More plaintively, lately, than forcefully, this and that stumbling bank or corporation has claimed that capping bonuses (or taxing the rich) will make it impossible for them to retain the exquisitely rare, irreplaceable, talent at the top on which they depend.

Indeed. I guess all those stars will double up in the executive floors of the few companies still on their feet (there are no companies making big bucks), right. Or they will zip back in their time machines and do 2000-2006 over again. I know, they will go off to John Galt’s cave to wait it out until we realize we want them back on their terms.

But what about the talent part? On the whole, this indispensable leadership and insight has made a smoking ruin of every company they were allowed to play with! Let’s take Bob Lutz, the vice-Chairman of General Motors. In the Jan. 31 Economist, we find him saying GM held on to SAAB for nineteen unprofitable years out of twenty, for a $5 billion loss, selling car after car at a loss of $5K each because … wait for it … “it loved the marque and the cars.”

I had to read it again: they flushed five billion dollars of their shareholders’ money down the toilet for the personal amusement of the executives, and went on doing it for two decades. More amazing still, Lutz is dumb enough, or arrogant enough, or both to tell exactly that story to a reporter. Most amazing, he seems to still be vice-Chairman!

I despise term limits in politics and I believe it’s almost never the case that an organization can fire itself out of trouble, much less into success. But the cacophony of stories like this is unrelenting. The stupid deals, the waste and self-dealing and plain theft, the million-dollar office furnishing, and most of all the spectacular failures to create or even maintain value is coupled with stupefying cluelessness every time one of these executives, in finance and in manufacturing, gets near a reporter or a camera or a microphone and tries to explain himself. And let’s not make the mistake of thinking Lutz is a special case or a rogue operator: big companies have boards of directors, and executives hang out with other executives, and they can see what each other are doing. Burning up five billion dollars for executive fun, not at once but deliberately and repeatedly, was OK with a whole golf course full of these titans of industry, not just Lutz.

You know what? They.Suck.At.What.They.Do! There isn’t a precious resource of competence to preserve here, there’s a culture of inept, lazy, sybaritic entitlement funded by an enormous enterprise of stealing from workers and stockholders. Let ’em walk. In fact, give them maps to the nearest bus stop.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.