A Nation of Paper Shufflers

I’m optimistic that we’ve turned the corner. Nah. Not with the economy. We’re still jammed together on the economic elevator, riding it to the bottom. And we ain’t there yet. Unfortunately. But clearly we’re heading to spring. Great run this morning. Temp in NE Ohio in the mid-20s; no wind.

And I was in D.C. yesterday. Cold — but sunny. As they say in Twitterville: Woot. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but when I go to D.C. every once in a while these days on business, I take a Continental shuttle out of Cleveland nonstop to Reagan/National airport. It’s a fairly pleasant flight, actually. And I’ve grown accustomed to — in fact have learned to enjoy — the self-directed strip search at security. And I enjoy the company of the business road warriors — knowledge workers all of us.

By the way, from the conversations on the plane, it appears that many of the suits were heading to D.C. for the administration’s forum on health care reform. It’s the equivalent of a modern-day gold rush — with prospectors armed with BlackBerrys instead of picks and shovels. I digress.

Gee — knowledge workers. That has a nice ring to it. And it’s a term that I have used in some of the reports and other publications I have written recently in my new gig in D.C. What does it mean? Don’t really make or produce anything — but contribute somehow to the economy nonetheless? What made me think about this was Tom Friedman’s op-ed column yesterday in The New York Times, which I read on the plane.

I’m not quite sure these days whether Friedman is thrilled or dismayed about the flatness of the world — given that American workers — particularly those with blue collars — have been steamrollered. Yet he makes a good point — one that John Nevin, the former Firestone CEO, and many others made years ago. In effect, the United States doesn’t long prosper as a nation of burger flippers and paper shufflers. Here’s Friedman:

I hope my fears are exaggerated. But ask yourself this: Why couldn’t former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson solve this problem? And why does it seem as though his successor, Tim Geithner, won’t even look us in the eye and spell out his strategy? Is it because they don’t get it? No. It is because they know — like Roy Scheider in the movie “Jaws,” when he first saw the great white shark — that “we’re gonna need a bigger boat,” and they’re too afraid to tell us just how big.

This problem is more complicated than anything you can imagine. We are coming off a 20-year credit binge. As a country, too many of us stopped making money by making “stuff” and started making money from money — consumers making money out of rising home prices and using the profits to buy flat-screen TVs from China on their credit cards, and bankers making money by creating complex securities and leverage so more and more consumers could get in on the credit game.

Like most on the plane to D.C. yesterday, I’ve spent a career as a “knowledge worker” — although I expect the term has just been coined fairly recently. Yet I wonder if this isn’t part — maybe a large part — of the problem? And I think it gets to the heart of the fundamental debate that is taking place in this country right now about bailouts, stimulus plans, budget earmarks and so on.

A billion — or thirty billion — for A.I.G. It’s Tuesday — must be time for another Citigroup bailout. Economy in ruin — Merrill Lynch exes pocket millions in bonuses. The list goes on and on and on.

All knowledge workers — shuffling paper and money to make more money. Until the music stopped and the Wall Street Wizards are now singing a different tune.

And then there is GM and related manufacturers. As I am writing this post, I just received this e-mail alert via the Wall Street Journal:

GM says in its annual report that its auditors have raised substantial doubts about its ability to continue as a going concern, citing recurring losses from operations, stockholders’ deficit and an inability to generate enough cash to meet its obligations.

GM has received $13.4 billion in federal loans, and the company is seeking a total of $30 billion from the government. During the past three years it has piled up $82 billion in losses, including $30.9 billion in 2008.

Maybe we can convince the Bailout Boys in D.C. that all GM workers are “knowledge workers.” Looks like GM and so on are going to need some A.I.G. style loving and money — soon.

Hey. GM’s PR (or is it social media these days?) staff should be able to do that. We’re knowledge workers. Aren’t we?

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2 responses to “A Nation of Paper Shufflers

  1. Rob

    Sure, the term knowledge workers does encompass paper shufflers, bankers, PR people and journalists (that’s me).

    But it also includes all the people who design cars, computers and other bits of hardware. These people, along with software programmers, chemical engineers and others operate very much at the sharp end of the economy.

    The term was first coined by Peter Drucker in 1959. It’s 50 years old — like me. So it isn’t new.

    At my Knowledge Workers blog, I use the phrase ‘people who are paid to think’, it’s only slightly tongue in cheek.

    • Bill,

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll admit I didn’t know Drucker coined the term — or that it has been used for so long. I hear it a lot these days in relation to a “knowledge economy.” And taking my tongue out of my cheek, I worry that we are seeing a fundamental shift in our economy. (In fact the New York Times mentioned that in an article yesterday.) And the jobs that provided the foundation for the middle class — making stuff like cars and so on — won’t be back after this recession ends. And certainly our nation has thrived because knowledge workers have led the way in innovation, productivity advancements and so on. I’m not sure we continue to thrive without both.

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