Best practices.

In a still-influential paper from 1937 titled “The Nature of the Firm,” the economist and Nobel laureate Ronald Coase established himself as an early observer and theorist of corporate concerns. He described the employment contract not as a document that handed the employer unaccountable powers, but as one that circumscribed those powers. In signing a contract, the employee “agrees to obey the directions of an entrepreneur within certain limits,” he emphasized. But such characterizations, as Anderson notes, do not reflect reality; most workers agree to employment without any negotiation or even communication about their employer’s power or its limits. The exceptions to this rule are few and notable: top professional athletes, celebrity entertainers, superstar academics, and the (increasingly small) groups of workers who are able to bargain collectively.

Yet because employment contracts create the illusion that workers and companies have arrived at a mutually satisfying agreement, the increasingly onerous restrictions placed on modern employees are often presented as “best practices” and “industry standards,” framing all sorts of behaviors and outcomes as things that ought to be intrinsically desired by workers themselves. Who, after all, would not want to work on something in the “best” way? Beyond employment contracts, companies also rely on social pressure to foster obedience: If everyone in the office regularly stays until seven o’clock every night, who would risk departing at five, even if it’s technically allowed? Such social prods exist alongside more rigid behavioral codes that dictate everything from how visible an employee’s tattoo can be to when and how long workers can break for lunch.

–Miya Tokumitsu, The United States of Work

A is A

The Gospel According to Paul Ryan:

Wealth = Freedom.

Or, to paraphrase George Orwell, all people are free, some are just more free than others. (And the pigs tend to prefer it that way.)

A hundred irrelevant issues at each election

Crises will come, as in the life of all nations and societies; but these will be happily surmounted, and the régime will continue, the stronger for its trial. A crisis of some moment will follow upon the large displacements of labor soon to result from the shutting up of needless factories and the concentration of production in the larger workshops. Discontent will spread, and it will be fomented, to some extent, by agitation. But the agitation will be guarded in expression and action, and it will be relatively barren of result. For most ills there is somewhere a remedy, if only it can be discovered and made known. The disease of sedition is one whose every symptom and indication will be known by rote to our social pathologists of to-morrow, and the possible dangers of an epidemic will, in all cases, be provided against. In such a crisis as that following upon the displacement of labor a host of economists, preachers, and editors will be ready to show indisputably that the evolution taking place is for the best interests of all; that it follows a “natural and inevitable law”; that those who have been thrown out of work have only their own incompetency to blame; that all who really want work can get it, and that any interference with the prevailing régime will be sure to bring on a panic, which will only make matters worse. Hearing this, the multitude will hesitatingly acquiesce and thereupon subside; and though occasionally a radical journal or a radical agitator will counsel revolt, the mass will remain quiescent. Gradually, too, by one method or another, sometimes by the direct action of the nobility, the greater part of the displaced workers will find some means of getting bread, while those who cannot will be eliminated from the struggle and cease to be a potential factor for trouble. Crises of other kinds and from other causes will arise, only to be checkmated and overcome. What the barons will most dread will be the collective assertion of the villeins at the polls; but this, too, from experience, they will know to be something which, while dangerous, may yet be thwarted. By the putting forward of a hundred irrelevant issues they can hopelessly divide the voters at each election; or, that failing, there is always to be trusted as a last resort the cry of impending panic.

—William J. Ghent, Our Benevolent Feudalism. NY: Macmillan, 1902. pp. 195-6

A place where aggression and consensus go together

Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers. Unlike today’s corporate executive, however, who has scrupulously acquired the rhetoric of consensus and multiculturalism, Fish is an old-style, free-booting captain of industry who has no intention of clasping both of your hands earnestly in his and asking whether you feel comfortable with being fired. He fancies himself as an intellectual boot-boy, the scourge of wimpish pluralists and Nancy-boy liberals, and that ominous bulge in his jacket is not to be mistaken for a volume of Milton. […]

In the teeth of all such soppy consensus, Fish is a Hobbesian and Machiavellian who enjoys conflict, believes only in what he can taste and handle, and likes to win. He sees his dislike of universal essences as anti-Platonic, though much of the time this is just a high-toned way of saying that he has the outlook on life of an estate agent. It is unclear how winning and intolerance go together, since you cannot be said to have beaten a rival whom you have tethered to the starting blocks; but it is clear enough how this philosophy, which Fish implicitly recommends as universally valid, fits rather better with being the dean of a US university at the turn of the millennium than it does with being a sixth-century Scottish hermit.

To refer to Fish the Dean, however, is to reveal the fact that there are two Fishes, Little and Big. Little Fish is a sabre-rattling polemicist given to scandalously provocative pronouncements: truth is rhetoric, free speech is an illusion, unprincipled behaviour is best. Big Fish is the respectable academic who will instantly undercut the force of these utterances by insisting that they are descriptive rather than normative. Far from being radical recommendations, they simply describe what we do anyway without always knowing it, and ‘theory’, the Trumps of this world will be relieved to learn, thus has no effect whatsoever on practice. Anti-foundationalism is therefore unlikely to alienate the New York foundations, and Fish can buy his reputation as an iconoclast on the cheap.

Little Fish is in hot pursuit of a case which will succeed in alienating absolutely everyone; he is the cross-grained outsider who speaks up for minorities, and himself Jewish, comes from one such cultural margin. Big Fish, by contrast, has a consensual, good-boy disdain for rebels, whose behaviour is in his eyes just as convention-bound as those they lambast. It is fortunate for this schizoid character that there is a place where aggression and consensus go together. It is known as the US corporation, of which the campus is a microcosm. In academia, you can hammer your colleagues, safe in the knowledge that, since you all subscribe to the same professional rules, it doesn’t really mean a thing.

–Terry Eagleton, The Estate Agent, a review of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle (1999)

Who’s the moral monster here?

Even if you take the claims of transfer effects at face value, it’s unclear if the benefits are big enough to be worth the time and money spent on these products. For example, brain-training proponents note that ACTIVE volunteers who trained their brain speed were half as likely to experience a car crash. That sounds incredible, but based on the absolute figures from the study, Simons’ team calculated that someone who did the training could expect one fewer crash every 200 years.

Mahncke thinks the criticism is absurd. “[The authors] are moral monsters for making that argument, and you can quote me on that,” he says. “This is a public health [issue]. Senior driving is a problem, which is important at a population level. A person in health sciences who argued that we shouldn’t reduce heart attacks because heart attacks are rare would be rightfully drummed out of the profession.”

–Ed Yong, The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games

Henry Mahncke is the CEO of Posit Science, one of the companies that makes brain-training games, which is subjected to critique in the scientific paper Yong reports on in his article. The peer-reviewed article does not say that we should stop using brain-training games because transferable cognitive improvement is rare. It says that transferable cognitive improvement, being rare, should not be over-promised to consumers. The conclusion states,

If a company claims scientific proof for the benefits of its products, it must adhere to best scientific practices. Exploratory scientific research is a necessary part of the discovery process, and such research might well lead to innovative and novel approaches to cognitive enhancement. We do not believe our recommendations stifle such discovery. For drug testing, the early phases of research allow for the discovery of promising therapies, but only after more rigorous testing can they be promoted as a treatment. The same is true for cognitive interventions and brain training; an initial discovery using weaker methods should not be translated to the marketplace until it has been evaluated with more rigorous testing.

I might add that people like Henry Mahncke, who are evidently prone to gross hyperbole when their own profit margins are on the line, are perhaps not the best analysts of scientific data. Let me further add that deliberately ignoring, misreading, or distorting solid scientific analysis when making claims about a product’s efficacy represents its own special kind of moral monstrosity. That this special kind of moral monstrosity frequently goes by the name capitalist self-interest will pass without further comment.

Sacramental materialism

The lineage of Romantic anti-capitalism is too long and motley to delineate here, but its first representatives, Carlyle and John Ruskin, sketched the outlines of a prophetic sacramental imagination for subsequent critics of capitalist enchantment. In Sartor Resartus, “wonder” is Carlyle’s term for both the awareness and the ontological condition of sacramentality. “The Universe is not dead,” he declares, but rather “godlike,” pervaded by “an Invisible, Unnameable, Godlike, present everywhere in all that we see and work and suffer.” Against this sacral materialism Carlyle poses the “Gospel of Mammonism” in his indictment of industrial England, Past and Present(1843). Mammonism is the good news that money possesses and bestows a trove of “miraculous facilities.” Money conjures a “horrid enchantment”—“enchantment,” to Carlyle, is the counterfeit of wonder—in which owners and workers walk “spell-bound” in the midst of “plethoric wealth.”

[…]

Well after the classic age of Romanticism, its sacramental dialect shaped the vernacular of a host of non-Marxist radicals in Europe and the United States. Before the success of the Bolshevik Revolution gave Marxism a near-monopoly on the radical imagination, Romanticism flourished among a motley range of critics. It animated the transatlantic Arts and Crafts movement, one of whose American devotees described craftsmanship as “the sacrament of common things.” God, another artisanal ideologue put it, is “woven in tapestries and beaten in brasses and bound in the covers of books.”

A disciple of nature in the California redwoods, John Muir saw “sparks of the Divine Spirit variously clothed upon with flesh, leaves, rock, water”; the human body was a “flesh-and-bone tabernacle.” Developers who wanted to ravage the landscape for profit were “temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism.” In search of what he called a “passionate vision,” William James affirmed “saintliness” as a human ideal in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1905) on account of the saint’s “rapture” and “ontological wonder.” Contemptuous of capitalist society’s reduction of life to moneymaking, James upheld the saint as an emissary from “another kingdom of being”—this world, apprehended in rapturous ontological wonder. Our proper attitude, as James wrote in “What Makes a Life Significant” (1900), is to be “rapt with satisfied attention … to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence.” The Christian socialist Vida Dutton Scudder outlined a sacramental counter to Marxist materialism in Socialism and Character (1912), arguably an early document of liberation theology. “The material universe,” Scudder contended, “is a sacrament ordered to convey spiritual life to us.” Since work and technology were material vessels of grace as well as forces of production, class struggles were conflicts over the means of beatitude.

–Eugene McCarraher, We Have Never Been Disenchanted from The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Fall 2015)

Whatever the wreckage

Trump is emblematic of the values of this particular variety of capitalism, prizing profits over any social purpose. This has made him incredibly wealthy, he says. Lucky Donald. Now he has ridden that wave to the presidential debate stage, whatever the wreckage of human lives left in his wake. But all is justified under the mantle of “business,” in Trump’s telling; greed and cruelty are fine—in his estimation, often brilliant, I suspect—in the name of profit.

–Rebecca J. Rosen, “That’s Called Business, By the Way”

The market: a product, not a way out, of politics

In the end, Brennan’s argument for markets over politics is a moral one. Supporting regulation, he tells us, means supporting violence, because violence is what the state ultimately deals in, whether it is enforcing fair employment laws or sending people to war. It’s bracing to be reminded of this, but Brennan is wrong in drawing such a stark contrast between the coercion of politics and the informed consent of market transactions. The fact is that markets bring their own share of state violence. Supporting private property means endorsing violence against determined trespassers. Supporting market-based health care means endorsing violence against people who try to get the care they need without money—or, more plausibly, letting them suffer and die. Supporting the repayment of public debts over political calls to repudiate them, as the European Union has done in Greece, means endorsing violence against those who try to get food for their children in a country where reports of widespread malnutrition are growing. These are not intended to be sentimental arguments: They are precisely as rigorous as Brennan’s point that political regulation implies violence. There may be good reasons to support the market in some, even all, of these circumstances, but the market will always be a product of political and legal decisions, with legislatures and courts behind it and a policeman at its side. The market is not a way out of politics, but one of the products of politics.

–Jedediah Purdy, “Votes of No Confidence”

Blind to continuity, it makes a very poor prophet

Upon the occasion, this morning, of reading two fascinating articles from the New Yorker.

“Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.

The upstarts who work at startups don’t often stay at any one place for very long. (Three out of four startups fail. More than nine out of ten never earn a return.) They work a year here, a few months there—zany hours everywhere. They wear jeans and sneakers and ride scooters and share offices and sprawl on couches like Great Danes. Their coffee machines look like dollhouse-size factories.

They are told that they should be reckless and ruthless. Their investors, if they’re like Josh Linkner, tell them that the world is a terrifying place, moving at a devastating pace. “Today I run a venture capital firm and back the next generation of innovators who are, as I was throughout my earlier career, dead-focused on eating your lunch,” Linkner writes. His job appears to be to convince a generation of people who want to do good and do well to learn, instead, remorselessness. Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business and it succeeds, Linkner advises, sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt or be disrupted.”

—Jill Lepore, “The Disruption Machine” (June 23, 2014)

“Members of medieval guilds typically progressed in rank from apprentice to journeyman to master craftsman—distinctions still used by some trade associations today. Prime Produce will also incorporate three tiers, but based on levels of commitment, rather than on experience and proficiency. As a rite of passage, new members will each receive a pair of slippers to wear while inside the space—a “differentiating mechanism,” Chavez said, between members and visitors.

[…]

Thus far, at least, Prime Produce’s membership has considerable ethnic, gender, and occupational diversity. And rather than making political deals, it will seek leverage in the pooling and collective management of resources, in the synergy of the members’ slippers and their ambitions for good works. Despite various delays and hitches, no one has yet dropped out. “The ingredient that plays a central role in all this is trust,” Qinza Najm, an artist who plans to work in the basement studio, told me.

Before the afternoon in Hell’s Kitchen was up, another master-member, Marcos Salazar, joined everyone on the roof. He was taller than the others, his attire less laid-back. Salazar is a consultant and life coach who works with people on cultivating “purpose-driven careers, businesses, and lives.” He also organizes events for social entrepreneurs in the city, and plans to hold some at the Prime Produce space when it’s ready.

“I’ve heard a lot about guilds,” he said.

But when I asked about the slippers, he shrugged and looked at the founders uneasily. They smiled. They hadn’t told him about that part yet.”

—Nathan Schneider, “The New Guilded Age” (October 12, 2015)

Keep in mind that I stumbled across Lepore’s article because some New Yorker intern probably wrote an algorithm that cross-references keywords and tags to summon “related stories” for the reader’s (that is, my) benefit. That said, it is fascinating that the medieval model of the guild is being invoked as a conscious resistance against the vagaries of innovation… while being the place where innovators can gather and be innovative. It also does not escape my notice that the chaotic dispersal of hierarchical class status that we call capitalism is being met with a “differentiating mechanism” that is no less hierarchical, but anointed in a patina of structural stability. Is this (algorithmically-produced) connection an example of the durability and continued relevance of older forms of social organization? An example of the old disrupting the new? A reminder that even the most residual structures of feeling may be repurposed as emergent by the dominant hegemony? Is the New Yorker ironically commenting, via its digital tech coding, on the circular nature of free enterprise? Or am I, by virtue of allowing myself to be guided to these connections by the household gods of the New Yorker’s web platform, the snake swallowing its own tail, being worn as an ornamental bracelet by the hermetic spirit of cultural commentary?

Pre-empting politics at the service of the human person

“[Editor’s Note: The following section, which was in the prepared remarks, was not included in the speech.] Here I think of the political history of the United States, where democracy is deeply rooted in the mind of the American people. All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776). If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

—from TIME’s transcript of Pope Francis’s speech to Congress on Thursday, 24 September 2015.