Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Stewardship

Recently I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what this word means, since I’ve heard it brought up in several contexts over the past year or so. Repeatedly, it has been invoked by those who support the building of a Casino on reservation land in Middleboro. They believe that the casino will be a good thing for the local economy, in large measure because the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe are “good stewards.”

This begs the question, what does stewardship mean?
Per Merriam Webster’s dictionary online, the word dates from the 15th century, and has two main meanings:
1. The office, duties, and obligations of a steward.
2. The conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially: the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care, stewardship of our natural resources.

Most people, when they invoke stewardship in support of the casino, have definition #2 in mind. One issue I have with the use of the idea of stewardship in support of the casino enterprise is that stewardship appears to me to be on the endangered species list in the current ethical environment. We are becoming increasingly unable to see, and plan, long term. We are fixated on the short term solution for the immediate crisis; on achieving the short term gain no matter what its long-term cost. We unfailingly believe that, once we’ve got ours (or have arranged to get it), the future will take care of itself.

Traditionally, in the corporate world, management embodied the concept of stewardship. Although the latest bottom line was always important, a manager of an enterprise was also expected (if not required) to take a longer range view and insure that the enterprise would survive beyond the current fiscal year. That was a given.

That given has eroded completely. Take Enron as a case-in-point. Where was the “stewardship” of the Enron executives who willfully and knowingly colluded in fiscal mismanagement and outright fraud, leading to the destruction of the organization, and severe hardship to thousands of people whose only crime was to come in to work every day and do their jobs? When personal short-term gain came into conflict with the long-term needs and health of that corporate entity, and the long-term welfare of its rank and file employees, the “stewards” of that enterprise repeatedly chose their personal gain, and devil take the organization and it workers. The result played out in front of us in news stories about the collapse, and regular updates on the court proceedings. The employees who lost not only their jobs, but also thousands of their dollars in the collapse of the company were simply out of luck. They backed a losing horse, they shot the dice and came up craps, choose your gambling metaphor.

Only they weren’t the ones that were gambling, were they?

On the surface this may appear to have nothing to do with the proposed reservation Casino in Middleboro, but please bear with me. Consider the recent agreement between the Town of Mashpee and the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in this context. The Tribe has promised not to seek any private or town-owned land, and promises not to build a class II or class III casino in Mashpee. The Tribe did retain the right to offer bingo in Mashpee at the level allowed by Massachusetts law. In exchange, the town of Mashpee agreed to support of the tribe’s application to take 140 acres in Mashpee (which acres are currently not on the town’s tax rolls) into trust as a reservation, which would also (presumably) place the land beyond the jurisdiction of local zoning ordinances.

The agreement is intended to protect the Town of Mashpee from further land claims by the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe as an entity (and presumably, by members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe as individuals), and from the construction of a destination resort-casino in Mashpee. Neither the residents of Mashpee, nor the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe are content to trust in each other's “good stewardship” of their relationship without the underpinning of a negotiated and (they hope) legally-binding instrument. Given the sometimes adversarial relationship between the Wampanoag Tribe and the Town of Mashpee in recent history, especially with regard to land ownership, this reluctance is understandable.

Consider also the governor’s championing of class III gambling in Massachusetts in the context of stewardship as defined above. Is it “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care” to insert into a budget money that cannot actually be collected until several years have elapsed, to spend money on a study that will be at least a year out of date by the time the issue of commercial gambling in Massachusetts is again placed before the legislature, and to use wildly-inflated estimates of jobs and revenue in one’s projections in support of expanded gambling in Massachusetts?

Finally, consider the recent history of the Middleboro Casino proposal, the development of the Intergovernmental Agreement, and ponder the role of the Board of Selectmen as stewards of the residents of Middleboro. Res Ipsa Loquitur.

Please, let us not blindly place our faith in “stewardship.” As an ethical concept that actually motivates the actions of people in power, it is going the way of the Dodo bird, as a shield against exploitation it is a cobweb.


Gladys Kravitz said...

Fiferstone... you had me at dues a machina . (From a comment on another blog.) You are brilliant, funny, and always on the mark. I am selfishly happy that circumstances have brought us into the same sphere.

Wonderful post on Stewardship!

I look forward to all your future postings!


Heather said...

Welcome to the Blogsphere. Your first effort is articulate and well considered. Thanks for injecting some sanity into this dysfunctional moment in our town's history.

Jacquie said... hit the nail on the head.

Anonymous said...

Your analogy with Enron is so appropriate in this case!
Those in a position of authority, regulatory agencies and those who should have known better allowed their short-sighted greed to intrude and failed to act or speak up.
It's good to read your blog and we look forward to your insight in future posts.

cdplakeville said...

Welcom Fiferstone to the fold. Wonderful piece. Continue in the good blogging. Stewardship goes well beyond talk and claiming you are making the most of what you are a steward of. It is actually doing the right thing with what you are entrusted with.

carverchick said...


Excellent and thoughful blog. You are so right when you say that stewardship is on the endangered species list in our ethical environment. You have made excellent points with flawless examples. I am really happy that you have decided to blog - you have always had thoughful and insightful comments to other blogs. Thank you for your willingness to speak what you are feeling and share it with everyone willing to listen. Believe me...there are plenty listening and appreciating every word.


Anonymous said...

Fiferstone, I just started to keep daily readings of blogs. YOUR ON MY LIST, your writing shows much thought, research and truth!
Keep going!!