What if the Customers are Wrong?


September 23, 2005


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This is a story about a coach, and also about the market, and the tragedy it can work on the moral influences in the lives of kids.

Partisans of the market applaud the way it turns us into consumers. This for them is the preferred social role in pretty much all our life dealings. As consumers we know our self-interest. As consumers we choose wisely; and the aggregate of our individual choices therefore is the greatest possible common good. But we sagacious consumers suddenly turn stupid when we become voters and citizens. We make bad choices, or are easily duped. So it is better to keep that role to a minimum – to ratifying the market, sort of the way shareholders ratify management.

The real agenda here of course is power. As isolated integers of consumption we cannot wield much, but as voters we can kick up a lot of sand. But leave that aside for the moment. What actually happens when the market model displaces traditional relationships, in education for example? This is something the Right devoutly seeks, with vouchers primarily. (They say it’s about choice, when actually it’s about undermining the teachers’ unions. But leave that aside too.)

Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, shed some light on the question in his most recent book, called Coach, Lessons on the Game of Life. The book centers on Billy Fitzgerald, the coach who had a major influence on Lewis, and who still coaches at the author’s former school in New Orleans. Fitzgerald is a former Louisiana high school legend who became a professional baseball player. As a coach he drove his players hard, and he made sure they played teams that were a better than they themselves were.

His aim was to teach his kids to deal with failure, and to become better for it. As Lewis recalled in an interview, his coach would say something like this:

“Look, the enemies in life – I know broken lives; people who I played with had broken lives – are fear and failure, and you are going to encounter them. I’m going to teach you how to deal with failure. I’m going to teach you how to be uncomfortable and how to live with it, because I’m going to make you uncomfortable. They’re going to be times you are going to be scared. Being scared isn’t the problem – you’re supposed to be scared – the problem is how you respond to the fear.”

Fitzgerald once put Lewis in to pitch in the ninth inning of a close game, against a team that – as usual — was bigger and better. After he struck out the final batter to seal the victory, the coach gathered the players on the sidelines for an impassioned speech. He said “that I had a unique courage, that I had real guts,” Lewis recalled. “He gave this speech that so dramatically misrepresented who I was in such a positive way, but so persuasively, that I started to think of myself slightly differently.”

(I had a teacher like that, and he changed my life too. He saw something in me that I didn’t know was there, and maybe wasn’t until he saw it. )

Twenty years later, Billy Fitzgerald still is coaching at Lewis’ former school. A group of alumni is raising money to build a new gymnasium to be named for him. But some parents of current students want him fired, because they think he “abuses” their kids and is too tough. Yet if anything the coach has mellowed. What has happened over the last two decades to account for the shift in the way people see the man, from inspiration to ogre?

Lewis cites a number of things. For one, parents are hysterical about their childrens’ careers. Failure – the very thing Fitzgerald wants them to learn to deal with – is now seen as a blockage on the road to Harvard. For another thing, parents don’t spend as much time with their kids. Their notion of parenting has more to do with managerial intervention – calling the headmaster when the coach hurts their kids’ feelings, for example.

The third thing has to do with the way the market model has taken over life. Two decades ago, parents tended to defer to the authority of the headmaster and teachers. If the coach was tough then the kid had to learn to deal with it. Now they see the situation differently. “The parents feel more like customers, and the customer is always right,” Lewis says. “The headmaster now regards himself as having to deal with his customers.”

There is something out of kilter here. In the conventional script, Coach Fitzgerald, upholder of discipline and traditional values, would be undone by Title 9 or some other weepy liberal scheme. Instead he is threatened by the very thing our right wing friends want to foist upon us – the market model that turns us all into consumers. They lecture us without end on the sanctity of traditional values. Then they espouse an economics that displaces those values with the moral relativism of the market.

As a certain prophet once observed, a house divided against itself cannot stand. The next sentence was, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” It’s time to ask our righteous friends, which side are you on?