Blog

Donald Trump is not the problem - Part II

19 July 2019

   
I. THE DEMISE OF DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

II. REFLECTING ON AND IN AMERICA

III. GLOBALIZATION IN THE NAME OF “LIBERAL DEMOCRACY”

IV. REGAINING BALANCE

V. YOU CHOOSE: GLOBAL DEVASTATION OR GROUNDED REFORMATION

   
I. THE DEMISE OF DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

II. REFLECTING ON AND IN AMERICA

III. GLOBALIZATION IN THE NAME OF “LIBERAL DEMOCRACY”

IV. REGAINING BALANCE

V. YOU CHOOSE: GLOBAL DEVASTATION OR GROUNDED REFORMATION

Hillary Clinton used the word “deplorables” to dismiss those people who supported her opponent in the last presidential election. This claim was itself deplorable, a callous disregard for the understandable concerns of at least some Americans. Who is more deplorable: these who voted for Donald Trump, or those who drove so many of them to do so? Count people like many of us among the latter, the fortunate 10% or so--lawyers, consultants, accountants, academics, managers and analysts—who live the good life off the fortunes of the 1%, while taking Uber to drive more working people toward the minimum wage. If we wish to see a deplorable, we might try looking in the mirror.

Fake Facts from and for all   Fake facts are deplorable too, no question. But they have been inundating society long before Donald Trump came along—even if he does take political theater to a new level. Recall the fake facts of past elections; count the advertisements today that lie by omission if not commission, including those that sell politicians the way they sell detergents; consider what Fox News and the tabloids have been doing for years, now joined by more brazen blogs.

Who these days doesn’t play loose and easy with the facts, from celebrities who endorse products they don’t use and physicians who dismiss “alternate” forms of treatment they don’t understand, to economists who claim to have won a Nobel Prize that doesn’t exist? (Economists at the National Bank of Sweden created that prize for other economists. Check out “Not a Nobel Prize” buried in nobelprize.org.) The American economy is doing well, we are told—just look at the rate of employment. How about looking at the state of employment: stagnating incomes, shameful minimum wages, the elimination of benefits, the proliferation of contract work, and all that “downsizing”—21st century bloodletting—at the drop of a share price. And don’t forget the “leaders” who give us 30-year plans to fix the environment, just before they leave office. This has to be the ultimate joke—except nobody laughs.

The real winner of the fake facts sweepstakes has to be, not Donald Trump, but Vladimir Putin. He saw a huge opening in the fragmentation of American society and used the country’s own social media to ram fake facts straight through it. This is telling: united America could have stood; rampantly individualistic, it stumbles.

Reflecting in America   America is the land of action more than reflection. This is its great strength as well as its debilitating weakness. I was once at a party in rural Virginia in which a group of retired military guys went on and on about government and taxes without ever realizing where all their income and pensions come from.

“Individualism” can mean acting for oneself or thinking for oneself. Rampant in the country is the former. “The Americans will always do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the alternatives” (attributed to Winston Churchill, among others). America is running out of alternatives.

I get the International New York Times regularly. These days it reads like the New York Rant: article after article, comment after comment about Donald Trump’s latest transgression, with rarely an insightful probe into what is truly troubling America. Much the same can be said about CNN, in panel after panel, ad nauseum.

In his Times column of 8 February 2018, Thomas Friedman described the United States as “the world’s strongest guardian of truth, science and democratic norms.” Friedman is hardly alone, even among liberal commentators (such as, Madeleine Albright and George Soros), in promoting this image of noble America, as if there has never also been a nasty America. No Vietnam, no Bay of Pigs, no Iraq, no Pinochet’s Chile, no incursions into the countries of Latin America and elsewhere, never an agenda on behalf of the monied corporations. Just selective memory. Friedman again, on 15 November 2018: “…we always stood for universal values of freedom and human rights…” How can smart people be so dumb?

What has been dumbing down so much of America?   This is a serious question. I have American friends who are among the most thoughtful people I know. Theirs have become voices in the country’s wilderness.

Can the answer lie in the sheer pace and pressure of American life, intensified by the relentless distractions of the new electronic technologies? Or has being on top globally obscured sight of the ground locally? Who knows, maybe it’s all those chemicals in the food, fertilizers in the crops. What I do know is that somebody had better find out what is driving America crazy.

The 19th century comment attributed to P.T. Barnum, that “There’s a sucker born every minute”, suggests that this dumbing down is not new, and while hardly just American, takes on a special character in America. (Recall snake oil remedies and the like.) Perhaps, then, the answer does lie in this pace and pressure: the relentlessness of change in a mass and mobile society, exacerbated by economic forces that foster anxiety. Will the United States be the first country in peacetime history to succumb to incessant change?

In such a society, fitting in can be the safest course: go with the flow, impress. Don’t stand out, except to lead the flow, by taking it to some new extreme. If greed is good, be the greediest (maybe you can become president). If you have something to sell, outshout the competitors. If it’s stardom you crave, be the brashest. Just don’t buck the prevailing worldview, no matter how questionable it has become, unless you can find identity in some club with its own worldview—Saunders, Trump, anti-globalization, pro-choice, pro-life, whatever. And once you are there, don’t work it out, let alone think it through. Fight it out.

David Brooks wrote in his New York Times column (17 October 2018) about the “cult conformity” that has displaced “individual thought” in America. This reluctance to reflect can be found from “Make America great again” for the excluded, and “Fix capitalism to fix society” for the entitled, to “If freedom is to prevail…American leadership is urgently required” for the established (Madeleine Albright in the New York Times, 6 April 2018). All this while America, capitalism, and leadership spin out of control. This is not the wisdom of crowds; this is groupthink.

I have reflected on America in the hope that there can be more reflection in America. We need noble America, not to save us, but to join all other noble peoples in saving ourselves.

Next Post  Part III: Globalization in the name of “Liberal Democracy”

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. No rights reserved: this blog may be reproduced in whole or in part, without alterations, for non-commercial purposes, so long as the original © and posting are acknowledged. See Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center  for the forerunner to this series. (Order at Berrett-Koehler, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or Download as PDF)

 

Donald Trump is not the problem - Part I

4 July 2019

This is the first of a five-part series.

I. THE DEMISE OF DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

II. REFLECTING ON AND IN AMERICA

III. GLOBALIZATION IN THE NAME OF “LIBERAL DEMOCRACY”

IV. REGAINING BALANCE

V. YOU CHOOSE: GLOBAL DEVASTATION OR GROUNDED REFORMATION  

 

This is the first of a five-part series.

I. THE DEMISE OF DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

II. REFLECTING ON AND IN AMERICA

III. GLOBALIZATION IN THE NAME OF “LIBERAL DEMOCRACY”

IV. REGAINING BALANCE

V. YOU CHOOSE: GLOBAL DEVASTATION OR GROUNDED REFORMATION  

 

Summary of the Series  A healthy society balances the collective responsibilities of governments in the public sector with the commercial interests of businesses in the private sector and the communal concerns of citizens in the plural sector. Two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson warned of the problem that now pervades and corrupts America: imbalance in favor of private sector interests—of which Donald Trump is a dramatized version. Fixing capitalism will no more fix this problem than would fixing communism have fixed the broken regimes of Eastern Europe. Please understand that the real deplorables are those of us who have allowed rampant self-interest (under the guise of Liberal Democracy) to drive so many “deplorables” to vote for deplorable leadership. Shall we ride this tide to global devastation, or engage ourselves in grounded reformation? This will require that business be restored to its proper place, namely the marketplace, so that government can get on with serving in the public place, while the sector better called plural (rather than “civil society”) can reclaim its fundamental place of sustaining democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville described, also two centuries ago.

In a letter of 1816, Thomas Jefferson expressed the “hope [that] we…shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of their country.”

This, the founding fathers did not do. Instead, they exacerbated the problem by addressing another, which had provoked their revolution, namely the excessive power of government. To constrain it, they introduced checks and balances across its legislative, executive, and judicial branches. But the introduction of no similar checks and balances on those monied corporations has proved to be the flaw in America’s venerated model of democracy.

The Battle for Control of America   The battle between the private interests of wealth and public efforts to contain it continued throughout American history, for example with the rise of the monopolistic trusts late in the nineteenth century, countered eventually by the anti-trust legislation. But union-busting continued into the twentieth century, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s restored some semblance of balance for the people most disadvantaged by the Depression.

This balance sustained itself for several decades after World War Two, when tax rates were substantial and welfare programs generous while the economy grew robustly. In 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan, to fix America with market solutions, poured oil on the fire that had been smoldering since Jefferson’s time. Union-busting and its consequences returned with a vengeance, sanctioned by a misunderstanding since 1989 of what brought down the Berlin Wall—that capitalism had triumphed. American democracy has been burning ever since.

Three Sectors in Check for Balance   A healthy society balances the collective responsibilities of governments in the public sector with the commercial interests of businesses in the private sector and the communal concerns of citizens in the plural sector—so labelled, instead of “civil society”, to be seen as taking its place alongside the sectors called public and private.

The plural sector is huge, comprising associations that are neither publicly owned by government nor privately owned by investors. Some, often called cooperatives, are owned by their members. The United States has more cooperative memberships than people. Others are owned by no-one, such as NGOs, foundations, religious orders, trusts, and clubs, as well as certain universities and hospitals. Many of these operate in “the commons”, meaning that their services are widely accessible, as are those of Wikipedia. Its size notwithstanding, the plural sector itself is obscure, despite Alexis de Tocqueville’s identification in the 1830s of its “associations” as key to the new Democracy in America.

In a healthy society, the three sectors hold each other in check while cooperating for constructive change. In this regard, the United States today is not a healthy society, with a dominant private sector that has significantly coopted the power of the public sector and marginalized the influence of the plural sector.

The Coup of the Corporate “Person”  How did this 200-year-old battle for control of America end this way? Thank its Supreme Court. In 1886, its justices acknowledged—although never discussed—the status of corporations, monied and otherwise, as “persons” in the eyes of the law. This status, once established and never challenged, led to other Court decisions that further empowered these artificial persons, finally to the one that has taken balance over the edge. In 2010, “Citizens United” opened the floodgates to private power, by extending the rights of persons, artificial and real, to fund political campaigns to their hearts’ content. In effect, the Supreme Court legalized bribery in the United States. Today, the monied corporations of America no longer need to bid defiance to the laws of their country; they can twist those laws to their own advantage.

Arguably, however, the turning point came a bit earlier, in 1989, with a misunderstanding of what brought down the Berlin Wall. Pundits in the West enamored of the prevailing dogma of economics—that greed is good, markets are sufficient, and governments are suspect—proffered a ready explanation for the fall of that wall: that capitalism had triumphed. They were dead wrong. Balance had triumphed. While the successful countries of the West were in relative balance, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were severely out of balance, on the side of their public sectors. These regimes collapsed largely under their own dead weight.

The failure to understand this has been upsetting balance in many of the democratic countries ever since, especially the United States, where the regulations on “free enterprise” have been steadily removed. Capitalism has indeed been triumphing since 1989, with the consequence that America, leading many other countries, is now dangerously skewed to the private sector. How ironic that the very problem that brought down communism in Eastern Europe—a fundamental imbalance across the three sectors of society—is now bringing down democracy in America, and beyond.

Shareholder Value   Most large corporations today march to the tune of Shareholder Value, which has nothing to do with moral values. In keeping with the prevailing dogma of economics, this is about the stock markets’ relentless drive for MORE: more production for more consumption with more waste and more warming. This serves the investors, with all else, when convenient, be damned: workers, communities, the environment, and democracy itself. Grabbing MORE trumps getting better.

Robust businesses grow by offering better products, services, and prices. They are explorers. But what happens when the explorers run out of old markets and new ideas, while, having gone “public”, the wolves of Wall Street are baying at the door? Look around: many become exploiters. They trash their brands, con their customers, cut unseen costs (maintenance, research), bust the unions and then squeeze the workers by putting them on contract at lower pay with fewer protections. Anything to up the price of the stock, quickly. Some buy competitors, in the name of competition, or lobby governments to reduce taxes, in the name of free enterprise. This is not aberrant behavior: the unprincipled pursuit of Shareholder Value has rendered it mainstream—corporate business as usual—albeit with responsible exceptions.

Many of the “owners” of today’s corporations are day traders, while the “human resources” that have devoted decades to these corporations can be discarded like any other resource. In cahoots with these day traders, include me, and perhaps you too, because stock markets are masters at turning ordinary investors into mercenaries. We lift our heads out of the sand only long enough to check our gains, while we too let the consequences be damned. In the United States, these consequences now include alarming disparities of income, distressing levels of incarceration, and most surprising in the U.S. of all places, a conspicuous decline in social mobility.

Into this swamp waded Donald Trump, ostensibly to drain it. Instead, he has been wallowing in it, providing the country with more of the same business as usual, not least his own.

Ubiquitous Corruption, legal and criminal    The degrading of enterprise is serious enough. Worse is the outright corruption, and the worst of this is the legal corruption, because it is difficult to challenge and thus ubiquitous. Think back to the subprime mortgages and now to other schemes emanating from some of the blue-chip banks; have a look at the tricks being used by the sugar-drink makers to block efforts to reduce obesity; and don’t forget all that bribing in Congress. (The real criminals of today are the lawmakers who refuse or reverse efforts to curb global warming.) And read this comment in the New York Times (23 September 2017) about the city of London’s challenge to Uber: “There is a feeling in the air that regulators should stand up to businesses that simply ignore any regulations they don’t like.” No kidding! The flaunting of regulations by pit bull corporations has apparently become normal. Call this the age of abomination.

Not that there is any shortage of criminal corruption, for example Volkswagen’s cheating on diesel emission tests and the officials of General Motors who delayed repairing an ignition switch that was killing drivers. But don’t look for white-collar criminals among the throngs in prison, thanks to a third kind of corruption, namely politicians in cahoots with corporations. This allows pharmaceutical companies to exploit government-granted monopolies (called patents) so that people die for want of medicines that could be affordable as well as considerably profitable. What kind of a society tolerates this? The gun lobby gets away with its own form of murder, while on a larger scale, a “military-industrial complex” sustains levels of American defense spending greater than the next half dozen countries combined. This includes a nuclear arsenal that leaves one finger on the proverbial button, presumably to “get them before they get us”, even if that could get everybody. What kind of madness is driving America? Look beyond those “deplorables”.

Next Post  Part II:  Reflecting on and in America

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. No rights reserved: this blog may be reproduced in whole or in part, without alterations, for non-commercial purposes, so long as the original © and posting are acknowledged. See Rebalancing Society… radical renewal beyond left, right, and center for the forerunner to this series (Order at Berrett-Koehler, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or Download as PDF)

 

Saving community from technology


20 June 2019

I bring you this TWOG (TWeet 2 blOG—no human intervention) dictating into my iPhobe1 with my head down, so that you can read it on a sidewalk with your head down, bumping into strangers.

Individualism runs rampant in society while community runs down: we isolate ourselves to the detriment of our social relationships. Blame the technologies that were developed to serve us: they have been driving us away from each other. The consequences could be dire.



Let’s start with the wheel, which, quite literally, made it easier to drive away from each other. Just throw our belongings into a wagon and roll off to some private place.

I bring you this TWOG (TWeet 2 blOG—no human intervention) dictating into my iPhobe1 with my head down, so that you can read it on a sidewalk with your head down, bumping into strangers.

Individualism runs rampant in society while community runs down: we isolate ourselves to the detriment of our social relationships. Blame the technologies that were developed to serve us: they have been driving us away from each other. The consequences could be dire.



Let’s start with the wheel, which, quite literally, made it easier to drive away from each other. Just throw our belongings into a wagon and roll off to some private place.

When the printing press came along, we no longer had to go to some monastery to read a book. We could buy it, take it home in our wagon, and read it in isolation. (When the flashlight was invented, we could even do that under the covers.) 

Eventually we developed various motorized uses of the wheel. The railroad took us further and faster away from our communities, albeit riding together. But the automobile took care of that: we could speed away from the masses all alone, albeit en mass.

Of all the technologies, the automobile is perhaps the epitome of our individuality. We wrap ourselves in this hunk of metal and tear along some highway, bearing down on the car in front that is passing at the speed limit.  Some nerve. “Get off my highway!“

This is called “tailgating.” Have you ever been tailgated on a sidewalk? Of course not. This is community: you can turn around and say “Hey buddy, this is our sidewalk.” Actually, of course yes. Now we are tailgated constantly on sidewalks, and worse, by all those people texting, head down (making use of a newer technology—see what I mean). “Hey buddy, get up: you’re in my way!”

In fact, we no longer need so many sidewalks. Thanks to the automobile, we can live in the suburbs, where we can drive from our driveway straight to the local mall, to shop. But not in a market. The word used to designate the place where we congregated on Saturday morning to talk and shop—this was the heart and soul of community. Today the word market designates a heartless cyberspace where we buy and sell electrons.



The radio brought entertainment into our homes, as voice. Television added image, so that we no longer had need to go to a theater, let alone to a drive-in. We sit on a couch like a potato as it all comes to us.



The telephone was maybe more of a game changer. When we first moved to France (in an airplane—another get-away technology), phones were hard to get. So there came these unexpected knocks on the door: a colleague dropping by to chat, someone else wanting to ask a question. How quaint! Then the telephones arrived, and took care of that. My French friends stayed home and phoned.



Now we have the social media, which should be called the anti-social media. Why call? Who needs voice? Find a sidewalk, put that head down, and text, text, text. Just be careful to step around that guy we knocked over.

All the new electronic devices— laptops, pads, phobes, whatever—have certainly put us in touch. I refer to our fingers, with a keyboard, while the rest of us sits there, for hours, working at home and shopping from home or else playing videos at home, all of this all alone. No need for those malls, let alone those sidewalks. “Ah,” you tweet back, “but can we ever network now!” Sure, so long as you understand that a network is not a community. (If you don’t, try getting your Facebook “friends” to help paint your house, let alone rebuild your barn.2)

These technologies may be extending our social networks in amazing ways, but they are doing so at the expense of our community relationships. We are so busy texting and tweeting that we barely have time for meeting and greeting. Where is the technology for meaning?3

Of course, there remain places where we can still connect with real people. Elevators, for example, even at home, with the family. But to do that, we would have to lift our heads, however momentarily. Why bother? Just to greet a neighbour we never met? Or talk with a colleague to whom we are texting anyway? Or connect with the kids? (Good luck: try getting them to raise their heads.)

Guess what? Community matters. We are social animals, dependent on our relationships to live full lives, even to survive intact. Collaboration is necessary to get things done, but don’t expect it from the binary bits of an electronic device. In his New York Times column in 2012, Thomas Friedman reported asking an Egyptian friend about the protest movement there that failed: “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate,” he replied. Friedman added that “at their worst, [social media] can become addictive substitutes for real action.” That’s a serious problem.

Face it: our cherished technologies cage our social relationships. We need to restore community—at work, at home, and on the sidewalks of society.

______________________________________________

1 I made this typographical error recently, when hitting one of the tiny keys on my iphobe.
2 In fact, the word community has become fashionable to describe what are really networks, as in the “business community” or the “medical community”—“people with common interests [but] not common values, history, or memory.” A century or two earlier, the word “seemed to connote a specific group of people, from a particular patch of earth, who knew and judged and kept an eye on one another, who shared habits and history and memories, and could at times be persuaded to act as a whole on behalf of a part” (Giridharadas, 2013).
3 In an article entitled “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”, Marche claimed that, thanks largely to ourselves, “we suffer from unprecedented alienation…. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. Extended from a passage in Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.