Saturday, September 24, 2011

On Excesses

Yesterday, when a a power outage and a professional day at school coincided, I took my two young boys out for breakfast, since I couldn't write or do any work at home. At the restaurant, I was soon reminded of how the idea of "more is better" might be hard-wired into our genetic code. My older son (aged nine) ordered French toast with chocolate sauce; and my youngest (aged three) ordered eggs, potatoes and toast. Well, actually I ordered it for him and he agreed with me. I should mention here that my two boys are thin and tall, much like their parents, and like a majority of children, love chocolate. It can be an indulgence.

As soon as my oldest boy received his order, he promptly poured the full container of chocolate sauce on the two thick pieces of French toast, so much so that I could see that the pieces of bread were saturated. I didn't say much as I enjoyed my eggs Florentine and my youngest his scrambled eggs and some of the strawberries and melons that came with my dish.

After about 15 minutes, I noticed that my oldest boy had left one of the two French toast on his plate, making half-hearted attempts to eat it.  To which I remarked, as any parent would: "I think that you put too much chocolate sauce on it. But you don't have to eat it. It's OK. But you might remember this as a lesson for next time." His remark was: "No, it's good, I like it this way. It's just that I am full. Did you see the size of the French toast. They're huge."

I nodded my head and smiled, and allowed my son to save face. But this little anecdote reminded me of a number of things about excesses, inside and outside the kitchen or dining room. In the area of eating, Prof George Jochnowitz wrote an essay, "Eat, Darling, Eat" on how parents have often used guilt as a mechanism to make children clean up their plates. It didn't happen often with me while I was growing up, but was fairly common among Jewish immigrant households, notably immigrants coming out of the Second World War. It's an essay worth reading.

Now, when I think of other excesses, there are many that come to mind, as excesses come in many shapes and sizes and in various forms. One is in the world of business, where the idea or fad that more is better has long been with us. As a journalist working for the trade and business press (between 1996 and 2007), I wrote many articles on corporate mergers and how they would result in "expected" cost savings through increased "synergies, efficiency and productivity"—a triad of words used in almost every press release that landed on my desk.

But what employees always knew and dreaded was that mergers translated to a a reduced or trimmer workforce. In other words, most of the anticipated savings, passed on to shareholders through higher stock prices, would come about only through mass layoffs and firings. About 20 per cent was a standard figure.

Wall Street would love what it saw in a "bigger is better" mania and reward the companies, so to speak, for their diligence and perhaps their indulgences. Stock prices would temporarily increase, the shareholders would become elated, including not surprisingly the top executives holding huge stock options. The rest of the story is so well known that it has become almost a business cliché: every chief executive walks away with millions after leaving his position. It matters little how well his company fared post facto. All that mattered was that the stock prices went up, and costs went down. The excesses, well, that's another matter. With increased excesses came increased cynicism from the public, not a good thing, but alas expected.

More is not always better, for companies or children. I thank my oldest son, chocolate on his face as we left the restaurant, for reminding me of this lesson for life.


  1. More is not better in the arts as well. James Joyce's FINNEGAN'S WAKE is too long and too confusing. The same is true of Wagner's late operas.

  2. This is true. I could never complete Finnegan's Wake.


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