doing good, doing well

It was one of those little, almost-not-there moments that pushed me back on my couch, from which I was watching CNBC’s morning show. The older guy whose name escapes me was questioning someone and he very matter of factly said something like ‘Is there any reason ever for a company to do anything other than maximise profits?’

Of course, the answer was ‘no,’ with a shrug and a moving on. It wasn’t so much q and a as touching base with an article of faith, like some religious people who compulsively touch a statue of a saint as they walk by.

Me, I was stopped and staring. My of course was ‘Of course there is, you idiot.’ I happen to work for a company that – while it wants to cut costs where it can, make money, etc. – has always seen business life as a more complicated…business. It was owned by a man who, as far as I can tell, believed the old saw about ‘doing well by doing good’ all the way through. He believed that sometimes you give the people who work for you the benefit of the doubt, and you share, even if it means you have a little less. He believed you spend a little more than you might have to, to provide a community with a little better product.

None of these things was done with a flourish, with a ‘Look at me, what a mensch I am.’ They were the given, part of any business calculation he – and his managers – made. And those values have outlived him so far, a final gift of great value to those of us lucky enough to have worked for him.

To do what he did, the man made sure he maintained his independence – it was worth more than more money. So his company avoided debt, didn’t go public, flew below the radar. In  that way, he rendered himself as invulnerable as one can to the idiotic question at the top of this piece.

I know what the objections of economists and business experts are, how less efficient businesses will inevitably die at the hands of their more efficient competitors, how life is, well, tough, but the creative destruction of capitalism requires that companies like the one I’m describing ultimately bow to the inevitable, that the center will not hold. And maybe so, but what a thin, one dimensional view of how the world works! There is an emptiness, a false grandeur to the words of people who are in love with the machinery of money, as compared to the few among us who have a lot and know how to say ‘enough .’

(To be more direct, it’s the difference between men owning something and corporations owning things. Corporations allow for too much of ‘Look, this isn’t personal…’ without the counter-weight of knowing that it is, in fact, personal, to the extent that what you’re doing will affect someone’s life and that effect will play out in the larger community outside the front door of your business.)

A small blow for saying ‘enough’ can also be found here. Mark Thoma is keeping his immensely valuable ‘Economist’s View’ blog right where it is, though it – and he – could do better elsewhere.

Money quote:

Economists talk about incentives and how they affect behavior, and ads push me in directions I’d rather not go. As soon as I start trying to maximize monetary gains rather than maximizing education, it changes the posts  — the incentives are not well aligned. I become shriller, I find myself tempted by things that will attract lots of eyeballs even if they aren’t as solid as they might be, and so on. It changes the posts in ways I don’t want them to change, so it’s best that I leave that temptation lying on the table (though I am far from perfect).

To which I’ll add, Mark, you don’t have to be perfect. You only have to make enough decisions that are good enough. While I generally disagree with ‘economics as morality story,’ mostly because it’s been put to pernicious use by the right, there is still room to weigh your actions with an eye toward what’s good – and this is one of them.

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