This is My Brain on Capitalism.
The final assignment in a class I'm taking at the University of Chicago called Business & Society was to write an op-ed about whether or not we felt that business would/could/should ultimately serve the collective good. I didn't expect the rage-filled screed that came out of me in response to this assignment. It's a little more nihilistic than I want to be.
But also [gestures wildly at everything].
So, in case you're curious what happens to my brain when I interact with a bunch of folks who believe capitalism is just alright with them, here you go:
The False Promise of a Global Pandemic
What will it take for people to be more important than profit?
“We’re All In This Together.”
In the terrifying, toilet-paper-less, unprecedented (a world I’ve come to loathe) early days of the pandemic, I found myself feeling surprisingly hopeful. Here it is, I thought: the unthinkable world-wide crisis that will shake us awake and make kindness, compassion, and collectively working for the survival of our species the order of the day, finally supplanting the drive to make a buck no matter the consequences once and for all. This is our Independence Day.
As the US unemployment rate spiked as high as 16% in May 2020, my uncanny hope intensified: just like Yeats promised, surely this was how things would fall apart. Surely even the centre of capitalism could not hold in the face of this kind of pressure.
Yet here we are – in a not-really-post pandemic world – where the US economy has officially regained all the jobs lost during the pandemic, but homelessness in the US has the “makings of an acute crisis,” and, given rising costs of everything from gas to groceries to childcare, most working families are struggling more than before.
On the other side of the wealth chasm (calling it a “gap” now feels naïve at best), the top 1% increased their wealth by $6.5 trillion – yes, Trillion with a T – in 2021, according to the Federal Reserve, taking their total to 32.3% of United States wealth.
One percent of Americans hold more than 32% of American wealth like modern-day dragons sitting on their risk-insulated, often generationally-inherited hoards.
But wait, there’s more: that same 1% own 53.9% of individually held shares in the financial markets; widen the lens to the top 10% and you’ll find those folks hold 89% of corporate equities and mutual fund shares. Edward Wolff, professor of economics at New York University, characterizes the hellscape merry-go-round this way: “Rising wealth inequality drives the stock market, which then drives more wealth inequality.” Now imagine the numbers when we bring privately-held profits into the mix: after all, the 1% own 57% of private businesses, too.
There is plenty of analysis that points to the rising importance of the common good even in private business, including a 2018 Deloitte study that saw 77% of respondents rating “citizenship and social impact” as critical or important. People care enough about social impact to at least say that they care about it on a survey. And plenty of ink has been spilled about the double or even triple bottom line. We don’t lack folks who profess the doctrine of doing well by doing good. The trouble doesn’t appear to be lack of attention.
The trouble isn’t that private business isn’t compatible with social good, either: we can see myriad examples of organizations that have put positive change at the center of their strategies. Whether the impact ultimately matches their intent, founders of organizations like Patagonia, Toms, or Chicago staffing company LiftUp Enterprises, seem to have their hearts in the right place. But as Julian Posada of LiftUp told us in no uncertain terms – his dedication to centering the dignity of his traditionally marginalized workforce while bridging the wealth gap is considered “radical.” And – no matter what deep-seated care one might read into the intentions of his heart-forward focus – he declares that making a profit is his #1 priority. Humane business practices demonstrating that people are as vital as profits – this is what passes for radical in contemporary business circles in a big blue American city. And it’s still not declared to be the primary area of concern.
It seems that for the overwhelming majority of business leaders in the US, dignity, care, and the wellbeing of their workers will never be as important as increasing their piece of the proverbial pie. And as long as this behavior is accepted by the masses, as long as we continue to lionize the wealthy as exemplars of personal achievement and proof of concept for the so-called bootstrap-pulling American Dream – whether they’re as self-made as they want us to believe or not – it seems like this is what we’ll get.
Maybe the trouble is in the rest of that stanza of Yeats’s famous poem:
… and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
If the worst global health crisis in more than a century wasn’t enough to prove how interdependent we are as a species and crumble the façade of individualism we’re laboring behind – what is it going to take?
For my group’s shared value pitch presentation, we originally wanted the full amount of cashback a consumer earned via our green debit card rewards program to be invested in fighting environmental injustice. At the last minute, we shifted our proposal to splitting the reward between the customer and community reinvestment. It struck me that this was one of the features that seemed to resonate in the room: the potential efficacy of a cash incentive that encourages people to behave in ways that are more sustainable, thoughtful, and good for the collective – a tangible, personal answer to the “what’s in it for me” question. This feels an awful lot like sliding into the pack racing to the bottom. What’s more, if increased wealth really is the most surefire goad toward good behavior – will we ever be able to afford it on the scale necessary to make real, sustained impact given how the current system is already lining the pockets of the rich folks who make the decisions? What do you give the oligarch who has – literally – everything?
I want to find my hope again. I want to believe that it is possible to realign our collective priorities away from individual comfort and toward a common good. I want to believe that Americans can overcome the “rugged individualism” that’s made us famous and reviled, wealthy and lonely, and perched us on the leading edge of what just might be the next dying empire. I want to believe that we really can be – unironically – in this together. But right now? I’m exhausted, disappointed, and not terribly eager to be taken, again, for a sucker.