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Understanding Business 

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I was handicapped from the start. Familiar jolts of pain shot through my cramped hands as they remembered years spent pecking away at keyboards. Mia, at age 14, was the perfect height for the machine. Though she couldn't type her own name too quickly, being a Nintendo expert she was accustomed to the video-game style of the exhibit.

We were preparing to play one of the four games that are the centerpiece of the National Business Hall of Fame. Buried deep within the bowels of the Museum of Science and Industry's ground floor, the hall of fame is a nondescript space most museumgoers pass through on the way to more visually stimulating exhibits like "Yesterday's Firefighters" and "Cars of Yesteryear." Splotchy vomit green carpeting and cloth-lined walls give its room and a half the feel of a suburban basement playroom. There's a static buzz of recorded voices from a dozen or so televisions. At times it's hard to pick out the one you want to hear.

Mia's parents made me promise that our outing to the Business Hall of Fame would be educational. Her father, my friend Jamie, had some misgivings. He's an environmental lawyer with socialist tendencies; anything with the word "business" in the title makes him cringe. And he was worried about the heavy corporate involvement in many of the museum's exhibits.

I assured him that I would try my best to stave off any obvious attempts at brainwashing. Anyway, I told him, maybe our visit to the hall of fame would encourage Mia to choose a career in business. He just glared at me. "I don't want Mia's mind polluted by corporate propaganda," he groused. When we left he was watching that fortress against corporate influence, public television.

The hall of fame serves mainly as a showcase for those leaders of the business world canonized each year by Fortune magazine's "Hall of Fame" issue. They're dead or retired businesspeople singled out because "when instinct stirs deep inside and leads in unexpected directions, they have the vision and courage to follow." The exhibit is sponsored by large corporate foundations and by Junior Achievement, an organization that attempts to interest youngsters in business.

This year's living laureates included Lee Iacocca and Katharine Graham. L.L. Bean was one of the dead ones. In an inspirational video featuring new-age music and narrated by the comedian Arte Johnson, the laureates are described as "Those few who have made our lives so much brighter."

Most of the interactive exhibits at the Business Hall of Fame are attempts to inform visitors about the personalities behind some of the country's largest corporations. Other figures have made their way into the game as well. Some of them appear to exist in a mild historical vacuum.

One exhibit featuring biographical videos showed us one on George Washington that praised him for his success as a wheat and tobacco planter. In keeping with my promise to her politically correct father, I noted to Mia that African slaves provided the primary source of labor on Washington's plantations.

And in a bit about Donald W. Douglas, describing the maiden flight of the McDonnell Douglas DC-3 in 1935, the narrator never broached the topic of where the aerospace giant stands today. Yes, the DC-3 revolutionized air travel, but the company is steadily losing its market share to competitors and may pull out of the industry.

In a clip on Charles F. Kettering's developments in the field of "safe refrigerants," no mention is made of the environmental repercussions of the technology that spawned ozone-destroying CFCs. Kettering's discoveries, booms the narrator, "continue to add to the quality of the modern way of life."

If you asked a tree hugger, you might hear otherwise. Mia, too, was generally unimpressed. When a biographical loop on Alfred P. Sloan Jr.'s turnaround of General Motors in the 1920s reported that "inferior design coupled with bad management [brought] the company close to bankruptcy," she muttered "Sounds familiar." The financial troubles of the last few years at the nation's largest automaker hadn't escaped her notice.

In the main salon contestants huddled around four banks of six computer screens, testing their knowledge of management, finance, marketing, and production. Each player starts with an imaginary $100,000 of capital and bets a portion of it (50 percent, 25 percent, or 10 percent) on questions raised by the computer. Red tickers on the walls broadcast the names and scores of the day's highest rollers in each category.

If museum exhibits were rated like toys, then the advisory for the Business Hall of Fame would say "For ages 15 and older." Most of the children who passed through stopped to punch a key or two but then moved along to another part of the museum. The computers were crowded though, with older, business-school types.

With several years of reporting on finance and business under my belt, I felt pretty sure I would have the upper hand in the game against my adolescent opponent. I didn't think I'd have any trouble nudging out the day's leaders either. Downstaters in acid-wash, they were posing for souvenir photos beneath their names on the tickers.

But while I was distracted by a video on orange juice production, Mia spied them repeating the game. Marathoning through the questions, they captured the high scores because they already knew the answers. Apparently there's no watchdog to prevent such cheating.

The computers do, however, guard against offending delicate sensibilities. When we tried to register my name as "Shithead" (yes, Mia already knew the word), the machine greeted our folly with computerized politesse. It assigned me a name it apparently found more palatable: Albert Einstein. Newly named, I addressed myself to the game.

Question: "Of the following, which is management's most important resource?"

None of the multiple-choice answers offered by the computer looked right. But the 30-second timer was ticking and I was slowly losing points. I noticed a nearby plaque listing some of the exhibit's sponsors. How would the leaders behind these great corporations answer?

One sponsor was Bank of America, the nation's second largest bank. Though the bank earned record profits in 1992, it had also announced, somewhat timidly in February, that it would be stripping much of its California-branch work force of their benefits by reclassifying them as part-time.

With Bank of America as my muse, I selected "product line" as my response. A red bar appeared over my choice: negative.

"All right!" I heard Mia exclaim. Unlike me, she had chosen wisely.

According to the machine, management's most important resource is "employees." Tell it to Bank of America.

I deduced that Mia had probably listened carefully to another exhibit in which players match the names of famous businesspeople with their corporation's logo. It said "When A.P. Giannini started Bank of Italy [B of A's predecessor] he did so to serve the common man." Sure.

"I'll get you on the next question," I told Mia. She didn't show any signs of wanting to move along to a more visually gratifying sector of the museum.

Question: "The price of a product greatly affects sales. How do you set the price of a product?"

With President Clinton's accusations that pharmaceutical companies are pricing prescription drugs at rates three times the consumer price index ringing in my ears, I bet half my net worth on "The maximum a customer will pay."

Once again my choice was stricken with a scarlet notice of failure.

Mia cheered. She had responded that the price of a product was determined by the cost of manufacture plus a profit. She doubled her money.

When I was a kid playing Defender in seedy bowling alley arcades I could always protest if the machine defaulted on me. I'd ask the attendant to refund my quarter. But there was no help for me at the Business Hall of Fame.

In the perfect world of computerized business theory there was little room for marketplace realities like layoffs and ripoffs. Products were reasonably priced and the working class was treated with respect.

Introducing the hall of fame to readers in a 1975 article Fortune wrote: "Inadequate understanding of business is one of the most dangerous deficiencies in U.S. society." And I am a serious threat. Question after question appeared, and with few exceptions, I answered them incorrectly, squandering my capital. Finally I had to concede defeat.

"You won," I told Mia resignedly. We went upstairs to visit the coal mine sponsored by FMC Corporation, the Chicago company that recently won a $367 million order to provide self-propelled howitzers to the U.S. Army.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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