Thursday, January 16, 2014

Capitalism - Still A Better Love Story Than Twilight

We live in a capitalist society. And I think that word has become socially distasteful over the years. (To be fair, living any any *-ist society sounds kind of distasteful. Perhaps it's the act of classifying and not the classification itself that's really at the heart of the perception?) We can debate at length as to how and why, or whether or not such perceptions are justified, but that's not what this is about.

I am a capitalist. There's that distaste again. Can you feel it? Just by hearing me say that, can you feel an almost foaming-at-the-mouth either in yourself or in others? After all, this means I'm greedy, doesn't it? It means I worship money, right? That I want to enslave the downtrodden so I can stand on their backs and smoke an expensive cigar?

I really don't think that's what it means. I honestly don't draw such a connection between being an active part of the society in which I live and being Kingpin. Though I've certainly met (or in some way interacted with) a fair number of people who, for whatever reason or set of reasons, don't separate the two concepts. And that's too bad for them, really.

Capitalism is not inherently evil. Are there evil people within capitalist societies? People who lie, bully, extort, and generally do terrible things for personal gain? Absolutely. If you can find me any society in the entirety of human history, capitalist or otherwise, which didn't suffer from that plague then I'm certainly interested to hear about it.

So no, I don't sit around reading Ayn Rand and thinking of ways I can abuse people and take their money. To be honest, I barely only tangentially knew who Ayn Rand was until the accusations of this behavior started to become more frequent. Cursory research on the subject led me to three conclusions about her work:
  1. Her fiction work was awful. I mean really just abysmal. This isn't to say that mine is any better (or even, you know, extant), but that's neither here nor there. If you're curious to learn just how bad it is but don't want to invest the time in reading one of her novels (who could blame you?), know that at the time of this writing parts 1 and 2 of the Atlas Shrugged movies are available for your viewing, um, pleasure. Pay close attention to the forced narrative, un-relatable characters, and absurd storyline.
  2. People who claim to hate her are obsessed with her. Again, the name was barely a footnote in my knowledge prior to encountering such people. Prior to this writing, I don't recall ever once injecting the subject into any conversation. But she sure has come up a lot from other people. I guess I don't see the attraction.
  3. To disagree with her philosophies is a human right. To deny her impact on modern business practices is, at best, naive.
But I digress. A lot. This isn't about the notion that people fervently accuse me of evil deeds simply because I have a fairly successful career. No, this is about a little corner of capitalism that is often forgotten. This is about the idea that just because we're looking at a spreadsheet of numbers doesn't necessarily conclude that we're not doing something good for the world.

That's all it really comes down to, isn't it? A spreadsheet of numbers? Capitalism isn't about being evil. There are no Captain Planet villains who spend billions on a business model that has no customers, only destructive deeds. It's about money. You know, capital. The rules are simple. If the gain outweighs the cost, it's a go. (Of course, there is much disagreement about the "cost" of non-tangibles, such as employee work/life balances or environmental damage. There is much disagreement about a lot of things. Welcome to life.)

At its simplest, if the numbers in Column A add up to more than the numbers in Column B then clearly Column A is the sound choice. All the complaining and arguing in the world isn't going to change the clarity of numbers. However, with a little reason and pragmatism, you can change the numbers themselves.

They're just variables. Values with weights assigned to them. If you desperately want Column B to be the outcome of the decision then your goal is pretty clear. Is your goal to argue? No. Is your goal to accuse the supporters of Column A of malfeasance? That doesn't seem productive either. Indeed, your goal is to get more numbers. What other factors haven't been considered? What other variables can be weighed and accounted? Outside of what other boxes can you think?

Because guess what? That works. I doubt any business leader or board member or what-have-you has ever been under the delusion of knowing everything. Sure, they may put up a front of sorts, because that's part of their job. But business decisions are based on information. And with a goal as clear as one number being greater than another number acting upon information seems like a pretty straightforward activity.

So... What information can you add to the discussion? Keep in mind that your personal opinions, regardless of how much passion you have for those opinions, are not information. Sorry to break it to you, but strongly-held opinions are not facts.

But that's not necessarily evil. No more than the application of the scientific method in research is evil. I dare say that a separation of opinion from fact is a cornerstone of enlightened society. (Though that's just my opinion.)

Now before the accusations fly again, let me assure you that I still realize that there are bad people who do bad things in the world. I toil under no delusion that capitalism by design is "good" (whatever that word means) or benevolent. (There is, after all, a lot of money to be made in standing on the backs of others. I don't personally do that, but it's hard to deny the motivations of those who do.) But just as it's not one extreme of that particular spectrum, it's also not the other.

Somewhere in the middle, in an oft forgotten corner of society, there exist numbers which add up to really, really good things. And when they do, it is indeed the function of capitalism which turns those good numbers into those good things. After all, if Column A is a greater sum than Column B then there's profit to be made. And if Column A also happens to be really good for the world, so much the better, right?

I sometimes refer to this phenomenon as The Lost Dream Of Capitalism. And, yes, I have examples.

Have you seen how Utah is planning to end homelessness? The statement alone sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But surely, surely such an endeavor would be expensive and nobody would want to pay for it, right? Nope. It's actually going to be cheaper. How did they come up with this? Simple. The numbers in Column A added up to more than the numbers in Column B.

The premise is financially sound. A bit of research into some data, pivoted and examined in the right light, led to a fascinating conclusion. The state basically figured out how much money they pay to subsidize emergency room services for care directly resulting from the poor living conditions of the homeless. (This is Column B.) Then they figured out how much it would cost to give apartments to their homeless population and assign them case-workers to help them become self-sustaining. (This is Column A.)

Both columns are a deficit, clearly. Both involve spending tax money. But the two numbers are not equal. While still in the negative, Column A was a greater value than Column B. It was a net gain for the budget. Helping people was deemed profitable. So, in traditional capitalist style, the more fiscally-sound choice was made. And, lo and behold, it wasn't inherently evil.

There are, indeed, a lot of businesses who are actively working toward this same fiscal model. A little closer to home for me is the company Dovetail Health. This is a company which reduces healthcare costs, increases patient care quality, and makes money doing it. (And they're not alone, they're just the only one I know off-hand.)

The business model is simple... Intervene in patient care conditions outside of a hospital setting at periodic intervals for the purpose of preventing further hospital visits. After all, hospital visits are expensive. Really expensive. But with a little bit of in-home intervention and comparatively simple patient care, hospital visits can be avoided. Insurance companies pay less for care (win), benefits-holders pay less for insurance (win), hospitals pay less in overhead (win), patients are healthier and more effectively avoid injuries (win), and finally... the company doing this makes money (win). Where's the evil in that last one again? Cause I'm not seeing it.

By thinking outside of a box or two, shifting the occasional paradigm, or whatever cliche business gobbledygook you want to use, the idea of making money can actually conform with the idea of improving the world in which we live.

It's something people don't often see when they look at the (evil) capitalist society around us. But for those who find it, for those who participate in it, the monetary rewards alone pale in comparison to the profound sense of community and fraternity to be found in not just doing something well, but doing something... good. Therein lies that lost dream of capitalism. Stepping outside the stereotype of nickeling-and-diming everybody into oblivion to squeeze more profit from society, and stepping into the simple notion of putting the right numbers into Column A to actually make the world a slightly better place to live.

It's all too rare, hence the "lost dream." But it's real. It exists. And if I can wish for anything on the subject it would be that the rabid opponents to the very word "capitalism" could step away from their Facebook rants for a moment and actually help with efforts like this. Actually use their intelligence for the better. The world could use better numbers in Column A, it can't use angry Facebook posts.

No comments:

Post a Comment