The Pathology of Elite Organizations

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Reader EmilianoZ pointed to a key section of a review of the documentary, “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” by Chris Hedges, who worked at the Times for 15 years. This is one of the best short summaries I’ve seen of the Faustian pact elite organizations (at least American ones) expect their members to enter into. From TruthDig:

The Times, like Harvard University, where I attended graduate school, is one of the country’s most elite and exclusive institutions. Its ethos can be best summed up with the phrase “You are lucky to be here.” That huge numbers of people at The Times, as at Harvard, buy into this institutional hubris makes the paper, where I spent 15 years—nearly all of them, thankfully, as a foreign correspondent a few thousand miles from the newsroom—a fear-ridden and oppressive place to work. The Times newsroom, like most corporate nerve centers, is a labyrinth of intrigue, gossip, back-biting, rumor, false piety, rampant ambition, betrayal and deception. Those who play this game well are repugnant. They are also usually the people who run the place.

When you allow an institution to provide you with your identity and sense of self-worth you become an obsequious pawn, no matter how much talent you possess. You live in perpetual fear of what those in authority think of you and might do to you. This mechanism of internalized control—for you always need them more than they need you—is effective. The rules of advancement at the paper are never clearly defined or written down. Careerists pay lip service to the stated ideals of the institution, which are couched in lofty rhetoric about balance, impartiality and neutrality, but astutely grasp the actual guiding principle of the paper, which is: Do not significantly alienate the corporate and political power elite on whom the institution depends for access and money. Those who master this duplicitous game do well. Those who cling tenaciously to a desire to tell the truth, even at a cost to themselves and the institution, become a management problem. This creates tremendous friction within the paper. I knew reporters with a conscience who would arrive at the paper and vomit in the restroom from nervous tension before starting work.

Hedges has gotten to nub of how these organizations work: the ambiguity, the insecurity, and the competitiveness, but there can also be variations within this pattern. For instance, McKinsey and Goldman both focused on academically successful people, not simply because they were presumably bright and diligent, but because they were also more likely to be compliant. Both firms also worked to discourage destructive competitiveness, such as backstabbing (remember, unlike journalism, most business activities, including consulting and investment banking, involve teamwork). At both firms, the real hard core jockeying took place in the partnership ranks, behind closed doors; the goal was to keep the juniors task focused and productive. So the fully panoply of ugly behaviors that Hedges witnessed may kick in at a more senior level in some settings than in others. Moreover, the the lip service to lofty ideals, the many overt and subtle ways the firms preyed on ambition and insecurity, and the way those who questioned the way the enterprise really worked were treated as invading viruses, all ring true to what I have seen.

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  1. Max424

    Not working for “the Man” is one of my two remaining life goals. There other is mastering a low, two-hop-and-stop wedge shot from 40 to 60 yards out.

    I hit about thirty of them last night, practicing as the sun went down, and each attempt at the tricky double-skipper was, shall we say, equally bad in it’s own unique way.

    The sad conclusion I came to as I picked up my golf balls — which were too widely dispersed, to say the least — was not working for “the Man” will likely have to do.

    Note: I caught Bob Herbert on Rachel Maddow last night. He no longer works for “the Man,” and it shows. Bob looks ten years younger, and he quite that hell-hole, what, just a few a months ago?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I have a tailor (no joke, it is cheaper to have a tailor copy stuff in my closet than buy anything any good retail) and he says his self employed clients all look 10 years younger than the ones on the corporate meal ticket.

      1. Max424

        YS: “I have a tailor…”

        The thing I despise most on this planet (my greatest fear!) … is shopping for clothes (especially pants). In fact, the act of clothes shopping obliterates my Buddhist calm, every time.

        My personal nirvana quest has always hung by a delicate thread. So to improve my shaky odds, however slight, I probably should look into this tailor thing.

      2. Meli

        I have had the same problem. I solved it with the wonderful people at

        You send them LOTS of measurements, and very shortly, and for relatively little money, they send you a beautiful suit. And if you ask them nicely, they’ll put all kinds of little inside pockets for you. :) They’ll send you swatches if you like. And guys…they make beautiful custom shirts.

      3. Peripheral Visionary

        I would love to have a custom tailor, but, well . . . the Chinese tailors run $600 a suit ordering long distance (e.g., no guarantee on fit) and the English custom tailor in town is $3000 a suit. :( Macy’s is $300 to $500. Off the rack it is for me . . . Ladies should consider it a benefit that their custom clothes can cost much less than off the rack clothing, which is frequently severely overpriced (looks directly at Nordstrom’s).

      4. Cedric Regula

        I’m celebrating going my 7th year with only occasional purchases of golf shirts and shorts. Careful shopping at Ross has enabled me to populate the better part of my wardrobe with many of the commoner designer labels.

        The challange has been the top end tennis shoes I need. But twice I have found some discontinued $120 Nikes for $28 ea.

        Sympathies to Max about the wedge shot, tho. I’ve resigned myself to go the last 40-60 yards anyway I can – including throwing the damn golf ball.

        1. Max424

          “I’ve resigned myself to go the last 40-60 yards anyway I can – including throwing the damn golf ball.”

          Too funny.

          I was under a tree today, with no shot but to punch out backwards, and my evil twin spoke to me, and said, “accidentally kick it four inches to the left, and we can go for the green.” And I listened to him, for a half a second (I wasn’t playing anybody, for anything); then I did what had to be done, and punched out backwards.

          The fact that I even listen to my evil twin, frightens me. What’s even scarier, is how close he resides to my surface.

    2. jake chase

      I have found it helps to keep your head up high and make your swing uncomfortably steep with those shots. Of course, I have been hitting them for fifty six years, so don’t expect perfection too soon.

      1. Max424

        Yeah, I always got away with hitting floppers and half-floppers in those situations, but the courses around my way were rock hard all last summer, and as result, I lost the feel for the shot entirely, and spent much of the summer skulling short wedges and turning golden birdie opportunities into double-bogeys.

        So I decided to make a change! From the frying pan to the fire!

        Thanks for the advice. Maintaining steepness, till impact, is indeed the key. I’m getting closer. When I hit it good, I’m producing three hoppers, with moderate spin.

        1. DP

          I’ve found the most practical solution to the 40-60 yard wedge shot, particularly when you’re playing on a course with firm greens, is to take a shorter club on the preceding shot and stay away from that distance. Lay it up to a normal lob wedge or sand wedge yardage, 80-100 yards. It makes 2 shots easier, the layup and the wedge shot. Most of the pros I see on TV take that approach. If they’re too far back to get the approach shot around the green, they lay it back.

          Even if you somehow learn to hit the shot, you need a lot of elements to use it successfully: a good tight lie, pin not on the front of the green or on top of a shelf that will repel a spinning shot, predictable green firmness, relatively flat spots on the green for the landing and first bounce, not downwind, etc.

          1. Eric

            I concur wholeheartedly that a 40-50 yard leave is totally pointless for most golfers. Okay, if you brush a branch and it comes up short it would be very nice to handle that shot, but if it is just a matter of where you want to hit your approach from figure out what works and if you can’t reach the green (or close enough for a straightforward little chip) just leave it that far back. For me, best is about 85 yards, but anywhere from 75 to 135 is much easier than 40.

  2. tomk

    This pathology is of course not exclusive to elite organizations. All social institutions demand loyalty, and loyalty is the root of corruption.

    1. Dan Duncan

      TomK writes: “All social institutions demand loyalty, and loyalty is the root of corruption.”

      Everyone should stop right now and heed these words of wisdom from TomK. Take the time today and reconsider the relationships you have with your friends…and your dog.

      These guys are bad apples, They are tricking you with their ‘Loyalty’. They are NOT faithful companions. No siree Bob. They are corrupt and rotten to the core. Rid yourself of this vermin!

      Seriously, TomK…If you’re going to make a transparent attempt at being profound, then provoke a thought, not a laugh.

      1. K Ackermann

        Dan, there you go again with your shallow thinking.

        He’s talking about the loyalty shown by an employee who lies, cheats, steals, and kills for the company. Behaviors not asked of him or her at home but in the institution.

          1. William

            Which pretty much describes people’s relationship with dogs.

            “Rover, fetch!” … “Good boy, now here’s your tasty treat!”


            “You’ve pooped on the carpet! Bad dog!” and Rover gets a smack on the head.

            There is no escape from behavioral engineering. It’s only a question of which behaviors you want to coerce…

          2. anon48

            I think pws4 is on the right trck. People seem to be confusing loyalty with obedience. Loyalty comes from the inside and is offered willingly. Obedience is what gets extracted from the outside via carrots and sticks.

    2. Parvaneh Ferhadi

      That is of course true. However, elite organisations do have a much greater influence on society, its values and its functioning than other organisations do. That’s what makes them special, and much more dangerous.

  3. Middle Seaman

    The descried reality is common to most human institutions. My guess is that it started right after the expulsion from heaven. Guessing again, I would say that most people in these organization like the man bites man (women included) or at least tolerate it.

    In academic institutions the behavior should have been different if so chosen. After tenure, if the Man doesn’t like me, he/she has the option to resign; I am staying. Surprise, surprise, academic institution are not very different from other organizations. May that is the only way we we can behave.

    1. Anonymous Jones

      This post (as well as the entire thread of comments) is entirely shocking!

      What most seem to be saying is that humans are competitive and often don’t get along so well; yet within institutions, incentives develop that tend to yield a team of individuals with disparate (and in fact opposed) goals acting in concert with each other, even if they don’t entirely realize what they are doing.

      Who would suggest such a thing? Impossible, I say! Impossible!!! You people are CRIMINALS for suggesting such a thing. It’s all kabuki, and the puppetmasters want you to think this sort of thing just happens when they’ve all got together and decided (they’re not competitive like the rest of us, I assure you) to fool us all!!!

  4. Robert Asher

    All true. Readers might want to consult an older book on how all big organizations recruit their top managers. Michael Maccoby, The Gamesman. He finds that the top dogs are NOT LIKE US. They are instrumentalists who care only about money and power. Thus they will do anything, without scruples, to advance their influence and position. Until I read this book (1977)I was often puzzled by elite behavior. The book explains so much. Elites are not like the normal people who write for this blog. We care about friends and love. They want money and power. C Wright Mills must have understood this without the benefit of the pyschological analysis and polling Maccoby offers. He called his classic The POWER Elite.

  5. René

    QUESTION: You have said that most intellectuals end up obfuscating reality. Do they understand the reality they are obfuscating? Do they understand the social processes they mystify?

    CHOMSKY: Most people are not liars. They can’t tolerate too much cognitive dissidence. I don’t want to deny that there are outright liars, just brazen propagandists. You can find them in journalism and in the academic professions as well. But I don’t think that’s the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception. I think there’s also a selective process in the academic professions and journalism. That is, people who are independent minded and cannot be trusted to be obedient don’t make it, by and large. They’re often filtered out along the way.

    What the World is Really Like: Who Knows It — and Why

  6. wow

    Tomk: No, they demand obedience and subservience, not loyalty.

    Loyalty is a virtue and not a vice, and it is very far indeed from the “root of corruption”. It is in fact a bulwark against corruption.

    What a very odd thing to say.

    As to the NYT being an “elite institution”, well it is only this in the fever swamps of Liberal reckoning. To the rest of us it s a propaganda rag for the Establishment Left–one that is thankfully degenerating into a regional newspaper. The fact that they have such clowns as David Brooks on staff or give voice to Krugman’s ravelings clearly exposes the truth of this

    The very notion that a newspaper can be an “elite institution” is risible, and shows just how narrow the education and poor the personal culture of those who would think such a thing.

    As for Harvard, in the 19th century when the WASP ascendancy was actually a vital, creative and shaping force, and “higher education” actually meant something, it might indeed have been considers an leading, “elite institution” in the positive sense of tbe term, but after the New Dealesr were done with it–and the WASP ascendancy for that matter–it became merely a parody of itself. Middle Class New dealers aping their betters is what it degenerated to–somewhat akin to Calvin Kline dressing up corporate and governmental bureaucrats as 1920’s gentry. Nothing more clearly underlines this than the fact that that evil nitwit Obama is a honored graduate an Harvard. In a rational world, he would be challenged to get through a community college in Peoria.

    What we see here is more what we these days term “brand management” than cases of “elite institutions”, which is to say that “there is one born every minute”.

    “Liberal culture”, if it may be called a culture, has a very strong urge towards creating or co-opting “elite institutions” and awarding themselves “prizes”. So did the ssme sorts of folks in the USSR. This is a trait of Nomenklaturas the world over. This is because deep inside they know that they are but shallow echos of the intuitions and cultures they have pillaged and ruined. They know that they are phonies. There is such a thing as a natural aristocrat, just as there is such a thing as a poser.

    The NYT and Harvard have done much damage to the nation since the New Deal. With the possible exceptions of Harvard’s medical school and some of their scientific work, the nation would be better off without either institution.

    1. Sid Finster

      I am not sure that the Ivy League institutions of the 19th century were all that.

      When Columbia U. got the idea of introducing admissions testing in the early 20th century, the Great and Good saw it as an (objective) way to reject Jewish applicants in favor of wholesome WASPy stock. “Breeding Will Always Out” and all that crap.

      This did not produce the intended result. As soon as admissions testing was introduced, it turned out that few prep school lads, even with Mayflower and Knickerbocker pedigrees, could compete with the ambitious, hard-charging sons of immigrants.

      IIRC, Columbia had to shelve admissions testing for a while after that.

    2. doom

      The book Old Money by Nelson Aldrich is very good on that WASP subculture. Very introspective book but you can see how the persistent ideals wax and wane with the corrupting influence of the era.

    3. Blissex

      «Tomk: No, they demand obedience and subservience, not loyalty.

      Loyalty is a virtue and not a vice, and it is very far indeed from the “root of corruption”. It is in fact a bulwark against corruption.

      What a very odd thing to say.»

      But it is quite right, because loyalty to corrupt causes is indeed a vice and not a virtue. The Mafia demand loyalty too for that reason.

      The loyalty mentioned by TomK is in effect personal loyalty to the leader or the organization without scruples, in other words loyalty including complicity.

      YvesS’s argument revolves critically around the point that in some organizations «you always need them more than they need you».

      In that case employees are usually given the stark choice between complicity (“loyalty”) and ruin, and most employees choose complicity, even if sometimes tacit and passive rather than active and explicit (not everybody has what it takes to be promoted to management :->).

    4. Binky the perspicacious bear

      1. Glorifying Fuhrerprinzip is more than a little disturbing at this juncture.
      2. The New York Times is only as liberal as its critics are frequently extremist. From my perspective the NYT, like the Washington Post, is a mediocre center-right institution tied to mediocre politicians, bureaucrats, and inherited wealth elites. Do they have a Labor section in the paper? No.

  7. engineer27

    Like other commenters, I note that the symptoms described here are not unique to “elite” institutions (although there may be a difference of degree there). All large corporate entities I have worked for have a “performance management” process in which goals are stated, metrics assigned, etc. But everyone involved knows that the real criteria for advancement have little connection with this process. And anyone brazen enough to point that out is asking to be overlooked when the rewards are distributed.

    And I generally work in engineering, where things either work, or they don’t. So things are likely worse in a place such as a newsroom where assessing the “quality” of journalistic “output” is entirely subjective.

  8. Jack Straw

    The basic point in this post is well stated. And the comments largely make explicit my implicity. I love the sweet golf shot, but time and money constraints led my to focus more on the sweet musical moment: playing a rendition of “Stella Blue,” reworking of an old classic chestnut, or the incredibly difficult task of doing something arguably/possibly “original.” I’d say I’m the musical equivalent of a 2 handicap golfer. (Note: there is very cool orgagnization here locally that puts pianos – that otherwise would go to landfills – on street corners and I’ve had a blast this summer just playing with my SO – don’t cost nuthin).

    I was at the tail end of the baby boom, the youngest of a large family. They went to Ivies and all I got were the vices, and a philosophy degree from a “next best” college. Boo hoo.

    Well, I also was the only real entrepreneur, as well. I didn’t get rich (like they did), but I did ok for quite a while. Then I didn’t. I did, however, spend more than a few years “vomitting in the rest room” as well, but not because of inability to master “the code,” but because I knew the code didn’t work and there would be a day …

    Gresham’s law had occupied the field, and but for clearly corrupt practitioners, I wouldn’t had much of a business (it just took me a few years to figure that out). That was was a fun epiphany. Seriously, there were no non-corrupt practitioners out there. That the “system” had largely legitmized corruption by “off-loading” risk to the next fool is another matter and in my view was firmly established as the American Way (Amway?).

    I saw a snippet of a John Wayne movie the other night and a young buck is talking to the John Wayne character about “working for himself,” and John Wayne himself responds that “everybody works for somebody else.” That’s John Wayne, folks.

    I like this post, but there was another aspect of the financial crisis that I believe to be true: there was/is a harmonic covergence between the elites and everybody else to go along and get along. The irony here is that at the top, education was the be all and end all, and lower down, it was an absolute impediment, a disqualification, or worse. The mandarins and the phillistines, or something like that, in perfect harmony.

    While I always read Attempter’s posts pretty carefully, he ultimately doesn’t convince me, perhaps because I do think that two of the best things in life are rock&roll and sweet wedge shots – totally at odds with deep ecology.

  9. Peripheral Visionary

    “For instance, McKinsey and Goldman both focused on academically successful people, not simply because they were presumably bright and diligent, but because they were also more likely to be compliant.”

    Compliance is not automatically a bad thing; in fact, in general, compliance is a good thing. Compliance is a good thing when it comes to expense reports, treatment of co-workers of other genders or races, attendance at meetings, behavior in front of clients, interactions with government officials, etc., etc. It is only a bad thing when it is used to help cover up problems in the organization; but then, hard work is also a useful thing for covering up problems (some problems take a lot of work to cover up!), but that does not, in and of itself, make hard work a bad thing.

    The real question is not the issue of conformity; all organizations will, to some extent, have a certain level of uniformity, as the organization has a common cause and will therefore maintain a culture that is consistent with working toward that cause. The real question is of how problems are handled; and if an organization is sufficiently serious about addressing internal issues, compliance will be a beneficial asset toward meeting that end.

  10. bmeisen

    US FY 11 debt service:

    $386 billion

    Free post-secondary education for all Americans, based on
    19 million post-secondary students x $18k/yr:

    $342 billion

    Price per year drawn from figures on German university estimates found here:

    Cost per university student per year in high-wage Germany averages Euro 7000, circa $9000. This does not include room and board and textbooks, pool, stadium, tournement games, outdoor programs, head coaches, homey on-campus housing. I add $9000 for living costs to arrive at my figure.

    Elite education in the US serves the interests of individuals at the expense of the commonweal. In addition psychological issues arise for elites (see Hedges and Smith).

    Public education, tuition-free and broadly recognized and supported by citizens as a valued service provided to them by their government and paid for by their tax contributions is the just alternative.

  11. Ransome

    “Hedges has gotten to nub of how these organizations work: the ambiguity, the insecurity, and the competitiveness”

    When Friedman was promoting the concept of free to choose, he promised an opportunity to start at the bottom, he did not promise security or justice. He did not mention that corporations were command and control environments. He was a talking point shill or cultist telling the school of little fish that it is better to swim alone, without safety nets or regulation, because we live in a rational world of speculators!.

    “Abraham Lincoln, said, just before his assassination: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.””

    A somewhat differing view than the Roberts’ court.

    Why weren’t we destroyed? London points out that outside of business, the moneyed elite are illiterate. The Superclass has a super short worldview which is not sustainable. They reject visionaries, are unable to master self-control and cannot be reasoned with.

  12. Ellen Anderson

    Elites are illiterate – right you are! Someone once said that “There is nothing dumber than a C student from Yale.”

    I once quoted that at a dinner party. The guy across from me said “But I was a C student from Yale.” QED.

  13. Crushing Pubic Trust

    Hedges hurls fire when he writes, the result is clearly hopefilled music:

    “When you allow an institution to provide you with your identity and sense of self-worth you become an obsequious pawn, no matter how much talent you possess.”

  14. Natalie

    This isn’t just elite organizations. I once worked at a local Hallmark franchise for a few weeks during Christmas break. I had diarrhea almost every morning b/c the owners were so stressful.

    I’ve *paid* to be a part of a couple of performance arts organizations that stressed me out. I was doing shots b4 performances, not b/c I was afraid of the audience but rather the inevitably negative feedback the directors would give afterwards. I finally quit but still wish to perform.

    Millions of people are sick of the management they work for. It’s an epidemic. But people are starting to talk about it and hopefully new, better orgs will form as a result. As for me, I’m trying to make my own way now. Indie is better.

  15. Jim

    Chris Hedges has raised, in my opinion, an extremely important issues when he states:

    “You live in perpetual fear of what those in authority think of you and might do to you. This mechanism of internalized control–for you always need them more than they need you–is effective”

    Without a significant weakening of this powerful message (“for you always need them more than they need you”)
    on an individual level, there will probably be little possiblity of significant cultural/political/economic reform.

    This is an issue which must be examined much more closely and much more deeply at Naked Capitalism

    To hopefully get such a discussion going I will list a few questions that hopefully begin to get at the issue of “internalized control.”

    Is the foundation for our “inner” thoughts and feelings primarily, but not only, the “outer”?

    Is this “outer” which becomes “inner” primarily culture?

    What is the relationship between mind and culture?

    Does psychological development occur in the socialization process?

    1. Binky the perspicacious bear

      It was like that back at the Junior Anti-Sex League meetings. A lot of people chanting along but late at night….

      1. Jack "Bourgeois" Flatulence

        I have charged thee not to haunt about my doors: In honest plainness thou hast heard me say

        1. A Midsummer Night’s Cream

          Certain subplots have been trimmed, the rest have had trim added, but the story and spirit of the original are intact.

  16. kievite

    The whole social space of an established large corporation mirrors the totalitarian society

    1. Mike G

      I used to work at a corporation I called “the Soviet Union of IT” — oppressive, dictatorial, micromanaging, stupid, low-paying and mediocre all at the same time. With a high-public-profile owner who always spouted rhetoric about “freedom”.

  17. Max424

    Eric & DP:

    Totally agree. The 40 to 60 yarder is evil — and should be shunned like a Scarlet Woman. And indeed, the pros, when they have to drop, walk past the evil zone on their way back to their favorite yardage, usually between 95 and 105.

    The thing is though, the shot seems to come up twice a round, nor matter how much you try to avoid it.

    I had three of them today, as a matter of fact. One occurred on a short par 4, when I cut a dogleg and had 62 in, one on a long par 3, when I ballooned a 3 iron into the wind and had 48 left (ouch), and one on a reachable par 5, when I kinda purposely hit a 2nd shot hybrid into the crappy zone, so I could try out my new shot.

    I didn’t get up and down on any of them, but they all ended up inside 25 feet. More importantly, none of three found themselves in the front bunker (chunk!), or in the reeds behind (skull!); they were all, safely, on the green!

  18. Up the Ante

    The NYT,
    “Its ethos can be best summed up with the phrase “You are lucky to be here.” ”

    A large part of me suspects that phrase became the dark humor lesson of 9/11 at the Times. That part of me still wonders why one of the liners was not diverted at the last minute to inadvertently slam into NYT’s HQ.

    Pentagon papers, the Left, elitists, etc.

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