Revisiting Futurist Malcolm Forbes on Science, Technology & Capitalism

Malcolm Forbes
MALCOLM S. FORBES (1919-1990)

“[T]he point is, who’s going to spend all the money to dig out the ore if all of it has to be turned over to the commune of nations?  You obviously can’t go out and stick a flag down, as in the old colonial days, and say the moon is yours.  This is your Saturn.  But you just can’t remove incentive and say everything belongs to everybody.  That would mean nothing belongs to anybody, and nobody then would go get it.”—Malcolm S. Forbes in conversation with me in his office at Forbes, Inc., 1980

I first met Malcolm Forbes in the late 1970s with his motorcycle gang at Le Jules Verne, a tiny French restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village that the upper crusty families of New York used to frequent, and some time later called him at Forbes, Inc. where he was chairman, CEO, and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine to request an interview.  It was way before the Internet and before his appearance on 60 Minutes, at a time when Malcolm was being covered by Women’s Wear Daily and the motorcycle press for his various adventures as “the happiest millionaire,” beside penning opinions of his own for Forbes.  

I’ve decided to republish excerpts of my interview with Malcolm Forbes from that time because the discussion is still somewhat relevant and his humor, of course, ageless.  The  conversation first appeared in the February 1981 issue of Omni magazine with the cover blurb: “Malcolm Forbes on the Future of Capitalism.”

Omni - Forbes Cover

Malcolm several months later featured the interview in Forbes with the following banner:

“Editor-in-chief Malcolm Forbes was interviewed recently by author-journalist Suzan Mazur.  Their discussion, published in Omni magazine, ranged from presidential politics and national defense policy to the allocation of mineral rights on Jupiter. (The latter, Forbes says, is not our most pressing problem today.)  The interview follows.”

Would you say it’s time to rethink the election process?  Are the good people getting through?

The fact that somebody ends up in office who we all think is a big mistake, that seemingly the best man didn’t win—well, who’s to know?  Some of the best people have been disappointments, and some of the most unlikely have been successful.  Harry Truman, a failed haberdasher, for heaven’s sake, turned out to be a damned effective President.  And Dwight Eisenhower was good because he played a lot of golf and left the presidency to his lieutenants and staff at a time when doing things wasn’t in major measure a first priority.  You know presidents who are overactive can be a pain in the neck too.

There are other times when strong leadership, such as that provided by Winston Churchill during the Second World War, is right.  A Franklin Roosevelt, after totally reversing what he got elected on during the Depression, is seen in retrospect to have really saved the free-enterprise system, though he was damned by people like my father and everyone else in business as anathema.

So, who’s great and who isn’t?  The seeming mediocrities who get elected can turn out to be great, and some of the ones who just seem ideal for office can turn out to be duds.

. . .

On another one of your record making adventures last summer motorcycling across Russia, you presented Moscow’s Mayor Promyslov with one of your “capitalist tool” neckties in return for his gift to you of a key to the city of Moscow.  Would you say the future calls for more such personal efforts to ensure détente with the Russians?

Well, the mayor chuckled and then abruptly ceased chuckling.  But it was good-natured, and I gave him a scarf that has the same slogan for him to give to his wife.  It was a happy exchange.

I don’t think we have a problem on a people-to-people basis with the Soviet Union.  All the Russians I came across were friendly.  People-to-people contact is good.  And it’s been universally thus in almost every war.  Soldiers, for instance, could fraternize between attempts to kill one another.  There’s not even a thaw in such contacts as mine with Mayor Promyslov.

The good-fellow relationships have been tried on the presidential level as well.  You remember Roosevelt initially said, “Oh, I can handle good old Uncle Joe.”  This was near the end of the Second World War and just before the beginning of the Cold War.  What exists now, though, is a different matter.  The Soviet Union is a superpower with raw military might, pursuing its own interests.

Communism as a theory simply has not been accepted in the world.  It’s regarded as being both inefficient and enslaving.  The Russians are surrounded, in a sense, by a hostile world.  It’s true China’s a Communist nation.  Yugoslavia’s Communist.  But they don’t get along with the U.S.S.R.

What exists between the U.S.S.R. and the United States is a conflict of two dedicated beliefs in opposite ways of life and of governing populations.  Ours is more effective in the sense that people would rather get out of Russia, while nobody is trying to flee into Russia.  This makes the Russians even more defensive and more offensive.  That’s why all their resources, in a major measure anyway, are devoted to military strength.  That is what makes Russia matter.  It is not the power of its theory of government, which has lost its cutting edge in practice.

Motivation has come there in garden plots.  The government gives people little garden plots in Moscow, and that’s where 80% of their vegetables come from, not from communes. The motivation of free enterprise is something Russia is trending to because it’s the way to get results fastest.  The Communist system is eroding.

The Pentagon offered $200 million this past year in research and development money, a 70% increase in spending in three years, to schools such as MIT, Cornell, Stanford and Berkeley, for projects “unrelated directly to weapons,” but very much related to American militarism.  Other federal agencies’ offers have hardly matched inflation.  There are complaints that funds have been siphoned from environmental, health and social sciences.  It is argued that what we need more than new gadgetry is fewer physicists and engineers at the core of our Defense Department, more tacticians and a lot of honest-to-goodness soldiers.  Have we overlooked the importance of the sciences in appropriating these funds for the military?

No, I agree that we need more soldiers and more tacticians.  We need much more of the straightforward stuff.  A gun in the hand is worth any number being tested.

That’s also our problem with tanks.  The U.S.S.R. has umpteen thousands of them along its borders. We have a better tank, theoretically, that’s been undergoing tests and development for the past ten years.  Only recently did they finally decide it needed a filter, that there was dust on the battlefield, and that to keep the dust from fouling the engine, we needed a filter.

We have so much technology, and we brag so much about our technological superiority, but it’s always in the laboratory.  It’s always being tested. It’s not in the hands of troops of whom we don’t have enough.  So $200 million spent on this type of research, the Defense Department thinks, is very important for us.  It is not a misappropriation.  The misappropriation is the lack of greater appropriations.

What we need to do, I think, is to put a 50-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline and wrap it around the flag.  If some country seizes Americans as hostages and we decide to rescue them, we’ll have the capability to do it.

We simply have to realize that there is a cost to our freedom, to our high standard of life and to the umbrella we offer the rest of the free world.  With that responsibility to the freedom of peoples everywhere, we don’t have to preach.  We don’t have to upend their governments.

We’ve got to have weapons in the hands of our troops, not in the laboratories.  So the $200 million isn’t being wrongly allocated.  What’s wrong is there isn’t a few billion more being spent.

Does the military budget have to take priority over such other programs as research and development of the environmental, health and social sciences?

We’ve made enormous strides in those areas and have spent billions doing so.  That’s why a car now costs $2,000 more than it did five years ago.  Nine-tenths of the expense has been in cleaning up pollution and in extending the mileage gasoline gives us.  Making a chimney not smoke.  It all ends up in the price of the soap we buy.  It enables us to live longer in the environs of what was that smoking chimney, thanks to the environmental movement.  So we have spent billions.

But we cannot get back our essential military muscle at no cost.  Right now, with a 50-cent tax on a gallon of gasoline, we’ll be able to pay for a strong America.  We will cut the amount of gas we’ll need to import, and we’ll loosen our being held hostage to OPEC.  Then in a few years we’ll have synthetic fuels.

Do you think the breakup of the American family and old-fashioned morality has had a causal influence on the dissipation of American supremacy overseas?

I don’t think so.  In the first place I don’t agree that the American family has broken up.  Just because people don’t always get married and because some just live together, I don’t see that as a breakdown in morality.  Nor do I think the proliferation of pornography is sapping the American will and has changed our basic way of life.  It’s just brought a lot of hypocrisy out from under the rug.  Perhaps it’s too blatant.  But people buy those magazines and books by the millions.  They want them.  What’s the big deal if they’re adults?

I don’t agree with the profligate display of pornography, with it being pushed in your face.  But the point is that when it comes to young people living together before they get married—practicing you might say—I can’t agree that this has been a disaster.

Instead of having so many closet cases, people are just letting it all hang out to a greater degree.  I don’t think that’s bad or that it’s made us a weaker country.  I think we are morally healthier in many respects than we were in preceding decades.

What’s the most critical problem facing the world today?

War.  Next I’d say we’ve created an economy with a degree of overly materialistic expectation, especially in America.  We’ve got to the point where we no longer measure the quality of life by the number of bathtubs in the country.  Now, thanks to a greater degree of education and so forth, everyone feels he has a right to things that used to be way-out rewards—color TV, a van, a motorcycle.

Well, there’s going to be disappointment in this.  And maybe this kind of indulgence isn’t even desirable. I’m not generalizing, because I can afford all those things and have been lucky to have been born with money.  It’s just that wealth is relative.  I’ve also got to remind myself continually that there are some things you can like but just can’t have.

Can we replace the present technocracy with democracy where people matter?  Where people do for themselves?  Is the phasing out of bureaucracy possible?

I think technology has provided more answers than problems.  But the evil in bureaucracy is that in working for the federal government or the state, a person is almost unfirable under Civil Service.  You have no boss to whom you’re accountable.  You can be sloppy.  You can avoid decisions.  You couldn’t care less if the public’s waiting at the window at five o’clock.

Are there cues we should be taking from the Japanese?

It’s different in Japan, because the government is a partner in the corporate approach.  The Japanese government set up standards after the war that said everything exported from Japan must be of the very highest quality possible.

In our country that would not be desirable.  That’s total paternalism.  Here people are turned off by paternalistic employers.  They don’t want the employer providing them all a hygienic house.  If they choose to live in a tree house, they want the freedom to do so.  It’s not the company’s business.  Blue Cross and “Blue Care” is one thing, but I think our independence betwixt where we work and who we are is far more desirable.  It’s part of the American way of life.

In Japan the two are totally intertwined.  Once you join a company, you have job security, but you must conform.  You exercise in the morning to be healthy.  You genuinely applaud a new output record.  It’s your life and your company.  Well, that’ll never be so in America, and I don’t think it’s desirable.

Forbes had one of the first company bike racks in New York City back in the early Seventies.  Later you installed a corporate gymnasium, encouraging employees to work out on company time.  How do you see these as a departure from what the Japanese are doing?

They’re totally different.



How has your staff responded?

I would say 25% of the employees actively use the gym and paddleball courts on the roof, the golf nets and all those things.

Kip, director of our fitness center, will schedule a yoga class.  He might bring in a karate expert or someone adept in slimnastics or modern dance.

People who work here have been trained to do the Heimlich maneuver in the event someone’s choking.  Specialists in various departments have been trained in what should be done for a heart-attack victim.

It’s a participatory thing, though, and entirely voluntary.  It adds pleasure for people who work here, but it’s a pleasure of their choice.

Should other companies investigate such social technologies as gyms, lounges, holiday incentives, staggered work hours and four-day work weeks to improve the work environment of the future?

Yes.  Such innovations as staggered work hours have been successful in Sweden and other countries.  These things pay off in all kinds of practical ways—reduced absenteeism, greater productivity.  Aside from the cold dynamics of output, recognition of the human factor by the employer creates a zest among employees. They like what they’re doing and this is almost beyond price in the marketplace.

These things don’t all necessarily work everywhere, however.  Painting the work area with bright colors, or different colors, has not worked for the Swedes.

And then there’s the four-day work week.  We tried it at Forbes about five years ago. It was not a success.  The reason why it didn’t work for us was that the day we closed—Friday—most other businesses were functioning.  We had to have somebody in each department.  That meant the Friday people were off Monday for their four-day week.  In effect it meant that we were on a three-day fully manned week.  In our business it just didn’t work.

The point is, though, a wise management keep trying to create an awareness of individual worth in the company. As I said in The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm, “Everybody has to be somebody to somebody to be anybody.”  We don’t live in a vacuum, and the personal element is especially important in a company complex.

In the workplace of tomorrow, then, social technologies must be relevant to the specific situation.

There’s no blueprint, but there can’t be paternalism.  We’re not in the Japanese mold of work.  We don’t want everybody singing the company song and doing calisthenics together.  That’s baloney.  It would be a travesty here.  Americans put a far greater emphasis on personal freedom.

. . .

Is an emphasis in the schools on more technical education at the expense of the humanities an answer to revitalizing industry and updating our plants and machinery?  Should engineering schools promote more studies in basic technology, rather than favor the glamorous areas of computer science, data processing and oil engineering?

Yes, I think most of the excitement in the future of industry lies in making inroads into technology.  But I don’t agree that we should promote low technology over high technology.  We’ve all gotten quite good at sticking hubcaps on tires.  There can’t be too much emphasis on devising the computer that sticks them on more accurately and even determines whether they should be stuck on at all.

The Navy Department, for example, can’t function with what it has, not for lack of low technology, but because we don’t have enough of the other.  This is where the excitement is, in high technology, training somebody who can fix things when they break.

Should there be less emphasis on the humanities in schools?

Without sacrificing the humanities.  The humanities are vital.  We can’t just change the proportion of the numbers of those entering the sciences.  I don’t believe in these great coordinated programs that say, “Five years from now we’ll have ten thousand more technicians in this area, forty thousand more in that.  Here’s a program to fund it.”  I think supply and demand is the great impetus.

There will always be, and should be, encouragement for studying civilization and its literature and its poetry.  And there’s no way an increased emphasis on high technology will lessen the number of poets who are turning out verses in the garret or after hours at McDonald’s.

What should be pointed out to youngsters, though, beginning in the preschool years, are the boundless opportunities in science.  I think parents should be more attentive to turning kids on to the excitement of research through games, chemistry sets, television science programs.  Kids who have any interest in technology should be made aware of the growing demand for skilled biologists, micrologists and computer scientists, and of the increasing financial payoffs.

Where do you see the growth areas in science?

Medicine, biology, energy.  We’re going to have energy running out of our ears in five years.

Considering that virtually all significant solar pioneering companies are owned by big oil—Arco, Exxon, Mobil and Shell—can we expect a low-cost solar energy to emerge?  And are these the right companies to be developing solar?

It seems to be complicated to make the solar cell affordable.  But we are not depending on the oil companies exclusively, though their future does depend on their doing it.

Maybe a Gould—in the battery area—or a Kodak—with its film that gathers and transmits light—will become the biggest energy company.  Competition of big business for a future in survival will eventually give us lower-costing energy.  But I think there’s no need to be crybabies about it or to think we can turn overnight to dependence on solar.  We will, though, in five years have energy coming out of our ears.  When we do, the price of energy will diminish.

. . .

Since every last mineral can be found in space fiftyfold, do you think a principal aim should be to recapture the vision of space exploration that we quickly abandoned after we landed on the moon?

Space is, pardon the pun, so far out that I find it hard to reach out and understand.  I can understand mining the bottom of the seas, for instance, for these great nodules of valuable metals.  The resources on this planet seem reasonably boundless.  Space is so vast that it reaches beyond my comprehension.

Are you familiar with the mass driver and with Gerard O’Neill’s book The High Frontier?

These high frontiers are surely exciting, but whether it’s economical to go there to support the Earth’s population, I’m not sure.  I think it more immediately feasible to concentrate on the planet we are stuck with and on.

But it’s very important that we don’t overlook space, which is such a turn-on to such increasing numbers of people.  Space exploration has got to be encouraged.  Who can imagine what the horizons are?  They’re limitless in terms of what we may learn about life.

As to giving exploration an economic basis now, though, it’s hard to see how the answers could lie out in space.  At the same time, if we’re not out there exploring, learning—we’ve already discussed how corporations don’t anticipate the future—it’s a mistake.  Considering all the products that have been derived from  our space effort, we’d better hoist up our boot straps and get back into the act.

How do you view the Moon Treaty?  Should the profits of space be shared equally among all the nations of the world, so that Sri Lanka, for instance, gets material benefits the same as France, even though Sri Lanka has no space program?  Could private enterprise and Third World interests both be met in space?

I think it’s a nice academic theory but the point is, who’s going to spend all the money to dig out the ore if all of it has to be turned over to the commune of nations?  You obviously can’t go out and stick a flag down, as in the old colonial days, and say the moon is yours.  This is your Saturn.  But you just can’t remove incentive and say everything belongs to everybody.  That would mean nothing belongs to anybody, and nobody then would go get it.

Knowledge brought back from space, I feel, should be universally shared so that Uganda receives 100% of whatever we know.  And Sri Lanka would also get 100%.  But as for the material things, I think it’s a bridge that may not have to be crossed for a few lifetimes.

But what if we were to cross the bridge?

It’s like Arabian oil.  The Arabs were poverty-ridden nomadic people, in many respects, until they found oil.  Presumably, they’re very pro-Third World.  But as for how much they’d be willing to share with Sri Lanka, as far as I know, Sri Lanka is paying what we’re paying for a barrel of oil these days.

I think that if the French find a lot of ore on a particular asteroid, then France should be able to sell the ore in the world marketplace.  Then somebody else will go after another asteroid for ore as entrepreneurs have done on Earth for oil and for everything else.  Competition makes people go seek it and mankind profits universally.  Though a drug company may own the rights to a certain medicine, mankind globally eradicates a certain disease.

It is the kind of academic question for which it would be wonderful to have a practical case to argue.  I think we’ll all benefit when somebody does come back with something that everybody wants.  We’ll all be the beneficiaries then, whether we have universally agreed to share equally or not—which is unlikely.

You were the first man to cross the United States in a hot-air balloon and the first foreigner to cross the Soviet Union on a motorcycle.  You’ve cycled to the Arctic Circle and back.  Where will your next adventure take you?

The next corporate stockholder meeting in Fiji.  I don’t know.  I find every day quite an adventure.  Going to an auction or art gallery.  Getting a letter about a collection of paintings or the prospects of another piece of Faberge becoming available.  Negotiating and figuring out where and how far we can go.  Just sitting down this morning and doing a few editorials for the next issue of Forbes.  Expressing opinions and not having to follow through with implementing decisions for telling the new President what to do.  Telling corporations why they shouldn’t be doing such and such.  It’s good fun to be giving advice.  I’m much better at that than taking it.

What kind of President would Malcolm Forbes be?

Of Forbes, Inc., which he has enjoyed.  In public life I’d be ideal, because I wouldn’t take it.  I haven’t been offered it.  Nobody’s asked me.  And, you know, the unlikelihood of that is total.  So I can be very objective about it.  I’m flattered that such a question was even asked.

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