The Oxpeckers, the Rhinos and the Tyranny of the Eternal Now

Donald Trump said something the other day that, amazingly, did not instantly send the media into paroxysms of outrage:

U.S. President Donald Trump asked securities regulators to explore replacing quarterly reporting requirements with half-yearly filings at the urging of executives including PepsiCo Chief Executive Indra Nooyi, reigniting a debate about how often companies should give financial updates to investors.

Such a switch would mark a huge change in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's disclosure requirements and put them in line with European Union and United Kingdom rules. Trump said on Twitter that meetings with business leaders had convinced him that the change would give companies more flexibility and reduce costs.

The president was speaking economically, of course -- that perhaps large corporations could save time and money by filing semi-annual reports instead of quarterly, thus freeing businesses to take a longer-term approach to strategy, stock price goals, expansion, etc.

Nooyi said in an e-mailed statement, "Many market participants, as well as the Business Roundtable which we are a part of, have been discussing how to better orient corporations to have a more long-term view ... My comments were made in that broader context, and included a suggestion to explore the harmonization of the European system and the U.S. system of financial reporting."

Some investors and analysts said Trump’s argument made sense because it would cut costs of compiling and filing results and remove short-term distractions for those running companies. Others said quarterly disclosures are essential for investment decisions and support richer U.S. stock valuations, and that a change could make shares more volatile.

In other words, it's a battle between the companies that actually produce and make things, and the Wall Street parasites who make a living feeding off them. But over the past 40 years or so, the oxpeckers have increasingly begun to herd the black rhinos on which they sit, often stampeding them into disastrous decisions: for example, the disastrous merger of Time Inc. with first Warner Communications and then, as Time Warner, into the mutually suicidal embrace of AOL. The "transformative transactions" sought by a group of stupid, petty, greedy men enriched the executives but destroyed the company. Today, Time Magazine and the rest of the flagship publications of what was once one of America's mightiest, best run, and most influential media companies have essentially been sold off for parts, their once-formidable brands already a fading memory.

And while Wall Street and its machinations are remote from my daily life, business is not; in a fight between the two, I'm rooting for the black rhinos instead of the blood-sucking birds.  And so, I know, is Trump. He is, after all, a businessman himself, who inherited his father's empire and turned it into a global brand, whatever you may think of it, or him. He understands that the business of business is business, not social justice, political activity or any other ancillary activity. Google's motto may be "don't be evil" (stop laughing) and it may currently be trying to take advantage of its dominant market position to influence political events -- but the minute the feds come after it, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon as public utilities instead of private enterprises (for that's where all this is heading), watch them retrench, pronto.

Indeed, it's not just business that needs a respite from the increasing pace of infinitesimal events -- it's all of us.  Are we really better off by having our days sorted into seconds and even microseconds? Is it really vital to have instantaneous communication with the outside world? Are not some things better to be said at leisure, rather than repented of in haste? Can anything worthwhile or lasting be created in a Wall Street nano-second? Or can only often-irreversible damage be done?

The false sense of speed not only hinders rational commerce, it distorts our lives as well.  We've come to expect instant answers to our texts and emails, entertainment on "demand," breaking news delivered promptly to our phones and, soon enough I expect, directly to our brains.  The chatter never ceases, the noise never stops, because somewhere in the global world we now inhabit, somebody needs something right now, or, worse, wants to sell you something to keep their stock prices up and the oxpeckers happy.

One of the old Soviet methods of torture was sleep deprivation, leaving a blinding light on 24 hours a day and rudely awakening a prisoner instantly if he fell asleep.  After just a week or so, the man was completely broken, driven insane by the Eternal Now, with no chance to rest, recoup, or even think, much less plan in silence and in private for the future.

Alexander at Gaugamela: toujours l'audace, but what's the rush?

Controlled speed is one thing; flailing haste is another. It's the difference between a victorious military assault and a disorganized retreat. It's the difference between a reasoned essay and an instantly regrettable tweet. Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, and Patton spent a lot of time planning before launching their attacks on the Persians, the Gauls, the rest of Europe, and the Wehrmacht. The essence was not the speed but the audacity of the strikes; the enemy never saw them coming, and was therefore overwhelmed before it had time to react. A lot can happen in mere minutes and even seconds; it helps first to think it through: when your car is T-boned by a semi at an intersection, there's no time to go back and reassess your decision to run that red light.

So instead of allowing a bunch of oxpeckers to control the tempo and pace of our lives, let's all dial it back and let the rhinos have their say.  Make our plans, plot our moves. Let's turn off the voices in our heads, yank out the fillings in our teeth, power down the smart phones for at least the eight hours a day we should be sleeping, and see if some respite helps us to see things more clearly when we switch back and engage events at our pace instead of their pace. The future will come as it comes; we need to be ready for it, not rushing to collide with it and hoping for the best.