Are progressive bloggers prepared to lead?

Several times in recent years I have said that while I’m certainly and unapologetically a progressive, I’m in no way, shape or form the kind of conventional “liberal” that a lot of people think I am. My views on a variety of issues simply don’t map onto our brain-dead, one-dimensional notion of “left” vs. “right,” and even the slightly more nuanced Political Compass fails to explain a lot of how I think. I suppose I’m instinctively a non-partisan oppositional type – that is, no party really reflects what I believe so I tend to stay mad at whoever is in power. As such, I have “caucused with the Democrats” for the past few years, and I trust the reasons are self-evident.

I begin with this because in the last month or two some of my progressive allies have been getting on my nerves. Case in point: the just-won’t-die AIG fake scandal. Many of the Dem types I read and occasionally interact with are fine people with noble intentions and a relentless commitment to working for a better and more equitable society, but not all of them have much in the way of actual experience and knowledge where the conduct of real business is concerned. Sometimes I find myself reading opinions and “analysis” that make me wonder what kinds of jobs the writer has actually had. Beltway progressive advocacy org: check. Low-level Congressional staffer: check. Job with for-profit business: not so check.

The unfortunate upshot is that some of these folks wind up talking out of their asses.

When the story of AIG’s $400K retreat broke, my colleague JS O’Brien, whose impeccable, unimpeachable progressive credentials are augmented by tremendous amounts of business experience and particular expertise as a compensation specialist for large corporations, penned an informed, reasoned, insightful explanation for why this wasn’t a scandal at all. I injected this piece into a raging debate on one of my lists, and followed it up with some comments of my own – because I, too, have spent a good portion of the past couple decades working in and with corporate enterprises of one sort or another. Here’s what I said:

It’s not about whether the thing COULD be done so much as it’s about whether doing it one way gets better results than another. What JS O’Brien explains in the post is dead-on – a big part of my job over the past few years has been sales training and I’ve worked one president’s club for a big company that was my client. Salespeople respond to money, sure, but you won’t believe the lengths they’ll go to in order to earn their way into the PC.

At the core, this is a math question. Spending $X might seem extravagant (and the one I worked was in fact quite extravagant), and it’s easy to point to it and say hey, that’s ridiculous (or even obscene, if you like). But if spending $X results in behavior that returns $5X, it’s not a bad deal at all. This is especially true when that $5X allows the company to expand, hire more people, enter new markets, and so on.

Additionally, that outlay goes to people who work for a living. Bartenders, grounds crews, all kinds of service types at the hotel and resort, and then you factor in the money these people spend shopping (often at local places) and on activities. For instance, the company I did the project for spent a small fortune with local tour businesses, like the mud-bogging tour I got to do. The kids running that tour were the furthest thing from fat cats, and the simple fact is that this one lavish corporate outing put a lot of money in the pockets of those that people like us are working on behalf of – if I might stereotype a second, the honest American worker.

By the way, the company I worked for at the time was a small consultancy made up of good people trying to survive some hard times (this was back in early 2004, I think, and the company was not in great shape). The money we earned was important to the firm and it was extremely important to a couple of people who worked there – myself included.

This is not as simple a case as the MSM has made it. I can’t say specifically in the AIG case whether the money they spent turned out to be a good investment, but in general it’s a common practice that produces results that are good for the people we care about.

Those in the forum who bothered to acknowledge me at all were dismissive, and one prominent member responded with something along the lines of: “Screw this. AIG should be hung.” I may not have his words exactly right, but this is the extent of his analysis. No evidence. No reasoning. No engagement with a single word that either JS or I had written. Just “fuck it – hang ’em all.” It was like trying to debate a pre-schooler.

And of course, you can’t debate a pre-schooler, any more than you can an ideologue.

(I should make clear here – because I don’t want to be guilty of knocking down straw men – that not everybody on the left [and not everybody on the forum in question, either] is as simplistic and, well, silly as the person I call out above. In fact, a couple people who’ve had business experience wrote to make roughly the same point that JS and I were making. So all isn’t lost – I’m just hoping to hear more from the latter than the former over the next four-eight years.)

Tim Reason, writing at, points out how genuinely non-outrageous AIG’s latest sins against common decency really are:

Financial planners, of course, recommend insurance products to their clients, so this is a marketing event for AIG. Moreover, AIG managed to get 93 percent of the tab paid for by sponsors, and the financial planners paid a registration fee and their own travel. AIG paid the remaining cost — about $23,000 — out of pocket. That works out to about $153 per financial planner — an extraordinarily low cost.

$153 per potential channel partner? Damn, where can my company find that kind of efficiency?

Not only that, but “the company has canceled more than 160 meetings or conferences in the past month.” Reason asks, quite rightly: what are companies supposed to do? Quit marketing?

If they did suspend business operations and refrain from profitable activity – which is pretty much what we’re talking about here – what possible way would it benefit … well, anybody?

Nobody has to tell me about out-of-control corporateering. Part of working in this world as long as I have involves seeing stupidity, excess, wastefulness, stupidity, greed and stupidity. A lot of America’s convicted corporate leaders deserve what they’ve gotten, and unfortunately too many others have been allowed to profit from incompetence and bad faith actions that wrought severe damage in the lives of good, hard-working citizens. I wish the very worst for these and will support, as strongly as I am able, business and regulatory reforms aimed at ending the looting once and for all.

But I won’t sit quietly while allegedly smart people pretend that all business leaders are criminals and that every expenditure is treason.

In a follow-up piece, Reason acknowledges past instances of bad behavior by AIG but sensibly explains that punishing good behavior is counter-productive. He then puts the onus on the press, the politicians and public, explaining that

The inability of the media, the government, and the public to distinguish between corporate excess and ordinary business is the result of the very same financial illiteracy that got us into this mess in the first place.


Now that the Busheviks have been deposed us progressives find ourselves in a new role, and this is going to be a particular challenge for those of us whose brands have been defined by outsider bitching. We have to find ways of harnessing our intellects and energies to the task of governance, of driving policy and reform, of finding a balance between supercharging that which is good about capitalism while disabling that which is bad.

I hope I’m able to do my part without getting drummed out of the Enlightened Brotherhood, but if that’s how it has to be, well, I’ve never been much of a joiner, anyhow…

9 replies »

  1. The named political parties no longer bear any resemblance to their stated missions, values and constituencies. I took a stab at placing the actors and agendas where they actually fit (link at my name).
    Progressives, many independents and much of the netroots fall into the definition of a true opposition party constituency, and I think it would benefit them to formlilze a party apparatus, marshal resourcdes and move the agenda forward.

  2. Yeah, Slammy, i’m with you. And i remember that JS started that post with something like, “Ok, so i’m going to get hammered for this…”

    The problems of the loony left are the same as those of the rabid right. Out at the fringes reality is trumped by ideology every damned time, and then reality needs to be massaged to meet the needs of its master. Then there’s a strange, almost mystical, belief about possessing “The Truth”, in effect elevating belief and philosophy to unimpeachable heights. Everybody else just doesn’t get it…and they’re stupid…and they ruin everything…and they may only be referred to by not so catchy playground level names.

    He who shouts loudest gets heard first and most, so our political dialogue often gets dominated by these types from both sides…or should i say reduced to these two caricatures, and everybody in the middle just gets shouted down. And by the middle i simply mean anyone who isn’t pure.

    Mostly what i hear is a lot of people claiming to be able to extricate us from our troubles by replicating the processes that created the troubles in the first place.

    I’ve long dreamed of joining a club for people with a strong aversion to joining clubs.

  3. I’m not interested in labels, i am interested in seeing Constitutional rule and government in the public interest. The rigged market system pushed on We the People by the corporate socialists who gave us 9/11, Iraq, warrantless wiretapping, etc. etc. has resulted in this economic meltdown and transfer of power to the Treasury- not because it serves the public interest, but because it serves the interests of the top 1%. It seems this privileged class either can’t manage their shit and expect us to pay for their mistakes, which doesn’t make sense for us- or this was all done on purpose to destroy America and accrue power for their privately controlled global corporate state- and that doesn’t make sense for us, either.

    I think it’s time to abolish interest on money (usury). The Constitution authorizes Congress to coin money, there’s no reason our money system should be controlled by the secretive, unaccountable and privately owned Federal Reserve system.

    A far more efficient economic system is possible

    Does anyone know why Silvio Gesell’s system should not be instituted in the US- even in 1 town? Banning interest and charing a 1% tax on money hoarded resulted in full employment, economic growth, increased wealth, increased circulation of money, increased long-term sustainable investment in Worgi, Austria in 1933, which had 1/3 unemployment before the scrip system was tried; the central bank shut it down.

  4. Gee Doctor Slammy, for a private sector maven you’ve sure jumped from identifying a legitimate issue to several unwarranted, ill-considered conclusions and ad hominem attacks.

    When you’re making money hand over fist in the private sector you can do pretty much any damn fool thing you want. But when you come hat in hand seeking public assistance because you’ve run your company into the ditch, the rules change. The rules change because the money is no longer coming from sales; it is coming out of the taxpayer’s pocketbooks.

    The public (and blogosphere) does need to understand that there are costs in the cost of goods sold. The private sector also needs to understand that when revenues come in the form of a dole instead of sales, the doleor has an interest in what the dolee does with it.

    As a sales and marketing teacher you understand that advertising is largely about image. When private sector welfare recipients have a tin ear to the change in what is acceptable they earn the ire of the folks who are now picking up the tab.

    With AIG that includes a half billion dollar payout of deferred comp to many of the wonderful folks who broke the company. With the Detroit execs it was flying to DC in corporate jets to beg for money.

    With AIG it includes holding executive retreats and marketing meetings at luxury resorts. The bitch is not that they’re meeting or marketing their products; it is that they are on the dole on the one hand and spending $24,000 at the spa and frolicing in the two-story suite at the luxury resort on the other. A little discretion goes a long way. Yeah it’s great they defrayed the cost, and $153 net cost per contact ain’t bad. But smart would have been to move the meeting downscale a notch or two and come back saying, “Thanks for your help, we’ve tightened our belts and we made $153 on each contact at our channel marketing conference this year. It’s a small first step towards getting back on our feet and repaying our debt to you.” The message they actually sent was “Oink, thanks suckers”.

    Oh, and just for the record, I’ve never been employed by a “Beltway progressive advocacy org” or been a “Low-level Congressional staffer”. I have been the CEO of a for profit corporation with private sector, government and not for profit customers for 22 years. That doesn’t make me know everything, and sometimes I’m pretty sure I don’t know much of anything.

    One thing I do know is that you dump the gold plated faucet handles, luxury resort junkets, corporate jets and obscene executive comp plans before you apply for public assistance. Another is that I don’t take off of CFOs this year. If they’d been doing their jobs AIG, Bear, Lehman, Merrill, Goldman, Fannie, Freddie, et al wouldn’t be in this mess today. Neither would the rest of us.

    Getting Obama to deliver change instead of more warmed over inside the beltway same is going to be hard enough without this kind of foolishness. Get a grip and buy a vowel. There’s work to do, hard work, and the window of opportunity won’t be open long.

  5. cliff6: You’re conflating a lot of things, sidestepping to issues that are only tangentially related, and so on. But you pretty much miss the point completely.

    If you’d like to argue that all other things notwithstanding AIG made some bad PR moves, sure, I have no complaint with that.

    But the issue here, and the one you don’t seem to grasp, is that the events in question were legitimate business aimed at INCREASING SALES AND REVENUE. Further, they did so for a sum so small – $153 per attendee – that they should win an award for frugality.

    Yes, AIG in general has done any number of things that ought to land certain miscreants in all kinds of hot water. I said this, JS said, and the guy at concurs. NOBODY is defending the bad acts here.

    But when X does something bad, it doesn’t mean that everything Y does thereafter is a crime. Your failure to grasp the actual arguments being made here makes me wonder if you even read the post.

    We welcome dissenting opinions. We do, however, prefer that you address what we say instead of some straw man that nobody is really talking about.

  6. If you get drummed out of the Enlightened Brotherhood, I’ve got a spare room you can use. 🙂 Or you can consider enlisting in the Enlightened Sisterhood.

  7. We’re so enlightened, we’re no longer requiring vaginas for membership. And man-hating is now optional.

  8. Erik,

    There’s just so many wrong ideas there, I couldn’t begin to know where to start.


  9. “There’s just so many wrong ideas there, I couldn’t begin to know where to start.


    We’re you referring to my personal comments, or what was outlined in Ikink’s article?

    You’re welcome to criticize my views, but i’m more interested in seeing if anyone can show that what worked in Worgi in 1933 would not work today- in short, banning the charging of interest (usury) and imposing a 1% tax on money hoarded (not on capital, property, wealth).

    In Worgi, this led to increased circulation of money, full employment, funded public works projects w/o deficit spending and economic growth. It was not shut down because it was causing harm; it was shut down by the central bank because their monopoly economic power was threatened. When it was shut down, unemployment and economic conditions quickly returned to the same deplorable state they were in before.

    A far more efficient economic system is possible by Bart Klein Ikink