The Journey to Ethical Capitalism

A friend of mine posted the following image on Facebook, which got me thinking. And when I think, I have to write. Sorry.

To most of the world, the words America and Capitalism are synonymous. While we no longer look for Bolsheviks under our beds at night and the McCarthy era is thankfully over, there is still a cachet of disrepute about anything that seems remotely connected with the idea of socialism – one example that has long dwelt in my files is “The (Modern) Little Red Hen,”  originally Prepared by the Pennwalt Corporation and published March 1983:

Once upon a time there was a little red hen which scratched around the barnyard until she uncovered some grains of wheat. She called her neighbors and said, “If we plant this wheat, we shall have bread to eat. Who will help me plant it?”

“Not I,” said the cow.
“Not I,” said the duck.
“Not I,” said the pig.
“Not I,” said the goose.

“Then I will,” said the little red hen. And she did.

The wheat grew tall and ripened into golden grain.

“Who will help me reap my wheat?” asked the little red hen.

“Not I,” said the duck.
“Out of my classification,” said the pig.
“I’d lose my seniority,” said the cow.
“I’d lose my unemployment compensation,” said the goose.

“Then I will” said the little red hen. And she did.

At last it came time to bake the bread. “Who will help me bake the bread?” asked the little red hen.

“That would be overtime for me,” said the cow.
“I’d lose my welfare benefits,” said the pig.
“I’m a drop-out and never learned how,” said the duck.
“If I’m to be the only helper, that’s discrimination,” said the goose.

“Then I will,” said the little red hen. And she did.

She baked five loaves and held them up for her neighbors to see.

They all wanted some and, in fact, demanded a share. But the little red hen said, “No, I can eat the five loaves myself.”

“Excess profits!” cried the cow.
“Capitalistic leech!” screamed the duck.
“I demand equal rights!” yelled the goose.
And the pig just grunted.

And they painted “unfair” picket signs and marched around the little red hen, shouting obscenities.

When the government agent came, he said to the little red hen, “You must not be greedy.”

“But I earned the bread,” said the little red hen.

“Exactly,” said the agent. “That’s the wonderful free enterprise system! Anybody in the barnyard can earn as much as he wants. But under our modern government regulations, the productive workers must divide their product with the idle.”

And they lived happily ever after, including the little red hen, who smiled and clucked, “I am grateful. I am grateful.”

But her neighbors wondered why she never again baked any more bread.

Dr. Adrian Rogers, Southern Baptist pastor and conservative author, offered up this oft-quoted gem of wisdom:

“You cannot legislate the poor into freedom by legislating the wealthy out of freedom. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that my dear friend, is about the end of any nation. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it.”

Rogers makes some valid points about taxation and how government is funded, but the quote most often appears in partisan screeds inveighing against the evils of forced income distribution (supposedly demanded by Democrats and other evil, liberal sectors of society.) But as convenient and gratifying as it may seem to take from the rich (who of course, have far more than they need) and to give to the poor (who are poor through no fault of their own, but rather because of the greed which festers in the corporate heart), taxing the pants off the 1% to give to the rest of us is not the idyllic answer that many would assume. A comprehensive solution is much more complex.

As the above cartoon illustrates, all is not well in the world’s greatest bastion of free enterprise. Despite quotes such as a recent one from Jon Voigt, to wit: “Capitalism is the only truth that keeps a nation healthy and fed,” as early as the end of the 19th century people were looking critically at the mechanisms we have developed to drive commerce and enterprise:

I heard the following story some time ago, and it’s always stayed with me.

The Fisherman

Author: Unknown

A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took him to catch them. “Not very long,” answered the Mexican. “Why didn’t you stay out longer and catch more?” asked the American. The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his needs…and those of his family.

The American asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs … I have a full life.” The American interrupted, “I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a bigger boat.”

“And after that?” asked the fisherman.

“With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can direct your huge new enterprise.”

“How long would that take?” asked the fisherman. “Twenty, perhaps 25 years,” replied the American. “And after that?” the fisherman asked.

“Afterwards? That’s when it gets really interesting,” answered the American, laughing. “When your business gets really big, you can start selling stocks and make millions!”

“Millions? Really? And after that?”

“After that you’ll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying your friends.”

  This is called “looking beyond the mark.”

In the headlong rush to profit from production, the corporate world somewhere lost sight of the fact that their producers were human beings who also needed to support themselves and their families:

Only one thing counted: the bottom line. MBA’s, CPA’s, and a whole plethora of alphabet-soup degrees became de rigeur in corporations, with the most successful being the ones who could trim the most fat from expenses, often at the expense of the very people who were creating the value.

For obvious reasons, these individuals often became the least popular in the company:

26174.strip

Scott Adams, Dilbert

Taken to its unpleasant but logical extreme, we end up with CEO’s and board members like this:

I once worked for a man who thought exactly like this. He came to our company from Hewlett Packard, and was probably the most evil individual I have ever had the misfortune of working for, a two-bit golf hustler who had parlayed his ability to manipulate people into a position of responsibility. [1] He used almost the same words when he told me he wanted me to spend less time with my church and my family, but I refused to kowtow and lick his boots. When, out of spite, he told me I needed to start working evenings and weekends, I told him, in so many words, to screw himself with a cactus. It was expensive for us, because the job had involved an overseas move, but it ended up costing the company because I sued their asses for breach of contract and they settled. Called my suit a “nuisance,” but they settled anyway. Although I have always tried to avoid Schadenfreude, I was quite gratified to hear that several months later, this bottom-feeder was terminated for malfeasance. And, it wasn’t too much later that the entire company went belly-up and was absorbed by a larger entity.

The news today is not good. The US has outsourced the majority of its well-paid manufacturing jobs to places like China and Pakistan and Madagascar. Few companies are hiring full-time employees; most are relying on temps or temp-to-hires, keeping hours below 30 hours a week to avoid having to provide benefits. For reasons incomprehensible companies still demand 110% effort and employee loyalty, even though they are not willing to reciprocate with job security or any sense of value toward their staff.

One of my favorite quotes from the Star Trek universe comes from  Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek – First Contact”:

The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century… The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.

In the framework of today’s economic environment, this dream seems about as attainable as replicators and holodecks – but there are some bright spots among the gloom, companies who are doing their best to buck the trend; companies like Costco have understood that treating their employees well is not an expense but rather an investment.

The creation of an economy based on the principle that people are more important than profits, while still recognizing that commerce is what drives the creation of wealth, is something that will require changes far beyond the confines of the boardroom. An excellent examination of how to work toward Ethical Capitalism is found at Common Dreams, which article I heartily recommend.

While the world of unbridled capitalism advances to the beat of “It’s not enough for me to win, everyone else has to lose,” other voices are becoming louder; the concept of degrowth [2] is looking more viable when compared to the alternative.

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Glutting the smallest segment of society on the labors of the rest of us is a model that will ultimately implode under the weight of its own inequity; it cannot endure. As impossible as it might seem to restructure society in such a way that we build a world that works for everyone, with no one left out, it is morally imperative. As human beings we owe it to one another to give our fellow sojourners on this spaceship earth a fair shake. Any other course of action will have repercussions, even for the supposed “winners,” that will diminish us all.

In light of the above, I’d like to offer my own, slightly-modifed version of the first cartoon above:


The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] If anything he said could be believed; in addition to his other scintillating qualities, he was without question a pathological liar.

[2] Degrowth … is a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics and anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas. Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—arguing that overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities. Key to the concept of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring and a decrease in well-being. Rather, ‘degrowthists’ aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community. (Wikipedia)

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