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THE CORPORATE CURSE
How business culture dragged America down with it

Sam Smith

FIFTY YEARS ago, America was just a decade past the last major war it would ever win. The length of the average work week was down significantly from the 1930s but real income had been soaring and would continue do so through the 1970s. We had a positive trade balance and the share of total income gained by the top 1% of the country was only around 8%, down from 24% in the 1930s.

As Jermie D. Cullip describes it:

"From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite

"The decade of the fifties was a decade of major breakthroughs in technology. James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for decoding the molecular structure of DNA. Tuberculosis had all but disappeared, and Jonas Salk's vaccine was wiping out polio in the United States. . .

"Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . Growth in the economy also led to increasing popularity of other financial intermediaries. Life insurance companies flourished for the first half of the decade and a large number of new private firms entered the market to absorb the excesses of personal savings. Savings and Loan Association holdings of mortgage loans during the decade clearly demonstrate the boom in construction at this time. In 1950 $13.6 billion was held rising to $60.1 billion in 1960. Another important growth in the 1950s capital markets was in pension funds. This industry grew from $11 billion in 1950 to $44 billion in 1960.

"By mid-1955, the country had pulled out of the previous year's recession and gross national product was growing at a rate of 7.6 percent. The boom was so great that the budget for 1956 predicted a surplus of $4.1 billion. With the surges in production and the economy, the 1950s is often recognized as the decade that eliminated poverty for the great majority of Americans. Over the decade, GNP per capita almost doubled and the public welfare reacted accordingly as the cost of living index rose by just 1 percent and unemployment dropped to 4.1 percent'"

All in all not a bad decade to be in if you were running a business. So much so, in fact, that some began griping about it all in books like The Organization Man and plays like Death of a Salesman.

But here is the truly amazing part - given all we have been taught in recent years: America did it all as its universities turned out less than 5,000 MBAs a year.

By 2005 these schools graduated 142,000 MBAs. In the other words, in the 1950s it would take two centuries to produce a million MBAs. By 2005, with huge trade and budget deficits, a disappearing auto industry, one of our most costly and disastrous wars, a growing gap between rich and poor, a constantly projected inability to care for our ill or elderly and a pessimism repeatedly confirmed in polls, we could produce a million MBAs in only seven years.

There are plenty of worthy arguments to be made correlating the rise of business school culture with the decline of the our economy. For example, in the period that corporate culture has been in ascendance - roughly since the Reagan years - wages of lower income workers have declined, the ratio of executive to worker pay has soared, the real value of the minimum wage has fallen by almost a third, total hours worked has increased, percent of jobs with pensions has dropped, our balance of payments has become increasingly negative, the top 1% is back to getting 21% of all income and the age at which one receives Social Security has increased.

A few years back I put it this way: "A cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product is wasted energy. Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all. We have created an economy based not on actually doing anything, but on facilitating, supervising, planning, managing, analyzing, tax advising, marketing, consulting or defending in court what might be done if we had time to do it. The few remaining truly productive companies become immediate targets for another entropic activity, the leveraged buyout." And this was all before the rise of the killer hedge fund.

But that is not the issue here. If that was all there was to it, we could just wait out a few recessions or depressions and some intuitive, imaginative smart asses would get things rolling again, much as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates did once.

But the business school influence has not limited itself to business. Far from it. Over the past three decades it has done an incredibly effective job of turning all America into just so many more corporate employees desperate for a strategic vision that will foster formulations of actions and processes to be taken to attain the vision in accordance with agreed upon procedures in order to achieve a hierarchy of goals. It has - with bombast, bullying and bullshit - convinced an extraordinary number of Americans that its childishly verbose and coldly abstract culture is transferable to every human activity from running a church to driving a tractor across a field.

One need look no further than the nearest mission statement. But don't look too far back. I checked by Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary from 1996 and the phrase hadn't even appeared yet. Now it is everywhere.

To be sure, I did find this on the Internet:

"As with many of the terms currently being used in industry, mission statement is a Christian term. In Matthew 28, Jesus gave the apostles the first mission statement:

"'Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'

"A mission statement has always been a summary of the basic beliefs and aims of any Christian missionary organization. So, in summary, the origins of the term go back to AD 33."

Some devoted Christian is permitting his most sacred icon to be reduced to the status of a corporate CEO and his holy gospel put on a par with business how-to books from an airport bookstore.

Admittedly, a few have stood up against the assault. The alternative newspaper Eat the State once had a mission statement that read: "Missions were created by the Catholic Church to subjugate Native Americans in California. We oppose them." And a small computer consultancy business in West London posted a sign: 'We are not ruled by a Mission Statement, we are smarter than that'. But when you start to count the number of organizations - from religious to non-profit to social to political - that feel they can't get along without some corporate gobbledygook on the inside cover of whatever they're publishing, you know the cultural invasion is complete.

At the time of the Enron collapse, I noted, "The last two administrations have been characterized by the invasive influence of an arrogant, autistic, and amoral class of late 20th century MBAs and similar members of the technocratic elite. This class has junked sixty years of social democracy, helped wreck the Russian economy, made every American worker a temp-in-waiting, carpet bombed the English language, trashed every moral concept in their way, and twisted reality so effectively they even convinced many that they were sex objects.

"And they are everywhere. You will find them running schools and universities and managing once great museums. They talk mush, think mush, market mush, report mush, and defend mush. They attempt to make up in certitude what they lack in wisdom; they can't tell the difference between a phrase and a product; and they create infantile and self-serving distortions of economic principles that they declare to be the only principles in life worth observing. They are, in the end, just so many more televangelists, but with themselves as God. Perhaps worst of all, they are without the capacity for shame. Like other sociopaths, they are remorseless."

Since then, it's only gotten worse. As a writer, I pay attention to verbal genres, whether they be the patois of public housing, sports or the board room. Over and over, I am struck by how many have adopted corporate jargon so fully that they are not aware of using it even when describing acts of love or carnal desire. I sit quietly at meetings of non-profits as someone suggests we "define goals and objectives and a map a route for achieving these goals and objectives." I begin to boil when something I love or admire is reduced to a mere "product." Still I know it is a losing battle; the corporate culture has won.

The tragedy is that each of the infected cultures, organizations and individuals once had their own culture that often was infinitely more appealing, intelligent, inspiriting and honest than that which has sullied it. Why is the corporate and business school tradition preferable to that of the church, the artist, the non-profit, the political movement or education? Is politics just branding, is art just a product, is education just a learning process, would Martin Luther King have done better if he had gone to business rather than theological school? Each of these traditions have centuries of wisdom and experience behind them, but all that is increasingly put aside to fit the corporate model.

We pay for this in numerous ways. Some are obvious such as political candidates and public officials carefully avoiding real issues in favor of creating artificial images of themselves, backed by such words as "hope" and "change." And if you don't join with the change huckster, you are accused of "fear of change."

Other effects are more subtle. For example, we now live in the second robber baron era. One of the things that happens in such times is that the wealthy and powerful get to construct huge building and homes. Yet, however we may feel about the 19th century power hoggers, we are still attracted to the architecture and structures they were rich enough to build.

Now, take a stroll through the downtown of a gentrified city of today or drive into the carelessly wealthy suburbs. Which of these buildings would you like to visit a hundred years from today? It's not the architects' fault. As a Washington architect recently noted, her clients won't let her build beautiful places; they are too concerned with getting every last dollar out of the project.

The late activist attorney George LaRoche explained it well: "Once, I think, we knew our greedy were greedy but they were obligated to justify their greed by reference to some of the other values in which all of us could participate. Thus, maybe 'old Joe' was a crook but he was also a 'pillar of the business community' or 'a member of the Lodge' or a 'good husband' and these things mattered. Now the pretense of justification is gone and greed is its own justification."

The result is a stunning lack of restraint. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.

Thus we find a new breed of mayors and governors who think they are running a large company. They think they should have the power of a CEO and the obedience of those below them. Citizens have become mere customers and urban policy is reduced to economic development, frequently just a synonym for payoffs to big time campaign contributors. This sort of politics is marked by arrogance and indifference to the citizenry with justifications veiled in abstractions such as "change" and "progress" - abstractions will remain unmeasured until well after the offender leaves office.

We find evidence of the damage everywhere. Such as churches that were once involved in civil rights or other progressive causes that now have become scared of anything that might endanger their budgets. In my town a few years back, two activist black preachers moved in from elsewhere. They took over local churches and within months were making waves. I dubbed them Batman & Robin. But it didn't last long. One preacher was told by his vestry to quiet down and the other was removed as head of what had been once one of the most activist congregations in town. Press a minister on what happened to religious activism and it won't be long before the budget comes up. Didn't they have budgets in the 1960s?

The same with political movements. Political campaigns are so driven by money that the media doesn't even notice that it has raised campaign contributions in its stories to a status equal to or higher than the vote, even though the Constitution suggests nothing of the sort. Supposed models of political action, such as Move On or Emily's List, are basically fund-raising and signature gathering organizations patterned on corporate principles. Movements that lead large numbers of people to promote a cause have largely disappeared, in part because their structure is so antithetical to the tacitly preferred corporate model. Could we today have a civil rights, women's, labor or gay movement of the sort that once changed America? It doesn't seem likely without a conscious rejection of corporate values that have been unconsciously accepted.

Consider also the corporatizing of public spaces: sports stadiums, public buildings and museums.. What precisely is the price that each of these places pays to "partner" with the corporate world? And what is precisely the price we pay for letting them do so?

And it is much more than just a matter of signs. In many urban areas, there is a growing interest in what are called "multi-use" facilities, which in fact are former icons of community becoming hidden in corporate high rise buildings. Thus a library or a school disappears from view and lessens in public importance by being treated like just another cafeteria in an office development.

But we hardly notice. One of the things what used to keep corporate culture in check was that, whatever its grandiose notions of itself, its most outward and visible sign was often the salesman, the man Arthur Miller had Charlie describe in his tale of the trade: "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."

This classic character was so ubiquitous that it seemed every other joke began with, "A salesman knocked on the door and . . . "

Then came television and the individual salesman was finished. A little ahead of the rise of business schools but deeply intertwined with them in creating today's corporaphilic culture. Think of television as the virtual salesman, not knocking on your door, but in your living and bed room 24 hours a day bringing you the products, the values, the language and the corporate inspired crudity that exemplify our time. And those who once caused Americans to close the door, hang up, or say "no thank you," now teach our children, run our government, and tell us what to think. In a few decades Willy Loman has moved from being a tragic figure to being a role model.

The corporate virus even affects the arts, that supposed haven from our lesser selves. Watch American Idol, for example, and count the number of times corporate interests intrude on the proceedings - from the participants taking part in a loudly cheered automobile ad to a handful of listener questions that serve no purpose other than to promote a phone company.

You think you're above American Idol? Think again. More votes were cast in a recent American Idol poll than Bill Clinton got the first time he ran for president. Even if we hate such manifestations of corporatized culture, we can't hide from their effect.

As a musician, I watch the show with mesmerized masochism. Why don't I like more songs? Why does the audience become so hysterical about so little? Whatever happened to melody? Why do looks and attitude swamp talent?

And then Ryan Seacrest slips into a pitch and I'm reminded that I'm just watching another commercial.

Sometimes it's just the little things. For example, I squirm every time I hear someone talk about doing a cover version of a song because I come from a time when songs belonged to everyone and, because they did, there was a lot more singing instead of just listening and screaming and waving your arms around. Once music had been created, it entered a cultural public domain. No one spoke disparagingly of the Philadelphia Orchestra doing a cover of J.S. Bach and when you picked up your horn and played a Charlie Byrd number you were probably doing the best thing you could have done that evening.

But now you find comments such as "Cheap wedding bands and party cover bands are needed in some places" but "a cover song is what a worthless bar band does to make money."

When you dig into this psyche a bit, you find not too deep down more traces of corporate culture. For the tune that has been covered is tacitly considered owned by the first to record it in a fiscally successful way. Centuries of music being created and then being happily replayed has been turned into one more intellectual copyright issue, coincidentally eliminating the ancient distinction between composer and musician.

But cultures don't grow by copyright; they grow by sharing: values, experience, fun, strengths, words, weaknesses and music. In a thriving culture everyone in some way covers everyone else.

One of the most tragic manifestations of corporate overload can be found in our school system and efforts to allegedly reform it. To use standardized tests as the sole criteria of someone's achievement ignores matters such as wisdom, judgment, social factors and morality. If you educate kids in such a manner you basically end up with adults able to absorb a large amount of data but often incapable of using it sensibly in a social situation. The last thing we want to do is to train our children to be as socially dysfunctional as some of our leaders.

As John Taylor Gatto has put it:

"There's a widespread feeling these days, both here and abroad, that America has lost its way, that we've gone crazy, and that school has something to do with it. Personally, I agree. But what change in schooling could restore our lost national vigor?

"Since 1983, the answer from policy circles has been: even more of the same. More hours, more days, more homework, more tests, more college, and a more coercive transfer of officially-approved curricula designed to make classrooms teacher-proof. In this tight prescription, critical thinking, artistic expression, and actual applications of learning have received short shrift. But what if regimented schooling is the disease making us sick and not its cure?"

Perhaps most discouraging is that the very institutions that could once be counted upon to help American correct its mistakes and move on to better days have become as corporatized as everything else. The names are there - environmental protection, civil rights or economic justice - but the character and structure of non-profits increasingly mimic those in the corporate world, propelled in no small part by the demands of major sources of income such as corporatized foundations and the business community itself.

There are, happily, exceptions. For example, for over two decades I have sat on the board of the Fund for Constitutional Government, which has helped back a handful of activist organizations so effectively that on a single day the New York Times cited their findings three times as major substance for articles and once in an editorial. When I try to analyze why this group has worked so well I come up with a number of answers:

- Its business affairs, including the protection of its endowment, are carried out with the care for detail and internal discussion more typical of small business than of a large corporation. Although you'd never guess it from the media, it was small business that originally got America economically on its feet. We were intensely commercial, not corporate, in part because business was one of the few ways one could escape the social and economic hierarchy of the times. Throughout our history it has repeatedly been the little guy with the big idea who has made a difference. But this requires a strikingly different approach, as different, say, as that between the military and a sports team. In small business, there is less time and tolerance for irrelevant abstractions, more attention to detail (what corporate officials would call "micromanaging"), more leeway for individualism and more respect for imagination and novelty. Sadly, fewer and fewer Americans have direct experience with small enterprise and more and more work for large corporations and institutions

- The organization has a goal that integrates the economic and social sides of its being not unlike they used to say of Quakers: they came to this country to do good and do very well. In many aspects of our culture we are repeatedly told that we can't have this or do that for economic reasons. But why, in such a corporaphilic time, are we less able to do what we want or have what we need then in simpler times? One possible answer: the corporate solutions offered these days aren't all that good.

- You can easily test out a group's raison d'etre by attending a board meeting and calculating how much time is spent on matters that, if you had just wandered accidentally into the room, would in no way identify the organization's reason for existence. This includes all discussions of budgets, by-law changes, and most mission statements. Bear in mind that one of the most important American organizations of the last century was the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. It went some 40 years without bylaws or a constitution.

The Fund for Constitutional Government met all these criteria, but fewer and fewer non profits do.

Sadly, for too many, America has become one big standardized test. Between exams we are meant to listen, obey and buy. And suffer the stress that this involves.

But humans have risen against worst oppressions. The main power of this one is that it so unseen, so unmentioned, so undebated. It is time to rise up against the corporate culture killers and send them back to their offices so America can learn to be America once again. We need to tear up our mission statements and start to actually do something. We need to trash our strategic visions and regain our ability to see things as they really are.

The perhaps surprising thing is that if the corporate world stuck to business and let every other aspect of American culture thrive in its own way again, if it stopped trying to boss us around and swallow us up with its infantile words and principles, everyone's bottom line would be better off. We might even feel as good about ourselves as we did fifty years ago.