Exiting the dark ages of capitalism

Stop squeezing so hard

Squeezing out every last dollar from a relationship will leave it sour and dry. That goes whether the relationship is between a company and its workers, a company and its customers, or a company and its suppliers. It’s a two-dimensional, flat, and antagonistic relationship. It’s also frequently completely unnecessary, and nearly always unsustainable.

Yet it remains the predominant gospel of business. One packaged in a variety of euphemisms to make it palatable, like “what the market will bear”. If you’re constantly pushing to get within an inch of what the market will bear, you will inevitably overstep and it’ll break.

Capitalism doesn’t have to be this way. We can all prosper and society can progress without such a single-minded strategy. All it takes is a shift in thinking and perspective.

If, say, the CEO of BlackRock woke up tomorrow and thought “damnit, eeking out the last decimal of a return isn’t how I want to be judged at the end of my days”, then he could start making demands upon his capital that went beyond just “biggest return, at all costs”. Oh wait, he just did that!

You don’t even have to take such a change of heart at face value to realize the good it can bring. Mr Fink may well still be serving the long-term best interest of his fund and himself by doing this. Betting that it’s better to take less than the market will bear, if the market will then continue to exist in a productive form for another century.

Likewise, the CEO of Facebook seems to be realizing that the goal of plundering as much attention from as much of the world as he can reach perhaps isn’t so wise after all. Again, you don’t have to believe in the noble heart of Mr Zuckerberg to realize that such a change is likely for the better.

And you’re free to question those motives, as you should, while cheering on the change. Because that is change, and it can spread if you help.

It’s highly unlikely that Fink and Zuckerberg came to these conclusions in a vacuum. No, they, like everyone, are subject to a change of heart and practice from a change in atmospheric pressure. From seeing the world getting worse in so ever many ways, even as we celebrate progress in some areas. From people making their voices heard with a message of “you’re making it worse”.

These CEOs, especially the likes of Zuckerberg, have unprecedented power to set a new, less extractive course for capitalism. Perhaps they’re waking up to their fearsome power and realizing that legacy matters more than total victory through total war.

Supposedly his proposed intention to plunder less attention has sent Zuckerberg’s Facebook stake down billions. But once you’re a billionaire, how much does $70 vs $60 vs $30 billion really matter? No, what matters far more for many of them, as for all of us, is a belief that you’re doing your bit to make the world a better place. The cognitive dissonance between a mission statement like “connecting the world” and seeing 2 billion people growing ever more spiteful and antagonistic must be deafening.

These are the grand gestures, and if they’re genuine and carried through, they might well have a large impact. But there’s an even greater impact lurking below the surface. That fundamental shift in capitalistic ideals. The move away from “what the market will bear” to “what the market thinks fair”. That will only happen once the legion of business owners below these titans adopt a similar change in values. Once the next generation of would-be moguls has a change in aspirations.

But it’s possible. Oh, is it possible. The world looks so stuck, so set, until one day it changes. Until one day enough people wake up and say enough. Until those with the means decide to take less than all of it. Until we all reconsider.

Why shouldn’t that day be tomorrow?