Getting back to Wall Street, the economy, and where it all got away from us....
I'm sure I'll take some hits here for being too broad and/or for inferring linkages where they don't exist, but I blame SHAMland for a lot of what has gone wrong on Wall Street, the boardrooms of corporate America, and hence, Main Street. In particular, I blame SHAM for reinforcing the least noble tendencies in people, and for taking the sting out of selfishness and lack of charity. Indeed, much of self-help, particularly in recent years, has framed selfishness as a virtue!
Let's back up a bit. It's clear to me from the phrasing in some of the comments in this series, as well as communication I've had with a few of you off-blog, that Part 2 in particular struck many readers as a naive rendering of the nation's free-market past. I concede that it was oversimplified; I even stipulated to the point. I realize that witnesses to turn-of-the-(20th)-Century America might not have recognized the philanthropic model of entrepreneurship I described, either. There were many companies that wantonly profiteered on the backs of labor, and hired goons to bust (in the literal sense) fledgling unions. There were also sweatshops that took advantage of women and children. But as I see it, this was less a sign of any specific weaknesses in the free market than of a general lack of sophistication and civility, if you will, that marked American society as a whole.
Do you ever think about what a remarkably young nation the U.S. remains, in global terms? It has been barely 100 years since America kicked off the corporate free-market society we see today. When Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing, the national economy was still agriculture-based; we were just feeling our way through the growing pains of industrialization and corporatization. I'm going to make a dangerous analogy here, but it's like slavery: Yes, of course, in some corner of their brains, even slave-owners must have questioned whether slavery was technically "wrong." But the point was moot; slavery was just the way things were, the way "life worked." As they saw things, whites had dominion over the Negroes of the Field in the same way that whites had dominion over the Beasts of the Fields and Forests. Then we learned better. (Although some of us are still learning.)
In the same way, over time—I'm skipping a fair chunk of history here—we developed a sense of corporate responsibility. We might not always have done the right thing, but at least we knew what the right thing was. We also knew when we were doing the wrong thing, and if nothing else, we were squeamish about it. We no longer had dinner parties where we boasted about the number of shirts some 8-year-old could knit in 12 hours of uninterrupted labor. If we were going to treat our employees like slaves, at least we tried to hush it up. (Progress is rooted in that growing sense of squeamishness and conscience, in the fact that one day, you just can't operate like that anymore.) By this point in time—let's say, the post-World War II era—many leaders of business and industry were respected, almost lionized for their overall contributions to society: first men like (Andrew) Carnegie, then IBM's Watson, then Chrysler's Iacocca, then GE's Jack Welch. Course-work in business ethics proliferated across the academic landscape. The phrase "corporate citizen" came into widespread usage—and increasingly, when people used it, it wasn't just lip service.
But by the 1990s we suddenly began to slide backwards. An acquaintance and sometimes-source of mine who teaches at the famed Wharton School tells me that today, classes in business ethics are some of the least popular; students dismiss them as "drudgery," denounce them as "airy" and "impractical," take them just to get the requirement out of the way. The perception is that ethics isn't what business is really about—no more than an MBA is about "learning to help a business run as smoothly as possible" (or corporate law is about "ensuring that executives do the right thing." Lately it's been more about finding the loopholes that allow them to go on doing the wrong thing). Students today pursue MBAs because an MBA is a golden ticket to a six-figure income right out of the chute.
There are many reasons why this transformation has occurred, and I don't mean to imply that corporate scruples have gone to hell solely because of Dr. Phil, John Gray or Oprah. But I will say this: With SHAM's penetration of American society, the selflessness-based paradigm that drove the so-called "Greatest Generation"* began to fade away in earnest. It now became permissible to put yourself first in every regard: your happiness, your needs, your dreams. SHAM destigmatized selfishness. "Looking out for No. 1" became the mantra of the Baby Boom, fueled by the two-headed monster of Victimization (blame all of your failures on others!) and Empowerment (don't let anyone take away your dreams!). Watching Gordon Gecko tell us in Wall Street that "Greed is good!", many of us probably thought it was caricature, a portrait of what happens at the lunatic fringe—when in fact the only thing separating Gecko from tens of thousands of financial types (and other executives) is that he got his comeuppance from Charlie Sheen in the final act.
But the biggest irony of all is this: Even though we shake our heads at Gordon Gecko, we're not all that different from him. The only thing separating him from us, in too many cases, is that he dealt in very large, very profitable sins, while our lives revolve around a multitude of much smaller—but equally venal—sins. And we think that's OK. We're entitled.
The other night on CNBC I heard an analyst explaining how greed "is going to help get us out of this mess" by motivating people to look for ways to profit off the nation's financial malaise; this motivation, he said, creates "opportunity" for savvy entrepreneurs and speculators. I thought immediately of all those books and seminars that teach you how to get rich in foreclosures, sheriff's sales and the like. I blame those books and seminars for selling a "wealth-building" message that has no shame or sense of social responsibility. I blame the multilevel marketing schemes, too, that were direct derivatives of ideas developed and nurtured in the world of self-help; MLM taught us that the only important thing was to get in while the getting's good, make your killing on the backs of the people you bring in...then the hell with those who bring up the rear. They're not your problem. Your money's in the bank. When I lived in San Diego during the late 1980s and early '90s, I can't even tell you how many times I was approached to be a part of what amounted to Ponzi/pyramid schemes. They came up everywhere: at dinner parties, along the fences of Little League ballfields...everywhere. And the only thing that mattered to anyone was that you have to get in early. It was understood that the people who got in late were gonna get screwed. No one cared. Caveat emptor.
There is a difference between the traits that made this nation great—ambition, vision, passion, rugged individualism—and the likes of greed, cunning, self-love, lack of conscience. To too large a degree, the fundamental commitment to goodness, to the whole of an enterprise (i.e. rather than its mere ability to generate revenue), has been lost. And without that goodness and that sense of philanthropy—without the notion that "we're all in this together"—we are no longer a nation, but merely a place where 300 million individuals happen to live. The SHAMsphere continues to feed that sense of estrangement from our fellow man or woman.
Remember in the end: There's a reason why it's called self-help.
* No, I am not implying that every member of the WWII generation was some kind of saint. But I don't think there's any question that many of them put their own needs second or third behind the needs of family and country.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Getting back to Wall Street, the economy, and where it all got away from us....