On Grover’s Corners and Chariots of the Sun

March 8, 2009

Perhaps it is only a matter of the weight of the additional years that I now carry; perhaps it is only the blessed respite from this bitter winter that has dogged us here in New England the past several months. But I found my mind wandering back to reveries of what at least seemed like simpler, better times as I began to sip my morning coffee and parse through the histrionics that passes nowadays for commentary and analysis from the right and the left by those who apparently have the monopoly on wisdom that somehow has always eluded me. Anyway, two remembrances floated forward from some reptilian part of my brain that set me to write these paragraphs.

The first thought was the echo of the words of Kurt Vonnegut’s, “Cold Turkey”, back in 2004: “There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president.” Now I did not vote for Mr Obama, but I was truly satisfied that this time I had a choice between two principled and honourable men—in stark contradistinction to having to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledummer last time. And like most Americans, I accepted the mandate of The People and gave him my full support. He is entitled to have a fair chance to see if his new ideas and approaches can work to get us out of this decline and fall from grace that we have brought upon ourselves.

But my second thought had more ancient origins. In the latter half of the 1970’s when I was first admitted to the bar, the practice of law was still a collegial profession and not a pure business. Yet new and automated formulations on how to determine partner compensation were just coming to the fore and creating the only annual discord in otherwise harmonious firms. At that time, however, the partners generally accepted a governing principle that overrode any numbers that a computer might spit out; a principle that reflected the idealism, innocence and, hell, dare I say “purity” of a world now long since vanished. That principle was that in every just and well-governed firm, there must not be too broad a range between the lowest and the highest paid partner. Specifically, the ratio of the highest to the lowest could not be more than three or four to one.

This fundamental “governor” on the engine of compensation was deemed necessary to preserve the collegiality and esprit de corps of the enterprise; it was to signify to all that the individual was there to serve the whole and that no partner, no matter how talented, could be successful without his brothers, nor were any partner’s contributions insignificant. Alas, but that principle has now long been out of fashion.

What brought this recollection to mind was probably catalyzed by my taking my thirteen-year-old daughter to see a marvelous production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town at nearby Gordon College. One cannot help but being awed by the eloquent power that overwhelms us from a stark and simple stage and the characters’ quiet, small town life. Its message is an application of Occam’s razor to life.

But back to my point. I recalled this “archaic” compensation principle when reading more of the recent debate on that aspect of Mr Obama’s economic recovery plan that seeks to “redistribute wealth,” “tax the rich,” or, on the more extreme end, to “impose socialism” on us all. Of course, with our having just emerged from years devoted to the golden calf of greed, avarice, and solipsism that led to our current debacle, such laments also immediately brought to mind the thought that “the Lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

So let us drop the emotionally-charged buzz-words that are adduced to tempt us into somnambulistic, automated reactions as opposed to the rigors of critical thought. No intelligent, moral capitalist operates his business other than with an overriding approach of enlightened self interest. Democracies such as ours require an educated populace that has basic, shared moral values. It is only in third world countries, failed states and dictatorships or oligopolies where the mean of the bell curve of wealth is skewed grossly toward the poverty level. I cannot believe that we desire to emulate those.

Maybe, just maybe, there was something to that old way. Perhaps there truly is a sinister evil that can destroy the vitality and fellowship of our American community if wealth becomes more and more polarized; if more and more of our fellow citizens find their tether to the American Dream becoming a mere tow line to the party barge of the privileged few.

Bertrand Russell observed that “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” This, of course, would be painful for those on the right side of the bell curve; for it is indeed difficult to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it. But the dream that a return to such long-forgotten values might achieve is more than worth the effort. Emerson said it best:

Each man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he does not cheat his neighbor. Then all goes well — he has changed his market-cart into a chariot of the sun.


© Richard L Wise and RLWise.wordpress.com 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Richard L Wise and RLWise.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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