I come before you this morning with a morality play, a modern-day American fable. I’d call the following, which made its way to me a few days ago, a true story, but since I wasn’t actually present I suppose I can’t swear to its accuracy. I will say that the source is someone I have come to respect and trust, and I believe that what I am about to relate is, in fact, true, even if the facts are off an inch or two in places. So I’ll change the names to protect myself from malevolent whores litigious types and leave you to decide if it all seems plausible.
Meet Danielle Jones
My source is a woman we’ll call Anne. She’s a talented public relations professional with an established track record of doing such good work for her clients that in a couple cases they’ve actually had to call her and ask her to stop because they couldn’t handle the results she was generating on their behalf. Until recently she worked for a small-to-mid-sized firm in a major metropolitan market – let’s call them JonesPR, since Jones is a common enough name. Jones is owned and operated by Danielle Jones – again, not her real name – a youngish and obviously bright woman whose ambition seems to fill whatever room she’s in. Jones has been successful in a competitive field owing in part to her professional and personal drive and in part to the fact that she’s hired some accomplished people to work for her.
In recent weeks, JonesPR has been advertising for senior-level account executives. Odd that, in an economy where most agencies are finding the going a little tight. But you have to appreciate that somebody is doing well, right?
Then the details begin to emerge. What Danielle was really doing was advertising for multiple people when she didn’t really have multiple jobs. The plan was to get several high-level folks through the door, offer them all the “job,” then let them work – unpaid. Whoever did the best, she’d keep. The rest would be on their way, uncompensated. So in a sense she was offering up something that had all the responsibility of a senior level job with the compensation, security and benefits of an internship. The job ad could easily have led with “how desperate are you, you pathetic bitches?”
It gets better. As Jones scoured the marketplace and talked to people, she found what you’d expect – lots of experienced, talented pros looking for a gig. It being a buyer’s market, she probed as to what they’d be willing to work for. Probed, poked, squeezed, “leveraged,” whatever you want to call it. And since people are desperate for an income, or even a fraction of an income, she was able to wring lower and lower salary requirements out of them, to the point where she had people willing to work for half of what they were worth.
She then took those numbers back to her current employees with a message that went something like “you know, I think I may be paying you too much.” Anne finally called her on it, suggesting that such practices were unethical.
Anne was quickly joined to the ranks of “people without a gig.”
Ethics and Morality
I don’t know a lot about Danielle Jones, but pieces of information that seem relevant have made themselves available. We know, for instance, that she comes from a family of some means. It’s not known how well-off she was growing up, but we do know that she was able to comfortably attend an elite and quite expensive university. There is nothing in her professional record to suggest that she worked to earn the cash needed to launch JonesPR. So we’re left with the suspicion that she made her money the old-fashioned way – she inherited it. If so, we might now be forgiven for concluding that her parents provided her with much in the way of the material but almost nothing in the way of basic humanity.
Anne challenged her for being unethical. My accusation goes much deeper. I find her actions to be immoral to the point of pathology. Ethical codes are in some ways negotiable, and ideals that compete directly can both be considered ethical (witness the ages-old debate between Kant and Mill, for instance). Morality, though, goes to some fundamental assumptions about what is right at a foundational, spiritual level. At the core of what separates humans from beasts we find the evolutionary firewalls that prevent us from eating each other whole – both literally and metaphorically – in times of crisis.
But here, as the economy begins to threaten the lives of countless intelligent, dedicated people, only the frothing hyena smells opportunity.
Principle, Clear and Sure
I recall Alexis de Tocqueville’s insightful turn of phrase from Democracy in America, where he ruminated on what made the then-young nation so great. His term was “self-interest, rightly understood.” If you’ll indulge me, I believe this longish excerpt from the eighth chapter of the book is worth reviewing:
The Americans, on the other hand, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state. In this respect I think they frequently fail to do themselves justice, for in the United States as well as elsewhere people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses that are natural to man; but the Americans seldom admit that they yield to emotions of this kind; they are more anxious to do honor to their philosophy than to themselves.
I might here pause without attempting to pass a judgment on what I have described. The extreme difficulty of the subject would be my excuse, but I shall not avail myself of it; and I had rather that my readers, clearly perceiving my object, would refuse to follow me than that I should leave them in suspense.
The principle of self-interest rightly understood is not a lofty one, but it is clear and sure. It does not aim at mighty objects, but it attains without excessive exertion all those at which it aims. As it lies within the reach of all capacities, everyone can without difficulty learn and retain it. By its admirable conformity to human weaknesses it easily obtains great dominion; nor is that dominion precarious, since the principle checks one personal interest by another, and uses, to direct the passions, the very same instrument that excites them.
The principle of self-interest rightly understood produces no great acts of self-sacrifice, but it suggests daily small acts of self-denial. By itself it cannot suffice to make a man virtuous; but it disciplines a number of persons in habits of regularity, temperance, moderation, foresight, self- command; and if it does not lead men straight to virtue by the will, it gradually draws them in that direction by their habits. If the principle of interest rightly understood were to sway the whole moral world, extraordinary virtues would doubtless be more rare; but I think that gross depravity would then also be less common. The principle of interest rightly understood perhaps prevents men from rising far above the level of mankind, but a great number of other men, who were falling far below it, are caught and restrained by it. Observe some few individuals, they are lowered by it; survey mankind, they are raised.
I am not afraid to say that the principle of self-interest rightly understood appears to me the best suited of all philosophical theories to the wants of the men of our time, and that I regard it as their chief remaining security against themselves. Towards it, therefore, the minds of the moralists of our age should turn; even should they judge it to be incomplete, it must nevertheless be adopted as necessary.
I do not think, on the whole, that there is more selfishness among us than in America; the only difference is that there it is enlightened, here it is not. Each American knows when to sacrifice some of his private interests to save the rest; we want to save everything, and often we lose it all. Everybody I see about me seems bent on teaching his contemporaries, by precept and example, that what is useful is never wrong. Will nobody undertake to make them understand how what is right may be useful?
Somewhere along the way, though, America’s noble self-interest, that of the rightly understood variety, has given way to “self-interest, and the rest of you can fuck yourselves.” This self-interest, purged of all meaningful human morality, sees getting to the top as the only imperative, and it treats fingers, faces and rungs the same – all are things to be trampled on the way up the ladder.
The Ghost of the Gipper
I will not allege that Danielle Jones is the rule describing our current, troubled moment, but I will also not allow that she’s the exception. I know too many principled business people, too many who are as appalled by her behavior as I am, to believe that everyone in corporate America has become a bloodless caricature with all the nuance of a B-movie villain. But at the same time, the disease rotting what’s left of her soul hardly strikes the thoughtful citizen as unique, does it?
The United States contracted, around the time that the sainted Gipper took office, a particularly virulent strain of Fuck-You-Itis. Michael Milken, for whom hundreds of millions of dollars weren’t enough to evoke even a little “rightly understood,” was the poster boy for Reaganomic excess, and I suppose the latest in that line would be Bernie Madoff, who despite having more millions than many of us have thousands (or hundreds, even), continued growing what begins to smell like the king-hell Ponzi scheme in all of recorded history. Along the way we endured outbreaks of Lay and Skilling and Nacchio and Ebbers and Rigas and Kozlowski and how many, how many more?
Where de Tocqueville once found virtue, he’d now be overcome by the stench of values-free capitalism run amok. Where once America cared about principle, now it only seems to care about principal.
Danielle Jones isn’t the whole coal mine, but she’s also not the first canary to go toes up. We’re entering a time that will reveal much about our character, not only as individuals but as a collective. If we tolerate JonesPR, we condone our own destruction.
So, America – who are you going to be?