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Alan M. Webber

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

America's Deep Disconnect

Last week we meditated on the meaning of Super Bowl quarterbacks; this week it's Wall Street bonuses. Let's combine the two to ask a different question: Is there any conceivable link in America between what we award huge sums of money for and what we say we stand for and believe in? Do football players make too much money? How about the whole Super Bowl extravaganza, our sports Christmas in January? Does the merchandising of a professional sporting event make any sense in the current proportions that it's assumed? How about other sports--do baseball players make too much money? (That's a question President Obama may want to jawbone about, especially in light of the anti-trust exemption the sport enjoys as a free gift from the federal government--a gift that has been rewarded by what appears to be blatant lying by highly paid professional athletes who testified in front of Congress on the subject of--there's no nice way to put this--cheating by using banned substances.) Should the recent spending spree by the Wall Street on amazingly high-priced free agent talent be subject to new federal guidelines, in light of the current economic circumstances facing the country?

And while we're at it, we should take a hard look at the respectful treatment accorded the annual gathering of the rich and powerful at Davos. We're treated to Putin insulting Michael Dell; we get insults traded between Turkish and Israeli heads of state--all of it covered by serious journalists and columnists. We get Tom Friedman interpreting it for us, and Adrianna Huffington blogging from the scene. Shouldn't the President declare the whole gathering disgraceful? I went to Davos once--it reminded me of nothing relevant or contemporary: it was the financial crowned heads of the world inviting intellectual dancing bears to perform for them. Why is this spectacle taken seriously?

Here's the real punch line. Writing in 1954 at the height of his power, John Kenneth Galbraith sought to make sense of "The Great Crash 1929." At the end of his insightful and sadly funny book, he pulled all the threads together, wondering why it happened, and whether another crash and depression might happen again. He wrote: "An angry god may have endowed capitalism with inherent contradictions. But at least as an afterthought he was kind enough to make social reform surprisingly consistent with improved operation of the system." Well, he got that wrong. What's happened in America in the last 20 years (at least) is a huge pulling apart of financial capitalism from social purpose. To add insult to injury, the media doesn't know how to talk about this wrenching disconnect. To criticize it is to sound suspiciously like a weird left-leaning ideologue; better to report on the parts that are outrageous, or declared so by someone like the President. But calling Wall Street out is easy; the deeper disconnects are what deserve our attention and desperately require our efforts at sense making.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  February 2, 2009; 1:28 PM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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All 3 of you have hit the nail on the head -- our priorities have got to change.

How many multi-millions of dollars does someone need to make each year? If for one year I made the income of a top athlete, major movie star or top CEO, I would be set for the rest of my life with plenty left over to pass along to my children and grandchildren.

It's time we look at entitlements for things such as clean air and water, energy independence, healthcare for all, a good education, and a job that pays at least a living wage.

Posted by: MarketResearcher | February 4, 2009 4:51 PM
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Our value system in terms of compensation for work is terribly skewed. Not just start atheletes, but the entire pay scale in certain sporting functions is highly questionable. Basketball coaches, at the *college* level, are making over $1M per year, while over 50% of the atheletes are failing to graduate. Does anyone know of a college professor, even a Nobel laureate or a star researcher, making that much money? Sports are great fun, but our collective hypnotism with entertainment and the groteske amount of capital and resources we funnel into that sector worries me greatly about the areas we are starving for attention as a result. Anything hard but key to our future, like infrastructure, public services, health care, and education, we seem more than eager to ignore. Perhaps this is the real underlying cause of our current collapse, and why we will not get going again until we come to terms with that.

Posted by: AgentG | February 4, 2009 3:44 PM
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Thank God for your remarks, I was beginning to think all emperors are naked. You are the first in this long line of "leadership" experts to ask the deeper questions that lead to the real causes and possible answers to this crisis. The rest are just blathering on about better oversight by boards etc. We have a culture that says wealth is everything, by any means. We have become profoundly disconnected from the ideas of the common good. That is true from one end of the spectrum to the other. The rich show obscene consumption while those on the other end are shopping, shopping, shopping, just at Walmart rather than Tiffany's. We are at a nadir, but that is how profound change happens. We move again into a new/old time where the individual gives way to community.

Thanks for a nice post.

Posted by: Vgeiger | February 4, 2009 11:50 AM
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