Quick Roundup 472

Monday, October 05, 2009

Mackey Profiled in Wall Street Journal

By an odd coincidence, I posted on the Whole Foods boycotts/buycotts Friday only to learn that the Wall Street Journal ran an article on its CEO, John Mackey, the next day.

Its title? "Conscience of a Capitalist."

With a title like that, Objectivists and many other admirers of Ayn Rand, knowing how stifling with altruism the cultural atmosphere is, will already be waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it does before the article even starts. The subtitle reveals that Mackey thinks CEOs are overpaid.

The gist of the article is that Mackey wants to save capitalism for altruistic reasons, but the article also goes on to paint a fuller picture of Mackey's background and motivations. Mackey's academic background includes study in philosophy, although he did not complete his degree. He is a man on an intellectual journey, whose business experience appears to be bringing him to his senses after he "breathed ... in with the culture" the idea that "business is evil and government is good."

Harry Binswanger comments on the article at HBL, and I share his frustration that Mackey, who admires Ayn Rand, still explicitly regards selfishness as wrong. ("Businesses, they're selfish because they're trying to make money." "It ['conscious capitalism' --ed] means that business has the potential to have a deeper purpose.")

This is a shame, because Mackey seems more able than many businessmen to appreciate and, potentially, to apply the significance of Ayn Rand's contributions to moral philosophy, as Tara Smith elaborates them in Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, which I previewed a while back, and from which I'll draw a shorter excerpt now:

Is eudaimonia a selfish end? What does selfishness actually mean? What sorts of actions does it demand? What are the implications of pursuing eudaimonia for a person's relationships with others? Yet another nascent movement in ethics, perhaps spawned by virtue ethics, also points to a need to confront egoism more squarely: the advocacy of naturalism as the foundation of morality. In the past few years, Philippa Foot, Rosalind Hursthouse, and Berys Gaut have all defended the idea that the bedrock source of proper moral norms rests in needs dictated by human nature. [bold added]
So long as one's moral system does not start off by accounting for man's nature, it will fail to support one's life. If one exists as an individual, and must survive by acting on his own behalf, but his moral system tells him he must give away whatever he produces, his moral system will not further his life.

Mackey, for example, accepts only one dollar a year pay as CEO and flies Southwest rather than a corporate jet. (He apparently lives off dividends as an owner of the company.) I submit that there are some who would regard even this comparatively frugal lifestyle as outrageously decadent. By what standard does Mackey argue that he is entitled even to this? What can he say to the argument that he could help even more people if he never flew, and lived in a tent? Or that it is Mother Nature, and not human beings at all, that should benefit from his actions?

There is nothing wrong with wanting to better the lives of one's fellow man, but so long as one accepts altruism as a legitimate moral code, one will be devoid of the necessary intellectual ammunition to defend his right to act on his own behalf, or even to help those he wants to help.

Capitalism does need saving, but altruism cannot do the job. In fact, capitalism -- and, with it, the benevolent philanthropy I see in John Mackey -- both need saving precisely from altruism.

Environmentalism vs. Freedom of Speech

As I have said in the past, freedom is of a piece. Note the encroachment on freedom of speech caused by the premise of public property.
A Southern California city's ban on placing leaflets on car windshields parked in the street can't be justified as an anti-littering measure and probably violates free speech, a federal appeals court said Friday in a ruling that halts the law's enforcement.
I note with apprehension that while the court was correct that it would not be a problem for a private property owner to ban such leaflets, it still expressed the opinion that, "keeping the streets clean might be a rationale [for a government] to restrict free expression in some cases."

The GOP Needs an Ed Muskie or a Hubert Humphrey!

(At least in one sense, anyway!)

I would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the GOP who has learned less than John McCain from his 2008 electoral defeat.
It's all part of an approach that is at odds with most other recent failed presidential nominees, whose immediate response to defeat was to retreat from the electoral arena. But those familiar with McCain's thinking say he has expressed serious concern about the direction of the party and is actively seeking out and supporting candidates who can broaden the party’s reach.

In McCain's case, that means backing conservative pragmatists and moderates.

"I think he’s endorsed people with center-right politics because he has an understanding that the party is in trouble with certain demographics and wants to have a tone that would allow us to grow," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is McCain's closest friend and ally in the Senate.

"At a time when our party is struggling and has a lot of shrill voices and aggressive voices, he's one that can expand our party," said John Weaver, a longtime McCain friend and strategist.

"John remains the titular head of the Republican Party and he will be until there's a new nominee," he said. "Most of the people that ran and lost you never heard from again," he said. "He's not going to be like Ed Muskie or Hubert Humphrey."
Not that the competition is exactly very light!

Memo to the GOP: Having principles is not, in and of itself, the problem. Having no principles is, and having principles incompatible with individual rights is. If you value American liberty, you need not to reject principles, but to discover and openly advocate the correct principles. A certain prophetic, soon-to-be-fifty-year-old novel that keeps popping up at tea party protests would be a great place to start!

[Update: Cogito reminds me that while Atlas Shrugged is indeed nearing the anniversary of its publication, it will be turning fifty-two this year. First the mind goes...]

Objectivist Roundup

If you missed it over the weekend, it's over at Reality Talk. Interestingly, the video for my entry seems to have been pulled.

Moore on Catholicism

Then, I advised:
When Michael Moore's next "documentary" -- allegedly about capitalism -- comes out, don't forget that he's Catholic, too.
Now, Joseph Kellard quotes a New York Magazine:
Many of the talking heads in the film are Catholic clergy, including the bishop of Detroit, who proclaim capitalism to be a "sin" and "radically evil." "Eventually," one prophesies, "God will come down and eradicate it."
It would seem that his last effort is as close as he has ever gotten to making an actual documentary. Too bad his larger point about capitalism is still wrong.

-- CAV

Today: (1) Corrected several typos. (2) Added a correction.


Vigilis said...

"Mackey thinks CEOs are overpaid"

Private company CEOs are entitled to whatever they can earn. Like other employees of public companies, however, CEOs are by law entitled to compensation packages granted by committees accountable to shareholders.

THE Business Roundtable published [2006] an 11-year analysis of pay practices at 350 of the nation's largest companies last week, aiming, it said, to set the record straight on executive compensation...chief executives' compensation — up only 9.6 percent annually from 1995 to 2005 — ha[d] not even kept pace with total stockholder returns of 9.9 percent at the companies the executives stewarded during the same period....A closer look at the roundtable's data shows that it omitted a tidy pile of pay from its calculation. The study's figure for "total" executive compensation [wa]s anything but that.


Cogito said...

Didn't AS turn 50 in '07?

Mo said...

Mackey's version of capitalism sounds like what they call "conscious capitalism". but thats just the same as compassionate conservatism. those people are victims of their lack of principles and it is very frustrating to see them in such a situation.

as for Moore, there is market for people who hate the market.

Gus Van Horn said...


I'm not sure what your comment is aiming at, but I will say that whatever agreement a company makes to compensate its CEO is, politically, nobody's business but his and that company's.

Mackey, as far as I can tell, is making a moral objection to high CEO compensation, but makes no call for regulation of same by the government.

Superficially, Mackey and I appear to agree on that point, but morally, I disagree with Mackey. If a man is productive enough to run a hugely successful company, it is not only not wrong, but GOOD that he make lots of money.


Thanks for noticing my error. I'll correct it, say that the mind is the first thing that goes, and leave it at that!.


Mackey is indeed calling it "conscious capitalism" himself, and I agree that it sounds much like "compassionate conservatism". It will also fail to save capitalism for the same reason: You cannot argue FOR the existence of a political system designed to preserve the ability of the individuals of a state to act on their own behalf by starting from the premise that it is WRONG that they act consistently on their own behalf.


Mike said...

Agreed on the Mackey analysis. He is fighting a good fight but he refuses to stand on solid ground while he does it. A drowning man is no help to a drowning man.

On the Moore subject: After discussing it among some friends this weekend, I've concluded that Moore is officially "genre-savvy" to what he is doing. In other words, he is not drinking the Kool-Aid, he does not hate capitalism, he does not believe in liberal causes, etc -- he is just writing, filming, and publishing whatever he has to publish in order to take money from people who want to consume that material. He would write thousand-line sonnets in sanskrit if he thought it would sell as well as Fahrenheit 9/11. He thinks of himself as a pure scrivener, art documenting life imitating art.

On the one hand, being that kind of writer smacks of ignominy in a way I struggle to cleanly articulate. On the other hand, maybe Mike McDermott was right when he said, "It's immoral to let a sucker keep his money."

I have a real hard time with this as a writer, because there are many paychecks -- decent ones -- out there for books and papers that I don't really care to write. But writing them would not only earn me the bucks, but also add to my publishing history, and a key to success in the literary field is for editors to know that you can be depended upon to produce quality output ahead of a deadline. That reputation, for example, earned no-name fantasy scribe Brandon Sanderson the dream commission: finishing the last three books of the 14-book epic "The Wheel of Time" in the wake of the 2007 death of author Robert Jordan. (Book 12, the first of the three, comes out later this month.) Sanderson had painstakingly built a reputation in the publishing world as a consummate professional and an easy edit, so when Tor Books needed someone who could deliver on THE hugest project in their company's history, Sanderson got the call. How many paycheck projects (that he didn't care to write) did it take for him to reach that level? Only he knows for sure. Maybe none, maybe much of his publishing history.

On top of those benefits, the more a professional writer practices his or her craft, the sharper that skill becomes. It's a real-world test of principles, I think, and there are days when it's hard to say "No, I am going to stick to developing my romantic (in the Victor Hugo sense) epic novel and pass up those other opportunities." Whether I'm passing on a book because I don't support its cause or because I just don't care might make a difference epistemologically, but where the rubber meets the road the outcome is the same: the productive achievement of that value does not occur.

I'd be curious to know what you and other readers here think of that.

Gus Van Horn said...


I've never heard Michael Moore analyzed in quite that way. It has surface credibility on one level, but the idea that he does not hate capitalism falls flat on its face when you consider the kind of anticapitalistic sentiment he is fanning about, not to mention the impressionable minds of the young he is waylaying from learning the truth about capitalism.

We are at a point in history where, within a generation -- and during his lifetime -- there is an appreciable risk that our country will no longer be free. Moore may fantasize that he will still enjoy relative prosperity in such a scenario (and he might), but that would be at the mercy of whatever thugs eventually won out and it will be less safe from confiscation and almost certainly be less than he could have made in a freer society.

Also, regarding an artist's reputation, there is not just the matter of production value, but of the KIND of audience you cultivate. Could you imagine Michael Moore filming a decent movie of any kind? I can't. If he's not actually as low as I think he is, he can't be good. Otherwise, why would he seek to be "genre-savvy" as opposed to working to create a culture that appreciates good art? (Or increase the size of that part of the culture that does?)

I could not imagine having anything to do with a production like a Michael Moore movie. I don't think I could internalize enough of the viciousness of the left to make it convincing to the target audience, and what would motivate me to try? Money? Obtained by selling out everything and everybody I care about, including myself?

I think there are limits to how "genre-savvy" someone can be, and what makes it hard to see them is that there can be no such thing as a consistent altruist/collectivist who remains alive. Michael Moore HAS to cheat on his supposed ideals just to live. All the better for him in a sense: He can hate himself for hypocrisy and thus reinforce his own prejudice against mankind ever amounting to more than a hill of beans.

Is Moore cynically writing for barbarian hoards or is he a barbarian himself? Both or the latter. But in this day and age -- after the fall of communism, which he is old enough to have forgotten, I can't buy "genre-savvy."


Mike said...


I do follow your argument. What I'm suggesting Moore might be doing is more insidious than that. I suggest that he may be fully cognizant that being leftist etc doesn't work, but he may have determined that there will always be an audience of suckers to some extent who eat that crap up, and he has decided to go ahead and take their money. That the rest of the world will go on unimpeded, and he will make his hustle when and where he can.

I mean, there was a big dust-up in the news a few days ago about what a good citizen Moore is in his heavily-republican rich-white-guy neighborhood -- you know the kind of MSM puff pap I'm talking about, "See, we really can all get along!" and neighbors commenting on what a courteous and friendly neighbor Moore is. So it's not like Moore is taking his giant pile of money and donating it to feed the citizens of Sri Lanka. No, he's buying Porsches and cocaine and weekends in Maui just like the typical "rich guy" caricature he made his fortune vilifying. He takes his millions from "Capitalism" opening weekend and either buys that ivory back-scratcher or just throws it on the pile.

Now, I agree with you that Moore might have underestimated the resiliency of today's left. There really are enough of them to be the death of us all. There really is enough idiocy out there to drive us down the road to serfdom. We can only hope that our capitalistic blog culture is stemming the tide to some tiny extent, and that people will embrace reason before it's too late. Moore might think he is just peddling dope to the losers of the world, but it might turn out that he's doing more real-world damage than he realizes. And he might not care. After all, he got his.

In fact, now that I think of it, it would be so EASY (on a technical level) to write a book vilifying capitalism, reason, and liberty. All the tropes are very well fleshed-out at this point, never mind that they're bullshit. It would be a hunt-and-footnote exercise over the course of a long weekend, and then I could cut a PDF and just cash the checks from then on out. I could get printed by any one of a dozen different publishers, instead of going through my current distributor, and I could do it pseudonymously so it wouldn't affect my career or reputation. I would be taking money from idiots, and lots of it.

The problem is that I couldn't stomach actually producing such a product. Ayn Rand was right in "The Art of Fiction" when she said that a writer's true convictions come through in the text. It's almost like a polygraph. Writing, done well enough, creates an excruciatingly intimate portrait of who the writer really is. But you don't have to write all that well just to publish a cashable product, if your material has a pre-sold audience. You can stand aside, detached, and just put enough words to the page to generate pulp. It's a horrible product, but, again, pre-sold audience.

Which I guess just goes to show that if Michael Moore is sincere, we're getting a very, very clear picture of the real man, while if he is not, he has identified a pre-sold audience and exploited it perfectly.

Gus Van Horn said...

"I suggest that he may be fully cognizant that being leftist etc doesn't work, but he may have determined that there will always be an audience of suckers to some extent who eat that crap up, and he has decided to go ahead and take their money. That the rest of the world will go on unimpeded, and he will make his hustle when and where he can."

OK. But at best he only THINKS the world will be unaffected by his actions. You and I both know that words mean things. They convey ideas. And ideas drive history.

A second point lies in here. The idea of something being OK as long as you can get away with it is a manifestation of the soul-body dichotomy and the idea that morality doesn't really matter. I am not accusing you of that, but if Moore were doing what you say, he's guilty of that, and the problem with it is, again, that such an author is both spreading bad ideas and playing a role in preventing the immoral from bettering themselves aqnd the merely ignorant from learning better.

Finally, there is an issue I should have brought up earlier: CAN Michael Moore really be this sort of "closet capitalist?" If to love something one must know and understand its nature, then the answer is clearly a "no." His actions are helping destroy capitalism on at least some level. If he knows this, he actively hates capitalism. If not, he is incapable of fully appreciating (and therefore, actually loving) it.

At "best" he's a pragmatist who might like the end results of capitalism, while he enjoys them while he can by attacking it, a sort of baboon eating fruit even as he uproots a tree.