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The Living Dead

Zombie corporations, zombie pension funds and even zombie CEOs prowl the landscape.

From time immemorial, motion pictures and television have expressed the subliminal fears of the American people. When fascism was on the rise, there were movies like The Lady Vanishes and The Ministry of Fear, dealing with depraved German spies and mysterious Berlin-based assassins. At the height of the Cold War, there were tons of films with names like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and From Russia, With Love, all dealing with the threat posed to mankind by godless communism. When fear of nuclear war was at its highest, there were films like Dr. Strangelove, Failsafe and even Godzilla, all of which expressed the public’s deep-seated fear that a global nuclear holocaust might one day erupt.

Today, the emphasis has switched to vampires and werewolves, but most particularly, to zombies. These days, we literally have zombies everywhere: zombie films, zombie television series, songs about zombies and video games that deal with zombies. Jane Austen’s Lizzie Bennett is the heroine of a hugely popular book about fighting zombies, and even Abraham Lincoln himself, fresh from an action film in which he is portrayed as a vampire hunter, is also the central character in a low-budget movie that deals with the brain-dead, flesh-eating, generally inhospitable creatures known as zombies. All this is clearly an expression of the public’s deep, dark fear that zombies not only walk among us, but that they are now taking over the world.

Anyone who follows the world of finance knows that zombies rule the roost. Zombie corporations, zombie pension funds and even zombie chief executives prowl the landscape, darkening our dreams and devastating our portfolios. A zombie, after all, is a modestly mobile, seemingly sentient creature that is actually quite dead. Its appendages function in a spasmodic and clumsy fashion, but it is incapable of communicating and the brain is long gone. The zombie keeps moving forward; it stays on the attack; it constantly attempts to suck the life out of innocent victims. But the creature itself is dead. This is a perfect description of Michael Dell. It really is. Just ask Carl Icahn. If they were making a movie about his recent exploits, it would not be Zombie Killers. It would be Night of the Living Dell.

Zombiehood is also a perfect description of companies like Research in Motion. More than any other corporation on the landscape today, RIM can readily be categorized as the living dead. Once it was vibrant. Once it was exciting. Once it sold products that everyone loved, but now it is dead. It continues to writhe and gesticulate and drool; but if you look closely, all the vital signs are gone. RIM is a zombie corporation. Its brain has ceased to function. You could say pretty much the same about Nokia and Bank of America and Motorola. Once they were very much alive. Now they are the living dead.

Corporate boards are bursting at the seams with zombies. Who but a board of zombies could have stood by and let Ron Johnson take the reins of JCPenney? Who but a board consisting almost entirely of inbred zombies could let J.P. Morgan Chase behave the way it has in the past few years? And what about the board at H-P? Five CEOs in four years—and still counting. Sounds like there might be a few zombies on the board there. Worse yet, they’re in-house zombies. Yes, there is a definite zombie-like situation when the current president of Oracle is the former CEO of H-P and the recently resigned chairman of H-P is the former president of Oracle. If these people are not, in fact, zombies, who is?

Management types will argue that vulture investors who tear the flesh off living corporations also qualify as zombies. Investors look at regulators and bureaucrats as zombies. And in their plodding, relentless, yet almost inanimate demeanors, both Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke seem curiously zombie-like. Indeed, the case can be made that Washington, D.C., is a city ruled by zombies. Our politicians—Democrats and Republicans—lurch and writhe and stagger around in a herky-jerky fashion, but they never actually accomplish anything. They feast on the flesh of the living—taxpayers—while they themselves are really quite dead. They have no brains, no conscience and no class. They’re zombies—all of them. And don’t even get me started on libertarian zombies. Just don’t.

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.