Business & Finance
Commentary
4/24/2002
12:14 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
Commentary
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The Observer: Welcome To The Age Of Absurdity

Sometimes, muses Lou Bertin, facts don't clarify the situation. Too often, the facts just highlight how bizarre the world has become.

When I was a mere wisp of a lad in college, I had the great good fortune to be taught by one Harry Arouh, then not long retired from a distinguished career as a print reporter and broadcast journalist, most notably at CBS News. So it came to be one late spring afternoon as I sat in his office and, while perusing an offering of mine, he absentmindedly mused, "Facts add a lot to any story."

With that in mind, I offer the following "facts"--all gleaned from one day's reading of The Washington Post's business section (that of April 19, 2002, to be exact)--as evidence that The Age Of Absurdity indeed is upon us. Some of the issues covered that particular day included:

  • Two iconic names in global commerce dealing with investigators in a manner more befitting common swindlers or our 37th and 42nd presidents;
  • The U.S. Labor Department presenting what amounts to "guidelines for guidelines" regarding workplace injuries;
  • A "hip" retailer pulling patently offensive T-shirts from its shelves;
  • The case of the $5 million yodel; and,
  • The CEOs who didn't do their homework before testifying in a case whose outcome could well turn their companies upside down.
We begin with the cases of shredder-happy Arthur Andersen LLP and Merrill Lynch & Co., which apparently never met an underwriting fee it didn't like. Andersen's talks with the Justice Department broke down, leading white-knight Paul Volcker to subsequently comment that it would take a "miracle" for the firm to survive client defections. Meanwhile, Merrill was finding itself with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer on its tail for talking out of both sides of its mouth when it came to stock recommendations. Who would have thought that these companies, self-promoted as models of probity, would ever find themselves in this state?

On to the news of the Labor Department's proposal to look to voluntary guidelines instead of government regulation to reduce the incidence of repetitive-stress injuries in the workplace. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, testifying before the Senate Labor Committee, offered an odd abdication, saying that her plan for voluntary guidelines would bring about results faster than legislation her very department would eventually oversee. Sen. Christopher L. Dodd (D-Conn.) said Chao's proposal amounted to a "plan for a plan" while Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) summed things up by claiming "we've got guidelines that haven't worked for 10 years and now we've got more guidelines." Sore-wrist sufferers, take heart. The government feels your pain, but can't find any aspirin for you. To top off this account, a caption accompanying the story may have been written by a fellow sufferer, because it refers to "worpllace" injuries.

"Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White" and "Buddha Bash--Get Your Buddah On The Floor." There are a couple of sentiments anybody would be proud to wear on his $24.50 T-shirt. That, apparently, was the thinking of more than one chronological grown-up in the employ of Abercrombie & Fitch, which decided to yank the shirts after its inexplicable decision to offer them in the first place. A small blow for good taste in the wake of utter mindlessness.

And while yodeling might have been the ticket to stardom for the legendary Slim Whitman, Wylie Gustafson is looking to his yodel for Yahoo as his ticket to riches. The unfortunate Gustafson happily accepted $590 from Yahoo six years ago for his vocalizing and now realizes he might have held out for more. A mere $5 million is all it will take, said Gustafson, to soothe his ego, his wallet and, perhaps, his vocal cords. (He settled with Yahoo later, for an undisclosed amount.) At this point, Gustafson's original deal ranks right up there with the woman who sold a swoosh design to Nike for $150 and the fella who signed over the rights to something called PC-DOS to a couple of Seattle teen-agers for a song.

Which brings us to the Microsoft anti-trust case and the executives who didn't do their homework. Testifying on Microsoft's behalf were Scott Borduin, chief technology officer at Autodesk Inc., Brent Frei, CEO at Onyx Software Corp., and Heather Davisson, CEO at Opus-I Inc. Under cross-examination after testifying on Microsoft's behalf, Borduin was forced to admit he was upset at Microsoft's "heavy-handed" tactics when it pulled support for Java in Windows XP. Frei admitted he hadn't read either the sanctions sought by the states or the proposed settlement between Microsoft and the Justice Department, and Davisson admitted to reading only the states' proposals and, at that, was uncertain of their terms. To top it all off, Frei said Microsoft's own attorneys kindly provided the first draft of his testimony.

With facts like these, who needs fiction? Harry Arouh likely wouldn't have believed a single word of any of this, but he surely would have been saddened at the utter demise of common sense in this Age of Absurdity.

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