Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Diversity, Capitalism and Doing The Right Thing

Recently, I attended a banquet of a local Human Resources organization honoring companies who had outstanding diversity programs. The featured speaker of the night was an African-American woman who ran a consulting firm focusing on team building and executive coaching. Her message to the group was basically that in order to promote diversity-related issues in a company, one has to speak the language of the CEO, which is language of money and profit. She clearly conveyed the message that in order to promote inclusiveness and diversity in a corporation you have to show how diversity positively affects the financial bottom line. What troubled me more than her basic message was her reference to people as “assets” and “resources” toward the goal of making money; this from a woman whose ancestors had merely been “property” of the plantation owners. I left the banquet depressed and angry that American capitalism had reduced people to merely a means to an end and that the business culture had again seduced one who ought to know better.

Capitalism operates on an illusion that if one hasthe right skills to make the right product or service, one can make a lot of money. The reality is that 5% of the population owns 80% of the wealth, that there is a tilted playing field that favors the haves over the have-nots, and that the rich-poor gap is increasing rather than closing. Americans call themselves the “richest country in the world” and yet when it comes to quality of life indicators such as infant mortality, general health, or crime rates, we are way down the list. We may have the greatest health care system in the world but when 40 million people have no health care insurance, the greatest system in the world is meaningless. These realities are not just a glitch in the system; the problem is the system itself.

Capitalism is like playing the lottery. People play the lottery in hopes of winning millions of dollars. Instead of taxing people proportionate to their incomes, governments sell the illusion of getting rich quick and millions fall for the line (and mostly they are working class and poor folks). The likelihood of winning is miniscule. Every lottery ticket is a tax that people place on themselves while all the time holding onto the illusion they are playing a game that will make them rich. Capitalism is the same way; it sells the illusion that someday one can make it, when in fact it primarily benefits the haves on the backs of the have-nots. The truly sad thing is all the middle and working class people play along, contributing to a system that fundamentally has sold them a lie.

As I listened to the speaker at the diversity dinner, I asked myself a number of questions:
- What if, instead of tricking people and appealing to their baser motives, one appealed to people’s higher motives like justice, fairness, and love?
- What if instead of appealing to people’s greed for making money, one could appeal to people’s desire to actually improve people’s lives and make the world safer and healthier?
- What if we used the language of profit as only one of many strategies to get people to do the right thing, and in the process raise the ethical bar of the business community?
- What if we had business leaders with the courage to call people to clean up the environment, create equity and enhance the quality of life?
- What if the development of people, the enhancement of communities and the betterment of the world was the end and not the means of business?
- What if people and groups who reversed that equation and used people rather than served them were severely sanctioned and penalized?
- What if….?

I recently read an article about James Rouse, a real estate developer who designed the Baltimore Inner Harbor, Boston’s Fanueil Hall, the city of Columbia, Maryland and a host of other life-enhancing public spaces. James Rouse was quoted as saying that the purpose of business was not the bottom line, but to provide a meaningful product or service to the community. When companies first became incorporated in the mid-1800’s that was their charter: to provide a meaningful service or product to the community. It was only in the early 1900’s that capitalism was given legal sanction to limit their concern to the bottom line.

As I listened to that speaker talk about how to sell the idea that all workers had inherent value regardless of race, gender, culture, orientation or creed, I thought there have to be ways out of the new slavery of capitalism. Maybe we can do the right thing, just because it is the right thing…and still do good business. What an amazing thought!

For more on the need to reform corporate life see the following books:

The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power by Joel Bakan

Tyranny of the Bottom Line: Why Corporations Make Good People Do Bad Things by Ralph W. Estes