Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 September 2017

“Soft” Corruption Grips America

[For a comparison of Cohn’s with Tillerson’s response to Trump coddling bigotry, click here. For a recent essay on how and why our Civil War continues today, click here. For the usual catalogue of popular recent posts, click on the appropriate link below:]

Catalogue of Popular Recent Posts

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For other popular recent posts, click on the links below:]
[For more recent confirmation of the following essay, click here.]

Sometimes the darkest clouds do have a silver lining. So it was with Harvey—a system of dark hurricane clouds that sat for days over Southeast Texas and dumped a biblical plague of rain.

The deluge that ruined so many homes and so many lives had a silver consequence. Many burly white working men set off in their four-wheel-drive trucks, hauling their boats, to save complete strangers from the flood.

No one paid them, and no one ever will. No one will even repay their expenses. No one told them what to do. In one reported case, three brothers bought a truck on Craigslist for the rescue effort.

Volunteers came to the disaster in droves. Without a thought of personal gain, they donated their time and effort, suffered pain, injury and sleep deprivation, and incurred real, unreimbursed expense—all to help their fellow human beings survive and recover from the flood.

If TV coverage can be trusted, many of the saved were people of color. Black lives do matter, it turns out, at least when what threatens them is rising filthy water, and not the police.

Fire ants survived the vast flood by sticking together, and so did people. The organizers of official help worked well, and so did the vast phalanx of volunteers. No one asked about victims’ race, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation.

After a few worrisome head fakes, no one even asked about their status as documented immigrants. All were equal and deemed worthy in the face of the biblical storm.

It was enough to put tears in your eyes and make you think that, yes, we Americans might somehow muddle through. And yet, and yet . . . When you bend down and look under the hood of America, the rose-colored glasses start to slip off your nose.

No one can blame Harvey in particular on burning fossil fuels. As a scientist said on the PBS Newshour [set timer at 1:27], that would be like attributing a particular home run to a baseball player taking banned steroids.

But just as science tells us that forbidden steroids make artificially superior performance more common and more likely, science tells us that unrestrained burning of fossil fuels is making storms like Harvey more common and more probable, as the same scientist recognized.

And what about Houston and its environs? The steady replacement of water-absorbent farmland and wilderness with cheap housing, cement and roads had made any flood, including Harvey, significantly more damaging. [Set timer at 4:50] So the developers who made quick bucks and the many people who got a cheap roof over their heads contributed to the Harvey flood’s biblical scale. And our corrupter-in-chief, our president, has exacerbated the problem by rolling back requirements that builders and planners consider climate change in future planning [set timer at 5:33].

The American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition) defines “corrupt” in part as “1. Marked by immorality and perversion; depraved. 2. Marked by venality or dishonesty: a corrupt mayor.”. While perversion and depravity can come from mental illness or just bad character, the vast majority of “immorality,” “venality” and “dishonesty” in our land comes from pursuing the almighty dollar.

Insofar as concerns politics and business, I would define corruption even more simply. It’s pursuing short-term benefit for yourself instead of doing what you know (or ought to know) is right.

Once you define corruption that way, you can see it everywhere in America. Call it “soft” corruption if you will, but it’s ubiquitous.

It permeates government at the highest level. Our president says he wants to avoid the appearance of corruption. But instead of putting his vast business empire into a blind trust, as all the ethics gurus say he should, he gives control to his children. If you trust that ethical “firewall,” I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

The president’s daughter starts to hawk her trinkets out of the White House, at least until public outrage gets too much to bear. Meanwhile, the president’s hotels worldwide fill with patrons who think they can curry favor with the world’s most powerful leader simply by staying there. Are they wrong?

Congress, of course, is rife with corruption. Few members take outright bribes anymore. With more subtle and less detectable corruption rampant, suitcases full of cash have become passé. A pol now can take millions in campaign contributions, openly and through our capable banking system, from very rich people who have no clue what makes a functioning society, let alone a just or thriving one. All they want is lower taxes and less regulation of their businesses so they can get richer more quickly and more easily. Pols accommodate them in order to get the money they need to propagandize us, the people, and so to get re-elected without actually considering our interests.

It got so bad recently that pols were ready to cut off 23 million people from practical access to medical care before angry mobs at town-hall meetings woke them up. And even then the health-insurance victory hung (and hangs!) by single vote in our Senate. Now pols and lobbyists are trying to emasculate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that keeps powerful financial institutions from oppressing and swindling innocent consumers. So far, the leaky dike of popular support for the regulator appears to be holding.

Anyway, government is less than half the story. Corruption goes far beyond Washington D.C. and our state capitals. As Calvin Coolidge is reputed to have said (but didn’t actually say) “The business of America is business.” In a way, that’s true. The overwhelming majority of economic activity by which American people make money and a living is in business.

How is business in America softly corrupt today? Let me count the ways.

Banking, of course, has been the poster child for corruption. The “liars’ loans” that bankers made, packaged into “mortgage-backed securities” and sold to anyone dumb enough to buy them, caused the Crash of 2008, from which our whole nation is still emerging. Systemic rules help reduce the risk of their doing the same things again, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau keeps them from oppressing individual consumers, but both protections are under relentless assault by lobbyists and boss-financed pols.

Does anyone doubt the banks’ short-term motive of making their managers rich quick? Does anyone fail to see that lending shareholders’ money to people who self-evidently can’t pay it back, and selling the resulting toxic mortgages to unsuspecting buyers worldwide, is not “doing what’s right”? And even if you also blame the avaricious borrowers, as so many right-wing pundits do and did, doesn’t that just mean that they, too, were corrupt? Do two wrongs make a right?

Today, course, we also have the scandal at Wells Fargo. Once a paragon of the big commercial banks, reputed to have the most efficient and honest “back office,” Wells now stands accused of creating millions of false and fraudulent accounts, opened in the names of clueless “customers” without their consent by sales people goaded to increase their output by any and all means possible.

Did the salespeople who opened the fraudulent accounts do right? Of course not. But what about the managers who cheered and goaded them on?

Yet even that’s not all. Corruption today goes far beyond banking. It reaches into every business, especially big, public companies. Why? Because our business schools teach it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying (and don’t believe) that business-school professors are crooked. It all happened much more “innocently” than that, mostly inadvertently. But it happened nevertheless, and it’s continuing to happen every day. Let me explain.

Unlike law schools and liberal arts colleges, business schools have one thing in common with teachers of science and engineering. They focus on numbers. They try to turn their graduates into “quants.”

Fair enough. Numbers are important in any field, especially in accounting and economics. But precisely what numbers do B-schools teach? What do they quantify?

They teach the numbers that are most important to people who own or run a business: profit and its parent, revenue. (Profit equals revenue less costs and expenses.) For owners, they teach “shareholder value,” the stock price.

And how do they teach them? Well, everything in our system of public companies runs on a quarterly basis. Salaries run on an even shorter term, weekly or monthly. Bonuses, stock options and other forms of indirect compensation are annual at their best.

So everything important to public companies and their owners and managers focuses on the receipt of quantifiable monetary value in the short term. Pressure to “monetize” every aspect of business is omnipresent.

Not much focuses on doing what’s right, for three reasons. First, doing what’s right is hard to quantify or “monetize.” You can’t find it or easily put it in a spreadsheet. Second, the effect of doing what’s right—or wrong—may be hard to see. Often it’s not short term, so it falls below the radar of quarterly reports, near-term stock price fluctuations, and “shareholder value.”

Third, what’s right or wrong has a long lever arm. Archimedes reputedly said, “Give me a lever long enough, and I can move the Earth.” Just so, the long “lever” of right or wrong conduct may take a long time to produce results, but the results can be spectacular or horrific.

For the spectacular, consider Amazon.com. It’s well known that CEO Jeff Bezos doesn’t worry much about the quarterly “bottom line.” His focus—indeed, his obsession—is customer service: making life easier, simpler, cheaper, more efficient and happier for Amazon’s many customers.

Amazon’s profit margins are razor thin, sometimes nonexistent. Often they are down in supermarket territory. Yet Amazon continues to crush both online and “brick and mortar” retailing competitors. Its stock’s price/earnings ratio is among the highest of all the “high-tech” leaders, because its profits are lower. Think its customers and the markets may know something that the quarterly-focused green-eyeshade folk don’t?

Apple, of course, has done much the same thing with products that Amazon has done with services. Both Steve Jobs and his successor Tim Cook have focused relentlessly on excellence in the appearance and performance of Apple’s products.

As a result, Apple is one the world’s top two companies in value, even if its stock’s P/E ratio is pedestrian and appropriate for a mature business. And Tim Cook’s response to an investor’s snarky question is legendary: when doing the right thing, such as making his products accessible by blind people, Cook doesn’t worry about the “bloody ROI” (return on investment).

For horrific, we’ve already mentioned two examples. The Crash of 2008, caused by bankers focusing on short-term returns, nearly destroyed our American and the global economy. We are just now in the process of exiting the economic rubble.

Similarly, the focus on short-term results has taken a paragon of banking, Wells Fargo, and dragged its business and name through the mud. Only time will tell whether Wells’ famous stagecoach logo, which has served it since the mid-nineteenth century, will emerge from the ashes or become a sad metaphor for corporate hubris, excess and corruption.

But the Crash and Wells Fargo, and excellent companies like Amazon and Apple, are only extreme cases. What about the vast majority of American public companies, which plod along from day to day, earning neither accolades nor jeers, but churning out the products and services that make modern life enjoyable and even possible?

Here is where the stinky rubber of soft corruption really meets the road. It’s eroding the efficient operation and customer-or-product focus of public companies, and therefore their long-term value. It’s doing so just as rapidly as in the extreme cases. Yet often the rot doesn’t become apparent until, like pustules just under the skin of an infected patient, it bursts suddenly into public view.

A case in point is AT&T, the telephone-internet company. I choose it not because it’s especially bad. Indeed, it may be representative of a whole range of long-term trends in big business. I choose it only because my recent experience in suffering its dysfunction—and assisting my fiancée in “firing” it—gave me special insight into how its apparent moral rot and bottom-line focus can produce complete dysfunction.

Let’s begin with some background and the symptoms. For more than a half century, my fiancée and her late husband had a business relationship with a company called “AT&T.” It began in the old days, when a huge firm using that name had a nationwide monopoly with complete control over the national telephone network. The relationship continued through the voluntary 1984 breakup of that nationwide monopoly, then with one of the resulting so-called “Baby Bells” under another name, and finally into the modern era when the West Coast Baby Bells re-acquired the AT&T name and went into the Internet business.

The sole remaining vestige of the grand old AT&T monopoly is the so-called “copper wire,” the unique “last-mile” of copper wire that, even in the old days, connected every house on the block to “The Telephone Company.” Today, that “last mile” remains a useful asset, but cable companies have made an end run around it by laying their own more flexible and higher-bandwidth coaxial cable.

Undaunted by this competition, the modern AT&T seeks to compete as an Internet service provider with a technology called “digital subscriber line,” or “DSL.” This technology has bandwidth limitations that eventually may cause its demise. But at present it allows AT&T and other telephone companies to provide Internet bandwidths in the low double-digit megabit-per-second range, over the same copper wires as the (much lower frequency) telephone audio. (AT&T and its DSL competitors also can provide simultaneous Internet and telephone service by rolling the audio into Internet telephone or VOIP service, using so-called “Voice Over Internet Protocol.”)

DSL technology is economically viable at today’s bandwidths, but it’s technologically tricky. It’s especially tricky when its provider tries to meld fiber-optic technology—a modern, cheap way of transmitting high-bandwidth Internet service over long distances—with the old-fashioned copper wires for the proverbial “last mile.”

With modern technology and well-trained techs, this melding can be done. But with AT&T, what my fiancée and I experienced was complete dysfunction. It began when AT&T brought fiber-optic lines into our neighborhood, offering what purported to be broader-bandwidth service. We bought the offer, and a friendly tech hooked us up, using the old copper wires to our home for the so-called “last mile.”

Within a week, the service failed. Being retired and temporarily out of personal projects, I decided to do an experiment. I would help my fiancée out. I would pretend that I was an average customer, with no Ph.D. in physics and without decades of experience with computers, code, and the Internet. To get help, I would make a call to the dreaded telephone queue—a business abomination that I had parodied on this blog fourteen years earlier.

The software connected me with a woman with in the Philippines with a medium-strong accent. I quickly discovered that she had only a basic knowledge of English, little knowledge of American culture or business, and only the knowledge of AT&T’s services and technology that she could get from reading her scripts.

Yet I had committed myself to experience the full horror and dysfunction of a big-company telephone queue, so I soldiered on. It took me about an hour to get a commitment from the clueless rep, reading from a script, to send a tech to our home the next day. In the process, and at her request, I did such useless things as go outside to verify that our phone line had not somehow collapsed, when there had been no recent wind or storm and the problem had occurred just after the last tech had set up the new service.

My “experiment” continued continued for the next few days, as a succession of four or five technicians visited our home and the fiber/copper wire connection point (apparently about 1,000 feet away) to try to fix the problem. I made an effort to get to know each tech. That wasn’t hard for me, as I had worked closely with like technicians for years in my first career as a scientist.

Each of the techs was pleasant, friendly and smart. All but one had considerable experience in his job; another had seventeen years’ experience.

But AT&T’s dysfunctional management, policies and procedures reduced each tech to a state of abject helplessness. I watched—and was able to befriend each more—as each waited by his mobile device for unknown and anonymous employees in the central office to do such things as (1) verify our account status, (2) check various technical parameters that should have been checkable remotely, and (3) throw various software “switches” that again should have been able to be thrown remotely from the field, at least by the more senior techs. Often a tech, while on a service call and with the clock ticking, would have to wait at least as long as I, the consumer, to get an answer, or even a response, from what seemed to me a telephone or Internet queue indistinguishable from the abomination I had endured to start the whole process.

It quickly became apparent that no one—not the tech standing in our house, not the techs managing the other sides of the mobile communications, and not the many people talking on the phone with my techs—had anything like the big picture or the ability to see it or handle it. The whole team was pathetically balkanized; it resembled the ten blind men of the Indian parable groping the elephant separately and trying to figure out, without knowledgeable help, what kind of creature it was.

When it came to billing, the situation got worse. Promotional discounts and waivers of installation fees promised by salespeople vanished and had to be “renegotiated.” Sometimes they vanished again, despite telephone assurances, on subsequent billings. Our account status had to be continually verified by visiting techs, often erroneously. After the service (including my fiancee’s VOIP “landline” telephone) stayed down for about five weeks while we were away, the company’s reps refused to waive charges for the down time, during which we had had no Internet or telephone service at all.

The last straw came when the company failed to recognize or credit several verified payments to the account, made using automated checks sent and recorded by a major bank. With my encouragement and technical support, my fiancée switched to Comcast (which already had provided her TV) for both TV and Internet access, and to Vonage for VOIP telephone landline service. Within three days, the new services were up and running well, with no technical and only one billing glitch.

What does all this have to do with corruption? Well, let’s go back to my short definition of “soft” corruption: pursuit of short-term benefit instead of doing what’s right. Just about every awful thing we had experienced likely arose from exactly that.

The purpose of siting telephone queues in places like the Philippines and India is ostensibly to cut costs and increase the “bottom line.” The result for me was to waste an hour of my time (and the Filipina rep’s!), doing what should have taken five minutes. Any of the techs who actually visited my home, knowing that there had been no storms or unusual weather and that the service had failed shortly after a change, would have said, as one passably intelligent human being to another, “Gee, it looks like we did something wrong. We’ll check it out.” So chalk up one hour of my time and one hour of the Filipina rep’s, not to mention the proportion of her pay and the cost to set up the foreign call center, for absolutely no discernible result.

The crux of the matter is that some B-school grad decided that it would save money to put phone reps in a foreign but English speaking country, and to hire new people with no experience in the business or with American culture, let alone the relevant technology. Of course you can’t let people like that have a lot of discretion in representing your company! So they must have no more authority and no more discretion than to read from a list of scripts and ask a list of prescribed questions.

In short, the reps must be cogs in a human machine, with no responsibility, authority or ability to help customers as one human being to another. When the matter involves billing (real money!), the reps’ authority and discretion must be even more circumscribed.

The result, as I wrote in my parody fourteen years ago, is no customer relationship, no human relationship, and a series of awkward, painful and utterly useless and time-wasting human interactions. The customer feels neglected and abused. The rep feels useless and restrained, worse than the operators of those long rows of identical sewing machines in endless identical rows in nineteenth-century sweatshops.

Does any of this ever make it into the B-school grad’s spreadsheet? I’ll bet a fair sum it doesn’t. Likely this decision was made simply by multiplying the number of projected reps in the call center by the differences in salary between the Philippines and wherever the call center was before it was sent offshore.

Thus does “soft” corruption work when it’s not only based on short-term benefit, but the “benefit” doesn’t include all the cost factors, especially those that are hard to quantify. As Albert Einstein reputedly said about scientists, most drill where the drilling is easiest, not where the oil is. If that’s true of physicists working at Einstein’s level, how much more fully does it apply to the average B-school grad?

Well, AT&T cut costs all right. They cut costs so well that, insofar as I and my fiancee were concerned, doing business with them became a nightmare—a parody of corporate dysfunction that continued relentlessly for about six months, until we fired them.

Firing them was a relief, but the dysfunction continued even afterward. My fiancée took AT&T’s DSL modem (along with its power cable and telephone line) to a local AT&T office to effect the firing. But they told her they couldn’t accept it there. She had to take the useless equipment to a courier service and mail it in!

No wonder Amazon and Apple are taking their industries by storm! They focus on the customer experience and the product, respectively. They feel a moral obligation (or at least a business necessity) to deliver, not just receive, something of value. And they think of every possible way to increase that value and decrease the costs, to the customer, not just to themselves. They understand that, once they do, they will receive value and praise in return. They do what’s right and what works, consistently and well, and their businesses grow relentlessly.

Unfortunately, they are the exceptions, not the rule, at least among big public companies. The schemes that B-school grads working in these companies dream up to cut costs and increase revenue are seldom focused on doing what’s right, let alone on understanding their customers and employees as human beings who ought to be treated as such.

Sometimes, they do simple acts of financial manipulation, such as stock buybacks or dividends. Sometimes, they do thinly concealed acts of corporate looting, such as taking a big company private by loading it with unsustainable debt, then downsizing it by selling assets and letting employees go, and finally selling the remnants at a profit. This can make them a lot of money, but is it “right” in any human or even longer-term business sense? Isn’t it all reminiscent of a corporate scrap dealer with a lawyer for a junkyard dog?

Meanwhile, fossil-fuel companies continue finding, extracting, refining and selling fossil fuels with abandon. They know that their customers who burn them are heating our planet, exhausting an irreplaceable resource (of feedstock for plastics, paints and medicines), and threatening the global economy with a vast system of stranded assets. Yet they make only token effort to transition to the new energy economy, which every informed person knows must come within the lifetimes of babies born this year.

So if you define “soft” corruption as seeking short-term benefit instead of doing right, it’s now endemic in our society. It begins with our president, whose corruption is without precedent. It continues with our Congress. And it infects our entire business community, including the bosses who subvert our pols and (most especially) our big public companies, many of which employ business cost-cutters, financial manipulators and corporate looters taught the ways of soft corruption in B-school.

From the perspective of this 72-year-old, the change for the worse in our culture is as dramatic and as clear as the recent total solar eclipse. In my youth, almost every career professional had a purpose in life that was’t just making money. Scientists wanted to create a unified field theory, discover the causes of cancer, or make the next Salk or Sabin vaccine for a dread disease like polio. Writers wanted to write the great American novel. Business people wanted to serve their customers and the community well by creating innovative products and services, such as televisions and computers, and selling them honestly at a fair price. Actors and comics wanted to entertain millions on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Money would eventually flow from all these things, of course, but it was far from their primary purpose. Today, money and transient fame seem the only coins of the realm.

When I was a kid, a series of books by George Gamow explaining recents advances in physics and math to non-scientific readers were best sellers. Today, best sellers focus on the antics and pathology of bent celebrities, corporate raiders, and Donald Trump, and on the questionable means by which people of no particular character or accomplishment got rich or famous. I hardly recognize the nation I was born into, let alone from what our media cover obsessively.

How can we stop the spreading stain of corruption from tarnishing our entire economy? How can we raise our level of moral acuity and get those hard-to-quantify but vital moral factors into our spreadsheets?

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how. Religion is on the ropes, at least as Jesus and the other prophets might see it. Jesus would hardly recognize what self-interested pols and so-called “entrepreneurs” say today in his name. When a filthy rich “mega-pastor” preaching the “gospel of prosperity” refuses (until pressured) to open his mega-church to house poor people crushed by Harvey, can national perdition be far behind?

The only realistic cure I can see, as religious moral influence wanes, is to get back to basics. We can focus on what a business does, not the money it makes, and try to do that better and quicker. We can put more engineers and scientists—whose primary focus is on goals other than money—in charge of our businesses and national policies. (That’s why I’m a fan of Rex Tillerson.) And each of us can try to keep a non-monetary goal, or two, foremost in our minds as we go about our daily business.

As Harvey has taught us, our warriors, police and first responders do that every day. They don’t think about their paycheck when they’re trying to protect us against terrorism, violence or the depredations of angry Nature. And the best ones consider moral issues like equality and our civil rights. That’s why many police leaders roundly condemned Trump’s casual equation of white supremacists with those protesting their evil philosophy. As for volunteers, they don’t consider money at all; they spend it doing right.

Can business people start considering moral values as do our warriors, police, first responders and volunteers, who put the most on the line? Of course they can. Internet service providers, for example, can focus on providing less downtime, broader bandwidth, and fewer technical and billing hassles. Journalists can focus on informing the public, as simply, directly, and accurately as possible. They can suppress the urge to increase their audience (and pay) by sensationalizing the immoral and trivial. (If they had done so last year, would Trump be president?) Car makers can focus on the inevitable transition to electricity and renewable energy, and on helping us preserve the Earth’s priceless and limited supply of fossil fuels for purposes other than burning, for as long as possible.

If we don’t do this—if we Americans can’t stop trying to “monetize” all of human life, and to figure costs with childlike simplicity—soft corruption will overwhelm us. We will join the long list of non-“exceptional” nations that have fallen into the dustbin of history by mistaking short-term venal self-interest for historical imperatives or earmarks of national superiority.

Footnote: A word about the seminal 1984 AT&T breakup may be useful, both for students of our American “antitrust” (competition) law and for our Millennials, who have never seen that law effectively enforced.

The breakup was one of the two greatest changes in our industrial landscape wrought by antitrust law in the late twentieth century. The other was the voluntary “unbundling” of computer software from hardware by IBM in 1969.

No court order forced or shaped either of these two great industrial upheavals. Each was a voluntary action, made under a so-called “consent decree,” by private American companies. Yet each was made in response to, and under the pressure of, a credible and meritorious lawsuit by the federal government for violations of our federal antitrust laws.

Together these two voluntary acts created the industrial and technological environment for much of our twenty-first-century prosperity. The 1984 breakup of the old AT&T monopoly supplemented the FCC’s 1968 “Carterfone” decision, which opened the previously monopolized national telephone network to interconnection with independent producers’ equipment. Together, the two events created today’s huge and diverse market for residential and business telephone equipment and software. They also incentivized creation of a significant part of the Internet’s physical backbone and much of the cellphone industry’s physical and software infrastructure.

The 1969 “unbundling” of software by IBM may have been even more important. It created the entire computer software industry, which previously had been monopolized by IBM. It thus opened up the industrial spaces inhabited today by such firms as Microsoft, Oracle, and Salesforce, which now owns the tallest building in San Francisco. It also provided the business and legal paradigm for today’s thousands of small producers of independent “apps” for smart phones and tablets.

Anyone who fears that rigorous enforcement of antitrust (competition) laws might impede technical and industrial progress would do well to study these two seminal case histories. Not only did the government’s expensive and prolonged lawsuits fail to impede progress. In the end, they created whole new industries, which undergird our prosperity today.

Just Scratching the Surface (Sunday, September 3, 2017)

Sometimes posts on this blog seem prescient. Whether it’s the hive mind at work, great minds thinking alike, or sheer coincidence, I don’t know. Probably it’s a little of all three.

But in this case, at least three articles in the Sunday New York Times address different aspects of “soft” corruption. All appeared on line about twenty-four hours after I posted the foregoing essay early Saturday morning.

The shortest and easiest to digest is an opinion essay by one David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair, on our recent explosion of cultural sleaze. He argues convincingly that our American culture has become radically sleazier and morally corrupt since the late eighties.

He says it all started in 1989, when an extramarital affair of a theretofore unknown tycoon named Donald Trump, with a model named Marla Maples, burst into our headlines. Now the very same rich libertine has become our president, bypassing the inconvenient necessity of accumulating actual experience in political office on his way.

Friend’s essay is itself emblematic of our cultural putrefaction. It’s full of name-dropping and words like “skeeviness,” which seem to make light of our collective turn to the Dark Side.

Not all the names Friend drops are those of mere celebrities. Some are names of media titans largely responsible for our cultural putrefaction, and some are names of pols like Newt Gingrich and the Clintons. Newt famously served his first wife with divorce papers in the hospital where she was being treated for what turned out to be terminal cancer. And how did the Clintons accumulate a reported family fortune of $250 million from careers spent mostly in politics? (For analysis of how both Clintons contributed to our cultural putrefaction while balancing budgets and making friends with minorities, click here.)

The second article at first might seem irrelevant. It’s about bicycle-sharing in China’s congested big cities. Apparently that’s a big business for small startups in China.

The sharing is mostly dockless. What a great idea! Think how much more efficient bicycle sharing could be, with GPS locators for all the bikes, if users would only drop them off voluntarily at designated sharing points. But they don’t. They leave them all over the place, blocking traffic and polluting gardens and private dwellings, so much so that many are lost to crime and some are destroyed—even burned (with fuel!)—by resentful people fed up with having to move them out of their way.

The result, already, is a collective conversation in China about personal morality, or what Chinese call “suzhi.” That term has many meanings but perhaps is best summarized by the English words “good character.”

How is this Chinese story relevant to us? In three ways. First, it proves a universal truth: in any society, corruption and moral decline begin with the individual. A good and true wall can’t have many bricks that are bent. Second, the Chinese story shows, at an individual level, how wasteful and immoral conduct can destroy social cohesion. Finally, it proves that the problem of moral laxity is global; it may be an unfortunate side-effect of prosperity, even in a still-developing nation like China.

The last of the three articles is the one that provokes the most thought. It concerns the trend among both big and small high-tech companies to promote their classroom technologies, including child-friendly social media, directly to teachers. They do so in much the same ways for which pharmaceutical companies have been criticized for promoting their drugs to doctors. They also encourage teachers to engage in personal “branding,” one of the chief enterprises of Donald J. Trump.

The article is not about teen-agers, who we already know are knee-deep in social media. It’s about grammar-school teachers. Third-graders are reportedly happy that their teachers are using and promoting for-profit classroom technology and becoming self-branded “ambassadors” for profit-making concerns.

“Soft” corruption? Probably. The conflicts of interest are obvious and legion, as identified by lawyers in the article. But are there countervailing benefits? Could the law be too slow to adapt?

Whatever the implications of Betsy DeVos’ high dive into school privatization with insufficient evidence that it holds water, this is not exactly school privatization. It’s an uneasy and possibly corrupt partnership between private companies and teachers, even those still supervised and paid by government, who are trying to do their best for their students and themselves.

Other partnerships between government and industry have produced our greatest advances in industry and technology. Just naming a few of them recites the basis of twentieth-century American industrial and commercial supremacy: high-altitude flight, commercial air travel, space exploration, the Internet, and much of modern medicine, including life-saving vaccines for smallpox and polio. All these things and more were initiated, developed and/or first funded by government and later handed over to, or taken over by, private industry.

The extremes just don’t work. All government is Communism, which failed miserably after decades-long, fair trials in Russia and China. All private industry has never been the American way: government has always stepped in where needed, for example, where private investment cannot or does not finance critical infrastructure or basic or high-risk research. Our nation worked like a fine switch watch during the five decades after World War II, when the fruits of government-funded research passed to private industry for development and expansion for the general welfare.

Could a partnership between government and private industry jump-start the roll-out of modern Internet technologies into education? Could that partnership, unlike the post-war one, begin with private enterprise and move to government development and control, in order to avoid corruption and waste of our most precious resources—the minds, enthusiasm and talent of our youth?

One of the most astounding things in the NYT article was this quotation from a student, speaking about the unusual, nontraditional seating arrangements in the classroom:
“If I’m just feeling like relaxing, I usually sit on the rockers or the ball chairs or the beanbag chairs. But if I want to be really, really focused, then I usually feel like going on something a little harder so that I don’t lose concentration.”
This was not a high-schooler speaking, but a third-grader! Maybe this particular student is a budding genius. But if not, don’t you want for your kid whatever made this third-grade student so articulate, precocious and self-aware?

Everyone over fifty has had the humbling experience of having to ask a younger person how best to use new technology. (That’s true even for me, with my two doctors’ degrees and sixty years of experience with electronics, computers and the Internet.) If a private-public partnership can push our kids into learning and accommodating new technology at warp speed, what’s wrong with that?

But we must also watch the Dark Side. Modern communication technology, the Internet and social media have become tools of propagandists. They might yet become tools of indoctrination and mind control on a scale that even Orwell never imagined.

So we have to be careful, very careful. At the end of World War II, with us Yanks in sole possession of nukes, we imagined a world of perpetual peace and limitless nuclear power. We never imagined North Korea or Fukushima. We must guard against similar unintended consequences of information technologies.

Everything depends our moral education, our character, and China’s “suzhi.” If they’re strong and good, we can build a sustainable heaven on Earth, working together. If they’re bad, we can turn our little planet into a Hell that neither Dante nor Hieronymus Bosch could ever have imagined. We can extinguish ourselves with nuclear fire or runaway global warming.

They key is us, and how we educate our kids with strong moral values, not just job-ready skills. But first, we must curb our rising tide of corruption, both soft and hard, lest our natural human tendency to help our individual selves produce catastrophic unintended consequences. At this particular time, we’re not doing that so well.



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