimizing things, optimising the optimization process. And that can go on for ever.

Most of the ways are rubbish, of course. Thus 'Business Process Re-engineering' has actually proven in many cases to make businesses less efficient, not more, but its sounds great and so many consultancy companies sold it. Re-insurance sounded good to insurance companies who found that they had bitten off more than they could chew, but it spiralled out of control in the Lloyds insurance market in London until half the market was re-insuring itself in circles, producing nothing. Investment is meant to optimize the distribution of resources, allowing rich people with nothing to do with their money to invest it in poor companies that need it. But it generates endless secondary investment systems, where the investor is investing not in a company, but in other investors. And they invest in other investors, and they invest in other investors. If you are lucky the people who were actually going to use the money to make or transport or sell something get a small bit at the end.

Is this inevitable? Yes - it is classic parasitism. Mechanisms that are essential for society are abrogated by organisms for short-term, purely selfish motives. One could reasonably argue that Nick Leeson, the Barings trader in derivative something-or-others whose rampant dishonesty brought the bank down, is the stock market's answer to the HIV particle.

But what has this to do with work? Well, all these parasitic optimizers compete with the few remaining members of society who actually do something. They have to work very hard at it. Because they do not produce anything tangible, they have to work extra hard to convince people that 'business process re-engineering', which sounds like a load of horse-shit, is actually a fantastic way to make your company more profitable. So they get to work incredibly long hours, write masses or reports. This does not only apply to bankers and investment analysts, of course. Whole strata of middle management can take off into self-referential realms of optimizing behaviour, and because they are no longer concerned with what their company is meant to be doing, but only with producing speculations about how to do it better, they become incredibly productive. In terms of paper and reports, anyway. The few remaining workers have to work even harder to keep up, and to generate real wealth to support all these people.

All this work, all this activity, is purely self-generated. If we did not do it we would not need to do it.

What is the cure? There isn't one. Biology has shown that the only way to fight parasites is to put lots and lots of energy into it - make secondary metabolites, build an immune system, grow scales and horns and hair. There is no way that we could eliminate the optimizers and their supporting providers of 'competitive intelligence', 'market analysis' and so on without expending even more energy. The only cure is to go back to the Neolithic, as mentioned above.

I will have to think of a more cheerful topic for the next Batcave.