Work Different: Robert F. Kennedy, GNP, GNH, Cost-Accounting and the #VerizonStrike

Back to thinking about Verizon’s efforts to cut costs and finding themselves in the midst of a strike, I just stumbled across this amazing quote by Robert F. Kennedy talking about GNP.  These lines actually propose a challenge to the philosophy of setting a goal of “GNH” (Gross National Happiness), as the Bhutanese have done.  Mr. Kennedy seemingly goes beyond GNP or GNH to propose something that seems quite noble.

Remarks of Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

Robert F. Kennedy

(Quote is not from this book, but the title expresses the vision).

… this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  The purpose Mr. Kennedy would have set us towards is “Personal Excellence” and “Community Values.”  The end result of this may actually be “Happiness,” but “Happiness” seems to be beside the point.  As an aside, “Happiness” as the Bhutanese understand it may not be the same as “Happiness” as we understand it.  So much is lost in connotation when we translate words from language to language. I’ll talk about that in a second.

For now, really basic accounting is in practice at the root of how we measure our material success.  As Steve Denning describes in his Forbes’ blog:

Cost-accounting is built on the philosophy of scalable efficiency and squeezing out costs, particularly labor costs. Cost-accounting is how you measure progress or lack thereof in an organization. Financial accounting applies Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and enforced by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other local and international regulatory agencies and bodies.

As a result of this conceptual framework oriented towards reducing labor costs, we find organizations focused on, guess what? Cutting costs, often through downsizing and outsourcing, and suffering from crippled innovation, frustrated customers and dispirited employees.

If you take a look at what’s happening in the United States Government right now, the Cost-Accounting approach is exactly what budget-cutters are pushing.  The viewpoint is just that:  stop spending.  It is not “find efficiency,” “work differently,” or “focus and prioritize on these values.”  It most certainly is not stop using your personal charge card and taking out HELOC loans.  It is “stop spending” in the sense of “stop spending on government programs.” Cut costs.

More importantly, our system is designed to encourage this Frederick Taylor, industrial-age approach towards “success.”  Our purpose is to continually grow the GDP or, as the Huffington Post recently suggested, we’ll have a recession as punishment.  You see, since our GDP isn’t growing, a recession may be imminent.  “Economists note that nine of the past 11 recessions since World War II have been preceded by a period of growth of 1 percent or less.”

Our purpose is outdated.

And let’s be clear: this surrendering for the material is not limited to the United States.  This is in fact a global approach as the corporations in pursuit of the material are global.  The relentless drive of major corporations to cut costs expresses this philosophy of Cost-Accounting. This drive surpasses all other goals within a firm with the sole goal of maximizing profit, not providing value, contributing to the community or society, of building something greater. Sure, the drive isn’t pure and you can find examples of firms, and usually more successful ones, focused on other values.  But generally speaking, profit margins are the goalpost.

Even the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) have expressed this, in their recent scolding of the United States to “live within its means.” It is hard to know for sure if the PRC is relentlessly in pursuit of the material, as my information about that nation are likely quite colored by its source. However, both Capitalism and Marxism are all about the material.  In both cases, really, religion is the opiate of the masses.

An old Atlantic Monthly article by Glenn Tinder asks “Can We Be Good Without God?”  It is a long essay, but has as its root this idea of “agape” which, as I promised earlier, might be seen at the root of the Bhutanese (and Buddhist) notion of “Happiness.”  Tinder mentions that the connotation of “Agape,” is deeper than the translation.  English translators used “love” or “charity” when trying to translate the word.  The same for the Buddhist notion of “Compassion” and ultimate happiness.  “Happiness” for us has the connotation of “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” different from the connotation the word has in Dzongka (the main language in Bhutan).

“Agape” and “Compassion” as it is understood in Christianity and Buddhism (respectively) is a selfless love.  In Buddhism, this selfless love is based on an emptiness as expressed in the Heart Sutra.  In Christianity, and other creator-based religions, this is expressed as divine love.  Only realizing this type of love can bring us true happiness. From Tinder’s article:

If one could love others without judging them, asking anything of them, or thinking of one’s own needs, one would meet the Christian standard. Obviously, no one can. Many of us can meet the requirements of friendship or erotic love, but agape is beyond us all. It is not a love toward which we are naturally inclined or for which we have natural capacities. Yet it is not something exclusively divine, like omnipotence, which human beings would be presumptuous to emulate. In fact, it is demanded of us. Agape is the core of Christian morality. Moreover, as we shall see, it is a source of political standards that are widely accepted and even widely, if imperfectly, realized.

Buddhists may say something similar except that there is a belief that if we can overcome our grasping, we can “realize” compassion, that our natures are that compassionate.  But that is another conversation.

More relevant here, is thinking about those who buy into the goal of profit possibly scoffing at the idea that “agape” or “compassion” might be a valid goalpost.  How often have you encountered a business person who pretends to be stripped of all compassion and emotion, “empirically” driven, like a machine in a Taylorist factory, to make the “best choice” for the profitability of the company?  And how often have the choices of that person really been so empirical?

As a recent book (and essay), You Are Not as Smart as You Think, suggests, we’re not that logical when it comes to making decisions.  In fact, most of the time we have no idea what we’re doing.  We think we do, as Verizon and the Union workers do, but this can have really tragic results.  As Jesus said as he was being crucified, expressing agape, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 22:34)  The next line?  “And the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.”

So once we get the budget balanced, the costs of those pesky Union workers cut, will we find a measure, as Mr. Kennedy said, of our wit, courage, wisdom, learning, compassion and devotion to our country–or anything that makes life worthwhile?

Once you squeeze out all the costs, what do you find yourself left with, finally?  Squeeze down to the last cost and you find yourself with no more factories (already happened).  Keep squeezing and you find yourself with no company (also already happened).  Keep squeezing and what happens to the country? It’s an old saw but ya gotta spend money to make money.  But an older, better saw is it’s much harder to make something than it is to tear it down. Or outsource it.

Can changing the goalpost be a … successful … (profitable) approach?  Did Steve Jobs make Apple successful based on cost accounting?  Maybe we need to stay hungry, stay foolish.  Or maybe we just need to Work Different.  Bad grammar, but this is what I’d suggest to all of us.  We can do this ourselves, starting with our own approach.  In fact, possibly the only thing that can “save” us is… us.

3 Responses to “Work Different: Robert F. Kennedy, GNP, GNH, Cost-Accounting and the #VerizonStrike”

  1. POA Class Says:

    POA Class…

    […]Work Different: Robert F. Kennedy, GNP, GNH, Cost-Accounting and the #VerizonStrike «[…]…

  2. Corky Coker Says:

    Corky Coker…

    […]Work Different: Robert F. Kennedy, GNP, GNH, Cost-Accounting and the #VerizonStrike «[…]…

  3. Stephen E Smith Lawsuit Says:

    Stephen E Smith Lawsuit

    Work Different: Robert F. Kennedy, GNP, GNH, Cost-Accounting and the #VerizonStrike | Work Different

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