In 2010, this word (OK, acronym) quickly summons unsavory images: a guy (usually) collecting questionably huge bonuses, firing thousands of breadwinners (or getting someone like George Clooney to do it), or explaining to Congress that he never imagined housing prices could go down as well as up.
Or, if you're a stickler for C-level accuracy, Family CFO. "Plan prudently! Save prodigiously! Invest wisely! Manage risk!" says getrichslowly.org. We should emulate the profit-seeking, "rational man" mindset of the people behind, say, GM, Circuit City, or Bank of America. (Some rational men are more than just CEOs; they're bankers, too.)
The CEO fetish goes back a few years, to a time when gladiators of the free market were heroes, "corporate management" was not oxymoronic, and the CEO moniker was high-fashion, like Jimmy Choos or a private jet. The head of Chicago Public Schools, once known as superintendent, was re-titled CEO. "Executive directors" of nonprofits rushed to rebrand themselves. And anyone with a checking account was well advised to follow suit (bespoke, if possible).
The metaphor has always been a stretch. As boss of my family's finances, I've never had a corner office, a PR pro to put a good spin on my lousy credit rating, or a golden parachute waiting for me if I blow a particularly good merger opportunity.
Now the metaphor of choice is in reverse gear. As President Obama suggested in his State of the Union address, the power brokers (presidents, senators, CEOs) should take their cue from the humble American taxpayer, who is (wait for it . . . ) tightening his belt. (Which actually creates other problems, says Derek Thompson of the Atlantic, who called that the worst sentence in the entire speech.)
Granted, there are plenty of CEOs to admire. I'm partial to the kind who wear black turtlenecks or know just the right moment to bet on those crazy e-reader things. (I just wish I had bought their stock when it was last cheap.)
And I'm sympathetic to personal finance writers, who must conduct a neverending quest for a gimmick -- sexy (Get Financially Naked!), promising (The Millionaire Next Door), or otherwise compelling (The Wealthy Barber!?) -- with which to organize material that is often less than sexy or compelling. Some of my best friends are guilty of promoting the CEO myth.
Last night I began my own hunt for a new metaphor. A quick spin of the blogosphere turned up a happy spinster, a clever dude, a debtress, a debthater (yes, that's a theme), a wealthpilgrim, and a queercents team.
Maybe they can inspire the kind of trust we no longer invest in the CEO.