Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mini-Review: “Is The American Dream Killing You? How ‘The Market’ Rules Our Life” by Paul Stiles

Harper Collins continues to work hard at increasing their market share in the business book segment. Under the “Collins” imprint, they have recently published a fascinating work by Paul Stiles that takes a long and hard look at the American Dream and what Stiles calls the “Hyper Market.” I was initially tempted to dismiss Stiles out of hand as a curmudgeonly contrarian, but his breadth of experience and pedigree made me reconsider my early doubts about his worldview and sense of perspective. Stiles has served as an intelligence officer for the NSA, worked a Wall Street bond-trading desk, and has been CEO of an Internet start-up. A graduate of Roxbury Latin School and Harvard College, he is the author of an earlier expose of corruption within our financial markets: "Riding the Bull: My Year in the Madness at Merrill Lynch.”

I am a firm believer that an author’s choice of epigraphs reveals a great deal about his values, character, intellect, frame of reference, priorities and agenda. In the case of "American Dream," Stiles chooses to open his opus by citing Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“The gods we worship write their names on our faces; be sure of that. And a man will worship something – have no doubts about that, either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of his heart – but it will out. That which dominates will determine his life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

These words serve as a cautionary tale and a perfect introduction to Stiles’ major thesis: that we have allowed the forces of “The Market” to set the agenda for our lives and we have lost our grasp on humanity, proportionality and moral choice in the bargain. In his analysis, we have come to the point where we serve – often unwittingly – the Market and its insidious pressures, rather than utilizing the dynamics of the free market to increase quality of life and broaden opportunity. Emerson’s words of warning echo the Old Testament patriarch, Joshua, who proclaimed: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15) The “prophet,” Bob Dylan, struck a similar note with his 1985 song: "Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Stiles goes to great lengths to show the development of the freewheeling market economy in the U.S. and contrasts its growth with the concomitant devolution of quality of life, and steady increase in personal debt, divorce and stress.

“In fact, the word stress, as applied to people, comes form the word stress as applied to metals. The result is physical, mental and spiritual breakdown. Stress is thus the critical missing link between the market economy and human health.

According to psychologists, stress is caused by ‘any circumstances that threaten or are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and thereby tax one’s coping abilities. The threat may be to one’s immediate physical safety, long-range security, self-esteem, reputation, or peace of mind.’ Such stress stems directly from all the market pressures we have just described. In effect, it is our response to the Market’s efforts to make the economy more productive. And to some extent, that response is natural and healthy. It is only the hypermarket that pushes us over the edge.”
(Page 35)

Stiles makes a strong case for the amoral nature of the marketplace. He chronicles many examples of market pressures influencing us to make choices that encourage us to lay aside moral considerations. In a chapter entitled “The Modern God,” he argues that the Market has effectively usurped the role that God and faith once played in the life of the community, family and individual.

“At the same time, the Market’s innate antipathy toward the soul, religion and God is by no means an exclusively American problem. The entire modern age has given birth to an increasingly efficient economic system. The well-known pathologies of modernity – meaningless, purposeless, loneliness, anxiety, depression, fear, heartlessness, boredom, alienation, indifference, desensitization – are all pathologies brought about by the hypermarket. They are the product of an imbalance between the spiritual and the material sides of life and the social fragmentation that results. The Industrial Revolution bred them en masse. Such pathologies can be politically dangerous, as they tend to radicalize those adversely affected by them, to the point where the think the Market is the problem. Well, the unbalanced hypermarket most assuredly is the problem. But a market restrained by Judeo-Christian values, as codified in law and represented in democratic institutions, most certainly is not. It is, rather, a recipe for social success, the very recipe that made America. But like the “postmodern family” we are now in the process of changing that long-standing recipe. With great irony, we are trying to do what the Soviet Union tried to do: replace the religious core of our civilization with a materialistic ideology. It doesn’t work. Our approach to the spiritual side of life may need significant rethinking, it may be antiquated, it may be represented by flawed institutions, but the eradication of religion and its replacement with the market system will only breed social chaos. Without god, anything is permissible, which is just what they want to hear on Wall Street.” (Page 216)

These are strong and passionately argued words. Many will feel that Stiles has overstated the case. Perhaps so, but we have all felt the gradual erosion of the spiritual component from private and public discourse and from individual and family lifestyles.

The author summarizes his argument - and his plea for moderation - with these words:

"Moderation is not a cause, but an effect. It arises from a spiritual awakening, an elevation of consciousness, an awareness of the way things truly are. This is the great missing piece of our social puzzle. After tremendous pain and suffering, on a global basis, mankind has finally crafted a universal economic solution (the free market) and a universal political solution (democracy). What we lack is a universal spiritual solution, a common understanding of the human interior, one rooted in the nature of reality, as we experience it. As a result, the modern world now sits on two legs of a three-legged stool – market democracy – and tilts accordingly." (Page 248)

Many readers will find much to take issue with in this book, but it is still worth wrestling with Stiles’ rhetoric and strong beliefs. He speaks from experience and from the heart. He waves the caution flag at a time when life for many is racing dangerously out of control.

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