I could have titled it “Money is the root of all evil,” but I don’t believe that. Money is useful and a reasonable metric for many things. It is not proper to make it the nexus of all decisions.
“Anything that just costs money is cheap.” ― John Steinbeck
Today we are suffering from a crisis in leadership that is fundamentally driven by personal selfishness. Everywhere you look money is the dominant priority in decisions. It overwhelms almost everything else including many big items that transcend money in importance. If you want to see why a certain law or policy has come into effect the clearest path is to see who benefits from it, usually a financial benefit. There has almost become a mantra that if someone makes a lot of money it means that they are doing something right. Corruption is simply a means to the end where the end is enrichment. Little or no thought is given to long-term consequence or the moral and ethical dimension. Money is the end product and ultimate measure of effectiveness. The societal toll of this approach to governance is profound.
Even the most casual observer of the United States today would notice the obsession with money, and its inherent distortion of the national priorities. This distortion is present at almost every corner of life whether in business, school or institutions that define our society. It has swallowed other sources of meaning and driven other forms of measuring value from the discussion. The obsession has gotten steadily worse over my adult life seemingly driven by the equating of money with value. By almost any measure the USA is in worse shape now than when I entered into adulthood. It isn’t like our Country has great inspiring objectives. For all that is being scarified at the altar of the almighty dollar precious little is being achieved. It seems likely that the wholesale worship of money is the direct cause of so little achievement. If we want to change our fortunes as a Nation changing this is at the heart of it.
It is time to chart a different course for measuring what we are doing. There are hopeful signs such as the view that business is about building and satisfying customers rather than enriching stockholders. This is an outcome-driven philosophy that presumes (rightly) that if the customers are there, the money will take care of itself. By the same token schools should focus on education and students with a keen eye toward societal service as its outcomes. Similarly for the sort of Labs where I work, we should look toward the combined outcomes of scientific progress applied toward societal needs. In each case these outcomes should also be the yardstick of measurement, not the money used. Too often with government funding, the money is looked at without examining what it is enabling. Money invested in something that has future value is far better than money spent on consumption. Thus every dollar in the budget is not equal even though the dialog seems to treat them as such.
There are several ways of defining a country’s innate nature all lacking in one way or another. The clearest distinguishing factor for a Nation is its people with their culture, motives and character. Today, unfortunately, Americans are most clearly defined as being obsessed with the superficial and money is at the core. Being incurious and simple-minded has become a badge of honor while curiosity and intellect are tagged as being sources of suspicion. While this part of the American character is timeless, the level of dismissal of intellect has grown during the same period as the obsession with money. Serious thought and motives deeper than the accumulation of money are similarly looked down upon.
None of this is serving the Nation or the World well. Objectively, today’s America is defined by the stress of increasing stratification in income and wealth and the diminishment of most people’s dreams. Gone are the middle class aspirations of the blue-collar masses that once defined the post WWII economy. This rather dismal view of the American soul is a direct product of a leadership that has made the stockpiling of money their principle life objective. These principles are infecting every corner of the American experience and have replaced many of central tenets of citizenship.
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” ― Peter F. Drucker
In the workplace the emphasis on money has a number of particularly pernicious impacts. Among the most prevalent is the loss of effective authority for those leading organizations. They are now “managers” instead, which is a much deeper change that is refreshingly reflected in the title. They now just manage the work and lead precious little. The consequence is the lack of self-direction or purpose in their oversight. This has been replaced by a set of directives coming from the customers paying bills. Increasingly the only thing that matters is whether someone will pay you to do something. What you do is of little importance, if you can get paid for it, its OK by definition. Organizations have effectively prostituted themselves to the highest bidder. The core of their being matters little in any conscious decision made.
Like prostitution, the impact on the lives of the people is distressing. Without the anchor of direction and the application of abiding principles, people in the organizations never develop deep sustainable careers and simply settle into their roles as money spending cogs in a machine that has little or no purpose. People are busy and the more successful among them provide a key role as super-consumers with society. Gone is the distinct value in achieving something important or essential for society. It has been replaced with the value that being rich is equivalent to being a celebrity. This celebrity status along with its affluence is the highest aspiration of many.
The impact on the capability of organizations to innovate and build their future has been profound. The lack of certainty and effective authority over direction saps the ability of organizations to follow their own judgment for investing in anything. The consequence is the degradation of organizations into collections of projects and people with less and less of a reason to engage with anything other than the source of the money that funds them. Nothing binds them together with a common purpose or overarching reason other than weak bonds of shared interests. For this reason the management through money as the organizing principle is a cancer on our institutions and is slowly, but surely eating away at their future.
Many have responded to these stresses by blaming other people for the ills of the Nation; people of differing color, differing sexual orientation, differing values and these differences have manifested themselves as a virtual complete paralysis of our ability to govern ourselves. These stresses and scapegoats are used to drive wedges through the citizenry and power moneyed interests into power. At no time in our recent history has the United States been so sharply divided and our “leadership” so completely incapable of solving problems. Our untended problems have grown larger and more difficult to solve in the wake of this dysfunction. Increasingly the Nation has come to serve only the interests of those who pay for the cost of electing the politicians.
A more dispassionate manner to look at what is happening is to measure the relative change in the quality of life and who is benefiting from the current milieu. The relative distance between the richest in society and the poorest has expanded dramatically over my adult life, as the ranks of those in poverty have swelled. The elderly used to be one of the poorest segments of society and now rank as the richest. Each of these trends is occurring with a diminishing value to the education being provided. What does work in government is structured to amplify and accelerate these trends beyond their current depressing state. For the young, the quality of the education available is crumbling while its cost is spiraling upward. Additionally the cost of the mediocre education is being funded by loans that act as another financial transfer mechanism from young to old and poor to rich (euphemistically called student aid). The rich and old have political power and have exercised it to enrich themselves at the cost of the National prosperity. No one is willing exercise any leadership to shift these priorities toward a healthy balance.
Why? What is driving this? Is it pure and unadulterated greed? Do the rich and elderly not care about the future of this country? Do they view the Nation through the prism of “values” and fail to see the economic havoc being committed? The conservative movement has transformed into a vehicle for greed where people are conned into trading the defense of their values for economic ruin. Worse yet, the Nation is accomplishing nothing of any gravity other than hollow out the future to fuel greed in the present.
I don’t know, but a large part of the reason for these trends is a tendency to see money and its acquisition as the raison d’être for all things. If you can make money or some one will pay you for something it must be OK. I see the corrosive effects of this philosophy all over the institutions I interact with daily, a government lab and universities where increasingly money is the sole barometer of success. Neither of these institutions used to function in this manner with missions that transcended money, but today these missions are footnotes. This is where the parallel is the strongest. The mission of an institution is very value loaded while money is simply a means to achieve the mission. Increasingly the institutions are signaling that the money is the only thing that matters, the mission success is completely optional.
“What’s measured improves” ― Peter F. Drucker
Another institution seems to be at the heart of the change in our society to a focus on money, the corporation. I’ve written before about the concept of maximizing shareholder value and its impact on transforming corporations into money making machines for their shareholders (and CEO’s, investors, banker…) often through savaging these companies. We see mass layoffs, plant closings, and a general failure to invest resources in the corporation’s future to improve today’s balance sheet with the commensurate improvement in today’s stock price. The result is the mass of stresses on the larger body of the public all the while the shareholders are the sole beneficiaries. The same value system has been adopted by government institutions such as research labs, universities, and hospitals, to the detriment of the entire Nation. Money is not and should not be the core measure of any of these entities. To do so is deep malpractice and loss of any sense of truer purpose, yet this is clearly happening.
“Action express priorities” – Mahatma Gandhi
To make matter worse during the Reagan administration the philosophy of governance took hold that looked at business for the model of how to run government. Thus the short-term model focused on enriching the top end of society by literally cooking the books (legally or not) became the model for government. All the public institutions like schools, labs, universities, roads, bridges, etc, etc, adopted this model. Suddenly it was money that mattered, and the long-term principled goals were cast aside. Increasingly the annual or quarterly return on money was all that mattered. These practices do not benefit society as a whole whether practiced in business and certainly not for government; they only benefit the people at the top.
“If everything is mission, nothing is mission.” ― Stephen Neill
It wasn’t always like this. Corporations and other institutions used to have an almost explicit contract with the Nation that transcended financial gain. Money was always in the frame, but there were deep imperatives associated with the impact of the institution on society as a whole. Today Germany’s companies much more closely follow this model, and that nation benefits from the social compact. The corporation is a holistic part of society sharing the in the benefits of stability and success while responsibly providing part of the foundation for the same.
The impact of the change to a financial model of governance is evident in government-supported research whether it is at the Labs or universities. The former missions of these institutions are increasingly an afterthought. If you want tenure and success as a professor than bring in lots of grant money; whether you can teach is not important. The same increasingly measures success at the research labs where the ability to bring in money is the prime measure of value. More and more what you are being paid to do matters very little compared to whether you are being paid. The Labs and universities are well on their way to having the same value system as the (high end) call girl or gigolo. If you got the money, we got the time.
On the corporate side of things the philosophy has caused the destruction of the great research laboratories. They are gone. The quarterly balance sheet driven decision-making leaves little or no room for long-term research. We are all poorer for it, and the diminishment of progress will seed a lack of economic growth in its wake for decades. Money that should be applied to long-term research now lines the pockets of the rich who have earned their fortunes by creating absolutely nothing (except perhaps exotic investment vehicles that are basically Ponzi schemes). We have allowed ourselves to trade in real progress, real knowledge and real technology for the smoke and mirrors of the financial industry. The thing that is called investment is no longer “an investment,” it is an increasingly abstract gimmick solely existing to produce money for their architects. The future prospects of the company that the stock is supposed to support are an unfortunate detail that is dealt with through creative accounting.
“Don’t think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money.” ― Voltaire
The situation is terrible, but having college age children makes it even more galling. The cost of a university education is becoming obscene especially when it is compared with times past. To compound matters Universities seem to have placed the actual teaching part of their mission as secondary with it being paid little more than lip service today. Bringing money to the university has become the primary drive and yardstick of success. While this compliments the other dysfunctions in our system well, the decay of education as a core enabler for societal success shows the depth of our depravity. We are savaging some of our most cherished institutions all in the pursuit of money.
The manifestation of this trend at the governmentally supported labs is a lack of any stewardship for the careers of those working at the labs. Increasingly it is only important that money is paid to work on something, what that something is does not matter. Whether the work leads anywhere meaningful or develops the people working is less than a concern, such concerns are a viewed as detriments. This leads to careers that are incoherent and aimless with an increasing emphasis on the ability to work on anything. We are destroying the ability to build deep sustained careers. Once upon a time these labs were treasure houses of knowledge and expertise. This knowledge and expertise enriched everyone and help spur economic growth as well as military might. It undergirded our National Security in irreplaceable ways; yet we have allowed this resource to be utterly decimated and again in the name of money.
Projects and new starts are dead. It is easier to syphon value from existing work. Risk is eschewed over making incremental improvements upon existing work. As a result technical debt is accumulating in ways we haven’t seen before. The long-term consequences of the current environment are likely to be the utter ruin of our formerly magnificent technological base. The same holds for the physical infrastructure upon which our prosperity rests. The same thing is happening for roads, bridges, airports, power plants, it is easier to simply patch things cheaply rather than build new better things. Corporate and societal investment in science or R&D is similarly stressed, and the resources devoted towards these efforts are deployed in a horribly inefficient manner. Succinctly put, I cost too much and don’t do nearly enough, and what I do isn’t nearly bold enough. All that said, I do more than many and I’m much bolder than most.
In a time when we should be deeply investing in the future with science as well as modern infrastructure instead we are doing the opposite. For example a nationwide broadband Internet with pervasive wireless would be a boon to the economy and the Nation in a myriad of ways. Instead we hold any hope of this sort of investment hostage to the baser needs of greedy monopolistic telecom companies who will never provide such a network. Our politicians make excuses that are nothing more demagoguery while accepting the effective bribes from the companies that benefit from their efforts. We have become a kleptocracy (i.e., a Banana Republic) where the government is run for the benefit of the rich and well connected without any concern for the average citizen or the overall well-being of the nation.
The current infatuation with vampires in the media is an apt reflection of what is happening in society. The vampires are a metaphor for the upper crust (i.e., the 1%) that simply exists to suck the life from the masses. Most people are simply cattle to be harvested. The vampires of “True Blood” might be the truest example of this trend with their glamorous and sexy personas parroting the same character as the rich on reality TV. Everyone wants to be these rich, beautiful, sexy people who live lives we can only imagine. It is a sales pitch for greed and the accumulation of wealth for the sole purpose of hedonistic excess.
What changes need to be made? Money can’t be ignored, but value of work and achievement can take more of a priority. Institutions should define themselves by achievement in their positive role in society instead of the balance sheet. This includes corporate interests as well as government-funded institutions. Our laws and funding should be crafted to reflect this objective by assuring that the achievement of these ends results in good financial outcomes. Ultimately the overall well-being and prosperity of every citizen should be the chief determining factor in governance.