Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Church of the For-Profit Corporation: Daymon Smith's "The Book of Mammon"

You mean the Church produced videos, DVDs, plays, digital media, and never actually did audience research, or evaluated their effects? And some stupid five‐minute film costs how much!?! [...] after working at the COB I understand why saccharin does not measure the heavy handed artifice dumped upon our films. “Propaganda” is too kind, and ascribes too great an effect.

That's from Daymon Smith's new book The Book of Mammon: A Book About A Book About The Corporation That Owns The Mormons.

I don't know how many of you would be surprised to learn that "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" is a trademark owned by a "corporation sole", and that the fortune-500-level wealth of the church is owned by a corporation that consists of one man. It doesn't matter how much time and money you donate to this corporation sole (the corporation of the president), he owes you absolutely nothing in return. Notably, he doesn't owe anyone any public accounting for where that money goes and what becomes of it.

To see how that works out in real life, just read Daymon Smith's entertaining memoir of the time he spent working at the Church Office Building (COB). The bottom line is that if God needs flesh-and-blood followers to send money to Him, then it's reasonably to expect He'd need live humans scrutinizing the accounting books as well. You can't just toss (worldly) money into a grand, corporate black hole and trust that God is keeping an eye on how it's spent. If you've been trusting in God's accounting skills, it turns out that He's asleep at the books.

According to Daymon's tale, working at the COB has all of the crazy office politics you'd expect at an ordinary fortune-500 corporation. There's a big difference, though, and it's not just the church devotionals on company time or opening meetings with prayer. The problem is that they have absolutely no motivation to figure out whether their products are useful to their consumers. Mormons pay 10% of their income per year to the corporation (in order to be eligible for the saving ordinances in the temple), and the corporation gives back manuals, magazines, films, scriptures, garments, etc. -- but the direct market feedback that comes from consumers selecting the goods they purchase is completely cut off.

As I've said before the private sector and the public sector each have their strengths and weaknesses. In economics, it's not a question of choosing which one is "right" and which one is "wrong" -- it's a question of optimizing your strategy by using the best of both. The COB has the worst of both because it has the advantages of neither: there's no market incentive to produce good products, and there's no public oversight either.

(The biggest irony is how ferociously right-wing the Mormons are, yet they give so much money to a corporation that functions just like the very worst stereotypes of the Soviet government economic system.)

One of the most amusing illustrations in Smith's book was how -- instead of doing any kind of reality-based market research -- the Cobbers would waste countless hours of labor creating "personas" -- that is, invented profiles that are meant to represent typical consumers of their products. Unsurprisingly, the "personas" seem to need exactly the sorts of things their COB-authors are poised to produce. The personas even have their creators' racism baked right in, as the Spanish-speaking persona not only wanted printed materials in Spanish, but also wanted them dumbed-down. (Actually, that one is a little surprising since I can hardly imagine these materials could be dumbed-down any further.)

Smith's book gives you the inside story on some products and programs you may remember if you're Mormon. For example, marketing the "quad" from the pulpit at General Conference and moving pallets of piled-up Books of Mormon through a program where Mormons were encouraged to buy copies and paste their pictures and testimonies in them for the missionaries to distribute. (Yep, I remember doing that with my family when I was a kid.) Plus he recounts some other episodes that are almost too amazing to be believed, such as getting feedback from members in Africa, Mexico, and the Philippines on an "educational" film for Mormon bishops about the importance of getting (Spanish-speaking) freeloaders off the church welfare rolls.

The whole story is written in the style of an 18th or 19th century expose. It reminded me of some of the French libels described by Robert Darnton, complete with an amusing line-drawing frontispiece illustrating the subject:

Overall, The Book of Mammon is eye-opening and quite entertaining. It's a little dense, but worth the effort.


galen dara said...

ah!! I listened to his interview on @MormonStories, it was FASCINATING! will definitely need to pick up the book now. THanks for the review!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey G!!!

Yeah, I enjoyed his Mormon Stories interviews as well. We'll be posting a bit of a follow-up interview (in print form, not podcast) on Main Street Plaza on Friday.

Nathaniel said...

This is why I love reading your blog. I learn so many interesting things about Mormon culture.

As for the racial issue, just how bad is the racism in the modern Mormon church? Really bad? Southern Baptist bad? No worse than any other predominantly white church?

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Nathaniel!!!

When it comes to racism, the Mormons have several conflicting dynamics, so it's very hard to compare them to other groups.

First of all, the Mormon priesthood and temple rites were denied to black people up until 1979. They got a lot of bad press for it, and to some degree that weeded out people who weren't willing to stand up for racism as a gospel principle. And now today, there's the organization's all-out attack on civil rights for gay people, which is driving out good people in droves. It creates a climate where intolerance is a virtue. And the authoritarian culture creates a vicious circle where liberals and moderates feel increasingly less welcome (as more and more of them vote with their feet). As a result, faithful Mormons are essentially the most extremely right-wing religious group in the US (see here).

On the other hand, faithful Mormons typically go on two-year proselytizing missions, and that often entails learning a new language and culture. This creates some very real integration. In particular, it's quite common for Mormons to marry people from the country where they served their mission (see this story, for example). And Latin America is one of the places where the Mormons have had the most success in converting people. (Though the Mormon leaders in Latin America are disproportionately anglo.)

These two dynamics are hitting head-on in Arizona -- a state that is full of both Mormons and hate for Mexicans (see here for some discussion).

C. L. Hanson said...

Oh, and don't forget: I interviewed the author on MSP. His answers are quite fascinating!

galen dara said...

oh I DIDN'T know you had interviewed him too! thanks for the link!