April 9, 2010
Odd but Welcome BedfellowsBy Mark St.J. Couhig
The financial collapse of 2008 gave capitalism a black eye, but it was hardly a kayo punch. Markets are again gaining acceptance, this time with the help of an exceedingly unlikely group of allies. Specifically, there is growing within the left a new respect for capitalism. And as we all know, there is no zealot like the convert.
Indeed, many leftists have seized on these ideas as if they were freshly minted. This is altogether a good thing, because there is nothing that so attracts the liberal mind as a glittering new intellectual fad. Is it really necessary to let them know that they have stumbled into an archaeological dig? That would diminish their enthusiasm, and it is their enthusiasm that will make all the difference.
Or that, at least, is the theory underlying the extended essay that is Be the Solution, a new book by Michael Strong, who has spent much of his career introducing old ideas into education, and John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods.
Theirs is just one of a number of recently published books that have the same or a similar message, among them Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists; Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World; The Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.
In addition to a predilection to hyperbolic titles, all of these books share the notion that profits provide the best means of solving the world's ills. As one reviewer put it, "It used to be that people who wanted to solve a social problem -- like lack of access to clean water or inadequate housing for the poor -- created a charity. Today, many start a company instead."
While Adam Smith is ever-present in Be the Solution, the Buddha and the Dalai Lama are also given honored mentions. In keeping with the zeitgeist, Christian philosophy is almost altogether absent, but the Hoover Institution and The Cato Institute show up regularly. They are virtually always relegated to the small type in the footnotes, but wily old Paul Johnson makes multiple appearances within the text itself.
Mackey is to be commended for participating in this work. Several months ago, he expressed his displeasure with Obamacare in a column he penned for the Wall Street Journal, describing as a better alternative the medical plan he established for his thousands of employees.
Many of Mackey's customer weren't happy, and some called for a boycott. So be it, Mackey said.
In his own way, Strong's background is just as interesting. After high school, he attended Harvard for one year, but he found it unserious. He transferred to St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM, where he spent the next three years immersed in the Great Books, an undertaking much more to his liking.
If you find the title Be the Solution saccharine, then you will not care at all for the book's subtitle: "How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems."
But the issue lies only with our mildly abraded aesthetic sense, and perhaps with that modifier "all." On the other hand, who among us was entirely comfortable leaving our copy of How to Swim with the Sharks Without Getting Eaten in plain view? I would call this excellent marketing, hitting the bull's-eye of its intended audience, the folks Strong calls "idealists."
Idealism is a broad term, and it includes most of us, even those of us who don't carry our ideals on our t-shirts. By "idealists," Strong means those on the left; we can also say those who believe the entire world's problems can be solved.
While Mackey is given equal billing (surely another wise marketing move), Strong is in fact the master of ceremonies and lead architect of this large and wildly ambitious book. One reviewer has suggested skipping everything other than Strong's words, and if you intend to simply sit down and read it through, novel-like, then that isn't a bad idea. But the book provides a great deal more of value, including an entire library of arguments in favor of its thesis. This includes contributions by Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner for his for-profit (!) micro-lending bank Hernando de Soto, whose studies of the free market in South America are effecting a revolution there (an anti-socialist one, for a refreshing change) -- plus some specialists on happiness, including advice on achieving higher consciousness via your job. (You see, great marketing.)
If you want to improve the condition of the world's people, they each say, then there is only one mechanism capable of achieving this, and that is the unleashed power of every entrepreneur in the world. Entrepreneurs are roughly defined as everyone.
Governments will be required to firmly ensure property rights, and then to otherwise stay out of the way.
The examples are provided by the dozen, including several glowing write-ups of Wal-Mart's astounding record of lifting tens of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens out of poverty. The argument is also well and repeatedly made that the establishment of market mechanisms will best secure the health of our natural resources (the "environment," in today's popular usage). As he does occasionally in this book, on this issue Strong not so tenderly treads on leftist nostrums, pointing out that current efforts promoting the "change in consciousness" premise of environmental improvement are "completely unrealistic."
Instead, Strong and Mackey promote "Conscious Capitalism," in which the goal is largely or wholly to meet the needs of others while making a buck. The question arises: Why bother?
If profits are all that matter, doesn't it just make sense that you should simply take whatever steps are necessary to increase shareholder value?
Mackey says that doing good for everyone does good for the bottom line. Nice idea, but history proves differently. Yes, you can earn reasonable, and occasionally fabulous, profits by ensuring that everyone is served. That's the whole point of Rotary's corny, and entirely useful, Four Way Test.
But raw greed -- which is exactly what it sometimes is -- has its own impressive history.
Strong counters that conscious capitalism provides additional benefits, including an enhanced level of happiness. As he puts it, you can make money, serve others, and have fun. Who wouldn't want that?
So why hasn't everyone become a conscious capitalist? As Mackey says, most entrepreneurs already are conscious capitalists. Very few find the pot at the end of the rainbow sufficient cause to endure the exquisite difficulties that are required to build a new business. Instead they do it because they seek a challenge, or they receive a profound satisfaction from creating jobs, or because it's just damn good fun.
In the end, it's the few well-publicized jerks (Strong's term) that give the rest a bad name.
There is nothing new in that observation. But that doesn't diminish the importance of having it said by John Mackey. If the idealists who read this book take from it just one lesson, let's hope it's that one.