Last class of the semester

The Business School at Harvard goes a week longer than the college, so I just finished the last session of my last class, Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism. I’m sad about that – I have come to really love this course and how it engages us and forces us to wrestle with the difficulties of everyday business decision-making. At the business school, the professor uses Socratic method to navigate the students in a public discussion, hearkening back to Plato and his dialogues. Our professor, Geoff Jones, was a worthy successor to Plato. Without seeming to do more than touch the rudder now and again, he took us towards his goal, to understand that history matters and that history is complex, its lessons not clearcut. I think we got that.

The world is globalizing again, though it is not yet as global as it was in the 19th century, and today’s globalization bears far different effects. In the 1800s, entrepreneurs from the West made almost all the rules, not governments and certainly not the locals being co-opted into the world economy. That’s no longer the case.  We’ve seen that globalization can fall apart, that the world has more friction, and that government matters a lot more to the way businesses form and function than it once did.  We’ve also seen that great entrepreneurs often build companies that succeed financially but destroy or degrade the society they operate in. The company and entrepreneur often move on, but the system is affected. Capitalists say nothing to Hitler and capitalism carries a stain, making Communism more attractive, especially to countries already feeling exploited by their encounter with capitalists. Capitalists use slave or bonded labor and overthrow governments for acting in the best interests of their citizens, and capitalism becomes viewed as exploitative and evil system to an entire continent.

I thought entrepreneurs were important when I started this class, but largely abstracted from society. I now see that entrepreneurs are amazingly creative forces for society, artists of a sort, who motivate themselves and others to build something that has tangible effects on their community and greater society, much as an artist marshals colors and materials into something grander than its mere components. But entrepreneurs are not separate from society and cannot myopically focus on their business. At the start of the course, I was constantly frustrated by a subset of my classmates who refused to look beyond the balance sheet, who denied entrepreneurs having a role beyond their business operations, beyond profits. That changed during the course – even the most die-hard of these students became more nuanced in their arguments (I like to think I did, too). I found myself sometimes wondering what specific students thought about an issue that would come up in class, but they hadn’t addressed. More importantly, I also found myself thinking that I should go talk with someone I usually disagree with, to get their perspective and better understand it.

Geoff put up three quotes at the start of today’s class:

  • What’s past is prologue (Shakespeare, The Tempest)
  • We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future (F.W. Maitland)
  • History never repeats itself but it rhymes, Mark Twayne (Geoff’s misspelling, which may be deliberate. The quote is attributed to Twain, but appears to in fact come from a poem by John Robert Colombo, who wrote “History never repeats itself, but it rhymes, said Mark Twain”)

I’m with Shakespeare – I think the past influences and affects the present.  I don’t think it repeats itself exactly but we see where it might go by what has gone before.

Today’s class debated whether the world was flat or spiky.  Of course, it’s both. It’s flat in many ways, thanks to technology both digital and mechanical. But it isn’t flat everywhere, even where there’s Internet access and widespread mobile phone use. Oddly, as we learned in the course, the more digital (flatter) we get, the more we see business cluster into specific geographic areas (spikier). During the debate, I made notes to myself about how even within societies there are spikes and flats. I mapped out a version of his course in novels I’ve read. His first module, the first Global Economy, was Dickens (“Hard Times,” “Great Expectations”) and Sinclair (“The Jungle”). The Second module, the collapse of the world economy, was Dos Passos (“U.S.A.”) and Lewis (“Babbitt”). The Third module, the rebuilding of the global economy, was Pynchon (“Gravity’s Rainbow”) and Marques (“Love in the Time of Cholera”), Puig (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) and McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”). The fourth, the second Global Economy, seemed to map well with my friend Joel Deane’s bitter novel of the Australian service economy “Another,” and with Franzen’s “The Corrections.” All of them show people within a society, some within the circles of money and power, others not, and how whimsical, thoughtless, bad and greedy decisions especially those of the powerful, play out. We saw this in our case studies, also, most markedly in places like Argentina, Chile, Prussia, Japan, and Guatemala.

Throughout, Geoff referred to a slide with photographs of a number of the entrepreneurs we studied. At the end, he told the class to think forward to 2040, and to imagine their own pictures up there. “What will people say about you and your life?” he asked us. He hoped that this would make the class think differently about difficult and complex decisions they’ll be making. It was a great charge, and I’m excited to see where my classmates go.

I don’t know if all HBS classes end with a standing ovation for the professor, but this one did. I wish he was teaching  next term.

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