Rethinking capitalism, OWS and 7B
This is not about solidarity with the campers off Wall Street, Bay Street or any other street. It’s not about their manifestos, their motives, their methods, whether it’s the cool thing to do or the Woodstock of this generation. It’s about one thing only: Is there a problem with capitalism today?
And I think there is.
But before I explain why, first let me say this:
From where I’m looking right now, capitalism is good. Very good.
Look at the historical facts: Before commerce, industry and finance began to blossom, children were lucky to live past six years, the average life span was between 25–30 years, all but a small minority lived at bare subsistence levels or less, education was for the elite, and violent death, torture and barbarity was not something you watched on television, but witnessed firsthand on a frequent basis—whether in the name of warfare, crime, justice or entertainment.
Capitalism has been a—if not the—major force in diminishing war between nations and creating tolerance between peoples. It has allowed literally billions more people to share the planet and—percentage-wise—at a much greater standard of living. Today, thanks to capitalism, each year 70 million people leave hand-to-mouth living to become consumers-by-choice—and poverty rates are expected to continue their sharp decline.1 Without capitalism, democracy would never have proven successful, medicine could never have advanced, worldwide humanitarian efforts would be absurd and I would never have been able to compose this editorial and get it out to you so fast.
I’ll go further: Capitalism is not just “the best we got.” Capitalism is inherently good. Because capitalism, at its essence, is saying, “just as the earth can produce value and share that value with others, so too the human being.” Capitalism empowers each one of us.
And therein lies the problem with capitalism today. Because we’re grabbing the husk and leaving the fruit behind.
What went wrong?
Quite simply, we never let go of the crippling idea that equates making business with demonic greed.
And people act according to the role you give them.
There are those professions that society considers noble callings, such as doctors, judges and professors. Society respects them for what they do. Then there are business people. Society respects them, too—but are they respected for what they do, or for what they get? Do we respect their occupation, or do we see them as doing a worthless job—making money out of money?
Where is business respected? Take a look in the Talmud.
In the Talmud you’ll find spiritual and earthly duties lumped together in ways that sends the modern mind spinning:
Rava said, “When a soul stands before the heavenly court, it is asked, ‘Did you buy and sell fairly? Did you fix times for Torah study? Did you attempt to be fruitful and multiply? Did you look forward to the messianic redemption? Did you debate matters of wisdom? Did you understand one thing from another?’”2
Do you see that? Marrying, procreating and making an honest living are good and wonderful occupations—in the same breath as Torah study, gaining wisdom and keeping the faith.
Why? Because they benefit the world. As in the common talmudic term for making a living, that dignified and ennobled phrase, “settling of the world”3 —for, as the prophet states, “G‑d did not create emptiness; He formed a world to be settled upon.”4
Maimonides sums up the Jewish position with strong words:
Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates G‑d's name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.
Our Sages declared: "Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world." Also, they commanded and declared: "Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with." Also, they commanded and declared: "Love work and despise Rabbinic positions." All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.5
And so, the laws concerning earning an honest living and thereby making the world a more settled and civil place also belong in the holy books.
The medieval Augustinian view, on the other hand, saw all these as curses of the snake, the product of original sin—since they were directed by man’s evil impulse.6 Such, as well, was the view of the ancient Romans and Greeks, who looked askance at craftsmen, merchants and others who lived by toil.
And so, whereas the Jew saw work as good for the soul and moneymaking as of benefit to everyone involved, the society which enveloped them saw it as a tolerable sin. Not lending money alone, but almost every form of business was labelled “usury”—using someone else for one’s own benefit.7
Life began to change radically when European society adopted the Jewish attitude—that which Weber prudently coined “the Protestant ethic.” The Jews, wrote Montesquieu, “set the stage for the rebirth of European commerce, and with it the beginning of the decline of prejudice and the rise of a more gentle, less ferocious way of life.”8
How It Should Be
And yet, the ancient notion that making business is dirty business lives on.
If I would ask a class of medical students why they chose medicine, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear, “I think I would be fulfilled by a life of healing people.” Not just in 1967, but even today.
If I would ask a class in law school why they chose law, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear “I’m outraged at injustice in the world.” Yes, they are there, bless their souls.
What do I want to hear from the students in business school? I want to hear, “I’m going into commerce and finance because I want to fix the world.”
Because they can—in ways that no one else can. Capitalism brought us to this glorious world where (yes, there are problems, but the fact is) seven billion human lives can share the planet together, and capitalism is the solution to all the problems that come along with that 7b. Yes, we need doctors, we need social activists, we need political leaders dedicated to the welfare of their people. But more than any of those, it’s the manufacturers, the traders, the sellers and the financiers in whose hands the future of our planet rests.
Why? Because capitalism demands consumers, and the impoverished can’t afford to consume. Because capitalism demands an educated workforce, and that education has to start at an early age. Because capitalism demands renewable resources, which unsustainable practices cannot provide. Because capitalism, when done at its very best, benefits not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders—which is every last one of us sharing this planet.
The highest form of charity, writes Maimonides, is when you give a person a partnership or find him work “…so that his hand will be fortified and he will not have to ask others.”9
Who does that? The entrepreneurs, the financiers, the people out there making business. They are blessed with the capacity to stand a human being on his own two feet, fishing rod and all—billions of human beings—and say, “Your life is in your hands.”
I can’t think of anything the world needs today more than a generation of idealist, foresighted, noble capitalists.10
Getting back to the garden
So have the tent-dwellers in Zuccotti Park got it right or wrong? As in most cases, probably both. You see, the change that’s needed is not the change that most imagine. It’s not the demise of capitalism we need, but its redemption. We need to stop equating finance with greed and start seeing it as a noble calling. And, as consumers, we need to demand it from our industries.
We need to teach that in our schools—and not just business school: Children in pre-school have to learn that firemen put out fires, doctors heal boo-boos, and people do business so they can share good things with others.
We need to give them that role, and learn to expect it from them.
One of the sitters, a 53-year-old carpenter by the name of Thomas Fox, seems to have gotten it right. As he explained to a journalist:
It's a Jeffersonian based political party uniting the youth of the world together. The key phrase is this, which Thomas Jefferson wrote to Madison, ‘the earth belongs in usufruct to the living.’ What usufruct means is stewardship. It means the older generation has a duty to turn over the earth and the financial system in a better situation than they got it.
Somewhat reminiscent of that line in Genesis, where the CEO of this universe places us in His garden “to serve it and to protect it.” In other words, to make His world even better.
At Woodstock we sang that we “have to get ourselves back to the garden.” Whether or not the occupiers of Wall Street have the same thing in mind, the garden is here now and waiting.
Goldman Sachs, Global Economics Paper No:170, page 5.
Talmud Shabbat 31a
See Sanhedrin 24b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Mishpatim, Edut, 10:4, and the Kesef Mishnah ad loc: A person who is not occupied in “settling the world” is most likely engaged in thievery and cannot be trusted.
The Jewish sages, on the other hand, cite the verse from Psalms (128:2), “If you eat by the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you.” From this they understand that the reward for working for a living supercedes even the merit of “fear of heaven.” He who fears heaven has a reward in the world to come, but he who eats by the toil of his hands receives a reward in this world as well (Talmud Berachot 8a). The curse that resulted from original sin added the element of toil to that work, but the work itself is not a curse, but part of the human being’s original purpose on earth—as mentioned at the end of this essay.
On this topic, see Jerry Muller, Capitalism and the Jews, Princeton University Press.
Montesque, Spirit of the Laws (1748), part 4, book 20, chapter 1.
If you think I’m the only one saying this, see Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, “The Big Idea—Creating Shared Value,” subtitled “How to reinvent capitalism and unleash a wave of innovation and growth” in Harvard Business Review, January, 2011. Also, a timely book by Joseph Bower, Herman Leonard and Lynn Paine, “Capitalism at Risk: Rethinking the Role of Business.” My idea that business should be seen as a “noble profession” is taken straight out of Cavico and Mujitaba, “The state of business schools, business education and business ethics” in the Journal of Academic and Business Ethics, vol. 2, July 2009.