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Risk and reward

Risk and reward

risk reward

I was going to write a post about risk and reward today. About executive pay, and how it relates to responsibility in business. The news have been abuzz these days with managers and executive officers raking up the millions in bonuses, even if their companies don’t function very well. Which is another way of saying “bankrupt”.

I was going to write it – in fact I got most of the way through, but I got stopped in my tracks. What have I got to do with all this? I don’t even know what a million dollars looks like. Most of us don’t, and most likely never will.

It’s an alien world, the one I was going to write about. What I learned of it are disparate, small, loose pieces of a puzzle I never got to see before it broke down. What do I know about how these people take decisions? They’re flipping coins in their penthouse offices, for all we know. Or maybe they rent time on SETI@home and fire up huge, complicated social simulations that model market behaviour for the next 5 to 10 years.

We hear the stories of CEO excess, the unbelievable nerve of some early-pensioned bankers, the huge stock incentives that compensate for those symbolic one-dollar salaries. The private jets. The yachts. The lifestyle. The news would boil them alive, just. And we still know nothing about them.

Footballers, we can understand. They too rake millions, but we know why. They can hit a ball. We can hit a ball. We can relate. CEOs, they don’t even speak the same language. They gather thousands upon thousands of air miles a year – the closest any living human ever got to be Superman, with the notable exception of skydivers. They choose, and the companies follow. Like the clans of old, we follow, while at the same time asking for their blood. Metaphorically, of course – that’s what the tabloids are for. Maybe we’re envious. Maybe. Maybe we just want to prove they’re human.

Oh yes we are, don’t pretend otherwise. Those celebrities, they got talent. They got a chance to use it. We don’t grudge them that. These managers, they’ve just been working hard. You could have done that too, if you had a vision of that future. They made it, that’s reason enough to hate. Isn’t it, my dear lynch mob?

The thing is, we have it easy. Eight, nine hours of work, then our work is done, we get to go home and relax. A good manager gets to go home and worry some more. Was that the good decision just now? Was that the good strategy? Where are we going? Where are we going to be in five years’ time? Am I letting my people down?

Yes. They mean us. The good ones always do.

We went and fought in World War III

We went and fought in World War III

soldierBack in the days of  the Cold War, we though the third great world confrontation was months, if not days ahead. We had a visceral fear of the Nuclear Holocaust, with all that entailed – the millions of deaths, the fallout, the radiation poisoning, the endless nuclear winter… A whole generation grew up taught to think in terms of us and them, fed on fear and propaganda, but mostly fear. We had the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis. We had the standoffs, the nuclear tests, the war games and the wars-by-proxy. We even had Comrade Krushchev telling the West quite literally “we will bury you”. The year was 1956. People were listening to Elvis and building fallout shelters in the backyard.

But the years went by, and crisis after crisis was averted by means of diplomacy and concessions on either side. Leaders came and went, but the doctrine remained the same. Arm yourself more than the other guy. Talk tough. Make a show of strength. DO NOT USE IT. It kept on going for 40+ years, right until the Berlin wall collapsed, taking with it an ideology and a way of life that dominated the XXth century. There were, of course, several occasions where war was narrowly averted – for instance this was one of them. But the thing is, it didn’t happen, and that is probably why today we are alive and well and able to click our way around the Internet, instead of scavenging for tins in the ruins of the Western civilization.

What I belatedly came to realise is that World War III did actually happen. In the military High Commands of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, on the boards – and later the computer screens – of intelligence analysts, in the nightmares of world leaders, World War III happened over and over again. And no matter where it played, no matter how it started, it always ended the same way. Nobody won.

That is why, in this nuclear age, the era of the great war has passed. Never again will we see tens of millions of soldiers marching across the world to re-enact the clash of the Titans. The political leadership of any faction, group or country may still be use the Cold War rhetoric – indeed, North Korea still does it to this day – but they will always stop short of action. That is why I am not concerned, for instance, about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Oh, they might huff and puff about the great Iranian nation, but the most a nuclear Iran can hope to get out of an alleged military nuclear program is a stronger position at the bargaining table.

This does not mean we saw the end of wars. There will still be skirmishes, thawing conflicts, African civil wars, nationalist guerrillas, jihadist terrorists and Somali pirates, and many more. Plenty of opportunities to field test the new generation of weapons and to let the new recruits cut their teeth on a real theatre of confrontation. There won’t be peace in my lifetime, no matter how hard we may wish for it.

Still, one can always hope.