Chronicles of defunction

Once upon a time, when I was younger (seventeen), I became interested in a specialized area of economics. This was, why companies fail. The math was of no interest to me; it was the human side of defunction that aroused my curiosity. This was because I was working for a small, but humanly sprawling daily newspaper called the Bangkok World, that was never going to make a significant profit, but had limped along for thirteen years and could, to my mind, have limped along forever. Unfortunately, the management got Big Ideas. Within six months of acting upon them, the paper was dead. (The title was sold to its inferior competitor, which fired everyone in the subsequent “merger.”)

The big idea was to take in American investors who would replace the backward (hand-set hot metal) composing and printing equipment with spanking-new state-of-the-art photo-offset technology (then in its incoherent infancy), flown across the Pacific Ocean. A hyper-professional MBA-styled managing director was also flown in: a nice man who’d never been to Thailand, never seen a similar publishing operation, and spent his short tenure learning elementary things before fleeing back Stateside.

I have been reminded of all this by reading a memoir by the paper’s then-editor, a certain Denis Horgan, a young ex-serviceman who had arrived in the job on a train of accidents. Naturally, everything took him by surprise. His account of “the end of The World” was quite affecting. A liberal, progressive soul (but with a lovable regard for quaintness), I think he has yet to guess what hit him.

Through the half-century since, I have been privy to essentially the same scene repeated, many times. A small company is doing passable work in a small market, adapting to the requirements for survival through trial, error, and multi-dimensional collusion. There is a hierarchy within that has developed organically and bears no relation to any organizational chart. Everything works at a low but constant level of efficiency. In my example, the newspaper did come out every day, in fact twice a day, morning and evening. And for all its eccentricities, it was beloved by its few thousand readers. Had the flown-ins spent their whole time drinking iced Mekong in the noodle shop across the street, making themselves too blotto to move, all would have been well.

Alas, they had the Big Idea. Too, they were exemplars of temperance — workaholic instead, and probably incorruptible, in that sterile, short-sleeve, Puritan way. This is of the essence of liberalism and progress. It is a matter of stolid conviction, in opposition to all human experience. Everything is done consciously, nothing by instinct. Statistics are gratuitously gathered, and constantly reviewed. Everything must be managed, to the end of eliminating anything that smacks of a living tradition, spontaneity, or morale.

The (ancient) Greeks, who knew a thing or two about tyranny, felt that no decision should be made until it had become unavoidable, by when it would have been discussed, in a leisurely and therefore thorough way, sometimes drunk and sometimes sober. If the same conclusion is reached by both methods — by the coffee method and by the whisky method, as it were — then, and only then, should we dare proceed.

Meanwhile: “live and let live.”

In my example, a company that was barely meeting its payroll, but somehow meeting it every month, took on a tremendous load of unrepayable, indeed unserviceable debt, which promptly sank it. The paper would probably be alive today if, instead of “investing” in a white elephant, they had bought a couple of second-hand linotype machines, to speed up the composing room a bit, and put the big-idea men back on an aeroplane. (Preferably in the hold.)

My memories involve intense affection. The Bangkok World was the best little newspaper imaginable, for its time and place. It was overstaffed with talented, mostly very young people, of innumerable nationalities. No one was paid well, nor should have been. It was a glorious place to work. All such institutions should be left alone.