The Most Powerful Person In Corporate America
We thought it was going to be a MMANGA executive or Elon Musk. We were wrong. We never saw it coming. And we will pay the price for decades to come.
There’s a lot of talk about power these days. Who has it? Who doesn’t? Who deserves it if they have it? How did they get it? Do good-and-decent people find this person’s acquisition of power acceptable? Does this person do the “right” things with this power? Should that person be taxed, restrained, or even punished somehow? Or perhaps this person should be further elevated in our esteem and awe?
And how public is this powerful person, really? Should they be doxxed in service of the public interest? Has The Washington Post yet assigned Taylor Lorenz to digitally dumpster-dive into this person’s social media? Did this person publish intemperate tweets during their youth? Perhaps uttered a throwaway comment on Clubhouse? Is there a cached version of Friendster somewhere? Google Plus? MySpace?
The answers rarely come from a place of absolute principle. Too often, an assessment of this person’s power depends on whether they find themself notionally connected to a favored or disfavored group. Inevitably, though, this question leads to figures who reside in politics, business, or whatever unholy rent-seeking cosmic Lovecraftian space-mongrel inhabits both kingdoms.
So, we look to Wall Street and Madison Avenue. We fix our loupes on Big Tech, Big Agriculture, and Big Bigness. We try, if vainly, to put more transparency in government. We sometimes look to the automotive industry, dismissing as crying-wolf its periodic protestations of imminent penury.
Well, I’m telling you, my dear Pennyheads: I have found the most powerful person in corporate America. I did. Not the intrepid reporters at the world’s biggest media brands who exposed Enron, MCI, Theranos, Global Crossing, Satyam, and so many more. Not the hyperlocal blogger whose previous scoop was that Giovetti’s Pizzeria continued accepting expired coupons. Not some low-rent Upton Sinclair wannabe. Hell… Even Vani “The Food Babe” Hari must have, by the grace of God, accidentally come into contact with a food additive that makes you disappear.
Nope. They all failed. All of them.
And instead? C’est moi. Fui eu. Me. A “flack,” “spin-doctor,” “PR nerd,” or what-have you. The most detestable species inhabiting the media ecosystem, too-often portrayed in the popular imagination to ironically reputation-damaging effect. (More in this earlier edition.) While you’re at it, take off a few reputation points for my affiliation with the crypto industry, wrongfully and lazily accused as it is of burning up the planet and enabling bad guys.
You can now call off the hunt. Stop rummaging through Grimes’s refuse or pawing through Mackenzie’s post-nup. With sorrowful and spleen-wrenching regret, allow your Pulitzer dreams to deliquesce into a puddle of your own bitter tears. I have beaten you, Big Journalism, as well as your refugees who fled here to Substack.
You ready for this? Well here he is.
The most powerful person in corporate America.
But first… Before we get to this edition’s big scoop, you really should consider subscribing. I can’t guarantee that I’ll always get big scoops like this one, but at least you’ll be some combination of informed or entertained.
Alright. Meet Gerald.
Gerald (not his real name) is a finance manager at a midsized firm. He has a loving wife, a teenage son, and a tween daughter. They live in a tony suburb outside of one of our major city centers. He coaches Little League baseball. He maintains a Facebook page, wonders what all the “Tweeter” fuss is about, and gamely tries to participate in TikTok amid accusations of lameness from his children. He wishes that de-worming the goddamned dog wasn’t a monthly expense alongside a mortgage and a car payment.
How did this fine (if everyday) gentleman rise (if quietly) to such a powerful position in corporate America? Well, this is probably the most pernicious and insidious part of this dark tale.
You see, Gerald has, as the great Liam Neeson once described, a particular set of skills.
To call him a “finance manager” is to undersell his influence, akin to reducing the duties of “president” to its literal meaning of “he or she who presides.” After all, business cards, LinkedIn summaries, and email signatures are engines of compression, not comprehensiveness.
The truth is so much more complex. Gerald was crushingly ordinary, that is, until the pandemic started to subside. Since then, Gerald’s work has enjoyed outsized influence on not only business, but families and even childhood development.
Gerald’s work now dictates the life-paths of millions of Americans who were allowed or otherwise forced to work from home during the pandemic, many of whom grew to like it if they didn’t enjoy the privilege already.
This is because Gerald has specific responsibility at his firm for maximizing the ratio of employees-at-desks-per-day-per-dollar-per-square-foot among his company’s various long-term real-estate obligations.
Gerald and his like all around the globe provide the dollars-and-cents decision support for “RTO” or “Return To Office.” (Sometimes, insultingly, this is referred to as “RTW” for “Return To Work,” as if workers weren’t adding to their work days during this time.) He’s good at it. He’s presented at conferences. (If virtually.) If you ask him nicely, he’ll send you the Excel spreadsheet he’s developed for precisely this purpose.
IBM, Google, Microsoft, and others long preached to the rest of us the value unleashed by a remote and liberated knowledge-economy workforce, free from such crude constraints as “time” and “space.” This opportunity attracted relative newcomers like Zoom. They built the means by which other companies could attain this future, shiny and gleaming as if from a cover illustration to a Hugo Gernsback story. Along the way, they were richly compensated in terms of the profit received and the multiples of same that their stock prices reflected during the pandemic.
Companies like Gerald’s employer aggressively bought as many of these technologies as they could and pushed the rest of the costs — from network bandwidth and office supplies to heating and air conditioning — onto their employees. Such companies promulgated the notion that time no longer spent commuting rightfully belonged to them, not the employees. Those same companies were lucky enough to employ a sufficient number of employees who believed them.
And now? Both the customers and, ironically, the suppliers of these technologies are demanding that their employees come back to the office. The stated rationale is as evidence-unburdened as the ridiculous open-floor-plans-make-for-a-more-creative-workforce nonsense that swept the world over the last decade.
And that’s where the seed of Gerald’s influence began. When offices and cubicles were traded for bench-desks with a space-per-employee only slightly more generous than a veal-fattening pen, Gerald’s spreadsheets started looking pretty nice. More employees divided by a relatively finite amount of square footage yielded an acceptable ratio. The COO and CFO were thrilled.
Then the RTO trend hit. Gerald realized that his spreadsheets assumed the standard five days per week. What a silly error! He never could have anticipated that this variable would change, so he never accounted for it.
Ten minutes futzing with the formulas and variables in his Excel spreadsheet and — BOOM — he had a new decision-support tool.
Three days in, two days out? Four-day, all-in-the-office workweek? Five days a week, with every other Friday as work-from-home? Two days in, three days out during a week with a gibbous moon? Gerald’s spreadsheet has it all, delivering the answer dutifully and precisely as it absorbs his company’s costs per square foot and the duration of its leases. Somewhere, the magic days-in-days-home ratio is achieved.
You manage to what you measure and companies all over the country — all over the world — have embraced the Gerald Method. Managers complain that Gerald’s spreadsheet is difficult to enforce. (“Sorry, Judy, I forgot you were at a client site and not working from home. Ignore my last email that copied the CEO.”) Employees complain that a newfound rhythm, better productivity, and a greater presence in family life have all been disrupted. And when they do get to the office, they find that it’s little more than a desultory clubhouse, with the few employees there plumbing depths of feigned enthusiasm they haven’t accessed since third grade when everyone’s parents forced their sons and daughters go to the unpopular kid’s birthday party.
All because we have to maintain the employee-per-cost-of-square-unit-of-real-estate ratio.
Gerald, you suck.
CRYPTO: “Black Pilled at Bitcoin 2022: Do We Know What All This Is For?” The Defiant (2022) — Thoroughly enjoyed this crisis-of-conscience exploration coming out of Bitcoin 2022. “It used to be precious. I used to think things were sacred — Bitcoin’s mission, then Ethereum’s mission, journalism, ethics even. But I won’t lie. I took the black pill.”
WAR: “Ukrainian MiG-29 Pilot’s Front-Line Account Of The Air War Against Russia,” TheDrive (2022) — I mean, he’s not the “Ghost of Kyiv,,” but this is most certainly a gripping read of a pilot who is willing to do it all for his country, even serving as on-the-ground infantry.
[Ed. Note: I used to call this section “Parting Shot” until I recently found out that this is also the name of the back-of-book column in the NRA’s member magazine.]
No news-of-the-weird this time. My Wordle addiction was bad enough. But I have been introduced to Octordle and now I can’t stop. Enjoy.