How Religion Caused The Great Recession cont.

At the end of part three I ended with the hint that something dark and troubling occurred within corporate America at the end of the 20th century. The story of that change was told in my book ‘How Jobs Destroyed Work’, which I will quote from now.
“During the war, the USA achieved full employment for the first time since the 1920s. When the war was over, there was a lot of concern about the possibility of a postwar recession, which the government sought to avoid through various acts and initiatives. The acts included the ‘Employment Act’ of 1946, which “committed the federal government to maintain maximum employment and with it a high level of aggregate demand”. The initiatives included the GI bill, an education initiative that helped upgrade the workforce, thereby providing a large pool of white-collar workers for the administrative and management-type roles that corporations increasingly depended upon.
As well as anxieties about recession prompting the State to push for high employment, conditions enabled by the war played a part in other ways. For one thing, industry in America was still largely intact, unlike that of Europe’s. The government invested heavily in the business sector, particularly through highway construction and defence-related expenditures. Also, wartime research had helped launch an era of technological innovation, such as IBM’s development of the first general-purpose computer. Finally, wage freezes had been put in place during the war, and this had required employers to use fringe benefits with which to attract employees. This favoured the largest corporations, who could afford to offer greater benefits than their smaller rivals.
But those corporate benefit packages were still costly, even forty or fifty years ago. This might have discouraged their mass adoption, had it not been for militant unions during the postwar period. It made sense to the larger corporations that if they treated their employees well, that would improve emotional attachment to the company, and the threat of socialism would be avoided.
And so it came to pass that the early postwar decades enjoyed economic growth and price stability. The large corporations delivered on their promise of long-term employment prospects, meaning that anyone fortunate enough to land a job there felt secure, and expected that their own prosperity would rise along with the company’s fortunes.
But all that was to change in the 80s and 90s.
During the 80s, attitudes toward the paternalistic model changed. The 1970s ended in recession, and during this period two of America’s largest companies- Chrysler and Lockheed-survived only because of government bailouts. The new decade began with inflation approaching 15%, and unemployment over 8.5%. Gold prices were soaring, a trend that is often associated with investor pessimism. Indeed, there was a general mood of unease regarding the the US’s economic prospects, as the stock market went into the worst slump since the 1930s.
Amidst all this financial trouble, people began looking at those large corporations with their many benefits packages and saw not businesses to be inspired by but rather dinosaurs to be blamed for worsening conditions. Increasingly, people saw the large corporations as bloated and inefficient, handicapped by too much bureaucracy and a workforce with an over-inflated sense of entitlement. It seemed as though America was increasingly unable to compete against more nimble competitors, most notably from Japan and West Germany. The nation was importing 25% of its steel and 53% of its numerically controlled machine tools by 1981.
What really helped the rise of the lean-and-mean model in the 80s and 90s was certain federal and state regulatory changes, coupled with innovations from Wall Street. The federal and state regulatory changes brought about an environment in which corporate mergers and takeovers could flourish. For example, there had been laws protecting local companies from out-of-state suitors, but these were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Also, President Reagan appointed an attorney who had previously defended large corporations against antitrust suits to be head of the Department of Justice’s antitrust division. This all but guaranteed there would no interference from the federal government with the growing acquisitions and mergers movement.
Meanwhile, Michael Milken, of investment house Drexel Burnham, created high-yield debt instruments known as ‘junk bonds’, which allowed for much riskier and aggressive corporate raids. These, along with the state and federal regulatory changes mentioned earlier, triggered an era of hostile takeovers, leveraged buyouts and corporate bustups”.
So what these changes-particularly the growth in the 80s of finance capitalism-did, was to transform the corporation from its traditional image of a task-based entity engaged in some collective activity defined not just in terms of profit but in an overall contribution to society, to one in which shareholder’s profits were the be all and end all. Everything else, including pride in the product in some cases (consider, for example, the internal email sent by an S&P employee which read “let’s hope we are all wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters”), was to be disregarded. All the focus was on the short-term raising of stock prices.
This marked change in attitudes was reflected in comments made by the Business Roundtable in the 1990s. At the start of the decade, Business Roundtable said of corporate responsibility that they “are chartered to serve both their shareholders and society as a whole”. But, seven years later, the message had changed to “the notion that the board must somehow balance the interests of other stakeholders fundamentally misconstrues the role of directors”. In other words, a corporation looks after its shareholders and the interests of other stakeholders-employees, customers, and society in general-are of far less importance.
Certainly the employee of 80s and 90s corporate America would have recognised their lack of importance in what as an increasingly insecure environment. Finance capitalism by that time had transformed the corporation from a paternal entity rewarding loyal workers with security and regular wages, to aggregations of financial assets that existed only to be merged, broken apart or destroyed, according to the whims of executives chasing short-term shareholder profit.
Some observers, among them Noam Chomsky and Jacques Fresco, have noted how corporations tend to have the same organizational structure as fascist dictatorships. In other words, there is a strict hierarchy that demands tight control at the top and obedience at every level. Granted, there may be a measure of give-and-take, but the line of authority is usually clear. Others, perhaps most notably Michel Foucault, have argued that prisons and factories came in at more or less the same time, and their operators consciously borrowed each other’s’ control techniques.
For example, in the late 18th Century, social theorist Jeremy Bentham designed the ‘panopticon’. ‘Pan’ means ‘inmates’ and ‘opticon’ means ‘observed’ and so the panopticon was a prison designed in such a way that all inmates could be kept under surveillance by a single watchman. True, it was impossible for a single observer to keep an eye on all inmates at once, but the panopticon was designed in such a way as to make it impossible for any inmate to know if he was being watched or not. The inmates only knew that it was possible that they could currently be under surveillance. Bentham’s belief was that, under such conditions, inmates would effectively mind their own behaviour.
So what became of the panopticon? They are everywhere, only we now tend to refer to them as ‘offices’. Many a white-collar employee (those below the executive level, at least) spend their in-office hours in a cubicle, most likely of a one-size-fits-all, institutional-gray design that can be set up, reconfigured, and moved at the whim of those higher up the line of authority: A constant reminder of the employee’s own lack of security and importance to the corporation. Moreover, cubicles are (in the words of one employee) “mechanisms of constant surveillance”, lacking doors and usually arranged so that managers can spy on whoever they like at any time. The employees are usually made to work facing a wall, so cannot know if they are being watched unless they look over their shoulder. The message such an environment sends out is clear: We can see what you are-or are not- doing. So work harder or we’ll replace you. The employee found him or herself in a harsh working environment that did everything it could to underscore their vulnerability.
As conditions for the average employee diminished and prosperity for those at the executive level soured to dizzying heights, America in the 80s and 90s had virtually returned to the highly polarised conditions of the 1920s. David Leonhart of the New York Times reckoned, “it’s as if every household in that bottom 80 percent is writing a check for $7000 every year and sending it to the top 1 percent”.
But whereas, before the Great Depression, there had been campaigners speaking out against the excesses of the wealthy and the oppression imposed on the poor, the prosperity gospel that had begun in the 19th century and which was amplified by megachurches and TV evangelists responding to market signals from late 20th century consumption culture, had a markedly different message: There was nothing amiss with a deeply unequal society. Anyone at all stood to become as wealthy as the top 1 percent. Just remain resolutely optimistic and all will be well.
Within this highly unstable environment, the positive-thinking ideology that had begun with 19th century New Thought and inflated by corporate-style churches, found an environment to which it was well suited. All kinds of life coaches and motivational gurus emerged, spreading the gospel of prosperity, and applying management speak to disguise what were worsening conditions. For example, following the Chase-Chemical merger, employees who lost their jobs were not laid off, they were instead referred to as ‘saves’. Other corporations going through mass layoffs in pursuit of boosting shareholder value in the short-term referred to those selected for redundancy as ‘nonselected employees’.
Over time, the message that life coaches and motivational gurus delivered become one on which everyone was supposed to consider the deterioration of work and its rewards in corporate America as a positive thing overall. Corporations paid substantial sums of money to the motivational industry, whose members told employees that to be laid off was an opportunity for self-development, that the volatile state of the jobs market was a welcome breeding ground producing winners.
And, unlike with the megachurches (which one could leave at any time) the books and seminars to be consumed at corporate events were often mandatory for any employee who wanted to keep his or her job. Workers were required to read books like Mike Hernacki’s ‘The Ultimate Secret to Getting Everything You Want’ or ‘The Secrets Of The Millionaire Mind’ by T. Harv Ecker, which encouraged practitioners of positive thinking to place their hands on their hearts and say out loud, “I love rich people! And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!”.
Along with being made to conform to all the rules and worksheets of the self-help literature, employees in corporate America found themselves having to attend Native American healing circles, Buddhist seminars, fire walking and other ritualistic practices, all in the name of maintaining a feverish pitch of optimism among worsening conditions. Such was the level of religious-like devotion to the gospel of prosperity and positive thinking that a 1996 business self-help book reckoned, “if you want to find a genuine mystic, you are more likely to find one in a boardroom than in a monastery or cathedral”.
In part five we will see how CEOs were transformed into cult-like leaders during the tumultuous 80s and 90s.
“Financial Fiasco” by Johan Norberg
‘Smile Or Die’ by Barbara Ehrenreich
‘White Collar Sweatshop’ by Jill Frazer
‘How Jobs Destroyed Work’ by Extropia DaSilva
In part three of this series, we saw how the consumer culture of the late 20th century inspired churches to become more secular and corporate in their appearance, and how, as they grew into gigantic organisations, pastors were obliged to become more like CEOs in how they dressed and behaved. At the same time throughout the late 20/early 21st century, actual CEOs were becoming more like cult leaders. The transformation of the corporate world during the 80s and 90s (discussed in part four) had much to do with this.
Once upon a time, the CEO of a large corporation would have been the epitome of the cool, rational planner. He or she would have been trained in ‘management science’ and probably worked his or her way up within the ranks of the organisation so that, by the time they reached the top, the CEO had mastered every aspect of the business. Once there at the apex of the corporate pyramid this highly trained, rational specialist would have carried out the central belief of the college-educated middle-class, with its mandate of progress for all and not just the few.
But as the corporate world became more volatile toward the end of the 20th century, questions began to arise over whether such rationality and level-headedness was best for delivering the new goal of short-term boosts to shareholders’ profits. In 1999, Businessweek captured the changing mood when it asked, “who has time for decision trees and five year plans any more? Unlike the marketplace of twenty years ago, today’s information and services-dominated industry is all about instantaneous decision-making”.
These changes brought about a transformation in leadership. With the business world now seen as so tumultuous and complex as to “defy predictability and even rationality” (as an article in Fast Company put it) a new kind of CEO emerged, one driven more by intuition and gut-feeling. The new CEO was less of a manager with great experience obtained from working his way up the company hierarchy, and more of a flamboyant leader who had achieved celebrity status in the business world, and was hired on the basis of his showmanship, whether his prior role had anything to do with the new position or not.
A 2002 article in Human Relations described the celebrity CEO as being someone with “a monomaniacal conviction that there is one right way of doing things, and believe they possess an almost divine insight into reality”.
So, whereas the pastor of a megachurch was becoming more like a corporate executive, the corporate executive was becoming more like the leader of a cult. This transformation was no doubt helped by the replacement of old-style management consultants with motivational gurus. Pastorpreneurs, celebrity motivational gurus and flamboyant CEOS socialised together, advised one another, and in so doing created a business environment mixed with irrationality. According to Ehrenreich, “forsaking the ‘science’ of management, corporate leaders began a wild thrashing around in search for new ways to explain an increasingly uncertain world-everything from chaos theory…to eastern religions”.
It was certainly a time of increasing uncertainty. With the likes of Tom Peters (described by the LA Times as the ‘uberguru’ of management) offering advice like “destroy your corporation before a competitor does!”, everybody’s position in 90s corporate America was precarious. But whereas the white-collar precariat lived with the prospect of being fired at any time while shouldering the burden of increasing debt, the focus of boosting shares and rewarding celebrity CEOS had seen executive pay soar to over three hundred times that of the typical worker, and golden parachutes handed out even to the boss whose reckless behaviour crossed the line into outright criminality. For example, in 2006 the chief executive of UnitedHealth was pursued by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for illegal backdating of stock options, actions that got him fired and made to repay $465 million in partial settlement. But he also received the largest ‘golden handshake’ in corporate history, amounting to nearly $1 billion. As Ehrenreich said, “the combination of great danger and potentially dazzling rewards (lead) to a wave of giddiness that swept through America”.
Celebrity CEOs, going from their Gulfstream jets to their limousines to their luxury villas or four-star hotels, lived (in the words of Washington DC ‘crisis manager’ Eric Dezenhall) “in an artificial bubble of constant, uncritical reinforcement…a consumer of reassuring cliches”. They had come to believe in the teachings of the motivational books and speakers they recommended (maybe with a degree of cynicism) to their subordinates; positive-thinking preachers who claimed great wealth would come to anyone who visualised success, worked hard, and never complained. The average American did not complain, either, since by now the incessant New Thought message convinced positive thinkers that anyone could ascend to the world of unstinting luxury. According to researchers at the Brookings Institute, “the strong belief in opportunity and upward mobility is the explanation that is often given for Americans’ high tolerance for inequality. The majority of Americans surveyed believe they will be above mean average income in the future (even though that is a mathematical impossibility)”.
But perhaps a more accurate way to put it would be to say that the average American could not complain, at least not of they wanted to keep their job. Remember, that Positive Thinking ideology considers any negativity to be a sin, and some of its gurus recommended removing negative people from one’s life. And in the world of corporate America-where, other than in clear-cut cases of racial, gender, or age-related discrimination, anyone can be fired for any reason or no reason at all-that was easy to do: terminate that negative person’s employment. Joel Osteen of Houston Lakewood church (described as “America’s most influential Christian” by Church Report magazine) told his followers, “employers prefer employees who are excited about working at their companies…God wants you to give it everything you’ve got. Be enthusiastic. Set an example”. And if you didn’t set an example and radiate unbridled optimism every second of the working day, you were made an example of. As banking expert Steve Eisman explained, “anybody who voiced negativity was thrown out”.
Such was the fate of Mike Gelband, who was in charge of Lehman Brothers’ real estate division. At the end of 2006 he grew increasingly anxious over the growing subprime mortgage bubble and advised “we have to rethink our business model”. For this unforgivable lapse into negativity, Lehman CEO Richard Fuld fired the miscreant.
But, actually, sacking was not the worst fate that could befall an employee in 21st century corporate America. With every white-collar employee under pressure to work on their attitudes, the pressure on that group who most require permanent smiles and positivity-the sales team-reached ludicrous heights. Underperforming salespeople were subjected to having eggs broken on their faces, were made to bend over and receive a spanking with the metal yard signs of competing companies, and in one case even subjected to waterboarding (“you saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard for sales”, in the words of the Prosper Management supervisor who conducted this example of motivational guidance).
So this was America in the 21st century. A world in which megachurch pastorpreneurs and TV evangelists preached to millions the Good News that “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score” (in the words of Osteen). A world in which CEOs became like the leaders of cults who, according to Steve Eisman, were infected with the executive mind-set of ‘hedge fund disease’ (“The symptoms are megalomania, plus narcissism, plus solipsism…How could you be wrong about anything? To think something is to make it happen. You’re God”) who were surrounded by yes-men who dared not raise any concerns for fear of being fired for ‘negativity’. A world in which to ‘underperform’ in sales could lead to humiliating ritual punishments like being made to wear nappies.
Pumped up with the New Thought belief that positive thinking could make wishes come true and that God would intervene to prevent any negative outcome, Americans confronted those other circumstances happening in the early 21st century: Monetary policy from the Federal Reserve coupled with surpluses of fast-growing emerging economies making money cheaper than ever; US politicians working to increase the share of home-owning families; a financial industry apparently transforming large risks into smaller ones through repackaging, labelling and selling them coupled with regulations and bonuses that tempted people into the market for mortgage-backed securities.
After the subprime mortgage bubble burst and it became obvious that the good times had been propped up by out-of-control speculation and borrowing, inevitably the cry went up: ‘Why did nobody see this coming?’. Hopefully this series has offered some explanations by showing how, prior to the 2008 crash, prosperity preachers and optimism coaches told people they could realise their material ambitions through the power of belief (‘self-help writer Stephen Covey encouraged those satisfied with what they had to “admit that what you have isn’t enough”) the perception of negative thought as a form of sin that must be removed from one’s life had the effect of ejecting cautious people bearing bad news from the workplace and there was an executive class making decisions based on gut-feeling who were behaving very much like the motivational gurus and prosperity preachers they socialised with and who they forced upon their subordinates, while at the same time enriching themselves through corporate mergers and bustups that unlocked shares-boosting capital while destroying the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people (those employees maxing out their credit cards in spending sprees in order to compensate for the deterioation of rewards in the workplace.)
Coming up next, the concluding chapter of this essay.
‘Financial Fiasco’ by
‘Smile Or Die’ by Barbara Ehrenreich
‘White-Collar Sweatshop’ by Jill Andresky Frasier
In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, faced with an epidemic of foreclosures in the housing market, the collapse of some of the oldest financial institutions and the national debt rising to $10 trillion, people understandably asked: Why? How come all those highly respected and lavishly rewarded experts never saw the crash coming? Taking into consideration the evidence presented in this essay, I think we can conclude that the West was blinded by a combination of New Thought and neo-classical ideology.
When the likes of Mary Baker Eddy and Quimby sought to create a positive alternative to the grim outlook of Calvinism, they imagined the universe to consist of nothing but an all-nurturing, all-supplying spirit. Humanity, as part of this maximally-beneficial entity, had but to exercise their powers of positive thinking, banish all negative thoughts, and everything would turn out all right.
And, as Ehrenreich pointed out, “what was market fundamentalism other than runaway positive thinking? In the ideology of the Bush administration and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Clinton administration before it, there was no need for vigilance or anxiety about America’s financial institutions because ‘the market’ would take care of everything. It achieved the status of a deity, this market”.
The real world is too complex for human minds to fully grasp. Since that’s the case, science is obliged to devise simplified models, to work with a crude ‘toy universe’ when thinking about this universe in which we live. For example, Newtonian physics cannot accurately predict the interaction of three or more orbiting bodies. So rocket scientists planning to send a probe to, say, Mars, work with a simplified model in which there are only two objects-Mars and the Sun. The thinking is that, on human timescales, the Sun’s influence swamps everything else, so the approximation is good enough for all practical intents and purposes.
All the sciences have to make simplifying assumptions, and economics is no exception. According to Mark Braund and Ross Ashcroft (authors of “The Survival Manual: A Sane Person’s Guide to Navigating the 21st Century”) “neo-classical economics looks only at the factors influencing the investment and consumption decisions of individuals and firms. It focuses on how things would work in an imaginary world where all participants in the economy shared full and equal knowledge, not only of the market but also of the consequences of their decisions. It also assumes that everyone faces the same choices in life”.
As we have seen over the course of this essay, there are a couple of dubious claims here. There is, for example, the claim that participants share full and equal knowledge, both of the market and their decision’s consequences. This can hardly be said to apply to a corporate world in which celebrity CEOs floated high above the concerns of ordinary citizens in a bubble of luxury, surrounded by subordinates conditioned to bring them nothing but good news. “I’m the most lied to man in the world”, was how one CEO explained his situation.
Nor could it be said to apply to ordinary Americans, those folk who, in work, were obliged to attend seminars and read books by so-called experts armed with a pseudoscientific mix of economics, quantum physics and mysticism (as one life coach insisted, “with quantum physics, science is leaving behind the notion that human beings are powerless victims and moving toward an understanding that we are fully empowered creators of our lives and of our world”) and engineering a working environment where the entrenched cult of optimism made it advisable to conform lest you be targeted for ‘releases of resources’ or whatever euphemism for layoffs the company used.
Outside of work, the American citizen was preached to by TV evangelists broadcasting their ‘prosperity gospel’ that God wanted true believers in optimism to have it all (a situation that inspired a 2008 Time article called ‘Maybe We Should Blame God For The Subprime mortgage mess’). They were advised by (in Ehrenreich’s words) “professional optimists (who) dominated the world of economic commentary…Escalating house prices were pumping the entire economy by encouraging people to use their homes like ATMS…taking out home equity loans to finance surging consumption-and housing prices were believed to be permanently resistant to gravity”.
According to Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein, “at the heart of any economic or financial mania is an epidemic of self-delusion that infects not only large numbers of sophisticated investors but also many of the smartest, most experienced and sophisticated executives and bankers”.
An economy infected with an epidemic of self-delusion and where the pressure is on to conform to a ‘yes-man’ culture of positive thinking is hardly conducive to bringing about the neo-classical concept of man as a perfectly informed and rational agent.
Then there is the notion of everyone facing the same choices in life. Here, I will just point out that some finance companies involved in subprime mortgages were undertaking debt-to-asset ratios of 30 to 1, and ask the reader to take a member of the white-collar proletariat, massively indebted, working in a corporate environment whose advice to those facing unprecedented levels of ‘restructuring’ and ‘career-change opportunities’ (more euphemisms for layoffs) were “don’t blame the system, don’t blame the boss, work harder and pray more” or ‘deal with it, you big babies!”, and compare that person to the likes of Jack Welch, the CEO who laid off over a hundred thousand workers, who retired with a monthly income of $2.1 million, got given an $800,000-a-month Manhattan apartment, a Boeing 737 (also courtesy of the company) oh, and free security guards for his many homes. Does anyone really believe these are people who face the same choices in life?
When we make references to the ‘free market’, what, exactly is this ‘freedom’ we are referring to? The neo-liberal ideologue would no doubt claim it refers to the freedom to partake in voluntary exchange. As Ayn Rand said, “money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value…An honest man is one who knows that he cannot consume more than he has produced”.
But, if that is the case, then it is difficult to imagine how all those toxic assets could have been accumulating in the financial sector or how borrowing could have pushed the national debt to ten trillion dollars. I think a more apt description would be: “The free market is a competitive environment in which players strive to obtain greater material wealth than other players, by whatever means they can get away with”. This definition leaves open the possibility that some may aim to get ahead by cheating and the spreading of misleading information. They may not be able to get away with it-that depends on how clued-up and vigilant the other players are to such deception and what regulatory structures are in place to curb such behaviour-but, in nature, parasites can evolve to alter the minds of their hosts such that they nurture rather than fight off the bloodsucker. The same thing can be said of market parasites.
Gillian Tett of the Financial Times has commented on how an elite “try to stay in power; and the way they stay in power is not merely by controlling the means of production but by controlling the cognitive map, the way we think. And what really matters in that respect is…what is left undebated, unsaid”.
In a corporate environment amidst a consumerist world feeding off of New Thought ideology, there was quite a lot left unsaid. As Adam Michelson, senior Vice President of Countrywide, said, “these are the times when that one person who might respond with a negative comment or a cautious appraisal might be the first to be ostracised. There is a great risk to nonconformity in any feverishly frothy environment like that”.
Indeed. America in the early 21st century was riding high on optimism. Communism had been defeated, and the turbulent world of financial capitalism was sold to the public as a rising tide that lifts all boats. According to Robert Reich, “optimism…explains why we spend so much and save so little…our willingness to go into debt is intimately related to our optimism”.
As we have seen through the course of this essay, this optimism can be traced back to the Calvinist religion that helped the founders of this nation tame the harsh wilderness, and the New Thought ideology that attempted to undo the mental damage such a punitive religion could impose, but actually ended up being just as harsh on ‘sin’ as what preceded it. The only difference was that it was negative thinking rather than pleasure-seeking that was held up as sinful.
As Ehrenreich explained, “for centuries, or at least since the Protestant Reformation, western economic elites have flattered themselves with the idea that poverty is a voluntary condition. The Calvinist saw it as a result of sloth and other bad habits; the positive thinker blamed it on a wilful failure to embrace abundance. This victim-blaming approach meshed neatly with the prevailing economic determinism of the past two decades. Welfare recipients were pushed into low-wage jobs, supposedly in part, to boost their self-esteem; laid off and soon to be laid off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises. But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming…The lines at the unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers”.
It seems God was not on hand to save us from ourselves after all.
Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Survival Manual by Mark Braund and Ross Ashcroft
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

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