By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
I pick up the Sunday paper from my doorstep. A circular for Office Max falls out. On the front is a picture of a black man holding a cell phone in one hand, newspaper stock tables in the other, his mouth agape in a toothy smile. He‘s wearing a white shirt and a patterned maroon cravat -- part kente cloth, part power tie, part noose. ”My business IS my life,“ his thought balloon says. The slogan: ”In a world of doing more and getting less . . .“ I imagine his prayers. Our Chairman, who art home by 7, hallowed be thy name. Thy profits come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily pay, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into unemployment, but deliver us from recession. Amen.
It’s been said that capitalism is the true American religion. As theocracies view God in all things, we look for shareholder value. Witness the holy trinities (CEO, CFO, COO), the elaborate rituals (corporate accounting, stock options), the mysterious ways (poison pills, white knights, golden parachutes and handcuffs). Witness President George W. Bush, a Harvard Business School graduate, running the national family business. Witness how our most charged protests are directed against murky financial gatherings recast as cabals (the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund). Witness how our front-page scandals -- Enron, Global Crossing -- are blamed on the betrayals of top executives. Vice presidents play the part of fallen apostles: Jeffrey Skillings, or maybe Dick Cheney, as Judas. In today‘s recessionary climate, we are facing a crisis of faith.
The value of recent autobiographies by sexagenarians Jack Welch and Quincy Jones lies in the insights they provide into the kind of men at the very top of the ”pile,“ one of Welch’s many buzzwords. Some life. Jack is primarily an account of Welch‘s time as General Electric’s CEO, from 1981 to 2001. He views his regime through the lens of his high-concept initiatives: Six Sigma quality, boundaryless behavior, digitization, globalization and the vitality curve (employees in the top 20 are rewarded, the vital 70 keep their jobs, and the bottom 10 are replaced). His ideas worked. Under Welch, GE‘s market capitalization rose by $450 billion, in large part due to GE Capital, the ”growth engine.“ Recently it’s been pointed out that GE Capital was Enronesque, but why worry? In 2000, the unit was responsible for 41 percent of the company‘s income.
Jones’ career began at the other end of the professional spectrum, in music. Like sports, it was one of the fields most open to African-American contributions; Jones is unusual in that he figured out how to get paid. Half of his book, Q, is devoted to ”witness“ chapters written by friends, family and fellow musicians, and it makes sense, because his career is a lesson in the importance of ”relationships.“ ”If Quincy were writing Dante‘s Inferno, he’d have Satan‘s telephone number,“ writes arranger and conductor Bobby Tucker.
Jones parlayed the cool earned by early gigs as an arranger for singers such as Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles into friendships with people such as Steve Ross, the mastermind behind the Time-Warner merger, who became his mentor. He built these associations into an entertainment empire, producing Oscar-winning films (The Color Purple), popular TV shows (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), and the top-selling album and single of all time (Michael Jackson’s Thriller and ”We Are the World,“ respectively).
There are some obvious cultural differences between Welch and Jones. While Welch plays up his rebelliousness, his success is well within the confines of white, corporate America. ”We didn‘t like the culture in the record business,“ he writes, explaining why he rapidly jettisoned RCA Records after acquiring it in GE’s 1985 purchase of NBC. He‘s not talking about culture as you or I might think of it -- he didn’t dislike Elvis Presley or Perry Como. He‘s dismissing RCA’s corporate culture as inferior to that of GE.
Yes, Jones has had more fun. In a chapter titled ”My Life as a Dog,“ he tells the story of waking up naked in a friend‘s apartment with two other men and five Playboy bunnies. At the conclusion of the chapter, after listing the rest of his conquests, he presents us with a moral, and the hope that his diversions have granted him the self-knowledge that Welch apparently lacks: ”After all, a man must embrace the feminine side of himself, especially if he is an artist. You can’t let your machoness mess up your good ‘thang.’“
The strangest thing about reading these two books side by side, though, is not how divergent these men‘s lives are, but how similar. Both hew to the primary creation myth of American business, the prototypical Horatio Alger story: Through self-reliance and hard, honest work, even men from humble beginnings can move onward and upward. (If you’re skeptical of attaching the weight of religion to business, please note that Alger was a Unitarian minister, as was his father before him.)