Bank Of America's Latest Grand Idea: Send Malcolm Gladwell To Talk To Small-Business Owners
As loyal readers probably know, Bank of America has been having problems of late, owing to its serial awfulness and constant mistakes. As Bloomberg reported in October, the beleaguered bank was ranked the "lowest in a 24-bank survey of small business customer satisfaction from J.D. Power and Associates." And recently it achieved the distinction of being named the country's second-worst company by Consumerist.com after BP Plc, the firm blamed for the worst U.S. offshore oil spill.
So, what's Bank of America to do? Well, it could make a company-wide commitment to offering better customer service and undertake a systemic reform of its business practices. But instead, the bank hired Malcolm Gladwell as a shill and put him in front of small-business owners to get 'em all riled up.
According to a press release, Bank of America delivered "quality education and actionable advice to small business owners in various markets throughout the country." At these meet-ups, which "attracted close to 200 small business owners in Los Angeles, Dallas and Washington, D.C.," Gladwell was the closing act for a moderated "panel discussion on relationship capital." All of which sounds like a furtive stab of pre-crash nostalgia. In fact, the notion of having Malcolm Gladwell provide happy talk for the banking industry channels the year 2006 so hard that it's amazing this guy wasn't invited back to reprise his U2 karaoke act:
Gladwell, of course, is best known as the author of The Tipping Point and Blink, the latter book being a treatise on how "spontaneous decisions are often as good as -- or even better than -- carefully planned and considered ones." It seems pretty clear that Bank of America has fully embraced this premise in its foreclosure practices, which is a big part of the reason why the bank's brand has taken a beating in recent years.
But concerns that Gladwell's teachings don't exactly pair well with the current state of the banking industry and what we've learned about the practices that nearly brought the economy to a crashing halt in 2008 don't end there. As Chris Lehmann wrote in his book Rich People Things:
Regardless of whether Gladwell is describing the way we actually behave and absorb new ideas and social trends, he is clearly offering a very appealing picture of how his readership wishes the world works. The chief hero in his work is the intuitive manager -- a new millenial upgrade of the plucky upward-striving protagonists in the Gilded Age fiction of Horatio Alger. But where Alger stressed the character-building individualist virtues of thrift, hard work, and self-sacrifice -- themselves already endangered traits in the new industrial order of the robber baron age -- Gladwell is preaching an entirely consumption-driven model of the gospel of success. The idea in his market fables is not to light out for new economic territory with grit and invention; it is, rather, to establish a mystical bond with market forces and to surmise how the market most wants you to behave.
Yeah, you know, given the fact that U.S. taxpayers donated several trillion dollars to failed banks under the (apparently fraudulent) premise that they would "light out for new economic territory" and begin lending money to the productive side of the economy again, thereby stirring the economy from its recession-induced torpor, it doesn't exactly fill me with confidence to hear that Bank of America is pimping out an author who'll only reaffirm its faith-based belief in the infallibility of the quantitative models it believed provided a risk-free environment in which to sell synthetic crap-derivatives to everybody.
In short, if heaven is a place where horned demons are laying the foundation for a "Gymnasium of the Damned" for Jerry Sandusky in bottomless pools of red-hot magma, then Gladwell and Bank of America are a match made in it.