One of my sons and his wife returned from a trip to Paris a couple weeks ago. They came for dinner and showed us their pictures. Of the Palace at Versailles and its magnificence, he remarked, "No wonder there was a revolution."
I had the same reaction when visiting what was then the Soviet Union some years ago. Everything grand, everything splendid, everything gilded, everything remarkable for its beauty and pleasing to the senses predated the 1917 Revolution and was constructed on the backs of the peasantry. Peter the Great, an admirer of European culture, wanted a great European city for himself. As Czar of all the Russias, what Peter wanted, Peter got. As recounted in "The Creation of St. Petersburg" by Robert Wilde, he "commissioned Italian architect Domenico Trezzini to design a new city in the baroque style, with broad open streets, huge buildings, cathedrals and palaces." The glorious capital was built in the early 1700s on a delta where the Neva River flows into the Gulf of Finland. It was either flooded or frozen, depending on the season. The working conditions were brutal, and more than 30,000 conscripts and prisoners died in appalling conditions."Dysentery and malaria were rife," Mr. Wilde writes, "workers were underfed, and punishment ranged from whipping to mutilation and execution. Whole forests had to be cleared for timber, hills leveled and lakes filled; stone grew so scarce that Peter barred anyone else in Russia from using it, on pain of exile. The Russian aristocracy did not escape, as the leading families were ordered to build houses in the city at their expense, with each design and location already specified on Trezzini's plan." St. Petersburg is a remarkable achievement, though shabby these days because of a lack of money for restoration at the level needed. Glory has its price - and it's always a high one, largely paid for by the lower classes, which share in none of it.
What got me thinking about all this are the recent revelations about the death of Baltimore's fabled Black & Decker Corp., which has been sold to The Stanley Works of Connecticut. The Age of Monarchs is history, as we are now and have been for some time in the Age of the Executive Function.
I talked Wednesday with Doug Schmidt of Chessiecap Inc., a financial services and information company. Mr. Schmidt has been dissecting this "almost merging of equals," which is actually a takeover by Stanley, lubricated by huge payments to the CEO and other top executives of the acquired company. As Jay Hancock has written in this newspaper, hundreds of jobs here in Maryland will disappear, as will the headquartering here of a Fortune 100 company and its philanthropic presence in the Baltimore area.
It is a blow to the solar plexus to those who lose their jobs in this time of joblessness, but their loss is Black & Decker CEO Nolan Archibald's gain. He stands to pocket a "cost synergy bonus" of up to $45 million for cutting costs and eliminating jobs in the new, combined company. This is in addition to Mr. Archibald's current holdings in the company, estimated by Mr. Schmidt to be worth more than $110 million.
What's more, one of the so-called independent board members on the special Black & Decker Transaction Committee was the chairman's longtime pal and business partner, one Tony Burns, who is co-owner with Mr. Archibald of "Red Ledges," a grand recreational development in Utah. Some observers find this disturbing, an appearance at the very least of some conflict of interest. Others say it's OK. Through good times or bad, top business executives get to stuff their pockets. Mr. Archibald has been particularly well rewarded during his 24 years heading Black & Decker, becoming one of America's highest-paid CEOs and the largest single stockholder in the company.
This very day, in a meeting held in the early morning near Washington Dulles Airport, the venerable firm will be flushed down the drain. And the very rich Nolan Archibald will be remembered, as Mr. Schmidt puts it, as "the last Black & Decker CEO, the man who had no successors and no surviving strategy, except to sell the company." It's somehow the perfect illustration of the times in which we live, with the executive function paramount - an age that will leave behind it no glory at all.
Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.