Thursday, September 28, 2006

Book Review – Non-fiction

The Paradox of Choice – by Barry Schwartz - 2004

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man – by John M. Perkins - 2005
The Wisdom of Crowds – by James Surowiecki - 2004

Ó 2006 by QiN-Hombre

Into my world, came three unrelated how-things-work books. After reading these consecutively, I asked myself - can 'Confessions' give us 'Wisdom' to clarify a 'Paradox'?

‘Confessions’ attempts to exonerate the writer’s part in his own description of the United States’ economic steamroll over developing countries. Perkinss enlightens us to the invisible conspiracy of epic proportions behind the scenes in the late 20th Century. But the sentimental and diffident kiss-and-tell didn't make it for me. The writer’s theory of ‘corporatocracy’ is sometimes palatable in terms of the profit-making by the millions of unrelated, yet connected, benefactors of the American ‘Empire’. Yet, it is sometimes hard to believe the excommunicated, the jilted, or the loser, in the post-game analysis, no matter how right they may be.

He theorized that if third-world dictators were not in the back pocket of the US interests, and didn’t capitulate quietly to US pressure (the author gave examples of Omar Torrijos in Panama, and his successor, Manuel Noriega), Perkins said, what happened to these two, would and did happen to others. In his own description, Perkins was an economist paid to inflate a country’s ability to pay for electrification projects. This so that 'American contractors secretly in cahoots with his consulting firm, could make money hand over fist'. This ostensibly so the 'U.S. government could then control these countries with staggering debt'. The corrupt free market (what was done quietly in our name) with the aid of corrupt local politicians, were giving developing countries the choice and the ability to enter the 20th Century.

Which brings us to having choice in a world growing more complex by the minute, no matter where one lives.

Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College professor clues us in on a somewhat Quakerly concept of being satisfied with limited options, many times considering one option at a time and simply saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The modern world gives us seemingly unlimited options. Are we happier for more and more choice? Schwartz thinks not. However, most would bristle at the thought of a central committee in a command economy, making decisions on what style, color and quantity of shoes to produce for us to be able to buy.

As the world gets more complicated and choices more abundant, miniscule and immediate, Friends find it harder and harder to isolate themselves from this luxury and complexity.

Schwartz’s hypothesis says that having too many choices creates psychological stress, especially when combined with regret - if we had just made a better decision and picked this one instead of that one. But we as Friends do not pick among shades of color in decisions mostly (as Schwartz also reminds us against in order to be satisfied persons), we have business brought to us usually requiring a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’.

Good decision-making and governance are on many of our minds of late, considering the recent news article in the

Philadelphia Inquirer regarding Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s now publicly exposed problems of some being frustrated with the state and speed of its decisions.

James Surowiecki has written a very important work, mentioning historic Friends at key points in his thesis: the best decisions are made by groups of cohesive but decentralized, independent thinkers.

Critics of Quakerism cite the ‘tyranny of peer pressure’ in making us less than independent individuals. We have political alliances within our Society and Friends sometimes feel we should ‘go along to get along’ where we become so identified with the group that the possibility of dissent seems practically unthinkable. This very explanation figures heavily in Surowiecki’s thesis about how groups should not make decisions.

The flip side of that conundrum is the trust Friends hopefully have for each other in this decision process. Many times we must know each other (well) before we can trust each other, and Surowiecki has credited 19th Century Friends, as having the intra-group trust which enabled modern capitalism to develop and flourish. (Because without some inherent trust in a system, the cost of policing such would obviate any benefit that it offers.) Quakers were remarkable in the public eye for their trustworthiness and cooperation, simply because it was the exception to the general way of deception and sharp dealing at the time. And many times it made Friends wealthy.

Even in modern times, we find that in both Friends Society, as well as the wider society, Surowiecki writes, “ if trust is the most valuable product of (market) interactions, corruption is the most damaging.” Friends many times take the long-term perspective on our Society, and trust in each other seems to be bolstered from this perspective. So Friends in Philadelphia, and all other places might consider their trust of one another and how that might be bolstered.

Surowiecki, describes how the economic bubble of the 1990’s removed the long-term perspective from Wall Street’s view. Investors also stopped doing due diligence because of the large short-term returns – hence the famous scandals of Enron, Global Crossing, Tyco, and WorldCom. And auditors, the supposed system guardians of business integrity, also became so identified with this success, they failed in their vigilance, in their rush to believe the hype, and to share in the wealth.

Failures of decision-making where dissent was suppressed have expressed in many famous examples. The author cites two - the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961) and the Columbia disaster (2003). The Columbia Mission Management Team failed to evaluate properly the critical effect of debris hitting the exterior insulation of the craft before the ship’s re-entry into the atmosphere. The team’s Chief structured the agenda and dialog tightly in the committee meeting and proposed the issue as already resolved before any independent thinking could have occurred. At least we Friends never do that.

Surowiecki cites NASA as transformed at some point in recent history - from a bottom-up, meritocratic culture, into a centralized hierarchy that certainly failed in that Columbia mission. The author also cites other contributing factors in that most of the newer NASA employees come directly from graduate school and do not have the previous work experience to enable the group to have important work experience and diversity of opinion. Even though aerospace engineers in the 1960’s wore the same white shirt and crew cut, they embodied the diversity and independence of opinion which ‘put a man on the moon’.

But, even considering the Apollo era – ‘the Eagle has landed’ - in an obvious analytical and engineering success - Friends might still feel that spirituality is part of the truth in our world. In ‘Confessions’ John Perkins felt those who are primitive, spiritual and exploited - The Condor’ - might have something to teach the developed, rational and consumerist world - ‘The Eagle’.

Perkins closed his work quoting ‘The Prophesy of the Condor and Eagle’. The prophesy, from the mists of history, says that around 1490, these two paths of consciousness, would converge and would nearly drive the Condor to extinction. But, according to legend - 500 years later - in the New Age, or the Age of Aquarius - the Eagle and Condor would have the opportunity to make peace and fly together in the same sky, along the same path. Could now be our opportunity to solve the paradox with pure wisdom?

Report on 'Inequality Matters'

Inequality Matters was held at New York University, New York City

June 9, 2004

Dear Friends,
This is to thank you for supporting my participation in the conference: Inequality Matters 2004. A report follows.
Although it was spiritually stressful to me as a Friend, the experience was valuable, and I met persons who I feel we can work with both in the Quaker community as well as the wider world. The only other Quakers I saw on the guest list were a Friend from New Haven Friends Meeting, and someone from the AFSC. It would have been good to have other Friends from our area there since break out groups formed often and it was impossible for me to hear what happened in other groups.
The atmosphere of strife between an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ was prevalent. The focus most of the time was on a pep rally style, call to arms about the upcoming Presidential Election. The theme of the conference, however, was to address the increasing chasm between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have nots’ in terms of wealth and power in the United States.
The opening evening featured two notable speakers. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote the book ‘Nickel and Dimed’ about her experience going under cover as a low-wage worker in America. The most powerful and articulate speaker of the whole weekend was Bill Moyers. If one could imagine Bill Moyers on television in his commentary style, he was many times more eloquent and powerful in person to a crowd of about 400 which was eager to get angry. Although Bill Moyers did not offer specific suggestions as to ‘how’ we might overcome this widening chasm, or reverse its separation, he did allude to the concept that ‘Americans must work for the building of individual wealth as well as for the Commonwealth’.
Commonwealth is an important concept for Friends also. William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania on this concept. Ernest Bader, a Quaker, set up a Commonwealth, by charter he gave the Scott Bader Company to its employees. How do we build Commonwealth? Moyers didn’t elaborate on that. But we as Friends know that we might look at the charter of Scott Bader as an example. Today, Scott Bader is still known as a highly successful chemical company (in England) and has spun off similarly structured, self-governing companies where the scope of the original firm was unable to deal with the new circumstances in a Friendly manner.
The next day, the speakers included William Greider, a reporter for ‘The Nation’ and writer who recently wrote the book: “The Soul of Capitalism”, concerning the concentration of wealth and power in America. The thesis of his book as well as the focus of his speech, was that Americans should not be looking toward the (federal) government to solve the problem of inequality. He feels that citizens might do better at influencing the government by learning how to build consensus in the workplace first, in new, creative organizations founded on principles of equality, responsibility and sharing of risk and financial participation. Since we have been taught to live in an environment that requires much less responsibility at work, which for most of us means a living within a top-down decision structure, we find it natural to follow orders and carry that model into our political lives.
I was the first in line at the microphone to ask Bill Greider a question. The moderator made three people ask questions and then had the panel of two, including Greider, answer all at once.
My question began as I read from ‘The Soul of Capitalism’. I introduced myself to the panelists as a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and then read from page 17:
Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has described a more supple social definition of poverty that is more relevant to our condition. Poverty, he suggests, is when people lack the means to appear in public without shame. By that standard, many more Americans are impoverished that the government has calculated, and Sen’s definition perhaps captures the real inner dynamic driving mass consumption beyond acquiring the basic necessities.
I then asked the question: Considering this definition, should we also consider spiritual poverty as an important factor in the chasm of inequality?
My question was answered by the second panelist, Reverend Robert Franklin, of Emory University, when he said, after answering the other two questions at length, ‘and yes, spiritual poverty is important.’
I wrote to William Greider after the conference. His response is attached.
In a breakout session that day, I heard speakers give feedback from focus groups on words that the general public finds palatable and non-threatening when social issues are being discussed. The words ‘Equality’ and ‘Justice’ are threatening or possibly too confrontational in the ears of the general public. Words like ‘fairness’, ‘opportunity’, and ‘stewardship’ were evidently more sonorous words in the minds of the public. I believe ‘the public’ was defined as focus groups from all over the country, including the Midwest, and the South.
On the third day, I attended a breakout session sponsored by Acorn, a national activist group for political representation and action. The session was entitled ‘The Living Wage’. Since I am hoping to work on a concern for Economic Justice, as you all know about, I attended this breakout session, even though there was another one, which Friends might have been interested in, regarding giving voting rights to former felony convicts.
Once again the two speakers from Acorn were obviously oriented to a warlike stance in a struggle with business owners, especially restaurant owners, it seemed. We had introduced ourselves in the beginning of the session, and I simply said I was with ‘the Quakers’.
The modus operandi of Acorn seems to be to organize local residents in a community to try and raise the minimum wage for a certain local area through government intervention and ordinance, whether it be a city, county, or state. As the speaker explained her difficulty in battling the Restaurant Owners Association, for example, referring to the business owners as ‘ogres’, is that they fight her tooth and nail. I asked her if she had ever tried to show these owners examples of successful businesses, which pay their employees a living wage? She said, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ I later wrote to her, explaining this concept, as well as offering her some assistance in giving her examples which show how financially successful a business (even a restaurant) can be by managing with an enlightened vision.
My feeling Friends, similar to Greider’s, is that government intervention and regulation are sometimes necessary, but are costly substitutes for situations which cannot be resolved by individual business owners and their stakeholders. There are some workers for which the minimum wage should be what it is, like students who are living at home. I understand, that companies have the upper hand many times, filling their work schedules with all part time positions to deny full time benefits to most workers, etc. However there is an enlightened way for these owners to be convinced of the ‘right’ way to treat employees and the ‘right’ way to pay them a living wage. If we treat the business owners as ‘the enemy’ than they will certainly retrench and hire expensive lawyers to protect their interests. When legislation is passed for tighter regulation, companies spend more time and money in complying with these regulations which costs customers more for products and services.
Indeed one of the outreach goals for a worldwide group of Quakers concerned with Friendly commercial business practices will most likely be to promote the changing of individual hearts in this manner. Once there are enough examples of this model to show the rest of the world that it is possible and successful, the tide will turn naturally and the sun will rise on a new way which recognizes ‘that of God’ in each person.
I had to leave early, right before the ending of the break-out session as we were behind schedule from a delay earlier in the day. I quietly left the plush room in the newly built Kimmel Center, previously the Loeb Student Center when I was a student at NYU 20 years ago. I pushed open the high-tech classroom door. As it slowly closed on a compression hinge, I heard the coda to the presentation. The speaker continued, ‘To end on a depressing note…ker-thunk”, the door closed behind me. In the engineered silence of circulation fans and carpeted hallways, I thought to myself, ‘Whew, that was a close one.’ Floor-to-ceiling windows gave me an elevated view north to through the late spring trees of Washington Square Park toward the backdrop of Midtown. I padded quietly toward the elevators contemplating my spiritual Friends at Brooklyn Meeting.
In Friendship,
Friend Glenn

Re: Quaker Witness in Business / from Inequality Matters
Tue, 08 Jun 2004 20:13:20 +0000
“William Greider”
Dear Hombre-- First, thank you for the terrific letter and confirming thoughts. I can tell you have a sense of the impasses as well as the great possibilities. As a reporter, having traveled around this country for many years among both the influential and the marginalized, I have picked up an abiding conviction that people are closer together than they imagine -- if they would only lower their guards a bit and listen more closely to others they assume to be adversaries or disinterested. One problem, as you point out, is their accumulated anger. It blocks them from trusting this route and so it seems easier to settle for continued combat -- even though the imbalances of power make that a more unlikely path to deep change.
In short, I am very interested in hearing more about the Friends' Business experiences and your own book in progress. I am especially eager to talk about the entry techniques -- how people can begin to engage these questions in a business setting or start an enterprise or use their leverage in different ways. I am a lapsed Presbyterian myself, but my long ago forebears were Mennonite who settled in William Penn's Commonwealth (south of Lancaster PA) with land grants from Penn's Land Commission. The original Republic was not ready for such advanced ideas...but maybe it can be led to reconsider them.
Let's do continue our conversation. I must appreciate your thoughts. Best regards, Bill Greider
1025 Connecticut Avenue NW #205
Washington DC 20036

-------------- Original message from "QiN-Hombre" : --------------
Dear Mr. Greider,
Thanks again for your speech today, I thought you were quietly eloquent, in the manner of your book, that I read from today at the microphone.
In plain language you really explained 'how' we can begin to close the equality gap in democratic power and economic wealth. Your suggestions for how we might do this today have been practiced in Friends' businesses for over 300 years, valuing integrity highly and treating people kindly and fairly.
I believe many at the conference are just too angry to begin to want to cooperate with 'the other side' in solving the problem. I hope we can discuss ways to remove this anger, or re-channel it in a positive manner rather than in its current hostile tone.
In any case, I mentioned some Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends around the world, are promoting the current and historic examples of business integrity, including how workers in companies participate in both decision making and profit sharing, in a Commonwealth organization. These ring true to us as it seemed they did for you in your speech today. Your question to us seemed to be 'are we ready now'?
The big words I believe, which many (liberals) don't want to deal with is 'responsibility', and 'risk' which you touched on very poignantly.
One other idea which you may want to consider, which contradicts the anachronistic yet still pervasive master-servant relationship which you mentioned. This runs parallel to Commonwealth and is called the concept of Servant-Leadership, which was created by a Quaker and is now practiced successfully in many companies who know nothing of Quakerism, just that the method works for them.
The concept of smallness also I believe was touched on. A Quaker named E.F. Schumacher wrote a book in the 1970's "Small is Beautiful" which discussed the Commonwealth idea as well as the concept of owning one's workplace, as you also mentioned today. Schumacher was highly influenced by Mohandas K. Gandhi.
I am also writing a book on the topic of Quaker Integrity in Business and how it might be utilized in today's world. I hope to quote parts of 'The Soul of Capitalism' in my book, since your ideas are very interesting to me and in harmony with us.
Would you like to stay informed about and possibly participate in the Worldwide Quaker Witness in Business Group's activities?
Friendly Regards,

Jen Kern / Inequality Matters presentation
Sat, 05 Jun 2004 16:49:24 -0700
Jen Kern ( National Living Wage - Acorn )
Dear Jen Kern,
Thanks for you presentation representing Acorn at the Inequality Matters meeting today on the Living Wage concept.
The Friends sometimes known as Quakers, have run businesses for centuries with the main goal of 'doing good' first, by treating employees with respect, including all in consensus decisions, and paying a living wage. Businesses under this model have been financially successful without unions since each employee has the ear of management and each employee feels, and is valued and is given the correct environment in which to flourish to one's highest potential.
Many times employees of Quaker influenced businesses are treated and paid like partners, and given the appropriate responsibility of participating in management.
This concept has living examples of financial success by Quakers and non-Quakers. We feel that there is 'that of God' in each person, no matter how depraved that person may be, whether he or she is a murderer or a greedy person. If you feel that you would like to offer 'encouragement' to changing the poor spirits of some of the business owners or 'ogres' as some referred to them, rather than the unfortunate tactic of 'fighting' with them, we might help Acorn show them that an enlightened self-interest, as a replacement for pure altruism, or our concern to 'do good' first and foremost, will pay them back better than will cutting corners.
As William Greider said yesterday in his speech, "the more we begin to participate in decision making at work, the more we will begin to be interested in democratic participation in government". I tend to agree with him that this 'organic' route is the way it will work the best in removing the apathy of the public in their own self-determinism. Even unions do not guarantee that workers will participate in decision-making. Apathy can run through employee unions as well and action can become institutionalized, become top-down and inorganic. No one can force employees or citizens to be enthusiastic or vigilant; they have to want to be involved.
We can force businesspersons to conform to laws, but it will most likely breed contempt and hatred which only leads to more hatred and dysfunction in our world.
I would be able to help you offer enlightened business models as examples to restaurants and those business persons who don't understand the value of paying employees living wages. If you would like, please contact me, I'd be happy to help.
I also gave the example of Costco vs. WalMart in their treatment of employees and how it has positively affected the operation of their firm . There was a story on the website about this concept exactly. So, this concept is not proprietary to Quakers, nor typical totally of small business.
Thanks again for your presentation,