Sunday, January 9, 2022

Pecan Pie for Breakfast

    Dessert need not be limited to postprandial indulgence. The same sweets taste as good in the morning for breakfast. Frozen chocolate chess pie, rich fudge brownies, blondies, date nut cake, layer cakes, key lime pie, all flavors of cheesecake, etc. With coffee or hot tea. My sister-in-law has a neighbor who bakes the entire neighborhood block a pecan pie each for Christmas. (NOTE: how you pronounce “pecan” defines your regional origins.) I demurred a few weeks ago after a rich garlic-drenched pasta sauce in lieu of a slice with my coffee at breakfast the following morning. Ice cream was not included but could have been. 
    As happens more and more as we age, a serendipitous connection revealed that the baker was the wife of an old friend from my dismal banking career, a decade with few positive highlights of which her husband was one. A friendly and decent person with integrity, qualities in short supply at the top of our management pyramid back then. 
    As witness to the evolution of corporate emphasis on stock performance and quarterly earnings over any long term strategy of building value through customers and employees, I watched most of the top executives worry more about their personal financial rewards than any other single factor. One young state president boasted that he spent more than 60% of his time managing up, stroking the egos of those to whom he reported, those who would decide his financial future. In one incident, his actions cost the bank $50 million, but he was promoted. In another incident, he was a key member of an internal team who advised the bank to spend more than $150 million on a software system that never worked as intended. Again, managing up served him well, and he suffered no consequences for telling the holding company executives what they wanted to hear. (A former partner of the consulting firm that the bank paid to create the system later admitted to me that it had been a widespread scam by the consulting firm with multiple banks paying for a product they never received. With executive egos too arrogant to admit, much less expose, their ignorance and folly, the consulting firm continued to pluck more gullible geese.) Monthly results mattered more than experience or wisdom. And all employees were disposable. 
    The baker’s husband was a victim of the callous and short-sighted human resource decisions, choices that eliminated the more talented employees to reduce the perceived threat of people with more sound judgment than those empowered by their positions to make major decisions. The husband had been a top performer and was well-respected in his regional market, but he was terminated as he neared early retirement age. He probably made “too much money” in the eyes of those who measured their own success by how much of the pie they kept for themselves. 
    After a devastating period of unemployment (it has become harder and harder over the past two decades to recover a career once you are fifty or so), he found a position with a bank in another state. Living in an apartment away from his family for months at a time, he at least had work and an income, his self-image partially restored. But you never forget that people with whom you worked for years, people who professed to be friends, tossed you to the curb like the daily garbage. No one deserves such treatment. 
    His experience is one among tens of thousands if not more. Corporate America values greed above all else, money as the sole measure of success. Valuing employees, customers and shareholders has evaporated with the platitudes of 1990s management theory. All three exist only to enrich the top of the corporate ladder, the few self-important deceivers who cling to the rungs with one hand while clawing and kicking others off. CEOs no longer know how to recognize talent, so they default to the employees willing to do anything to make a buck and push ahead of their peers. Greed and more greed. There can never be enough. Cheating is rewarded when it is successful, ethics be damned. As compared to monetary results, loyalty and camaraderie are meaningless within the corporate hierarchy.         Billionaires are a relatively new phenomena. Yet America has millions living in poverty. Why are we as a society not embarrassed to have a term “working poor”? How is it possible that people work more than one job and still struggle to pay their rent and feed their family? How much money can a billionaire spend in a lifetime? Sure, some of them brag about their charitable foundations, but what difference have those foundations made? The foundations exist to glorify the founders, not to benefit society as a whole, not to make a measurable difference in the lives of those who struggle hardest. Evidence? The number of (working) poor continues to increase along with homelessness. A family foundation is now more than ever a badge of elitism among the wealthy. Along with private jet fractional ownership, multiple homes and the most expensive cars (and maybe a yacht thrown in for good measure), the rich check off the essentials of being seen on the wealth pyramid and, even then, envy those who have more. 
    The wealth gap does not mean that those who make the most money should not be rewarded for honest effort. It does mean that those with more money than anyone could ever spend without colonizing another planet should feel a moral obligation to improve the lives of those who have the least despite their hard work. People valuing people as people. People seeing greed as a trait in conflict with social harmony and coexistence to condemn and avoid. People seeing value in the human qualities that favor community and mutual assistance ahead of competing for personal gain along the road to the top of the wealth pyramid. 
    Greed will always be tempting, but unselfish values have the durability to remind us what enriches life and relationships. One true friend is superior to and more rewarding than a pocketful of cash or burgeoning brokerage account. 

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