Executive honor

Can an ‘MBA oath’ fix what’s wrong with business?

The portrait of the American business world that has emerged from the financial crisis is rife with unapologetic amorality. Mortgage bankers encouraged people to take out home loans they couldn’t afford, distinguished investment houses peddled deals to their clients that they themselves wouldn’t consider investing in, and officers at those same institutions continued to pay themselves millions of dollars even as they were bailed out by the federal government, all while insisting — even in front of Congress — that this is simply how the game is played.

Several years back, of course, it wasn’t Wall Street, but firms like WorldCom and Enron and Tyco that shocked public sensibilities, their leaders engaging in outright fraud and larceny to pump up stock prices, their own compensation, or both. Whether inside or outside the law, the last decade has given many Americans the nagging sense that the members of the business elite play by a set of rules far removed from those of the society that ultimately supports them.

The political solution tends to be fresh regulation, such as the president’s push to rein in the big banks. But recent years have also seen the emergence of an alternative from within the business world itself — more specifically, from within the graduate schools that produce a disproportionate number of business leaders. The idea is both radical and straightforward: to make executives more moral, changing business itself by changing the way its leaders think about their responsibilities. And a subtly powerful way to do that,

according to a few management scholars and a growing number of business school students, is simply by creating an oath: a pledge of ethical behavior, modeled on medicine’s Hippocratic Oath, that would be administered as graduates embark on their careers.

The invention of the MBA oath is generally credited to Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana, two professors at Harvard Business School who have written papers on the topic. In 2004, the Richard Ivey School of Business, a top Canadian business school, instituted a pledge that all students were required to take on graduation. In 2006, Thunderbird School of Management, a school of international business in Glendale, Ariz., instituted an oath of its own, and the next year Columbia Business School put in place an honor code meant to bind its students beyond graduation and into their working lives.

The oath that has gotten the most attention, though, is at Harvard. Last year, a group of Harvard business students organized a voluntary oath ceremony at the school’s graduation — over half the graduating class, about 550 freshly minted MBAs in all, took the pledge, promising to “create value responsibly and ethically.” A similar ceremony will be held later this month for the class of 2010. Some of those student founders, working with the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, have set out to seed an international movement: “The Oath Project” website now has pledges from 2,800 students at business schools in the United States and abroad, and two of the project’s founders have just published a book on the oath and its potential. The oath gained fresh prominence earlier this month, when Nohria was named dean of Harvard Business School.

“As managers, we’re in charge of a lot of resources, both human resources and capital resources, and we’ve seen that over the last few years, business has gone wrong, and a lot of people have lost jobs,” says Peter Escher, a 2009 Harvard Business School graduate, one of the founders of the school’s MBA Oath and coauthor of the new book. “An oath is a way to lay out the boundaries around the profession, to develop an agreed-upon body of knowledge and ethics.”

A spoken promise may seem like flimsy armor against the outsized financial incentives that come into play in corporate corner offices, but proponents point to evidence from behavioral science of the surprising power of norms and symbols in shaping our behavior. The sanctity of the Hippocratic Oath itself, they argue, along with the gravity with which everyone from military officers and lawyers to accountants and architects treat their codes of professional conduct, suggests how effective communal standards and ethical self-policing can be. A code, in other words, can be a powerful thing.

Those not won over by the business oath argue that its proponents have things backwards. A few words, no matter how earnestly intoned, are unlikely to change anyone’s long-term behavior — the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t create a doctor’s sense of duty, it merely reflects it, and that sense of professional obligation is the product of years of exposure to medicine’s almost tribal code of behavior.

To its adherents, the oath is part of an attempt to create such a value system for business — to turn management into a profession with aims beyond simply keeping share prices high. But to some of its critics, the oath is just fuzzy thinking. Businesses, they argue, are meant to make money for their owners and shareholders, and in so doing to help grow the economy. To the extent that business has a higher purpose, it is that. It’s up to a nation’s citizens and elected officials to rein in that behavior when it stops serving the public good. The oath, in other words, sits squarely in the middle of a larger debate over whether it is possible to articulate a set of higher principles for business at all.

Throughout Western history, most revolutions have had their oaths. The Tennis Court Oath helped bring on the French Revolution, the Protestation oath failed to avert the English Civil War. The Declaration of Independence was not only an announcement of rebellion but a solemn promise of solidarity, its signers mutually pledging to each other “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” (That pledge held.)

The idea of an MBA oath first occurred to Nohria in 1996. He was on sabbatical at the London School of Business and talking to a colleague, the management scholar Sumantra Ghoshal, about various parts of the traditional business school curriculum that hindered graduates in the real world.

In particular, Ghoshal was a vocal critic of the “maximizing shareholder value” mantra, the idea, ascendant since the early 1980s, that share price should be the dominant yardstick for measuring the performance of managers. Ghoshal and others had come to believe that that worldview allowed managers to ignore their other, equally legitimate responsibilities: everything from the welfare of their own workers to the environmental impact of their products. And with compensation linked to share price, executives were inevitably tempted to do everything they could, legal and otherwise, to goose stock prices quarter by quarter, even if that damaged the company over the long run.

As Nohria recalls, he began to wonder what sort of thing he could teach students as a counterforce.

“Out of the clear blue — my sister had just graduated from medical school — I thought, what if managers actually had something that was like that?” he says. “What if we provided something that was aspirational, some guidance as to what their responsibilities actually were?”

Although it may feel quixotic to invent an oath without the weight of tradition behind it, the Hippocratic Oath itself gained prominence in the 20th century as a response to troubling modern developments. Despite its roots in ancient Greece, only a minority of American medical students took the oath until World War II, as Max Anderson, a cofounder of Harvard’s MBA Oath, has written. But in the wake of the revelations about brutal Nazi medical experimentation, schools rushed to adopt it as a way to unequivocally set down the limits of medical ethics.

And it is not only history that gives weight to an oath, psychology suggests. For example, the behavioral economist Dan Ariely of Duke University has done a study showing that swearing on a Bible makes even atheists more honest, and that signing honor codes does make people less likely to cheat. Work by the psychologist Robert Cialdini and others has found that making a public commitment to a cause — either by speaking it aloud or writing it down — makes people firmer in their commitment, and more likely to act on it.

The effects that have been found, however, are mostly short-term ones, and there’s no evidence a pledge can shape behavior years later. For his part, Ariely (author of the forthcoming book “The Upside of Irrationality”) is skeptical that a pledge alone will change corporate decision-making. If the goal is to get executives and managers to think more broadly about societal good, a more effective measure, he argues, would be to require the reporting of, say, pollution, or the number of patents created, or the number of jobs created, in each quarterly report. The trick, Ariely says, is “to keep these things on top of people’s minds.”

And as for the Hippocratic Oath itself, its purpose may be primarily ceremonial. Asked what role the oath played in the professionalization of American medicine, Kenneth Ludmerer, a physician and historian of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, responded, “Essentially none. It’s a nice ceremony, but its impact and role is in effect zero.’

The oath’s champions do not claim that it can transform business alone. They see it as a first step in the larger project of “professionalizing” the practice of management — turning it into a field, like law or architecture, whose practitioners are united not only by specialized knowledge but a shared set of values beyond personal enrichment.

“What professions do is come up with codes of conduct that benefit society or clients or patients. That’s missing in management,” says Gregory Unruh, an ethics scholar at Thunderbird School of Management who helped its students create the school’s oath.

In this sense, the term “profession” doesn’t just refer to a job, but a special sort of work that also represents a higher calling: Doctors make money, but their first directive is to heal people; lawyers can be rich, but their responsibility is to pursue justice for their clients.

“Many people who want to be in business today want to have the status of a profession without any of the constraints,” says Khurana.

But those trying to move business in that direction are immediately challenged by the question of what business’s higher purpose would even be. The responsibilities of a doctor or lawyer are straightforward: the good of the patient; the integrity of the legal system. But aside from the owners of a company, who should the manager be thinking of?

The “Management Oath,” the pledge formulated by the consortium behind the Oath Project, addresses this problem by referring repeatedly to the good of society at large. It commits its takers to “not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society,” to “refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society,” to “protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.”

To critics, this sort of language makes the pledge a poor guide for everyday behavior. A business manager’s job, points out Steven Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, entails the balancing of many often competing interests. In vaguely invoking the good of society, Kaplan argues, the oath ignores these necessary tensions and compromises. The great virtue of shareholder value, on the other hand, is that it provides a single, clear goal against which all of the competing claims can be measured.

“For example, shareholders want profits and workers want higher wages, so there’s a conflict. It may make sense to move operations from one country to another, so you hurt the workers in one place, you help the ones in another,” he says. “There’s no sense of trade-offs [in the oath], and once you get into these details, it becomes meaningless, inconsistent, and impossible to actually stick to.”

The oath also runs up against an enduring strain of thinking about business: that the profit motive itself is a social good. In other words, to the extent that the oath gets its takers to think beyond profit, it only dilutes business’s positive impact on society. Writing against the MBA Oath in the Harvard Business School’s newspaper, Andrew Sridhar, a student graduating this spring, put it this way: “If you really care about those who need electricity or those who are jobless, then pursue your own ambitions aggressively, for the profit motive is the true engine of prosperity.”

Nohria understands this criticism, but believes that the elite business leaders coming out of schools like Harvard need to appreciate that corporations are creations of society, and therefore ultimately beholden to it. “A business charter is something that society bestows on businesses,” he points out. In their earliest days, corporations were only chartered for specific societally important purposes — to open trade routes throughout the British Empire, for example, or to settle Massachusetts Bay — and technically, public companies still exist because the public allows them to.

“I think that we give businesses money in return for their providing something that we value,” says Nohria. “We do this because we believe that the resources that have been used by the business have been used in a way that the value created is more than the opportunity cost of the resources consumed.”

Still, Nohria has no plans to make the oath a part of the business school curriculum. He likes, he says, the fact that students today debate whether or not to sign it, and have to defend their decision one way or another. He agrees that the oath doesn’t provide ready answers to difficult decisions. But that is not its point. Its point is to do something like the opposite: to remind its takers of the complexity and impact of the decisions they will make, and to disabuse them of the view that one measuring stick, or one model, will make those decisions easy.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/05/16/executive_honor/

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Fraught

W.F. Young asks: “Long ago I developed the expectation that on encountering the word fraught, I’d find it associated with a prepositional phrase, ‘with [something].’  Now, in old age, I find that expectation dashed, often.  Can you say what it was based on and anything about when, how or by whom it was undercut?”

Here we have a case of a very old word undergoing a rapid shift in contemporary usage. In Middle English, fraught (an etymological cousin of freight) was a verb meaning “to load (a ship),” and the identical form could serve as a past participle meaning “laden (with).” While the verb dropped out of the language almost entirely, the past participle stuck around, typically followed by “with” and an object — often a burden, whether real or figurative.

Fraught as a standalone adjective meaning “distressed, anxious, tense,” without an accompanying prepositional phrase, is a 20th-century innovation. When the word cropped up on William Safire’s radar in 2006, he offered a line from “King Lear” as a putative early example: Goneril tells her father to “make use of that good wisdom, whereof I know you are fraught.” But Shakespeare did use fraught with a preposition, whereof, and an object, wisdom, so it is in fact very much in line with the usage of the era. Lear was surely in a distressed emotional state, but that wasn’t what his daughter was driving at.

By the nineteenth century, the metaphorical extension of the word had developed a new twist. Instead of the traditional phrasing, fraught with followed by an object (something usually unpleasant or unfortunate), the object could appear before fraught in a hyphenated compound, such as danger-fraught, pain-fraught or war-fraught. Thus if a moment was fraught with emotion, it could just as well have been described as emotion-fraught or in time as emotionally fraught, signaling the implied object in the adverb.

The first glimmers of fraught without even a hint of an object start appearing in the 1920s and ’30s. The earliest example I’ve found so far comes from a 1925 serialized story by Henry Leyford Gates about a flapper named Joanna. In one installment Gates writes, “It was Joanna who at last broke the fraught silence.” The lyrical phrase fraught silence, perhaps evoking pregnant pause, shows up again in books from 1934, 1946 and 1958. Another early use is in George O’Neil’s 1931 novel about the poet John Keats, “Special Hunger”: “For Keats this was a singularly fraught circumstance.” Circumstances, along with anxiety-ridden situations, issues and relationships, would soon become familiar companions for fraught.

Standalone fraught picked up steam in the 1960s, attracting the notice of dictionaries and usage guides, but the last couple of decades have seen an even stronger uptick. In the texts collected in the Corpus of Contemporary American English from 1990 to 1994, only about 9 percent of the instances of fraught do not take the preposition with. From 2005 to 2009, however, the rate jumps to a whopping 30 percent. The usage has become a journalistic commonplace, as in the recent New York Times headlines, “For New Stadium, a Fraught Coin Flip” and “Opera Companies’ Fraught Seasons.” No doubt about it, we’re living in fraught times.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/magazine/23FOB-onlanguage-t.html

Read More Than Respected

His writing was widely loved. Critics begrudged him his popularity.

Over the course of a literary career that spanned an astonishing eight decades, Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) wrote some of the 20th century’s best-loved novels (e.g., “Of Human Bondage”), a cluster of hit plays in London’s West End (“The Constant Wife”), ground-breaking travel books (“The Gentleman in the Parlour,” about Southeast Asia), an eloquent intellectual memoir (“The Summing Up”), and some of the finest short stories in the English language (“The Letter,” “Rain,” “The Outstation”). Such was his success as a writer that, in his later years, he became almost as well known for his opulent manner of living as for his work.

Thus, for some, Maugham will forever be identified with his legendary home on the French Riviera, between Monte Carlo and Nice. As Selina Hastings declares with characteristic panache: “The Villa Mauresque and Somerset Maugham, Somerset Maugham and the Villa Mauresque: for nearly forty years the two were inextricably linked, the house the richest thread in the fabric of the legend, visited, photographed, filmed, described in countless articles, regarded with awe as the glamorous and exotic backdrop for one of the most famous writers in the world.”

Famous, yes. But respected? In “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham,” Ms. Hastings draws on thorough research and recently released documents to trace Maugham’s busy life—his stormy marriage, his attentiveness to his daughter, Liza, his world-wide travels, his literary quarrels, his generosity to younger writers, his often furtive homosexuality—but she also pays a great deal of attention to his literary output, where the emphasis belongs. It irked Maugham, she says, that Bloomsbury and other highbrow literary circles tended to dismiss him or ignore him altogether.

“As much as his middlebrow reputation,” Ms. Hastings writes, “it was his success, and the affluence that came with that success, that in the eyes of Bloomsbury placed him beyond the pale.” Maugham himself characterized his position on more than one occasion: “I know just where I stand, in the very front row of the second rate.”

Ms. Hastings ranks Maugham rather higher than that. She singles out his ability to create in-depth portraits of both men and women, fully realized in all their fragility, ruthlessness, fury, confusion and longing—characters often conveyed to the reader through the fluent words of an ironical, sympathetic and knowing narrator. Cyril Connolly, the English critic, hailed Maugham as “the last of the great professional writers,” someone who took pains to construct his stories properly and get his sentences right.

It was precisely such studied professionalism that seemed to put Maugham at odds with the modernist vogue, with its experimental forms, its language games, its emphasis on the purely aesthetic. And yet in 1934 Desmond McCarthy—a member of the modernist- leaning Bloomsbury set—wrote a perceptive pamphlet about Maugham arguing that “he has a sense of what is widely interesting, because, like Maupassant, he is as much a man of the world as he is an artist.”

A man of the world indeed, not least of the Far East and the Malayan archipelago to which he traveled so often. Its rubber plantations, colonial outposts and local clubs, Ms. Hastings notes, serve as the settings for many of his best-known stories. These stories, she writes, “of incest and adultery, of sex-starved missionaries and alcoholic planters, of footsteps in the jungle and murder on the veranda, are what remains in the minds of many as the very image and epitome of Maugham’s fictional territory.”

Maugham has been the object of biographical attention before, of course, but “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” (despite its needlessly salacious title) is in a class of its own. Anyone who has read Ms. Hastings’s biographies of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford will know that she writes beautifully and has a talent for shaping a narrative; she is also adept at combining sympathy for her subjects with a tough-minded sense of their less pleasant traits and actions.

In Maugham those traits were far from hidden. His wit easily turned acrid and cruel and was deployed against family and friends alike. He said of his wife, Syrie, whom he divorced in 1929, that she had made his life “utter hell,” “[opening] her mouth as wide as a brothel door” in her money demands. His late memoir, “Looking Back” (1962), made her out to be wanton: The child she bore, he claimed (falsely), was not really his. It is clear from Ms. Hasting’s account that, despite his polished manners, he was a man profoundly antinomian in his beliefs and in certain aspects of his life.

Among the new material released by Maugham’s estate is a long interview given to a family friend by Liza before her death in 1999. Liza says there that her mother was very much in love with Maugham, despite their bouts of anger, and remained friendly with him, at times, after the divorce. It had hurt her mother tremendously that the marriage ended because of Maugham’s affections for a man (Gerald Haxton) and not a woman.

Mr. Hastings attributes Maugham’s guarded and secretive attitude toward his homosexuality to the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde when he was young medical student in London already struggling with his sexual identity. While accepting that he was predominantly homosexual in his make-up, Ms. Hastings never reads that fact into his work or limits his achievement to that of a “gay writer” as such. Maugham was extraordinarily perceptive about the lives of women and the ordeals of their romantic lives. His enjoyment of sex with women was enthusiastic, Ms. Hastings says, and it is notable that the women who come off best in his fiction are those who are free both in their expression of sexuality and in their practice of it. In this way and many others, Ms. Hastings’s uncommonly absorbing and judicious biography allows us to see the writer in full. It is the first truly rounded portrait of a fine writer and a complicated man.

Mr. Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703957904575252871142772504.html

Yes, the Gulf Spill Is Obama’s Katrina

Where was the White House plan, and why has it been so slow to make decisions?

As President Obama prepares to return to the Gulf Coast Friday, he is receiving increasing criticism for his handling of the oil spill. For good reason: Since the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up on April 20, a lethargic Team Obama has delayed or blown off key decisions requested by state and local governments and left British Petroleum in charge of developing a plan to cap the massive leak.

Now the slow-moving oil spill threatens Mr. Obama’s reputation, along with 40% of America’s sensitive wetlands. Critics include some of his most ardent cheerleaders, who understand that 38 days without an administration solution is unacceptable.

Obama officials have it backwards: They talk tough about BP’s responsibilities but do not meet their own responsibilities under federal law. They should not have let more than a month go by without telling BP what to do. And they should avoid recriminations against their partner in solving the problem until after the leak is sealed.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sounds whiney when he rails against BP. It didn’t build confidence when his opening statement to a congressional hearing Wednesday focused on future safety and inspections requirements, and not on what the administration will do now to end the leak.

Initially, Team Obama wanted to keep this problem away from the president (a natural instinct for any White House). It took Mr. Obama 12 days to show up in the region. Democrats criticized President George W. Bush for waiting four days after Katrina to go to New Orleans.

Now the administration is intent on making it appear he has engaged all along. But this stance is undermined by lack of action. Where has its plan been? And why has the White House been so slow with decisions?

Take the containment strategy of barrier berms. These temporary sand islands block the flow of oil into fragile wetlands and marshes. Berm construction requires approval from the Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Louisiana officials asked permission on May 11. They have yet to hear back. The feds are conducting a review as oil washes ashore.

The federal government was even slower on the question of dispersants, chemicals used to break up the oil and hasten its evaporation from the surface of the water. On May 8, Louisiana sent a letter to BP and the EPA begging BP not to use dispersants below the surface of the water. Subsurface use of dispersants keeps oil slicks from forming. But when it doesn’t come to the surface to evaporate, the oil lingers below, gets into underwater currents, and puts at risk fisheries that supply a third of America’s seafood.

On May 13, EPA overruled the state and permitted BP to use dispersants 4,000 feet below the surface. Then, a week after BP released 55,000 gallons of dispersants below the surface, EPA did an about-face, ordering BP to stop using the dispersant and to “find a less-toxic” one. Louisiana officials found out about this imprecise guidance in the Washington Post. BP refused, EPA backed off, and Louisiana’s concerns about their marine fisheries remain.

Last weekend, as winds and currents drove oil towards particularly sensitive wetlands, the state asked Washington to mobilize all available boats to deploy booms and containment devices. Federal officials didn’t act. Local officials were forced to commandeer the boats. Even then some equipment went unused.

State officials believe their federal counterparts don’t have a handle on the resources being deployed and are constantly overestimating the amount of booms, containment equipment, and boats being used.

Could this be Mr. Obama’s Katrina? It could be even worse. The federal response to Katrina was governed by the 1988 Stafford Act, which says that in natural disasters on-shore states are in charge, not Washington. The federal obligation is to “support . . . State and local assistance efforts” by providing whatever resources a governor requests and then writing big checks for the cleanup. Mr. Bush had to deal with a Louisiana governor and a New Orleans mayor who were, by federal law, in charge.

But BP’s well was drilled in federal waters. Washington, not Louisiana, is in charge. This is Mr. Obama’s responsibility. He says his administration has been prepared for the worst from the start. Mr. Obama’s failure to lead in cleaning up the spill could lead voters to echo his complaint in Katrina’s aftermath: “I wish that the federal government had been up to the task.”

Mr. Rove, the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is the author of “Courage and Consequence” (Threshold Editions, 2010).

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268752362770856.html

A New Age of Reform

The mood in the country suggests the U.S. may be at the start of an era of political and economic reform.

With incumbents toppling and party establishments cracking, there is talk of November being a “reform” election. Don’t be fooled: There is political reform and there is Political Reform. Political reform with a small “r” comes and goes on tiny politicians’ feet. Big-R Reform changes the nation.

The aim of small “r” reform is to slow or kill Big-R Reform. When President Obama proposes, as he did this week, some version of the line-tem veto, that is small-r reform. When Andrew Cuomo announces his candidacy for New York governor with an attack on Albany, that is small-r reform. (We’ll know he is getting serious if he compliments the real Reforms being sought in neighboring New Jersey by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.) .

But make no mistake: When, almost at once, a spender like Barack Obama asks for the presidential power to veto individual spending items, when an Andrew Cuomo promises to cap taxes (albeit at one of the nation’s already highest levels) and cut spending, when voters are chopping down incumbent redwoods such as Sen. Bob Bennett in Republican Utah and Rep. Alan Mollohan in Democratic West Virginia, and when the Republican establishment’s candidates are routed by a Rand Paul, it is possible to imagine that the American voter is itching for a new age of reform. The mood one senses out in the country is not about tidying up politics. It is instead about reforming the way this nation thinks about its purpose.

When the history of this Reform is written, the event that ignited it may be the Obama health-care plan. The year spent with that legislation caused something to snap in American politics.

ObamaCare touched live cables buried beneath the political roadbed. Amid a deep recession, it was very expensive, and its cost required an array of new taxes and fees. Normally the trillion-dollar price tag might have rolled past a public numbed to spending numbers. This came right after the nearly trillion-dollar stimulus bill, itself a cats-and-dogs heave of taxpayer cash. The health-care celebration was followed by passage of a $3.8 trillion federal budget claiming nearly 25% of GDP.

Just off center stage, the fiscal catastrophe in the states played on. The public could watch once-wonderful California (whose deficit is now $19 billion) issuing IOUs in place of tax refunds.

For the Reform-minded, the issue clarified: The question is not just “deficits” and fiscal reconciliation, but whether the nation’s people work to support the state, or as originally, to build their lives.

There was the unseemly and irresponsible manner in which Congress legislated health care, the famously unread 2,000 page entitlement. The Republicans chose not to participate, but they had contributed to (arguably began) the agitation for Reform with an earlier reputation-destroying spending binge.

The pull to Reform is coming from the right. Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, the tea party, Massachusetts’ January disavowal of the Kennedy legacy—all suggest scales tipping rightward. Rightward, however, is not the same as right-wing.

Those who cite Palin and Paul as evidence that this is just another “antigovernment” spasm from the political right miss stronger currents running through the electorate.

Recall the Pew poll that put trust in government at 22%. The approval rating for Congress is 23%. You need more than a tea party to get numbers like that.

I would argue that the Reform wave building in the land is not antigovernment, but pro-government. When people call themselves Americans, Californians, New Yorkers, Illinoisans, Texans or, yes, New Jerseyans, they aren’t just talking about a place name, but a fought-for legal entity with a grand political history. Anger at Albany, Sacramento, Springfield, Trenton and Washington, D.C., isn’t antigovernment. It’s rightful rage at years of misgovernance.

Political corruption and social crusades propelled earlier Reforms. The drivers of this one appear to be economic balance and political competition.

The concerns of the tea partiers’ and others are mostly economic, the belief that the scale of government has tipped past anything normal to the American experience. So yes, a presidential line-item veto would be on any Reform list. So would tax simplicity.

A Reform movement seeking better politicians would have at least two other goals. Reform the gerrymandering of Congressional and state legislative districts. This is a main cause of the crises in California and New York. And abandon the archaic McCain-Feingold campaign-finance limits, which are keeping good candidates out of politics.

It’s hard to see the leftward end of the Democratic Party participating in the new age of Reform. They brought it to life. Their incumbent for 2012 has become an icon of the Gilded Age of Government. But many Democrats not literally in thrall to state financial support may be ready to change direction.

Whether a leader will emerge by 2012 to make the goals of Reform clear and compelling is a good question. The White House assumes it will not happen. But if not, expect endless tumult until Reform at last arrives.

Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704717004575268523673781674.html

The wrecking of Venezuela

Venezuelans are starting to fall out of love with their president. Will they be allowed to vote him out of power?

WITH his bellicose bombast, theatrical gestures and dodgy jokes, Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president for the past 11 years, has turned himself into one of the world’s most recognisable and controversial rulers. His fans salute him as a saviour for the downtrodden of the planet, a man who is leading a grass roots revolution against American imperialism and its local sepoys. But to many others, including this newspaper, he has come to embody a new, post-cold-war model of authoritarian rule which combines a democratic mandate, populist socialism and anti-Americanism, as well as resource nationalism and carefully calibrated repression.

This model has proved surprisingly successful across the world. Versions are to be found in countries as disparate and distinct as Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Sudan. In one way or another, these regimes claim to have created a viable alternative to liberal democracy.

In Mr Chávez’s case, that claim has been backed up above all by oil. On the one hand, he has deployed oil revenues abroad to gain allies, and to sustain the Castro brothers in power in Cuba. On the other, having kicked out Western multinationals, he has signed investment deals with state-owned oil companies. Last month China agreed to lend Venezuela $20 billion, mainly for oil development. Mr Chávez has armed his revolution with Russian jets, tanks and rifles (albeit bought on tick). Meanwhile, a Spanish judge accuses his government of sheltering members of ETA, the Basque terrorist group. Intercepted e-mails from leaders of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas suggest that they have received help, and possibly arms, through Venezuela. Of course Venezuela’s government denies such claims. So just how much of a menace is Mr Chávez, and what, if anything, can be done about him?

Venezuela’s dark age

Certainly his threats against Colombia—which include a total trade embargo if Juan Manuel Santos, a former defence minister, wins this month’s presidential election—and the evidence of his veiled support for the FARC are troubling. They are a constant, if so far manageable, source of regional tension. And his efforts to build a block based on self-proclaimed “revolutions”, anti-Americanism and managed trade in the heart of democratic Latin America have served to undermine the very cause of regional integration that he claims to champion. But rhetoric aside, his influence in the region peaked a couple of years ago. He lost one ally, albeit in regrettable circumstances, when Honduras’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown last year. Several others are on the defensive.

Much more important is the damage Mr Chávez is doing to his own country. His “21st-century socialism” is a precarious construction. The brief fall in the oil price of 2008-09 was enough to sink Venezuela’s economy into stagflation—even as the rest of Latin America is enjoying vigorous economic recovery. Venezuelans are suffering declining real wages, persistent shortages of staple goods (meat is the latest to become scarce) and daily power cuts.

The blackouts are in part the result of drought. But they are also the most dramatic sign that the bill for a decade of mismanagement of the economy and of public services is now falling due. There are plenty of other ugly portents. In one of the world’s biggest oil exporters hard currency is running short: to buy a dollar in the tolerated parallel market now requires almost twice as much local currency as the official exchange rate (and three times more than the privileged rate for “essential imports”). Investors rate the country’s debt as the riskiest of anywhere. Crime and corruption are flourishing.

The coming choice between Chávez and democracy

Awkwardly for Mr Chávez, all this is happening when he faces a legislative election in September, the prelude to a vital presidential ballot in December 2012. That points to the contradiction at the heart of his project. He sees his revolution as permanent and irreversible. But he derives his legitimacy from the ballot box. He has been elected three times, and won four referendums. He has hollowed out Venezuela’s democracy, subjugating the courts, bullying the media and intimidating opponents. But he has been unable, or unwilling, to disregard or repress opposition to the same degree as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or even Russia’s Vladimir Putin, let alone the Castro brothers in Cuba.

Public opinion still matters in Venezuela. Remarkably, opinion polls show that two Venezuelans out of five still support Mr Chávez (higher than the proportion of the British electors who voted for the Conservative Party, the senior partner in the country’s new coalition government). That is tribute to his skill in convincing the poor that he is their champion, to the opposition’s mistakes, to years of record oil prices and to the ruthlessness with which he ransacks the economy for the short-term benefit of his supporters. It means he is unlikely to fade away. But provided that the opposition comes up with a plausible alternative, it is not fanciful to imagine that in 2012 Venezuela will face a stark choice: Mr Chávez or democracy.

All the evidence is that Venezuelans, including many chavistas, are democrats and want to remain so. But Mr Chávez is pushing on regardless with his revolution, nationalising ever more businesses, expropriating private properties and selectively locking up or harassing his opponents. So the question increasingly being asked in Caracas is whether Mr Chávez’s rule will end peacefully or not.

The answer will lie largely with Venezuelans themselves. But outsiders, especially in Latin America, can play their part, by urging that the opposition receive guarantees that it can take part both this year and in 2012 on equal terms. That goes particularly for democratic Brazil, whose president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has embraced Mr Chávez far more than is desirable for his own country’s long-term interest. Mr da Silva has helped entrench prosperity, freedom and democracy in Brazil. He should hope the same happens for Venezuela. Mr Chávez, unfortunately, is not the man to bring that about.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=16109302&source=hptextfeature

Genetically Engineered Distortions

A REPORT by the National Research Council last month gave ammunition to both sides in the debate over the cultivation of genetically engineered crops. More than 80 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered, and the report details the “long and impressive list of benefits” that has come from these crops, including improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use.

It also confirmed predictions that widespread cultivation of these crops would lead to the emergence of weeds resistant to a commonly used herbicide, glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup). Predictably, both sides have done what they do best when it comes to genetically engineered crops: they’ve argued over the findings.

Lost in the din is the potential role this technology could play in the poorest regions of the world — areas that will bear the brunt of climate change and the difficult growing conditions it will bring. Indeed, buried deep in the council’s report is an appeal to apply genetic engineering to a greater number of crops, and for a greater diversity of purposes.

Appreciating this potential means recognizing that genetic engineering can be used not just to modify major commodity crops in the West, but also to improve a much wider range of crops that can be grown in difficult conditions throughout the world.

Doing that also requires opponents to realize that by demonizing the technology, they’ve hindered applications of genetic engineering that could save lives and protect the environment.

Scientists at nonprofit institutions have been working for more than two decades to genetically engineer seeds that could benefit farmers struggling with ever-pervasive dry spells and old and novel pests. Drought-tolerant cassava, insect-resistant cowpeas, fungus-resistant bananas, virus-resistant sweet potatoes and high-yielding pearl millet are just a few examples of genetically engineered foods that could improve the lives of the poor around the globe.

For example, researchers in the public domain have been working to engineer sorghum crops that are resistant to both drought and an aggressively parasitic African weed, Striga.

In a 1994 pilot project by the United States Agency for International Development, an experimental variety of engineered sorghum had a yield four times that of local varieties under adverse conditions. Sorghum, a native of the continent, is a staple throughout Africa, and improved sorghum seeds would be widely beneficial.

As well as enhancing yields, engineered seeds can make crops more nutritious. A new variety of rice modified to produce high amounts of provitamin A, named Golden Rice, will soon be available in the Philippines and, if marketed, would almost assuredly save the lives of thousands of children suffering from vitamin A deficiency.

There’s also a sorghum breed that’s been genetically engineered to produce micronutrients like zinc, and a potato designed to contain greater amounts of protein.

To appreciate the value of genetic engineering, one need only examine the story of papaya. In the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80 percent of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.

The real significance of the papaya recovery is not that genetic engineering was the most appropriate technology delivered at the right time, but rather that the resistant papaya was introduced before the backlash against engineered crops intensified.

Opponents of genetically engineered crops have spent much of the last decade stoking consumer distrust of this precise and safe technology, even though, as the research council’s previous reports noted, engineered crops have harmed neither human health nor the environment.

In doing so, they have pushed up regulatory costs to the point where the technology is beyond the economic reach of small companies or foundations that might otherwise develop a wider range of healthier crops for the neediest farmers. European restrictions, for instance, make it virtually impossible for scientists at small laboratories there to carry out field tests of engineered seeds.

As it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

The stakes are too high for us not to make the best use of genetic engineering. If we fail to invest responsibly in agricultural research, if we continue to allow propaganda to trump science, then the potential for global agriculture to be productive, diverse and sustainable will go unfulfilled. And it’s not those of us here in the developed world who will suffer the direct consequences, but rather the poorest and most vulnerable.

Pamela C. Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Davis, is the co-author of “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food.” James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University at San Marcos, is the author of “Just Food.”

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/15/opinion/15ronald.html