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GP12Nov03: Hollywood Parables; Distributed Intelligence

Dirty Linen.  All this week, Paul Burrell, once butler to Britain’s Princess Diana, has been breathing scandal about her and the royal family in the tabloids, on the telly, and in a tell-all book which has just thumped its way into the chain bookstores.  For fame, profit, revenge, and some of the other usual twisted motives, he has sold out his employers, fully betraying the code observed by butlers of distinction. This burlesque is simply the most blatant example of social arrangements that are vestiges of centuries past, ill-suited to the claims of modern life. 

We are reminded of the 1963 movie The Servant in which Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) comes to dominate his employer (James Fox), such that the roles of master and servant are totally reversed.  Joseph Losey, who directed, and Harold Pinter, who crafted the script, paint here the further decline of a post-imperial society whose leaders are too weak and selfish to lead and whose underclass unleashes poisons that afflict the whole community.  We have our own parallels now, as with the civilian underlings at the Defense Department who have promoted seamy foreign adventures that would normally be restrained by firm leadership, but that now threaten to drain our treasury and to undermine our suzerainty throughout the world. 

Blind Loyalty.  Social upheaval, as suggested in this movie, however, had more to do with the sixties than the present day.  In the 1990s and beyond, boom times have produced profligate, mediocre leaders to whom we attach our loyalties, even though they merit not our affection.  In this regard, fast forward to 1993’s The Remains of the Day, in which the ubiquitous James Fox turns up again, this time as Lord Darlington, host to international conferences and, as we slowly learn, a Nazi sympathizer.  Stevens, his butler, played by Anthony Hopkins, gives his employer blind allegiance and unflagging service at terrible cost to his own life.  Is it fair to say that blind loyalty to unworthy leaders has driven a multitude of middle-class Americans in many parts of the country to lose their lives and their livelihoods during the last 30 years?  Surely that is what is being said in the polling booth.  It is no longer self evident that the few can successfully rule the many. 

Eyes Wide Open.  Perhaps there is a middle course for servants and followers everywhere, somewhere between loyalty and aimlessness, in this era of wobbly leadership that began somewhere in the 1960s.  In Sabrina (both 1954 and 1995 versions), the chauffeur spirits his daughter out of town to Paris to give her benign relief from the snares and traps of the Larrabees, his all too mortal employers.  He himself leads a modest, respectful life, all the while quietly putting together a fortune that rivals that of his employers.  He recognizes the foibles of his time and the failings of his supposed betters, while living the prudent life.  Billy Wilder, director of the much-to-be-preferred earlier version, like his chauffeur, knew how to deal with the absurdity of a transient social order.  

The Prudent Man Rule.  This week we have been learning of the tremendous trading abuses at the major mutual fund groups, capped by the resignation of the head at the Putnam Group.  One should underscore, by the way, that the Putnam family has not headed up Putnam for 30 or so years, it having become a division of a New York financial services company circa 1970.   

In better times the Putnams invented the fiduciary standard which, if applied now, would avoid profligacy in government, corporate life, and high finance.  In 1830 Judge Samuel Putnam called on fiduciaries to “observe how men of prudence, discretion, and intelligence manage their own affairs, not in regard to speculation but in regard to the permanent disposition of their funds, considering the probable income, as well as the probable safety of the capital to be invested.” 

The implications can be restated and expanded to cover all fields of endeavor in the present time.  That is:

  1. All capital is scarce.  We must husband capital, power, natural resources, and all the earth’s bounty as if we were down to our last dollar, and we are not sure where the next increment is coming from.  Despite 15 years of cost-cutting throughout the business world, we still do not see frugality, thrift, and spareness in most organizations.  In particular most enterprises still generate a host of activity signifying nothing, aided and abetted by the computer and other digital contrivances. We will not even bother to rant on about the stratospheric salaries of present day chief executives, at least at this writing.  Excess is the enemy of sustainable success. 
  1. There is no difference between our own assets and the assets of others in regard to how they should be managed.  We must seek reasonable and consistent returns, use assets in a productive way, and always have an eye to conservation.
  1. Our leaders are only servants.  Wherever they are placed, they have a fiduciary duty to us that grows out of the Putnam rule, requiring judgment and balance, eschewing speculative conduct.

To Serve is to Lead.  As we are all servants engaged in stewardships somewhere in society, we do not have a mandate to squander life or treasure in war, commerce, or personal whimsy.  If we are poor servants, there will be very few remains of the day.  We suffer when our leaders no longer feel they are servants who are obligated to work for the greatest good for the greatest number, because that’s just the moment they start working for themselves and become utter, self-destructive narcissists.   

In fact, the distinction between leaders and servants is fast eroding in the knowledge society.  We are all leaders, and we are all servants.  Since intelligence is, ideally, totally distributed throughout the body politic, each must lead and each must be led.  That condition makes most of our traditional rules of governance in business and government inadequate and antiquated.  Strength now comes from our ability to put all the intelligence in the network. 

Linux Jujitsu.  A Finn named Linus Torvarld came up with the emerging software operating system that is slowly displacing Microsoft, perhaps faster in Europe than in the United States.  That Linux should come from a small, highly literate country symbolizes the newfound power smaller entities have achieved in asserting their sway over the affairs of the globe.  In a little noticed development, agile nations at the edge of the map have swept to the fore since the end of the Cold War. 

Anybody can and does contribute to Linux, and its openness and flexibility are available to all at very low cost.  It promises to be more robust, more functional, and more secure than Windows.  Certainly it is more of an answer to computer viruses than anything Microsoft can devise, principally because it has got the human equation right.  With Linux everybody is in the service of everybody else, and nobody has to bow to the narrow ambitions of an ornery fellow tucked away in one corner of the United States.   

The same argument goes for other viruses ranging from the mystery ailments that pour out of Asia to the terrorism bugs hatched in the Middle East.  The only economic and creative way to deal with a world of threats is to cultivate organic systems where increasingly knowledgeable individuals spread about the globe are each motivated to interact with others to protect and strengthen the whole. All our traditional systems are lumbering elephants that are easy prey for the agile viruses that now roam the world. 

P.S.  The reading lists that meander in from our readers are proving ever more interesting than those supplied in the back pages of periodicals.  So we will be attaching their recommendations here.  From Hong Kong this week comes Deborah Davis, Strapless:  John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X, which tells us how a little scandalosa  helped Sargent’s career, even if it took the air out of Madame X’s sails.  Also see Paradise of Cities:  Venice and Its Nineteenth Century Visions by John Jules Norwich, which elicits the comment that “Travel has certainly changed and not for the better!”  Our reader advises us to get into these books, and forget all about the SEC, transparency, and corporate shenanigans.  Please send in your candidates for our reading along with a few considered comments as to why they are extraordinary.

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