Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Why I’m Not Voting This Year (and you shouldn’t either)

I have always admired that anonymous child in The Emperor’s New Clothes who pointed out that the Emperor’s new clothes were no clothes at all (and wondered what happened to the poor fellow when he got home). Everyone else in the crowd that day was part of a conspiracy of silence: See no evil, say no evil. (One gets insights from this kind of thing into how something like the Holocaust could happen.)

To me, this child of no name is a hero for two very refreshing reasons: He allowed himself to see what was actually there, and he wasn’t afraid to say it out loud.

Which, strangely enough, brings me to the reason I’m not voting this year. Simply put, I’m not voting this year because there’s no one running for office who’s worthy of my vote. No one, indeed, who is willing to stand up and say, for instance, that the No Child Left Behind Act is about the dumbest thing any gaggle of ganders ever dreamt up. Or that our system of governance is fatally flawed because it makes it nearly impossible for citizen-legislators to hold office. Or that very few of the 16 million people currently unemployed are ever going to hold a life-sustaining job again. Or that Barack Obama ended any prospect of becoming a moral leader on the world stage the moment he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. 
One more reason. I grew up in a double-alcoholic household. I know a thing or two about the consequences of enabling narcissistic behavior. In my mind, continuing to vote for people who are perennially intoxicated on the heady spirits of heir own ambition is not the way to help one’s self, one’s country, or one’s world. 

To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’m going to be voting next year either. You?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ben Franklin & the Latest Bezos Fl(app)

Sometimes in moments of moral muddle, it is at least interesting to view a good cop – bad cop situation though the eyes of a moral heavy weight.  In the case of the latest marketing scheme from Jeff Bezos – a scanning app seen by many as another kill-the-competition threat to mom-and-pop shops, including bookstores – it might be interesting to ask (especially in light of his upcoming 306th birthday, January 17th): What would Ben Franklin have done? 

Bezos’ new scanning app allows Smartphone users to price-check items at brick-and-mortar stores and then order the same items from Amazon at a per-item discount of up to $5. A person using the new app can even place orders using the victim store’s own Wi-Fi service!
The question of the hour is: Is this scheme villainous and predatory on the face of it, or is it intrinsically benign?

On the one hand, doesn’t Bezos’ latest ploy represent capitalism at its best, rendering to consumers ever better access to products and services at ever lower prices – similar to what the first subscription libraries did for colonial Philadelphians? And is not our public anthem, in fact, ‘In Technology We Trust,’ not ‘Bust Bezos We Must?’

On the other hand, doesn’t Bezos’ latest ploy represent greed and self-aggrandizement at its very worse? And doesn’t this ploy threaten not only the very existence of many independent bookshops, but also the very existence of an entire subculture evolved around these shops?

Where would Ben Franklin have come down on this issue? The question is simple enough, but the answer (predictably) is not, as it involves not one but two Ben’s – Ben Lama and Ben Bezos. Here’s Ben Lama: 

In 1741, Ben invented the Pennsylvania fireplace (Franklin stove) and refused to patent it. As a result, the Franklin stove – far more efficient and effective than any preceding heating system – proliferated throughout the land, to the comfort of many. Ben collected not a penny.

In 1749, Ben invented the lightning rod and refused to patent it. As a result, the lightning rod spread to every steeple and roof top in America and Europe, and saved countless persons and piglets from a horrific demise. Ben collected not a penny.

Then there was the glass armonica and the high-shelf gripper and several other innovations, all given over to the public domain, Ben collecting not a penny.

Now here’s Ben Bezos: Shortly after purchasing the Pennsylvania Gazette from Samuel Keimer, his former employer, Ben found himself at a competitive disadvantage against his rival, The Mercury, published by Andrew Bradford, who, as Postmaster of Philadelphia at the time, could direct his mail carriers to deliver his newspapers while denying the same opportunity to Ben. Ben countered this tactic by bribing Bradford’s carriers into delivering the Gazette on the sly, thereby putting the carriers’ continued employment with Bradford in jeopardy. 

When William Bradford, father of Andrew (above), was of advanced age but still active in the printing business in New York, Ben financed a colleague, James Parker, to set up a printing business in direct competition with Bradford’s business. Several years earlier, Bradford had taken Ben under his wing when Ben arrived in New York, at 17, nearly penniless. The old man died shortly after being pushed out of business.

Then there was Ben’s offer to marry the niece of his tenet if her family would come up with a £100 as a proper dowry, the very sum Ben owed on his newly-purchased printing business, and which sum represented a dire threat to the viability of that business. When the family protested they had no such sum, Ben suggested they mortgage their home.
Which Ben would have prevailed in the Bezos situation? Doubtless, at the time, it would have been Ben Bezos. Here’s why: 

In his famous Autobiography, Ben gives us his recipe for ‘moral perfection:’ “I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr'd to me as necessary or desirable.”
Ben’s 13 virtues – Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility – obviously map to those aspects of character that one needs to develop in order to be successful at one’s trade (a.k.a. career).

Interestingly in this regard, the arrow of concern for each of Ben’s 13 virtues points inward, toward the self. One is industrious and frugal, for example, or orderly and resolute, largely toward one’s own interests.

Strikingly absent from Ben’s recipe for ‘moral perfection’ are the 13 natural counterparts to his 13 material virtues, to wit: Compassion, Empathy, Forgiveness, Sacrifice, Reverence, Generosity, Contrition, Forbearance, Nurturance, Loyalty, Fairness, Tolerance, and Trust.
Had Ben included these, indeed had he openly embraced and advocated a fundamental balance between the concerns of self and the concerns of other, between personal rights and public responsibilities, between me and thee, he would likely not have been quite so opportunistic in his dealings with the Bradford’s and the Godfrey’s; and Mr. Bezos would likely not have been quite so Machiavellian in his aspirations and innovations toward material grandeur.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I’m Not Doing Christmas This Year

No, it’s not because I’m Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Confucian. I’m a French-Irish ex-Catholic. And, no, it’s not because of any need to “put Christ back into Christ-mas.” (There’s no doubt in my mind that if Jesus had any say in the matter, he’d opt out of Christmas himself, out of sheer embarrassment.)

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I’m not doing Christmas this year because, at 68, it finally occurred to me that Christmas fits the definition of insanity to a T: That is, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Think about it. Isn’t this what most of us have been doing all these years – entering into the Christmas madness every year (beginning in August) and expecting that, this time, it was going to be different? This year, by golly, we were gong to be visited by those three crotchety (little pun there) old ghosts, and then, on Christmas morning, be transformed like ol’ Ebenezer himself sitting on his book of accounts.

Over and over.

Let’s face it. Christmas is a disaster. No, it’s full-blown horror. It reminds us how unhappy we really are. It reminds how superficial our relationships really are. It reminds how poor we really are. It reminds us how much we hate being manipulated. It reminds us how much we dislike feeling guilty. It reminds us how much we hate confronting those bloody red kettles outside Wal-Mart. 

Over and over.

OK, the good news. I think I’ve got a way I can be lured back, and maybe bring you with me. Here it is: We hold a national Secret Santa Lottery. We put all 312,731,079 names in a very large hat, and then we enlist a cadre of humble Hollywood celebrities to draw names on everyone’s behalf. The name drawn on your behalf is the only person you have to gift. What’s more, you don’t have to buy anything. In fact, you can’t. It’s against the law. What you have to do is you have to make something. Yes, that’s right. You have to make something. With your own hands. Your own heart. Your own soul. And then you have to send it to the giftee (by UPS, because the post Office is going to be out of business). That’s it. That’s the new (old) Christmas.

Are you in?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Thoughts on Leadership

In PRL, toward the end of Ben's address at the Waldorf Astoria before a leadership conference, Ben states: “Several are the measures of the true leader. Three such, however, I submit, should precede all others. In the form of interrogatives, asked of one’s own self, they are thus: For what causes would I, without benefit of forethought, forfeit my very life, that these causes might succeed? For what principles would I, without benefit of forethought, forfeit my very life, that these principles might prevail? For what persons would I, without benefit of forethought, forfeit my very life, that these persons might continue in theirs?”

Do you agree with Ben in whole or in part? If not, what is your own concept of the true leader? Can you give us an example of one such leader today?

Sunday, October 23, 2011


The first series of posts to this site will concern the topic of Leadership. As background to these posts, you may want to download two of the parables included on the PRL Web site, under Book Excerpts: The Parable of the Seven Hapless Victims, and The Parable of the Cosmic Wayfarer. Please return soon to this site for the first post on Leadership. Thank you.