Lives Unlived – Ferenzcia de Filippi
Academic. Author. Amateur weightlifter. Economist. Gadfly. Heretic. Mentor. Born July 1, 1961 in Norfolk, England. Died September 23, 2024 in London, England, of diabetes related eyelid complications, aged 63.
Ferenzcia de Filippi was a slight man with arm and leg muscles like fire hydrants. In his later life, students mistakenly believed that he was called “Popeye” after the character played by Gene Hackman in The French Connection, but, no, the nickname came from the cartoon character.
When he was young, Ferenzcia wanted to be an Olympic weightlifter. Unfortunately, this dream was cut short by an unusual welding accident that left him unable to use the middle finger of his right hand, his all important gripping hand.
Odd, then, that the man was a noted University professor. Odder still that he won a Nobel Prize in Economics.
If remembered at all by the general population, Ferenzcia is best remembered as – okay, you know, it may not be so odd that a man who dreamt of being a weightlifter grew up to be a Nobel Prize winning economist. Human beings are complex creatures and, over the course of our lives, we have many dreams and play many roles. Unfortunately, I don’t personally have the imagination that would allow me to imagine Ferenzcia as such a complete human being, so I will focus on his economic theories.
Ferenzcia is best remembered by the public, if at all, as the author of Towards a Theory of Bureaucratic Value. His basic thesis is that bureaucratic organizations are vital to the functioning of economic systems because they remove mediocre people from the productive workforce.
“Imagine,” Ferenzcia wrote, “that all of the middle managers – who are frequently mocked – with some justification – as worthless pencil-pushers – were actually in positions of responsibility – engineers, doctors, goggles factory production line workers. The world would fall apart! By putting bad workers in positions where they cannot do much damage, bureaucracies are actually of immense benefit to the economy as a whole.”
Using the Peter Principle as a point of departure, Ferenzcia differentiated between people who were “in active service,” who were actually having a positive effect on the economy, and people who should be “inactive service” workers, who should be given sinecures where they could do the least amount of damage.
When it first came out, Towards a Theory of Bureaucratic Value was panned by critics. This may have been because Ferenzcia claimed that economists were largely part of the bureaucratic structure, implying that they were mediocre thinkers. The fact that one of the chapters in the book is called “People With MBAs Can Be Really Thick” didn’t endear Ferenzcia to his critics. Neither was he well served by his insistence, in interviews and articles that, unlike his hero C. Northcotte Parkinson, at no time did he ever write with his tongue in his cheek.
Over time, though, the “Theory of Marginal Inutility” proved its worth when applied to a variety of economies over time. To take but one example, if bureaucrats had been forced to get real jobs, the GNP of the United States between 1980 and 2000 would have been 13.854 per cent smaller. Ferenzcia’s theory is so non-controversial that it is now featured prominently in first year macroeconomics texts and Japanese manga.
Had this been Ferenzcia’s only contribution to economics, it would have been enough to win him the Nobel. However 15 years after its publication, Ferenzcia followed it with The Gobsmack Manifesto. This book, written primarily for people without an economics background, propounded the Mediocre Man Theory that history was actually made by buffoons who avoided bureaucratic service, and, thereby, messed things up for everybody else.
Again, the reception for the book was positively hostile. However, it did make the Podunk Times bestseller list, and for an obvious reason: it explained the state of the world better than any previous theory of political economy. (Other fields such as history are only starting to grapple with the implications of Ferenzcia’s explosive theory.)
Ferenzcia de Filippi was a demanding teacher, by which I mean he demanded that his students buy him lunch at a local Bavarian restaurant around the corner from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Sophistology. But, honestly, considering how his work changed the way people looked at the world, who would deny him his pastrami pot pie?
I certainly wouldn’t.
Angekuba Bratwurst is a graduate student who was studying under Ferenzcia de Filippi at the time of his death. If anybody can suggest a good dissertation adviser, she would really appreciate it.