This is a followup I decided to present here because my friend Louis indicated an interest in what was going to follow my first installment on this topic. I had thought, after writing what follows, that perhaps because some of it included personal recollections which might be construed as a basis for dismissing my antipathy toward certain business practices, i.e., that some might think that my thoughts could be taken as a personal, merely emotion-based view rather than a considered and accurate view. That is not the case, and a good reader will recognize that. Well, for better and for worse, here it is Louis.
This is a further reflection on feelings and thoughts I have about a recent visit to a vet clinic down in Portland with our dog Charlie. One thought I’ve had as a result of that visit is that we live in the mountains for a reason.
The mountains and the community here are a bit removed from the full-blown flower of the valley civilization below us. Oh, we’re dependent on the dispensations afforded us by the high-tech, high-speed, driven machineries of the modern age, make no mistake about that. Our food, mostly organic, is still purchased at a big-box corporate grocery store in a town about 15 miles away from where we live. We drive a fossil fuel burning automobile. It gets great mileage and is 14 years old, but when it was made it left a decent-sized carbon footprint on the planet involving mining, smelters, molding, machining, manufacturing, marketing, transport, and of course the carbon footprint we ourselves created in order to earn the money to buy it.
Before we retired our livelihood involved earning money dependent on all of the above carbon footprints plus those of deforestation, logging, milling and probably more I can’t think of. Backtracking through the built-up complexity of cogs and levers and gears of the modern human industrial machine requires a Herculean effort. I think identifying all the connections there might be more demanding than cleaning out the Augean stables with a teaspoon.
One thing we did do while we were engaged there is, for better and for worse, we held our involvement and actions to certain ideals. We consciously chose to recognize and avoid the pressures of the subliminal memes of the money machine which promoted desperation and fear with relentless, subtle reiterations that only when we had more, much more, than we needed to live could we possibly hope to be safe and happy in the world. We chose to merely have enough, and be happy regardless of our status and progress as measured by our culture.
When we left the city and came to the mountains we didn’t arrive with a fat financial portfolio, a club membership, and the required retirement nest egg determined to be necessary by actuaries and accountants and financial magazine pundits. We arrived with what we’d earned, honestly and fairly.
There’s a certain amount of reflection that comes with the choices we made and their downstream results. Our actions were guided by ideals and conscious awareness of the virtues of the human spirit. We were vigilant for the ego-self which at times wants to place itself first by taking advantage of others with predatory business-as-usual practices deemed necessary, acceptable and even laudable by the status quo. We were also vigilant for the ego’s desire to make itself better than others with a false, self-aggrandizing perspective of personal virtue. We didn’t want to succumb to either, and we didn’t want to unconsciously get pulled into the money machine’s game. The cost to our humanity and happiness was too high.
In a way, we played a game with insane rules in as sane a way as we could. We were nice. We were fair. We were happy. Our profits were measured in the returns we received in service to others, and the money we gained was enough, and never too much.
The thing is, if you live sanely in an insane land, the sane turn out to be the crazy ones. If money is accepted as being the be-all and end-all foundation beneath the pursuit for security and happiness in the world, it’s easy to become convinced that you’re crazy if you don’t go after it with fang and claw, or at least fit in and complacently be incorporated into the patterns of the machine and be delivered to its dispensations mindless, heedless, and unaware of your own complicity in what has been destroyed to produce them for you.
If you hold to a sane ideal while the societal machine continues to evolve and perfect its insanity, the going gets weirder and weirder. Every time a sane person is confronted with the latest permutation of an insane machine like the American business model and the consumer economy, the picture proves to be a terrible wonder.
Look, I’m not so anti-establishment that I yearn for a society where I could build houses for people out of straw and mud and sun-baked bricks, or make my living carving useful items out of deadfall trees and trading them to my neighbors for food from their cabbage patches. I’m just thinking that somewhere along the line, as we proceeded to industrialize the world and capitalize on its resources, we could have drawn a line at a certain point instead of letting our machines get so out of hand.
It’s like we already live in the age of the Terminator, where the machine we built has become the agent of our destruction, and we’re still thinking that’s not here yet, that it’s still coming and we have some time left. It doesn’t seem to me like we do.
The vet clinic we took Charlie to is a good example of what I’m talking about. Nobody, at least in the beginning, gets into veterinary science because of profit motive. They get into it because they have good hearts, and they like animals. and they want to become involved in their care and treatment. Virtues like compassion and service and seeking a place where there is the potential for finding and extending and sharing one’s own bliss are up front when decisions to do that are made.
And then, far downstream from that noble beginning, we find them mired in a standard business model far removed from that nobility. They are cogs in a machine, their desires to serve and the quality of that service compromised by a structure driven to produce not only service to animals but money, and lots of it. The quality of how the talent they possess and the hard-earned knowledge they bring to their profession is delivered becomes subject to time limits and narrow, efficient diagnostic and prescriptive manuals, and many more restrictions dictated by the desperations, necessity, and often greed of those who direct the business. And from what I can see, most of them don’t know their humanity and their abilities have been co-opted and damaged by the rules of the insane profit machine they’ve been so seamlessly and smoothly inserted in.
The social machine we’ve embraced, the money game, requires money in order to survive. It’s how the system works. I understand things like overhead, expenses, costs, and profit, I ran a business for over twenty years. What I also understand is that somewhere along the line the potential for accumulating money can take precedence over the original intended purpose of a business. In my experience it’s very hard to find a business that hasn’t been corrupted by money. Money is a necessity for the survival of a business. Inordinate profit –which I regard as basically destructive when it becomes the driver of over-consumption and uncontrolled appetite – is not.
I have an advantage of perspective that a lot of the people currently performing as cogs in these machines don’t have. I’m in my seventh decade on this planet, and I can remember when these machines were easily identified because they were, by comparison, crude when held up to the modern-day forms they’ve evolved into.
It took some discernment to see social traps and walk around them fifty years ago, but I was encouraged and enabled to look for them because my generation was a generation influenced by readily evident manifestations of greed and selfishness and ruthless political power machines which, among other things, exploited and clubbed and shot and arrested Americans in the streets of America. It was the time of the Viet Nam war, the military-industrial complex, the compulsory slavery of the military draft, racial bias, gender bias, narrow social definitions and social mores, and more. It was a good time to learn how to question authority and examine the underlying assumptions which defined our society; a good time to develop independent thinking skills and formulate alternatives and embrace better options in our own ways and means in life.
Now those old social traps look like simple contraptions when held up against the institutions which have succeeded them.
As time went on from those early days I eventually, somewhat belatedly, found myself working for a living inside that machine. I did work which fulfilled me, carpentry, and I earned a wage sufficient to the needs of my family. Yet as I spent time doing that I became more and more aware that working in the company machine involved supporting energies and attitudes and perspectives I didn’t want to support, or give power to – and the axioms of “business as usual” certainly weren’t compatible with what I considered to be the best options available for me, or society at large.
So I started my own construction business and based it on my own understanding of what a business could be. Lenore and I started with few resources and bootstrapped ourselves up with 3 credit cards used for seed money. It was a risky venture at the outset and the learning curve for the first three years was steep, but we survived. By the end of that time we’d zeroed in on what sort of model suited who we are and our personal values.
Over the years our little company survived with a combination of hard work, high quality standards, honesty, fairness, luck, the help of friends and family, and a pleased customer base who appreciated our work ethic and personal character and values as much as our product. After the first year or so we never had to advertise our services again; word-of-mouth sent us all the work we could handle.
My antipathy to “business” started when I was very young. My father was a successful farmer-businessman who worked hard and with intelligence. He died in a car accident when I was seven and left his family with a large estate. I remember his statements about what was right and wrong and good and bad about people and life. He spent a lot of time with me, always talked to me as an equal, and expected that I would understand him. Most of the time I did. He was a realist with a poet’s sensibilities. He’d studied to be a doctor at Duke University, had left that pursuit and found his own particular nature and needs fulfilled in the hard work of farming, the science of agriculture, and the beauty of a wheat field on the great American plains at harvest time. My ideas of right and wrong and good and evil began to form in the time I spent with my father.
Five years after the death of my father my family was living in a three-story Victorian mansion in Colorado Springs, Colorado. My new stepfather was a founder and promoter of professional executive associations, groups who, among other things, agree to promote the interests of other members of the group for mutual benefit. In Salem, Oregon in 1956 he had previously established the Salem Executives Association, which was instrumental in facilitating the election of Mark Hatfield as governor in 1958.
My exposure to the members of the Colorado Springs Executives Association was broad; I attended many of their weekly pancake breakfasts where business strategies were discussed along with political leverage methods and other functions of the group. I met many of the area’s most prominent business people. They included a memorably ruthless banker and two lawyers, one of whom, David Enoch, was elected to a district judgeship and the other, John Love, who became the governor of Colorado due in strong part to their membership in the CSEA.
Under the tutelage and guidance of my stepfather as the primary founder and Executive Secretary of these associations, they initially reflected his own character. They were ruthless, Machiavellian machines devoted to the gain of money, power and prestige by any means, and he took satisfaction in methods which pushed legal limits, operated in shadows of the law, and held little regard for morality.
This proved to be his downfall, because there were always two factions which developed in the early days of these organizations. One faction saw his ways and means for what they were, and opposed them. The other saw the power potential of those ways and means and wanted to have it and direct it themselves. In Salem he was deposed after three years, and in Colorado Springs it took only two before he was ousted. Over time both would become associations more devoted to business education and cooperation within the business community for mutual goals. In the early years of both groups my stepfather’s influence remained and only over time was finally exorcised from the group consciousness – although I’m sure other persons of his ilk will always be embedded in these groups.
It could be said that my knowledge of evil in business was more of an education in the nature of evil rather than the nature of business. It was actually both; a primer in how evil looks and acts and speaks in the world of business.
My exposure to “business” was mostly through those persons who gravitated to my stepfather’s nature and character and methods. He was an evil person, made that way by his background and experience and so understandable in that way, but evil nevertheless. He had a congenitally withered left hand. He was highly intelligent. His father was a dirt-poor Tennessee fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone preacher who ruled his family with a bloody iron fist and cursed and beat his son often, telling him his deformed hand was the mark of Cain and a curse of God, not only upon the son but the father as well. By the time my stepfather escaped from that hell the work had been done well. He was as twisted and evil a person as I have ever known by the time he entered my life. My mother’s wedding ring, for example, was a reflection of his character and past business dealings and history. It had started out as a silver dollar, slowly hammered into a ring with a spoon while he was serving time in a federal penitentiary in Texas for income tax evasion.
So my exposure to business as usual was a bit one-sided. Yet the extremes which were present there gave me a very clear picture, from multiple perspectives, of how evil manifests itself in human society, and how it often gravitates toward business because of the potential there it senses to fill its own emptiness; the opportunity to gain power and social validation through the acquisition of money.
So what does a modern veterinary clinic have to do with the insights I gained over six decades ago? The essence of the thing. The stink of the thing. The machine that starts out seeking to do good and succumbs to a value system which slowly but surely subverts that noble intention and remands it to a lesser priority in favor of the acquisition of money.
And because when I can buy six packages of a traditional Chinese medicine herbal remedy at a grocery store two miles north of the vet clinic where I paid that much for just one, in spite of every justification I’ve ever heard for exorbitant mark-up, I smell a self-entitled CEO or owner or investor or backer sitting in a luxury automobile, contributing nothing to the service of the business and dipping their beak deeply into its blood. And mine.
I’m glad we’ve found our place here in the mountains, and have at least removed ourselves some distance from the hum and buzz of those voracious, insatiable machines below us in the valley. Somehow, here, it’s more like we live at the edge of that roaring cataract rather than live in its rapids every day. We drink the water, but many of the folks here are here because somehow, somewhere, some way, they learned the difference between a cup of water and a wash tub full of kool-aid holding the hidden promise of a dollop of cyanide at some time in the future.