'Just Business': Capitalism is an Anti-Social Disease
Looking at the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, where the results of the greed of corporate executives at BP, TransOcean and Halliburton, not to mention the greed of paid-off regulators in the Minerals Management Service and the members of the House and Senate who took dirty money to water down drilling regulations are on ready display, I was reminded of a prominent business leader in New York, recently deceased.
Told by his sister of a young woman she knew who had posted a sign on her wall saying, “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have,” this executive, who had held a top position in the multinational media industry, sniffed, “Ugh! That’s terrible. If people thought like that, no one would strive to do anything.”
Of course, hundreds of thousands of people--teachers, nurses, park rangers, musicians, writers, artists, small farmers and social workers--spend their lives working at low wages trying to make others happy and better educated, or to produce things that people need or that bring joy to others, content that their lives have meaning. Yet this same individual, who was worth perhaps a hundred million of dollars, spent his life simply amassing ever more wealth, which is what the rich and powerful do. He worked hard raking it in, riding roughshod over employees, competitors, and workers, all with the goal of obtaining more wealth, though he had no hope of ever spending what he had. When he died, he left behind a family squabbling over the spoils.
And how different, really, was he from most wealthy, powerful people? To be sure, some give extravagantly to charity, especially when they die, but their bequests can never compensate for the harm they do in their lifetimes.
Let’s face it. Capitalism is a disease--a raging infection that causes its hosts to become sociopaths.
When I lived in Hong Kong, where I worked as a correspondent for Business Week magazine back in the mid-1990s, my wife Joyce and I adopted a baby boy from a local Hong Kong orphanage. For the first six months, under the terms of the adoption process, we had Jed living with us in a foster-care arrangement, which required us to take him to regular visits to Queen Mary Hospital’s toddler clinic. There we often met a British couple who at the same time as us had adopted two boys, both with physical disabilities--one affecting his walking, and the other his vision. The man was someone I knew professionally--a major figure in the international investment banking industry who worked for a large British bank. I knew he had been centrally involved in lucrative deals in Southeast Asia that had financed some poorly planned infrastructure projects that were displacing and destroying the lives of tens of thousands of poor people, and that he had actually been indicted in one country for having misled the government there about the risks involved in the loans. But here he was, with his two adopted kids, just a model father: loving, patient and kind.
I was struck by this man’s ability to segment his personality into two discrete halves--a caring human being, and a profit-maximizing monster.