Norman Lear Selected Writings
Our Fragile Tower of Greed and Debt
We Have a Deadly Obsession With Short-Term Success
By Norman Lear
From the Washington Post, April 5, 1987
The societal disease of our time, I am convinced, is America’s obsession with short-term success, its fixation with the proverbial bottom-line. “Give me a profit statement this quarter larger than the last, and everything else be damned!” That is today’s predominant business ethic. It took root in the business community but has since spread beyond business and insinuated itself into the rest of our culture. In this climate, a quiet revolution in values has occurred, and it has not been for the better.
Short-term thinking, corrosive individualism, fixating on “economic man” at the expense of the human spirit, has taken an alarming toll. I focus on the business community for starters, not to make it a scapegoat – but because I believe business has become a fountainhead of values in our society. If the church was the focal point for personal values and public mores in medieval times, that role in our time has been assumed, unwittingly perhaps, by the modern corporation.
For better or worse, traditional institutions such as the family, the churches and education are no longer as influential in molding moral-cultural values. There are, I suppose, dozens of reasons one could find: the disruptions of urbanization; the alarming increase of single-parent households; the rise of the mass media, especially television; the dizzy mobility of our car culture; the telecommunications revolution and the altered sense of time and distance it has created. As traditional families have come under stress and splintered, as education has come under siege, as churches and synagogues have become less influential in daily life, the modern corporation with help of the media has stepped into the breach.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell has said that in medieval times, when one approached a city, one saw the cathedral and the castle. Now one sees the soaring tower of commerce. People build their lives around these towers. Communities take shape. Work skills are learned. Social relationships are formed. Attitudes and aspirations are molded. A dense matrix of values grow up around the towers of commerce and spread beyond.
Never before has the business of business been such a cultural preoccupation. If media attention is any indication of popular interest – and it is – today there is an unprecedented interest in business affairs. In recent years, a dozen new business programs have burst forth on commercial television, public television and cable. Americans once found their heroes, for the most part, in congress or the entertainment world or sports; now more and more people find them in business: Lee Iacocca; T. Boone Pickens; H. Ross Perot; Carl Icahn; until 10 minutes ago, Ivan Boesky and until a moment ago, Martin A. Seigel.
If you grant me the possibility that American business is the preeminent force in shaping our culture and its values, what example are its leaders setting? What attitudes and behavior do they endorse and foster?
The Wall Street Journal recently took an overview of the American corporation and concluded. “Gone is talk of balanced, long-term growth; impatient shareholders and well-heeled corporate raiders have seen to that. Now anxious executives, fearing for their jobs or their companies, are focusing their efforts on trimming operations and shuffling assets to improve near-term profits, often at the expense of both balance and growth.”
There are no two-legged villains in this “get-while-the getting-is-good” atmosphere. Only victims. The villain is the climate which, like a house with a leaking gas pipe, is certain to see us all dead in our sleep one day, never knowing what hit us.
Daniel Bell has argued that in promoting an ethic of “materialistic hedonism” the free enterprise system tends to subvert the very values that help to sustain it. If American business insists upon defining itself solely in terms of its market share, profitability and stock price – if its short-term material goals are allowed to prevail over all else – then business tends to subvert the moral-cultural values that undergird the entire system, such values as social conscience, pride in one’s work, commitment to one’s community, loyalty to one’s company – in short, a sense of the commonweal.
This ethic breeds in a climate where leadership everywhere – in business, Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures, organized labor, the universities – refuses, through greed or myopia or weaknesses to make provisions for the future. And in this climate, with this kind of shortsighted leadership, we have been raising generations of children to believe that there is nothing between winning and losing. The notion that life has anything to do with succeeding at the level of doing one’s best, or that some of life’s richest rewards are not monetary, is lost to these kids in this short-term, bottom-line climate.
America has become a game show. Winning is all that matters. Cash prizes. Get rich quick. We are the captives of a culture that celebrates instant gratification and individual success no matter the larger costs. George Will, in his book Statecraft as Soulcraft, argues that the country’s future is imperiled unless our leaders can cultivate in citizens a deeper commitment to the commonweal. Yet rather than heed that admonition, we are turning the commonweal into the commonwheel of Fortune.
Take a look at the Commonwheel of Fortune gameboard. It’s not unlike the Monopoly gameboard – but instead of real estate, we’ve got just about every major American corporation represented, all up for grabs. For you latecomers to the game, Owens Corning, NBC, Texaco, and TWA are off the board now – but Goodyear, USX, Union Carbide and many more have been in play recently. With a little roll of the dice and the junk bonds the game is played with, just watch the raiding and merging and acquisitioning! What fun!
The game produced 14 new billionaires last year – not to mention what it’s done for foreign investors who, with their yens and deutschmarks, have caught on to our national lack of concern for the future. We are now selling them America as cheaply, under the circumstances, as the Indians sold us Manhattan.
On the surface, we seem to have accepted the selling of America just as we seem to have accepted the fact that we no longer make the best automobiles, the best radios and hi-fi’s and television sets and compact discs; the fact is we hardly make any of these products by ourselves today where we once were responsible for most of them. We’ve accepted that without a whimper.
With numbers and charts, economists and policy-makers can write scenarios to explain all of this in every direction. But there is a psychic, spiritual dimension to these changes that cannot be ignored. There is an open wound, a gash, on the American psyche that must be attended to.
Take the American motor car. Through all the years I was growing up, it was the standard of the world. “Keeping up with the Joneses” in those years meant only one thing: You were either trading up the General Motors line, the Ford line or the Chrysler line. My Dad was a GM man. He got as far as the Oldsmobile; one year he almost made it to the Buick. But caring about your motor car was the universal family vocation. The American motor car was the national, non-military symbol of America’s macho – and one does not have to be a social scientist to know that when we lost that symbol, sometime in the past 25 years, it left a big dent in the American Dream.
The Big Three automakers failed to heed the handwriting on the wall and refused to innovate, to build small fuel-efficient cars; refused to sacrifice a current quarterly profit statement to invest in the future and meet the threat of imports from abroad.
There is the ailing steel industry, which refused to modernize and invest in its future. There are the labor unions in both industries, which fought only for added wages and benefits – and declined to fight to modernize and to protect their members’ jobs in the long term. There is the U.S. consumer electronics industry, which surrendered the compact-disc technology to Japan and Holland, who were willing to make long-term investments in the fledgling technology.
There is a hurt and an emptiness and confusion in this nation to which attention must be paid. There is fear, resentment, and anxiety among our fellow-citizens, which makes them ripe for extremists who offer promises of easy salvation. It can also exacerbate social tensions and result in an escalation of the kind of racism we have witnessed around the country recently.
If you agree with me that our culture has been weaned from a respect for other values to the worshipping of money and success and the fruits of instant gratification –and that this is resulting in a spiritual and cultural crisis – what, then, do we do about it? How can we reclaim the commonweal from the mindless game show it has become?
We can start by recognizing that government has a major responsibility here. I am a product of the free-enterprise system, and I cherish it. I am also a human being, and I cherish my humanity. But everything I know about human nature tells me we are innately selfish. We do look out for ourselves first. And then our family, our loved ones. Some of us, not enough, reach out beyond that. But when we, the people, talk about caring for things that are ours – our water, our air, our safety, our protection from the myriad harmful things we reasonable, good people are capable of doing to each other –we have to know we can only rely on our government! It is we, through government, who provide for the common welfare.
Business nurtures the conceit that its behavior is purely private – but take one look at the largess it receives from the government: It once accounted for 29 percent of federal tax revenues; it is now down to 6 percent. Take a look, too, at the role of corporate PACs in the political process; the public repercussions of private investment decision; and the cultural values that business fosters – and it is clear why government must play a more influential role in protecting the commonweal from the Commonwheel of Fortune.
This, again, is a climate we are seeking to change – and there are thermostats that address that climate in every home, in every school, in every church, in every business in this country. We can start, perhaps, by establishing a new set of symbols and heroes. We have had Rambo and Oliver North and Ivan Boesky; corporate raiders and arbitrageurs; the “yuppie generation” and the culture of conspicuous consumption; we have had religious zealots who would abridge the First Amendment in the name of God and political extremists who would censor books and condone racism.
But we have also had, and more attention must be paid to, people like Robert Hayes. An attorney with a top-flight New York law firm, he quit his lucrative job several years ago to start a new brand of legal practice; defending the rights of the homeless. His initiative inspired dozens of other such legal practices around the country.
Attention must be paid to Eugene Lang, a New York millionaire who, while speaking at an elementary school graduation, spontaneously offered to pay the college expenses of some sixth graders of an inner city school if they would study hard and not drop out of school. His example has caught on in other cities, where individuals and businesses “adopt” students to help them succeed.
And attention must be paid to Warren Buffett, the down-home Nebraska chairman of Berkshire-Hathaway, who has seen to it that a part of every single dollar among the millions of dollars returned to shareholders goes to a charity or a cause selected by that shareholder in advance.
We need to rehabilitate the idea of public service; to set new ethical standards of business; to harness the natural idealism of young people; and to encourage leadership everywhere to assume a greater burden of responsibility to lead. As I said, the villain here is the climate. It needs changing.
Plant in your mind, if you will, the close-up actions of a man, as in a film. Savagely, he is cutting off the hands of another man. We are horrified; this action defies our understanding. Now pull back to examine the context, and learn that we are in a different culture – perhaps, but not necessarily, in an earlier time. Eyes can be gouged out here. Men are drawn and quartered – sometimes for sheer entertainment. We don’t accept, but we understand better now that first, savage act. Its perpetrators were behaving in the context of their time and culture.
Now look at Martin A. Siegel and gang, arrested recently for insider trading. A thief. Broke a trust. We don’t understand. He was making $2 million. Why did he need another $7 million? But let’s pull back and see Siegel in the context of the culture I have been describing, and we must ask: In some perverse way, doesn’t his story speak for the ’80’s?
Isn’t Siegel’s story an example in microcosm of the perverted values of our culture – where the making of money, not working hard, producing well, leaving something lasting behind – but the making of money has become the sole value?
The problem isn’t Martin Siegel’s alone. It is ours. We have found the Holy Grail, and it is the Bottom Line.
Do we want it?
Must we continue cashing in the commonweal for the Commonwheel of Fortune?