Sunday, August 5, 2012

His eye is on the sparrow and/or bottom line

It starts to seem like the chorus of a song: "I sure am lucky to work in a public library." I think I declare this at least once a week, usually when I meet with my Nevermore Book Club on Tuesdays. This last Tuesday was no exception.

My "job" for my book club is to read something--or, more often, some things--and then show up and talk about it. When there are multiple books, I like to have a thematic thread connecting them, but this is as often as not a bit of a joke, e.g. a history of Babylon and a book about vertical gardening.

Luckily for me, the library is a phenomenal place to generate connections between books. It's almost as if that's a library's reason for being--unlike a bookstore, say, which exists to sell books. There really is a  noticeable difference between staging opportunities for discovery and staging opportunities for purchase. It's as obvious as the difference between the Dewey Decimal System (or any shelf-order classification scheme) and marketing-based notions of display.

The details of last Tuesday begin with this phenomenon. Two books side by side on the new book shelf--330.973 jostling 332.49792--made me feel like Elijah hearing the still, small voice. They were Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, by Edward Conard; and The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen. Promising, no?

Even if there wasn't literally a voice (you wish), something was telling me something. One a book by the former managing director of Bain Capital (Mitt Romney's pot o' gold) and the other a book about one Daniel Suelo, who, having sworn off money altogether for essentially religious reasons, lives as a squatter in a cave on federal lands near Moab, UT; a reasonable, science-minded corporate mover and shaker vs. an irrational, faith-based social worker dropout: that's as close as you can get to thesis and antithesis. And who among you is without synthesis?

Suelo's book reveals him to be an example of what some deride as a "holy fool." Driven to live exactly according to the Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, particularly where it says "therefore do not worry about tomorrow," Suelo dumpster-dives for food. But beyond that, he's engaged in his community as a volunteer, mostly for crisis centers and food programs. A "fixture" at the Moab Public Library, he uses a computer and the library's Internet access to maintain a blog that advances various causes, but mostly the cause of personal freedom from the tyranny of the money system. He is nothing if not principled. Here's a sense:

I went down to the train tracks and ran into a 60-something toothless hobo I'd met days before. He was nursing a beer and setting up camp at the underpass. "I was surprised when you came up and talked to me the other day. People usually don't talk to me," he said. I vented my cop woes onto him. He asked if I had a Bible. "Yeah, I found one in a dumpster," I said. "I like to read the Bible," he said. "Keeps me from getting lonely." He told me I could hope a train all the way to Bakersfield.

Conard, the tycoon/plutocrat, is principled as well, but his principles derive not from any scripture but from the belief that enabling investors is the best thing for everyone. If we want full employment, don't tax investors. If we want better health care, don't tax investors. If we want innovation, don't tax investors.

Conard finds the basis for his system in economic facts and figures--in science, in other words. In his words, as if to say "this is the way things are. It's not just what I believe." And part of the way things are, as Conard says again and again, is that success in the marketplace is the proper basis for morality and fairness.

For example, Conard's science has anointed "investors" as the saviors of the world. Investors are "risk-takers," and the object of their investment is invariably "innovation."  Woe be to you, says Conard's science, if you do not partake:
Many liberal-arts majors choose selfish solipsism over the burden of shouldering the risk and responsibility critical to increasing economic growth. They study literature and art history rather than computer programming and engineering. To add insult to injury, these people often cite a lack of fulfillment from Richard Easterlin's never-ending aspirational treadmill as their reason for choosing not to take risk or shoulder responsibility. They recognize that working hard won't make them happy. Yet they claim hard-working business leaders, problem solvers, and risk underwriters are the selfish ones, and that higher marginal tax rates and income redistribution are the true moral course. ... We should demand their leadership and risk taking as a moral responsibility--no matter their happiness--and declare as selfishly immoral the unwillingness of talented people to shoulder the burden of contributing to this supply. University professors--who lead our children--should be in the front lines of this campaign. They often preach the opposite, promoting liberal arts over engineering, computer programming, and business administration."
Yes: "liberal-arts majors" are "selfishly immoral" for their lack of risk taking, for their "selfish solipsism" of not going into such productive fields as computer programming, engineering, and business administration.

Oh, and remember: this is science.

Conard provides unassailable proof of this with a chart that shows how science test scores affect productivity ... but wait a minute. Isn't that Poland down there with the good science test scores and low-ish productivity? And isn't he trying to make the point that the USA does really well ... despite the fact that its top competitors in productivity have better science test scores? Could it be that ... surely not ... but could it be that ... hey, wait, don't go there. Conard's science proves it's impossible ... but maybe the reason for America's higher productivity, compared with higher-achieving science nerds like Finland and Hong Kong, is ... liberal arts majors.

Take a look at his litany of success stories: Google, Facebook (what, not Myspace?), Youtube, etc. How do they make their money? Not because anybody's lured by their sexy algorithms. No. It's advertising revenue, the same source of excess cash-wash float-foam that brought us broadcast television and now social networking via Internet. People buy ads. Who makes those ads? Ad people. Mad Men. "Creatives." Not engineers.

Nothing against engineers! Conard is absolutely right to say we have to encourage innovation, and engineers have infinite opportunities for creativity. But it's creativity of a different sort. It's not the same kind of creativity that enables advertising--hence marketing--to succeed. Artistic creativity--whether visual, linguistic, or musical--is an important component in an area of commercial endeavor that is fundamental to the kind of tech success that Conard brags on.

And the better it's done, the more successful it will be. For example, my money's on WordPress over Blogger as the blog platform of the future (even though I use Blogger) just because it's paid more attention to what looks good. Blogger feels like interior decoration by engineer; WordPress feels like the kind of design that winds up in MOMA (oops, art history there, sorry). Years from now, after Apple goes to its reward, Steve Jobs will still be remembered as the man who made fonts mainstream.

But let us remember that, by Conard's own invocation, this is a matter of morality. Where Suelo would give a Bible to a hobo, Conard would invest millions, as a moral act of benevolence, in something that a liberal-arts refugee (acting!) has sweet-talked him into thinking is "innovative," e.g. Myspace. What happens next? Fascinatingly, this is where Conard and Suelo come full circle and agree.

To both of them, the explanation for "why things turn out the way they do" is: chance. This is what "God" comes down to for Suelo. "If the best-laid plans were folly, then did it follow that mere chance was divine? This was Suelo's hypothesis: 'Chance is God.'" This is also the "Darwinian" randomness of the market that Conard finds thrilling and inspirational: "Survival of the fittest sets a high bar for success. Like the hit-driven music industry, one breakthrough requires hundreds of small, forgotten, and ruthlessly pruned failures." Investments are enormous, both in success and in failure. As to the actual predictability of success, Conard has only this shrug of the shoulders: "Success represents lucky investments in almost certain failure."

So much for the Protestant work ethic. Might as well be a hobo drinking beer in the morning. Given this randomness, how can success be regarded as a measure of individual productivity? And why should it be regarded as a yardstick for support to be received from public sources, support that is expressly legitimized as a safety net against the vagaries of a Darwinian marketplace?

And yet, amazingly, that's what Conard says: "Providing government services--health care, for example--that are somewhat proportional to each person's economic contribution is critical to the country's long-term success." How can this possibly be justified, even in Conard's "system," which is a crapshoot? Conard does of course justify it by saying "otherwise we must tax successful risk takers."

But take two equally hard-working, risk-taking engineers with innovative ideas; due to the vagaries of the market and the minefield of commercialization, one succeeds, but the other crashes and burns. Has there not been a social benefit from the effort of each, regardless of the economic contribution? If one breakthrough requires hundreds of failures, do the failures not "earn" something for their effort, something intrinsic that markets are too blind to recognize?

If they don't, then forget about goodness, beauty, honor, kindness, decency, generosity, the virtue of hard work, and any number of other qualities, including motherhood--which doesn't exactly lend itself to making an economic contribution unless you can be sure that your kid is going to be an engineer MBA with a job at Facebook (but not Myspace).

"Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" Jesus famously asked. Might there be, behind this question, the thought that what you do for others is more important than what you do for yourself? Is that not also the crux of morality? Now, everyone--you too, liberal-arts majors--compute the probability that you can help others the Suelo way (absolute poverty) or the Conard way (wealth to buy your way into Heaven). What's your answer?

Sorry, Mr. Conard: you can't argue with science.