Mr. Zimmerman, who was a film producer in New York when he wrote this article, is now a writer and historian, specializing in science and the history of space exploration. No further reproduction of this article is allowed without written permission of the author.
It is the winter of 1992 in New York City, and everyone is talking economic doom and gloom. Macy’s has just declared bankruptcy, Citicorp has lost almost a billion and a half dollars in the last six months, local unemployment has topped 10 percent, and shuttered storefronts dot local shopping districts.
Into the midst of this dismal situation comes yours truly, trying to find (of all things) a location for a film shoot. I am representing Weekend at Bernie’s II, a Hollywood feature film with a week’s shooting in middle May. One of the locations I am searching for is a high-level corporate boardroom with a spectacular view of the New York skyline. Filming would take a day, with a second day for setup and cleanup. Because this is a Hollywood film, we have the money to cover costs and pay any additional fees. In other words, the location can make a profit from our filmwork.
After some preliminary scouting, I located an excellent boardroom on the 40th floor of the corporate headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks. This bank, which happened to be saddled with an enormous debit sheet, couldn’t get its act together to do anything. Four different departments said that the other three had to give their approval before they would say “yes.” Because we loved the location, and the office manager of that particular space was willing to let us use it, I spent four weeks bouncing back and forth between several different levels of bureaucracy before finally giving up.
Another bank was willing to rent us their space, though its boardroom didn’t have the exact look we wanted. The bank owned a building in a prime spot in lower Manhattan. Four of its five floors had been sitting empty for the last five years, and they saw this as a way to earn a little from the unused asset.
Though at first this seemed sensible, I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t rented the space to a more permanent tenant. The bank had owned the building for over 60 years, and their costs were limited to taxes and maintenance. With such low costs, they could certainly make a profit renting the space below the market rate, which would make it easy to find a tenant. Why let the space sit empty when it could be rented and, at a minimum, cover their costs? I was curious, and I asked the business manager if she knew. She shrugged her shoulders. “They can’t make up their minds what to do, so it’s easier to let it sit empty.”
My search continued. I found about a dozen other banks and businesses with beautiful boardrooms overlooking the majestic towers of New York’s skyline. One after another considered the idea of letting us film, and then rejected it. The typical reason was that they weren’t in the movie business. One bank officer said, “Even for $15,000 a day it wouldn’t be worth our bother.”
Too much bother? We would pay them for their bother, and would even shoot on the weekend to avoid interfering with their normal operations. Nah, they’d say, we don’t want to deal with the problems.
Maybe the Japanese prime minister is right, and we Americans are losing our work ethic.
One company willing to let us film on their property was a small real estate firm that managed a building in midtown Manhattan. They went to their tenants and found one who was eager to make some quick money on the side. Both the real estate company and tenant had rented to film companies before, and knew the job would involve long hours and numerous complications and surprises. They also knew that, with hard work, they could fit us in without losing any other business. Why not add to their profit sheet? Unfortunately, our director didn’t like the view.
We finally found the right location on the 51st floor of a large corporate building. Once again I had to deal with three different departments all unwilling to make a commitment. After much haggling and many phone calls, we settled the deal and planned the shoot.
Consider the responses I got: One company couldn’t get organized enough to make the deal and consequently let it pass them by. Another company was willing to deal for a quick, short-term gain (a one-day shoot), but seemed unwilling to work for a more permanent profit (a long-term tenant). Most of the rest were just plain lazy, willing to let the business slip away because they didn’t want to bother, even when guaranteed a profit.
And the people working in these businesses probably blame the Japanese because the economy is bad.
Most of the companies that said “yes” were small, and our fee would have gone directly to the individual owners. The firms that said “no” were large corporations, and their middle management employees were the ones saying so. Since these individuals didn’t own the company, wouldn’t earn any more money by letting us film on the property, and might catch some heat if things went wrong, they had no incentive to say “yes.” Hence, they rejected the idea outright, and each company lost a chance to improve its bottom line.
The two large corporations that said “yes” did so only because I was extremely persistent, and used some influence with friends at higher executive levels. In other words, I had to pull strings. I wouldn’t call this an efficient way to run a business.
Because the employees’ earnings were at most tangentially connected with the company’s profit-or-loss statements, it didn’t matter to them if their company did better. They did their jobs from 9:00 to 5:00, cashed their paychecks, and went home. As far as they were concerned, the company could go to the dogs and they wouldn’t care, until they lost their jobs. Then they would blame their boss, the president, the Japanese, the American consumer, or anyone else they could point a finger at.
Obviously, if their salaries had been directly tied to profits, their incentive to figure out a way of saying “yes” would have increased by many orders of magnitude.
This, however, is only a partial explanation. Mere profit should never be the sole motivation for doing the right thing.
My first job out of college was in the northeast real property office of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Because the operator was the federal government, there was no profit to be earned, nor could the company go out of business if managed badly. No one had any incentive to keep costs low. In that sense, the FAA employees were similar to the middle managers I had met during my location search.
Yet, the older supervisors and middle managers, government employees since the 1940s, would not have dreamed of wasting government funds. They had principles and respect for the organization where they worked, and insisted on doing the job right. As a result of this responsible attitude, three people had been able to run this FAA real property office efficiently and cheaply for almost 30 years, during a time when almost all the nation’s airports and aviation facilities had been built from scratch.
In the three years I worked there, these older managers retired one by one, and were replaced by new people who had no reluctance to expand their offices unnecessarily, to sit at their desks and do as little work as possible, and to squander the government’s resources in order to build their bureaucratic empires. By the time I left, the office had 11 people, and the manager in charge was drawing up plans to expand it further. And this was when newer technologies should have made it possible to reduce the real-estate costs of the FAA.
Because the work was not directly connected with profits, the employees had a choice: They could work efficiently and responsibly, or they could ignore the consequences and trash theagency. The older employees chose the former; the newer employees chose the latter.
A Matter of Choice
It is all a matter of choice. Work is more than just making a few bucks for oneself. It is an act of creation. Even if my job is divorced from the company’s profits, it is morally reprehensible to avoid my responsibilities simply because I am not forced to face them. Besides, I’m alive, I work there, why not do the best job I can? Anything else seems a waste of the precious gift of life given us all for so short a time.
The old-timers I met in the federal government knew this. Even though their incomes would not be affected, they were going to do right by their employer because they would be doing right for themselves.
By saying “yes,” everyone gains. Even though we, the film company, would have to pay for using the space, we would be served because now we could make the film, from which a profit might be earned. Many people will see the film, serving them (we hope!) by the entertainment it will provide. Also served will be the many people on the periphery of the project—the janitors, theater workers, and manufacturers of film equipment—as well as everyone working on location. Saying “yes” allows many people to become creative and earn wealth for themselves.
Saying “no,” however, accomplishes nothing. Like misers, everyone hoards their services while denying the commerce of human endeavor that is the very purpose of life. Eventually, this can only lead to bankruptcies, unemployment, empty storefronts, and poverty.
It is all a matter of choice. We can choose to build a society where creativity, wealth, and profit are directly linked with a person’s actions, and as individuals we can choose to say “yes,” to work well and responsibly.
Or, we choose a society where our actions have nothing to do with the successful creation of wealth, and as individuals pocket what we can, rip off everyone else, and let our children reap the whirlwind.
The United States and Japan chose the former and became prosperous. The Soviet Union chose the latter and went bankrupt. What do we choose, now, for the future?