Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Can Accountants be Astrologers?+

In the wake of Enron and other such messes, I want to ask this philosophical question. Granted, greed is endemic to the human race. Kenneth Lay’s excesses along with those of his cronies are merely one chapter in a long history of corporate-government corruption that includes such earlier chapters as Tammany Hall, Exxon Valdez, countless scandals and bubbles, and schemes.

So why get upset about Enron, apart from its environmental consequences, and its obvious tie-ins to the Bush Administration, and the Clinton one as well? The reason, I think, relates to the legacy of the Reagan Administration in the USA, and Thatcher in the UK. There was a fundamental paradigm shift then that still relates to life today. To follow the very interesting presidential study of historian Stephen Skowronek, particular administrations set up a paradigm of government that holds until the next paradigm.* Subsequent administrations either follow the lead of the paradigm-setting administration, or unsuccessfully react to it, until the whole thing collapses with the new paradigm. In Skowronek’s model, the Reagan Administration was the last paradigm, with F.D. Roosevelt before that.

Curiously, one of the accomplishments of the Reagan Era was to further complete the secularization of society which was a hallmark of the Enlightenment – the furtherance of the very point of view that banned astrology from serious intellectual consideration. And even more curiously, that secularization is currently being driven in part by a group of Christian Fundamentalist businesspeople – whose own beliefs are also ultimately compromised by the same position they are advocating.

Whether one chooses to blame Reagan’s economic team, or the simultaneous influx of data processing into business, the fact is that the way that business is conducted on the inside changed radically in the 1980’s. The advent of relatively easy access to reams of data not merely allowed, but virtually mandated that all larger businesses run everything “by the numbers.” The Walmart model of breaking down every sale into components of line item and customer zip code preferences heralded the era of “ship on demand” and frequent buyer clubs: where the clubs were “sold” to the public as benefiting them, but where the real beneficiaries were the companies.

The dark side of this force is that everything and everyone became a number, or merely an aggregate of numbers. And this is where everything changed. Customers became numbers. In the airline industry, this resulted in smaller seats, less legroom, horrible and eventually either non-existent meals or purchased meals as airlines raced each other to find every last way to shave a little bit off the cost,or raise the price a little bit. Flying became uncomfortable as customers were forced to the realization that these literally are cattle cars, and the airlines blamed 9-11. Flight attendants have told me that once their payroll was automated, they routinely found errors in their paychecks – and these errors were always in the airline’s favor.

This disconnection between money and humanity – the severance of any sense of humanity in a business transaction – means that customers can be constantly hit with questionable charges, support centers can be outsourced in ways that significantly impact customer relations, and employees are reduced to productivity machines. The irony is that in the immediate decades leading up to this sea change, there was substantial research suggesting the models such as Abraham Maslow’s where employees are treated well, and allowed to make a significant contribution to self-autonomy, do in fact increase productivity. Whereas treating people as numbers and reducing choice results in lower productivity in employees, and loss of brand loyalty in consumers.

Yet, these newer quantitative models persist, presumably because the short term numerical analysis looks good on paper, and because numbers often provide a comfort blanket, regardless of whether they are correct or meaningful. What these models lack is any accounting for the uniqueness of individuals, or any incentive for service beyond the mediocre. Ironically, the enforcement of these quantitative systems has encouraged workers to act exactly like workers under the Communist system that supposedly was debunked: work is rewarded equally whether one does a good job, or a poor job, so why excel? These methods demean the individual person, declaring the only good to be “value,” which is strictly quantitative.

Whether one is interested in examining life astrologically or spiritually, this approach is both disastrous and demeaning. These systems declare the value of the individual so strongly that they are meaningless without it. You cannot run your life astrologically based on my chart – or vice versa. You cannot rely on me to do your spiritual work – or vice versa. We know that the whole is not the sum of the parts. Whenever we ignore this, we encourage those who seek to tear down our beliefs. Never forget this!

For a really interesting website related to this logical issue of the whole not being the sum of the parts, see http://www.abelard.org/category/category.htm.

+ With thanks to Nick Campion, who asked a question which provoked this essay.
* Skowronek, Stephen. 1997. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. Belknap Press: Cambridge, MA.