Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tony Lewis, American, Jew, Remembered

Anthony Lewis will be remembered at the Kennedy Library in Boston on Monday evening.  The time of tributes and obituaries has past; this is the time of missing.

For about 15 years, Tony was a regular at a lunch group we started, just around the time Reagan was first elected.  It was a moment when Boston-based writers and journalists felt that we were going into a kind of internal exile.  Tony hardly missed a meeting; that's because, if he couldn't make it, we'd usually find another time.

Partly, of course, that was because he was the great veteran and carried the charisma of the Times. But the latter wore off after a while; and Tony's humility (which is distinct from modesty) made his presence a simpler pleasure than we younger writers could imagine at first. We wanted him there because our conversation needed a gyroscope. And in the months since his death, it's occurred to me often that he was that for his readers, too.

Tony was the writer you took for granted because his voice and temperament were so blended with America's foundational principles that you didn't really look to him for surprises. Rather, you looked to him for courage. If he was for it, no matter how fringe, then you could be. This mattered especially when the position was about Israel and fringe to American Jews, about which more in a moment.

I hasten to add that fringe was really not his style. He had the temperament of one who held things together because things fall apart: whatever was radical about his instincts intended politics to be brought ever closer to institutions and laws that promised stability: for family and privacy, for property (but not too much) and enlightenment. You felt that he wrote for Times readers because he could not write letters to Madison, his column a way to imagine the Federalist Papers up to date. 

Enlightened liberalism, you see, entailed a certain courtesy, precision, evidence, reasoning. Wackiness (you didn't mention "Guys and Dolls" if you didn't want to change the subject) was for private spaces; public passion might be shown, but mainly in campaigns against those who would undermine the legal structures or cultural achievements out of which liberalism grows: campaigns against McCarthy, Communism, Jim Crow, Apartheid, empire, evangelical Reaganism.

And occupation. Tony sniffed out the illiberal drift of Israeli policy early on, especially when Yitzhak Rabin first took office in the spring of 1974, and it suddenly seemed clear that Golda Meir's petulant justifications for settlers and force had hardened into a consensus that outlasted her and the October War; portended the rise of a rightist bloc that would eventually put Israel's very existence at risk. In column after column, Tony implied but did not just say that applying the lessons of liberalism--rights, secularism, bourgeois moderation, etc.--to the Palestinian question would not only not compromise Israeli security but were the very things to make Israel resilient.

Among Palestinians, too, he sought out lawyers. For Tony, ordinary human rights meant political guile. That's because ordinary unfairness meant rage, rage meant cynicism about law, lawlessness meant violence, and being on the wrong side of indignation meant eventual defeat.  Peace, Spinoza said, is not the absence of war but the presence of justice. He saw this in the South, in South Africa, in Europe. Israel was making a mistake that, when Tony wrote about it, could only be called "classical."

Going around the West Bank with Tony meant seeing things plain, from a kind of historical distance: the felt-tip pen writing, the flip-page notebook, quotes piling up. Then, that signature sighing smile that said, "This will be bad."

I hasten to add that, though Tony had a deep affinity for Israel, he had no particular knowledge of, or interest in, Hebrew culture. He'd come to your child's Bar Mitzvah, but his interest in synagogues seemed anthropological. But Israel was on his mind. At our lunch group, Israeli policy always got its due, usually because Tony brought the subject up. Why? I never really asked. There was, I assumed, something about Tony's generation of American Jewish liberals that kept Israel in its sights: the holocaust, the kibbutz, the valiance and folk-songs, the euphoria of 1967. The country's fate was interesting.

But I think there was a peculiar kind of Jewish Americaness also in that fascination with constitutional law and legal exegesis. I often thought of Tony as a kind of secular Jew in the high sense, like Brandeis, or Louis Nizer, an original, responsible mind disciplined by a sense of working in a definite tradition; a man whose Torah was the constitution and Bill of Rights, and whose inspiration was prophetic--that is, a man who denounced injustices especially when the letter of the law got in the way of its (in this case) democratic spirit--and who poured his creative powers not into private art but public interpretation. No law was sacred, but the right to interpret law most certainly was.

Indeed, the law defined us: no bad apples, just bad barrels. Tony spent a good deal of time on foreign policy, but that could be misleading. His primary concern was, I think, how should a democracy behave in the world? How far can we go in understanding the strange other? That instinctive tolerance could get one into trouble. It could make you rationalize the likes of Robert Mugabe.  But most of all, it made you decent, like Dr. Rieux in Camus' The Plague.

I like to think that, in another time and place, a person with Tony's sensibilities--his love of law and disgust with arbitrary power--would have been a Talmudist defying the Inquisition. Or at least he would have thought defying, elegant thoughts. For he also loved life itself, and would not have thrown it away in a hopeless show of resistance. In the absence of that love, what good is law?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why CEOs Are Overpaid Too Much

The New Yorker's James Surowiecki's column on executive pay suggests that corporate boards are falling victim to what Keynes called "animal spirits," flocking behavior, which more transparency will do little to dampen. I reflected on this problem during the 2009 recession; Surowiecki may well be right, but there is another fact of the "knowledge economy" he might factor in, namely, the astonishing enrichment of young entrepreneurs enabled by global software.

The most interesting chart showing the connection between executive compensation and company performance--also, I suppose, the arguable importance of executive retention--is the one I saw proudly displayed on a bulletin board at Motorola corporate offices in Schaumberg Illinois in 1994. George M.C. Fisher, the company's widely admired Chairman and CEO, had resigned without warning a few months before to take over at Eastman-Kodak. By all accounts, Motorola had paid Fisher about $5 million and Kodak offered him $100 million in salary and stock options. He was known as a technologist who was also subtle about people and talent--a good man all round. Nevertheless, Motorola's stock price hardly budged at the announcement of his departure and had recovered completely by the time I was there. "If one leader could matter that much," I was told, "then the leader could not possibly have done his job right."

Investors, like the Motorola executives I talked too, were shrewd to shrug off Fisher's departure, much as some regretted losing his friendship. It would be a great mistake to look at Motorola's subsequent difficulties and attribute them to his leaving any more than attribute Motorola's meteoric ascent in the late 1980s to his taking over from (the more justifiably legendary) Bob Galvin. Make no mistake, I admired Fisher a good deal and liked him personally so far as I knew him. One of the reasons he was widely admired was that my fellow Harvard Business Review editor Bill Taylor and I had published an in depth interview with Fisher in 1989. (He spoke about Motorola becoming interested in an IPO. I joked, lamely, that it was curious why Motorola would bother with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. But he laughed and laughed anyway.)  

Anyway, largely because of the Galvin family's legacy, Motorola was very much a place of team play. The corporate culture celebrated, without apparent cynicism, practical engineering, customer service, employee development and cosmopolitan openness. You walked around the Motorola cafeteria wearing a gold identity badge if you accumulated patents; Motorola was mentoring the public schools. By 1989, the company's various people had all but invented the cell phone industry, the corporate university, six sigma quality, and were the first to open up the Chinese telecom market. Fisher had contributed to all of these things but was by no means responsible for them. Even as CEO, he sat in a "two-in-a-box" relationship with the COO, Gary Tooker, who took over from him within hours of his departure. Nobody (as Bill Taylor later put it) is as smart as everybody. 

And Fisher's subsequent run at Kodak was not distinguished.  He probably did better than some other leaders would have, given how the advance of digital technology creatively destroyed Kodak's photography business (much as it destroyed the market for Motorola's analog phones, by the way).  But Fisher certainly did not "turn the company around."  Four years later, his $100 million had shrunk to less than half because of the decline in Kodak stock--a decline that forced him to cut thousands of jobs, but not, revealingly, his own salary.  Fisher is now, and has been since 1996, the most powerful director on the board of General Motors. Enough said.  

I'VE BEEN THINKING of Fisher's record, what with the dust-up over AIG bonuses. Okay, who hasn't wondered if America hasn't become what Bedford Falls would have become if George Baily had just taken Mr. Potter's money. Then again, Potter offered $20,000 a year, not $2 million.

I have no doubt that Fisher remains an honorable man, as fascinated now about how things work as he was back in Bell Labs in the 1970s, when he toiled away, ahead of its time, on the video-phone. He was probably less drawn to the money than to proving himself, that is, without the Galvin family's prestige blowing at his back. Still, there was a hubris here that feels somewhat beyond Frank Capra's imagination. How did a decent man leading an inventive, collaborative company, someone already earning a hundred times what a public school teacher earned, get up one morning and tell himself he was actually worth 2000 times this?

Ideas about ordinary Mephistophelean bargains seem unimaginative here, for somebody was willing to pay him. This was not just about his weaknesses for power. Greed shmeed.

The real question is, how did we get to a public standard that considered business talent in this way? Wall Street, Sinclair Lewis knew, was always just an exaggerated version of Main Street. So how did Main Street--or even HBR readers--get comfortable with the idea that most every senior business executive should be earning something like, say, Mick Jagger?

I know this is complicated, but I think that little acronym IPO is relevant here.  I remember Ted Levitt, HBR's chief editor, coming into my office one day back in 1989, brooding as usual, but also chewing on an insight, the revolutionary qualities of software. Suddenly, he said, the brain's logic can simply be embodied--"externalized," he said--in film full of electrons. You make it for one, and you've made it for a million. The "marginal cost" of adding a customer, he might have added, is more or less zero. Need I add that this was the time Microsoft stock, and Bill Gates' net worth, was beginning to make MBAs drool? 

And Levitt's vision was prophetic in its way. Launching a software company, or a product with a large component of software, paid you back much the way a hit record did.

Suddenly Peoplesoft took off.  Suddenly we had Siebel and Netscape. And then Yahoo and Google and What this meant for the business class was that young people did not get just rich. They got hyper-rich. You made it for one and you were making it for a million--or a billion, if you included China and India and Brazil. Twenty-somethings were making more than the entire management of a Fortune 500 company put together. 

TO BE SURE, Tom Wolfe had already written Bonfire of the Vanities, and Michael Milken had already copped a plea. So it was not as if we lacked other, less savory models for enrichment. But I don't believe that George Fisher, or AIG executives for that matter, really saw themsleves as masters of the universe, trading and trading, making cut after cut on mega deals. I think they saw themselves as selling "products," indeed that they were making the world more stable. But I think they also assumed that, in joining the heights of the business class, they had entered a kind of magical kingdom spreading east from Silicon Valley; the top centile which a "new economy" decreed was worth the bottom 99; a place where, as in a successful IPO, a million gets you 100 million, where exponents replace multipliers.    

It may be time to start radically increasing marginal tax rates above, say, Fisher's original $5 million. It may be time to start capping the management salaries in public companies. It may be time to stop permitting stock bonuses for performance spanning less than, say, four years. It may be time for transparency and shame. But the blockbuster logic of software and entrepreneurship and IPOs will, if anything, get stronger as the web becomes ever more pervasive.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A State Of Its Citizens?

Last Sunday, at the J Street Conference, I participated in a panel on “How Israel Can Represent All Its Citizens While Staying True to Its Jewish Character.” My interlocutors were Amal Elsana Alhjooj and Ruth Calderon. I decided to speak extemporaneously rather than deliver what I prepared.  The latter appears below.  

Should Israel be a state of its citizens or a Jewish state? We often hear this question. We also hear, even in the written promotional materials for this J Street session, that a Jewish state might aspire to be “a light unto the nations.” Perhaps we should just learn from the nations for a change.

Israel, it is said, is a nation-state, legally, in fact, the “Jewish and democratic state,” a phrase adopted in the Basic Law of Human Dignity, whose meaning is hardly self-evident. The first formal expression implying “Jewish and democratic” was in the Biltmore Program of May, 1942, calling for a “Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.” The UN Partition Resolution of 1947 called for a Jewish state and Arab state, including strict democratic protections for minorities in each state. It also called for an economic union, but never mind.

For most Israelis and American Jews, the “Jewish” part of the phrase “Jewish and democratic” implies many things, which don’t necessarily work together: a Jewish majority, political representation for world Jewry, the incorporation of Jewish law into civil affairs, an historical attachment to the land of Israel, which is magically transformed into an "historic right," whatever that is.

Ask Israelis on the street and most will just default to the idea that a Jewish majority justifies privileges for Jews, individually as well as collectively, though nobody who voted for Biltmore thought a “Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world” meant that the Jewish state would give privileges exclusively to individual citizens, legally designated as Jewish owing to rabbinic decree or J positive blood.

Yes, the Zionists who mattered at the time of Biltmore may have anticipated something like the Law of Return, a peculiar necessity in its time, which adopted the principle that anyone Nazis would have hunted according to the Nuremberg Laws would be welcome. But Zionists mostly took for granted that Israel would be a Jewish state in the sense that it would be place of Hebrew culture, what Ahad Haam had called the "Hebrew national atmosphere." When Yediot Aharonot put a headline on its story celebrating the UN partition resolution of 1947, it read Kama Medina Ivrit: “the Hebrew state rises.”

Alas, things did not work out as planned. For reasons too familiar to repeat here—reasons largely having to do with implementing the Law of Return in conjunction with the Jewish Agency—the Jewish state apparatus came to recognize two forms of legal status: citizenship and nationality. Israeli citizenship entitled you to civil privileges: equality before the law in courts of law, the right to vote, etc. Jewish nationality entitled you to exclusive material privileges, privileged access to state controlled lands, housing in Jewish settlements, optional state-sponsored orthodox education, national service, a burden, to be sure, but also, in a small economy, an important career move. Jewish nationality also made you subject to the ministrations of a state-sponsored national-orthodox rabbinate overseeing marriage, burial, and divorce.

What makes you a citizen as opposed to being a Jewish national? Again, Israel’s legal strictures are too convoluted to go through here. Suffice it to say that nationality has depended on exclusive notions of Halachic commitment and/or achieving the right bloodlines:

If you are born to a Jewish mother, then you are, by law, a Jewish national and a citizen. You are also a Jewish national, and subject to immediate citizenship, if you are an immigrant who has not renounced the Jewish faith and are descended from at least one Jewish grandparent. If you are born in Israel to a Jewish father only, then you are a citizen—but can only become a Jewish national by sincerely converting to Judaism, usually according to orthodox standards. A non-Jew can also become a Jewish national by converting, like the child born in Israel to a non-Jewish mother, but unlike that child, cannot be a citizen without converting.

Arabs and other nationalities born in Israel to a mother and father who are citizens are also citizens. But if only one parent is a citizen, and the other is from Jordan, say, the child may not be accepted as a citizen. Arabs born outside the country, and who may want to immigrate, say, to marry and Arab citizen, may do so in rare cases, but are unlikely to be granted citizenship. Then again, if you live in Israel long enough, and petition the interior ministry persistently enough, the ministry can make you a citizen. Clear?

All of which raises the real question the term “Jewish and democratic” begs: not what a Jew is, but what a democratic state is. If we were clearer about the latter, we might not be so tortured about the former. And here is where Israel can learn much from other states that have struggled with reconciling nationality with democracy, states like Canada, or states of the European Union.

A person, Kant tells us, is crooked timber from which no straight thing can be made. Why then expect straightforward laws of citizenship? Because a democratic state is not a person. Neither is it a super-sized family or congregation. It does not claim to embody any particular values, save for the value of providing its citizens the room to compete in establishing values. It should certainly not aspire to define its citizens in terms of a singular national identity the way people do, or at least the way teen-agers think they do.

On the contrary, a democratic state, including Israel, should provide its crooked timber—its individual citizens and voluntary groups—the means to pursue their lives according to their consciences. A democratic state has no business telling you whom or how to love, what is beauty, or how to conceive of the divine. It cannot declare a book as sacred. It can only declare the right to interpret books as sacred.

Ah, but what then would be Jewish about it? Don’t nation-states have national majorities; and don’t majorities have the prerogative to protect national identity and pass laws to protect what engenders national identity? Yes and no, mainly no, but the yes is a very big deal.

The thing is, the Zionist generation of partition was right: Kama Medina Ivrit. The only part of national identity democratic states justifiably legislate is that which is immanently inclusive of all citizens and immigrants, namely, the national language.

So when Israel insists on being recognized as a Jewish state, it should make clear that this means the home for Jewish national culture, Hebrew culture—that the state will continue to make Hebrew the primary official language of education and transactions with the state apparatus, though for obvious, pragmatic reasons, Israeli schools should also teach all of its citizens Arabic and English as well.

Put this another way. A democratic state is not a person, but it may have personality. Languages give us distinctive worlds. The inclusiveness of Hebrew is its virtue in this context; learning it does not entail legal discrimination. On the contrary, Hebrew provides all Israeli citizens the keys to Jewish civilization without taking other keys away. How individual citizens search for locks is their own business.

You want to form an orthodox congregation? Great. Where would you rather do this but in a Hebrew-speaking society? You want to advocate for including a precept of Jewish law in civil or criminal law? Fine. Where would a justice be more likely than in Israel to run across an arguable precept. If Arabs want to set up private schools teaching primarily in Arabic and valorizing Islam, that is their concern.

But at the same time, Sayed Kashua can groove on Shoteh Hanevuah, the way I, the son of a Bialystoker in Montreal, grooved on Gilles Vigneualt. Jewish civilization is not made poorer by Kashua’s novels and the Quebecois were not made poorer by my folk-singing.

A last point, which returns me to the first question—a pretty stupid question when you think about it. A democratic state is, by definition, a state of its citizens. It can only be a state of its citizens. Israel must simply stop discriminating against, or in favor, of individual citizens on the basis of religion or biology. It must graduate from the Law of Return to a proper immigration law based on naturalization; it must separate the rabbinate from the state apparatus; it must end public support for confessional schools the way Quebec did; it must privatize land and stop including exclusively Jewish institutions like the JNF in long term state planning.

But this does not mean a state of its citizens cannot have a Jewish character. Of course it can. It can protect the "Hebrew national atmosphere." It can also have holidays and symbols that accommodate what most citizens will celebrate.

What it cannot do is cross that boundary—not a geographical boundary for once—beyond which a democratic state has no business. It should not be a state of its citizens to sacrifice Jewish interests to those of its Arab minority. It should be a state of its citizens because that's what democratic states are. They have no right to tell citizens how to live our perverse, hybridized, sinful, erudite, globalized, psychoanalyzed, modern, post-modern, mortal, tragic lives. Israel does have the right to insist that our lives be lived in, or also in, Hebrew. That’s it. The rest is commentary.