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Posts Tagged ‘Adam Smith’

On Chick-fil-A and Democratizing Capitalism

July 30, 2012 2 comments

I think I should start by making clear that I absolutely love Chick-fil-A’s food. I love their original sandwich and nuggets so much that it took a concerted effort for me to even try their chargrilled chicken sandwich, which I then also loved. And I could never bring myself to order their spicy chicken sandwich which I would probably also love, but can’t justify passing up the known entities of the three already-mentioned, delicious menu items. When I lived in Georgia I went out of my way at least twice to visit/eat at the original Chick-fil-A called the Dwarf House: a quirky building housing a diner-style Chick-fil-A eating experience. I had a friend snap a picture of me in front of it. On my weekend road trips away from the University of Georgia, I always returned on a Sunday evening, and hated having to pass a Chick-fil-A on my way home knowing that it was closed for business and would not provide me with the post road trip chicken I so craved. I’m telling you, I love Chick-fil-A.

So when I first heard that Chick-fil-A had made some anti-gay donations and supported an anti-gay, “pro family” group, I felt similar to how the Ninja Turtles might feel if they learned that profits from pizza sales go to support Shredder (Can I still get away with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle references?). I initially gave up eating Chick-fil-A a few years ago at the first mention of it, only to then do a little research, found the anti-gay reports to have been overblown, and resumed eating. Chick-fil-A has since ramped up their anti-gay position culminating in their president, Dan Cathy, formally making a statement about Chick-fil-A’s beliefs on gay marriage, and alas, I again will be bypassing the chain–all the more difficult due to its location in the university food court.

I wasn’t initially planning on writing about the Chick-fil-A controversy for a couple of reasons. Partly, because I viewed this as old news since it spans back a couple of years. Mostly though, the issue really seemed like it would peak and then die while I was on vacation and cease being topical by the time that I returned last night.

However, I am still routinely hearing about Chick-fil-A, reading about Chick-fil-A and seeing people post on social media about Chick-fil-A. It even scrolled across the bottom of my local Fox affiliate today for some reason. And with the upcoming Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day followed shortly after by the Chick-fil-A Same-Sex Kiss Day, it doesn’t look as though this story is going to be any less pervasive this week than it was last week. What I found somewhat more in need of a response was that there has been a bit of a backlash developing, particularly against the “boycott culture.” An openly gay internet video “star” issued a video saying it was okay to eat at Chick-fil-A. An openly gay writer penned a piece on Huffington Post trying to explain that the debate is about more than chicken, but again, included in his conclusion “eat all the chicken sandwiches you want.”

But the article that most inspired this post was one that I saw all over facebook from the Atlantic: In Defense of Eating at Chick-fil-A. The article focuses on highlighting some of the good and the limited scope of the bad when it comes to Chick-fil-A’s donations. It also speaks out against boycott culture, and to some extent, I agree. Calling for boycotts gets old and it gets annoying. It often comes across as whiny. I would prefer that if you are offended or upset by the company’s practices that you do what you can to put that information out there, make a personal choice as to whether or not you give that company your business, and let others make that personal choice, as well.

But two quotations stood out to me in this piece that merit a strong and lengthy response. One poses what I find to be the quintessential question in issues such as these: “Do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed?” The second quotation that stands out shines the light on, in my view, a core problem with American capitalism: “Boycotts rarely cause actual pocketbook–rather than PR–damage. Most consumers don’t care enough to drive an extra mile to get the same product from someone else.”

I believe this will be the first public use of a statement that will (hopefully) be found in numerous campaign commercials and fliers in my future campaigns, whenever they may be. We need more democracy in capitalism and less capitalism in democracy. This post will apply only to the first half of the statement: more democracy in capitalism. What I mean by this is that every dollar you spend is a vote for the receiving business. That transaction is the end that justifies their means. If sales are moving, then it serves as a de facto approval of whatever business practices that company utilizes that led to you buying that product. When the bottom line talks, the company will listen.

Make no mistake, if Chick-fil-A sees a jump in their business after publicly wading into these political waters, not only will they increase their donations and activism, but other like-minded business owners, presidents, and CEOs will likely make similar donations. On the contrary, if Chick-fil-A sees a drop in business, it sends the message to other companies that it makes good business sense to avoid controversial donations or statements on divisive social issues. Money talks. Consumers decide what it says.

Naturally, we don’t have the time or energy to know exactly how every producer or vendor runs their operations. But in this information age, we do have a lot of information presented to us or at least readily available. And we should all be using that information to use our financial votes judiciously in regards to whatever issues are important to us. If gay marriage rights are an issue that is important to you, then it is within your self-interest not to eat at Chick-fil-A. If the quality of your meat is important to you, then it is in your best interest not to patronize the company with a large enough market share to dictate the terms of meat production (McDonalds).

The Atlantic article accepts the current reality that consumers don’t care enough to make such distinctions and decisions. I, however, refuse to simply accept things as they are in that regard. I believe that with the wealth of information available and the increased use of social networks and other means to spread that information (hopefully accurate information), we could easily see an economy in which enough consumers care about how they spend their money that political missteps or poor business practices are, indeed, felt in the bottom line and not just in terms of PR.

I previously wrote a post about the need for self-interest to exist within the knowledge of something bigger, a society, in order for capitalism to function as it should. This is a furthering of that sentiment. Alan Greenspan, among others, has said that in free market capitalism, the good practices should push out the bad. When Adam Smith used the term “Invisible Hand” in his book, “The Wealth of Nations,” he was referring to British capitalists having a self-interested preference to invest in British companies (job security, strong domestic economy) and that self-interest would better British businesses and society as a side effect. Capitalism, as it is intended to function, relies on consumers and investors to make judgments about good and bad that go beyond prices and profits. If we aspire as a nation to be the greatest example of capitalism’s success moving forward, it’s time that we start applying those judgments to our day-to-day transactions.

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On Capitalism and Self Interest

May 23, 2012 1 comment

“Help somebody when they are in trouble and they will remember you when they are in trouble again.”

“You’ve gotta look out for number one.”

“Greed is good.”

I’m a big proponent of free speech. However, it frequently occurred to me while listening to Rush Limbaugh that certain types of speech and certain opinions can be repeated so often and so vigorously that they eventually can turn from speech into an ideology with real-world implications. That can be a good thing. My fear while listening to Rush Limbaugh, though, was that so much fear and anger on the radio would eventually permeate into fear and anger so deep within some listeners that it becomes actionable, and that those actions might turn violent. The results, however, are not always so obvious.

One unfortunate example of speech turning into an ideology and changing behavior is our love for capitalism. I think that we’ve all come to a general consensus that markets are a good thing. We love markets. Yes, there are still some socialists in the world (and some still being elected in Europe). But here in America, even those demonized for their socialist ways (read: Obama) are still hiring Wall St bankers to important posts in his administration. So we’re basically all on board: markets are good. The dispute comes only into how often, how much and in what ways should markets be improved upon or intervened into.

However, the rhetoric that accompanies capitalism or that is used to justify some of its darker moments has had a side effect; it has led to quotes such as the ones above. The rhetoric of the free market and capitalism has led to selfishness; to cynicism. Of course, selfishness is not new, nor is it unique to capitalist countries. Capitalism did not give birth to these traits. However, when the fictional Gordon Gekko uttered “Greed is Good” in the 1987 film, “Wall Street,” he burned into popular culture the notion that what was once frowned upon in society could be virtuous. He took the idea that selfishness and self-reliance are par for the course–if not necessary survival skills–out of the boardroom and into the main stream. He, along with a steady stream of supporting associated rhetoric, made greed good.

It all starts with the “invisible hand;” Adam Smith’s famous metaphor that by acting within their own self interest, people would guide the markets to direct resources appropriately and efficiently. It’s a flawed model, as is any, but the premise is generally sound, and I won’t take issue with it here (though I could envision another post addressing this more fully). I obviously didn’t know Adam Smith and can only presume here, but I’d be willing to bet that when Adam Smith crafted those words, he had an entirely different view of self interest than we do today.

Self interest is not selfishness. Self interest is not greed. Most importantly, self interest can still exist within the knowledge that we are all a part of something bigger–of a society; a community. In fact, one could say that selfishness is self interest in a vacuum, and that greed is self interest in excess and at the expense of others. But we do not live in a vacuum. I am not the only person affected by my choices. My self interest does not have to be at the expense of someone else’s. Our self interests might actually be better-served cooperatively or through short-term sacrifice by one party or another.

A capitalist society functions based on the whims of those within it. When things go awry, many might point to capitalism or to the system, but I also point to the whims–and the rhetoric that changed them. Years of reinforcement have us convinced that taking the most that we can, relying only on ourselves, and sacrificing only in the rarest of circumstances somehow actually enhances the quality and efficiency of our marketplace. The sooner that we, as a capitalist society, understand that our own self interests are better served within the reality that we exist not simply as individuals, but as individuals within a society, the better will be the outcome of the invisible hand.