On names, and their ideals

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You would think that at some point during the five or so years I begged my parents to get me a dog, I would’ve had some name ideas stored up for the day they inevitably caved in.  But when I finally brought my 12-week old yellow labrador home, I had nothing.  After nearly two days, I settled on Ruby at my sister’s suggestion.  I had no idea that she had drawn the name from ABC‘s General Hospital, the soap opera she had gotten hooked on in those lazy summer days of high school.  As wikipedia informs me, Ruby’s character was a prostitute that, having grown too old for her profession, settled near family in Port Charles, opened a diner and grew to be “by far one of the kindest characters on the show.”

Some things draw inspiration and character from their names.  Others are named in the hope of creating some sort of ideal for which the thing might live up to.  Ruby did have a tendency to hump anything in sight, though we surely did not intend for her to develop such habits when we named her after a fictional prostitute.  She did, however, after many reckless years of running around on the streets, grow into the one of the kindest dogs ever.

Like Ruby, the idea of this blog existed long before its name.  I lingered a while before settling on the Benevolent Baron, which also like Ruby, came to me long before I ever pondered its origin, a mashup of the ideal of the benevolent dictator and the industrial revolution-era demagogues known as the robber barons.  As I think about it now, I am forced to reflect upon the ideal that it represents.

I thought of the robber barons because they conjured up an image of fervor to me, one of success at any and all costs.  I had hoped to capture and nurture that fervor in the pursuit of social and economic justice, not just rational self-interest.

And so I thought of the benevolent dictator, the ideal that we Western liberals created in our minds and placed aside for those days when we are particularly estranged with the slow, partisan, bureaucratic, political and sacrificial nature of representative democratic governance.  It is the image of an omniscient leader who, armed with perfect information and a proper conception of public interest, cuts through all of the bullshit and manages the books, solves problems and serves the people.

And so the Benevolent Baron came into existence, meant to be seen as an individual, armed with perfect information – about what social programs create genuine impact, about what benefits outweigh what costs, about the equity-efficiency trade-off – who could cut through all of the bullshit of politics, fundraising and data manipulation and serve the people with Carnegie-style greed.

The name, of course, is nothing more than an ideal, like equilibrium pricing or the efficient market hypothesis, or the first post I wrote in 2008 when I came up with it.  The ideal is difficult to fathom; there are too many uncertainties, too many tradeoffs, too many transactions costs, too many sticky things.  But it is an ideal worth looking up to.

The name may represent an ideal, but named things often have a stubborn capacity to evolve on their own, despite the namer’s best intentions.  I hold no illusions that the ideal can become real, or that this blog will always strike a harmonious balance between profit and welfare.  I can only wait and see what this thing grows up to be.  Hopefully it won’t prostitute it’s ideal for a little wealth.  And hopefully it won’t be too kind to those with good intentions but poor outcomes.

Somewhere in the middle there is a treat for humanity.  It’s time to go fetch it.

Posted on January 12th 2010 in ideas

Benevolent Thoughts

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It’s time to see what this is all about.  I am a Benevolent Baron, he who seeks to harness the power of the market to bring sustainable social good.  He, who is at once a capitalist and a socialist; individualist yet public servant; an entrepreneur, yet I have my boss: Humanity.

At the turn of the 20th century, there were men who changed the face of the world.  JP Morgan monopolized markets and fattened his pockets.  John D. Rockefeller amassed a personal fortune to rival gods.  They pursued personal gain with a fervor unknown in previous eras, with a disregard for public welfare unfathomable in democratic society.  They were the robber barons, and they won.

In the new century, the Benevolent Baron marches into the fray, infused with a similar greed, though not for money.  Not for fame.  But for social and economic justice for all.

The Benevolent Baron seeks to integrate capitalist ideas into the public and social sectors.  To ensure that aid organizations maximize the social returns on their investments.  To found businesses that solve human problems.  To tear down the ruthless ethic that has left far too many behind in the race for survival and joy.  To redefine the bottom line.

The robber barons eyed the bottom line as if it were an EKG on their own lives.  They rose and fell with the schizophrenic swoops of the market.  Yet the success and failure implicit in that bottom line has been of one measure, the easiest and most universal to mankind: numerical.  The Benevolent Baron embraces the numbers, yet applies a secondary measure.  A second bottom line, parallel to the first, measuring the social profit.

Admittedly, this is harder to measure.  Man became obsessed with cash only because it is so easy to count.  It is linear.  The second bottom line is multivariate, swaying from side to side, lurching upwards at times and falling freely at others.  Kicking and screaming, it struggles to break free from our traditional ideas about gains and losses.  It thrives in democratic debate, feeding off the individual moral and ethical codes of free thinkers.  The Benevolent Baron though has faith that the great equalizer that is the market can pin it down and chart it out.  We can redefine the bottom line.

Are you a Benevolent Baron?

Posted on August 7th 2008 in ideas
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