Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I Never Believe the Happy Talk

A few readers of this blog know me personally, and I’ve been asked once or twice why I’m so cynical and contemptuous of institutions. My answer is— personal experience and my personal disappointment in the institutions I’ve come to know.

I grew up Catholic in a time when the public face of Catholicism was Bing Crosby in “The Bells of Saint Mary’s.” I was an altar boy, and I actually wanted to become a priest. Then, within my own lifetime, I saw the Catholic priesthood exposed as a kind of training ground for despicable pedophiles, while The Holy Mother Church worked behind the scenes to limit the PR damage and cover up the transgressions. I was disappointed and disillusioned.

I was young in America when the United States had half of the world’s GDP, and the so-called, “American Dream” was real, and was iconic throughout the world at that time. I remember an America that had just saved the world by winning World War II. Then, within my own lifetime, I’ve seen the United States fall below many of the other developed nations in the standard of living, and I watched the U.S. military transition from a supremely unbeatable fighting force to a bloated jobs program with high rates of on-the-job injuries and fatalities. I was, and am, disappointed and disillusioned.

To the extent that political parties can be considered institutions, they are so far beneath my contempt that I won’t even discuss them here. But more consistently disappointing than religions or nations are corporations. Who can forget Enron or Tyco or WorldCom or Lehman Brothers or Pfizer (did he just say Pfizer?) In the 1990s, Pfizer was named the “most admired” and “best managed” corporation in America. I owned some Pfizer stock when it seemed that everybody who didn’t own some of it wanted to own it. During the 1990s, Pfizer stock increased in price 10 fold in 10 years. Then, within the last twelve years, I’ve seen Pfizer become, arguably, the most dysfunctional company on the Fortune 500 (See Fortune Magazine, August 15, 2011), while Pfizer stock has languished dead flat for ten years at a price less than half of its value during the glory years. I’m disappointed and disillusioned.

From my personal experience, I believe that— just as surely as all living things eventually die— all big institutions inevitably crumble and fail if you watch them long enough. And you can, literally, watch them because their demise takes less than a single lifetime to unfold. Only 15 companies on the Fortune 500 were on that list 50 years ago. When you see an institution— any institution— at the peak of excellence, you can be pretty sure that the downhill slide has already inexorably started, and that’s why I never put my faith in any big institution. That’s why I never believe the happy talk.

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