Killing John Galt, Part II

“Thanks. I’m doing some writing,” I responded. The elongated buildings of SLAC, like a parked train, suddenly suggested a death scenario for Galt: fried by proton beams. I had no idea if one could be fried by protons, but it seemed likely if they were accelerated to high-enough energies. That would require research and I doubted I had the energy to call and bother and get interviews with the relevant parties. I could just wing it. Galt the crispy mess. He tried to directly manipulate the beam at CERN to prove he was the God particle.

“I want to get into social entrepreneurship,” Winborn continued, his eyes narrowing as a coy smile escaped the serious corners of his mouth, “and I need someone to run the effort.” He paused and waited. I gave an exaggerated and perfunctory exhalation, and then smiled.

“Oh, I see,” I responded, “that’s quite a shift for you, Sam, from what I understand.”

“Yeah, but I think it’s the right thing to do. I want to raise a fund and see what can be done based on creative solutionsmaking.”

I cringed at the slurred, ad hoc portmanteau. He was excited, which was good, but it also meant he was exploitable. I could resist and build my terms against his aspirations. Why had I been chosen for this? I could only think that he had read my vitae and latched onto my Peace Corps service some twenty years in the past. I hadn’t been driven specifically driven by a desire to serve. It was a lack of focus or direction that had been my motivator at the time, stalled between graduation and graduate school and without debt or obligations. My “burn rate” at the time (a moment of acid reflux, here, because that’s a phrase accumulated in the crucible of building businesses while keeping families in new shoes and the tenuous threat of being without health insurance) was almost nothing. I could drop by home and catch a meal here and there. I worked a bit as an intern at a consulting firm specializing in transforming databases from one matrix into another to solve this or that analytics problem. I stayed up late with my girlfriend, smoking hash in the night. The economy was stalled and defense spending was drying up. Peace Corps seemed a colorful distraction before diving back into studies. I could decompress in some village far removed from the expectations of Western society.  John Galt came to mind again, leading an exodus of engineers to strike against mediocrity, all in alignment with a storm of abstractions and ideologies. Why had they signed up? Maybe one of the striking technologists accidentally unplugs the safety system of Galt’s elevator and he gets to contemplate his fate for a brief few seconds during free fall, his briefcase and fedora rising up around him as the car plunges downward.

“OK,” I responded neutrally, “But why? What motivates you now at this point in your life?”

“Right. Well, I could tell you a simple story, here, but it is actually more complex than I might have thought a few years back. Can I bore you a little?”

This was an unusual demonstration of earnest depth for a busy person with such a unity of focus, so I nodded encouragement. I had no other appointments for the day and just planned to go for a walk along the waterfront with the dog and think more about Galt’s execution.

“As a businessman committed to the efficient application of capital through the venture system, I realized a long time ago the close relationship between evolution and what we do. Adam Smith inspired Darwin, Darwin inspired the Social Darwinists, championed by the magnates of the era—a misinterpretation that was corrected over time—but the dog-eat-dog competition idea, as a refiner and corrective for sloth and indifference, remained. But corporate behavior is group behavior and we all hold that teams are the most essential part of what we do. I sometimes feel like I’m just a talent tracker and matchmaker, building relationships between people who are complimentary. What is the moral fabric of this system? It is certainly not compassion in the religious sense. Yet we hold that there is some values system that we hardly question. If nothing else, we treat one another respectfully and the taxes we generate get applied more broadly to social goods even while we conspire and scheme to minimize our payments to The Golden State and the Feds.”

He sipped at a water bottle colored by some energy-enhancing additive and continued, “Some in our field are libertarians and think that even that application of tax dollars is misused. The arguments range from welfare creates dependencies to a broad indictment of the ability of a government to apply resources efficiently because centralization short circuits the required information flow for good decision-making. It irritates me, that. Why can a corporation do things any better? I know CEOs who can’t tell you their headcount right now. But what I never understood was the inconsistent and literal application of anti-group ideas. In the natural world competition is almost never between animals but almost always between animals and the environment. The struggle is to survive the winter, to survive disease, for your calves and foals to survive predation. What formed the backbone of the urge towards compassion is exactly what makes us work together to create new things.”

I had my coffee beneath my nose, sniffing the bitter vapors, wondering why this pitch was starting from such abstract premises. Winborn hardly seemed the part based on his manner and his background. He leaned in more closely, his water bottle dangling between his knees. I could tell from the drape and slackness of his arms that he had been on a long ride. “So social entrepreneurship is not merely compassion, but is efficient compassion?”

He waved his bottle at me in a flourish of sloshing negation, “No, no, nothing like that. It might be more efficient. A little thought on the application of charitable giving can be efficient, too. No, I just see it as copacetic with my institutional leanings. I know how to build businesses and organizations, and know people who know these things, too. So apply the same methodology. But that isn’t the motivator, really; the motivator is just the realization that we are suspended in a social gel and that any arguments from the desires of individuals are dependent on co-existence, mediation, or destruction of others.”

“A tragedy of a social commons, if you will,” I volunteered, imagining a phalanx of sheep hurtling towards Galt as he stood atop a hill with a classic ribbon microphone like a shoebox before his face. It would not do, I knew. A parody can be self-referentially transparent but there are extra points available for subtlety. Phoebe, I was in Phoebe. A large print of the moon hung on the north wall, perfectly juxtaposed against a granular image of the dark side on the south wall. Ancient Soviet achievement, I initially thought, but refocusing my eyes I realized the granularity of the image was due to a fine mesh of letters laid over the grayscale of the lunar surface. A hidden message, perhaps, encoded by the artist, but I was too far away to do more than notice it.

“I’m here both because of my own capabilities and because of the people who supported me and the institutions that I have been a part of,” he continued, “The rise of the West is a study in contrasts between the inevitability of sharing, redistribution, collectivism, and opportunities that were bound up in the environment. Railroads, mines, oil, fish, furs. When supply is eclipsed by demand, the urge towards interventionism, compassion, and control arises, but the supply will always end under unsustainable conditions and we are then left with invention. There is no inevitability to compassion oppressing creativity. They exist in an orderly balance, I think, and I want to be a part of turning creativity back into compassion.”

I was surprised and impressed, but perhaps I should have believed that there was more than herd investment strategies and due diligence behind these faux mahogany walls. My contact experiences with investors had been as limited as any entrepreneur: pitch, pitch, pitch, wait for term sheets. And they sat through the same cycle, trying to stay apprised of dozens of shifting and emerging trends in the space of their practices. I decided that Winborn knew more about me than I had suspected, and that this was part of his recruiting strategy, though it was an elaborately intelligent effort to recruit someone to a personal quest if that was the case. But maybe that was too cynical. Why wouldn’t he put forward great effort for something that was of perhaps greater importance than the mere creation of wealth for his institutional investors?

“What exactly do you want to do?” I queried, cutting into the thick abstractions with knife-like precision.

“Start it up. Run it. Same standard profile as any investment opportunity, but with a basket weight of return on investment and some kind of measure of return to human capital. The improvement in graduation rates, the rate of retention of minority students, the reduction in global HIV infections, the increased adoption of solar power. You create the metrics and we iterate and form a portfolio. We start with seeds and then move to A rounds as we attract institutional investors or, more appropriately, institutional charitable givers.”

“What kind of time commit?” I asked, wondering if the question itself could be considered in bad taste given the nature of the endeavor, but also moderately jealous of my time, including the endless considerations of Galt’s fate that were possessing me.

He nodded conciliatorily, “Oh, start it slowly. Figure out what works for you. Find some office space. You can share here or get something somewhere else. You probably should keep office costs down, you know?”

“Absolutely. I could operate out of the seating area of the Whole Foods,” I joked, watching for his response.

I was back out in the lambent sunlight in another twenty minutes with plenty to think about. The breeze had died while I was inside and there was an edge of heat beginning to rise off the dark parking lot. On the way out I had stopped by another pedestal of artistry trapped inside plastic like a frail insect in amber. It was a miniaturized mechanism, like a fine watch, with layers of papery gears that collided with one another at implausible angles, guaranteeing that the machine was incapable of any movement whatsoever.

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