Hang a portrait of Tom Friedman next to Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman and you have my picture of 2012 in contrast to 2013 at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. More to the point, the difference between Aspen last year and this year was Friedman's “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented ” vs. that iconic face of ignorant bliss saying, “What, me worry?”
What, me worry?
Bill Mayer turned the key for me on this. At a chance meeting on a footpath between class locations, I wondered aloud to Bill about the different “feel” this summer. For the last 10 years Bill has been lay chairman of the Aspen Institute. “Everything changed in January,” he said, and . . . of course: Before January the world turned on politics and economics. After January, people collectively breathed out and said this is the new normal: fiscal cliffs evidently come and go; another debt ceiling in September-just a media scare; QEI and QEII haven't changed my life; fuss and bluster and little change . . . and all that worry can wear a person out.
That hollow sound you hear is an official foot kicking the can further down the road.
Another '12-'13 snapshot would be Mort Zuckerman and Perry Chen, studies, respectively, in reality and ingenuity. Last year's “Reality Check” (that was part of the title) in Aspen was a Mt. Olympus exchange between David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, and Mort Zuckerman, owner, chair, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report (he also owns and publishes the New York Daily News). The topic was America's diminishing world role and the numbers were, at best, sobering:
- Our total debt is 350 percent of the GNP when you include unfunded pension liabilities, credit cards, student loans, and mortgages.
- Decline in net worth was $40 trillion between '07 and '10-mostly in home values.
- Unemployment is 14 percent-counting 12.7 million people who have given up looking.
- Current growth is 2 percent, compared to 6 percent in 13 previous recessions.
One new line of thought: When have you seen so many people question whether it's worth it to get a college degree? A degree used to promise higher income; now colleges are graduating the world's largest supply of intellectually capable waiters and waitresses.
Back to Perry Chen. Despite this Year of Denial at Aspen, an especially bright spot was this longhaired and breathtakingly charismatic CEO of Kickstarter, harnessing social media-aggregating-to fund creative projects. Since Kickstart launched in 2009, more than 4.4 million people have pledged more than $690 million to fund more than 44,000 creative projects. As he questioned Chen, master interviewer (and Aspen Institute president and CEO) Walter Isaacson summoned up from the audience former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who lamented that any given Disney movie project averaged 30 lawsuits for creative infringement. How many lawsuits had Kickstarter kicked up? With his thumb and forefinger Chen formed a loop. “Zero.” Kickstarter takes 5 percent of gross profits, but it's not in business to produce or develop, Chen explained; it's just a platform to link creators and backers.
So brilliant it aches . . . and a case in point of the shining under-40 contingent at Aspen 2013, a growing cadre of social entrepreneurs.
If 2012-the Year of the Declinist-was a cold shower, and if 2013, the Year of Denial, was more of a spa day, the plenary session with David Brooks, my favorite social observer, was lean meat, vegetables and coffee: nourishing and then some.
No, make that a “feast,” because Brooks was serving the Halftime credo in words I wish I'd said myself-the best lecture on current culture in the U.S. I've ever heard. America is aggressively losing its moral center, Brooks said, and he laid out the West's two prevailing moral codes: the Greek code, which prizes ambition, achievement, winning . . . and the Bible's code of humility and sacrifice.
Humankind has “two Adams,” Brooks said. Adam One is the Greek ambition, wanting to create, seek, achieve excellence. Adam Two is humility, submission, community, and is conscious of the long chain of history. For centuries, every person's internal war to merge these two Adams defined character. Think of Abraham Lincoln, tremendously ambitious, and his appeal to the “angels of our better nature” in his First Inaugural Address.
From my seat in the audience, by the last third of Brooks' talk, it dawned on me that, clearer than I've ever put it myself, this is what I've said for the last 30 years: though we are selfish, competitive and determined to one up, we have another capacity that finds itself in the biblical ethos. And somehow it's both-and, not either-or. This is so important I was tearing up. I thought, my God, someone's finally said it. And to report that certain people in that crowd were totally engaged is an understatement.
Bringing it Home
From my time with Peter Drucker, I retained four copies of a poster we'd commissioned bearing his business philosophy, each of the four with Peter's personal signature. One of those posters hangs in the office of Mike Ullman, the seasoned CEO who successfully led JCPenney from 2004 to 2012, then handed a vibrant corporation to his successor and watched it careen off a cliff. Macy's CEO Terry Lungdren called it the worst debacle in retail history, and the story now is business legend.
In the wake of the Penney disaster, Mike agreed to come back to the helm, and when the subject of salary came up, he said he'd work for free. Tom Engibous, head of Texas Instruments for a while, thought about it and said, “We can't do that. You can't work for free. So how about a million a year?” That's about 1/15th the take-home of retail CEOs of similar stature. A throwaway. A token.
Here's my point. Mike's successor (and then predecessor), Ron Johnson, exemplified what Brooks calls the Greek code of ambition: Adam One. Johnson is a disciple of Steve Jobs; he ignored the customers to make Penney in his own image. Shoppers just quit coming for hose, shorts, pajamas and the stuff that normal people want.
Mike Ullman took business back to the customer, to service. And the story that played out at JCPenney is as close to fusing the two Adams (the ideal, Brooks says) as anything I know: strong leadership organized on the biblical model of compassion and empathy for the customer. Johnson, a clear and distinct leader in the Greek code, had said, “My way or the highway.” And on the other side, right there in North Dallas, is an Adam Two, Lincoln's “angel of our better nature,” in Mike Ullman.
The signed Drucker poster I referred to said, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider of value?” And Mike told me it was the best gift he's ever received.
A good many videos of speakers at this year's Aspen Ideas Festival are available free at
I especially recommend:
The Inverse Logic of Life (in part)
Plenary session featuring David Brooks.
Kickstarter and the Economics of Creativity (in part)
Perry Chen, co-founder of Kickstarter, and Walter Isaacson in “Kickstarter and the Economics of Creativity” at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival.
Our Economy: Optimism, Pessimism, and Reality Check (in full)
David Rubenstein and Mortimer B. Zuckerman discuss the economy.
And the best account you are likely to find of the real financial situation (QEI, II, III and the rest) we find ourselves in:
Can the Federal Reserve Stimulate the Economy? (in full)
Dallas Federal Reserve Chair Richard Fisher discusses the delicate balance between government and the market.
Speakers: Richard W. Fisher, Maria Bartiromo
As always, I welcome your thoughts. You can email me personally at bob.buford@ACTIVEenergy.net, or converse with the entire community at ACTIVEenergy.net.