Forget compassionate capitalism, just some fairness will do
Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich could have ended up being the usual rant against the excesses of capitalism and capitalists. His argument that large companies in collusion with regulators and government officials have exploited the free market system for massive personal gains comes with the force of his personal experience as secretary of labour in the Clinton administration, as well as reams of relevant data. Osvald Bjelland founded and runs Xynteo, an Oslo-based consulting firm that advises companies on how doing good for society can be good for their bottom lines as well. As a serial entrepreneur who sold an earlier start-up to Citibank, it does sound strange for him to be critical of the capitalist system. Finally, over the weekend, N.R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys, one of India’s most influential entrepreneurs and a poster boy for how capitalism can spawn a thousand millionaires, led some of the company’s founders in abstaining from voting in favour of a board proposal to hike the salary of the company’s chief operating officer U.B. Pravin Rao by 35% to Rs12.5 crore. Reich is even more critical of the system that served the US and most of Western society for well over a century. Before the current round of hand-wringing against capitalism took wing, the system did deliver incredible growth to all those countries that adopted Adam Smith’s laissez faire doctrine. In a country like India where for centuries, two meals a day was the ambition of millions, today people demand a share of the wealth they are helping create for the companies they work in. The virtual defanging of unions, the unholy nexus between government and big business, and above all the limitless greed of a select few for more power, have all contributed to the prevailing angst about the existing rules of business. Now as more and more of those who may have been its biggest beneficiaries declare that it is broken, the need to fix it, is acquiring urgency. Perhaps it is too much to expect compassion from a system that is inherently Darwinian. We will settle for a fairer and more just arrangement.
The Free-Market Fantasy
Instead of trying to get a handout from the government or make a quick buck on the stock market, Mackey says that companies need to roll up their sleeves and rethink how to run a business. Today, the dominant discourse governing discussion of markets, states, and companies is neoliberalism, and Mackey’s free-market business model and historical narrative fit neatly within this framework. As economic historian Karl Polanyi argued decades ago, capitalist markets are a product of state engineering, not nature. The history of industrial development in the United States, often considered the epicenter of free markets, demonstrates the political nature of markets. The history of market formation in the United States reveals an industrial structure supplied by goods and capital extracted from slave labor and facilitated through a state-sponsored, genocidal land grab. Far-reaching government legislation protected domestic markets and infant industries from external competition, and federal and state governments played a central role in the development of physical infrastructure and the creation of huge bodies of agricultural and industrial knowledge – all essential elements in the genesis of American industrial capitalism. At the same time, society’s greatest inventions and innovations of the past two hundred years – rockets to the moon, penicillin, computers, the Internet – were not bestowed upon us by lone entrepreneurs and firms operating in free markets under conditions of healthy competition. Companies produce influential innovations, but so do other institutions that operate outside the confines of the profit motive, competitive markets, and the bottom line. Designating the market as natural and the state as unnatural is a convenient fiction for those wedded to the status quo. The complexion of those markets depends on the balance of class forces at any given point in time. Free markets don’t exist and other institutions like states clearly matter. Free markets don’t exist, but maybe corporations are still the best, most sensible, way to heal the planet.
Even Stevens Makes Capitalism-With-a-Cause Work
Addressing nationwide food insecurity while creating a thriving restaurant business should be a Herculean task, but Michael McHenry tackles formidable projects several times a week. As the president of Even Stevens Sandwiches, McHenry exudes an unfailing optimism that’s carried the hip sandwich shop to six states with 20 locations-with many more scheduled to open in 2018. Craft sandwiches, a local vibe and a charitable cause have propelled Even Stevens to build an organization that employs hundreds and serves millions. Even Stevens opened its first location in downtown Salt Lake City in 2014 and introduced the concept of donating one sandwich for every sandwich sold. McHenry has an extensive background in the restaurant industry. He worked for 15 years in brand development, concept and operational performance before partnering with Even Stevens owner Steve Down to create the first restaurant in the industry that can correlate revenue with social impact. It took less than three years to sell and donate a million sandwiches, and by the end of 2017, Even Stevens had donated over two million sandwiches to more than 70 nonprofit organizations. The organizations place the order, often a $2,500 value, and the food is drop-shipped to the door with Even Stevens picking up the bill. Following a close second to the compassionate capitalism aspect of Even Stevens is McHenry’s enthusiasm for team development. Even Stevens donates around 100,000 sandwiches a month, and McHenry says overcoming challenges has contributed to the ongoing success of the brand. Each of the eight Even Stevens locations in Utah works with merchants from that area to provide a catalyst for the business community. McHenry says his job is to be a voice for social change, to find artisans in the food industry, to partner with nonprofits that are tackling food insecurity, and to find new neighborhoods where the sandwich shop can create a sustained impact.