Why Feel Embarrassed By The World of Business? (Part I)

Michael Medved

6/17/2009 6:14:47 AM - Michael Medved

THE UNACKNOWLEDGED ENTREPRENEUR

When my father died in March of 2009, I felt startled by obituaries that identified him as a “scientist and entrepreneur.”

A scientist… well, of course, but at no point in my life had it ever occurred to me to describe my dad as an “entrepreneur” or “businessman.” When speaking about him, I always proudly announced his profession as “physicist,” or “physics professor,” or “NASA researcher,” or even as “scientist astronaut.” (He qualified for the Apollo Program in the late ‘60’s, but never received his final mission assignment from NASA because of some laughably minor problems with his teeth and gums). At one point during my senior year at Yale, I jokingly introduced my father to my friends as “a member of the military-industrial complex” – a designation that my dad always remembered and savored. As an aspiring intellectual, with dreams of future glory in writing or politics, I could handle the idea that my brilliant, adventurous papa played a role in the defense establishment but I couldn’t accept the notion that he qualified as an ordinary, money-grubbing capitalist. Stressing his government or academic work provided a much better way to impress my pals, or the women I pursued, or even complete strangers, but that emphasis seriously distorted the focus of his work life.

During the week-long mourning period for my father, I sat with my brothers in Jerusalem (where my dad chose to spend his final two decades) and we roughly divided the way he invested his 83 years. He spent less than nine years as a university professor (part-time at San Diego State and then, briefly, full-time at UCLA), and just five years as an experimenter and prospective astronaut with NASA. He devoted more than forty years, however, to a consuming career as an entrepreneur and creator of high tech companies, building two moderately successful businesses from scratch. First came MERET Inc. (founded in the family den in West LA, the name stood for MEdved REsearch and Technology), and then JOLT in Jerusalem (another nifty acronym – Jerusalem Optical Link Technology). He toiled lovingly, tirelessly and joyously on both ventures, providing jobs for scores of bright, eager, mostly younger associates (including my brother Jonathan), before selling each enterprise to much larger, more established firms. Even after he gave up ownership and day-to-day command of JOLT he continued to busy himself with every aspect of the corporation’s scientific and commercial affairs (as the firm’s “chief scientist”) until literally days before his final three-day hospitalization with recurrent lymphoma.

On the long flight back from Israel, as I sorted through a large file of old family letters and clippings from my dad’s apartment, I suddenly confronted another uncomfortable realization: it wasn’t just my father who had invested most of his energy and ambition in the world of business. By any honest accounting, I’d always earned my own living in some form of corporate, for-profit enterprise – either the book business, the radio-TV business, the movie business, the newspaper business, or (for a few years after law school) the political consulting business. Two of my three brothers even more clearly owed their livelihood to fiercely competitive and high-pressure ventures – one of them as a well-known venture capitalist and entrepreneur in Israel, and the other as a respected executive for the California based movie-ticketing company, fandango.com. Why, then, did we all feel so reluctant to describe ourselves as a business family, preferring on most occasions to associate ourselves with intellectual, media or political pursuits?

POISONOUS CONDESCENCION OR OUTRIGHT HOSTILITY

When even the compulsively capitalistic Medveds feel vaguely and instinctively embarrassed about our long-standing entanglement in business building, it’s one indication of the shaky cultural standing of the corporate free-market system. In most quarters of our society there’s no shame in possessing money (or the flashy signifiers of wealth and comfort) but there is an odd unease over admitting the means by which those resources were acquired. Most success stems from the simple of expedient of selling a product or service for more than it cost to provide it, just as the steady accumulation of wealth requires nothing more than regularly spending less than you earn. From the time of adolescence—and for many of us, ever since childhood – there’s a tendency to assume that the endless repetition of such hard-headed transactions and calculations will necessarily deaden the spirit and somehow undermine our humanity. While young people occupy bedrooms at home or bunk comfortably at college dorms, enjoying educational progress and weekend partying on their parents’ tab, it’s easy to embrace the romantic spirit of the cherished 1806 lyric by William Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

A defender of the market system might respond that the orderly and disciplined process of “getting and spending” is more likely to enhance, rather than “lay waste” our powers, but the characterization of business toil as a desensitizing, soul-killing process has remained well-established for more than two centuries.

Unfortunately, most Americans encounter middle school and high school English classes several years prior to racking up any meaningful firsthand experience in the world of work, so they’re conditioned to expect the worst from the business system before they even enter it. Few citizens will escape from the educational system without encountering Arthur Miller’s tragic victim of the American dream, the downtrodden plugger Willy Loman (Low-Man, get it?) from his 1949 classic, “Death of a Salesman.” In the “Student Companion to Arthur Miller,” one Susan C.W. Abbotson writes: “Since his college days, Miller had felt that America was being run by men of business who were all after private profit, and who merely used those without wealth as pawns. Thus, it made sense to see money and finance as being behind many American conflicts. Howard Wagner, in ‘Death of a Salesman’, is the epitome of the cold-hearted businessman, who callously takes away Willy Loman’s job when he starts to lose business, without a thought to the man’s financial obligations and years of service.”

Contemplating the value of his life insurance to his family, Willy himself declares (in Act 2): “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.” No wonder his son Biff declares: “I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been.” On opening night for the play, a woman called “Death of a Salesman” a “time bomb under American capitalism and Miller responded that he hoped that it was, or “at least under the bulls—t of capitalism, this pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last.”

Even before Arthur Miller won riches and praise (and Marilyn Monroe) for his indictment of the values of the American market system, one of his distinguished predecessors and the nation’s first-ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature showed that business bashing represented a well-trodden path to international acclaim. During his historic speech to the Swedish Academy in 1930, novelist Sinclair Lewis lamented the fact that “In America most of us – not readers alone, but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.” At the same historical moment that Mussolini ruled Italy, Stalin reigned in Russia, the militarists already dominated Japan and Germany poised on the verge of Nazi takeover, the Yale-educated Lewis tarred his own nation as “the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring of any land in the world today.” The Nobel citation specifically cited Lewis’ contribution in writing “Babbit,” (1922) a savage (and best-selling) portrayal of smug Middle-American businessmen who tried to use Roaring Twenties “pep and pow” as well as “zip and zowie” to cover the appalling emptiness and corruption of their money-obsessed middle class lives. In Chapter 34 the omniscient (and dismissive) narrator notes: “All of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals and vocabulary.”

As the St. Louis born T.S. Eliot noted five years later about a presumably similar conformist crew:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass

While history classes derided (and still deride) the leaders of business as robber barons, despoilers and exploiters, the prestige writers in literature courses treated corporate culture with either poisonous condescension or outright hostility.

POP CULTURE POKES AT PLUTOCRATS

Surprisingly, American popular culture for more than a generation has echoed similar themes, despite the fact that most of those diversions emerge from the famous Hollywood “dream factory” characterized as show business. In fact , one of the nastiest and most influential of all indictments of corporate corruption and the financial system (“Wall Street,” 1987) came from one of the largest entertainment conglomerates of them all (20th Century Fox). Writer-director Oliver Stone contributed a fictional line (“Greed is good”) endlessly cited to prove the guilt and excess of the 1980’s (or any other era that offends political correctness with its emphasis on profit and growth). Even sophisticated journalists who ought to know better love to quote “greed is good” as some sort of authentic and shameful capitalist credo, just as they sometimes assume that the reptilian and predatory character who pronounced the famous words, Gordon Gekko, enjoyed some independent existence beyond his lurid, amoral life on screen. For instance on October 8, 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin reacted to the spreading financial crisis with a major address entitled: "The Children of Gordon Gekko." Rudd declared, “It is perhaps time now to admit that we did not learn the full lessons of the greed-is-good ideology. And today we are still cleaning up the mess of the 21st-century children of Gordon Gekko.”

In fact, Oliver Stone’s celebrated dialogue was only loosely inspired by a 1986 speech by the soon-to-be disgraced financier Ivan Boesky, where he told an audience at the University of California, Berkeley, "I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself". His words certainly lacked the force of Gordon Gekko’s invented exhortation (especially as delivered by Michael Douglas in his Oscar-winning performance): “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms - greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge - has marked the upward surge of mankind, and greed - you mark my words - will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

The eloquent Mr. Gekko hardly stands alone in winning Oscar attention for films that highlight the most irresponsible, rapacious and loathsome aspects of the business world. Among recent Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, anti-corporate essays improbably abound, including “Norma Rae” (1979), “Atlantic City” and “Reds” (1981), “Missing” and “The Verdict” (1982), “Broadcst News” (1987), “Working Girl” (1988), “Bugsy” and “JFK” (1991), “Pulp Fiction” and “Quiz Show” (1994), “Jerry Maguire” and “Secrets and Lies” (1996), “L.A. Confidential” (1997), “American Beauty,” “Cider House Rules” and “The Insider” (1999), “Chocolat,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” (2000), “Crash” (2005), “The Departed” and “Babel” (2006), and then, in time to herald the upcoming market meltdown, the tri-fecta of 2007 --- “No Country for Old Men,” “Michael Clayton” and “There Will be Blood.”

At the same time, TV series with unmistakable business-bashing themes dominated the Emmy Awards for 2008 for both Best Comedy (“30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Entourage”) and Best Drama (“Damages,” “Mad Men,” “Boston Legal”). Meanwhile, the critically acclaimed ABC TV series “Dirty Sexy Money” (2007-2009) made clear its cynical attitude toward the pursuit of profit in its very title and the even more acclaimed Fox series “Arrested Development” (2003-2006) similarly centered on the intersection of corporate criminality and family dysfunction.

The avalanche of negative portrayals of business ethics and accomplishment has arrived unaccompanied by any contrasting or countervailing visions of heroism or dynamism in the corporate world –a surprising imbalance considering that the source of all these entertainments remains one of the most ruthlessly competitive and globally consequential of all US enterprises.

Why would Hollywood, dominated by a handful of shamelessly capitalistic conglomerates, regularly trash the free market system which allowed American media companies to dominate the globe?

The answer to that puzzlement – provided in the continuation of this essay that will appear next week – does more to explain the harsh current view of business than any consideration of the impact of the current crisis.

TO BE CONTINUED