Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What’s In It For Me?

An editorial appearing in today’s (July 4, 2012) New York Times has triggered the memory of an incident that occurred in my professional life.  I had this really big case in Chicago back about ten or so years ago.  Without going into the details, suffice it to say that it was going to be a battle of the experts.  An important issue was at stake and without the most knowledgeable experts in the world, the case was a loser.  So I went to this guy in Phoenix, met with him there.  He was by everyone’s measure, the most outstanding scientist in the world on the topic at issue.  We had lunch together during which the discussion was astounding.  Ever since that day, I wished that I’d taped the conversation because its scope and the wisdom and understanding the man brought to the table was mesmerizing.  But in the end, the thing that struck me most about the meeting was something he said at the end of the discussion after I asked him what his fee would be for participating in the trial.  He smiled graciously and the subsequent conversation went (as best I can recall) something like this;

Prospective witness (big smile on his handsome face):  “Before I tell you, I have to mention the most important rule of my life.  This is the rule that has guided me throughout my life, dictated my efforts and determined all my actions.  Are you ready?

Me:  Nearly swallowing my tongue, I couldn’t speak. (Imagine that, a speechless lawyer).  I sat up straighter in my chair and simply nodded.

Prospective witness:   “The number one rule in my life is to always ask the question ‘What’s in it for me?’” 

Me:  I swallowed again.  I tend to be slow-witted, but I began to get the drift.  I needed clarification, so I asked, “What do you mean?”

PW: “I mean exactly what I’ve just said. What’s in it for me?  Everything in your entire case is because of work I’ve spent a life time doing.  The reward for you and your client is going to be enormous if I agree to testify.  The publicity from the case will make you famous and will bring new clients flocking to your door.  All because of me. So I ask the question again, what’s in it for me?”

Kurt Andersen in the above-referenced editorial writes about the genesis of the ‘what’s in it for me’ way of thinking in the feel-good late 1960s. ““Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.
People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.”

I have struggled, really struggled, to understand the enigma of how well-meaning Americans can stand up with placards at Tea Party demonstrations that say “Keep the government away from my social security.”  This morning, another barrier to my lack of understanding was removed and triggered by the flashback of the old memory coupled with Andersen’s writing.  Most of us simply don’t care about the other guy.  It’s about my social security, not yours. 

The strict constructionists of our era are fond of going back and reminding us what our forefathers had in mind when they wrote a constitution dedicated to the pursuit of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Andersen  included a pithy reminder from Thomas Jefferson (who wrote the Declaration of Independence) in this morning’s essay:  “Self-love,” Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.”
P.S.  I paid the witness the enormous amount he quoted and the case settled with a non-disclosure agreement the day after he was listed as a witness.

Just saying . . .  

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