A while ago, I had a conversation with someone I would describe as an acquaintance. He’s actually a little more than an acquaintance, but doesn’t quite qualify as a friend. My acquaintance-almost-friend is an entrepreneur, fellow author and a man of undeniable intelligence. I value his opinions because they’re generally thoughtfully supported by facts and reason, even when don’t agree with the inferences he reaches.
We tend to avoid politics as a result, out of mutual respect, despite agreeing that our society writ large is in need of overhaul. We’re even inclined to agree (more often than I would expect) on which segments are most in need of overhaul. But as always, the devil is in the details. The following observation my acquaintance made illustrates.
“Government regulation of lending and financial services is out of control,” he opined one evening as we waited for a literary reading to begin. “There is so much regulation that I can hardly turn a profit.”
He went on to detail how laborious processing even a small, short-term loan was. The excessive disclosures and reporting requirements mandated by the government. To be fair, it’s not his imagination. His franchise (and others like it) are over-burdened by regulations, some of which make little sense and do in fact limit his profits. Not to mention complicating even routine transactions in his financial services business.
But an inconvenient truth underpins many over-regulated businesses today. Like it or not, a lot of such businesses are “over-regulated” for a reason. Are there exceptions to this? I’m sure there are. But in most cases, over-regulation is government’s response to business practices that are inherently exploitive, if not downright predatory. Somewhere along the way, those businesses went beyond “profit planning” to profit optimization.
And while my friend would deny (truthfully, I would be willing to bet) that he did not himself engage in the financial services abuses that led to the over-regulation, he is nevertheless heir to them. Accordingly, he feels he is being unfairly treated by a government. I get it. But later, as I was driving home, I was reminded me of something Anais Nin once wrote:
“We do not see things the way they are, we see them as we are.”
I suspect those protected by that over-regulation might disagree with him. And I’m one of them. Now, if you’re bracing for an anti-capitalistic rant, relax. Not that I don’t see problems with capitalism—or with socialism, it’s most popular alternative. But all the arguments both for an against all the “isms” out there often leave me wondering if we aren’t, chasing butterflies while letting all the elephants get away. Work with me, here.
The Insidious Effects of Tribal Wisdom
In my opinion, to see the larger picture, it may prove helpful to exhume and examine a few assumptions we’re inclined to take for granted.
Growth is good. Hardly an election cycle goes by in which the economy under the adminstration of (you fill in the blank) politician comes under scrutiny, often measured by GNP, GDP, unemployment numbers and annual growth rate. The underpinning assumption, of course, is that more is better, because (theoretically) all can share in that growth. The problem with this notion as a guiding principle of action is that unlimited, unregulated growth is not sustainable long-term.
“Greed is good,” opined Gordon Gekko is in the 1987 film Wall Street. It’s a notion shared by many tacitly, if not explicitly. The ultimate motivator, we’re assured by it’s proponents. But what is greed? As defined by Merriam-Webster, greed is:
“a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed.”
And because the results of greed are tangible, greed it has become an informal, tribal litmus test of worth. The problem, of course, is because the results are tangible, so are the results. It makes a virtue of vice, advantaging for the most part, the wealthy/prominent few at the expense of the many.
“That government is best that governs least.” Often attributed to Jefferson, this aphorism actually comes from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. It’s a seductive notion, for anyone who’s ever found his/her freedom of action limited by social proscription in any form. But the underpinning assumption Thoreau makes is that all individuals are fundamentally capable of ethical self-regulation. Anyone who’s ever been assaulted bullied or ripped off knows that’s demonstrably false. Governance, then becomes (at best) an imperfect balancing act.
Nobody asked me, but...
I believe we’re in a maelstrom of change sweeping away most of the reliable signposts by which we’re accustomed to ordering our lives, both individually and collectively. The reward systems and the philosophical underpinnings that have served as organizing principles since (at least) the Industrial Revolution are increasingly less relevant to our current reality.
And the answer does not lie with any “ism” with which we’re familiar. Capitalism, socialism and American “exceptionalism” (to name just a few) are increasingly less useful in crafting our future because all of them are rooted in a reality that is dying.
What is needed now is a wholistic look at our values and the reward systems that we have taken as intuitively obvious for too long. They aren’t anymore. Greed, profit optimization, and the ununbridled pursuit of wealth cannot provide a path to a sustainable society because the vision of unlimited, unregulated growth in a closed system is a self-destructive mirage. We are witnessing that truth driven home in the climate change some still seek to ignore.
A clear-eyed look at our today and tomorrow may lead to the possibility of the need an entirely new paradigm. Is it possible that we need a paradigm that asks, not by “how can profit from a given situation, but “how we can craft a future together that rewards initiative while also safeguarding our collective future?”
A future of all those living and yet unborn, irrespective of ethnicity or species. We must become the collective stewards of now and the guardians of our children’s’ future. As the old Native American aphorism says,
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
D.B. Sayers is decorated Marine officer, former corporate trainer and manager turned full-time author. His works include: West of Tomorrow, Best-Case Scenario, Through the Windshield, Drive-by Lives and Tier Zero, Vol. I of the Knolan Cycle. Eryinath-5 the sequel to Tier Zero is due out in 2021, along with The Year of Maybe, sequel to Best-Case Scenario.