Democrats & Liberals Archives

Tumblers in the Lock of Time, Part One

Complexity reigns in our world. In some cases, it’s chaos, sensitive dependence on beginning conditions that defeats our ability to predict the future. In some cases, it’s emergent phenomena, where simple rules add up to complex behavior not apparent from the laundry list of factors involved. In other cases it’s synchronous behavior, where apparently random systems spontaneously develop orderly behaviors. In nature, it is straightforward responses that are the rarity. Human nature is even less straightforward than that. How that affects politics and policy is the focus of this new series of articles.

Business and Evolution

Many scientific principles have been abused and oversimplified for the sake of politics. Evolution is a favorite. In the Business world, the oversimplification is that the system should be geared to allow the most ruthless competitors to triumph.

The reality of evolution is that creatures change in relationship to their environment. If we want to suit our philosophy to the way the theory actually works, it is not necessarily the ruthless who are the ideal competitors, or the ideal result of the process.

In nature, the ruthless predator, the one that just kills and kills and kills, is maladapted. Such predators destroy their own sources of sustenance. An example of this in nature is the Crown-Of-Thorns Sea Star. This coral-eating predator will consume a reef until there's nothing left, and then it will starve to death. Similar Behavior with Enron and it's manufactured energy crisis in California left a black mark on the energy trading business. They could have had a sustainable, benign presence, but instead, they managed to so pillage the California economy (to the tune of 30 billion dollars) that the outrage simply overwhelmed that side of the business, unfortunately Enron's most profitable business.

Enron is a good case of leadership creating the environment that selects the employees. Jeffrey Skilling's erroneous reading of Richard Dawkin's The Selfish Gene led him to create a program where the bottom fifteen percent of his employees would be fired. He encouraged a macho, aggressive attitude towards business, and an amoral attitude as well. The selective pressures were for ruthless competitors. But as we know, that's not always a proper adaptation to the rest of the world. It was, however, the best adapation to Enron. This difference of adaptation works somewhat like Kudzu does in the south- as a spreading menace. When predators or conditions in the environment keep creatures in check, a natural equilibrium develops. Otherwise, you have a destructive situation for the system at large.

The economy is an artificial system. We have the ability to shape what is permitted and what is forbidden. We pride ourselves on letting individuals make their own decisions on dealing with the complexities of the marketplace, and this is a good thing. There's no way to make it foolproof. We do however know when behavior crosses the line, and unfortunately the GOP has been hesitant to call business on this.

What about telling people they can't cheat constitutes interference in the free market? For some, it's caveat emptor, let the market punish the dishonest. However, if a company gains enough market share, or the vast majority of the market share belongs to those who mistreat customers and investors, how does the market punish the bad guys? If the corporate culture is about ruthlessness and pure profit, expedience will outweigh morality.

Freedom does not mean anarchy. If an individual killed somebody through negligence, they would be held liable, perhaps even criminally so. If an individual poisoned others, there would be charges filed. Individuals who go about the business of intentionally addicting folks to drugs are considered prime targets of law enforcement. When they cheat other people out of their money, skim profits, and otherwise steal, there is an accounting to be made, so to speak. Yet we allow corporations to deceive, pollute, steal, and take money by deception on account of how important these companies are to our economy.

Does that strike anybody as a subservient way to live? We did not fight to get out from under a bunch of nobles, just to reestablish a similar class system under another bunch of of self-appointed important people who are a law to themselves.

If we are being poisoned, or our environment is being blighted more than it has to be, do we not deserve some counterbalancing influence on our side? If we are dying because of machinery or merchandise that's faulty, why should we lack for a way to redress our grievances? If we are losing money through some fellow's fraud or deception, shouldn't we have the kind of recourse a person confronting a common criminal does?

What good is letting these people off going to do us, if the consequences of their prosperity is our ruin? We cannot pre-program the system to give everybody equal wealth and prosperity, but we can ensure that the greater liability in business practices rests with those that are known to be harmful to the public's interests.

Right now, the GOP complains about the flood of lawsuits. They shouldn't. It is only a natural consequence of their refusal to defemd the public's interests before the bad things happen. Our politicians have allowed standards to slip, and have eliminated regulations that would have interfered with such bad behavior. So what do people do? They take the ones who have harmed them to court. Of course, now the GOP wants to reduce or eliminate even that course of action. What then? What can the American people do to safeguard their interests then?

The GOP should think long and hard about the results of surpressing such discontent. If people cannot find justice, they will find more desperate and radical means of righting the balance. The laissez faire attitudes of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century lead to the enormous backlash of liberalism that lasted for nearly half a century.

Even if FDR did not single-handedly take us out of the depression, he did satisfy the public's wish to regain its power over those who ruled their lives. The Regulations that shackled business were their regulations. The radical changes that FDR brought were supported by the public's mandate, and that public mandate extended from the pain and suffering that rogue business practices and selfish behavior inspired in the average working citizen.

I might say, "If the GOP wants to store up such resentment, fine by me", but I would much rather not have the worst come to pass before we remember the best in ourselves. It use to be there were values and responsibilities held that transcended the world of dollars and cents, loyalties to customers, employees, God and Country that meant something. There still can be. We just have to remember that it is business's role to serve the customer, the public, and the investor, not the other way around.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at April 23, 2005 9:30 AM