1. Unhappily Ebbers After

Pop quiz for all you would-be corporate titans out there: What's the essential fuel of the U.S. economy, the thing without which commerce could not function?

a) money (b) petroleum (c) off balance sheet debt?

Give up? Sorry, the answer is (d) coffee.

Yeah, we know. We need a remedial class in constructing multiple-choice quizzes.

Even so, any CEO with an ounce of sense knows how crucial caffeine is to keeping downtrodden employees productive and happy. Well, not happy. Maybe docile is a better word.

Anyway, the coffee thing seems to have eluded WorldCom ( WCOM) CEO Bernie Ebbers.

See, Bernie has asked a lot of WorldCom employees in recent years. When he made a bad bet on the direction of his company's stock price, WorldCom bailed him out of a $150 million margin call in 2000. Just like that.

And just this Thursday, Ebbers told analysts the company had lent him $339.7 million to pay off loans he owed.

So how has Bernie expressed his gratitude to MCI WorldCom's 59,000 workers, who have watched their company's stock lose two-thirds of its value over the past year? Sadly, by being stingier than Ebeneezer Scrooge on Dec. 23.

WorldCom Workers Beaned
Java no longer Ebbers and flows

It's not just the moratorium on merit pay increases, as a half-dozen WorldCom employees informed TheStreet.com's Scott Moritz recently. No, they screeched, it's the coffee. Or the lack of it.

Yes, in a heinous budget-cutting maneuver that has Juan Valdez boiling with anger, MCI WorldCom has carted all machines dispensing free coffee off the company premises, report the disgusted Dilberts.

It's a cost-cutting measure, they hear. It'll save $4 million a year. And every little bit helps when you're making sure Bernie doesn't lose any money playing in the stock market.

Unfortunately, the penny-wise and pound-foolish strategy also stokes, believe it or not, the perception of inequity at the company. The executive who jettisoned the java was definitely chock full o' nuts.

2. Off Base

What with the fallout from Enron and Andersen, it's easy to work up sympathy for Houstonians these days.

For most of them, at least.

This week's exception: the Houston Astros, who whined to a bankruptcy judge Tuesday that they were suffering irreparable harm from Enron's refusal to roll over and surrender its naming rights to the Astros' stadium, aka Enron Field.

These are, of course, the same Astros who three years ago gleefully sold their soul -- I mean, their ballpark's name -- to Enron in a 30-year deal worth $100 million.

They're the same Astros who a few years ago threatened to move to Virginia unless they got a new stadium.

And they're the same Astros who, according to the Houston Chronicle, benefited from ex-Enron Chairman Ken Lay's success in arranging a $34.7 million interest-free loan to subsidize real estate and construction costs for their shiny new field.

So now the Astros complain that their good name is soiled by the sullied reputation of Enron, from which they're forced to keep accepting money?

Um, guys? This is baseball. There's a grand tradition of accepting millions of dollars in salary from people you loathe.

If you don't believe us, just ask anyone who plays for the Yankees.

3. Ride With the Tiger

Speaking of infelicitous corporate ventures into sports, we were quite impressed by Wednesday's news that chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices ( AMD) will be sponsoring the Ferrari Formula One Team.

Chips and Dings

Now, it makes sense to us that AMD has backed a professional video-gamer's league, and that rival Intel ( INTC) once sponsored the Professional Chess Association. But the connection between PC processors and flash memory on the one hand, and high-velocity hydrocarbons on the other? We don't quite see it.

Perhaps our vision is impaired, suggested an AMD spokesman. The manufacturer, he said, has a passion to win, a strong competitive drive and an urge to innovate. These are "attributes, I think, people would think Ferrari shares," he added.

You know, maybe you're right, we said. It just occurred to us, in fact, that computers and race cars have something else in common: They both crash.

"I think I'll refrain from making any comment," said the AMD spokesman.

O ye of little vision. We hear that Arthur Andersen is all set to sponsor a skiing event at this year's Winter Olympics: The Downhill.

4. Remember, a Smile Is Just a Frown Upside Down

So, here's the situation, Cisco ( CSCO) shareholders:

Upside Down Under

Revenue for the fiscal second-quarter ended Jan. 26 was down 29% from a year earlier.

The stock price? It's down 50% from a year ago.

But hey. If you had the stamina to not doze off during CEO John Chambers' soliloquy on the company's Wednesday earnings call, you would have learned that the company has been voted the best to work for in Australia.

Of course, stock charts are read upside down there, so it's been a great year.

5. Sagan Saga

We know what you're thinking. You're thinking, the World Economic Forum, that grand agglomeration of big-picture financial panjandrums, just wrapped up its confabulations a mere subway ride away from Wall Street.

You're thinking, where's the coverage of the inevitable Dumb Things?

We were on the case, dear reader. But the project was more difficult than we expected.

Our strategy was elegantly simple. Abiding by the FDT's philosophy of expending as little effort as possible, we focused our energies on the only WEF event to which we were invited: a party co-hosted by Jack Hidary, chairman of online tech-recruiting and job-training company Dice ( DICE). Worldwide muckety-mucks getting drunk and possibly making speeches: It looked promising.

Once we made it past the wand-wielding security guard, though, we encountered a big problem. Everybody there was, um, smart.

Funny Thing Happened at the Economic Forum
They weren't so dumb

Making the rounds, we met Larry Page, co-founder of our fave search engine, Google. Not a dumb guy.

We met Andrew McLaughlin, both chief policy officer of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and a fellow at a Harvard Law School research center devoted to the Internet. Again, not dumb.

We even ran into Marc Benioff, CEO of sales force and customer relationship management firm salesforce.com, who asked us how he could get more coverage in TheStreet.com. Hey, anyone who demonstrates the exquisite good taste of begging for coverage on our Web site certainly isn't dumb.

Finally, we saw a promising lead: Paul Sagan, president of Akamai Technologies ( AKAM).

No, it's not that Sagan -- formerly president of Time Inc. New Media -- is dumb. He isn't. But we had a Dumb question for him.

Did we ask him about the Internet's effect on globalization? About Akamai's asymptotic stock chart? The goings-on at AOL Time Warner ( AOL)?

No, we addressed something that's been bugging us for a few months now: Do people, we asked Paul Sagan, confuse him with Paul Kagan? Jeff Kagan? or Jeff Sagansky?

(For the blissfully ignorant: Paul Kagan is a media analyst. Jeff Kagan is a telecom analyst. Jeff Sagansky is a media executive who's CEO of Paxson Communications ( PAX).)

Not really, said Sagan. Occasionally, Paul Kagan makes a little joke about their names. The late Carl Sagan was his dad's first cousin. And that French author Francoise Sagan? No relation.

However, confided Sagan, everyone in America with the surname Patinkin -- Mandy included -- is related to one another.

Let this be a lesson to all you aspiring researchers who have read down this far: You can find Dumbness everywhere you go. As long as you remember to bring it with you.

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