Managing Our Way to Decline (1992)

Norman Lear on Business, Politics and Culture

Speech Excerpts, 1972 – 2011

Managing Our Way to Decline (1992)

In the 1970s, I began to realize that short-term thinking in television – the maniacal fixation on ratings at the expense of instinct, innovation and risk-taking – which was then in the early stages of destroying the three major networks – was not unique to television.  Television was simply a microcosm for American business in general.

What was happening to the networks had happened earlier to the three major motor car companies.  Failing to heed the warning, refusing to meet competition from abroad because of a fixation on that quarter’s bottom line, they had slowly but surely ceded their dominance.  Other industries had gone the same route.

This was confirmed for me in the early ‘80s when I came to Harvard to meet a wonderful man, Professor William Abernathy, of the Harvard Business School.  With his colleague, Robert Hayes, he had just published a path-breaking article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “Managing Our Way to Economic Decline,” which argued that business leaders’ obsession with quarterly profits and numerical abstractions was blinding them to their real long-term interests – and would lead them inevitably to ruin.

I could never forget that first lunch with Bill Abernathy.  It was only as we received the check that he told me that much of the future we’d been discussing, he would never live to see.  He had just six months to live.  What he shared with me that day, at a time when personal computers were just catching on, could not have been more prescient.  He told me how investors would soon be moving billions of dollars in capital from Tokyo, to London, to New York, in seconds….that number systems would become the new currency of public values….and that the economic future of millions of people would be determined by people hunched over computer screens, peering at a collective simulation of reality.

“They’re all going to be looking down, Norman,” he said.  “No one is going to have to look up any more!”  The implications in his prediction were clear.  Any they have become reality.  The number-crazed world he foresaw was a world with no sanction for vision, no view of the long term, no sense of anything but that which can be quantified.  As we define our values by SAT scores, Nielsen ratings, box office grosses, public opinion polling, throw-weights, cost-benefit analyses, quarterly reports, bottom lines, we can see the iron grip that these numbers have on our sense of the possible – our sense of our inner selves.

From “Social Responsibility:  A Cure for the Loneliness of Our Time,” Joint Faculty Seminar of the Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 28, 1992.