Doc responded kindly to my Punditocracy post with his Democracy vs. Crockracy riff, and perhaps not only because he was our guest this week. We had, as he suggested, a swell time. (I use these archaic expressions purposely. They seem charming enough to be worth repeating, and perhaps resonant with our deeper, archaic selves).
If my point last time was a caution against certainty in the presence of inconclusiveness, I’d like to encourage each of us to embrace and extend that restraint by modeling another archaic virtue: commitment.
Around the core of each movement, there’s a less committed interest group attracted by the movement but not committed to it. The old saying about bacon and eggs is that the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.
Each of us should be aware of whether we are committed or involved. Both are OK, but commitment seems a little more scary and a lot more fun.
To paraphrase Clint Eastwood: If there’s something we believe in, we have to ask ourselves if we’re committed to our belief or do we feel lucky. If you believe in luck, then you don’t need commitment, since surely everything will turn out just great. If you’re a fan of civil liberties and responsible government, our collective superficiality during the 2000 election may convince you that luck isn’t always on your side.
Nothing happens without commitment. Heartfelt commitment seems Capraesque, more common in midwestern and New England communities.
In an election campaign, the direction of the energy seems important. If the individuals are committed, then they are sending their energy to the candidate and are a producer of the result – of democracy, if you will. If the individual is not committed but merely being entertained by the involvement, the energy is flowing the other way. In politics as in life, it’s more energizing to give energy than to feed off it. Or, as Margaret Mead famously advised:
Early Mourning Lite
Doc’s got lots of fodder for me today, as he points to Micah Sifry’s lament for what Micah sees as a failed Dean campaign. My last post about creeping punditocracy was inspired by a visit Doc and I had with Micah, when he laid out verbally what became his Mourning Dean’s Promise post. I’m infatuated with Micah’s skills and sensibilities but I feel he’s giving up on Dean even though he’s actually ahead in the delegate count due to commitments made by so-called “super-delegates.”
The evidence is that Mrs. Sifry didn’t raise any dummies, so I’m looking forward to a resolution of the commitment/involvement dichotomy, as we fly to the Digital Democracy Teach-in together in two weeks.
Bigness and Badness
In responding to Micah’s points, and sharpening his own criticism of what I call the Bush kleptocracy but he never would, Doc recalled our conversation driving back from Vermont. He expressed in his post, as he had on our trip, his distaste for corporate-bashers.
I responded that there seems to be something about the corporate form that allows a kind of economic metastatic process that eats up adjacent life forms.
For about an hour we worked (I thought) toward central ground. Today, in New mourn or new morn, he lumps me in with the corporate bashers whose sentiments I admire but whose proposed remedies seem just silly.
I thought we reached agreement that the corporate charter is simply a legal mechanism, of no great significance except for its nurturance of passive capital by shielding investors from liability. Now that was a brilliant invention.
We seemed to agree that larger organizations, whether companies or churches or governments, seem to behave more badly the bigger they get. But size is not the direct problem. There are marvelous organizations with thousands of people – Doc cited Johnson & Johnson, which loses money on bandages because it’s their mission to make sure that everyone who needs one has one. But there are also small organizations which bend every rule and monopolize their market space using egregious measures.
No, it’s not size or the presence of a corporate charter that transforms an organization into an unresponsive, ruthless force. That’s about as far as I we got, I think, driving along the western shore of Lake George.
Upon reflection, I think I do perceive a fundamental element of the corporate form that allows an organization, if so inclined, to behave in ways that all but a neocon would describe as sociopathic. That element is the fungibility of a corporate life form, which can be bought and sold at will, for whatever reason. Coupled with the extreme malleability of employees with a mortgage and college-bound kids, a corporation has little in common with its customers, its natural environment or its individual component cells – its employees. That makes it a very strange amalgam, because a successful one like Microsoft and Wal-Mart can accumulate and deploy assets so fast that it behaves precisely like a metastatic tumor in its host, the larger economy.
The Tipping Point
And yet we have the example of Doc’s former client, Johnson & Johnson, where the employees speak specifically of the teachings of Mr. Johnson, and continue to sell Band-Aids at a loss.
I think the tipping point for any organization comes when its mission is no longer what it does but becomes what it is. When its actions are about growing (greed), or not shrinking (fear), then its actions have abandoned the compass that the founder gave it, and has gone over to the dark side of the corporate force. I get that feeling when I see Gateway and Dell selling TVs.
Doc likes to tell the story of Steve Jobs remark when describing what he doesn’t like about Microsoft: “They have no taste.” Apple without Steve Jobs drifted slowly as its central nervous system lost the Jobs and Woz DNA, and became irrelevant. Doc feels that Wal-Mart, while clearly not adrift, was transformed on the day that Sam Walton died.
(The Apple experience is almost a corporate clinical trial, where good practice says that you have to change an input and see the effect, then reverse the effect by negating the change. When Jobs returned to Apple, Shazam!)
So I suggest again to Doc that corporations can never escape their core problem: The founders always die.