Saturday, December 10, 2011

Starving The Doomsday Machine

In the greatest film ever made, Stanley Kubrick's, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, the US, in the height of the Cold War, has accidentally launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. As the unstoppable bomb is on its way the Soviet ambassador informs US officials that his nation possesses a "doomsday device," a series of hydrogen bombs that will automatically detonate, destroying the entire planet should the Soviet Union ever come under nuclear attack. In the end, the world is destroyed.

I'm often reminded of this movie because that's what happens with great art (I think, for instance, of a particular episode from Moby Dick every night as I crawl into bed), but was most recently reminded of this when I was pointed to an article from Forbes entitled: How Pursuit of Profit Kills Innovation and the US Economy.

My poor wife. Whenever I have something on my mind that has no logical outlet here on the blog, I tend to make her listen to me. I've been going on for the past month or so about my idea that the concept of "profit" in the context of the neoliberal/libertarian ideal of an unregulated marketplace is a doomsday machine that will not just destroy the economy, but render the planet uninhabitable to humans. But now she is saved because in finding that I have a kind of unwitting ally in Harvard economist Clayton Christiansen, I've also figured out how to connect my thoughts on the topic to preschool, at least our preschool, and at least peripherally, so please understand that I must write this to save my marriage.

I don't think it takes much of an imagination to see that if left without any kind of regulation by we the people, corporations, in their mindless pursuit of profit will slowly, but surely destroy and devour one another until all that is left is one big corporation that controls everything. Libertarians object, insisting that the innovative capacity of spunky entrepreneurs will prevent this from happening, but come on. How did Microsoft with its demonstrably inferior operating system come to dominate its industry? Not through creativity and innovation, but rather through using the advantages of its superior market share and deeper pockets to either crush or buyout its competitors. There will never be a successful mom and pop oil company for the same reason; in fact, oil companies have been systematically destroying or absorbing competitors for over a century, through economic and political maneuvering, not innovation. Just look around. In every category we now have fewer choices than we did thirty years ago when our current craze of deregulation began -- fewer airlines, fewer banks, fewer retailers, fewer health insurance companies. And the choices we do have tend to be from among a handful of giant corporations who, at bottom, by law, must pursue profit above all else.

How much different things would be, how much different our relationships with corporations would be, if we simply moved profit one notch down the list of priorities, putting "to serve the public good" just above it. This would put we the people back in charge of these doomsday machines.

Unregulated corporations, programmed to mindlessly pursue profit first, not only wind up doing the kind of insane, self-destructive things pointed out by Professor Christiansen, but it also makes them into a series of hydrogen bombs that will ultimately destroy the world. For instance, today corporations look at pollution as a mere side effect, the avoidance and clean-up of which puts a damper on profit so they send their lobbyists into legislatures to work for looser environmental regulations, dumping those extraordinary costs onto the rest of us. In a sane society in which "the public good" comes first, we compel corporations to clean up after themselves, to pay for the true cost of doing business, or to go out of business. Today corporations rely on our gigantic military to protect their ability to safely exploit labor and resources around the world, counting on we the people to foot the bill for their dangerous exploits. When "the public good" comes first, we make them pay to protect their own tankers and mines and sweatshops. Today corporations look at their employees as mere resources to be exploited, used, then discarded when they become "too expensive." When "the public good" comes first, we compel corporations to pay us back for creating the system and infrastructure that allow them to thrive in the currency of good jobs, otherwise what good are they to us? Today corporations look to our schools as institutions of vocational training and are using their economic and political might to make our children cubicle and assembly line ready. In a sane society, we would be educating our children in the skills required for self-governance, not the pursuit of profit. Today's corporations have come to fancy themselves as "people," and if they are, then they are people without conscience, without compassion, and without soul: they are dangerous sociopaths in their mindless, inevitable pursuit of profit above all that is human. They are a series of hydrogen bombs that will take us down with them.

Every time I talk to a libertarian, I see Major T. J. "King" Kong astride that accidentally launched H-bomb, whooping like a cowboy on a bronco, waving his hat in the air, riding it into the trigger of the Soviet doomsday device.

I talk to a lot of people who have a lot of ideas about a beefier regulatory structure, about how we can regain control over our own country and our own lives, but I sometimes think we're missing the point. When we look at the big picture, it's always been a pendulum that swings back and forth. Perhaps now is when it begins to move back in the direction of humanity, but inevitably, as long as we rely upon the doomsday machine of profit, there will come a time when it will move back again in the direction of inhumanity. Even if we are wildly successful in re-regulating business it will only, in the big picture, be a temporary reprieve because it is in the nature of doomsday devices to never quit unless destroyed.

Our little school is a cooperative. This means that the parents who enroll their children are the owners. There is no state agency or corporate board that sits over us. We don't have the pressure of a legal charter that demands we focus on profit. We have a free hand to create the school we think is best for our children within the limits of the resources we are willing and able to set forth. You know, sanity.

As the only employee, I have between our two classes, in the parlance of corporations, 40+ "bosses" in the form of these family-owners. They hire me, they fire me, they pay me, they evaluate me. On any given day, however, I am the "boss," at least inside the classroom, where these owners work alongside me as my assistant teachers. But you know, I can't write the word "boss" without the quotation marks because it's not like that. We are in reality colleagues, working together toward something deep and meaningful.

The pursuit of profit above all else is a sickness because it compels us to chase something artificial and only superficially rewarding. Humanity is at it's best, when we are working together toward something real, something with intrinsic value, something for which the reward is the pursuit itself.

I think this, ultimately is the only real way to destroy the doomsday machine. Not cooperatives per se, but for all of us to seek out communities, modes of life, and institutions that live outside of the dictates of profit above all else, because after all, this machine is powered by what it devours. We feed it each time we choose our job over our family, a drive over a walk, a mass-produced gift over one that is hand-made, a dollar over a hug.

The way to kill this machine is to starve it and instead feed our souls.

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Trisha said...

Please forgive my ignorance and naivety when I say that your idea for the world sounds like utopia, and therefore is unattainable, right? Am I being too Golding by believing the world is full of inherently evil people?

Teacher Tom said...

Well Trisha, Neolibralism/Libertarianism is the "utopic" answer to the belief that man is inherently evil. It is the notion that a machine (in this case a mechanistic, amoral method of reward and punishment) is an improvement on human nature. I will admit to taking the view of Locke and Rousseau in believing that man is inherently good and therefor morally superior to a machine.

You put your finger on the entire conservative/liberal divide that we've been dealing with since the 17th century: Hobbes v. Locke.

As for utopia, that's not what I'm expecting. Because man is inherently good, I believe that it's possible for us to live in a society that places profit on a lower rung and when we do we make life better for everyone. The Germans, for instance, have a requirement that the employees hold 50 percent of the seats on the board of every corporation, making it similar to our cooperative. As a result German workers have the highest wages and the most vacation days in the world, yet by any measure their corporations continue to compete quite well on the international stage. Lifestyle over profit works for the many. Profit over lifestyle works for the few at the expense of the many.

Cody Moss said...

Profit is like the blood in our bodies. We don't live to pump blood through our body. The blood gives us a means to achieve our higher purpose. Just like blood, profit is important to sustain a business. It is not the driver in what the business stands for, but the means of transportation of those ideals.

Teacher Tom said...

Nice Cody! I like that much better than the way I usually say it: "Profit is here to serve us; we are not here to serve profit." I think I shall be borrowing from you in the future.

Aunt Annie said...

It is achievable if we have the will. The country of Bhutan has a measure called Gross National Happiness; if a business proposition doesn't contribute to the happiness of the people at large, it's not permitted to go forward. It's a matter of having the national (international) will to move towards a better way and refuse second best, which seems to mean putting up with pepper spray in your face at present but will probably meet with more extreme resistance in the long run.

If you look at a graph of the economics of the first world and those of the Roman Empire, it's a perfect match; the next thing that happened to the Roman Empire, of course, was its fall. The human race is on the edge of a cliff of our own making.

Teacher Tom said...

Amen Annie!

Anonymous said...


Phenomenal post. Please continue to spare your wife these musings in the future.


Autumn Dawn said...

What if from this perilous cliff we stand upon, the human race chose to build a bridge across the canyon, as four-year-old's with building blocks do? And what if all of our children were all allowed to explore possibilities, experiment, and have creative control, as is the model at Woodland Park? What if we all assumed the position of "Experience Facilitator" as a main role as parents and teachers? What if this went on even beyond early childhood? Ah!...there it is...yes, I see the vision now. I'm in.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

It is absolutely possible to have a society with proper regulations for corporations and other businesses. It does take the will to make it happen, and voting for politicians who believe in this.
In my country we have a federal government which is very conservative and intent on deregulating - this means voting against gun control, dismantaling our precious Wheat Board, and providing support to "for profit" medical centers.

I am fortunate to live in a province which still has strict government regulations in early childhood centers, and most of our daycare centers are non-profit, and parent governed.

I have a post this weekend sharing a wonderful song, sung by a young man on You Tube, in support of the Occupy movement. I think you might enjoy his work. He is working his way through a book called "Rise Up and Sing".
The song I shared is All The Weary Mothers, written by Joan Baez, and I just love his version of it.

Anonymous said...

I am a preschool teacher that follows your blog. I am Also a Libertarian and recently ran for local office on the Libertarian Party line. I think you have libertarianism all wrong. So many people misunderstand and misrepresent libertarianism. alot of your ideas that I see expressed are of a libertarian nature. Non-aggression, free choice, free association, un-schooling ideas, allowing children and people the freedom to learn for themselves. I am no expert on this but I am willing to guess that Microsoft was dominating the field because of government regulation that was already in place.

Laura said...

I like to point out that an unregulated economy is simulated in a game of monopoly. 1. One person ends up with all the money. 2. Once you collect a lot of money it is a lot easier to make more money. 3. While there is some skill and strategy involved, there is also an element of luck.

So then the question is do we really want our economy like that? And, is it really unfair to start the game over, or make rules so that it doesn't end? (I don't think so.)

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you for speaking out Anonymous. I know many people who understand Libertarianism as you do. Most of them are Ron Paul supporters and have turned me on to lots of his positions and policies with which I agree whole-heartedly.

Perhaps you can help me:

When we get to the core issue of economics, I find myself in opposition. No Libertarian has ever been able to explain to me how, if business is unregulated, we prevent them from growing so large and wealthy that they simply destroy or consume their competition and create monopolies and cartels in every industry, which is NOT in the best interest of consumers. No one has ever been able to explain to me how we prevent companies from becoming so large and wealthy that they take over our government. No one has been able to explain to me how the neoliberal economic direction that we have been pursuing for the past 30+ years is any different than what Libertarians support, and which has lead to exactly the kind of corporate controlled state we are threatened with today. And no one has been able to explain to me what Libertarians do about the sick, the poor, the aged, and the downright unfortunate. The answer I usually get is something along the lines of "hold a bake sale." Ron Paul himself recently let his former campaign manager die sick and penniless without lifting a finger and has famously fumbled his answer to this question in the debates. There seems to be a cruelty at the heart of Libertarianism that says: "You made bad choices, now you must suffer." I think we can do better than that.

I do look forward to your response because these are genuine questions I would like to have answered. Please set me straight.

Unknown said...

The problem isn't profit, but unshared profit. If a corporation has a requirement that all employees have at least one share of voting stock, and the same salary plus some shares of dividend stock, Profit stops being a greedy monster for a few, but a collective incentive for all.

As someone who's worked in small, medium, and very large companies. I'm more inclined to innovate, share ideas, and work harder the more impact to my bottom line I feel I'll get. In the small companies, I generally felt I might have more impact (some yes, some maybe, and some never), than in the larger companies.

I think the problem comes when everyone is calcifying into a status quo, specifically because they are afraid of losing the steady salary they have. If everyone in the company (from the mailroom boy, to the CEO) got the same salary (but different numbers of dividend shares) then they all would feel it when the company did well and they all would feel it when the company didn't. It would be what a company should be ... A collective of individuals working together for a common endeavor. Instead of what it tends to be: A rich set of guys telling everyone how it's going to be and what to do while they go enjoy the money their employees are earning but not sharing.

oh well, probably just a naive ideal.