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Truthdigger of the Week: Jill Lepore

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Posted on Jul 6, 2014

    Jill Lepore. Photo by James Joel (CC BY-ND 2.0)

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

Disruption is a theory of change founded on panic, anxiety, and shaky evidence.

—Jill Lepore

The chief business of the American people is business.

—U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, 1925

If President Coolidge is correct, then God save the American people. As it is taught in economics courses, business arose in the U.S. as it did elsewhere as a means to an end. The end was the provision of goods and services to a population that needed them, as well as the distribution of wealth that enables their enjoyment. The means was an economic order that entrusted these tasks to private individuals operating with considerable freedom from public influence.

Perhaps more than anywhere else, the means of American business have eclipsed its ends. What is good for industry—banking, energy, telecommunications—is said to be good for society. Commerce’s more fanatical members insist that a well-functioning market is democracy fully expressed. The corporate media present the American businessman as a contemporary pioneer, a frontier figure casting clarifying light on the dizzying potentials of an untapped wilderness. The inflated terms used to describe him over the ages communicate his venerable nature—he is a “captain of industry,” a “magnate” or a “venture capitalist,” or as many young heads of technology startups can be heard referring to themselves, an “entrepreneur.”

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Fortunately for the public understanding, there are critics working to scatter the heavy vapors of these confounding myths. Striking targets this summer is Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University. In a June 23 essay in The New Yorker, Lepore set her scholarship on “disruptive innovation,” the idea, popularized from the late ’90s on, that industrial progress is often best achieved by the introduction of a “cheaper, poorer-quality” product or service, typically by a smaller, hyper-aggressive and more nimble company which “eventually takes over and devours an entire industry,” leaving its competitors in ruins. One immediately senses the intense pressure felt in this community. “Disrupt or be disrupted,” the injunction goes. “Disrupt, and you will be saved.” An appalled reviewer in Bloomberg Businessweek put Lepore’s ambition plainly: “It was an attack on one of the most widely cited and celebrated ideas in modern business.”

The quarrel over disruptive innovation has to do with whether its adherents, led by chief theorist Clayton Christensen, Lepore’s colleague at Harvard, have discovered a principle of nature. Christensen and company say yes, though in response to Lepore’s critique, many of their group have attempted to hedge their position by claiming their beloved idea is not fully developed. Like any scientific theory, they say, it is subject to revision over time. In Lepore’s detailed account, Christensen is a second- or third-rate scientist guilty of cherry-picking data to suit his hypothesis, while his disciples and acolytes show “an affinity for circular arguments.”

The basic premise of Christensen’s idea hardly seems like news. Dominant firms have always been vulnerable to the loss of their leading position when markets change and agile competitors arrive, especially if their bosses stick stubbornly to what they know or are unable to reconfigure the operation in time. Lepore acknowledges this. But it seems like all everyone who rushed to defend Christensen and his “celebrated idea” missed the deep meaning of her critique, that the ongoing destruction they extol as an ideal vehicle of progress is unethical, wasteful and socially repugnant, given all the suffering it involves. “The rhetoric of disruption,” Lepore writes, is a “language of panic, fear, asymmetry and disorder. … Disruptive innovation is a competitive strategy for an age seized by terror. ... A theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation. ...”

Key to appreciating Lepore’s revulsion is recognizing that it is not unfeeling corporations that suffer the outcomes of these “disruptions,” but real people at every level of employment. “When the financial-services industry disruptively innovated,” she writes, “it led to a global financial crisis,” the underlying causes and ongoing effects of which continue to menace the whole of global society while stunting the personal development and degrading the wellbeing of entire populations around the world. Insecurity, anxiety and loss wreak their harm on fragile humans, and embedded in Christensen’s theory is the grisly, unstated assumption that these inflictions are both necessary and inevitable.

The premise goes unexplained and undiscussed because the designers of most Western economies accepted it generations ago. These people typically enjoy long, comfortable lives untouched by the disorder they claim the best theories show others must endure. They’re wrong, of course. The misery is a direct result of their letting the business community serve as its own referee. The policymakers refuse to sufficiently regulate, to modify the rules of enterprise so that commerce is moved closer to the ideal function of improving quality of life for all. By any name the “theorists” conjure, “disruption” is plainly a celebration of injury and a belated rationalization of the worst effects of minimally-regulated capitalism. And the academic gloss applied by people like Christensen has moved its influence beyond the wall that once separated corporate activity from the rest of society and convinced leaders of other institutions of its power to explain, predict, and most importantly, participate in social change. Lepore notes:

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Doctors have obligations to their patients, teachers to their students, pastors to their congregations, curators to the public, and journalists to their readers—obligations that lie outside the realm of earnings, and are fundamentally different from the obligations that a business executive has to employees, partners, and investors.

The spreading dominion of corporate “thought” depicts destruction of commerce and disruption of life as indicators of progress. It also teaches that long-thriving public treasures and institutions must either “innovate”—that is, adapt to the economic wasteland created by private enterprise—or disappear. Terror then becomes a justification for itself, rising from the breakneck cycles of under-regulated business to sweep through and remake our communities. What is the role of group decision-making—democracy—in this vision of change? Is there a better example nationally of would-be leaders improvising an explanation for why so much is going so wrong? A few accumulate riches and power; the rest are degraded. And our best and brightest talk as if that’s just right. Americans inclined toward Biblical values might notice how un-Christian it all is.

For giving others a chance to recognize the obvious, and for letting public compassion be her guide, we honor Jill Lepore as our Truthdigger of the Week.


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