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A Devil's Dictionary of Business | The Nation

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A Devil's Dictionary of Business

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Dear Nation Reader,
 If you feel cheated because the old, scaly serpent gave Eve the good stuff from the Tree of Knowledge and left you to fend for yourself, take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime offer of vital information heretofore known only to those in league with the devil. One of the infernal minions has compiled a unique dictionary that includes simple, clear definitions of fuzzy, complicated business terms, who is and who was important in business, the formula for turning lead into gold and how business got started and how come it runs your life.
   --Nicholas von Hoffman

About the Author

Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

Also by the Author

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Accounting:

Without accounting there would be no business. In its various manifestations, and there are many of them, it not only displays the condition a business is in but is indispensable in managing every enterprise of any size and complexity. In the seventeenth century, this included itemizing the locks, the chains and the irons used to make the jails holding the Salem Witchcraft prisoners "witch tight." Accounting records of the same period, or "books of accompts," were sometimes balanced in wampum, legal tender in certain parts of North America until somebody set up a wampum factory, which, of course, brought on a wampum inflation. This led to the beads being outlawed in 1800 and replaced by dollars, which have been more or less OK except whenever the government sets up its dollar factory and wampum begins to look good again.

Over the centuries accounting has picked up a reputation as a less than a laugh-a-minute occupation. In the early years of the twenty-first century, accounting got unfunnier still when it came out that outside auditors or accountants had colluded with their corporate customers to lure the innocent into buying vastly overpriced stock. Other than destroying the future happiness and the present comfort of about 50 million people, little damage was done. Even with its nil entertainment rating, accounting is the single most important business activity.

Bull market:

A prolonged period characterized by the thunder of ungulate hooves and happy hoards of human Morris dancers in the nation's stock exchanges. Bull market periods are thought to be accompanied by a rise in the consumption of costly French wines and a drop in sexual harassment cases.

Cash:

Money, moola, do-re-me, lettuce, spondulicks, coin, dough, bread, skins, groat, long green, shekel, smackeroo, pelf, buck, cowrie-shell, the root of all evil, viaticum, specie, big ones, farthing, scratch, fish, cabbage, talent, lucre, assignat, boodle, ducat, somoleon, currency, dinero, what makes the world go 'round, gelt, jack, smacker, store of value and medium of exchange, wampum. If the number of words for the same object is indicative of its importance to a society, draw your own conclusions.

Dumb:

New Coke.

Ethicist:

A person in the employ of a large corporation whose job it is to tell the CEO right from wrong. And how does an ethicist know right from wrong? The person has a PhD from a name-brand institution, ears sensitive enough to hear when God whispers or a stout paycheck.

401(k):

401(k) stands for disillusionment, worry and finding out that the golden years will be paid for with lead bars spray-painted gold. (See defined contribution pension.)

Global economy (the):

When international trade grew to a magnitude that jolted the seers who make their livings discovering new epochs, they proclaimed the epiphany of a global economy. New, different, unique, extraordinary!

Well, maybe, but 4,500 years ago Sumerian businessmen were operating on an international scale, with agents in offices abroad selling goods from the homeland to buyers who paid in strange coin. If the Sumerians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and merchants of China and medieval Europe were not part of a global economy, it's only because they thought the world was flat.

There never was a time when an entirely self-sufficient, economically isolated United States got along without having extensive commerce with others in distant places. (See protective tariff.) As early as the Jefferson Administration (1801-09), an American foreign trade embargo caused such hardship that New England almost seceded from the Union. By the second half of the nineteenth century, American business, joining American agriculture in peddling abroad, was swarming overseas. (Also see

multinationals

.)

Although the term global economy was not used a century ago, big business already had a global mentality. The slogan "Sherwin-Williams Paints Cover the World" appeared in 1894, and it was in that time that Chauncey Depew (1834-1928), political fixer and bagman for the Vanderbilt interests and president of the then mighty New York Central Railroad, trumpeted, "Let production go on. . .let the factories do their best, let labor be employed at the highest wages because the world is ours."

What is new is the speed and the scale with which business in the twenty-first century has penetrated so many foreign cultures.

Hello Kitty:

This small, white, cloyingly cute animal without a mouth was born in Japan in 1974. Though the kitten in question, said to be female, starred in no movie and has no known history or back story--unlike Mickey Mouse or Barney--nevertheless, for thirty years she has appeared on every conceivable kind of merchandise from tiny little purses to radios, toasters and, it is written, on vibrators, but that may be a foul canard. What is gospel truth is that Hello Kitty's company, Sanrio Ltd., is worth half a billion dollars and stands as living proof that it is possible to make, if not a silk purse out of a sow's ear, a hell of a lot of money out of licensing a pussy cat.

Intellectual property:

Any patent or copyright with enough value to be sold and/or stolen. Intellectual property includes movies, songs, genetically engineered seeds, designs of every kind for everything and what is loosely called trade secrets, which include manufacturing processes, organizational arrangements and how information is handled inside a company.

In recent years American business has gone nuts over foreigners, especially Chinese foreigners, stealing intellectual property. The claimed losses are enormous; the real losses may be very large, but excessive whining about having one's secrets ripped off is a chump's game. (See

Samuel Slater

.) Sooner or later some clever devil (but not this one) will find a way around the patent or just steal it, which is costly to the losing stockholders but often beneficial to the world at large, which profits from having secrets unlocked and put to use by larcenous competitors. Instead of reliance on lawyers, the best defense of intellectual property is inventing something new and better, thereby staying ahead of the game.

Japan:

An island nation due west of Silicon Valley that was once so rich that Americans feared that Nipponese businessmen (women don't go in for that sort of thing there) would buy all the golf courses and skyscrapers in the United States, put them on boats and ship them back to Tokyo. It was believed that the Japanese were harder-working and smarter-working than Americans. (For more on this, see

W. Edwards Deming.

)

The Japanese were also supposed to have achieved a coordination between business enterprises and the government, which made it inevitable that they would become the number one economic power of the world. Books about how the Japanese did it were bestsellers, and the fly-by-night, flea-bitten lecturer/teachers who infest the world of business were everywhere preaching Nipponism. The vogue peaked in the early 1980s, and since then, by a physiological process not yet understood, the Japanese started to lose IQ points and get dumber.

By the early 2000s they came to be looked down upon as an obtuse and dense people with little talent for business. Since they are declining in population and will, according to the best projections, have become extinct by the end of the twenty-first century, no one pays attention to them anymore, except to remind them occasionally how wrong they are.

Keogh Plan:

Named after its author, a long-forgotten New York City Congressman (Eugene J. Keogh, 1907-89). His plan was the first (1961) of a stream of tax-sheltered savings programs. The Keogh Plan was designed to help self-employed people save for their retirement, but they now have them for every purpose and in a variety of forms. (See

pensions

.) The hitch is that the plans' owners must decide how the money is to be invested, and a lot of us aren't very good at that.

Leadership:

An undefined quality attributed to bosses on public occasions.

Middle class:

A subsection of the population that includes everybody, oddly enough. Modern social theology has it that there is no upper class and that "lower class" means talking with your mouth full. The possible existence of some kind of super class is seen in the custom of addressing billionaires in television interviews by the title of Mister or Ms. Middle-class people are always called by their first names.

Natural monopoly:

Not necessarily found in nature, it is defined as a business that cannot successfully be operated in competition with like companies. The prime examples once given of a natural monopoly are electrical utility and telephone companies. (See

Vail, Theodore Newton

.) Telephone monopolies have been vitiated but hardly obliterated, while the ownership situation in electricity is chaotic. Since the network of high-voltage transmission lines, substations, transformers and local distribution systems to the home cannot be duplicated by a rival electric company, the only part of the system susceptible to competition is power generation, and just recently power trading. Until recent times, most jurisdictions have been willing to trade monopoly for government regulation. The hitch to that arrangement is that the cash pours into utility company vaults in such volume that there is plenty of moola left over with which to blandish the utility regulators. In a few places in the United States, the natural electric monopoly has taken the form of government ownership, which has worked reasonably well, but any institution supplying goods or services, not privately owned and therefore presumably bereft of the profit motive, is a stink in the nostrils of God, who has a fine nose for smelling out socialism.

Our greatest natural resource:

Children. Other commodities much prized by American businesspeople and political speakers include oil, gold, natural gas, tungsten, silver and molybdenum.

Pump and dump:

A practice as old as Wall Street, perhaps older. First one pumps up the price of the stock by floating optimistically unfounded rumors and promoting it on TV shows and in hot-tip columns and newspaper stories. Then, as soon as the price reaches a point of satisfactory absurdity, one dumps it, pockets one's profits and walks off in search of an opportunity to repeat the procedure. Pumping and dumping is vaguely illegal, as is parking in front of a fire hydrant. Needless to say, the jails are not full of such transgressors.

Quality control:

Oh, let's free quality from control. Take off the wraps and let quality rip.

Resources:

When used without a modifier like intellectual or natural, it is a finicky substitute word for money. For example, "We need more resources to help the spiritually depraved." People who say resources because they can't spit out the word "money" are probably after yours. Check your wallet.

spam (not Spam):

When capitalized, the word refers to a form of human alimentation composed of the devil knows not what ingredients. Uncapitalized spam is a free knowledge distribution service via the Internet offering recipients opportunities to get in on the ground floor of new businesses and procure pictures of unclad persons doing the most unusual and entertaining things with various organs and orifices. The word spam, in this use, is supposed to derive from a Monty Python episode that takes place in a restaurant where capital S Spam is served to the patrons regardless of what they order.

The simple life:

The simple life, a green existence of a few possessions, wholesome food and a garden on the inconspicuous edge of the business society, is a luxury available only to the comfortably situated.

Urban sprawl:

"I can't define it, but I know it when I see it," said the judge of pornography, and that applies as well to urban sprawl. Everyone agrees that it is unsightly, unecological and uneconomical save for the sprawlers, who are, of course, half the population.

Vision:

1. The faculty of sight. 2. A meaningless word used by big-shot business people, politicians and the shabbier, less literate members of the clergy, all of whom are to be heard on every public occasion urging their auditors to have it. 3. A hallucination.

White-collar crime:

A corruption of "white-collar grime," a term originating in the laundry industry, referring to the ground-in dirt on the collars of the white dress shirts of business executives. The existence of white-collar crime is what is called an urban myth. (There are no rural myths.) The nonexistence of white-collar crime is reflected in the fact that official FBI crime statistics contain no such category. Ignore rumors to the contrary and trust your stock broker.

Your call is very important to us:

It is not.

Zoning:

The most widespread intervention in a major field of economic activity. This use of the police powers, which diminish or augment the value of private property, is, in all probability, the occasion of more corruption of public officials than any other area of government action, including drugs. The first zoning ordinance was passed in New York City in 1916, and within twenty years zoning had been adopted everywhere to protect property values, which often translated into building restrictions that had the effect of excluding lower-income (read minority) people in many districts. In the last generation, the imposition of environmental zoning has extended the regulation of real property to include virtually the entire nation. How effective and desirable zoning is has long been debated, but in the real world of greasy-thumbed city and county politics, there is no chance of zoning being replaced by a better method.

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