JANUARY 30, 2004

By Christopher Kenton

The Truth, No Matter What

I can't pen a column, especially about the global economy, without abusive letters pouring in. Sorry, critics, but you have more to gripe about

Now that we're a month into the New Year, I can finally move beyond my stalled resolutions for 2004. I haven't increased my exercise regimen, I haven't lightened my work load to enjoy life a little more, and I haven't accelerated my writing schedule to complete the next business best-seller. So much for high expectations.

There is one resolution, though, that I'm working hard to keep. Actually, it's not so much a resolution as a discovery, and in an important way, you readers are involved. It was the challenge of a number of readers who have responded to this column that made me realize I wasn't being completely honest in what I write about here, or in explaining the reasoning behind the positions I take.

The most direct challenges came after my last column on outsourcing (see BW Online, 1/5/04, "The Changing Face of Offshore Programming"). I signed off with a casually optimistic comment about how I thought a global economy would benefit my 2-year-old son when he grew up, but I didn't say why I held that belief. Instead, I left people to assume I'd give them the old Free Market stump speech, when in fact my personal view doesn't support such an easy assumption.

AMERICAN VALUES. Most of the responses were expected. Any time I write anything about outsourcing or a global economy, I get a wave of abusive e-mail -- people label me a traitor for selling out American jobs in the greedy pursuit of corporate profits. It's depressing how far from rational debate public discourse has plummeted. No one pursues dialog anymore; instead, we listen only for the cues that signify enemies and allies. Instead of exploring ideas and assumptions, we just shore up our arsenal of arguments to support predetermined conclusions.

A few readers probed more deeply, however. Instead of slamming me with insults and accusations, three readers asked the same question: Why are you optimistic? Then, a surprising dialog began. Not because the ideas were new, but because I realized for the first time how much my public writing is dominated by an expedient silence. It's as if the price for having an honest opinion just isn't worth it anymore, not when mainstream views will get you by without effort.

So the resolution I'm vowing to keep this year is to find my real voice on the issues that matter most to me. There are plenty of business issues to write about -- outsourcing, marketing, and technology -- and I'll continue to address them. But at the root of all of these issues, each of us makes choices about what we will believe and how we will conduct our business. My beliefs are based on how I balance my business life and my spiritual life, and I want to look more deeply at that.

If that sounds like code for writing a morality column, let me disabuse you of that notion right off the bat. I'm talking about addressing in one breath two of the principal conceits that define being an American -- the ability to achieve material and spiritual success -- along with the cavernous contradictions and mountainous hypocrisies that abound when the two are joined in one system of belief.

LAND OF OPPORTUNITY. As a point of departure, let's start with the global economy. I've been accused of greedily promoting outsourcing, typically by people who cite a litany of doomsday scenarios in which my actions and beliefs will lead to a crumbling of the American way of life. Well, I don't disagree. I think it's entirely possible that we could lose our standard of living, though I haven't yet seen the crystal ball so many people seem so willing to believe in. Still, I'm optimistic.

To appreciate my perspective, you need to understand that I don't believe the greatest thing about being an American is the "right" to own a mansion with two SUVs in the driveway, or to live better than anyone else in the world. When did that become the American Way?

The greatest thing about being an American is the opportunity to live as I believe, to create freely and with an abundance of resources, to travel and think and write freely, and to live peacefully within a community of people from every background and experience. These are the things I find worth living for -- -and which I want my son to experience as well. Whether he's making $10 an hour or $200 an hour, he has access to those experiences -- and hardship and suffering will come in equal measure, no matter how wealthy he may be.

DECLINE AND FALL. Personally, I believe a global economy will be better for my son because the tremendous disparity between rich and poor in the world at large is one of the major underlying factors that has led to the terrorism that is destroying our peace and security. And I think it's ironic that we have grown rich creating the very tools of our own undoing. Technology is ever more powerful in providing easier access to generating wealth, which means more countries will fight to take a piece of the pie. Eventually, our economic power may be attenuated.

History shows that a dominant nation inevitably wanes, but it's not inevitable that the country descends into abject poverty and despair. The responses available to us in this environment are either to fight against the world in constant fear of encroachment -- which I believe is what we're doing now -- or to use our resources and abilities to promote true democratic values in the world, whatever our economic or political position.

Does this mean I think we should blithely stand by while jobs are lost to globalization and the Wal-Martization of America? No. But then, I don't see the same problem. It's not the loss of jobs that disturbs me as much as it is the abject fear of losing our "right" to have "more stuff", even while it's killing us. It's a disease that destroys everything good about living in a free world, and one that enslaves us within a system that forces us to work ever harder to create "more wealth" while taking away from us the things that matter -- like time with our families, our hobbies, our lives.

FRANK AND CANDID. Despite the story we tell ourselves about what it takes to succeed in business, I don't think the value of living is based on being the most powerful or the richest, so I'm not living in fear of losing that. The value of living, and the value of being in business, is in what we do with our abilities and the value we create in the world, and that can be achieved whether you're rich or poor. That makes me optimistic, because I see constant opportunities for creating value whatever the circumstances. I guess many people would say I'm naive or even weak that way -- although, personally, I think it's the other way around. My only evidence is the fact that I enjoy life, and I enjoy business, despite the hardships that often have come my way.

So here's to a resolution I can keep: I'll keep writing straightforward articles on my experiences and opinions about business. But I won't shy away from digging more deeply into the issues that inform those opinions, even when it means turning a critical eye on my own profession.