Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Vicious Cycle of Stupid Capitalism



“To live fully, we must learn to use things and love people, and not love things and use people.” 
John Powell 

Work. Earn. Buy. Work harder. Earn more. Buy more. Want more. Work even harder. Wages stagnate. Prices go up. Use credit. Want more. Use more credit. Buy even more. Prices rise. Wages stay stagnant. Start giving up essentials; use more credit to buy more stuff. Get deeper and deeper in debt. Repeat.

Therein lies the vicious cycle of the stupid, wasteful, excessive consumptive capitalism that we have become trapped in. One in which companies are driven purely by profiteering based on selling us more stuff; no longer innovating or solving real problems but simply updating existing products with more memory, larger screen sizes or higher definition. We in turn want to keep up with the Joneses and even though there is absolutely no reason to discard your iPhone 5, ROKU 1 or 2009 model 40” LG flat screen TV, we want the newest gadgets and products because everyone else has them.

Even if you try to resist the urge to constantly consume (like our family does), companies have started to ensure that we have no choice. Many now make products with shorter lifespans, that fall apart in a less than a couple of years. I still remember when all white goods and even clothes and furniture from my parents’ generation lasted for decades. My father’s shoes and shirts lasted him more than twenty years; mine last less than two. My mother’s fridge stayed with us for more than a decade; our last one broke in one year. My last laptop died two years after I bought it. I had to buy a new one after Lenovo told me that the cost of replacing the broken part would be more than I paid for the laptop. In fact, it has gotten so out of hand that leading up to the financial crisis people were buying and selling homes as regularly as people upgrade iPhones.

Today, it is as if companies exist purely for profit at all costs. Consumption and consumerism has reached a fever pitch and are now bordering on insanity. Amazon just introduced a DASH button that allows you to re-order household products the moment you start to run low (Source: TechCrunch article). God forbid we ever run out of paper towels or washing detergent, the world might end; toilet paper is another matter entirely.

Perhaps, it started with Wall Street’s introduction of quarterly earnings results which were presumably designed to gauge the health of public companies and create greater transparency. Somewhere along the way it became a measure of profits, with growth expected every quarter. Shareholders started to expect their piece of this pie via an always rising share price and dividends every quarter. 

The problem with this model is that companies realistically cannot grow at such a frenetic pace. Such rapid rate of growth is neither realistic nor feasible and leads to putting the kinds of pressure on management that always lead to ill-conceived and myopic decisions at best and totally dishonest, illegal and fraudulent ones at worst. Essentially, we have created a system where we reward short-term success, at any cost, and penalize long-term or strategic thinking, the type that leads to real and sustainable growth.

This is not a viable model of capitalism and more importantly it is based largely on false premises and unrealistic expectations. It is not the fundamentals of capitalist theory that are in question but the people applying them who seem to have become increasingly devoid of ethics, morals, principles and personal responsibility. We have created a system where winner takes all, at the expense of everyone else. If we continue down this path we are putting the wonderful system of capitalism on a path to failure and also creating conditions for major social unrest across the world.

It seems that all sins are permissible as long as companies continue to produce profits. And when senior leadership fails, they simply move on to the next job with a golden parachute, instead of into management oblivion or jail where they really belong. After Enron, every senior executive learned to never leave an email or paper trail; when topics broached sensitive territory in e-mails, they would often write ‘LDL’—let’s discuss live.” (Source: New Yorker). It used to take generations to amass substantial wealth. Today, between Wall Street hedge funds and Silicon Valley startups Rockefeller and Vanderbilt-like wealth is being created in a matter of years, and is often based on valuations pulled out of blue sky or based on misleading small investors.

Even the world of academia has succumbed to this growing greed and worship of money. Colleges, whose critical role was to broaden minds beyond traditional spheres of influence and thinking and to encourage generations to discover, are busy peddling sophisticated financial models that help companies evaluate ‘risk.’ Professors have become advisers to large corporations, showing up on company boards and espousing ‘financial and economic’ expertise via regular columns in newspapers or appearances on television and basking under the bright lights of six and seven figure celebrity. 

There are numerous reports of how talk of becoming a doctor, public servant, poet or teacher has long disappeared from the modern day dorm rooms. Today, it is all about how kids can make their first million dollars before starting their sophomore year in college. 

We have moved away from the notion of steady, honest hard work as the key recipes for success to a model that supports fast, easy, reality-TV-type do-nothing success. Everything is about an exit and not about building companies that span generations. Bluster wins the day while substance, it seems, is considered old-fashioned and outdated.

With this approach to success we have washed away the fundamental human values and principles that used to govern our inner consciences. We are looking out for ourselves (in much larger numbers than generations before us) and worried less about improving the lives of our employees, communities and children.

So we can blame our politicians, the business elites, media and everyone else for our woes and push for stricter laws and more stringent regulation, but I don’t believe this will solve the deeper underlying problem we are facing; we have made money our new God. It is this greed that we need to tackle; one that forgoes ethics, principles and decency in a bid to get ahead. 

Until we remember that each of us has a greater responsibility to society and to the generations that follow, we will remain plagued by this imbalance in our lives and in our little global village.

3 comments:

  1. Burn baby burn...that is the energy I am surrounded with...let's burn through our pockets and consume consume consume for what? Where is the love? Why can't we be more concerned with what we can do for humankind. We're trying hard in our nest to focus on this. Happy effort and improvement!

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  2. And here I was all this time thinking that LDL only stood for low-density lipoprotein.
    Excellent piece. Am going to share it.

    ReplyDelete