Scrooge McDuck and the rest of us

<p>Many American corporations are stockpiling money like the U.S. government holds on to gold at Fort Knox.</p>

    An editorial in The Week said our economy is stalked by uncertainty, leading corporate executives to “hoard $853 billion, a cash pile they lovingly count like Scrooge McDuck while 25 million Americans search for fulltime work.”

    Another blurb from The Week said that “among Standard & Poor’s 500 companies, 241 have increased their dividends this year, and only three have decreased them.” You’ve probably noticed that there’s an inverse relationship between employment levels and stock market prices. Payments to shareholders go up partly due to lower payrolls, thereby increasing the profit line. Dividends, like long-term capital gains, are taxed at 15 percent instead of the 25 percent most wage earners pay, so it’s a good deal for people making large investments in the stock market.

    The editorial went on to say, however, that uncertainty is “baked in to the structure of the universe,” a principle outlined in 1927 by physicist Warner Heisenberg: It’s impossible to determine both the location and momentum of a subatomic particle. Add to that uncertainty the fact that, again in laboratory particle physics anyway, observing a particle changes its behavior. Hmmm. Even what we think we saw may not be what some other observer saw.

    When I was a freshman at Willamette University, I was included in the honors seminar, sort of a great books or “great ideas” course that met weekly and bounced from Greek tragedies to various theories of astrophysics through the ages, starting with the ancient belief that the night-time sky was a huge tent hung with lanterns. Built into every part of the seminar, whether reading Turgenev or F. Scott Fitzgerald, was the notion of perspective. It was the first time I was exposed to the notion that, depending on where you were standing, or which way you were going, or the context of events, your perspective would give you a different sense of “reality.”

    No wonder we Americans don’t agree about much; we bring so many divergent and sometimes conflicting perspectives and realities to our discussion of issues. People say politicians aren’t paying attention to our needs, but our needs are diverse and often in conflict.

    Occasionally it’s possible to jump with one’s imagination into another’s shoes, getting another perspective; the term for this is empathy, which hasn’t been much in evidence lately in our political discourse. What if I were a big corporation with a pile of cash available? What would I want to do? The difficulty with this mental experiment is that corporations are multi-headed entities, seemingly with only one goal, profits, and that is not the only value that drives my own behavior. Furthermore, the individuals in any organization each have a perspective, and like Heisenberg’s subatomic particles, are moving with unpredictable momentum between unpredictable locations.

    It’s possible big businesses are, in fact, asking themselves, “Now what,” a reasonable question when you’ve reached a benchmark. Some businesses have an amazing amount of cash on hand, including Apple and British Petroleum?(BP). Apple’s “Now what?” seems obvious: Try to keep up with the demand for the iPhone and iPad by manufacturing more units. But BP probably has a different set of problems. While Apple is firmly entrenched in the information age, BP is a vestige of the manufacturing age — the manufacturing age gone quite awry. Even with BP’s mountains of cash and political clout, finding more fossil fuels is a process of diminishing returns. BP is a battleship ill designed for shifting direction even subtly. It’s hard for old dogs to learn new tricks, especially when historically the bones keep coming for the same old behaviors.

    Globally we have problems economically and environmentally that are beyond almost any predictor’s wildest imagining. Money can help solve some of them but not totally solve any of them. It’s a situation that begs for a unifying force (another physics term) in consciousness and explains to me the attraction of religion. But especially there, our different perspectives keep us from appreciating each other’s perspectives.

    Not investing in the American economy may seem like a good short-term strategy for those with lots of cash, but it can’t possibly be good in the long run. In physics, any action has an opposite and sometimes unanticipated equal reaction. People can be dumb, biased and uninformed, but not all people are dumb, biased and uninformed all the time. What makes anyone believe that young, out of work Americans are not going to behave similarly to young out of work Tunisians, Egyptians, or Brits?

    Hang on — it’s going to be quite a ride.


    Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who frequently asks, “When is enough, enough?” You can reach her at

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