For the Love of Business

For the Love of Business

Searching for the Soul of Business
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What do we value in America?


There is no doubt about it. America is in the middle of a moral crisis. Healthcare for the privileged few? Or healthcare for all? Bailouts for banks or taxpayers? Protection for lobbyists or consumers? These are just a few of the questions currently debated on the moral stage of American culture. Blogger Monika Mitchell asks, "What's love got to do with it?"

Friday, March 12, 2010 - 9:30am


We stand at the threshold of a moral crossroads in American business. Which way will we turn in the new decade is the dilemma before us. Do we retreat to old and tired patterns of indifference? Or do we find the courage to cut a new and hopeful path to the common good?
The heated debates of healthcare, bailouts, banking reform, financial regulation, usury laws, consumer protection, home loan modifications, small business support, social assistance programs-all point to one fundamental issue - the battle for a moral framework. What do we value in America? Easy Money or Hard work? Self-interest or Community? Vengeance or Forgiveness? Indifference or Compassion?
Do we continue to let 45 million Americans suffer without healthcare as long as we have access to it ourselves? Should we protect unsuspecting or reckless consumers or leave them at the mercy of profit hungry scams? Do we let the jobless and homeless fend for themselves because we are comfortable under our own roofs?
In the end, all of these economic debates come down to one thing: love. Love for our neighbor, love for ourselves, love for the planet, love for humanity. Love for those who are starving, hungry, desperate or forgotten. Love for those whose only hope of relief from suffering comes from you and me and our generosity.
Michael Moore’s latest movie was called, Capitalism: A Love Story. At first, the concept seemed hostile and sarcastic, yet the more I pondered its irony, the more I recognized its truth. Capitalism in its current anarchic state is all about love or rather the lack of it. Love in the Ancient Greek agape sense of the word.
A senior manager in finance explained to me that he functions equally on “Christian principles” and devotion to the theories of Ayn Rand. The author of the 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, Rand influenced a generation of market making economists including the two decade Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. Rand’s belief of self-interest over self-sacrifice defined the deregulation doctrine of the last thirty years of government. Yet “Christian principles” revolve around the antithesis of self-interest and focus on community and common good. I asked my friend how he reconciled both conflicting interests, he replied, “self-interest is self-love.”
Self-interest is indeed self-love, yet the doctrine leaves out an essential part of the contract, love for one’s neighbor. Our financial system for the last three decades has moved to loss of love for our neighbor and gain of love for ourselves - at their expense. We might say the new American doctrine has become, Let the neighbors be damned.
The 20th century was a painful and extraordinary classroom for the human species. Genocides, wars, and revolutions revealed the inherent conflicts between morality and money.
In America, in the early 1900s, children as young as five toiled in brutally harsh conditions. Laborers worked from sunup until sundown, seven days a week in unofficial indentured servitude. Women and minorities were completely disenfranchised from opportunity and education. Land was stolen from native occupants with government sanctions. Young immigrants were treated like cattle to the slaughter and locked in unsafe sweatshops to extract every bloody cent. The first half of the American century revealed a savage world of human indifference for the sake of profit.
The die had been cast since the young nation’s inception and the cruel legalization of human beings as property. Industrialization took over where slavery left off with the sanctimonious cry of “survival-of-the-fittest” in business as a near religious dogma. British philosopher Herbert Spencer introduced rags-to-riches Andrew Carnegie to Darwin’s theory of natural selection in finance. Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s chairman declared, “The business of business is business.” Fifty years later, economist Milton Friedman wrote, “The social responsibility of business is profits.” With those proclamations, the dehumanizing of business was official.
Yet business and its patriarchal design forgot one crucial fact: Business is a fundamentally human enterprise. People profit by providing services and products that improve and enhance the lives of other people. How did our ancestors manage to dehumanize something so innately human?
Dogma is a funny thing. We can repeat a concept so many times that we begin to believe it as fact. One unfortunate mantra that defined 20th century finance and the first decade of the 21st was: It’s not personal, its business. Yet joblessness and foreclosure rates defy this belief as the human tragedy resulting from these grows greater by the day.
From the 1940s through the 1960s in America, greed as a moral goal would have been solidly rejected. JFK defined the motto of the “greatest generation” with, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Yet two decades later the new “morality of greed” as the definition for success allowed their children to step over the writhing bodies of victims on their way to the top.
The savage view of money and profits that resulted in the subprime mortgage crisis and the “once-in-a-lifetime economic tsunami” that we continue to experience globally, reveals that the old beliefs of self-interest over neighborly love are primitive and unworthy of us as modern people.
Our relentless economic struggles offer us a genuine spiritual opportunity as a nation to reexamine what we believe is “right and wrong.” The outcome of the healthcare and financial reform debates will define our moral framework going forward.
Those who benefit from the current status quo and value self-interest over self-sacrifice will continue to oppose universal healthcare, consumer protection, financial and banking reform. The self-righteous haves will continue to disenfranchise the self-defeated have-nots in the battle for equality. The irony of Medicare patients fighting against publicly supported healthcare is not lost on anyone except themselves.
The financial industry, that benefited from direct bailouts of trillions of dollars, will continue to use the profits from their inequitable advantage to squash the dreams of impoverished and unemployed Americans.
Where is love in all of this? Sadly absent. Many ordinary people have been conditioned to think of love and business as separate. Yet the current state of selfishness defined as ”virtuous” shows that the soul of money has been left out. Money has no soul or morality, but what we impose on it. If I am okay and you are not, will I help you or look the other way? If I make my living by taking yours, can I really feel I “earned” my lot?
The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined “moral virtue” as habit. How have we as “morally self-righteous” people developed a habit of indifference to the suffering of others and mistaken it for virtue? If love is the concern for our fellow humanity, then why isn’t it a fundamental value in business? Where would we be today if “love for one’s neighbor” had been part of the core business model in the mortgage market?
In America, we are caught in a vicious circle. Our individualism inspires us to innovate and create. Yet our self-focus obscures our common humanity. If we are part of the fortunate who survived the Great Recession, then full steam ahead. However, those who are left struggling to survive are rendered weak for the fight. It is left to the rest, those who have comfort and conscience to establish a new moral foundation that values prosperity for all, not just a chosen few.
Aristotle believed that the unlimited pursuit of wealth was both unnatural and a hindrance to real happiness. He believed that “money makers” focused on immediate pleasure and not on more weighty needs of the soul. The pursuit of wealth at the expense of the community would divide citizens and undermine the stability of society. The current state of the economy has proven the twenty-four hundred year old wisdom correct. (Politics. 1257)
Our “vicious circle” financial system, controlled by a small privileged percentage of the population, has completely abandoned large portions of society.  They pull the strings of the economy like we are puppets without hearts or brains. This crisis has forced Middle Class America to its knees-all the more pie to divide up for the lucky few who dictate our lives behind the scenes.
A growing portion of American business, inspired by some of our European counterparts, is repeating the new mantra for the 21st century: doing well by doing good. More and more a growing consciousness among enlightened people comprehends the primitive nature of self-interest at the expense of our neighbors. It gets louder and louder and fills the moral vacuum with a revolution in social responsibility for a new generation of business minds. We believe in making money by making the world a better place.
Perhaps if we repeat it long enough, it will replace the economic brutality of the past.