Monday, January 3, 2011


For my sins (I must have had a lot of them) I had to attend a good number of English Department meetings (when I was chairman, I made sure to keep them short). At one of those meetings, as we were discussing some screw-up or other (probably the same one that we had discussed at my first meeting many years before), one of the department harridans exclaimed, “Parkinson’s Law!” I was more than happy to (a) deflate said harridan and (b) demonstrate anew to the others my superior knowledge by proclaiming, “You mean Murphy’s Law—“If something can go wrong, it will go wrong’; Parkinson’s Law states that ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’”

Considering that when it appeared in book form (it had first been a magazine article) the short essay “Parkinson’s Law or the Rising Pyramid” was accompanied by whimsical line drawings by Robert C. Osborn, one might think that the author, one C. Northcote Parkinson, Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya, was a spoof nom de plume and the essay a mere comic bagatelle. But the author was real enough, as were the statistics he used to reach his serious conclusions. Two examples:

1—Between the years 1914 and 1928 the number of British warships declined by over 67 percent, while the number of officials at the Admiralty increased by more than 78 percent;

2—In the two decades between 1935 and 1954 the number of officials at the Colonial Office in Great Britain increased from 372 to 1661, even though in the later years the responsibility of the Office (in terms of territory and population) decreased as more and more colonies achieved independent nationhood.

“Officials,” Parkinson states, “ make work for each other,” and since work, “especially paperwork,” is “elastic in its demands on time,” there is no (or little) relationship between the number of staff and amount of work to be done. Thus, work can expand to fill the time available for its completion.

While Parkinson is serious in his analysis of bureaucratic expansion, he satirically claims that his work has “no political value,” being “a purely scientific discovery.” He concludes:

It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how fast they grow.


But it is actually another of Parkinson’s essays in the book Parkinson’s Law and other Studies in Administration that I wish to focus on: “Plans and Plants or The Administration Block.”

Consider this story from the New York Times: “Dispute Over Succession Clouds Megachurch” (available at
It tells how Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, “which many church historians,” says the Times, “call the nation’s first modern megachurch,” has incurred a $43 million debt and has filed for bankruptcy protection. “The 10,664 windows did not get washed this year . . . . And its renowned Christmas pageant — with live camels and horses, and angels flying overhead on cables — has been canceled for now.”

Parkinson’s essay deals with other cathedrals, palaces, and monumental edifices. What he shows is that famous structures which seem in their pomp to perfectly symbolize the height of the prestige and power of their institutions were actually constructed during times of decay and waning influence. He contrasts the decline of Papal power with the buildings of the Vatican:

The great days of the Papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned. They were almost forgotten by the date of its completion.

Likewise, he cites the Palace of Nations (of the League of Nations) and the Palace of Versailles, both of which were completed after the power and prestige that generated them were gone.

In contrast to stillborn monumentality Parkinson points out that “During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters.” If his book had been written some decades after 1957, Parkinson would surely have cited those pioneers of the silicon age who cobbled together their innovative technologies in their backyard garages and other such structures. As it is, Parkinson writes about “lively and productive” institutions, such as

A research establishment . . . housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading to a corrugated iron hut in what was once the garden.


When institutions stop to think about their image, their grandeur, their importance, then it is time to worry about them. I was recently watching (on television) a hockey game being played at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Wait a minute, I thought to myself, since when is it the “Wells Fargo” Center? I recalled the arena being otherly-named. So I looked it up on Wikipedia:

The arena was formerly known as Spectrum II (prior to construction), CoreStates Center, First Union Center and Wachovia Center.

One eaten-up bank after another. (As an aside, consider that the Mets' new ballpark in Flushing got tagged with the Citibank label during the height of the recent financial crisis.)

But perhaps the event that best illustrates the link between institutional grandeur-seeking and collapse took place in Houston, Texas in 2001, when they hauled down from the Houston Artros’ ballpark the name that celebrated one of the city’s leading corporations—Enron.