... the old oracle said,
"All things have two handles:
beware of the wrong one."
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
I was sure Systems of Survival would be a difficult read. In fact it’s in the form of an engaging dialogue, the form she also used for her 2000 book The Nature of Economies.
Retired publisher Armbruster invites 5 friends and colleagues to discuss something troubling him: that “the web of trust [and honesty] upon which so much depends, is in a deplorable state.” He opens with an anecdote about taking a consulting fee he’d been paid in Hanover Germany to a local bank for transfer to his home bank in New York City. He realized later he’d turned over to a stranger a sum of money in return for a piece of paper written in a language he couldn’t understand and that he no concern that the funds wouldn’t be in his home account when he needed them. From this observation of unquestioned trust he also notes widespread and well known examples of “chicanery and avarice” and examples of every day folks “conspiring with dishonesty when it seems to benefit them.”
When he returned to NYC he researches examples of “embezzlement… fraud… collusion… kickbacks… cheating... bill padding… insider trading and stock manpulation… patent infringement… lies and coverups… With the exception of some of the embezzlers… these were all crimes committed by business owners or managers, bent on victimizing other enterprises, or else their own workers, their own customers, their own suppliers, or the public at large.”
Armbruster “dangles the bait” and they all agree with more and less enthusiasm to continue the discussion in four weeks time when academic, animal behaviour researcher Kate will present the first report to the group, a report to “identify our systems or systems of moral behaviour concerned with work. [For instance] What sort of rules safeguard the security of moving money around? We know honest accounting is one, but we also know it’s fragile…. Just some thinking about the commonplace norms we purport to depend on."