Sunday, April 24, 2016

Money and Politics

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I remember something called the “equal time rule,” which kept radio and television stations from giving free airtime to campaigning politicians or selling airtime disproportionately. Newscasters would mention the rule often enough during election season that you understood it was a brake on potential wall-to-wall campaign ads.1 Nothing like the equal time rule seems to be in effect today, and the resulting battle for media coverage is one reason running a campaign is so expensive. And it’s a truism that where people of means care about something for which money is required, money will be provided by one route or another.

People bemoan the cost of campaigning today: the way it channels attention and resources to only a few well-backed candidates, and how it turns candidates into part-time fundraisers subject to full-time pressure for donor consideration and favors—if not outright corruption. Oh, if only we could get the money out of politics!

Too often, however, the object of that lament bears on the other side of the aisle. The politicians and commentators on the left want to get the corporate money and gifts from wealthy donors out of politics as a way to hobble the right. While those on the right want to curtail labor unions and their support of the left through contributions from union dues. Oh, if only we could throttle our enemy’s money supply!

The attempt on the left often connects to complaints about “corporate personhood.” This argument says that corporations are not really people and so do not have the same rights under U.S. law and the constitution as flesh-and-blood citizens. The left sees the legal fiction that corporations have the same legal standing as a person as a gift to the moneyed classes. However, if you remove the legal standing of corporations, you remove the ability of any group of people to come together to function as a single entity. Without legal standing, any group, organization, corporation, company, or other association could no longer acquire and own property, sign contracts, employ workers, or otherwise function in the economy.2 Only individual people, one by one and on their own, could act with any legal standing.

In this sense, the union organization also has the form, if not the legal requirements, of a corporation: a union is a group of people coming together for a purpose—to bargain collectively for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. However, under neither federal nor state law is a union considered to be a business: it does not file articles of incorporation or pay taxes. The organization collects dues from its members to cover operating costs, but the dues are not considered revenue. With these exceptions in mind, the left would like to see a philosophical distinction between the collection of people functioning as a single entity in a union and the typical corporation, which they regard as a vast and faceless entity devoted to the non-human task of making money.

But—again philosophically, if not legally—the distinction between a union and a corporation is not clear. Both represent the interests of a particular group: the workers in the union, the investors in the corporation. While the union might not file articles of incorporation, it must have some founding documents or charter; otherwise, the union could claim to represent and demand dues from whomever it wants at any time. Without some statement of purpose, the bus drivers union could suddenly decide it’s representing municipal groundskeepers as well and demand bargaining rights and dues from them, and only an equally strong or stronger groundskeepers union could contest the issue.

While the shares of some corporations may be closely held, say, by a single individual or family, most—and especially among the largest corporations—are publicly traded. As owners of the company, the various shareholders vote by proxy to elect board members who direct its operations. Shareholders also vote on any changes to the articles of incorporation, and sometimes they even are asked to vote on major changes in strategy and operations. Many shareholders don’t own the stock directly but invest in a mutual fund, whose managers move their investors’ collective funds into and out of a range of stocks as market conditions change, and then the fund managers vote to represent the investor’s best interest. Still, individual investors have the choice of where to put their money, and they can refuse to invest in companies with whose principles and operations they disagree.3 And when they decide to quit the arrangement, by selling their stock, they get their money back—at least at its current market value—plus any dividends paid by the corporation.

In contrast, a union member has no freedom and no ownership. He or she must pay dues to the union which has jurisdiction over his or her workplace. When the worker quits the job or exits the union, there is no payout based on past dues. And aside from voting for the union leaders and voting up or down on a contract renewal, the worker has no ongoing say in how the union’s management represents his or her interests.

But these differences aside, both corporations and unions remain essentially alike when it comes to political influence: a group of people who came together for a defined purpose and who want to use part of their funds to affect the government’s approach to issues of the day. Whether it’s the steelworkers union supporting candidates and lobbying to raise tariffs on foreign steel, or a corporation that buys large amounts of steel and wants to see lower tariffs on cheaper imports, the money given to influence candidates and to promote the cause still comes, ultimately, from people: the members of the union through their dues, or the shareholders in the company through a lower earnings per share or lower dividends on their investment.

The biggest difference between a union and a corporation—and this is where politics gets involved—is the class of people associated with each type of organization. People with money to invest are usually professional and management-level employees in jobs with a defined-contribution pension plan (i.e., you pay into an individual account), or people with excess wealth to manage. And so, generally, shareholders are members of the middle and upper classes. People who pay union dues are usually hourly workers and government employees in jobs with defined-benefit pension plans (i.e., the company pays for retirement based on your seniority and years of service). And so, generally, union workers are members of the middle and lower classes.

Traditionally, in this country, if you vote on the left, you side with workers and the poor. If you vote on the right, you side with management and the moneyed classes. But, viewed strictly as organizations representing large groups of people with a vested interest in one side of an issue or the other, there is no more reason to deny corporate shareholders their say in politics than to deny unionized workers. Forming groups and staking claims is how human beings organize themselves in a modern society to deal with conflicting viewpoints and varied interests.

Or you could just bring back the equal time rule and take the argument off the airwaves. That would get the money out of politics.

1. This was a provision of the Radio Act of 1927 that was later written into the Communications Act of 1934. It has since been modified to allow exemptions for news coverage of political events such as presidential press conferences and campaign debates. While the rule has never been formally revoked, it’s clear that enough workarounds now exist to inundate us with political advertising on the airwaves.

2. See When Corporations Are People Too from November 6, 2011.

3. The exception would be employees with a defined-contribution pension plan in a tax-deferred account like a 401k, SEP, or IRA. There, the choice of investments may be limited and include a large amount of stock in the employer’s company.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Knowing the Other

It’s a common saying in identity politics these days that unless you have lived the experience of being African American, Hispanic, Asian, or any other minority ethnicity, you cannot understand that person. That his or her—or the group’s as a whole—psychology, thinking, needs and wants, political views, and animosity toward Caucasians and, in subtext, toward the larger community and its class structure, remain forever a private affair, closed to outsiders.

My first reaction is that this notion of emotional and psychological exclusivity is either sloppy thinking or it is adopted as some kind of protective mechanism. The sloppy thinking would come from confusing “cannot understand” with the outsider’s alternative possibilities of “don’t want to understand,” or “would have trouble understanding,” or “refuse to understand.” That kind of negativity places inherent barriers on the mind and supports the latent prejudices of the outsider trying to understand the subject group.

As a form of protection, the notion of exclusivity is covering for a member of the in-group who has simply given up trying to make his or her point. “You just don’t understand me” is a comforting reciprocal to “I haven’t made myself clear.” When someone is tired of talking to an opposing point of view, perhaps held by people he or she perceives to be hostile blockheads, the person too often will revert in exasperation to “You don’t understand” and its more dramatic cousin, “You just can’t understand.”

In similar fashion, if the person on the outside of the group fails to agree with and support the insider’s position, the “You don’t [or can’t] understand” retort is meant to be a show-stopper. If arguments are failing to achieve their intended effect, then rather than examine them critically, adopt better arguments, or perhaps change positions, the easy solution is to retreat into inscrutability: “You don’t have the experience, the mental capacity, the sincerity, or the personal honesty to understand my position. If you had any of these things, then of course you would agree with me.”

In my view, if this position—that communication, understanding, and potential agreement are not just difficult but actually impossible—is sincerely meant, then it is a trap for the person who uses it. If I cannot understand your experience, thinking, psychology, wants and needs, political views, and animosity, no matter how willing I may be to discuss the issues or how hard I try … then what is the point of trying? If the thing is impossible, why bother?

The corollary to that dead end is an acceptance, by both of us, of permanent status as “the other.” We are mutually exclusive. We share no recognition of each other as possible equals, as people worth knowing, or even as full human beings. The other is a member of a different species, an unknown quantity, an indescribable enigma. And other species, unknown quantities, are not granted the same rights, aspirations, or potential for success that I and members of my kind possess.

In similar fashion, recent literary criticism based on the tenets of deconstruction would seem1 to suggest that texts from earlier times and other cultures are unknowable. Because the author’s intention and meaning are closely bound to the reader’s interpretation of words and cultural references in the context of his or her current experience, readers from other places and times are presumed to be incapable of understanding the work’s true meaning. And so a modern reader is separated from, say, Shakespeare and his characters by 400 years of changing language and shifting cultural values, or from the satires of a Defoe or Swift by nearly as great a gulf in contextual and political evolution.

Of course, I don’t give much credit to modern interpretations of old texts, either. I remember, for example, years ago reading an annotated version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, in which the Fool pauses in a response to Goneril (Act I, Scene 4) to exclaim, “Whoop, Jug, I love thee!” The modern Spark Notes rewriting of Shakespeare renders the line as “Whoo-hoo, honey, I love you!” This would seem to be the Fool leering at the king’s daughter—which, while appropriately offensive, seems inconsistent with his preceding comment. The annotations to the original text that I was reading explained that “Jug” was an Elizabethan rendering of the name “Joan” and so was probably a reference to the Fool’s wife—who is nowhere else in evidence. My simpler interpretation is that, at this point in the conversation, the Fool hoists a jug over his arm, takes a slug, and bellows his affection for alcohol. But that’s just a guess.

I have also heard it said that modern standardized tests must take great care in selecting passages for reading comprehension because of this supposed misapplication of context. If a story or reminiscence is set at the seashore, it might disadvantage a child raised in the mountains. If set in the mountains, it might confuse a child living by the sea. And any passage from a work more than a decade or two old will likely contain words and references that the young reader will find either baffling or upsetting.

If the point of deconstruction is to say that we cannot have perfect understanding of an older text because the meaning of many words may have changed or the author might use references particular to a certain political or social setting, then the objection is obvious and trivial. No, I cannot understand every joke in Shakespeare—like the Fool’s jug—in the same way an Elizabethan audience would. Neither can I understand a play by Sophocles in the original Greek without knowing the language or the Epic of Gilgamesh without reading cuneiform.

If the point of deconstruction is a counsel of perfection—that, because we might miss some references or misapply some words, true understanding is impossible—then the objection is pernicious. Like the argument that you cannot understand another human being without sharing his or her ethnicity and personal experiences, deconstruction suggests that earlier times and cultures are closed to us because we do not live in them. And if that’s the case, there is no point in reading and trying to understand in the first place. World literature is a closed book. Why bother?

I will admit that, on an individual level, each of us contains personal mysteries, secrets, painful or joyful experiences, and hidden prejudices that color our perceptions of the world and render the universe that we construct inside our heads unintelligible to even our nearest and dearest. But that is an admission of innermost veils of psychological darkness which exist apart from our attempts at communication.

As a professional communicator, I find the negativity of identity politics and literary deconstruction offensive. I have spent my life studying and using words, seeking clear expression and understanding in my technical writing, and creating worlds of imagined experience with my fiction that any reader can enter and sample.2 To state or imply that communication is not possible, that the attempt to understand is futile, that other places and times are denied to us by changes in meaning and reference—that is a refutation of everything I was taught in the humanities. It suggests that modern readers lack wit, imagination, and empathy.

As human beings, as thinking creatures, as people of good will and generosity, the world’s people possess more in common than they hold in isolation. We benefit from trying to see the other person’s point of view and from inserting ourselves by study and imagination into the lives of people from different cultures, places, and times. We may not do any of this perfectly or without error. But not to try, not to bother, would be the greatest error of all.

1. When I studied English literature in the 1960s, we learned the New Criticism, which essentially said that the text—i.e., book, poem, or play—had to stand on its own. We were taught to read and interpret from the words on the page, not giving weight to the author’s separate statements about his or her intentions in creating the work, and not delving into analysis of his or her life experience or cultural antecedents to psychoanalyze the author and the work. Deconstruction as a form of criticism came in during the following decade, and so I never studied it formally. But the premise would seem to deny the analyst the opportunity to examine even the words of the text itself.

2. Of course, as an old book editor I have always relied on addressing what people in the trade call “the educated lay reader.” In weighing word choices, their denotations and connotations, and their familiarity, as well as cultural and historical references, an editor constructs in his or her mind an intended reader who would be interested enough in the subject matter to pick up the book. While an author or editor wants to avoid obscure terms and jargon in order to invite the nonspecific reader, he or she must make some assumptions about reading level and prior experience. Otherwise, the reader who fits the appropriate age and interest levels would be annoyed at having every word and reference backed up with painstaking and redundant detail.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Passing the Test

We recently had the awful spectacle of more than half a million diesel Volkswagens in the U.S. and more than ten million worldwide sold under deceptive conditions. While the cars from the iconic maker of the small, smart, sexy “Bug” of the 1960s were supposed to be both environmentally friendly and driver friendly—fuel efficient, powerful, and yet still low emitting—they were actually designed with an engine chip that could tell when the engine was being tested for emissions. The car’s computer then modified its performance to be less polluting and also, presumably, less fun and economical to drive while sitting in the testing stall with its tailpipe hooked up to a gas analyzer. But out on the road, the peppy little cars reportedly dumped forty times the legally allowed level of nitrous oxides and other pollutants.

In its story “Hoaxwagen,Fortune magazine—no foe of big business—calls the deception a “massive … fraud” that “incinerated VW’s reputation.” And truly, those of us who have a warm spot in our hearts for well-made, intelligently designed, fun-to-drive German cars were shaken by the revelation. And those of us who think large corporations making reputable products and selling them at a reasonable price offer a kind of service to the public were saddened. We are certainly not going to turn into anti-capitalists or newly minted socialists over this incident, but we are wondering how reasonable people with long business experience could have thought this kind of chicanery would pass unnoticed.

Fourteen different models of “clean diesel” with the built-in fraud chip were put on sale from 2008 to 2015. That’s an awful lot of physical evidence of fraud for the company to leave lying around. Certainly, someone in the Volkswagen organization must have worried that competitors, envious of Volkswagen’s success with these cars, would reverse-engineer the system and discover the deception. And then it would be whoo-hoo marketing coup!

If it was a simple case of deception … I know most people who hate and fear big corporations will imagine that this was simply another bait-and-switch. That the evil gnomes running Volkswagen rubbed their gnarly hands in glee and said, “We’ll sell them a dirt bag and call it clean! The poor fools will never know the difference! And, as the French say, ‘Après moi le déluge!’ Let next quarter take care of the losses!”

In my forty-year career in corporate America I have worked alongside enough business people to know that most of them are not so stupid. Neither are they consciously corrupt and evil.

I have worked in both a documentation and a communications capacity in highly regulated, high-stakes industries like a worldwide engineering and construction firm, an electric and gas utility running a nuclear power reactor, a major pharmaceutical company, and a maker of genetic analysis equipment. In these organizations, everyone from the executive suite to the plant floor was aware of regulations and took them seriously. They might not always have agreed with every point. And if the regulatory stance was still being formulated—say, during a hearing before an administrative law judge, or while the inspector was on site and discussing the implications of a new observation of infraction—they might have argued their case for a different interpretation. But once the matter was settled, reasonable people complied with the rules.

In my career at these different organizations, I never once heard an executive or manager say anything like, “Oh, well, we can find a way around that!” Or, “I know what the rule says, but here’s what we’re actually going to do!” Not once, not even in jest, and not even when the cost of compliance was high—as when the nuclear power plant’s critical systems had to be redesigned twice to keep up with changing regulatory requirements. And conversely, I never heard a government regulator, a site inspector, or a commission representative say anything like, “There is a problem here, but I can make it go away if you can make it worth my while.”1

I have no reason to believe that German automakers are any less regulated or any more corrupt than their counterparts in American business and industry.2 So if this is the case—that Volkswagen’s executives and managers were and are all serious people who respect the regulations they work under—what happened?

I think I know what went wrong at Volkswagen. And it’s a matter of “group think” and a lack of any rigorous, individualistic approach to thinking and questioning, a lack of anyone pausing to apply common sense and privately held values to what the group was doing. This is a failure to which every organization, regardless of industry or nationality, can fall prey: once a course has been established and an order given from on high, people lower down in the organization simply stop probing, questioning, and interpreting for themselves but set about making the thing work.

So I can well imagine some executive in the diesel engine division at Volkswagen probably gave an order like: “Build a powerful, fuel-efficient diesel that can pass the emissions tests.” This is a difference of interpretation, subtle but critical, from the more general order: “Build a powerful, fuel-efficient diesel that operates cleanly according to the regulations.” And when the engineers in the design group adopted the directive to “pass the test,” instead of “operate cleanly,” no one looked too closely at the resulting chip architecture and software and how it reacted to test conditions differently from road conditions. The question of the actual purpose of the test and any intentional deception in voiding it probably never came up.

The Volkswagen diesel saga is a valuable lesson for every executive in being thoughtful, clear, concise, and careful in issuing directives. The damages Volkswagen will suffer in terms of lawsuits, lost sales, and stricter regulatory scrutiny in the future will cement that lesson for all German companies and for all worldwide automobile manufacturers.

But the Germans and the carmakers are not the only people engaged in such sloppy thinking and directing. The conundrum in American educational circles, facing teachers all across the country today, is the directive for mandatory, statewide, nationwide testing, with pay and promotion, accreditation, and school funding all hanging in the balance.

Good teachers know that the test questions and their answers are only a benchmark, a sample, a slender approximation of what a student should know, understand, and think about at each grade level. Good teachers know that skills like reading comprehension, computational manipulation, thinking deeply, imagining freely, and acquiring and accessing a headful of knowledge are the real goals of education. Picking the most likely choice among three or five posited answers—including dodges like “All of the above” or “None of the above”—in relation to a specific question is a pale gray substitute for reading and loving books and ideas, being able to do math in your head, and feeling comfortable resolving variable questions involving different subject matter.

But under time pressure—and the pressures of survival, prestige, and money—and with the course materials tailor-made for teaching the particular questions and interpretations likely to be found on the standardized tests—both of which come from the same educational bureaucracy—the obvious course, the easy course, the direct course, is to teach what is presented and ensure a winning score. And here again, “group think”—the acceptance of the directive as given, without applying privately held values and common sense—is the factor at work. When the whole organization is headed in a certain direction, what is one person who sees things differently supposed to do?

Big organizations like an international automaker or a federal education administration are powerful. They can focus a tremendous amount of human thought and energy to solve complex problems. Their hierarchical structure enables one person or a small group at the top with clear vision and creative thinking to direct this kind of power. Most of them also use graded career paths to ensure that the route to those key, top-level positions is through demonstrated fidelity to and performance within the organization’s objectives and that each level is staffed and led by serious, sober people who have shown they have the organization’s best interests at heart.

And yet, these organizations are still human structures. They are staffed and led by human beings, who are all too capable of thinking shallowly, moving quickly and carelessly, dismissing obvious objections, and focusing narrowly on single measures of performance. As much as Plato would rule the world through “philosopher kings,” and modern Progressives would like us all to defer to the technical experts in every field, the person who actually achieves power in these organizations too often is no smarter, more skilled, or deeper thinking than anyone else.

All such hierarchical structures should invest in mechanisms that allow for proper feedback. At every level, from the chief executive’s or the cabinet secretary’s inner circle on down, people should be able to discuss and question orders before they are given and codified in policy statements and directives. People at the lower levels should be able to raise their hands and say, “Whoa! What about [common sense]? What about [human values]?” And for [common sense] you can substitute “designing a car that is actually clean on the road.” For [human values], substitute “training kids to pass tests is not the same as educating them.”

I know that’s idealistic thinking. I know that allowing the average person, down on the factory floor, to gum up the works by questioning executive orders, is counterproductive.3 But I’m betting the leaders at Volkswagen now wish someone in their design group had raised a hand and said, “This test-detecting chip isn’t the right approach.” And I’m betting that in twenty years, when the little test-taking robots in today’s schools graduate into the real world without a headful of working knowledge and proper reasoning skills, we’re all going to wish someone had raised a hand and said, “This isn’t the way to raise a generation of children.”

But it’s human nature to learn slowly, if at all. And I can take solace in primary mechanism of personal experience: the greater the failure and more painful the penalty, the stronger and more effective will be the lesson that is learned.

1. And remember, I was working as a technical writer in documentation, where any discrepancy between what the organization promised its regulators and what it told its workers to do would have shown up clearly. I also worked in corporate communications where, if an executive did want to deceive the employees and the public about the corporation’s actions, the lie would first need to be crafted into the suitable words.

2. In fact, the pharmaceutical company I worked for was the U.S. subsidiary of Bayer Corporation, an old German company. The people who came over from the European organization were every bit as serious and straightforward as the American-born executives.

3. Actually, Toyota Corporation includes in its kaizen or “lean production” principles the idea that anyone on the factory floor can stop the production line when he or she sees a quality problem, and work teams are expected to call out and make regular, incremental improvements in their work processes. This is “bottom-up,” democratic action in the workplace.
       And in the modern military, blindly following orders is no longer a guarantee of personal protection. Soldiers are supposed to understand the consequences of their own actions—such as torturing prisoners for information—and refuse to follow illegal orders from their superiors.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Power of Teamwork

I’ve been listening again to the choral version of Toto’s Africa, which contains the line “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do.” While the line itself is cast in the negative,1 it suggests to me the power of a hundred men working together toward a common aim. And I found that thought profoundly inspiring. In the context of a place like Africa, in the context of shifting climate, changing cultures, rampant civil wars, the cratering scars of old imperialism, and the tenuous hold of modern conventions and laws upon the human psyche, the notion of a hundred men aligning their personal force and engaging their collective will conjures all sorts of possibilities.

A hundred men is roughly the size of an old military company, which used to be under the command of a captain. I can’t think of too many ground objectives that a company of select soldiers, each possessing the right skills, all trained to work together, and loyal to their cause and to each other, could not take militarily.

Think of a hundred men and women operating inside any modern organization, whether a government, corporation, religious group, or other sprawling, multi-state, multi-national, variously purposed body. Just one hundred people with the right blend of skills, working to a common purpose, sharing a common vision, and responding to the commands a single leader, could bend even the largest state or political party in a certain direction or toward a specific goal.

The original Skunk Works at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, formed right before and operating during World War II, reportedly included just forty engineers, including the first Native American female engineer. Apple Corporation’s secretive Industrial Design team, mostly recently delivering the iWatch to market, includes just twenty individuals drawn from all over the world; compare that to Samsung, which employs a thousand designers in thirty-four research centers scattered around the globe. The original SEAL Team Six, after it was formally authorized in 1980, had just seventy-five active shooters.

These groups and others like them are not open to just anyone. The group picks its candidates for their particular skills, puts them through rigorous training and testing, and eliminates most of them. A specialist group is the ultimate meritocracy: its members are admitted not from any sense of fairness or proportional representation, and not on the basis of the individual’s ambition and desire to join, but for reasons important only to the group and its mission. When you join, you’re there because the group needs you, not because you need the group.

That kind of selectivity builds group pride and cohesion. Every member knows that participation is a validation of his or her skills and a trust in his or her integrity and effort. That makes a person want to live up to the standards set by the group. In a curious way, that kind of meritocracy also tamps down—if not entirely eliminates—competition among members. You are competing against a standard of excellence, working against yourself and your past performance. You also represent a particular blend of skills that others in the group may not possess. So notions of rank and hierarchy, and of gaming your place in the pecking order, simply do not apply. Running someone else down to improve your own standing will hurt group efficiency and its potential for success. And besides, you’ve already arrived, having passed the selection process and become molded into the team.

A tight-knit team of dedicated people can be immensely attractive and even romantic. Think of the mystique surrounding the SEALs and Delta Force. Think of the legends told about the Lockheed Skunk Works, as well as the attempts by other corporations to put that kind of focused power to use. Popular fiction long ago adopted this romance with adventurous groups, like Doc Savage and his team of Monk the chemist, Ham the attorney, Renny the construction engineer, Long Tom the electrical engineer, and Johnny Littlejohn the archeologist and geologist. In more modern times, Ian Fleming has made a cult of the Double-O assassin-spies operating inside the British Secret Service—although they always seem to work solo—while spinoffs like American television’s The Man from Uncle or Britain’s The Avengers2 suggested the more attractive idea of a powerful duo supported by an elite organization. In his novels culminating most recently in Iron Wolf, Dale Brown has fictionally created a small but effective team of engineers and soldiers in Sky Masters Aerospace and the Scion group that becomes in effect an alternative U.S. military force. Such stories arouse a feeling of selfless devotion, purpose, and power that the French capture in the phrase esprit de corps, or “group spirit.”

Something in the human spirit wants to belong, and the smaller, more cohesive, more effective the group, the stronger will that desire be. A person might take some pride in belonging to something as vast and powerful as a nation-state, a political party, or a popular church affiliation, but a more exclusive membership and narrower purpose are generally more attractive. This has always been the draw of country clubs, fraternities, secret societies, cults, and other groups that thrive on being available only to the few rather than the many. Such organizations persist even when their only purpose is social, when members have no particular skills, and when the only merit required of initiates is holding a particular viewpoint or having a certain ethnic background—or even just a large enough bank account or an old enough family name.

But these are only substitutes for being a member of a select team that can actually accomplish something. The key to a skunk works, an Apple design team, or a SEAL team is that they are effective. They choose to undertake a particular project or a mission; they accurately evaluate its obstacles, dangers, and chances of success; they plan for all calculable eventualities; and then they move ahead quickly, efficiently, and decisively. If a member raises an objection, it is to point out a hidden danger or clarify a goal—not to earn debating points or to display his or her own smarts.

This is professional behavior. This approach puts aside the jealousies, ambitions, insecurities, and indecisions that afflict most people in their everyday life—the gnawing doubts and quarrels that most of us would recognize as the petty behavior of an immature person. The professional is an adult, ready to evaluate and take risks, make a commitment, and stand by it—even to the death.3 This is behavior that everyone recognizes and aspires to emulate. This is true worth in a human being.

And that is the power of teamwork. A team collects around an individual leader others who are of like mind, whom he or she knows to have the skills needed to perform a job and the courage, strength, and integrity to take on that job and succeed at it. It is one level of satisfaction to find in yourself those skills matched with the strength and courage to achieve something dangerous or difficult. Every athlete, artist, technician, and leader can find that kind of gratification. But another and higher level of satisfaction accrues to sharing those qualities with others who possess the same aims and purpose as yourself.

This is when human beings are at their peak, and amazing things can happen.

1. Read strictly grammatically, the line is negative: a hundred men can do nothing. But that’s because in the song it follows “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.” Supposedly even a hundred men or more could not ever do this. But when you listen, the second line seems to jump out on its own and become an affirmation “nothing that a hundred men or more could [not] do.”

2. I’m thinking here of the combination of John Steed and Emma Peel. But the more recent movie series, bringing together a team of artificially enhanced and godlike superheroes, also supports the idea of a select team with special talents.

3. See Where Have the Adults Gone? from May 22, 2011, for one definition of an adult: someone who knows—who has completely, internally, and soberly accepted—that he or she will one day die. Such a person makes decisions and calculations of value with that thought in mind and is determined to spend his or her life and effort wisely.