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Chump Change

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 1/14/08

The most incisive summary I've seen of the current electoral rhetoric was an editorial cartoon by Matt Davies that appeared in last week's LA Times. A man is walking his dog past a lawn bristling with signs that read "Huckabee for change," "Edwards for Change," "Obama Change" "Romney says change in '08," and so forth, as he thinks to himself "Same ol, same ol'."

Well, yes and no. It doesn't take a lot of political savvy to trot out the C-word when the administration and Congress are unpopular, the economy is in free fall, and three-quarters of the electorate say that the country is on the wrong track. Change has always been the obvious card for nonincumbents to play, whatever direction they're planning to head in. When he first ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton described himself as "the change we need." Jimmy Carter billed himself in 1976 as "A leader for a change," which voters were free to take as a dig at Gerald Ford. In 1952, after 20 years of Democratic rule, the Republicans campaigned for Eisenhower under the official slogan "It's time for a change," though the terser "I like Ike" proved handier for jingles and campaign buttons.

But the language of change itself has changed in the interim. In 1952, Eisenhower would never have thought to describe himself as a "change agent," which to most people would have conjured up nothing more than a guy passing out coins at a booth in the subway. Back then, "change agent" was still an obscure bit of social-science jargon for an innovator or what people now call an "early adapter" -- the first villager to buy a bicycle, the first doctor to try a new procedure.[1]

By the 1980's "change agent" was showing up in corporate jargon with a somewhat grander meaning, as the trait that separates the managerial mice and men. At least that's how the story is told by the motivational writer Spencer Johnson in his bestselling Who Moved My Cheese? The work is a 94-page fable set in a maze inhabited by two mice and by two little humans named Hem and Haw, who discover one day that their daily ration of cheese is not in its customary place. They whine and curse their fate until Haw realizes that they have to overcome their debilitating fear of change and boldly resolve to seek out new cheese elsewhere.

Who Moved My Cheese? has been a huge success with managers, who don't seem to see anything condescending in an allegory that depicts workers as creatures scurrying for cheese in a maze. Since its publication in 1998 it has sold more than 5 million copies, including carloads shipped to companies like Southwest Airlines and General Motors for distribution to their employees.

Of course employees are apt to be apprehensive when copies of the book start to show up in their mailboxes, since they know that the change they're about to be encouraged to embrace will likely come not in the abstract, but in the form of a plural noun -- as in "We're going to be making some changes around here." That's not a sentence most people are happy to hear these days, particularly if they happen to be working for an airline or automobile company.

Still, the label "change agent" has the heroic ring of other new corporate job descriptions like champion, road warrior, and thought leader. In an age that has turned CEO's into media icons, it suggests that business success is a validation of personal charisma, not simply competence. And modern managers are naturally gratified by the suggestion that the challenge of constant change is more urgent and daunting for them than it was in the leisurely days when Alfred P. Sloan was running General Motors and FDR was running the country.

It was inevitable that the term would show up in politics, as both Republicans and Democrats took to talking about government with the language of business, so that every education or public health program had to be justified as an investment in human capital. In fact it isn't surprising that the New Democrat Bill Clinton would become the first national politician to describe himself as a change agent when he launched his run for the presidency in 1991, at another moment of voter discontent with the economy and the government. In the current campaign nearly every candidate has claimed the "change agent" label, and last week Bill Clinton upped the ante when he described Hillary Clinton as a "world-class change agent." Fifty years from now, that phrase will be as evocative of the Clinton era as "23 skidoo" is of the age of Warren Harding.

Any label as accommodating as "change agent" is going to be wholly empty of substance. It's a statement about your personality, not your plans or programs. And the qualifications for the label are infinitely elastic -- you're a person who can make things change because you've been around for a while or because you're a fresh face, because you're an old Washington hand or because you're an outsider, because you're tough or because you're flexible. When I hear someone described as a change agent, I can't help recalling the older meaning of the term. As New Yorkers used to say, that and a nickel will get you on the subway.

1. The OED gives the first citation for "change agent" from 1959, but it goes back at least a decade earlier than that. A 1950 article in the Journal of Educational Sociology cited a 1949 work called Group Processes in Supervision, and went on to say:

This volume is a treasure of naïve concepts concerning human behavior. It is further characterized by a low level of scholarship and problem formulation. The authors of this catalogue of nonsense are also responsible for the creation and perpetuation of such gems as "effective living," "social engineering," "Talk-Democracy," "Do-Democracy," "Consent Democracy," "change agent," "action-research," and... not only "group processes" but "effective group processes," not "thinking" but "critical thinking," not "living" but "effective or ever-enriched" living, not "democracy" but "real" or "true" democracy, and so on.

It's notable that the phrase was criticized as jargon almost as soon as it was coined. return

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.