And it’s NOT Just about being Eco-Friendly or Helping the Poor
If I’m lucky, the phrase “Compassionate Capitalism” will be quickly outdated and make the Top Ten Most Hated Phrases list in the Oxford Dictionary, by the time I’m done with this writing. To those who have no idea, the phrase has been coined in two books. The first was in 1993 by Amway co-founder Richard DeVos, as a how-to inspirational guide for entrepreneurs on becoming successful yet also able to give back to the community, based on a 16-point credo with a Judeo-Christian slant. The second, in 2004, was by Mark Benioff and Karen Southwick, as a study of how large and small companies have begun philantrophy programs, as a way of giving back to their respective communities.
They are nice feel-good press ops; unfortunately, they aren’t enough. In both cases, the treatment of the “Compassionate Capitalism” is extremely limited. One ventures to define it as a way to reconcile one’s faith and conscience to the sometimes-unpleasant arena of business. The other strives to show proof that businesses can salve their collective conscience by almsgiving and hand-me-downs to the poor. A third popular way is to “Go Green,” investing in items that are environmentally-friendly. No less noble, still no dice. While all this sounds pleasing to the ear, most businesses – especially large companies – are generally self-serving, naturally. Worse, they have a winner-take-all and take-no-prisoners mentality that negates all those good works.
Small businesses, the mom-and-pop and family-owned varieties, have been typically straightforward, in the sense that those of us on the outside know that they’re trying to make a living as we are. Then with more competition come bloodbaths, acquisitions, and mergers. Business closures. Small companies, if they don’t get handed down future generations, get bought out if they’re lucky. As companies and businesses grow, the customer services are forced, the products and the atmosphere impersonal. When once, there was just the door to a small store, with a smiling owner (typically) behind it, now looms a tall and menacing monolith. The corporation becomes a living, breathing, devouring monster of its own, feeding on its surroundings. While some enlightened executives have tried in good faith to give back to the faithful, most of the cogs in the wheel, big and small, are content to simply partake in the everyday business of corporate rapine without a second thought, nullifying any conscientious effort to give back. There, I’ve given you Capitalism in all of ten seconds.
Industries have risen and fallen by this premise. While some have declined and died out with the changing face of the world, there have also been surprises from least likely candidates. When the banks and other financial giants fail, mortgage crisis develops as a result of gross foreclosures, and the auto industry in America is breathing its last, one can conclude that Capitalism as a model, is starting to fail us. I offer an alternative: Capitalism, in its present incarnation and morality, is fundamentally flawed. Here is where the “Compassionate” part comes in. As defined by DeVos, Benioff and Southwick, this was certainly practiced by most of these failing companies. However, they were superficial press ops, designed more to boost their flawed images and justify their existence and their greed. Meanwhile, the rampage continued.
All of this went to a head when in late 2008, there was nothing more to collect. Worse yet, the money they thought they could collect from failing homeowners began to literally vanish. Greed and anticipation turned to dismay. Then fear. Then electronic assets fast became liabilities (how quickly these people panic), and before anyone guessed, Federal Handouts. As the government was generous enough to bail these people out, these same companies, Bank of America, Citigroup, et. al., began to cut their philantrophic projects, while begrudgingly doing the same for their luxurious amenities. Early this year, the public got to see American auto CEO’s at their worst, when they didn’t have the good sense to realize that an angry Congress were short of telling them to quit their jobs and give up their million-dollar severance packages.
The problem is, most businesses haven’t developed a sense of compassion while IN business. Most of the “Compassion” one hears about is anything on the outside. In Medicine, there is the Hippocratic Oath, which prescribes that all doctors (but unfortunately, not insurance companies) should give care to patients, regardless of origin or leaning. In sports, there is the implicit Universal Sportsmanlike conduct, which regulates fairness. There are regulations for just about everything. So why can’t businesses regulate themselves, and develop an internal, self-policing code of ethics, without waiting for the government to intervene?
Contrary to what any economist or sociologist will say, capitalism does NOT have to be rationalized away as amoral. While competition may be a good way to stimulate creativity and progress, it does not have to be bloody. That’s what war is for. Neither does it always have to follow “The Bottom Line.” On that note, “The Bottom Line” isn’t and shouldn’t always be about money. The major sin that all these financial companies committed was Greed. Instead of thinking, “Hey, let’s try to house these people the right way,” the common thought was, “Hey, let’s make money by housing as many people as we can.” When the Credit-Default Swaps originated, this line of thinking changed to, “Oh well, so much for the homeowners. Hey, let’s see how much the insurers can give us for all that.” Then AIG and other insurers started to go bust. Whoops.
Independent of your God and your public-image concerns, all you CEO’s of big companies should start changing how you think. Must we remind you of who is supporting you, as you sit atop that precarious financial pyramid? I dare you to answer that in two seconds. If not, Joe the Plumber and Manny the Mechanic will meet you downstairs at the garage; they’ll help you figure that out soon enough. If we get lost in the false idols of numbers and number-crunching, then we have lost touch with the basics. Man (abbreviated to include Man or Woman) needs food, shelter and clothing. Business provides, at reasonable cost. Man needs to be amused, needs bright, shiny objects. Business also provides, at still-reasonable cost. Don’t forget that.
As for business-to-business relations: Business needs to provide product, gain reasonable profit. Business must be good to employees, since employees = Man. Other business needs to provide improve product, gain reasonable profit and improve on old product. Cycle of competition develops, until one blinks or gets tired. Business develops new, tangible, practical products, which will truly help improve Man’s condition over the long run, make Man happy. Hint: Bright, shiny objects do not provide lasting happiness. Hint: Homes, cars and other products that will be obsolete within ten years, or make life miserable to Man, BAD. Being unemployed: BAD. Being in debt for houses, cars, and products, for eternity: REALLY BAD!
Have I made myself clear?
Again, to reiterate: Compassionate Capitalism should be about being moral and considerate in business dealings, not just philantrophy or penance. All businesses, especially large corporations, must reevalute whether they are really helping customers when they house them; or if they are screwing them ten times over, by handing them a loan that they have no business handling. As a secondary goal, businesses contribute best to its community, when it provides jobs and/or livelihood, not hand-me-downs. Recall that whole “Teach a man to fish” proverb. People who are down on their luck will appreciate the boost of self-respect they will get, more than the money (although they’ll take that, too). Compassionate Capitalism should be about realizing what is good for Man overall, not what should be good, because
they project it onto them.
Much as politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, have to listen to people, to know what to offer them, Businesses must do the same: They must listen to their customers and employees, and give them what they need, not necessarily what they want. Sales staffs need to take a chill and get the *#!@ out of the way, for once; instead of pushing unwanted products, try pushing things that are truly beneficial. Anything that makes life easier (again, a Hint: anything that’s NOT expensive), satisfies hunger and want. To a higher degree, makes Man happy. Giving back to the community is nice, but that’s extra. Giving to your God is great, but if you’re doing it to rationalize the bad things you do, you are no better than the indulgence-buyers that Martin Luther bashed on in the Reformation. If you do business, do it with conscience. Truly serve your customers, in good faith, with no intention to profit illegally, nor take more than what is needed. If you need a manifesto, I can provide you one, for starters:
As a Compassionate Capitalist, I promise to:
1. Provide to my customers what they need, and provide the best products or services possible, at reasonable cost, with no disadvantageous strings attached.
2. Strive to do good business always, with my customers and competitors alike. I will treat any and all with decency (as I expect the same), with respect, and without any subterfuge and dishonesty. I will never engage in usury or needless profiteering.
3. Appreciate my employees, as well as my customers. To a certain extent, they are my partners in my business, and they are also representative of the community I serve. I will be fair in my dealings with them, at all times and never enrich myself unnecessarily at their expense.
4. Never, ever, push unwanted or undesired products that can potentially harm a customers’ relationship with his/her God and/or family; or his finances and general well-being. I will not supplant the things that matter the most, with short-term joy.
5. Above all else, to do what is right for Humanity, and not the business. For my business is still dependent on the general welfare of my main customer, all of Humanity. Along with that, I will not preach and be overzealous in my pursuit to do right, and I will temper my successes and failures with business with humility. As Quoheleth would have saith, nothing under the Sun lasts forever…
Even if you are no Trekkie, Live Long and Prosper. Strive to do good, always.
Here are two other links to like-minded albeit more verbose essays on Compassionate Capitalism. The third one is a grassroots example of how businesses should be:
Copyright Anabasius 2009