'The Vital Few' in Modern American politics

There is on my shelf an old book. It details the vital contribution of entrepreneurs to what America is, through the lives of a series of corporate giants. William Penn, Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Edward Harriman, and J.P. Morgan are all in there. There are probably similar stories being written in China today, in real life, of people whose connexion with the moment is sufficient to allow them to seize the day and put themselves into a position where others pour out their precious lives in their service, confident in the greater purpose.

I find myself wondering, however, what happened. Or, actually, I think that I know what happened, but I'm open to suggestion. Things have become overly complex, and poisoned, not that the quiet past was ever uncomplicated. There's a good case for writing that Eli Whitney caused the Civil War, for instance, because his machines gave the South a way to fight and a profit from slavery, and the North a way to win. Edison's elephanticides are also testimony to the fact that he wasn't the nicest of men, as perhaps also is the mistaken relegation of Nikolai Tesla, partly because Edison's badness sapped his strength. As for Henry Ford--well, the less said the better.

At least the remembered businessmen of the past did not live so much off the fat of the people. Think of the great business leaders whom most people of general interest would know these days. Ross Perot, who made money off of selling semi-useful computer and software systems in bulk to the government to make medicare work; Carly Fiorina, who wrecked Hewlett Packard's innovative tradition in the name of the bottom line; Meg Whitman, who appears to treat underlings badly and whose career has involved breaking anyone in her way whilst doing things to make money that would now result in a fraud charge; Steve Jobs, who runs a globalised giant that repackages technology hewed from multiple countries; a basically corrupt series of bankers; Mitt Romney, maybe; and Bill Gates.

The only one of them worth anything, really, is Bill Gates I think, and he (as is often the case with these people) is one of the most vilified. Even Gates, essentially, was a synthesist. He didn't actually invent anything, so much as bring together good ideas from Palo Alto and elsewhere. Yet he's the one whose foundation is panting to do good, and the one with something that seems to approximate to a conscience.

The practice of business is near the core of the republic, though this is often as denied as, say, the proper relationship of the copts or Utrecht ultrajecines is to the true church at Rome, though when one looks closely enough the links are obvious. What of the republic today? America has become a sort of parasitised Empire. There have always been malefactors of great wealth, but something different seems to have evolved than that simple gang. Marco Rubio's delusional stuff about setting up businesses in bedrooms aside, the top of the country has been poisoned by the electoral process, by the reporting of and expectations about the process, and by greed.

Its too easy to say 'money in politics is the issue'. It isn't, really, because if the political class could be independent and respected for being so, then it would contain more people who would be. There are still plenty of honest people in America.

The people and the media must bear some of the blame. People must stop lying to themselves whilst letting others lie. Lies and truth do not depend on wealth or salary and money is a diversion to the essential business, which is getting people to understand that a commitment to truth works wherever you are. Beethoven was right; it should never be betrayed, though there are varieties of it.

The people seem given over to making their own, debt-strained lives work, and used to being told that there are no limits on them and that everything has a simple solution, delivered by technology and a relentless media which is itself a vast corporate enterprise. It is pleasant to believe this.

However, this technology has been part of a process of cutting people off from each other. I hesitate to say that it did it itself; facebook, after all, brings people together, and I've learned more from the web than I ever did from newspapers and still do. What's an i-pod for, though, really? The erection of barriers or an escape from what communting and work have become?

Banks have, through credit and debt, steadily removed security of location or ownership (I was shocked to find that cheap, fixed-rate mortgages and free-at-the point of use debit cards are very rare in America). The people have been doped on selfishness and strained by aspiration and their public finances and assets have been relentlessly stripped.

Can you blame them? America has a huge class of people with no hope and very little income, living from the subsidised low-grade nutrition that the food oligopolies allow them, and a large middle class of harassed people who will never escape the debt generated by their self-belief. What is it, to ask such people to stand up and escape by voting for something different and trusting that it will not be undermined? Is it an indulgence, or desperate, given the crash that is coming anyway?

And the media? Well, the west has been very badly served by liars and parasites in that community. It beggars belief that the American tradition of journalism, which once encompassed John Kennedy, H.L.Mencken, Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow could have come to what it is, but I have personal experience of how chippy and sloppy American journalists can be when confronted. I recall one fun seminar on a hot day not unlike this one enjoyably putting the boot into one of the more lauded of American journalist-writers, and finding that he whined rather than fought back.

America has for some time now, been seduced by the idea that a vast corporate network masquerading as a military, which is more than capable of doing real damage to the world but which also does much good, is sustainable in a free republic. America has been lucky that, as far as we know, that proposition has not yet been fully tested, but I can't help seeing it as one of the things that might eventually kill the United States. It's as Lincoln said, still; no invader will ever drink from the Mississippi and the Missouri, but Americans will decide whether they survive.

All thoughts for a hot day. I write as someone in a state that was poisoned by Empire, capitalism, and Protestantism long ago, but which might be able to heal itself over time with less trauma (though I doubt it).

The one thing that I wanted to note, though, was not how proud American business is--pride is a sin, after all--but how stupid it has become. That, for people who think of the correctly regulated market as a matrix for development, is sad indeed. Joe Kennedy would have run rings around this lot.

Comments

Toni said…
Martin, this is a very interesting post for me,I have met Gates once, Buffet twice and most of the senior bankers in America a few times, never met Ross Perot though or any of the Goldman Sachs boys. Joining Goldmans seems to be like like joining the police they don't encourage outsiders. American businesses became succesful because of the enormous wealth of the baby boomer generation. Go back a little further and people made a living like I do, snake oil salesmen, gamblers and gunslingers. Very little of that has changed in reality the genius of Rokerfeller and Canagie was realing the economies of scale and while people always talk about Henry Ford introducing the assembly line, in my opinion his wisest move was pricing.He priced his cars and his staff at the point where they could afford to buy one of his cars and then still be obligated to turn up to work to meet the payments - moden day slavery. I recall When Enron did a presentation at a bank I was working for and I asked them to explain a pricing model for a structured oil trade they were trying to sell us, now I am no math expert but even I could see at the end of it that it was based on complete nonsense, I turned to our head or risk and said if you give these fools a credit line I won't be back at work tomorrow. Six months later Enron goes bust and the head of risk gets a half a bar bonus for avoiding the company, (one bar is a million quid). As far as I can see the failing with modern consumers is that we want things cheap, The supermarkets and discount airliners have lead us to believe that things can always be cheap and it is so hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Unfortunately we also want things environmentally friendly and sustainable and free trade. The two are difficult to achieve. If you ask any stock analyst, or if you don't know any then a telephone clerk is just as useful. To show you how companies have achieved profit growth over the last twenty years they will show you there has been little top-line, (ie gross income), growth and the bottom line, (net income) improvement has been achieved by lower costs. No matter what the supermarkets tell you, you can't get a jar of coffee or a bunch of bannanas cheaper by spending money building a school in Indonesia or Costa Rica.
Martin Meenagh said…
I do think--cf previous blog posts--that things are more connected to cheap oil and Keynesianism than people think.

Take the recovery period from world war two--broadly, from around 1951 to 1973. Oil was very cheap, economies were expanding without major recessions, and there was a great deal of government spending, on defence, social security, welfare and medicine. The consequence was that lots of big businesses and opportunities to create big businesses that actually made or did or facilitated things emerged.

The game should have been up with the removal of the dollar from gold and the oil price rises in 1973. Time was, however, artificially extended by the invention of derivatives and the initial expansion of world trade, and new oil discoveries.

Though purchasing power of currencies and inflation ate away at living standards, people could still live very well--but with two or three jobs per family, plus credit, not one.

Financial and media business became so lucrative that opinion-formers could convince people, or influence the politicians and academics enough, to suggest that the new, indebted and parasitic businesses were actually viable.

But all the while, reserves of depreciating dollars were piling up in Asia and Europe, and whilst no western bank failed, hundreds went down in Africa and Asia. A great well of African and Asian resentment was stored up, whilst Europeans and Americans were beaten down by work demands.

We were locked into this unhappy situation by the adoration of opinionated journalists and media structures. We ignored the dangers, and under spurious 'post 1968' left-wing rights agendas that facilitated the community-destroying narcissism, we undermined education and raised a generation on the hope of false gods and the delusion of rationally maximised utility.

We assumed that cheap oil would go on and that exploiting people in Asia whilst we pretended that we would always dominate services, finance and education, would continue.

We kept on worshipping the kleptocrats, timeservers, and confidence artists who were increasingly lauded in businesses that were subject to corporate welfare and regulated by people on loan from themselves.

Now, we're reaping the harvest of all that. The socialisation of debt; the diversion of taxes into profits; the expansion at all levels of China and Asia, which is lifting up Africa and South America as dollars are recycled into commodities. Professions are destroying themselves and a sort of vampire banking culture has emerged.

And no one actually questions why Rupert Murdoch and his family, or Mitt Romney, or Carly Fiorina, or Michael Bloomberg or Goldman Sachs or the rest of them actually have such influence. Gordon Brown finally resigned when Paribas threatened to downgrade our debt rating, and ratings agencies everywhere impose self-serving and discredited ratings whilst not saying a word about the build-up to vast stagflation that is going on. He was pushed out after a long campaign by a bought and paid for press, who decided (albeit with some justice) that he was useless and so the rest of us were going to be made to think that too.
Martin Meenagh said…
I just wish people would think independently. To do that, though, they need a firm foundation; they need a stable income, and a family, and things to believe in that have not been corrupted by money, and they need a proper education. The thing about Late Roman capitalism is that its generally attractive. It's nice to buy exotic beers to watch dvd boxsets or football teams on the HD via the never-never. Its nice to feel like you are on some sort of tour when you pay for confected tourist trips. Its nice to feel that you can hang a media-generated identity on a human being and feel all pluralist by then disregarding the markers of that identity in your head, rather than ignoring it in the first place.

But it is not right. I'm a catholic, and no real believer in karma, because I've seen too many good people unrewarded outside their eyes. It's a fallen world. However, bad things do generate recursive badness eventually. They come back. We've built up so much badness that the reckoning is going to be fairly severe, I think.

Notice how many times the media tell people to be 'proud'? Pride is a destructive sin. Proud of a soccer team, proud of an identity, proud of some feature of their physical bodies. What about faith, hope, and real love?

Aristotle thought that we were social beings who sought happiness. Our modern mistake is to found businesses on the principles of utility, greed and fear and to make them so successful that we forget love.

Lol. And that is what I think of American business history in 2010, thouh I suspect I could adapt my all-purpose rhodomontade to anything. Want to hear my opinions on football? I know nothing about that either.....
The nature of business is to make money, no matter how. The nature of a nation state is to dominate the others as much as it's possible given the context. France in Algeria, for example. The nature of politics is power. Only very few politicians fought against nature to impose something else (call it love, respect or vision). Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, Voltaire... There is no much hope that this type of men are going to be given a chance in the XXI century, but who knows... I think that Machiavelli and Clausewitz will continue to offer guidelines whenon the other hand spiritual or revolutionary texts (the Bible, the Coran, etc) are mostly used arbitrarily.
Martin Meenagh said…
Mon Ami! Very glad to see you on the blog, thank you for your comment. I hope all is well