The modern world is a very different place than the world of even our recent ancestors.
Around 1915, my grandfather rode a horse 30 miles to a railroad station and then took a train to Dallas to visit the Texas State Fair. The most wondrous thing that country boy saw on his voyage was not the Indian Ball players, which he didn’t mention. Instead, it was his first glimpse of an electric light bulb. He enjoyed telling us - many times - of how he had to lace his boot over the bare light bulb hanging from a cord from the ceiling in his hotel room so he could sleep. He had no idea how to turn it off, and he was too embarrassed to ask the sophisticated, big-city desk clerk for help. Nothing remains now of that hotel or of that whole area of Dallas except a few fading photographs.
His father came from Tennessee in a horse-drawn wagon to Texas, looking for land. He was a homesteader who scraped the forest from virgin land in East Texas so it could be plowed and planted for the first time. Though my mother and her sister spent many barefoot summers on the farm that he created from nothing, they cannot find it now because nothing remains of it - not the wagon that he drove to Texas, not the dirt roads that carried his crops to market, not the house he built with his own hands, not the fences he strung, not the barn his neighbors helped him build, nothing. It has been all covered over by the people who came later. The life’s work of the homesteader and his neighbors has all disappeared.
That homesteader’s father fought in the Civil War. My grandfather told me stories that that his grandfather told him about those days, though none about the War. They were mostly about the adventures of a hunting dog named Blue - the marvel of the county - and the personality quirks of long-dead relatives. Very little has survived from those days either: a few books in libraries, some museum antiques, a few houses, and many tombstones.
The worlds of my grandfathers have completely disappeared. Like that East Texas forest, they have been scraped away as if they had never existed. “So what?” you ask. “Every generation replaces the previous one. Besides, what has all this to do with the corporation?” Those are good questions. Be patient with me through one more grandfather story and I will reveal my point.
* I spent several summers with my grandparents in their home in a village in the East Texas piney woods when I was a tadpole. Once, when my grandmother and I were leaving the house to drive to town, I locked the door as we stepped through it. I was from the big city of Fort Worth and we always locked doors. “Don’t lock the door, honey,” she said. “If the house caught afire, how would the neighbors get in to put it out?”
My grandfather mourned the disappearance of the world in which he grew up. Like anyone else, he missed those good people whom he had loved and who had died over the years. Additionally, though, he told me that many of the good things that he had come to cherish were replaced by other things that were of less value. Dirty air replaced clean air. Dirty water replaced clean water. A frantic pace of life replaced a relaxed pace of life. The wildlife of the region had noticeably diminished. Scoundrels regularly took advantage of honest people. Dangerous cities replaced safe villages.*
He also made a much more profound point - one which took me decades to appreciate. My grandfather was a technologist of his time: an automobile mechanic who started working on Model T’s and spent the rest his life repairing machinery of all kinds. He was not a grease-monkey but a skilled craftsman who could use a forge, a lathe, and hand tools to build replacement parts as needed. He was also an inventor of modest accomplishments. He told me that he deplored the design of automobiles as they evolved through the years. Any machine, he said, should be designed to last forever. Though moving parts will always wear out, the design of the machine should allow its user to personally disassemble it and replace the worn part. Over decades, perhaps the entire machine will be completely replaced part by part, but the whole thing should never be thrown in a junkyard. A machine, he said, was not an assemblage of parts but a design. He said that a machine that was designed to wear out and be thrown away - like a car that is designed to go to the junkyard - was a violation of common sense and an offense to the intelligence of the purchaser. He also believed that selling a machine which could not be maintained by its purchaser - assuming he chose to learn how - was a form of thievery. He wondered why the machinery he worked on was not designed to last and perform for a lifetime rather than just a few years. Why had designers decided to produce lower quality products than was possible?
Being a reasonable man, he quickly acknowledged that the world of his old age had many advantages over the world of his youth. He was happy that I would never catch polio like his daughter - my mother - did, because I had been injected with Dr. Salk’s miracle polio vaccine. Coming in from the hot Texas sun and spending a moment in front of the window-mounted air conditioner was like going to Heaven. Western movies with plenty of gun play and horseback derring-do were the ultimate pinnacle of art, giving the common man a chance to enjoy high culture. The affordable tractor had transformed the lives of the farmers who lived around him. Most of all, he believed that hand-held power tools were God’s greatest gift to humankind; with them any man could make any thing and keep it working forever.
Here we come to the point. The worlds of my grandfathers are gone, scraped clean from the earth. What has replaced those worlds?
Those worlds have been replaced with the output of America’s corporations: consumer goods, farm supplies, veterinary medicines, billboards, packing plants, factories, corporate offices, automobile dealerships, Walmarts, and the contents of Walmarts. Who decided that machinery should be designed to wear out quickly so it will be replaced quickly (thus increasing sales and earning my grandfather’s contempt)? America’s corporations. Who decided what kind of goods we would consume? Again, America’s corporations. Who taught us that the meaningless phrase “New and Improved” should make our wallets try to jump out of our pockets? Corporate marketing departments. Who has designed, manufactured, and sold you every thing in your home, your driveway, your closet, your office, your garage, and your yard? America’s corporations. Who made the western movies my grandfather so loved? America’s corporations. Who presents you with gigantic images of tantalizing food a hundred times a day, scientifically designed to encourage you to eat and eat and then eat more - and then have dessert? Could it be America’s corporations? Who has convinced your teenage daughter that life without an ipod, hundred dollar jeans, two hundred dollar sandals, and a three hundred dollar cell phone is not worth living? Have you figured it out yet? Who has decided that your thirteen year old son should spend his days in his bedroom shooting pimps and screwing whores on his computer screen? Can you guess the answer by now? Who bribed your Congresswoman to surreptitiously insert a few carefully designed sentences into a law you will never hear of for reasons you will never know? Could it be a lobbyist working for a corporation? When you do a search for a topic on the internet, who decides which of 50,000 possible results appear at the top of the list? Do you get the point?
And finally, who do you work for? Who decides how much money you should make?
Increasingly, modern corporations are shaping how we live and what we think. You and I should think about this special kind of organization and think about the future of ourselves and our children in a corporate world.