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April 13, 2008


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JJ Commoner

I've hear it said that the demand for altruism is a bog into which one can sink one's supply of time, endlessly. It seem that the University of Chicago's legal beagles agree.


My demand for altruism here in the Dumpster has never been higher, but the supply seems to be dwindling. All I get these days is advice, "If you showed more respect for your betters you would not be in this Dumpster. Let this be a lesson to you."

Jeff Trexler

Altruism is a distraction that keeps us from understanding what charity's really about. In gnostic terms, it would be an emanation. The more we focus on the glow, the less we understand the light.

Phil Cubeta

Mr. Trexler! You are way too intelligent and educated for this poor blog. Nonprofit Law, Gnoticism, Comics, Erasmus, Ramus, and Mcluan. You know, I had hoped you would comment. Your Yale peice on this topic was what I had in mind using the word, "essence." If nonprofits do not have an essence, they certainly do have a "brand expectation" that they either live up to or not at their own risk. Business is self-regarding. Charity is other regarding. Business is about getting. Charity is about giving. Business creates private good. Charity (and sometimes gummint) creates public goods. At the heart of the nonprofit world is "good stewardship" of assets not our own. That is not just a matter of legal structure, but of ethics, ideals, and traditions. Can stewardship of a public good be parsed as a second bottom line in a for-profit? I don't think that is so easy, though internet platforms like Google or eBay might say that they are precisely privately owned stewards of a commons or public good, or almost a utility. Ma Bell in here day was like that, and maybe railroads, and canals. Who should own and steward our public goods? (Often in libertarian and conservative circles that question, in my experience, is met with a blank look or sneer. "Freaking communist," they mutter.")


This blog is way too intelligent for itself.

Is an "essence" something like a soul? I really like "emanation", and I want to know more. I am struggling with this issue in thinking about the emerging connection between my day job and my work in communities. If the organization buys in as a business opportunity, to polish the corporate image for marketing purposes, they may miss the far greater value of creating relationships. On the other hand if they start for "selfish" reasons, the organization may still be transformed. It is hard to know just how to start.

Phil, I know you have been skeptical of the double and triple bottom line stuff, but isn't it also possible for organizations to express the human values of the communities it represents, to be stewards of part of the work? The point is that people and organizations may take on changing their structure, to learn new skills and languages, or they may just try to sell the glow the emanates elsewhere. They can hire talent and bend them to their purposes, but they cannot hire anyones will and commitment.

The new way of working is characterized by "friends collaborating under no command". It is a different structure, what Jean-Fran├žios calls invisible architectures, and capable of different things. A different species, different as a lion is from an eagle or a mouse, a different structure with different possibilities.

Phil Cubeta

People have to get paid, that part is for sure. We have to survive. And we want meaningful work that contributes to good ends. To get paid you need a business model. Once that is in place it will fit in some situations with meaning and purpose and conflict in other situations. Aligning the ideals, the hearts and minds, and the business model is the challenge of managing a socially conscious organization. It comes down to synergies and tradeoffs. The problem in some cases is the tradeoff part. When tradeoffs have to be made between maximizing profit and doing good, what balance is struck? A small closely held organization can and often does make tradeoffs in favor of stewardship. But they may be subject to being bought out by larger more cold-blooded organization. That has been the way our media stopped being local voices with a conscience grounded in community, and became Clear Channel, etc. I am glad you are thinking about how to make a decent living doing valuable things. I hope you find a niche that allows you do make good money doing good things.

Jeff Trexler

@Gerry: I'll have more to say re emanation once I get past my unanticipated, but rather interesting (and relevant, it turns out) IP boot camp.

@Phil: Your emphasis on tradeoffs is, I think, one of the most conspicuously under-acknowledged elements in contemporary do-gooding. Perhaps my favorite law-and-econ book (an admittedly small category!) is Guido Calabresi's Tragic Choices, which I had the good fortune to study with him in law school.

Phil Cubeta

Thanks, Jeff, ordered the book. Hegel defined tragedy as "the splitting of the ethical substance." When ethical imperatives conflict, what do we do? Answer: Do what pays and use the profits to hire a Publicist, Defense Attorney, and a Therapist, if need be.


People have to get paid, that part is for sure. We have to survive.

Of course, but the question is about how much each one is paid, and what are the social structures, institutions and "invisible architectures" that support and determine the outcomes. "The market" has failed as a general answer, and I trust we don't have to go over that again. Thanks to Jeff for the book link, that one seems to be another aspect of the argument against market fundamentalism.

I know that the double and triple bottom line stuff is bullshit if the top line is still profit for the "owners". You and I both know that the necessary transformation is to flip this on its head, and put sustainability and community at the top. Profit is not necessary and one can argue often parasitic. Solvency is. We can make everyone "solvent" just by redefining the invisible architectures or our world. We have the sovereign right and capacity to choose different agreements between us that what we see now. It is changing anyway, and we need to steer it in a better direction.


Sovereign is a word you have been using often, but I notice that it is often in the context of an individual, as if each were sovereign, king or queen in a tiny castle. We are sovereign, we the people. That is the founding agreement, the visible architecture, of this nation. You might say our power is legitimate collectively, and that the current institutions are, well, derivative at best from that founding contract. How we reassert the sovereignty our constitution gives us, to reengineer the flows of funds, influence, power,attention would be the question. Starts with shared understandings, shared perceptions. I hope that is the payoff of blogging, but it is still atomistic, one person here or there, a few comments, small knots and clusters of people. "Flipping the two bottom lines" is about right. To say, "a second bottom line is good for business and for the planet!" is fine, until you are asked to attend an urgent meeting in Wealth Bondage HQ, sworn to silence, and then told that the second bottom line has to be scrapped for now, but the appearance of it kept up, or the firm will not make its numbers for Wall St. The PR guy in the meeting, nods sagely, "No problem, Candidia. We got it covered. Green is the word." Everyone laughs, "Green as in environmentally sound? or Green as in money?" There is a market for Warm Glow and the PR guy will manufacture the product. And in their hopefulness and naivete many will buy into it. For there is no alternative as Margaret Thatcher used to say.


The only way we get out of this mess is if each of us takes resposibility for our part. Our claim is that the pyramidal architectures are failing and cannot adapt fast enough to what is coming. We need to claim our sovereignty to survive.

Whether or not SCOTUS is upholding it very well these days, it is clear that the sovereignty of the whole is dependent on the sovereignty of the individual. It is in the act of freely joining together in collective action that this nation was born and sustains itself. Friends collaborating under no command, that is the ideal we try for.

Phil Cubeta

Friend conspiring for the good of all, under no command but that of commonsense for the common good?

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