Reflection 40: Size Matters

  • In 1964, Joe Namath signed a $400,000 contract. It was huge news. Today, $100 million plus contracts, for second tier sports stars, are commonplace.
  • In 1960, America’s 5 largest companies had, on average, $498 million in profits. By 2010, that number had grown to $12.2 billion.
  • In 1982 – its first year – the average net worth of Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans was $285 million. By 2008: Almost $4 billion.

Wrapping our brains around the true dimensions of this explosion of private wealth is an extraordinarily difficult task.

Equally hard to understand is a similar explosion in the size and reach of the mainstream culture’s propaganda and reality molding machine; an apt term for the de-centralized but highly coherent set of values-based messages and cultural cues – compete and win, dominate and control – in which we are immersed.

Coming to gripes with these seismic shifts in the context within which we live is vitally important. Failing to do so, we will never grasp the enormity of the challenge we face as we seek to meaningfully contribute to a different and better world. We will too easily settle for change strategies that are far too tepid and limited in scope.

This is the issue I discuss below.


Understanding this vast shift in wealth is, at bottom, an order of magnitude problem. A billion isn’t just bigger than a million. It’s a lot bigger. And a trillion is way, way bigger than a billion.

Here’s one way to look at it. Suppose you had decided to count your money, dollar by dollar, with each dollar counted consuming one second. Also assume that your the goal was to finish the job just as we reached the year 2000. If you had $1 million, your count would have to start the morning of December 21, 1999. If you had $1 billion, you would start in April 1969. And if you had $1 trillion, your starting point would have been in 29,710 BCE – more than 20,000 years before we humans developed our first written numbering systems.

Going back to the numbers quoted earlier: In 1960 America’s 5 largest companies would have started to count their profits, on average, in March 1984. By 2008, however, their counts would have started in March 1614 (two years before Shakespeare’s death). And the counting time for the net worth of the Forbes 400 would have been pushed back from January 1991 (in 1982) to June 1875 (in 2008).

Notice, also, the “plight” of our best professional athletes who make a lot of money but who are, we need to remember, hired employees and not owners or investors. Thus, while they make enormous sums of money their slice of the pie is, in relative terms, chump change – and increasingly so. While Joe Namath would have started his count around noon on December 27, 1999, today’s $100 million athlete would only be pushed back to October 1996, a graphic reminder of where true economic power lies.


This order of magnitude analysis provides a hard dose of financial reality as we assess the effectiveness of conventional change efforts. Increasingly the nonprofit sector is being asked to fill the void created by the steady erosion of the government’s social safety net. And yet in contrast with the exponential growth in private wealth, the increase in charitable giving has been tepid –from $55 billion in 1980 to $217 billion in 2010

In comparative terms, while – in the early 1980s – the net worth of America’s 400 richest people outstripped the accumulated wealth of the entire nonprofit sector by a factor of 5 to 1, this differential had grown to 20 to 1 by 2010.

In short, an always-present fiscal mismatch has turned into a route. Our current reality is this: Massively outgunned in terms of lobbyists, lawyers, political contributions, and advertising budgets, the possibility of effecting meaningful reform through traditional political processes has become more and more implausible.


These same years have also experienced a comparable, explosive growth in the mainstream culture’s propaganda/reality molding machine. But because its emergence has been gradual, it is difficult to fully grasp its scope. And in contrast to the shifts in private wealth, our understandings in this area are further complicated by the fact that the change is so diffuse and difficult to quantify. For these reasons, its effects are even more pernicious.

This sort of cultural brainwashing is, needless to say, not new. Embedded cultural cues that make people “wrong” when they don’t do what their “betters” expect have always been with us. Indeed, George Bernard Shaw iconic example – Eliza Doolittle, the poor flower girl who could pass for a duchess but only after she learned the “right” way to talk, walk, and dress – was created over 100 years ago.

The last half-century, however, has been different. The culture’s reality molding machine has expanded to unprecedented levels, driven by two key factors:

  1. The enormous increase in wealth wielded by the individuals and institutions with the greatest stake in reinforcing and intensifying our mainstream ways of operating; and
  2. The vast array of technological advances that have so greatly expanded the intensity, persistence, and reach of their messages.

To begin to appreciate this seismic growth, it is useful to compare the 1950s – when I came of age – with today’s world.

Back then there were just a handful of TV stations – which stop broadcasting at midnight – a couple of local newspapers, and a handful of weekly and monthly magazines. So each day offered any number of taken-for-granted places of refuge from the messages of the mainstream culture:

  • Late at night when there was, literally, nothing to watch;
  • In the evening hours between your favorite TV shows;
  • On weekend mornings when all that TV offered was Sunrise Semester and cartoons;
  • On your daily drive to and from work;
  • During the natural lulls that occurred at work, because letters took days to arrive.

In this pre-computer/Xbox world, leisure activities were also, far more commonly, our own creations: Card and board games, playing catch with the kids, riding a bike, reading a book. It was also a time when having friends and family over to your house for drinks and dinner – a taken for granted activity in 19th century novels – was still a regular part of life’s routine.

All of that is now gone or strikingly diminished. We are plugged in all the time.

  • Our computers and smart phones are our constant companions;
  • Texting, face book and email saturate our lives with instantaneous communication;
  • The TV is a nonstop source of whatever entertainment suites our fancy – news, sports, shopping, movies, even pornography.

And it’s all available – or inconveniently present – on demand: In the car, at the beach, even in the bathroom.


While these new toys are delightfully distracting, they extract a heavy price. Why? Because the subtext of so much of what they offer embodies and reinforces the corrosive values that dominate our culture: Compete and win, dominate and control.

We are awash in nonstop messages that push us to want more, to buy more and, in general, to be perfect and invulnerable: Poised and articulate; youthful, thin, and attractive; hard working, successful, and rich; winners in whatever we do.

At times these messages are explicit, offered as product ads or commentary. But far more pervasive and influential are their implicit expressions: The story lines and characters in the shows we watch; and, equally, the ways in which our celebrities – actors, entertainers, TV hosts, reporters, commentators, and politicians – present themselves and conduct their lives.

For me, the depth to which these messages have taken root is exemplified by NPR’s routine editing of interviews to eliminate every “ah,” “umm,” and other verbal stumble. Even at NPR, apparently, we are not ok – not publicly presentable – until every pimple and unseemly bulge has been made to disappear.


These pervasive messages deeply impact our effort to create better lives and a better world. To begin with, we cannot avoid them. We are all in the dirty bathtub. And in the last 50 years, the bathtub has gotten a lot dirtier.

In addition, it has become more and more difficult to find kindred spirits with whom we can align in our effort to create better lives and a better world.

When it comes to the culture’s predominant values, we are literally drenched in cues that define us. Our jobs and schools – where we live – how we dress and accessorize – how we talk – what we eat and drink – they all point to where (and how well) we fit in, in the mainstream culture.

But what are the reliable indicators of a person who consistently seeks to be decent to themselves, others and the world? While these people do exist, the catalogue of social cues that allow you to identify them is strikingly thin. Such a person could be sitting across from you at lunch or be working in the office down the hall, and you might never have a clue.

And, unfortunately, we live in a world in which expressions of concern – a potentially important marker in our search for kindred spirits – have been co-opted by the mainstream culture. Empathic words and symbolic acts of charity have become a kind of affective camouflage, used to make our competitive, self-aggrandizing pre-occupations more acceptable to others – and to ourselves. In this environment, how do you tease out the genuine article, your real allies, from this endless stream of faux reformers?


With these examples I hope to demonstrate how important orders of magnitude are in understanding the enormous impact that the values, predominant in the mainstream culture, have in our lives.

But as much as size matters in understanding the dimensions of the challenge, it matters even more as we craft our responses. We need to conceive of change strategies that, as they take root, can become comparable in scope and impact to the problems they seek to address. In other Reflections I seek to make a creative contribute to that effort. See, for example, Reflection #15 (identifying business as a key strategic focus); and Reflection #45 (describing a more deeply collaborative approach to social change).