Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Death of the Sinecures?

Our economy is littered with sinecures.

Technically, I suppose a sinecure in a position, generally a government or academic appointment, in which very little in the way of work, effort or responsibility in required of the incumbent, who nonetheless enjoys a handsome income from the position. In 18th century England, the politics of the day depended heavily on a patronage system involving sinecures, livings and rotten boroughs, which in turn were political appoints, clerical positions and parliament seats filled through appointment by a senior member of the local nobility. In 19th century America, political patronage filled precisely the same role--I had a great grandfather who was the Republican postmaster of Omaha, Nebraska for decades, as a party stalwart and veteran of the Grand Army of the Republic (not something my Georgia kin deemed appropriate to notice officially).

So much for the history lesson. The modern American economy is littered with positions that amount to sinecures. Today's Republicans love to take pot shots at public sector sinecures--as though a horse breeder named Michael Brown had been appointed head of FEMA at the time of Katrina through some merit driven process. And the academic bureaucracy that has developed over the last century probably has more than its fair share of positions in which time serving well positioned bureaucrats have found themselves a safe haven, pending retirement in a decade or perhaps a generation.

But we have private sector sinecures, as well, if you take a somewhat expansive definition of sinecure, and consider any job offering a heavy paycheck for light lifting a form of sinecure. Consider all those divorcees peddling real estate to their still married sororiety sisters. That gig rolled to a close about a year ago. Consider all those credit managers and service managers at sleepy auto dealerships where business has been slow for years, but where the axe finally fell last week. The pay was good, the work was easy, you just had to be a good fit with the family that owned the place. Now, gone. Poof.

On another level, think about all the businesses that serviced the needs of booming sectors of the recent credit-bubble inflated economy. A read an internal memo circulated at J.P. Morgan trying to control car hire, tipping and deal toy expenses. These are probably not good times to be an event planner on Manhattan or in Southern California. Not too sure how the personal trainers and life coaches are doing, either.

Finally, how about good old print journalism? Every decent sized community in the country has a daily newspaper that fewer and fewer people read. Every daily newspaper has local news coverage--business, sports, community affairs. All that requires staffing. To hear the publishers lament, their communities will be culturally impoverished with the loss of that coverage. Perhaps, but if readership is collapsing, and craigslist has ended the want ad gravy train, something is going to give. I don't think the replacement of want ads by craigslist will diminish the vitality of community culture, any more than a shrinking real estate section or using the email instead of the Sunday supplements to flog department store sales will.

But what will change are the job prospects of those reporters. Journalism is apparently one of the favorite majors at the University of Oregon. Mock if you will, call it an English major without the rigor of taking a course in Shakespeare, but it was a major of choice for kids looking for sinecures.

And it appears that the sinecures are being squeezed out of the economy. Oh well, back to work.

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