Signs of the Times

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of the 1960s. A British naval historian by training, he expanded his scope of study to include what was at the time the new phenomenon of corporate bureaucracy. He was particularly struck by the apparent fact that, as they expand, bureaucracies inevitably ignore their original purpose and replace it with the pursuit of continued expansion. This is Parkinson’s Law, which is commonly articulated as “Work expands to fill the time available.” Bureaucracies are developed to increase efficiencies, freeing up more time to devote to “actual work.” But, the activity associated with maintaining the bureaucracy expands until there is no time available for what was once considered “actual work.” He applied his analysis to the fall of the British Empire–the Colonial Office grew exponentially, though the number of colonies in need of officiating did not. Eventually, it just turned into a bunch of ineffectual twits sitting around the Hash House dreaming up less and less real snipes for one another to harry after.

Parkinson also pointed out another aspect of the bureaucratic culture of the age–enterprises that devote a lot of time, energy, and money to constructing the ideal headquarters are doomed. He phrased it this way: “Perfection means finality, and finality means death.” Or, put another way: the only way to have the time to deliberate over whether the marble in the bathrooms should be Carrara or Parian is if you’re ignoring something really, really important. Like, just for instance, doing business.

The contemporary analog of this might be stadium naming rights. Take a look at some of the companies that have forked over tens of millions of dollars recently to have their names emblazoned over some playing field. It’s a list dominated by automakers, airlines (the American Airlines Center and the American Airlines Arena???), telecomm, insurance, and financial services. What do these industries have in common at this very moment?

In 2006, Citigroup agreed to pay the Mets $20 million a year for 20 years for the right to name Shea’s replacement, Citi Field. Now, that amount doesn’t really make a difference to Citi, though they might not want to express that particular fact to these guys. And, in an age where banking services are largely undifferentiated in the consumer’s mind, this might–might–be considered a reasonable marketing expenditure. But, but…it’s not just about the money, as ol’ Cyril would’ve reminded us.

No, it’s about a senseless, brainless beast that can do anything except stop eating. According to the Mock Turtle logic of an entrenched bureaucracy, that which can be done, must be done, and if it must be done, it must be important to do.

The good news? The citizens of New York aren’t the only ones unwillingly funding this boondoggle’s construction anymore. In addition to the $450 million the Mets already received from state and city funds (or, “free money”), you–yes, you!–are partially underwriting Citi Field thanks to the government’s taxpayer-funded bailout of Citigroup! With this liquidity infusion, Citi now has the cash to fulfill their obligation to the Mets. Awesome, right? I’m pretty sure this entitles us all to World Series box seats!

Just kidding. The Mets will never make the Series.

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