Yamamoto Tsunetomo was a rōnin and monk of the mid-Edo period. After his death in 1719, one of his students compiled his sayings into a treatise on Bushido called Hagakure (“In the Shadow of Leaves”). Tsunetomo believed that a samurai must be quiet, selfless, rigorous, and fanatically devoted to service and duty. The highest good, Tsunetomo taught, is found in single-minded and self-effacing commitment to one’s craft. “Throughout your life advance daily,” he urged, “becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.” The master samurai never thinks he has succeeded.
Even Tsunetomo was not entirely rigid. “It is foolish,” he observed in a lighter moment, “to live within this dream of a world seeing unpleasantness and doing only things you do not like.” But “it is important never to tell this to young people,” he warned, “as it is something that would be harmful if incorrectly understood.”
Yet today the young see the message of self-indulgence everywhere. They learn that they can do as they like by simply adopting their teachers’ opinions. Want to skip class? No problem—do so in protest of gun violence or fossil fuels.
The higher one rises, in fact, the less is one obliged to stick to one’s real job. The whole point of index investing, for instance, is to move money away from the people who think they can predict the future. But Larry Fink, who, as the head of BlackRock, oversees many of the world’s largest index funds, has wants of his own. He wants to lecture his clients about “sustainability-integrated portfolios,” so he does. He wants to use his clients’ shareholder votes to promote his environmentalism, so he does.
“A company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose,” Fink writes in a recent letter to other CEOs, “purpose” being his corporate-speak euphemism for progressive activism. A company that lacks “purpose” is bound, in his view, to “hike prices ruthlessly,” “shortchange safety,” and “fail to respect its clients.” Sure, Fink’s belief in a link between profit and progressivism is just an article of faith. Sure, his depiction of any CEO who doesn’t share that faith as a lawless, price-gouging Gordon Gecko is ridiculous. Sure, it’s not even his money to begin with. But sound index investing is not nearly as gratifying as crusading, and, more than that, being seen to crusade, for social justice.
Last year 181 members of the Business Roundtable announced their “fundamental commitment” to “all” of their “stakeholders.” The CEOs who signed this statement cannot be blamed for trying to remind a spoiled and disenchanted public that well-functioning corporations solve problems and make life better for everyone. But talking about “stakeholders” invites confusion. Had the idea been to confirm that a company should develop useful products, treat customers and employees well, obey the law, and dabble in charity, no declaration about “stakeholders” would have been needed. A company seeking to generate returns for shareholders already had good reason to do each of these things. So although it praises “the free-market system,” the Roundtable’s statement can easily be seen, perhaps mistakenly, as endorsing the notion that a corporation is owned by society as a whole.
Rest assured that “society” in this context will mean whoever shouts the loudest, and that no one shouts louder than subversive malcontents. They come in many forms. One is the proverbial protestor waving a bullhorn in a hapless barista’s face. Another is Senator Elizabeth Warren, who promptly wrote several of the Roundtable’s members, insisting that they endorse her bill to subject companies to various forms of political discipline. The common thread among the reformists, among those who claim to speak for “society” and “the people,” is a desire to get corporations out of the business of generating wealth for society and money for the many people who hold shares.
Of course, no trade strays farther from the job at hand than the movie trade. It’s understandable. If your product happens to make you famous, you might well mistake your fame for wisdom. The more prominent the actor, the more certain one may be that his Oscar speech will have nothing whatsoever to do with acting.
But at least Hollywood can, on occasion, make art. Andrew Dominik’s 2012 film Killing Them Softly is a darkly beautiful example. It is a great movie. One might even call it a great samurai movie. Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is a hitman—an American samurai. He lives by a code no less than Tsunetomo did. Indeed, he, like Tsunetomo, is a kind of rōnin: he is a loner upholding the austere values of his order even as others—such as Mickey (James Gandolfini)—grow fat and careless.
Cogan completes three mob hits for $45,000. He meets a handler in a bar to collect. He learns that the bosses now intend to pay only $30,000. On a television beside the liquor, Barack Obama is giving his 2008 election victory speech. “Recession prices,” the handler says. He cautions Cogan to remember that they are in a “relationship” business. “Out of many, we are one!” Obama declares behind them. This line, the handler insists, is for Cogan.
Cogan does not buy it. “America is not a country,” he responds, his eyes narrowing. “It’s just a business.”
The viewer is meant to be repulsed by Cogan’s cynicism. But there is another way to see things. In the mob world, it’s Cogan who has played by the rules. He did the job; he did it without a fuss; he’s owed the agreed price. It’s the handler, meanwhile, who is using a false appeal to virtue to shirk responsibility.
America is just a business. Sure, it sounds harsh. But compared to what? In a fraying republic, “Stick to business” might be the soundest possible admonition.
Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributer page.