Busy-ness as Usual

Calvin Coolidge — the Ronald Reagan of the 1920s — said “The business of America is business.” Clearly Mr. Coolidge was a man in tune with his times. Therefore, if he were alive today he’d be 125 years old and he’d say “The business of business is America.”

What do I mean by that? The law-makers, social consciences, and management gurus of the New Deal, New Frontier, Great Society, ad nauseum, have decided that the business of business is no longer business.

Business is now an instrument of racial, ethnic, sexual, chronological, and you-name-it equality. Not equality of opportunity — which would require that those equally qualified for a job have an equal chance of getting it — but equality of outcome. The outcome had better be that you hire or promote or keep me regardless of my qualifications or performance or I will have you mired in a “guilty until proven innocent” legal process. Thus forced to act irrationally by the government, many businesses seem to have lost their bearings entirely.

Now we have management gurus and CEOs who want employees to be a “family” — and a happy one at that. Forget that people who gripe do it because they like to gripe (it makes them happy), not because they have a reason to gripe. And another family is the last thing most people want — one is enough.

Management gurus and CEOs who talk about “feelings” and “families” remind me of grandparents, aunts, and uncles who spoil the brats for a day and then go home, leaving the parents to do the hard work of raising their children.

“Empowerment” is another hot one (or it was in the fleeting half-life of these fads). Who knows or cares what it means? It sounds good. Sometimes it seems to mean the freedom to gripe regardless of one’s competence in the matter about which one is griping. “Well, management did it again, they picked a new word-processing system and didn’t ask us what we wanted.” Well, we would have asked you but you were still trying, unsuccessfully, to learn the old system, but we didn’t fire you because we were afraid we’d wind up in court.

Enough of internal matters. Let us also consider business as an agent of “the community.” It’s the “in thing” you know. Many businesses now routinely devote a portion of their profits (which come from what they charge their customers) to the social, cultural, and educational affairs of their communities. This isn’t government taxation I’m talking about. It’s a self-imposed tax inflicted by do-gooding boards and CEOs who want to be “with it” in the eyes of their constituencies.

Who are those constituencies? Not the employees in the “family” whose numbers will be fewer and whose pay will be lower because of the good deeds their bosses pursue. Not the customers of the businesses the bosses supposedly run — the customers who pay more than they would if the bosses would stick to business. Here’s who:

  • Other bosses (“My social conscience is bigger than your social conscience.”)
  • Political connections (“Look at me, I’m the kind of guy or gal you want to be your next Assistant Deputy Assistant Assistant Secretary of Good Works and Happy Feelings.”)
  • Their own egos (“I was just a poor boy and I never had anything, but now I can snap my fingers and make people happy. I’m a big deal.”)

I started with Calvin Coolidge and I’ll end with Adam Smith, who touted the “invisible hand” of free markets. Productive as American business is — and it’s plenty productive — it cannot thrive and do right by its workers and shareholders if it continues to be freighted by the legal, social, pseudo-scientific, and ego-centric baggage that it has accrued over the past several decades.