Friday, August 09, 2013


Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Businessmen and their PR professionals endlessly promote a love of risk as a basic value entrepreneurial value. At least in my experience, however, lack of imagination, tolerance for boredom, and deeply ingrained cautiousness are much more salient features of the commercial mentality. Far from courting danger and adventure, the executives I’ve met always much prefer the fix to be in. No doubt there really are outliers who live up to the Schumpeter romance of the swashbuckling innovator in fact as well as manufactured image. At least I assume such beings walk the earth. For some reason they didn’t show up at the meetings I attended. The guys who did show up much preferred arbitrage to leaps in the dark. There’s a reason for all those movie sequels and new flavors of Snapple, for the persistence of SUVs, for yet another strip mall in Tacoma, for all the innovations that aren’t very innovative. “Who hath vision? He who died o’ Wednesday.”

A simple syllogism shows that my observation is not mere cynicism: if the business of America is business and the business of business is turning a profit, America is about making a profit and not about taking a flyer. You can’t build an entire system around the proposition that the bottom line is what matters and then bitch when consideration of the bottom line crowds out other possible motives, including actually building something that matters. As Kant might have written, had he lasted long enough to repent of his earlier foolishness, “There is no possibility of thinking of anything at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be regarded as good without qualification, except unearned income.” You’d have to be one of those idiots who know the value of everything and the price of nothing to cavil at that. Unfortunately, in the normal run of things rent seeking doesn’t leave much room for dreaming.

I’m not attacking individual business people here: they are doing what they were told to do and the sustained effort required to do what they were told is nothing contemptible, especially since the vast majority of them are just making a living for their families. The relentless pursuit of profit is, as Max Weber pointed out long ago, a form of worldly asceticism; and it takes considerable discipline, not only to work, but to remember that the work isn’t the point. You’re creating the software for the IPO, not for its technical sweetness or for what it can actually do. The mission statement is for the troops, not the general. They’re supposed to love their work—beats paying ‘em, after all—but it’s better if you manage in a field you don’t like very much, just as it used to be said the best arranged marriages were based on mild antipathy. Keeps your priorities straight.

Like many systems, business works by virtue of the exceptions to its fundamental rules. Somebody has to make it new in commerce as in art or the profit margins will eventually peter out. To a remarkable extent, however, the ones who do make it new do are not businessmen at all but academics, scientists, and artists, many of ‘em working for the government directly or indirectly. There are economic/institutional reasons why government research and investment has been so crucial to the emergence of the growth industries of the last hundred years*—I leave the explanation of those reasons to economists such as Marianna Mazzucato—but the deep conservatism of business culture, particularly its value system, is the proximate reason that the free market is as sterile as a demand economy if left to its own devices.

*Not all industries, just automobiles, aviation, nuclear power, electronics, computers, the Internet, pharmaceuticals, biotech, agriculture, and renewable power.

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