We call it the free market, but most people experience the economic sphere as a dictatorship. The dictator is the boss, whose style sets the tone. UC Berkeley has about 300 academic and administrative departments. Over the years I got to know the culture of dozens of them and came to the conclusion that, very broadly speaking, there are two types of bosses: those who regard their staff as liabilities and those who regard their staff as assets.
Each type of boss presents risks. Bosses who treat staff as liabilities create anxiety and discourage diversity of opinion, initiative, and loyalty. Bosses who treat staff as assets create more thriving shops, but are vulnerable to underperforming or manipulative employees.
In my experience, bosses who treat staff as liabilities are the bigger problem — the colloquialism that comes to mind is “the fish rots from the head.” The ideal boss treats staff as assets but firmly responds to documented underperformance or manipulation.
Over the last couple of years we have seen each management style in the White House. The previous president treated staff as liabilities, demanding they embody his will to the point of abandoning their conscience. He regarded any deviation as a firing offense. The results were high turnover, rampant anxiety, and pervasive incompetence as inexperienced yes-people were put in jobs they weren’t qualified for.
(Aside: that didn’t trouble most Republicans. Since Reagan they’ve defined government as the country’s worst problem, so from their perspective the less effectual the executive branch, the better. But even if philosophically you believe in a weak central government, the executive branch is charged with handling countless ministerial duties, those prescribed by law and not requiring judgment, such as issuance of passports and prompt delivery of mail. For the government to promote the general welfare as required under the Constitution, it must fund the infrastructure, appoint the skilled managers, and pay the dedicated employees necessary to carry out its ministerial tasks accurately and expeditiously.)
Contrast that with the current president. “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” he warned his appointees on Inauguration Day. He hasn’t yet fired anyone for that cause, but after an internal review, his chief science adviser, Eric Lander, this week became the second person to resign for demeaning others. (The first was deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo last year for making an abusive phone call to a female reporter.)
Americans proclaim themselves such freedom lovers, yet we tolerate, even lionize, workplace tyrants — not only Trump and abrasive scientists like Lander, but sociopaths like Bezos and Musk and Jobs, among others. It’s not just a right-wing or tech-bro thing, either. Years ago, when UC Berkeley’s left-leaning Associated Students (ASUC) insisted on housing an Amazon store on campus while regularly lambasting the university for mistreatment of workers, I asked one of the ASUC’s negotiators if the students were aware of how badly Amazon treats its blue-collar and white-collar employees. “The students want it,” she shrugged. I guess worker abuse is okay when it makes your life more convenient.
Co-ops belie the proposition, but if we accept that workplace dictatorship is inevitable, it can at least be soft. It can encourage diversity of opinion and mutual respect. It can show compassion and reward ethical behavior. It can even tolerate a measure of rebelliousness. We spend upwards of forty years and forty hours a week working. It’s so much a part of our lives that we commonly define ourselves by it. Why should we put up with totalitarian work conditions in a country devoted to freedom?
It couldn’t possibly be that we’re full of shit when we call ourselves freedom-loving, can it?