Saturday, April 16, 2011

Camels Are Too Big

I'm one who never got into worshipping the rich. I feel like the Presidency is the most important job in the world, and if I ever make more than his $400,000 annual salary, then something is out of balance with my compensation. I know some might disagree, but I don't like the trappings of wealth. To me, being rich is a sort of like a zero sum game—extravagance on their part generally means that others are getting shorted. Perhaps I spent too much time as an undergrad studying the barons of industry during the Gilded Age (and results such as the coalfield wars and the Progressive Era).

I remember when “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” started back in the '80s. I never watched it because I had absolutely no interest. Just the commercials with Robin Leach's heavy British accent celebrating the extravagance of the rich made me want to hurl. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of the aggrandizement of the rich and the celebration of celebrities, as the increase in cable channels led to everything from MTV's “Cribs” to “NYC Prep” on Bravo (not to mention all the fictional shows focused on the wealthy—Falconcrest, Dallas, etc.). All my students know that I often hold up Paris Hilton as the ultimate example of this wealth worship, because she became a celebrity not for any singing or acting talent, athleticism, or particular business acuity, but primarily because through her inheritance, she is filthy rich.

Today, there are two network reality shows on Sunday night dealing with the upper echelons of American society. These shows are giving the rich a chance to see what the rest of us live with on a daily basis. As you may know, I'm not big on watching TV (and only pay for basic cable), but it is often background noise as I read or surf the web. However, I've made a point to watch both of these and want to share my thoughts on them.

The first was Undercover Boss on CBS which began last year. I liked the premise of getting the CEO out of the his fancy office and into the real work. This is a concept that I think is important but is often sorely lacking today. I was a data center manager in the late '80s, and every Friday when the load of printer paper arrived, I would join with whichever employee's turn it was to unload the pallets. This was the most demanding physical labor component of their job, and I wanted them to see their manager sharing the workload. I started dressing more casual on Friday's because of this, and actually was called into the Division Director's office for wearing jeans, but he reluctantly decided to allow me to continue (because of this incident, I consider myself somewhat of a pioneer for casual Friday workplace attire where I work). It proved to be a good bonding experience with the staff because we talked as we worked. In addition to unloading boxes of paper, I also made a point to try and learn all the various job responsibilities, and even worked the afternoon and midnight shifts to experience life outside the normal workday.

Having watched some of these Undercover Boss episodes for the past two seasons, they seem to always follow a script. The boss has a hard time doing the real work, the boss discovers he has some incredible employees who are key to the success of the company, and then the boss calls them in and gives them some token of his appreciation. Sometimes the boss actually decides to change corporate policy because of what he has experienced. The boss always considers it an eye-opening experience (why did he have to wait until CBS created this show to realize what he was missing?).

To me, the internal changes that result are the most satisfying part of the show. I only hope that the empathy displayed by the boss continues long after the cameras are gone. In fact, I hope that Undercover Boss eventually does follow-up episodes to see how things went for everybody a year or so after the show aired. It seems to me that the producers will have a hard time continuing the original premise, since the show's popularity should make all employees suspicious of a new person being filmed in training. Let's hope that follow-ups don't show that everything went back to the status quo, with the top dogs once again isolated in their ivory towers enjoying their tea and crumpets, having forgotten the lessons from the show (which should include continued efforts to reach out to the real workers of the company).

The other show that I have watched a couple of times is far less worthy in my eyes. This year, ABC decided to take some millionaires and have them live like a pauper for a week, do some volunteer work, and then write some checks at the end of it all, with the cameras rolling on them the whole time. I have decided that this show is more about stroking the ego's of the millionaires than anything else, letting them feel like they care by giving away a few thousand to some worthy non-profits that they never knew existed. Let me educate the rich folks: THERE ARE AMAZING PEOPLE ALL OVER THIS COUNTRY TRYING TO DO GOOD DEEDS THROUGH NON-PROFITS ALL THE TIME, WITH NEVER ENOUGH MONEY. You don't need to be the center of attention through a national TV show to help them out! Quit isolating yourselves in your mansions and yachts with your fellow jet-setters (flying first class, of course, if not on your private jets) and realize that America needs your help.

I am afraid that the follow-ups to Secret Millionaire would reveal less of a lasting effect than the Undercover Boss follow-ups. These millionaires are not fully connected to the people they met, unlike Undercover Boss which at least maintains a boss/worker relationship after the show. The one week immersion experience is too easy for the Secret Millionaires to put behind them and move on, feeling good about the fact that they wrote a few checks (and occasionally popping in the DVD from “their show” to share with friends at cocktail parties their televised experience among the little people). At least the Undercover Bosses will still be living in the same corporation, and thus may better understand the reasons why changes are necessary. But then again, maybe I am overly optimistic about the potential for change in corporate cultures. The follow-ups to both these shows may end up being a disappointment.

By the way, can you tell from my rantings that I am not into conspicuous consumption? I realize that wealth is relative, and that I certainly am more comfortable than many (with what some might consider luxuries such as a Prius, a motorcycle, vacations, etc.), but my modest home would never impress Robin Leach. I don't aspire for earthly riches. One of my favorite Biblical quotes from Jesus Christ is: “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

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