My Defection Story

How I came to challenge the economic theories and institutions I once served.
Small Town, Photo by Steve Minor

David Korten's roots in small town America taught him the value of community.

Photo by Steve Minor

This is the second of a series of blogs based on excerpts adapted from the 2nd edition of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. I wrote Agenda to spur a national conversation on economic policy issues and options that are otherwise largely ignored. This blog series is intended to contribute to that conversation. —DK

Many people are intrigued by the story of my defection from my establishment roots to becoming a rebel voice challenging the legitimacy of the institutions I once served. It is the story of a lifelong journey filled with an uncommonly rich and varied collection of experiences. Here are some highlights:

I grew up in a conservative small town where I learned to value family, community, and nature. I was raised to believe in the special character of America as a middle-class democracy, free from the extremes of wealth and poverty that supposedly characterized the world’s less advanced nations. In my childhood, my dad, a local retail merchant, taught me that if your primary business purpose is not to serve your customers and community, then you have no business being in business.

My Stanford Business School education taught me to look for the big picture. My doctoral dissertation research on cultural change in Ethiopia and its impact on modern organizations taught me the power of culture in shaping collective behavior.

Every act of resistance against what we don’t want must be paired with a positive vision of what we do want.

From my experience as an Air Force captain on the faculty of the Special Air Warfare School and as a military aide in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, I learned how the world’s most powerful military was thwarted by the self-organizing networks of an ill-equipped peasant army motivated by a vision of independence and self-rule. That experience helped me later recognize the potential of a committed citizenry to likewise thwart the seemingly invincible power of Wall Street and gave me insights into how that resistance might self-organize.

While academic director of the Central American Institute for Business Administration in Managua, Nicaragua, I witnessed the extreme gap between the super-rich and the super-poor.
While a professor on the organization faculty at the Harvard Business School, I learned how the structures of large-scale institutional systems shape behavior and how system structures can be designed to support intended outcomes.

During fifteen years in Asia with the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development, I experienced the positive power and potential of local community self-organization and the importance of the local control and management of essential natural resources and participated in many experiences in large-scale organizational change. These were the years of my awakening to the terrible truth that development models centered on economic growth almost inevitably make a few people fabulously wealthy at an enormous social and environmental cost to the substantial majority.

In 1992, Fran (my wife) and I returned to the United States and settled in New York City near Union Square between Madison Avenue and Wall Street and engaged the inquiry into the nature of the publicly traded limited liability, private-benefit corporation as an inherently destructive anti-market business form that produced When Corporations Rule the World.

As a founding member of the International Forum on Globalization, I learned about the power of a new story propagated through global citizen networks to thwart the agenda of the world’s most powerful corporations and reshape the course of history.

As the co-founder and board chair of YES! Magazine, I have come to realize that every act of resistance against what we don’t want must be paired with a positive vision of what we do want.

NYSE Broker, Photo by Hernan SeoaneThe Missing Vision
David Korten begins a blog series outlining his Agenda for a New Economy

Writing The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism drew me into in the study of the incredible reality of life’s capacity for creative, cooperative self-organization and the implications for the design of economies that mimic healthy living systems.

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community drew me into an examination of contemporary impact of five thousand years of organizing human societies as hierarchies of domination governed by institutions that nurture and reward moral, emotional, and behavioral dysfunction.

My experience as a founding board member of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies has immersed me in the experience of communities all across the United States and Canada that are taking control of their economic future by rebuilding their local economies.

These are a few of the experiences and lessons that inform and find expression in Agenda for a New Economy and the blogs I will be sharing here in the next few months.

[Next The Illusion of Money]

The ideas presented here are developed in greater detail in Agenda for a New Economy available from the YES! Magazine web store – where there are 3 WAYS TO GET THE BOOK and a 22% discount!


3 WAYS TO GET THE BOOK with a 22% discount

  • David Korten and David Brancaccio discuss what economic transformation has to do with building stronger, happier communities.

  • All across the United States and Canada people are rebuilding their local economies to restore community and regain control of their economic lives. How do these local efforts add up to global economic transformation?.