18 August 2008

Bending the Rules of Capitalism

“When the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.”

I have been stricken even more than usual lately by the consequences of how our current economic model overlooks in far too many areas of human endeavor that which makes us happy and healthy in favor of that which makes at least some among us rich.

I read an interview with a medical doctor who was prohibited from practicing in her native Spain because she publicly decried how her fellow practitioners honored corporate agreements to dispense certain drugs instead of prescribing in response to real patient needs. Another example is how our food producers have spent the last 40 years selecting strains of crops based on their shelf life irregardless of how that renders most of them completely void of all nutritional value. Unlike doctors, leaders of the food industry have no commitment to anybody’s happiness or health.

This brings to mind a talk I heard the other day by the man in charge of corporate responsibility at McDonald’s (believe it or not!) who stated clearly in his talk and repeated during the question and answer period how McDonald’s would really like to make important reforms in the meat and dairy processing industries by buying grass-fed cows or “free-range” eggs for example, but that they don’t have enough clout to make any difference. Now, this guy is practically painting a target on his chest by saying this but I don’t think we gain anything by attacking or even analyzing such morally defunct fodder.

If we make an effort to try and understand where this guy is coming from, we can understand him better. Buying grass-fed cows or free-range eggs brings no benefit to McDonald’s unless it raises its profit margin, which it would not. It has no commitment that would lead us to expect anything more. Of course, sometime in the future when enough McDonald’s customers demand these changes, they will suddenly become profitable and surely then the food industry will make the necessary changes. Until then, don’t expect any miracles.

It is precisely this logic that Muhammad Yunus takes aim at in his book “Creating a World Without Poverty.” “Unfettered markets in their current form are not meant to solve social problems and instead may actually exacerbate poverty, disease, pollution, corruption, crime, and inequality.” … “I believe in free markets as sources of inspiration and freedom for all, not as architects of decadence for a small elite. … My experience has shown me that the free market – powerful and useful as it is – could address problems like global poverty and environmental degradation, but not if it must cater solely and relentlessly to the financial goals of its richest shareholders.”

He thus proposes a new type of business – one that “is totally dedicated to solving social and environmental problems. … In its organizational structure, this new business is basically the same as the existing profit-maximizing business. … But its underlying objective – and the criterion by which it should be evaluated – is to create social benefits for those whose lives it touches. … A social business is a company that is cause-driven rather than profit-driven, with the potential to act as a change agent for the world.”

He gives some interesting hypothetical examples before dedicating the rest of the book to chronicling his own existing social businesses: “A social business that designs and markets health insurance policies that provide affordable medical care to the poor.” As I have always felt that the insurance business was antithetical to happiness and health, this sounds really interesting.

This brief treatment of the urgent need for and the exciting possibility opened by social businesses leaves many questions unanswered, reason for which I suggest you pick up the book if this idea intrigues you as it does me. The more effort we spend trying to make food production, environmental stewardship, quality health care, education and equality responsive to both current market forces and basic human desires for health and happiness, the longer we will delay our date with social justice.

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