Sunday, November 27, 2011

Seduced by Numbers

I freely admit my addiction as a technophile. I love watching, learning about, using, and owning machines, gadgets, technical and industrial processes, and other creations of the mechanical arts.1 Since most of these devices are rated quantitatively, with numbers, my affection would seem curious.

For the first thirty years or so of my life, I was basically “innumerant”—allergic to numbers. I did pretty well with simple arithmetic in grade school but started to slip when they introduced the method of extracting square and cube roots, which I could not easily distinguish from long division. I floundered in Algebra I and sank outright in Algebra II. I never could figure out what anyone might do with a phrase like “a2+2ab+b2” in quadratic equations.2 So my schooling gravitated away from math, physics, and the higher sciences toward English literature, languages, history, and similar qualitative studies. That was difficult for a science fiction writer, and I had make up a lot of ground when I became serious about technical writing and hard-science novels. But I digress.

The first time I felt the pull of the numbers related to a machine was when I became interested in motorcycles in my late twenties. My first bike was a two-stroke Yamaha, which came in the 250 cc and 350 cc versions. I instinctively plopped for the bigger engine. When I graduated to my dream machine, a BMW, I had the choice of 500 cc, 600 cc, and 750 cc engines and again went for the biggest. In my stupid, English-major head, I couldn’t tell the difference between optimum and maximum,3 although given my six-foot-six frame and corresponding weight, a big motorcycle was the right choice for me.4

My second brush with machine ratings was in purchasing my first computer, an Apple II, back in 1979. Up until that time, I knew computers only as massive and unobtainable things: the IBM 360 that was leased by my university and later my corporate employer; it lived in the basement, crunched all the organization’s numbers, and was attended by a priestly class who alone knew how to communicate with the beast. But here was a thing no bigger than a portable typewriter—although married to a television set—that claimed to be a computer. It took a while for the salesman in the store to convince me that this was a real, multi-purpose computer, able to perform any function with the right programming, and not just some single-function device like a calculator or a video game. I had no real use for a computer, of course, but the notion of a machine that responded to written instructions fascinated me.

And suddenly there was the question of numbers. Did I want 32 kilobytes of RAM or the full 48 kilobytes? I naturally plopped for the larger number, thinking that a machine with open-ended capability would benefit from more of whatever a kilobyte might be. Later computers—and I bought my fair share—offered even more numbers: gigahertz of speed, megabytes of disk capacity, baud rates of connection, pixels of screen resolution. It became possible to run wild in so many dimensions.

I discovered that even with that original Apple II, there was a hunger for completeness. The computer’s motherboard5 offered eight slot-like connectors across the back for electronic cards that would variously increase memory, add supplementary processors, and coordinate signaling for peripherals like disk drives, printers, and modems. When I had about half of the slots filled with devices for a workable system, the remaining empty slots began preying on my mind. They represented potential capacity that I was not using. I began looking for and buying additional peripherals just to fill in those gaps. A friend of mine, who had to deal with his own peripheral addiction, called this “slot fever.”

I’ve held off buying an Apple iPad, even though I own a Kindle, a Nook, and an iPhone, because I know that I will want—insist upon—the model with the highest possible amounts of memory, connectivity, speed, resolution, and whatever other measures are appropriate to what is, essentially, the electronic analog of a sheet of paper. Full-blown capacity can practically double the price of the basic machine.

When I began handling pistols,6 I started with a .357 magnum revolver that my brother owned. But unless you buy the high-power loads, which are much more expensive, you are still shooting the basic .38 cartridge. That’s fun, but the .45 cartridge is bigger, more impressive, and makes a louder noise. Guess which way I progressed?

I don’t think this seduction by the numbers is just my own personal fetish. All around us are people buying cars with the most horsepower, television sets with the largest diagonal dimensions, stereo amplifiers with the highest wattage, trucks with the greatest towing capacity. If some is good, a lot is better, and “Can you get that with the 402 engine?”

You can see the urge not just at a personal level, but organizationally as well. The military is especially susceptible: The next generation of jet fighter has to reach a higher Mach number, have a stealthier radar image, carry a bigger payload, turn quicker, and land on a shorter runway. The missiles get bigger, the payloads larger. Even business organizations, where some consideration of cost versus effect might be expected, can be lured into buying bigger computers and server farms, building larger headquarters and larger factories to achieve even more growth in larger markets.

Did people always react this way? I suspect not, until machines took physical work out of the equation. If a bow with a 65-pound draw weight is right for a person of your size, do you really want one with a 200-pound draw? If four horses can pull your loaded wagon, do you really want to hitch up and try to control a team of twelve or twenty horses?

The closest analogue I can think of from pre-industrial times is the collector. It doesn’t matter what is being collected: statues, stamps, coins, butterflies, German ceramic beer steins, or race horses. More is better, and there is always one more item that will fill out your category and complete the set.7 Slot fever.

In the past, only the wealthy, the idle, and those with lots of spare cupboard space could satisfy the passion for collecting. But with modern machinery, you can “complete the set” in one purchase by buying the most horsepower, the biggest screen, the highest wattage. Until, of course, next year’s model comes out with an even bigger engine, larger screen, more RAM, more buttons, more of … everything. And then you just have to trade up.

It’s how we end up deep in debt and still crying for the moon: seduced by the numbers.

1. You might say the interest was bred in my genes: My father was a mechanical engineer and his father a civil engineer. I think it broke my dad’s heart that neither of his sons wanted to follow him into engineering.

2. Not until forty years later, when I began seeing it in the calculations supporting a two-dimensional matrix that combined dominant and recessive genetic traits. I still can’t solve the damned thing.

3. For those of you who are similarly impaired, remember that optimum body temperature is 98.6°F, while maximum body temperature can kill you.

4. BMW now offers its touring machines with a six-cylinder, 1600 cc engine, and I have to speak sternly with myself to keep from rushing out and buying one.

5. Today you can use a computer and never look under the hood; you might not even know what the motherboard is or where to find it. But with the Apple II, you were part-user and part-hobbyist; you popped the top off and went inside for all sorts of user-serviceable conditions.

6. Why? Because I write fiction with occasional military action and people shooting guns. It seemed important to learn a thing or two about them. You can read all the books and articles you want, but half an hour shooting on the range and observing real life, competent gun handlers (rather than actors on television) provides a unique perspective.

7. I’ve always avoided the collecting bug myself. I could see that you start off with an attachment to some class of objects—Chinese porcelains, Amazonian beetles—because you can see them as novel, clever, beautiful, or similarly attractive in some other dimension. You start with an eye for beauty that anyone can appreciate. But soon you learn more about the topic, broaden your interest, and expand the scope of your collecting. Eventually, you are bidding and paying an exorbitant price for an indifferent-looking cup or a really ugly little beetle because you know it to be unique, rare, or otherwise special. That way lies madness.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What is Strength?

As noted some weeks ago, I’m a longtime fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune books and their guiding principles.1 I find it compelling that, of all the Imperium’s institutions and social groupings, the series’ most enduring is the Bene Gesserit. They are variously described as witches, engineers of religion, manipulators of the human bloodlines, and inheritors of human purpose from the Great Schools period. While the Fremen, the Bene Tleilax, and even the Imperium itself come and go in the series, the Bene Gesserit endure through the whole impossible history. They are the Greek chorus against which all the action plays.

The B.G., their Reverend Mothers, their acolytes, and their books and teachings contain many wise and wicked sayings, but one that has always stuck with me is from Herbert’s next-to-last novel in this universe, Heretics of Dune: “Never support weakness; always support strength.”

You might imagine that a society of women, especially those undertaking the religious education of the human race, would naturally tend to support the weak: children, other women made vulnerable by bearing children, the sick, the disadvantaged, the dispossessed. They should be following Mother Teresa into the slums of India. Supporting the strong feels all wrong. After all, the strong can take care of themselves. So, was this Herbert, a male writer, injecting an anti-feminist viewpoint into his imagined all-female society?2 Or was he simply being perverse?

To understand the Bene Gesserit in this context, we have to examine what it means to be strong as a human being. And I believe this is one of the “cleavage questions”3 that can crack open and help examine much of what is troubling our society today.

We tend to think of “the strong” as those who have the advantage: a big stick, the biggest guns, the biggest bank account, the most politicians in their debt, the most laws on their side. By contrast, then, the weak are those with no weapons, no resources, no friends, and no influence. It’s a formula that speaks to the cynical adage “Might makes right.”

Why do I call that adage cynical? Because western civilization goes back to Judeo-Christian roots that totally deny it. Justice, fairness, proportion, treating people as they deserve—everything we consider to be “right”—stands apart from the kind of force a bully, a dictator, a king, or even a democratic majority can bring to bear. The Bible bristles with counter-stories of the strong brought low, from Pharaoh to Goliath to Caiaphas and Pilate. The human sense of right and wrong comes not from external circumstances of force and power, but from the heart and its capacity to observe, weigh, and decide. Right stands outside the bustle of war and politics and resides in the eye of God.

It’s clear, also, that the kind of strength we are describing in these situations comes from factors that stand outside the person wielding power. To hold the big stick, command the strongest battalions, be able to write the largest checks, influence the greatest number of politicians—these are externals. Any person can pick up the stick, take command of the troops, inherit the wealth, and compound personal influence through a pleasing smile. It takes no special intelligence nor moral goodness to wield such power.

It does take muscles, and the discipline to build them, for a man to pick up and use a stick—but in today’s society, the one who wields the bludgeon is usually not the person in actual power. It also takes a kind of self-discipline to build a personal fortune and the political connections that represent the true power in modern society. You have to work hard and forego many passing pleasures, husband your resources, invest wisely in both opportunities and people, take risks, do favors, listen to a lot of bad jokes, and eat a lot of tasteless congratulatory dinners.

Discipline and dedication are both aspects of personal strength. Yes, they can be used for bad purposes. But any person who dedicates him- or herself to a cause, and disciplines his or her mind, heart, and body to attaining it, is halfway to moral virtue. People who make such sacrifices almost never do so for petty reasons. People do not strain and strive “because I want to be a big man and have everyone at my beck and call.” Instead, people usually dedicate themselves to causes bigger than their own personal selves. You may not agree with the cause itself—the glory of God, or greater Germany, or American exceptionalism, or Marxist principles—but these things stand outside the individual and draw him or her onward.4 Even actors and musicians, seemingly the most vain, selfish and self-glorying of people, must reach outside themselves and provide pleasure to their audiences if they are to be successful and attain the status they desire.

In this context, the contrary quality—weakness—represents lack of effort, dedication, and discipline. The weak do not want to spend the effort to achieve anything. They will accept the terms and conditions that others impose so long as they can get a fraction of what they want or need in return. The weak want to be taken care of, carried on someone else’s credit, and appreciated for some quality other than their own contributions.5

It is in this sense, I believe, that the Bene Gesserit axiom is meant. It’s a truism that if you subsidize something, you will get more of it. If you support weakness—not the temporary kind, where a man may be down on his luck for reasons outside himself, but the perennial kind that wants and expects a free ride—you will get more people with their hands out waiting to be served. If you support strength—those who have a place to go and the ambition and discipline to get there—you will have more people pulling on their oars and moving civilization forward. One effort supports doers, the other begets the done-to.

If your business is the future of the human race, as it was with the Bene Gesserit, then you can see which way the land slopes and how, left to its own devices, the water will run. You build civilization up, rather than letting the forces of sloth tear it down.

And if this kind of strength is paired with a sense of morality, equity, and proportion, you get strong people who are able to care for others in their times of need. Samaritans rather than bullies. And that’s the greatest strength of all.

1. See The Dune Ethos from October 30, 2011.

2. The first Dunenovel was published in 1965, when the counterculture was breaking away from the beatnik coffee houses of San Francisco and spreading nationwide, particularly on college campuses. This was also the time that the Women’s Movement was spreading, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Herbert was certainly reacting to that current, but I don’t think his Bene Gesserit were meant to parody it—certainly not through all six novels.

3. I take the term from diamond cutting. Carbon crystals are practically impenetrable by shock and hammer blows due to the interlocking nature of their hexagonal lattice. But find the right plane and apply a small amount of pressure, and the diamond splits easily. Some problems are Gordian knots with ready-made fracture lines, just waiting for a sword cut at the right angle with the right kind of question.

4. People who rise on the corporate ladder are seldom aiming for personal power over others. Instead, they are usually seeking the freedom to act, to do things for the good of the organization according to their own views—rather than following the views of their superiors—about what will be efficient and effective. The person who wants someone to polish his boots only so that he can plant them in other people’s backsides is quickly discovered and dismissed as a petty fool.

5. Think of “Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady” in the musical comedy Funny Girl: “Do for me, buy for me, lift me, carry me …”

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Economy as an Ecology

We are going into our fourth year of recession. We have a bumpy road still ahead of us. And we have no promise of ever again seeing the sort of economic growth and prosperity that seemed to be America’s birthright in the late 20th century. In the Great Recession—as in the Great Depression before this—many people today are adopting the notion that acquiring wealth and property constitutes a kind of theft. One person’s wealth robs others of the chance to make a bare living. If I am rich, then I have made you and others like you poor. What one consumes another cannot have. This notion derives from the analogy of the national economy as a great pie. And it’s simply a false analogy.1

For one thing, a pie is static. So much exists, to be cut into so many slices, thick or thin, and then it’s gone. Pie is a zero-sum commodity. As noted in my previous blog, an economy is not a physical object. It’s a dynamic condition, a pattern of interchange between one person and another, among people and corporations and institutions. It isn’t a “thing,” at all.

Let’s, however, for a moment, consider that the economy might be a thing. If so, where did it come from? Is it the land? There is only so much land on Earth, and only a small fraction of that is immediately useful. So if I own land and you don’t, am I therefore rich and you poor, and does my ownership deprive you of a living? That proposition might work in a simple farming situation. I got the good bottomland with rich soil and plentiful water, yielding good crops and making me rich. You got the parcel with sand and rocks far from any water source. But as thrifty, scientific farmers have shown in many situations, even poor land can be made to yield with the right application of human energy and creativity. Think of Israel, northern Utah, or eastern Washington. Land left to itself just lies there.

If the economy were a thing, would it be natural resources? Certainly, nations with plentiful timber, oil and gas, and metal ores have become wealthy. As energy and raw materials, these God-given resources are the starting point for many economic transactions.2 If I own land bearing these riches, I can become rich. If you own land with no resources, you might remain poor. But just like the land, resources left to themselves just sit there. The Middle East lay above an ocean of oil and remained poor for generations because no one knew how to drill for it, or finding it on the surface, how to use it. The same could be said for western Pennsylvania or the Los Angeles basin.

Land and resources are the stuff upon which an economy can do its work, just as grain is the stuff that a miller grinds. But the grain is not the grinding, and raw materials do not automatically make themselves into wealth.

Is an economy then the mines and factories, the tools of production? Now we’re getting close. If I own a factory, I can become wealthy. If you work in my factory, you might have a living, although I can see to it—through controlling your hours and wages—that you remain on the edge of poverty. But there are many factories across our landscape that became idle and were boarded up. They made goods that people no longer wanted, or made them inefficiently, or made them less efficiently than factories elsewhere. Factories and machines are no more an economy than land and materials. They are a means to the activity, not the activity itself.

So, is the economy the money flowing through it? We value everything in dollar units—land and houses, commodities, shares of stock representing ownership of factories and machines. And certainly, if I have a dollar, that’s a bill or coin you don’t have. But money is just a marker, a tally, recording the transaction. Money is a chip of wood floating on the river that shows you how fast the water is flowing. And money certainly is not finite. As we’ve discovered in the age of electronic banking and stock markets, money isn’t metal disks and printed paper—those are just physical reminders. Instead, money exists in our heads and in our computers. Money is created when an asset such as a share of Apple stock or a house in Palo Alto gains value because someone else sees it as desirable and will pay more for it than the value I see in holding onto it. Money is destroyed when someone else later sees that asset as less desirable and won’t match the money I paid out to acquire it.3

The economy is the activity that finds a use for the land, the materials, the machines of production. Money is the lubrication that raises that activity above the level of simple barter.4 Other people and their demand for food, goods and services, energy and housing, make it worthwhile for the farmer to plant another acre, the miner to dig another ton of ore, the factory owner to add another machine line, the developer to extend a suburb. Without demand, these things don’t happen.

Where does demand come from? As noted in my previous blog, demand comes from productive activity. If I have a job and earn money, I have the means to satisfy my needs for food, clothing, and shelter, my desire for transportation, fashion, education, and amusement, and anything else my store of value allows. If I don’t have a job—a place in the economy—I may have wants, needs, and desires, but they don’t become economic demand.

The proper analogy for an economy is an ecology. In a rich ecology, like a tide pool or a rainforest, sunlight is captured, used, and reused at many levels. Plants absorb it and grow carbohydrates. Animals eat them and produce proteins. Food chains develop with expanding niches for more animals and plants. Opportunists thrive, like the bacteria that process rotting vegetation and animal wastes. Life increases. Life makes more life. In a poor ecology, like a desert, sunlight falls without effect—only making the sand hot. Less energy is captured and traded. Niches disappear or become fiercely competitive. Life decreases. Absence of life diminishes life.

In this analogy, an economy with free markets, a robust system of banking and capital, and wide-open trading—like America’s—is a rain forest. An economy with tightly controlled markets, closely held capital, and narrowly defined trading opportunities—like Soviet Russia’s—is a desert.

But you might object that the ecology is driven by a free natural resource: sunlight. Without the sun, life ceases in either the rainforest or the desert. Where is the comparable free resource in an economy? And I answer that the free resource is human energy, creativity, and ambition. We humans want to make things. We want to define and create meaning for ourselves and our chosen group. Some will invent new products, new systems of production, and new ways of thinking that open new courses of action. Others will use their energy and ambition to make those products and follow those new paths. That’s human nature shaped by a million years of evolution.

In a free-market economy that rewards creativity and ambition, human energy is captured, used, and reused. People are able not only to secure the food, clothing, and shelter that they need but to indulge in tastes and pleasures beyond the bare necessities, or to save and invest in ways that increase their future potential. These activities create opportunities not just for the farmer, the weaver, and the carpenter, but also for the gourmet chef, the fashion designer, the cinematographer, the artist and writer, the banker and broker. Activity begets activity, and wealth creates wealth.

In a closed, command-and-control economy that ignores creativity and ambition—except for a chosen class of state bureaucrats entrusted with society’s future—the focus becomes mere survival. All the rest is sunlight falling on sand. It starts with the drive to equitably provide the basics of life to passive citizens, but people without the opportunity to dream and expand their lives meaningfully will sink into boredom, alcoholism, and mischief. Economic activity declines. Eventually the struggle over crusts consumes all human energy, like scorpions grappling in the desert.

Human nature was not designed by evolution to be static. We are not things, but dynamic beings. And we cannot be baked into a pie.

1. I wrote on this subject before, in It Isn’t a Pie from October 3, 2010. It appears to be time to expand and explain the substitute metaphor.

2. “God,” in this sentence, is a kind of shorthand, not a sign of my devotion. The deity stands as proxy for many fortuitous situations that occurred once and will not be repeated: forests of strong oak and soaring redwoods—resistant to pests and perfect for building—found along the West Coast; pools of oil and domes of gas found under ancient seabeds; veins of gold running among the granite; fields of iron oxide lying close beneath the clay. Use them once and they’re gone. The gifts of weather and soil, fossil sea life, or good geology.

3. And money also simply grows or decays over time. If my money in the bank is loaned out to build homes and factories or buy productive land, and later paid back with interest, it grows. If my dollar bills stay under the mattress, the rate of inflation makes them worth less every year.

4. Without money, the miner has to trade a bucket of ore to the farmer for an apple to eat, and the farmer has to collect a lot of buckets and then give them to the factory owner to get the tractor he needs. Money makes things go faster.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

When Corporations are People Too

Some members of the political pole around which the Occupy Wall Street movement has coalesced suggest that one solution to our economic problems would be to revoke or rewrite the legal fiction under which a corporation has status as a person. Supposedly, this would remove the element of big, “faceless” corporations making decisions for the rest of us. However, like most simple solutions to complex problems, I fear this one will have unintended consequences. Bad ones.

The argument in favor of ending this artificial legal personality is that it would remove the shield protecting the living, breathing people actually making those decisions. They would be exposed to public scrutiny and could be punished for their crimes. However, laws are already in place to hold individuals responsible for the decisions they make as corporate officers. Our laws and regulations are thick with personal, human responsibility. Corporate executives and directors who break the law can be and have been prosecuted, fined, and imprisoned.

Still, one of the functions of a corporate entity is to absorb and deflect legal liability, as when there are financial losses to be borne or legal disagreements to be resolved. For example, a corporation may acquire debts beyond its capacity to pay. When the cash flow stops and creditors outnumber payers, the corporation can go bankrupt—divide its assets, pay out what it can, and in the process disappoint a number of those lenders—without impoverishing the human management and the corporation’s shareholders. A corporation may enter into agreements and, if they should become disagreements, bear the consequences of a lawsuit. The corporation can receive and defend a suit from others, or bring suit if its rights are infringed. Although people with a pulse are making decisions about this, they do so in the name of a collective, the interests of the shareholders, rather than as a matter of their own personal honor.

If this weren’t the case, then running a business or buying stock in one would be far more risky. Encounter a downturn in the market, a falloff in sales, an expansion plan gone wrong, or a customer or contractor with a grudge—and you could lose not only your livelihood or your investment but also your home, your savings, all your possessions, and still be in hock for future wages.

Maybe this is what the OWS people want. Make shareholder capitalism so risky and punitive that no one would want to play. That would be a quick route to state-sponsored socialism or communism.1

But if your aim is to improve our free market system, rather than put a stake through its heart, ending legal personality would probably be a bad idea. Consider that under our system of laws, only a person can enter into a contract, open a bank account, acquire and own property, borrow money and pay debts (a form of contract), hire people (another contract), and function in a hundred other ways required to transact business. If the assembled owners—partners, shareholders, or some other collective with a common cause despite their individual aims and wishes—could not function in this way as a legal entity, our economics would be returned to a medieval level. All business would be personal business. The cobbler makes a pair of shoes and sells them to the farmer, who pays for them with the proceeds of his grain harvest, which he has sold to the miller, who grinds it to make flour and sells it to the baker, who makes the bread the cobbler will buy with the money from selling that pair of shoes.

It’s tidy. It’s neat. It’s personal, and everyone takes responsibility for his actions. People lived that way in Europe for almost a thousand years. They were called the Dark Ages. Business on a personal level will enable a community—a small one—to survive. But it keeps you at the productive level of a pair of shoes and now and then a violin. Try to make anything bigger and more complex, like a piano, and you need several craftsman to come together and blend their skills.

Perhaps those piano makers can all work under personal contract with the owner of the piano shop. That owner takes responsibility for the business, investing his profits when he needs to buy iron for another piano harp, wood for a case, or wire for strings. And if the market for pianos dries up, he takes the loss and goes out of business, returning his craftsmen to farming or working for the miller. This is still at the community level. Such a business cannot aspire to anything big.

Consider the automobile. In the early years of the nineteenth century, hundreds of makers of horseless carriages functioned like our imagined piano shop: garages turning out handmade vehicles, each one unique, with few parts in common. They didn’t travel very far, which was a good thing because if you drove a car made in Cleveland into Chicago, and it broke down, you would have to return to the maker’s garage to get it fixed.

The convenience we take for granted, that a Ford sedan made in Michigan can be sold and serviced in San Francisco, would be extremely difficult to achieve on the basis of such purely personal business. William Clay Ford, Jr., the great-grandson of that Henry who actually did start out in a garage workshop in Detroit, would have to buy and own factories all over the globe, borrowing the money for this from his personal friends. He would personally contract with hundreds of thousands of workers to build the cars, acquire and hold millions of tons of steel and other raw materials as his personal property, and maintain possession of those millions of vehicles until each one could be sold to an individual buyer.

Of course, the buyer of that car would have to save up and pay for it all at once, unless he knew someone with a large amount of uncommitted cash willing to make a personal loan. There would be no banks to evaluate the buyer’s creditworthiness and write a loan against the value of the car. There would be no insurance company to assume the risks of his driving this encumbered asset on the city streets. Every aspect of our lives would be carried out on the basis of the people we knew personally or could convince of our trustworthiness through their personal experience or on the basis of our smiles and winning personalities.

There was a time when such a personal approach to business was the norm, and it could achieve great things. In ancient the Roman world, there were actually corporations with an artificial personality: the societas and collegia, where people joined together and created a group—a body or corpus—that that could enter transactions and acquire debts that were not the personal liability of the members.2 But these groups were still social; people came together on a first-name basis and could know and trust the other members. They were anything but the faceless creations of a legal system.

Elsewhere in Rome, however, the individual—the strength of one man’s personality and trust in his skills and judgment—was everything. Julius Caesar was the scion of a noble family and became its paternal head, but he wasn’t the president of any “Caesar Inc.” like the Fords, Hiltons, or Versaces. The family fortune—what there was of it—was his to spend. He made his way as a politician in Rome on the basis of the people for whom he could offer protection and do favors. They became his followers and, if they had personal followers of their own, those became the followers of Caesar as well.3 On the basis of this popularity and not a little personal generosity, the Roman state advanced him in the course of public offices, the cursus honorum, and in time of war gave him command of army units. But as office holder and commander he still had to win the confidence of the people under him. A general going into battle didn’t just give orders and expect his soldiers to carry them out as a matter of law and discipline—he had to make a personal speech before each engagement to whip up their enthusiasm.

Ending the fiction of the artificial legal personality in our current laws would either reduce the power and robustness of our economy to the level of a village in the Dark Ages, or give rise to an even greater emphasis on “the 1%.” These would be the people who, like ancient kings and tyrants, could command a following on the basis of their personality and their fortune. Imagine a society that did not put its trust in institutions like the Ford Motor Company or Exxon-Mobil, which today are owned by legions of shareholders, whose interests are protected by disinterested financial rating agencies like Standard & Poor’s. Instead, our economy would function at the whim of great patrons like Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller—robber barons answerable to no auditors or committees, who could whip out their checkbooks and make any little inconveniences such as laws and competitors simply disappear.

Granting institutions the power to do business has enriched us all, enabling a level of product standardization, global convenience, and economic power unimagined by previous societies. To undo that would impoverish millions. It’s simply a bad idea.

1. Assuming, of course, that the state itself could still function as a legal entity representing the interests of its citizens, a republic, and not as the personal retinue loyal to a single individual, a king.

2. Municipal entities like the City of Rome functioned in similar fashion. And the tradition of collective ownership continued under the church in the Middle Ages, where the members of a brotherhood shared ownership of an abbey or monastery and its property. This tradition grew up with the great universities, where the student colleges were modeled on the collegia of Rome.

3. It’s no coincidence that the criminal organization shown in The Godfather—with its emphasis on favors, protection, personal loyalty, and demonstrations of respect—so closely resembles this Roman tradition.