The biggest danger in a capitalist economy is that we all become dogs chasing our tails. In the weight room the other day, a number of us began to discuss the benefits and perils of modern capitalism as we lifted. The conversation was spurred by one of our number commenting on how outrageous online news story titles have become. People will say anything to get you to click on their story, whether the title and lead-in have anything to do with the content of the piece or not. It's All Hyperbole All The Time. When Aliens do land on the White House Lawn, we won't believe it for a second - even if Donald Trump is swearing it took place and that it was the MOST INCREDIBLE THING THAT EVER HAPPENED and that, no, it wasn't how he came to be among us in the first place.
Here's the problem. Any country that gets the blessing of free market capitalism sees a decrease in poverty and an increase in living standards for lots of people. And for a while, things look very promising. And then, before you know what's happened, you get billionaire oligarchs, people moving money around for no reason other than profit, lots of people chasing oversize profits, and everyone else struggling. You also get an economy in which we all become dogs chasing our tails.
What's corrupted journalism? It's become a big business, chasing clicks and eyeballs. Why? Because it's really chasing advertising dollars. In medicine, doctors are trying to see more patients for more profits. Drug companies are trying to charge more for life-saving drugs. Lawyers are desperate for more billable hours. And here's what eventually happens. Years ago, backstage before a talk, I met the CEO of a very large drug store chain. I said, "How's business?" He said, "It's been a terrible flu season." I said, "I don't know anyone with the flu." He said, "Exactly."
It took me a second to realize what he was saying. And how he was thinking.
Our weight room talk became a discussion of the professions. Traditionally, something was a profession when the pursuit of it had to do mostly with internal motivators - doing an excellent job, serving people well, providing a useful and satisfying product or service. Medicine, law, journalism, and education were all professions. But mom and pop grocery stores and local clothing shops and corner bookstores had a lot in common with them, as well. Work was about making a positive difference for your neighbors and fellow human beings. Do that well, and you'd make a good living. But then the professions became businesses, focused on the bottom line and profits. And that unintentionally created distractions, distortions, corruptions, and ultimately the sort of mindsets represented by the drug store CEO.
Fifty years ago, doctors had to make a living. So did people in all the professions. But they weren't chasing profits first and foremost. Even businesses outside the professions could view profits as wonderful side effects of pursuing other valuable things well, and not as the focal point of everything.
When dogs are healthy and normal, and do things right, their tails follow along right behind them, as a matter of course. They go places, do things, and have a great time. They don't have to worry about the tail not accompanying them. It keeps up. But when their focus changes and they start chasing their own tails, well, they go around and around in circles and never get anywhere.
We can't let our economy and society become nothing but dogs chasing their own tails. We need to go out in pursuit of things that matter and take a healthier view that the profits we need will accompany good work, following us where we usefully go with the right things in view.
Otherwise, as another modern image has it, the view never changes.