CNBC Values

September 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“He’s makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”

That was the preferred argument of Tommy Fiedler (not his real name but close enough), a classmate who lived across the street when I was a kid.  I sometimes would disagree with Tommy about the talents or behavior of some celebrity – a rock star or an actor.  Today’s equivalent might be Ke$ha or a Kardashian. Tommy’s response was usually, “He’s makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”  And that settled the issue as far as Tommy was concerned.  A huge income trumped just about anything.

In sociology, we talk about values. Intro texts usually define values as abstract ideas about what is good, ideas that people use as guides to action.  Maybe. But the definition I prefer sees values as “legitimations” – ideas about what is good that people use to justify behavior or to win arguments.*  For Tommy, money was this kind of ultimate legitimation. His behavior did not evidence a strong value on money  – we were only about eleven at the time  – but his judgments did. Values are what we use to evaluate.

I thought of Tommy and values today when I read the transcript of a CNBC interview with Alex Pereene.  Pereene has recently gone on record (here) criticizing Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan. That bank currently faces an $11 billion fine for having dealt in shoddy mortgage-backed securities.  JP Morgan can afford it, of course, but $11billion begins to be real money.** The question on CNBC was whether Dimon should continue as its CEO. 

Pareene says no. The CNBC anchor, Maria Bartiromo then says.
Legal problems aside, JP Morgan remains one of the best, if not the best performing major bank in the world today. You believe the leader of that bank should step down?
Or as Tommy Fiedler would have put it, “His bank is makin’ more money than you’ll ever see.”

Here’s Pareene’s response:
 If you managed a restaurant, and it got the biggest health department fine in the history of restaurants, no one would say “Yeah, but the restaurant’s making a lot of money. There’s only a little bit of poison in the food.”
CNBC then brings in a Dimon booster, Duff McDonald. Asked to respond to Pareene’s charge of corruption, McDonald says,
It’s preposterous. The stock’s touching a ten-year high. It’s a cash-generating machine. Sure they’ve had their regulatory issues . . .
In McDonald’s view, the charge of corruption is preposterous because JP Morgan is makin’ more money than you’ll ever see. 

Bartiromo’s reaction is especially telling. She seems to take Pereene’s criticism of JP Morgan personally. I thought that anchors were supposed to be neutral and try to draw guests out. But Bartiromo is openly hostile. She loudly interrupts Pereene and demands evidence of the bank’s questionable tactics. When Pereene gives an example, she defends Dimon by again appealing to the value on profits above all else.
Even with all these losses, the company continues to churn out tens of billions of dollars in earnings and hundreds of millions in revenues. How do you criticize that? [emphasis added]
Her assumption is that anyone who makes so much money cannot be criticized. Such criticism is immoral. The reporting about JP Morgan’s shortcomings is, she says,  “a witch hunt.”

[A video of the interview is on Felix Salmon’s blog (here). Must-see TV.]

The problem with legitimations is that they work only if everyone in the room shares the same values. Members of the same culture, almost by definition, share values; effective arguments appeal to those values. Americans, for example, are suckers for arguments based on appeals to individual freedom. We find them very hard to resist. But people in other cultures might not find those arguments so persuasive.

This brief CNBC interview hints at cultures or moral worlds in collision. In the CNBC world, people take the value on making money for granted. When they encounter someone who does not share that value, who is not persuaded by arguments based on it, they act as though threatened by some uncomprehending and dangerous alien, a creature from another world. It is a clash of cultures, a clash of values, and the way we discover those values is not by watching what people do (values as guides to action)  but by listening to how they justify what they and others do (values as legitimations).

* I think this idea about values originates with Berger and Luckman (1966), The Social Construction of Reality.

** Other fines JP Morgan has paid were far less. For its part in rigging the LIBOR, for example, they paid $450 million – pocket change.

The Dean's Speech

September 25, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

After the Navy Yard massacre, David Guth, a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, posted an intemperate tweet.

The university put him on leave, and Guth consented. The debate – in the comments section at InsiderHigherEd for example, and on various blogs rehashes issues of gun control, the NRA, free speech, and academic freedom.  But it was this response from an administrator, as reported by IHE (here), that struck me.
Ann Brill, dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said in a separate statement that while the First Amendment allows free expression, “that privilege is not absolute and must be balanced with the rights of others. That’s vital to civil discourse. Professor Guth’s views do not represent our school and we do not advocate violence directed against any group or individuals.”
I guess Deans at KU are not hired to offer clear and incisive thinking, because even these few sentences have some standout mistakes. 

First, Dean Brill converts free speech from a right into a privilege.  Perhaps she does not recall that the First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, not the Bill of Privileges. Then she claims that this right must be “balanced with the rights of others.” But she does not specify who these others might be, what these rights might be, or how Prof. Guths’s tweet violated those rights. Obviously, some people were outraged and offended. But whose legal or Constitutional rights did the tweet violate? There is no Constitutional right not to be offended.

Dean Brill also implies that the tweet advocated violence directed at some group or at individuals.  That too is quite a stretch. Guth was not issuing a fatwa calling for the slaughter of innocent children. He was saying that the next time a mass shooting happens, he hopes that the victims will be the children of the NRA, presumably so that the gun lovers might suffer the negative consequences of the policies they support.

I can only assume that the Dean’s objective in this statement was not to offer a cogent analysis but to assuage the anger of state legislators and other people that the university has to make nice with. 

Arguments Going to Extremes

September 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Extreme comparisons must be irresistible.  Why else would people argue that same-sex marriage is no different than marriage between a man and a dog or that aborting a 12-week fetus is as the moral equivalent of killing a twelve-month old child?  And then there’s Hitler.   
Godwin’s Law: As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
But it’s not just online. It happens in print, and it happens in face-to-face discussions. Perhaps in math puzzles, the extreme hypothetical can be an effective strategy. But people are not math puzzles, and in the real world, those extremes rarely happen.

Despite its attractiveness to the speaker, the extreme comparison rarely convinces anyone who doesn’t already agree, and it can often backfire. The person who makes the extreme analogy looks morally obtuse, unable to tell the difference between Hitler and Obama, or Hitler and Bush, or Hitler and economic and social change.*

Recently, Greg Mankiw, a prominent economist not given to immoderate language, didn’t summon Hitler, but he used an equally silly analogy in a paper defending the very rich and attacking government aid to the poor.  He began,
government has increasingly used its power to tax to take from Peter to pay Paul. Discussions of the benefits of government services should not distract from this fundamental truth.
Hence the next subhead:
The Need for an Alternative Philosophical Framework
Mankiw then used that alternative philosophy to draw an analogy between the money we pay in taxes and our precious bodily organs:
Thus, the same logic of social insurance that justifies income redistribution similarly justifies government-mandated kidney donation.
Give them an inch, and they’ll take a kidney.

And now we have Robert Benmosche, top guy at AIG, going Mankiw one better in defending the huge bonuses that banks and financial firms paid out while they were crashing the economy.   The uproar over bonuses,  says Benmosche,
was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that – sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.
Yes, you read that correctly. Complaining about those bonuses is “sort of like” lynching, and the executives and traders sitting on their multi-million dollar bonuses are like Black people killed by racists. Sort of like lynching and “just as bad.”

The Wall Street Journal tactfully omitted this quote in their article (here) lauding Benmosche (“At AIG, Benmosche Steers a Steady Course”). The WSJ probably thought that Benmosche’s comparison would draw attention away from the idea that the bonus-critics were misguided and focus that attention instead on questions about the CEO’s moral universe.

Only three days later did the WSJ print the fuller version of the interview ( “AIG’s Benmosche and Miller on Villains, Turnarounds and Those Bonuses” )

HT: Ryun Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review

* During the 2008 primary campaign, Hillary Clinton, talking about the decline in good jobs, said, “They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. . . .” an obvious reference to ““First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Jews . . .”  (The NYT story is here. I remember this one because I blogged it at the time.)

UPDATE Sept. 25: As I was writing this, Ted Cruz was on the floor of the Senate arguing against funding Obamacare. Giving in to the President on healthcare, he said, was like  – you guessed it  –  appeasing Hitler in 1938.

How to Misread a Graph (It’s Not Easy, but The Heritage Foundation Finds a Way)

September 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

My post of a few days ago (here) showed The Heritage Foundation presenting a graph and deliberately drawing a conclusion that the graph clearly showed to be wrong.  Apparently, that’s something of a specialty at The Heritage Foundation.

Here’s their graphic purporting to show that preschool programs don’t work. (The original is here.)

The problem in the Oklahoma graph is the lag time between cause and effect.  For example, the baby boom began in 1947, but we would not look for its effects on healthcare and Social Security costs until much, much later.

Most people know this, but  Heritage seems to be lagging behind. “Fourth grade reading achievement scores in Oklahoma have actually declined.” True, they are lower now than in 1998, when universal preschool started. But is that the year should we use for a starting point for data on fourth grade reading scores?

Pre-school kids are three or four years old.  They don’t take the fourth-grade reading test until six or seven years later – in Oklahoma, that would be 2005 for the first cohort.  Amazingly (amazing to Heritage, I guess), that was the year reading scores began to increase, and despite a slight dip last year, they are still above that level.

As for the Georgia graph, anyone glancing at it (anyone except for people at The Heritage Foundation) would see this: reading scores in Georgia began increasing in 1995, two years after universal preschool began, and continued to rise when the first preschoolers reached fourth grade; scores have continued to rise faster than the national average.  Georgia was behind, now it’s ahead. Something good has been happening.

Heritage, however, manages not to see this and instead complains about how long it took Georgia to reach that point. (“Georgia’s program was in place for 13 years before scores caught up to the U.S. average.”)

A simple graph of scores is not really an adequate assessment of universal preschool. Those assessments, which include many other relevant variables,* have been done, and they generally conclude that the programs do work.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that Heritage is again misreading its own graph. So again I repeat, “Who you gonna believe, the Heritage Foundation or your lyin’ eyes?”

HT: Philip Cohen, who apparently thinks the Heritage deliberate obtuseness is so obvious as to be unworthy of elaboration.


* These include the usual demographics, especially to see if preschool effects are different for different groups. But there’s also the problem of post-preschool education. A state might have great preschools, but if it also has lousy primary schools, the benefits of preschool will be eroded away by the time the kids are in fourth grade.

Another Year

September 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”  Dr. Johnson might just have easily said “blogger.”* 

This week marks my seventh year as a blockhead, and as has become my custom, I’m selecting a few of the posts from the last twelve months that I’ve liked.

Climate Denial and American Voluntarism
 “This is 40” –  Guilty Pleasures

Upwardly Mobile Beer
  (Rolling Rock)

Compete Your Way to Mental Health  (“Silver Linings Playbook”)

Abortion and Infanticide

Gun Laws and Crime in Other English-Speaking Countries (it seems relevant again this week)

No Satisfaction  (why liberal women want more sex – or why conservative women don’t)

* I used this quote three yearas ago in a post criticising (or as I like to think of it, skewering) Greg Mankiw for something he had written in the Times. (That post is here.)

If You Can’t Beat ’Em

September 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

(I already used the title “Game Over, Guns Win” in a post after Sandy Hook back in December. Otherwise I might have used it here.)
Aaron Alexis had been receiving VA help for paranoia and 'hearing voices.'
Alexis had also had run-ins with police over two shootings incidents -- one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle-- but was never charged. He had also been discharged as an active-duty Navy reservist for misconduct, perhaps related to the gun incidents . . . .
A federal law enforcement official told USA TODAY that Alexis was armed with an AR-15, which is a light-weight semi-automatic rifle, as well as a shotgun and a handgun . . . .           

The official said Monday that Alexis . . . legally purchased at least some of the weapons used in the assault very recently in Virginia.
(from USA Today)

I can hear it already – the whining from liberals wanting stricter gun laws. They’re going to be complaining that someone with a history of “shooting incidents,” whatever that means, and hearing voices shouldn’t be allowed to buy those guns.  What nonsense. The Second Amendment guarantees everyone the right to bear arms.  It doesn’t say anything about paranoid schizophrenia, and it doesn’t say anything about what kinds of arms. Handguns, assault rifles, shoulder-fired missiles – it’s all good.

Thank God we live in a country with freedom-loving states like Virginia – places where a guy like Aaron Alexis can go into a friendly gun shop or gun show, plunk down his money, and walk out with an AR-15, a shotgun, and a handgun.  That kind of weaponry is the best way to protect yourself and your family from evildoers, and it’s the best way to protect yourself from the government. And make no mistake, this Obama government and its liberal allies want to send their jackbooted thugs into your house and walk out with all your guns. So-called background checks are just the wedge, the ruse that allows them to put their jackbooted foot inside the door.

The truth is that the only thing that will to stop a paranoid schizophrenic with an AR-15 is a non-paranoid-schizophrenic with an AR-15 or some other suitable firearm. If everyone in the Navy Yard had been carrying a gun, maybe Alexis would have killed only a half dozen or so people (those AR-15s can fire off a lot of bullets in a few seconds) before someone picked him off. I hope the NRA comes out with another sensible and well-reasoned proposal like the one they had for schools. Every workplace – every factory, every office, every restaurant, etc. – will have a designated and well-armed shooter. 

This will be far more effective than statist gun-control laws. In the Navy Yard shootings, just like the Newtown school shootings and many others, the killers got their guns legally, which shows that gun laws don’t protect you or reduce mass shootings.

Besides, as the reaction to Newtown, Aurora, and other massacres shows, stricter gun laws ain’t gonna happen. So why don’t you liberals just stop your elitist sniveling and start arming yourselves with some serious firepower?  Remember, when guns are made criminal, only people will kill people, with their cold, dead hands.

UPDATE, September 18, 8 a.m.:
1.    Earlier reports that Alexis used an AR-15 may be incorrect.
2.    CBS reports that “Alexis tried to buy an AR-15 assault rifle at a Virginia gun store last week after test firing one, but the story wouldn't sell it to him. The reason for the refusal isn't clear.” That’s encouraging on the one hand. It also means that the decision whether to sell massacre-ready weapon to a paranoid schizophrenic is at the discretion of a gun-store clerk.
3.    A lawyer for the place where Alexis bought the shotgun says, “In accordance with Federal law, Mr. Alexis' name and other applicable information, including his state of residency, was provided to the Federal NICS system and he was approved by that system.”  That supports the NRA’s claim that background checks don’t work. Of course, the NRA has vigorously opposed legislation aimed at strengthening that system.
4.    Alexis used that shotgun on his first victim, a guard. He then took the guard’s semi-automatic handgun. So much for my NRA-inspired proposal to have an armed guard in every workplace. 

Racist Memorabilia

September 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Memory – for individuals and groups – is selective.  But what happens when we come face to face with memories that we would rather not select?

At a local flea market yesterday, one of the sellers market had this page displayed on his table along with a three-fingered fielder’s mitt from the 1940s, a safety razor with blade sharpener from the 20s or 30s, and much other Americana. The seller said that the page is from an 1880s book, probably a children’s book, though it could be even earlier.

(Click on the picture for a larger view. 
I added contrast to improve the visibility. The colors of actual page were considerably faded.)

The word racism often evokes images of vicious attitudes and behavior – the pictures from Little Rock 1954, white adults spewing hatred at seven-year-old children for doing nothing more than going to school.

What this page documents is not hatred but instead a set of taken-for-granted assumptions and ideas. Today, the racism of Ten Little Niggers is so obvious that I felt uncomfortable just looking at it. I would much have preferred it if this bit of memorabilia were forgetabilia. But I doubt that people a century ago – good people, people like you and me – would have seen it as marker of anything unusual or wrong. To them it was probably just an amusement of no significance.

Here is the flea-market seller displaying the cover page.

He told this story:  He said that he used to sell his wares out of a shop in the Bronx. One day Bill Cosby came into the store and bought just about all the items like this, memorabilia from America’s racist past.  The tab came to $7000 dollars. Cosby then left the store and dumped all the stuff he’d just bought into the garbage.

I was a bit skeptical, but I said nothing. Checking the Internet later, I found this:
About seventy per cent of the collectors are black and they include Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, whose mantel is lined with Mammy figurines, and other entertainment celebrities.  (more here)
Why would a collector throw away the memorabilia he collects?  Still, maybe the story is true. Or maybe he is doing what most people and nations do: constructing the past to make it more palatable, more consistent with the way we see ourselves now.

The Art of Translation

September 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociological Images ran a slightly edited version of my post of a few days ago about the ritual aspects of the US Open finals. Sociological Images has a much wider readership – 50,000 hits on a good day – and items there get picked up and reposted on still other websites.

Those websites also do some editing. Maybe some translating too. I followed a pingback to to find a version of my post that seems to have been machine translated into some other language and then back into something that seems sort of like English.

Sociological Images
I saw the match too. When I got home from work, I turned on CBS. I saw a compare too. When we got home from work, we incited on CBS.
I would guess that most of the people there yesterday would choose even a so-so final over a close, well-played match on an outside court in Round 3. we would theory that many of a people there would select even a so-so final over a close, well-played compare on an outward justice in Round 3.

Hmm- “an outward justice.” Nice turn of phrase.  File it for use later in a different context.
For the full version, including puzzlers like “What creates a sheet value all a income afterwards,”  go to time2sports.  And for the version at Sociological Images, well, here’s how time2sports linked it:
This post creatively seemed on Sociological Images.*

*I have cleaned up this link. The link in the time2sports versions – all the links on the post there – take you to advertisements and dubious downloads.

Your Lyin’ Eyes

September 11, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

What will drive health care costs up in the next decade?  According to the CBO,
  • Medicare costs will increase by $513 billion
  • Medicaid costs will increase by $303 billion
  • Obamacare costs will increase by $135 billion
(The CBO does not use the term Obamacare.  It prefers “Health insurance subsidies and related spending.” The full report is here.) 

Here’s a simple bar graph.

If you put the data on a graph showing the same increases over time, what title would you give to the chart?  If you’re the right-wing Heritage Foundation , it’s obvious.

Yes, the Heritage Foundation looks at the chart and finds that the blame for the increase in healthcare spending goes to Obamacare.*

Who are you going to believe – the Heritage Foundation or your lying eyes? Healthcare costs may be driven to $1.82 trillion, but Obamacare, accounting for less than 10% of that, will not be doing much of the driving.

(HT: David Leonhardt)
*The huge irony in all this is that Obamacare, like Romneycare in Massachusetts, is based substantially on the individual-mandate model originally proposed by the Heritage Foundation. Heritage praised it in Massachusetts but now opposes it even to the extent of mislabeling their own charts.

The Elementary Forms of the US Open Finals

September 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Some sociologists went to the US Open final yesterday and posted about it on Facebook.  Here’s what they saw. Notice the size of the court.

(Photo by Jenn Lena)
I saw the match too. When I got home from work, I turned on CBS.  Here’s what I saw.

On my 40" flat-screen Samsung, I could see the match as though I were in the box seats, nothing between me and the court. I could see the grimace on a player’s face, the sweat stains on his shirt. I sat on an upholstered chair. And it cost me nothing. 

How much was a plastic seat in the top rows of Arthur Ashe Stadium? I don’t know. My grounds pass on Day 3 was $66.  So, $200?  More?   Seats for the finals were $95. I have sat up there near the top. The players are colorful miniatures moving around on the green rectangles. The distant perspective allows – forces – you to see the whole court, so you are aware of placement strategies and patterns of movement you might otherwise not have noticed. But tennis isn’t football; strategy, especially in singles, is fairly obvious and not complicated.*

From way up there, the players are so far away.  It's as though you were looking at your TV through the wrong end of a telescope. You see the game differently, and you hear it differently. A player hits a solid backcourt shot, and for a noticeable half-second or so, you hear silence. Only when the ball is clearing the net do you hear the impact of the stroke. 

Why go out to Flushing Meadow? It’s ridiculous to think about this in the narrow economic framework of money and tennis narrowly defined.  My $0 view of the match was far better than that of my FB friends in their expensive seats high above the court.  Close that micro-economics book and open Durkheim.  Think about the match as ritual. It’s not just about Nadal and Djokovic whacking a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth for a couple of hours. A ritual includes everyone. If you’re there, you are part of that group. You are one with the with the people in the stadium and with the charismatic figures in center court

That’s why, if something is a ritual, being there is so important. Showing up is more than just 80%. It’s everything. If you’re there, you are part of our group. You go to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Diane’s house not because the food is good. You might get better food and more enjoyment at home with take-out Chinese and a TV.  You go because your presence defines you as a member of the group. Not going is tantamount to saying that you are just not part of this family.

The Final is not just any match. It is the ritual that anoints our king, hence the trophies and pageantry and ritualistic incantations (speeches) after the match.  I would guess that most of the people there yesterday would choose even a so-so final over a close, well-played match on an outside court in Round 3.  Because this match is so important, it generates more mana. And that energy is created by the crowd.  Of course, the crowd’s perception is that it is the players who are creating that special feeling, and it helps if the match on the court is close and well-played. But the same match – every shot exactly the same – played in an early round in a nearly empty stadium would not create that same feeling for the handful of spectators who showed up.

What makes the ticket worth all the money then is not the quality of the play. It is the symbolic meaning of the ritual and the strong feeling you get from being part of that ritual. You were there, with Nadal and Djokovic. That ritual exists in sacred time, linked to other great finals matches.  So maybe you save your ticket stub or your program as your link to that sacred past.

I saw the same match, and I had a better view. But I’m not going to save my cable TV bill.

* One of my favorite tennis quotes – I don’t remember who, only that he was not a native speaker of English. In a post-match interview, a reporter asked him a question about strategy, with the assumption that he must have had some complicated game-plan. The player didn’t understand.  “I heet the ball to heem; he heet the ball to me.”  That’s a fairly good description of what happens in most singles matches.

Fed Lines and Headlines

September 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Fed has been optimistic about the economy and has been hinting that it might scale back its aggressive bond-buying program.  But the jobs report on Friday was not encouraging – an estimated 169,000 jobs added. The really bad news was the shrinking of the labor force.  Apparently a lot of people are giving up the search for a job. 

Did the new data on jobs make the Fed reconsider its plans?  It depends on which  headline you read – the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s a larger version of the Times headline:

Is the Fed undeterred, or have its plans been muddied?  Once you get past the headlines, the stories say pretty much the same thing.  Four sentences after that headline about “muddied” plans, the WSJ said, “Friday’s jobs data did little to move the needle in either direction.”  Which is pretty much agreeing with the Times that the jobs report did not “deter” the Fed.

Habits of the Holland Heart

September 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I spent a week in Holland, Michigan at the end of August (family, wedding), but I didn’t find out until now that also in August, the Atlantic was running a series of blogposts (here, for example) about Holland by James Fallows, who was also hanging around town. 

Fallows writes admiringly of Holland.  A strong sense of civic engagement has kept the downtown vibrant while elsewhere in the US, downtowns have had their life sucked out by the malls and bigbox stores at the periphery. That civic sense probably has something to do with Holland’s history as a conservatively religious Dutch town.  It’s hard to miss the Protestant presence. Churches and church schools abound. So do Dutch names. Also windmills and tulips.

On Holland’s main street, this banner –  a spoof on “American Gothic” – conveys the dour Dutch Reform sensibility and the tulips. The civic engagement is less obvious, contained perhaps in the idea that the town can laugh at itself.
But Holland also has a healthy manufacturing sector – furniture, scrap and recycling, pickles – and Fallows attributes much of Holland’s vitality to the non-corporate ownership and therefore the non-corporate ethos and behavior of those companies. These are family-run companies, not large multinationals. For those big corporations, says Fallows. . .
. . . it is a compliment rather than a criticism to say that ultimately they care most about dividend growth and "maximizing shareholder value." Toward that end layoffs, outsourcing, cost-cutting, cheese-paring, union-busting -- you name it, and if it can arguably lead to greater long-run corporate profitability, then by definition it is what management is supposed to do.

A family or privately run business can do things differently, for better and worse. Worse: management jobs for relatives, whether competent or not. Better: deciding in some cases to take a temporary loss, or settle for less-than-maximized profit, in exchange for some other goal. (The full Fallows post is here.)
In the schema of Habits of the Heart, Holland weaves the Biblical and civic republican strands of the American tradition. The other strands – utilitarian individualism (a.k.a. greed) and expressive individualism – are less in evidence.  Holland’s big businesses are firmly in the international economy, but while they act globally, their owners and executives think locally. They seem to see themselves as part of the local community. 

I hadn’t read Fallows’s articles when I was in Holland so I knew nothing of its economics, but one thing immediately struck me as we drove around. (Missing a turn and ranging far from your intended direct route can have its advantages.)  It was obvious that there was wealth here, but the homes in Holland were relatively modest by US standards.  Where in other places McMansion developments or individual new monstrosities would be rising, Holland had normal ranch and two-story houses with lawns of a size that you could mow even without industrial-scale equipment.*
It was as though the display of such opulence would violate community standards.  In fact, several people I spoke with mentioned the resentment that David and Carol VanAndel are incurring with their construction of a $3.6 million mansion overlooking Lake Michigan.  (VanAndel is heir to the Amway fortune.)

By standards of East Hampton and elsewhere, it’s not exactly a tear-down, but it’s certainly not top tier.  Yet for the people in Holland, it was literally enormous – outside the norm – even for the wealthy.  On top of that, VanAndel is indulging his individual wishes explicitly at the expense of the public. He is cutting off public access to Big Red, the landmark lighthouse.

The lighthouse and pier are public, but access goes through VanAndel property, and he wants to allow the public to walk that path only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That is not the civic-mindedness that Fallows finds just about everywhere else in Holland.


* Big problem with methodology here – journalistic impressionism rather than social science (I haven’t even scanned Zillow). Maybe Holland is rife with mansions, and I was just looking for conspicuous consumption in all the wrong places.