Imagine you’re a shareholder in USA Inc. How would you feel about your investment? – Mary Meeker, 2010
How utterly revealing. Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers partner Mary Meeker decided to, in February this year, publish a 460 page (PowerPoint) report looking at the United States as a company – USA Inc. But, in truth, the only thing revealing about it is that Meeker’s method should be deemed remarkable at all. The media has been stunned by this remarkable discovery. Suddenly, the warts of the child have been unearthed, cleansed of make-up: you are it! America is a business state.
‘In effect, USA Inc. is maxing out its credit card,’ claims the Queen of the Net, as Barron’ magazine titled her in 1998. ‘It has fallen into a pattern of spending more than it earns and is issuing debt at nearly every turn’ (Business Insider, Feb 24). The other curious thing about Meeker is her understanding on what a corporation actually does. Corporations do not spend on welfare, regarding it as a nuisance. Nor do they spend on education unless they can have it. They will spend on certain fields like the arts, but that’s only because it is financially sensible to sometimes do so. And yet, we find her commenting that, ‘At the margin, investing in productive capital, education, and technology – the very tools needed to compete in the global marketplace – has stagnated’.
The tedious thing is that America has been nothing else but an expansive business moving through the corridors of global power. Since its foundation, it has been a business civilization tempered occasionally by restrictions on the market (or, to be exact, certain members of the market). Congress ceased being relevant when the wise and the powerful in the US decided that buying a member of Congress was easier than running in it.
It seems somewhat trite for Meeker to be saying, in the preface, that the US be treated in that manner – having a statement and balance sheet, having its ‘cash flow’ problems put on the examination board. Its citizens have been treating the American state as a balance sheet since its inception. Its problems lie precisely in that definition, though such problems seem fundamentally genetic. What Meeker proposes to do is employ corporate solutions to corporate solutions, thereby evading some of the problems that the designation throws up.
At times, naughty governments have had to intervene to stabilise a rocky depressive ship. Whether it was the anti-trust movement, or the occasional fiddling with the economy by the central government, America’s business has always been business. Calls such as those of Robert L. Heinbroner’s assertion in 1976 – that business civilization was then in decline – have been happily allowed to pass. In truth Heinbroner was far from accurate on the score of how it applied to the US. Every government policy that has a remote whiff of collectivist zeal is treated as a socialist demon that has to be ritually quashed.
Meeker specialises in that mind numbing, note killing function called PowerPoint (463 slides in all), feeding it with an enthusiasm that is both infectious and nauseating. Go to a class, see the flashing points, and see the minds atrophy and glaze. The genius of PowerPoint lies in its retarding effect: it says nothing, and what it says is irrelevant. Notes are not important (why scribble?), because watching such a projection is like watching a movie – the impact is merely instantaneous, but never permanent. The complexity of history is reduced to the antics of a corporate boardroom, which is where Meeker finds herself most at home.
This is not to say Meeker does not have her admirers. ‘Ms. Meeker’s PowerPoint presentations pack a powerful numerical punch – which appeals to everyone’s inner geek and confer a potential aura of legitimacy in this age of the supremacy of data’ (NYT, Mar 10). Michael R. Bloomberg and Paul A. Volcker have anointed Meeker’s product with the seal of approval. And why wouldn’t they? They are foremost figures of the USA Inc. corporate system.
What she confirms is that the culture of managerial voodoo is well and truly there. There is nothing to say that American managerial practice has to follow this, but Meeker poses as both prophet and manufacturer. To her, the ills of USA Inc. lie in its inability to allocate resources effectively. Productive technology is what matters to her – that, and infrastructure and education investment planning.
President Harry S. Truman, as Gore Vidal reminds us, gave us the colossal security state, but the PowerPoint state, driven by the inanities of finance, is something else. In USA Inc. we will face the evils of a vegetable, unreflective society eager to make the same mistakes that came before it. And Meeker will be there to reap the whirlwind with some shattering, fireworks compilation ‘Return of USA Inc.’