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Delusions of Democracy

Back in the 1970s-the Gold en Age of Bad Ideas-scions of wealthy politicians got into the annoying habit of taking …

Back in the 1970s-the Gold en Age of Bad Ideas-scions of wealthy politicians got into the annoying habit of taking summer jobs as garbage men. This didn’t help real-life garbage men much, and it certainly didn’t help the unemploy ed stiffs who could have used the jobs the rich kids got to play at for the summer. The only people who benefited from these tasteless socioeconomic masquerades were the faux sanitation engineers, who decades later, when they ran for public office, could tell the voters: “I know what it’s like to work hard for a living, because I work ed one entire summer as a garbage man. One day, there was so much garbage to collect that I didn’t even get my lunch.

“Not even a granola bar. Believe you me, those experiences stood me in good stead when I went home to get my Ph.D. at the Kennedy School and then run my daddy’s petrochemical empire.”

The nonsensical idea of building character by arranging for rich kids to “intern” with the proletariat-something more aptly described as “slumming”- constantly reappears in new guises. Most recently, it could be seen in those benighted expeditions to rural Venezuela where Ivy League undergraduates got a chance to participate directly in Hugo Chavez’s thrilling democratic experiment. Of course, that was a couple of years ago, before Chavez was exposed as a fascist and the Ivy League kids as dopes. That same spirit of enlightened condescension can also be found in the wave of corporations now experimenting with sending senior executives down onto the shop floor so they can find out what it’s like to be at the bottom of the totem pole.

As anyone who has ever worked on a loading dock or the shop floor can tell you, there’s not a whole lot to find out about what it’s like to be at the bottom of the totem pole that people at the top of the totem pole don’t already know. One reason CEOs get to the top in the first place is because they didn’t start at the bottom. And those who did start their careers in the mailroom or out on the loading dock didn’t stay there long. It’s all well and good to have executives fiddle around with cash registers or screw in light bulbs or spend a few hours waiting on tables, and if it helps build team spirit, that’s all well and good. But it doesn’t change the fact that these programs are basically public relations stunts designed to foster an illusion of democracy that does not and should not exist inside a corporation.

If corporations are so intent on flattening the corporate hierarchy and radiating a more democratic image, then perhaps they should invite the rank and file to fill in for top management for a day. Guest CEOs last seen hollowing out grommets would be invited upstairs to fend off take over bids from Kirk Kerkorian. Veteran truck drivers would be invited up into the penthouse to decide whether to open a new plant in Nigeria. Short order cooks from the company cafeteria would be encouraged to call Rupert Murdoch or Carl Icahn and see if he was ready to sweeten his bid for the company. After all, if CEOs need to learn how the rank and file do their jobs, shouldn’t the rank and fileknow a bit about daily corporate life?

This is not to sneer at those who have the lowest-paid jobs or those who hold down the least demanding positions in a company. The point is to never forget that privates don’t have a whole lot to tell generals, that conductors know more about running an orchestra than piccolo players, and that CEOs know a lot more about making a company run smoothly than refuse handlers. If CEOs think it will pump up corporate morale to impersonate proles for a day, fine and good. But let’s not forget that this kind of pandering is a scam. If a CEO needs to go down onto the shop floor to figure out what’s wrong with his company, then maybe it’s time for a new CEO.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.