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Morse Code

Posted By Jeff Cunningham On March 22, 2012 @ 10:11 pm In Magazine,Print Magazine | No Comments

Eric Robert Morse is the author of Juggernaut, a trenchant analysis of America’s economic woes with a radical message likely to resonate with both business and anti-business groups. Morse is a member of a new generation of Americans, a throwback to the idealism of JFK’s 1961 inaugural “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace….” They have come of age in the 21st century, armed with Internet savvy and independent views forged in the crucible of fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether they served or not, their postwar expectation for a vibrant economy and exciting careers were instead dashed by war fatigue and a depressed job market. So they are taking a hard look around the country and finding that something has gone wrong. Through fresh eyes they blame the “system”—financial incentives and risk management practices, misplaced values, gridlock culture and lack of attention to real causes. Their version of the Vietnam War protests is Occupy Wall Street. They seek—like the generation that preceded them—nothing less than a revitalized American culture. NACD Directorship’s Jeff Cunningham recently spoke with the author— Juggernaut is his fifth book—from his home in San Diego, where in addition to writing he works as a painter, musician and web designer. He is a direct descendant of Samuel F. B. Morse, who in the 1830s invented the telegraph. The views of the modern Morse deserve to be read and debated by intelligent directors everywhere.

Where does the title Juggernaut come from?
Juggernaut refers to the 14th-century rural Indian custom that took place on special religious holidays. A chariot would parade down the street carrying idols and leading religious clerics. Fanatics would throw themselves under the wheels of the juggernaut to demonstrate complete devotion. As more threw themselves, the juggernaut grew bigger, making it all the more powerful and uncontrollable.

It’s not hard to see the relationship to our own world today.
Yes, I found the analogy to our government and business complex appealing—it has become a swollen leviathan that regulates the status quo and dictates the thoughts and actions of everyone. Only I don’t ascribe blame. In fact, in reality, the juggernaut is nothing more than the complex of all social, political and economic institutions that we, the average citizen, comprise almost wholly.

Welcome to our world, in other words, and what a mess. Is there an answer?
I don’t minimize the challenge for a minute, but I know the answer to the problems of the juggernaut begins with “starving” the beast by focusing and investing in the local culture and community, reserving for the federal juggernaut special duties such as the framers envisioned—defense, national infrastructure and care for the most indigent.

That sounds a lot like libertarian politics.
While I would question the label, because it takes on a larger and perhaps unintended meaning, yes.

What stimulated your thinking about the juggernaut?
I had always been interested in political economy, and the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 made it that much more relevant for everyone. I saw the crisis spiral out of control, and government and business predictably following a “bigger is better” formula, whether it applies to the problem or the solution.

Is a burgeoning bureaucracy simply our natural condition?
I asked myself the same question. To answer I needed to find out first why was the entire country so dependent on people, bankers and politicians in New York and Washington fixing what’s going on across the nation. The second question for me was historical. It seemed the change in political economy happened at a specific time around 1900, when we had largely free market capitalism in America and Great Britain. Immediately after that period, you start to see vast changes such as the creation of the Federal Reserve, a national income tax and so on. My question was, What happened around 1900 to make that occur?

A historical event that changed our world?
What I found was that the development of individualism— a term I use to refer to the American frontier’s code of personal autonomy and self-governance that forever changed the world—came about in response to the discovery of the New World, and the conclusion was that the reduction in individualism after the frontier was closed changed everything.

In studying the modern economy, everything seemed to be coming back to an earlier indicator around 1500 with the discovery of the New World and its open frontier, which allowed the economy to grow so dramatically. And then, around 1890, it came to a halt when the frontier was technically closed, and the mental effect of the close was seen immediately. This is what happens when we emphasize interdependency and strict competition over cooperation, and that means growing the government- business complex, or the juggernaut.

Is there anything that can provide that more open platform for life as we know it today in America?
The closest we can come to re-creating an open economy is the Internet—it’s the new Manifest Destiny for our country. Just think of the business and value creation we have already seen. Facebook is a great example of the power to create a new frontier that is open to just about anyone. Each development creates more opportunity. Not only do you have greater consumer and media potential with sites like Google, Amazon and YouTube, but the Internet provides practically infinite creative potential with blogs, social networking and apps that can do just about anything. And that’s just in the first decade or so.

Any thoughts on your generation’s version of the Vietnam War protest, Occupy Wall Street?
You have to admire the passion and the persistence of those involved with the movement—and they certainly have a grievance, and I think everyone, even people on Wall Street, agrees with them to some extent. But I think much of it has manifested into a quasi-Marxist movement aligned with politicians and labor unions, so that really diverts from the original goals. It has thrown itself under the juggernaut.

Small may be beautiful, but to compete globally, business has to be big, right?
I guess the way I would look at it is that business has to respond to the size of the juggernaut. If we reduce the power of the juggernaut, we can think in different terms for business and value creation. Right now, there are various reasons for needing that kind of dominance in today’s corporate world.

What are your thoughts on taxation, which obviously is the lifeblood of the juggernaut?
Taxes are acceptable as long as the funds the citizens are paying are used for what the citizens need and what they had voluntarily agreed to. But now it’s completely a reversal of that concept— something that I paid for in my location is sent to another state or to provide for someone else on the other side of the world. In principal taxes could be effective, but the way that the system is set up doesn’t really accommodate for that.

Jeff Cunningham writes about leadership and business, boards and corporate governance. He is the founder of Directorship magazine and currently serves as managing director and senior advisor to NACD. Previously, he was president of the Internet venture firm CMGI, publisher of Forbes and managing partner of the U.K. private equity firm Schroders. He has served as an independent board chair or director of 10 public companies.

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