Honchos and worker bees


Watching the reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations has been entertaining to say the least. Almost every media personality I’ve observed speak on it either talks about how they don’t trust him, or prefaces their concerns over the message with an obligatory swipe at the messenger. The latter often includes a shot not just at Snowden but at Glenn Greenwald, the UK Guardian journalist who brought the material to light.

It seems a bit over the top. Snowden and Greenwald appear subject to a standard of accuracy and at times vitriol quite different than the one facing high ranking NSA and contractor personnel. There is reason to be skeptical of spies in general, but why the high ranking spooks who have been caught splitting semantic hairs, evading, and glossing over key details are not much part of the story, while every last thing Snowden says is scrutinized for the slightest inconsistency, is puzzling. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a secret version of something many reading this would identify with: the difference in the treatment, perception and motive for corporate bigwigs vs the observations of rank and file worker.

In every company I’ve worked for since getting a social security number, employees could be split into three groups. There are the head honchos who make enormous salaries and enjoy lavish perks. Like first class or chartered jet travel to exotic locales, expense accounts, stock options, sometimes special executive health care plans and other benefits, and thus have every reason to fiercely defend that company, to present it in the best light possible, and to justify their position within it by any means necessary.

Then there is middle management, supervisors through department heads, holding jobs that generally, but not always, pay a living wage that puts them somewhere in the lower middle class to comfortably affluent. Middle managers work directly with the honchos, many dream of being a honcho one day and virtually all of them are heavily motivated to keep various honchos happy. Few middle managers lose their job or are demoted by telling honchos what they want to hear.

Last but certainly not least are the worker bees, the people who do the grunt work of customer service, clerical details and the like. That last group has gotten the shit kicked out of them in wages and benefits for three decades and counting. It’s well documented that worker bees have become more and more productive, while the benefits of that work has flowed mostly to honchos with some spillover to middle managers. But that’s a different post.


Honchos and to some degree middle managers get to see the big picture. If asked about their company or products they tend to speak in grandiose, optimistic terms. From their more remote perch they’re likely to perceive day to day operations and try to solve problems from a policy perspective. Worker bees are more likely to see the limits of policy in general and shortcomings of specific ones. It should come as no surprise that they have a good knowledge of both and can describe the Rube Goldberg work-arounds used every day to do their jobs in great detail.

It might sound odd to classify Snowden in with worker bees or low level middle management when he made a high of 200K a year and was earning a cool 122K at Booz Allen Hamilton. But the pay scales at companies vary widely and it might help explain why we’re hearing divergent stories.

When an NSA honcho says government or private spooks are not trolling through the private conversations of U.S. citizens at will, assuming they’re being truthful, they’re talking about policy. When Snowden says someone in his position could review emails or phone records of any conversation of any U.S. citizen, he’s talking about technology. Honchos are thinking about what they have decreed as permissible, Snowden is talking about what is actually possible.

To sum it up, corporate honchos enjoy the benefit of the doubt from the fellow media honchos, worker bees do not. For profit private NSA contractor honchos like Mike McConnell, people who presumably earn seven figures a year, are deeply motivated to perceive and portray their employer and their industry in the best light possible, worker bees are not. Not to mention that up to now, this has all been so secret, even members of the Intelligence Committees in the House and Senate may not always get the full story or hear about problems and abuses. Especially as long as their only source of info is honcho approved and delivered.

In that light is it possible that any relatively minor discrepancies between what Snowden and Greenwald have made available, and what honchos are claiming, make a lot more sense?


  1. Francisco Bacopa says

    I always thought “honcho” was a Spanish word. It’s actually an informal Japanese military term that means “squad leader”, roughly the equivalent of “sarge” in English. It entered English in the late 40’s.

    There is no other solution to the wealth inequality problem than the threat of revolution. The biggest gains of the 99% happened when there was a real threat. Huey Long was able to hold FDR’s feet to the fire and say his program was the only alternative to Communist revolution, which was a credible threat at the time. LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Act by representing it as the only alternative to race war.

    Ah, race! The thing that allows the lower classes to be divided and conquered. No one shot Huey Long until he started organizing black folks. No one shot MLK until he started organizing white folks.

    Occupy understood that the threat of revolution is necessary. But it was disparaged in the media. We were smelly hippies, unemployed losers, and trust fund fake radicals. Occupy will return. I await the call to return to Tranquility Park. We have dispersed, but we have made good runs as candidates from the Harris County Green Party. We have brought over a few Libertarians into the Greens and many of us are in Move to Amend. But we still want to go back to Tranquility.

    Occupy succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the people who first called for it. They wanted a one week protest at Wall Street. They got months. And it spread everywhere. #D12 Houston was the greatest day of my life. I helped close lanes on the 610 bridge. I saw the red tents. I saw the horses and the barricades. We shut down the Old Gates for hours. #D12 was my first blood, and now I lust for more.

    Threat of revolution is the only thing that can straighten things out.

  2. jaxkayaker says

    Why is the one distribution considered the “ideal”? How was that determined? Why is there an estimated and an actual? If one knows the actual, what need is there for an estimate?

  3. JasonTD says

    I think it comes from this survey and viral video about the survey, found here. So, yes, “ideal” simply means what 92% of the respondents thought the distribution of wealth in the U.S. should be. (Presumably they were given some charts to look at and picked from them? I’m not sure of the methodology.)

    One thing about that ‘ideal’ is that it would seem to be so far off from reality mostly because of people’s poor grasp of ratios and percentages. The ‘ideal’ from the graphic above basically says that the top fifth of the population should have three times the wealth of the bottom fifth. And the ‘middle classes’ would have roughly double the wealth of the bottom fifth. That seems like an absurdly low incentive to work hard and try and ‘get ahead’, if you ask me. I doubt that most people would pick that choice as the ideal if they really thought about it in those terms.

    The conclusion that you can draw from this graphic and the video I linked is that people do correctly recognize that income and wealth in this country are not earned in a way that is fair, by any reasonable standard. I’m hardly an economist, though, and I don’t really know much of anything about how it got to this point, or how to ‘fix’ the problem while still letting the whole pie get bigger.

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