Are MBAs Evil? (Fair is Fair)

I almost never think of myself as an MBA – that whole business school thing was just a serious overreaction to finding myself, at age 29, a.) married; b.) working for an insurance company; and c) possessed of a Great Books degree plus a bunch of classes in art and other useless things that screamed: unemployable dilettante! At least, to the kind of employer I thought I might need to impress.

So I hied myself off to the nearest state university where I could get an MBA on the cheap, so that, you know, employers would take me seriously.  Here’s what I learned:

– The MBA process is a filter much more than training. Enduring to the end is the chief qualification for graduation, as opposed to mastering any particular skills.  I learned more about business from my dad and from the first few weeks on the job than in a couple years of business school. By far.

What the degree tells businesses is that you’ve been properly vetted: the holder of an MBA has a fairly high threshold for administrative BS, for processes that don’t make much sense, and for following orders in order to achieve a goal. Also, the MBA holder must really want to work in management and has made peace with what that means: you’re OK with your life’s work being helping rich people make more money.

Those are really the key qualifications. To put it the other way around: imagine you’re hiring for a big bank. Do you want to risk that the bright young thing sitting before you may up and decide, a few months in, that they can’t work in a huge bureaucracy, that they have moral qualms about some of the processes by which the bank makes money, or really want to try out living as a free lance photographer? No, better to have some other institution set up to take that risk for you.

– There are far too many people who, with a little training, could do the typical MBA’s job. The goal of business school is to winnow that crowd down, not to create more qualified people. I often think of people I know who could do the typical MBA’s job, bit who, for whatever reasons, haven’t wanted to go to yet more school, or didn’t get the opportunity.

It’s embarrassing, really – to get an MBA level salary, people in other professions need to do tons more study and work, really master real skills, and work their way up the organization, while the MBA is assumed to be on the side of management and owners, and so is paid handsomely for – what, exactly? Looking after ownership’s interests, mainly.

So, your typical MBA has to believe that ‘right-sizing’ or whatever euphemism one chooses for firing people so that the owners can get richer is a good thing – economic efficiency, and all that. He must think such things as ‘marketing to failure’ are OK, virtuous, even. That’s where, for example, a shoe company keeps adding channels – shoe stores – into a territory until they (the shoe stores) start going out of business – that’s how you know you’ve got the maximum number of outlets within a territory. Too bad for the shoe stores.  Fire older, expensive employees before they become eligible for retirement, and replacing them with cheaper, younger workers? OK! Targeting kids for marketing stuff that’s objectively bad for them – hey, it’s the (very probably scarce or non-existent) parents’ job to police that, even if the only way the marketing works is if way more junk is sold than could be healthily consumed.  And so on.

Me? I help gigantic corporations avoid playing income tax. Or, as we in the industry say, I help increase finance efficiency by leveraging tax arbitrage opportunities in equipment acquisitions. (In my defense, I just help my clients take advantage of the tax code in exactly the way the tax code was written to promote. No, really. Of course, whoever pays the piper gets to write the tax code….)

So, are MBAs evil? It is at least as possible for an MBA to be virtuous as, say, a Roman soldier, and the temptations to bullying and greed might even be comparable. Jesus seemed to think Roman soldiers could behave – he didn’t say ‘stop being Roman soldiers’ after all.  And, it can be said that both MBAs and Roman soldiers did have an essentially good and valuable role to serve (if you doubt it, see, respectively, the Soviet Union and the barbarian invasions).

The real issue, then, if one to compare my job with a teacher’s job*: It’s possible for an MBA to do no harm, and even to do good. Not, perhaps, likely, but possible. Is it possible for a teacher, however personally virtuous, to not forward the inexorable goals of the state by his work? Say, in my classroom, kids are treated with respect and cut some slack, and I don’t try to consume their lives outside the classroom with homework, and I love them as I ought – so? Does the good I do offset the evil done elsewhere? Does the good MBA nonetheless further the evil aims of many corporations?

Worth thinking about.

*specifically, a teacher working within the compulsory state-run model – piano teachers, for example, get a pass here.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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