“Conscious Capitalism” – Will the World’s Sole Belief System Evolve?

by Robert S. Becker on November 3, 2009

Friends, skeptics, countrymen, lend me your ears – but not brickabats. I come not to praise vile, crony capitalism, that unholy offspring of influence peddling, corporate welfare, regulatory stupor, and oversized subsidies making big, bad banks even bigger and badder. “Too big to fail” is now “too big to lend,” thus too big to help millions of paying “customers.” If it weren’t tragic, it would be farce. Rarely have so many trillions done so much for so undeserving an elite – all by design, in support of the status quo. Feh!

Instead, I celebrate healthy, constructive capitalism, and the promising prospects of innovative, widespread, sustainable animal spirits anointed as “conscious capitalism.”

Conscious or karmic capitalism takes much longer term views of “profitability,” vs. rigged, quarterly charades, judging non-sustainable enterprise as bad for everyone, including investors. Obeying Warren Buffett’s dictum, plan to own companies for a century, these visionaries prize relationships (with customers, vendors, employees), brand loyalty, corporate culture, intellectual capital, and low environmental impact. Their motivation, whatever positives accrue, is not selflessness, but forging stronger links between the reality of self-interest and the mandate of community public interest.

Right now, some version of capitalism commands the world’s stage: aside from gravity and family/tribal links, only this business paradigm unifies every country on earth. Thus, to dismiss all capitalism as “evil” not only slights human nature, but fails to distinguish differences and denies inevitable evolution: why would something as powerful, and far-reaching, as world capitalism not evolve to something better, especially when the alternatives are nightmare scenarios for all.

Robber Bankers

Despite downsides, replete with booms, bubbles, and busts, no man-made engine has enriched so many lives – and life itself – in the west alone, since 1820, doubling our average longevity. Why, had I been born in 1780, I might never have reached the age of punditry. Aside from doubling longevity, and partnering with democracy and increased freedoms, here’s my best defense for “good capitalism:” compared to backward, entrenched institutions – religion, law, politics, TV sit-coms, the Senate or the Pentagon, smart capitalism responds promptly to pressure, indeed relishes change and innovation, and historically learns to follow whatever norms or laws each culture enforces. Good corporations welcome new work forces (of late promoting minorities, gays and women) and hear customer outrage (e.g. baby seal clubbing, dolphins and tuna, sweatshops, green products, or genetically-modified French fries).

“Bad capitalism” prospers when risk is socialized but not profits, whether by federal largesse or no-bid, no-oversight contracts, backroom deals, subsidies, tax credits/preferences, or deregulation. Clearly, saving us from this capitalism demands “creative disruptions” beyond White House band-aids, namely Glass-Stiegal and like interventions to restrain blundering avarice. Zombie banks only tip the iceberg: on the docket for reform are reactionary (subsidized) energy companies, lobbyist-laden arms vendors and war profiteers, slow-footed auto makers, and diseased drug-medical insurance cartels.

Yet even the worst corporations are not kingdoms, if prosecutors act. Enlightened voters – pushed hard enough by failed wars – can even end overwrought militarism before it ends us. Imperialism hasn’t paid its way (while taking lives) since perhaps the Spanish-American war. Squandered trillions don’t improve our productivity, in fact gift to more circumspect nations in Asia a big leg up in world commerce.

Beyond Profits, Pluck and Luck

Short-term profits are less essential drivers for me than 1) risk: putting up one’s treasure, imagination, ego and time; and 2) innovation or growth to attract talent, offset inflation, competition, or collapses. Airlines and sports franchises live for decades without profits. Business-like universities, NGOs, lobbyist and environmental-activists boast zero profits yet need constant customers, revenue and growth. Partnerships pass through income, blurring distinctions between salary and profit, thus small business owners regularly draw only salary, viewing autonomy as their “profit.”

Statistical, macro defenses are unanswerable: teamed with science and technology, business over time produces jobs and wages, plus opportunity, equality, creature comforts and infrastructure. Long-term charts testify to progress over time, with remarkable spurts in standards of living and family income. From 1820-2003, per capita western income rose ten-fold, despite population jumping six-fold. Life expectancy, 24 years in 1000, grew only to 36 by 1820, but today tests 80 (despite our lousy health care, high addictions, obesity, pollution, Republicans, and decades of barely changed cancer statistics).

Up With People

More big picture benefits: mass-produced inventions banish back-breaking toil, adding leisure time and the miracle of lengthy retirements. True, unions, higher education and a depression achieved these blessings, but even reluctant businesses contribute. Give India and China 50 years and billions more will rise from subsistence. What rightwing Henry Ford proved – that ill-paid workers can’t consume the very goods they make – China is learning, promoting higher wages and 70 year property ownership “leases.”

Of course, rising living standards have commensurate environmental costs: pollution, decimated resources, and impoverished third-world “outliers.” Conscious capitalism specifically focuses on “externalities,” like deferred environmental damage (and clean-up, as in Superfund sites). Government, business itself, and consumers will increasingly favor good green companies over dinosaurs.

Capitalism at War With Itself

Large and small, capitalism’s strength is its fluid, protean nature, eager to gain by side-stepping old-time morality or petrified models. Agile entrepreneurs driven by dreams of glory are naturally disruptive, even co-opting the anti-business ’60’s. Indeed, less culture-bound than retreating socialism, the only solution to bad capitalism, by default, is sustainable, smart capitalism. That mandates public vigilance which I think is coming.

While more prosperity will worsen global warming, the world’s first planetary crisis provides opportunities never before seen. Instead of handcuffing capitalism, world users may well insist it do that which neither arms nor religion has achieved: international trust and co-operation, especially addressing global warming and alternative energy. What if planetary salvation demands re-channeling the technology of killing to a technology of life? Leftwing capitalists can dream, too. Everything evolves, and for one dramatic example of conscious capitalism, check out “radical industrialist” Ray Anderson’s story and his company, Interface.

A wave of progressive capitalism would even rewrite John Maynard Keynes’s famous, cynical quip, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”

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