Dualism, or in its theological aspect, Manichaeism, is the belief that the universe is divided between two starkly opposed but equally matched powers of Good and Evil. Their battle plays out not only cosmologically, but in the life of every individual. Although Manichaeism was declared a heresy by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 382 AD, the appeal of dualism remains deeply rooted in Western civilization. (Traditional Eastern thought, with its multi-faceted gods and cycles of death and rebirth, is less prone to dualism.) Dualistic ideas—God and Satan, Catholic and Protestant, North and South, Black and White—have long define the Western and especially American worldview. The 20th century reinforced
But, a set of new and far more subtle ideas, deeply at variance with dualism, were beginning to appear as the 20th century dawned. Leonard Shlain, in his first-rate book Art and Physics, demonstrates how artists throughout history have anticipated new discoveries about the physical world. Artists are like powerful telescopes, able to reveal faraway and previously undreamt-of galaxies. Schools of non-representative art such as Cubism, dissonant music like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and modernist novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses, heralded a non-Newtonian revolution in physics. Relativity and quantum mechanics revealed a universe of discontinuities, non-linearity, and irrationality beyond anything ever before imagined. The universe, instead of being an exquisitely perfect clock as
Ideas so radical would have spread slowly in any case. They literally require a rewiring of the human brain even to think about. The wars, both hot and cold, that consumed the middle three-quarters of the last century, with their clear heroes and villains, undoubtedly delayed the process. But over the past 20 years, which, not coincidently, have been marked with ambiguous and inconclusive conflicts, the dissemination of the probabilistic world view has been exponential. Scores of books about the new physics for non-scientists have been published. The next disciplines to fall in step were finance and economics.
As I wrote in my June 2008 commentary, the economist Hyman Minsky was a prophet ahead of his time. His 1986 book, Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, argues against the ability of markets to be self-regulating. He advanced the theory that capitalist market mechanisms are incapable of creating sustained, stable-price, full-employment equilibrium. Rather, unpredictable and sometimes violent business cycles are inherent in capitalism, and are actually fostered by overlong periods of stability. Ignored at first, Minsky’s ideas are finally moving into the mainstream, as can be seen in the title of Justin Fox’s recent bestseller, The Myth of the Rational Market. Even more telling was Alan Greenspan’s great moment of self-understanding in October 2008 while testifying before a congressional committee.
Greenspan: “I have found a flaw. “I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by the fact.”
Question: “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right. It was not working?”
Greenspan: “Absolutely. Precisely. You know that’s precisely the reason I was shocked. Because I have been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”
Another new book, provocatively titled The Age of the Unthinkable, brings the new world view into the realm of international relations and, since international relations are really human relations writ large, into our own daily lives. The author is Joshua Cooper Ramo, a whiz kid who is a managing director at Kissinger Associates and whose hobby is competitive aerobatics. In his own words, “The main argument of the book is not particularly complicated: it is that in a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation, you need to learn to think and act like a revolutionary.” [i] That word “revolutionary” is subject to many interpretations. In the following passage, Ramo explains what he means by it.
“Today the ideal candidates for foreign-policy power should be able to speak and think in revolutionary terms. They should have an expertise in some area of the world—be it
Ramo is talking about foreign diplomacy, but the application of his remarks is much broader. My first reaction to this passage was, “Sounds like the bond markets to me.” Fast and unpredictable changes, risk-taking at the right moments, and especially, the need for action without too much reflection based on instinct and speed. Yup, that’s how the bond markets work; or at least, that’s how I work in the bond markets. But, when I read the passage a second time, I realized that it also reflected how ShoreBank operates. ShoreBank is a revolutionary company, and it’s clear that Ramo uses the word revolutionary in the same way we do. Our motto, “Let’s Change the World,” is said in a joyful tone, as one would say, “Let’s go to a party!” And it’s inclusive. It means, let us work together as peers for changes we agree are beneficial. Like Ramo, we believe that “small things can trigger a big change.”[iii] We also believe that effecting change in this way requires looking at the world through the eyes of the people and communities where we work. In other words, we try to see and then act from the inside out, rather than the outside in. “In a fast-changing world, what really matters is often hidden in corners where the usual ‘experts’ don’t—or can’t—easily look.”[iv]
The first necessary quality for achieving this new way of looking at the world is empathy, the ability to feel as others feel. Ramo uses empathy to mean connecting with the environment, even when it’s uncomfortable or foreign. It means being in a community and working with its values, rather than trying to impose your own. It also means understanding that communities are constantly evolving or “shape-shifting” in Ramo’s words. No matter how they change, they always tend toward greater complexity, in the scientific sense. They become ever less amenable to modeling or anticipating. “Patience,” says Ramo, “not persuasion would be the virtue,” because “no effort truly ends.”[v]
This insight leads to the second necessary quality of resilience, the ability not just to react but to learn. In this view, the more stress you can endure, the stronger you become. Quoting an ecologist named C.S. Holling, Ramo writes, “A management approach based on resilience would emphasize the need to keep options open. Flowing from this would be not the presumption of sufficient knowledge, but the recognition of our ignorance; not the assumption that future events are expected, but that they will be unexpected.”[vi] When people who are trusted and treated as peers, they are empowered will respond with “an explosion of curiosity, innovation, and effort.”[vii] This insight, multiplied in communities around the world has tremendous potential. “The more something lends itself to invention and imagination, the more enduringly useful it becomes. Practically, this means a dramatic, globe-defining effort to touch the lives of billions of people.”[viii]
ShoreBank understands the world as a complex, dynamic system, defying predictability and inherently unstable. We seek to meet these challenges by working empathically, resiliently, and respectfully with ordinary people around the world. We embed ourselves in communities for the long haul. We are learners who have always intuitively understood that the people we serve have more to teach us than we have to teach them, and we have learned from them for decades. Our business model sees the world through the eyes of our customers, whether they are apartment rehabbers on the South Side of Chicago, stall-keepers in Lahore, oystermen in Ilwaco Bay, or machinists in Minsk.
We are risk-takers both by choice and by necessity. Many years ago, at a strategic planning session, our in-house counsel remarked, “If ShoreBank ever woke up one morning and found itself too far from the edge, it would do everything it could to get back there as quickly as possible.” We work at the edge because that’s where so many of our customers are. Sometimes they go over and sometimes so do we. The global recession has been brutal for people and communities with limited financial reserves. Looking ahead, they will need ShoreBank more than ever. Fewer institutions will be able or interested in working in these communities. Their recovery will be slower and their continuing struggles apt to be overlooked. But ShoreBank will be there, providing credit, investment, training, collaboration, empathy, and resilience.
Ramo could have been writing about ShoreBank when he described the revolution necessary for “a sensible international order—one that fits 2009, not 1989”:
It involves accepting that the most important things cannot be predicted with any great accuracy. It involves radically refiguring the balance sheet of power in such a way that the aim isn’t to hoard power but to give away as much of it as possible…It requires harder truth telling than our leaders are used to and experimentation right up to the very edge of collapse.”[ix]