Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Who will bell the cat?

Last week, I attended my first discussion night as guest author of a book club that was discussing The Value Crisis.  Early on in my several pages of notes is a series of questions posed to the group by one of the readers.  "I agree with the book, BUT are we prepared to give up economic growth?  Are we prepared to have our taxes go up or to take a cut in pay?  Who here is prepared to give up their car?"  Everyone stared at the floor.

In some sense, this is a classic demonstration of the value personae conflict that I describe in Chapter 10, or as Robert Reich described the flipside: "As consumers and investors we want the great deals.  As citizens we don't like many of the social consequences that flow from them."  But I think there is more to it.

I'm reminded of a childhood fable.  A group of house mice were being terrorized by the homeowner's new cat.  They held many meetings to figure out how to deal with the problem.  Finally, one mouse jumped up and announced a solution.  The catch, he said, was that the cat was always sneaking up on them.  This could easily be solved by putting a bell round the cat's neck so that the mice would always know when the cat was coming.  The other mice thought this was an amazing idea and loudly praised it's clever originator until a small voice peeped up from a young mouse at the back:  "Um, excuse me - I have a question.  Who will bell the cat?"

Even when the solution becomes apparent, implementing it is quite another matter.

The scenarios questioned by that reader may seem unpleasant indeed, but they don't have to be that extreme.  I don't know the exact socio-economic status of those book club members, but I'll take a stab at this (and pray I don't insult anyone).  Imagine you were in that group and you just took a 20% cut in pay.  How would someone in this particular crowd deal with that?  Perhaps every fifth year you would skip the annual vacation south.  Perhaps once a week the standard red meat entrée would be replaced by a delicious vegetarian option.  Instead of dining out twice a month, it might be every three weeks.  Or you start carrying a travel mug of your own coffee instead of that daily Starbucks stop.  You might keep your car an extra two years, and borrow rarely-used tools rather than buy your own.  Or swap a movie night out for a DVD in.  Why not write a heartfelt letter instead of buying a birthday card?  You could spend a whole lot less on frivolous gifts at Christmas, or buy 20% fewer new clothes and shoes.  For more dramatic results, what would happen if you cancelled your cable TV service?  (Lots of channels still come in free!)  Then there are the really tough questions like:  Is my residential footprint appropriate when it's only me living here?  (Not long ago, the number of single-person housing units actually exceeded the number of multi-person units in Canada.)

These might look like austerity measures, but you'll get more useful and positive information if you Google "voluntary simplicity" instead.  Don't think of it as an externally imposed pay cut.  Treat it as a decision to spend and consume less - and to find equivalent or even more joy in other ways.  You might even orchestrate it yourself by taking every Friday off.  It's a value shift that is needed, not a happiness reduction.  The readers in this book club had already taken the first step - they recognized the problem and wanted to do something.  They just weren't sure what to do next.

Then there's another class of people who recognize the problem and consciously choose to do nothing.  I used to think they were simply in conflict.  Now I believe that quite a few of them might be NIMPLEs.  These are the folks who are shamelessly stealing prosperity and survival chances from the generations that follow in order to line their own pockets.  "Yes, there may be a massive crisis ahead, but I'm a NIMPLE, and that disaster is Not In My Personal Lifespan Expectancy, so you and the grandkids can go to hell."

Will the next century be hell?  It really depends on what we choose to do now.  One of the more telling quotes from my book club visit was this one "Why vote in this riding?  We know it's going to go Conservative."  (This happens to be one of the strongest Green Party ridings in Canada.  However, 40-50% of the electorate don't bother to vote.)

It's as if we are passengers in a slowly dissolving papier-mâché boat, watching the tide take us further away from dry land, but reluctant to swim for it because we don't want to get wet.  Instead, we look around, hoping that someone will dive overboard and lead the way to shore.  Even then, the choice to abandon ship won't be easy and it won't be super-comfortable.  But The Value Crisis does make a case for us all being potentially happier, right now, by making those choices.  (Maybe you will actually find these tropical waters warm and refreshing!)

"Change is good.  You go first."
- Dilbert (Scott Adams)

You don't have to be the first.  Some of us have already got a bell on our cats.  It wasn't easy, but in many ways, after we shifted our value perspective, life is a whole lot better and we can sleep at night.  Why not join us?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Corporate Greed? No such thing.

When I'm focused on writing, my reading naturally falls behind - especially when my reading would constantly be redirecting my writing!  However, with The Value Crisis completed and published, I am at last trying to catch up, including taking an overdue dive into Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything".

I have read "The Shock Doctrine" and generally find her work enlightening and inspiring.  She has the kind of resources and contacts that I will never have, and I really appreciate her perspective.  There is one philosophical point, however, that I believe she often defaults to - one that is shared by many people around the world - that is so fundamental, it deserves being questioned:  Klein puts a lot of the planet's problems down to Corporate Greed.

My contention is that there is no such thing as corporate greed.

Some might say that I'm simply fussing over semantics, but I believe this is a worthy investigation.  Words evoke framing and responses in the reader, and if they are inaccurate, they can send one down misleading and barren paths.

What is greed?  I turned to a few dictionaries:
  • excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves
  • excessive consumption of or desire for food; gluttony
  • excessive desire, as for wealth or power
  • excessive or rapacious desire, esp. for wealth or possessions; avarice; covetousness

The pivotal concept of greed is excess, or as wikipedia puts it: "desire to possess [...] far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort."  So here's the critical point:  If there are no dictates of sufficiency, there can be no greed.

For the purposes of this post, I discuss corporations with respect to publicly-traded, commercial corporations.  These entities are created under very clear laws, defining their objectives, and setting out the criteria by which every one of their decisions and actions may be judged.

The number-one priority of any commercial corporation (imposed upon it by our laws) is the maximization of shareholder value.  I have highlighted two key terms here: Maximization and Value.  Let us begin with the second.

Value in the commercial world is measured exclusively  by money - by number.  Any other goals or interests must distill back down to a clear impact on the bottom line.  This is a number-based value system, and, as I make clear in my book, one characteristic of such systems is that more is always of greater value - more is always better.  The objective of value maximization is therefore easy and obvious, achieved by growth and the acquisition of more.

It is not possible under such a value system (and under such laws) to say that any corporate desire is excessive.  In excess of what?  There is no concept of sufficiency.  We have instructed (indeed, demanded) that this entity continue to maximize shareholder value, continue to grow, continue to produce revenue.  What is needed to maintain that growth will itself grow.

At this point, I should make some key distinctions.  Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, pays himself $100,000 every day.  Excess?  Greed?  An insult to humanity?  You bet.  However, who can say what the sufficient annual revenue should be for Exxon Mobil?  His societal obscenity simply follows from our inability to deal with the real question: why have we facilitated (and indeed encouraged) his excess by defining corporations as we have?

I wrote this post because I believe we are at great risk of confusing the lucky 1% at the top with the system that put them there.  To go into the psychology of the folks at the top of the pyramid would be a separate exploration altogether.  What I caution is the use of the term "corporate greed".  It implies that corporations are improperly taking more than their fair share, when in reality, there is no such thing as a defined fair share.  It implies that corporations have gone astray, when in reality, they are performing precisely as we have programmed them to do.

If anything, it is our greed that inspires these creations, keeps them focused on profit, and satisfies their need for consumers to buy their goods.