The Useless Messiahs of Reform Capitalism

The New Prophets of CapitalI’m only about halfway through Nicole Aschoff’s excellent The New Prophets of Capital, but her argument is so clear that I want to talk about it briefly. She deals with four case studies in the book: Sheryl Sandberg, John Mackey, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates. The fundamental idea with all of them is that the problems that capitalism creates can be fixed by capitalism itself. It is not at all surprising that they are all Americans because this is very typical of our “can do” attitude. We always think that we can tinker with a system. We are, after all, the only country on the planet that had a revolution that didn’t revolutionize anything.

Sandberg is the Facebook COO and the author of Lean In, where she argues that women will gain more equality by having more of them on corporate boards and in corner offices. And how will they do that? Well, Sandberg has an example of when she was really pregnant, walking a long way from her car to her office at Google (where she worked at the time). She had an epiphany, “There should be close parking for pregnant women!” So she marched into the CEO’s office and demanded it and ever since, Google has had special parking for pregnant women. Hooray!

It’s funny and sad that Sandberg thinks that really pregnant women need shorter walks to their offices and not, maybe, time off. But that is exactly the point from my perspective. It’s like the television anchor who says, “I’ve never been told what stories to do!” Of course not! The network would never allow someone who didn’t self-censor to be the television anchor. And Google would never allow a normal woman to be a high ranking executive. Of course, Aschoff destroys this notion in a different way by noting that Yahoo!’s female CEO, Marissa Mayer, cut thousands of jobs and eliminated flex time, which is especially helpful to women. Allowing woman who are just like the very worst men to rise to the top will not change a damned thing.

Similarly, John Mackey is the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods. And he thinks that we can just fix capitalism by corporations being more responsible and less greedy. That’s so obviously a fairy tale that it should come as no shock to you that Mackey is a libertarian. But the truth is that Whole Foods is, on the whole, a lot better a company than I had been led to believe. That’s one of the great things about Aschoff’s work: she goes out of her way to show that these people aren’t frauds. But here’s the critical matter: Whole Foods is not the first company to treat its workers and customers well. IBM, for example, did the same thing in the 1950s and 1960s. But IBM is not such a great company to work for now. What happened? Competition.

As long as a company is riding high, it can afford to pay its workers well and invest in do-gooder projects. But the moment that profits start to slide, all of that will be pushed aside. And that’s for one reason: profit is what these companies are about. It trumps all. But when a company is at the top of the market, it isn’t so clear. Everyone focuses on the good things they do and not all the money they are making. It is like John Mackey highly publicized salary of $1 per year. All that means is that Whole Foods is his baby and he loves running it. Oh, and he has $100 million net worth, so he doesn’t need a salary.

None of these are bad people. But I very much see myself as a young man in them. There is something incredibly self-serving about it all. What each and every one of them is saying (I already know a great deal about Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates) is that if only everyone were more like them, then all the world’s problems would be fixed. It’s not enough that they are ridiculously wealthy having never worked that hard. It isn’t enough that people bow down to them as great oracles of business wisdom. They must be seen as messiahs! They have brought the Word to the masses and the Word is themselves.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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