Archive for January, 2010

Corporate Primacy

Friday, January 29th, 2010

In the movie “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” Robert Morse sings about how we are all part of the great big brotherhood of man, and ignoring the inherent sexism of that lyric, he’s right. This is why God got thoroughly upset with me this week when I happened to mention the notion that the primary responsibility of corporations is to increase shareholder value. God quickly disabused me of that notion.

The real primary responsibility of corporations (and politicians) is to act ethically, no matter what the law may say. But what does the law say? Well, to get to that you need to keep in mind that the law in the United States is not just our collection of constitutions and statutes but also of case law, court decisions handed down over the centuries. It is from case law that the notion of the primacy of shareholder value comes, specifically from the case of Dodge v. Ford.

In Dodge v. Ford, the court ruled essentially that since the Ford Motor Company was organized as a company and not a charity that they could not stop paying out dividends and use their profits instead to benefit the public. Now part of what went into this decision was recognition that Henry Ford suspected that the plaintiffs in the case, the Dodge brothers, who owned about ten percent of the Ford Motor Company, were planning to use their dividends to create a competing car company (which they later did). So what Henry Ford was actually doing, at least in part, was trying to prevent competition. So even back in 1919 corporations talked about benefiting the public while actually just trying to line their own pockets.

Now does God care about all these details of the case and the law? Of course not, she just kept on talking about there being a higher law than the laws of man and how that was the only law she needed to know. She ranted about ethics and railed against people trying to game the system. Then she made some comment about how if corporations were meant to be treated as people they would have been created by her and not us.

It wasn’t a conversation that I wanted to get into right then, having had enough of her ranting for the day, so I didn’t take the bait.

Fozzy Logic

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

God and I got into one of those rambling conversations today. The kind that seems to wander from subject to subject following a vein but attaching anything and everything to that vein in an attempt to just keep things moving and to score rhetorical points along the way. It’s the kind of conversation that you might expect to have at three in the morning when you’ve been drinking much of the night.

I’m not going to try and reconstruct the conversation, because I find it hard to write that incoherently but also because trying was one of the things that the conversation railed against. For some reason, and I’ve forgotten now what it was, I dredged up my childhood programming and spouted at God, somewhere in the middle of the conversation, the old standby “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” God, of course, pointed out that that old rhyme is just one of the many lies that we tell our kids.

The truth is that names do hurt us. Words in general have much power, which is summed up pithily in another old aphorism, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” which God wasted no time in pointing out to me. Of course the real power comes when you have words backed up by swords, as governments have known for thousands of years. In any event, going back for a moment to the power of words, the proponents of Neuro-Linguistic Programming say that words are so powerful that they can literally be used to program our behavior. Then again, sometimes the words themselves can just get in the way, sometimes the real meaning in what we say is hidden behind words that taken literally don’t say the same thing at all.

I think a good example of this is when Yoda says “there is no try, do or do not.” Taken literally the statement is absurd. Anytime we do something it is because we tried to do it and succeeded, so for there to be a “do” there must be a “try,” but we get what Yoda means, we look past the words to get to the real meaning. This led me, then, to think about the opening sequence of every episode of Pinky and the Brain. At the beginning of each episode Pinky asks, “what are we going to do tonight Brain?” And Brain answers, “the same thing we do every night, Pinky, try and take over the world!”

And every night, Pinky and the Brain fail.

So then, maybe Yoda’s seemingly absurd statement actually is the answer to Brain’s problem, maybe if for once Brain answered simply, “take over the world,” refusing to cite the previous failures and refusing to add that Yoda-hated modifying “try,” maybe then he would succeed, maybe then he would simply “do.”

Or maybe this is all just so much intellectual wanking. Maybe this is just someone enamored of words ascribing to them more power than they actually warrant. After all, consider that Frank Oz does both the voice of Yoda and the voice of Fozzy Bear, and consider how little different those two voices really are. Now imagine it was not Yoda saying “there is no try” but rather Fozzy. How profound would it seem then?


Friday, January 15th, 2010

Language is very important to me. At its most basic this is because I want to be understood when I speak or write; at its more specific this is because I’m a writer and therefore language is my tool of choice and it’s always good to master the tools you use a lot. As such, I’m always looking to get fairly unambiguous definitions to words that tend to be used fairly ambiguously.

I covered one of these before when I pointed out that I had finally been given a good definition for love, one that covered both romantic love and non-romantic love. The definition being that love is when you would rather do something for the object of your love than have them do something for you. The new one that I’ve got is for the word “cult.”

I was complaining to god this week that the word cult is very poorly defined. The best that I had going for me was the old joke that a cult is a very small religion and a religion is a very large cult. The humor of the joke of course comes from the tautological nature of its self-referential definition, but the lack of real utility to that definition came from the exact same thing. Sometimes a joke is a cover for the truth, but sometimes a joke is just a joke. In this case I think it may have been both.

But God set me straight (so to speak). She gave me a much more useful definition for “cult.” She told me that a cult is an organization that is partially defined by secret knowledge about its beliefs. This does away with the whole size thing that is referenced in the joke and also gets past the notion that cults are inherently religious. They aren’t, although the nature of organizations that have “beliefs” is that they tend to be religious. It also pulls away from the notion that being designated a cult is inherently a negative comment and lets us move on to the notion that what negative we have to say about such organizations is actually entirely separate from their status as cults.

So for the record let me just say that Masons, Scientoligists, and Mormons are all members of cults but that fans of Rocky Horror are only cultists if they believe that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the best movie ever. Those of us in the know, know that Rocky isn’t the best picture ever. But it’s close.

The Dead of Winter

Friday, January 8th, 2010

How low can a man go? Well in North America it appears to be 282 feet below sea level. That’s the elevation of Badwater Basin in Death Valley, California.

I mention this because I went there this week. I’ve lived my whole life within a few hundred miles of this famous location and yet had never gone. Of course there’s more places that I haven’t gone than I have; the world’s a huge place and I’m only a few feet big, but still, the name Death Valley is so evocative that I should have gone there before now.

But I never knew. I’d always sort of imagined Death Valley as this desolate, flat, ancient lakebed, with nothing much to do except stay out of the heat. It’s not. God set me up with the chance to go, then gave me every excuse in the world to back out, but I fooled him, I went anyway. The place is spattered with unusual geological formations. Salt crystals forming rocky divots across the Devil’s Golf Course, mountainsides painted by the minerals deposited therein, and other wonders of nature.

It’s not the sort of stuff that is endlessly captivating, but it’s more than enough to fill a weekend. But, then, isn’t that true of pretty much every place in the world? It’s not that wherever we live isn’t filled with interesting things, but that, somewhere along the way, we lose the ability to see.

I know it’s a cliche that we lose sight of the wonders that are around us every day, but at the heart of most cliches is a hardened lump of truth. So try and take some time this week to look around you with fresh eyes, to see the little things that once were wonders. It can be as simple as trying to find shapes drawn in the clouds. You don’t have to wait, like I did, till you’ve gone to Death and back.

It’s Time

Friday, January 1st, 2010

It’s a new year, but it’s also just another day. Time is a continuum. Our lives are not neatly divided into discrete segments, be they the years of the calendar, the acts of a drama, or the moments that make up a dull day.

But we like measurable units. We like to take time to weigh our accomplishments and prepare for the next legs of our relay races. We spend the run up to Christmas worrying about whether we’ve earned fabulous prizes or lumps of coal. We spend New Year’s Day working out our resolutions of what we’re going to do differently this year.

It’s all artificial. It’s all in our heads. Sure there are the very real cycles of the seasons and of individual days, but the exact moments we’ve cited as the beginnings and the ends are completely arbitrary and they are even off from what little sense there is to their arbitrariness. We’ve picked the dead of winter to mark the passage of a year, but we missed the solstice by more than a week. We’ve set midnight as the demarcation of a day but the application of time zones means that the actual middle of the night shifts around refusing to become slave to our clocks.

And therein is God’s lesson for us today. Make resolutions whenever you need to, not just because the calendar tells you it’s time. Make your life not one of punctuated equilibrium but one of continual improvement. Be bold enough to make yourself a little better all the time, and if you can’t be bold, at least try to be italics.