"Don't Take It Personally - It's Business"
( April 2003 )

"No man can serve two masters: ... Ye cannot serve God and Mammon." (Matthew 6:24)

Although I'm not a Christian myself, I do feel quite sorry for genuine Christians these days.

It's kind of sad watching them trying to argue the teachings of the Nazarene in the face of those who also claim to be Christians but who seem to be of the view that if Christ were here today he'd be offering tips for the FTSE or working as a broker on Wall Street.

In Biblical terms, we are living in the era of the triumph of Mammon. All moralities have been reduced to just one - does it make a profit? That which does is Good and should be venerated; that which does not is Evil and should be destroyed. That includes health care, public transport and people's lives.

I just heard an item on the television news.

A drug for treating breast cancer has finally received approval. A large number of women have died while this drug was being assessed and the crucial fact is that these tests which caused the delay - and therefore these women's deaths - were not for clinical success or safety, both of which had already been established. They were for "cost-effectiveness".

In other words, the deaths of these women were caused by a bunch of accountants doing calculations to figure out which would cost less - letting women die or giving them the drug.

I have a friend who did a law degree. As part of his course, he was given a hypothetical problem. The problem was this.

A large car manufacturer discovers a fault in a line of cars which has been on the market for a year so a considerable number of these vehicles have been sold and are on the road. This fault will inevitably cause fatalities. As a lawyer representing this company, how should he decide what advice to give?

The correct answer was that he should do a calculation as to the cost of lawsuits for compensation and another as to what it would cost to withdraw the cars and he should advise the less costly of these options. He protested that he was being taught to murder people. The lecturer could not see what his problem was. It was not for him to make moral judgements, it was his job to look after the best fiscal interests of his client.

But the lecturer was not avoiding making a moral judgement, he was, in fact, actually making a moral judgement but one based on a different set of moral principles. His judgement was based on the contemporary morality of money as the sole criterion for evaluating actions. Regardless of what terminology he chose to describe his decision, he was in essence regarding the cheaper option as being a good thing and the more expensive as bad. A moral judgement masquerading as "business objectivity".

You frequently hear this spurious justification used, for example, by someone about to destroy several people's careers and lives - "Don't take it personally, it's business." What that really boils down to is, "My need to make money is more important than any damage done to you but I can salve my conscience and (more importantly) avoid you kicking the crap out of me in retaliation if we pretend that I'm not really responsible and we're all just victims of objective forces outside our control."

One of the myths people like to believe about capitalism is that a business idea comes from someone spotting something which would be useful to others and charging a reasonable return for their work. The first principle is supposed to be "what do people need and what can I charge for providing it?"

This may have been true in the early days of capitalism but the reality these days is the opposite. The motivation now comes from "How can I make money?" The decline in the quality of goods and services, the difficulties in obtaining decent maintenance and follow-up service, these are a direct consequence of this. The making of a profit is the sole motivation and the maximising of profit demands providing as little as possible and charging as much as possible for it.

Take computers. A large section of the computer retail world operates on a "last-minute" basis. The wonderful, state-of-the-art, all-bells-and-whistles machine is advertised and has you drooling. So you order one. The problem with many of these companies is that, at the time you place your order, your computer doesn't actually exist. You order, they take your money, then the machine is built and shipped to you.

Indeed, there's not a lot wrong with that. In theory.

What happens in practise is another story. The main motivation is not providing a decent service and charging a reasonable return. The main motivation is making money. Period.

So you place your order and they take your money. Then they find that they have so many orders that they can't meet yours within the stated time. Of course, they could employ and train more people to build them but that would increase costs thereby reducing profit so that's not an option. So the sales team piles the pressure on to the production team to "increase productivity", in other words, build more machines in less time. Which inevitably results in less quality control, more errors and a decrease in reliability.

Your computer arrives and it doesn't work or it's not the one you ordered. You return it to them. At this point they'll probably tell you, "Sorry about that, no problem, we'll have it back to you in a week."

So you wait two weeks and phone them.

"Sorry, we had to order a new graphics card / mother board / intergalactic hyperdrive. It's on the delivery bay now and it'll be shipped out tomorrow."

Repeat at regular intervals until in frustrated despair you threaten them with everything from lawyers to burning down their showroom.

The reason why you're being given the runaround is a simple one. They've already got your money. On their list of priorities you now come much further down than getting more money from new customers.

No, this is not a problem restricted to a few fly-by-night cowboys in a particular industry. Yes, there are honourable exceptions but they are notable because they are exceptions. This philosophy is an article of faith in modern capitalism. Profit is all. Customer satisfaction, quality of service, reliability, employee satisfaction, these are all secondary to the primary objective which is making profit.

Complain and you are likely to be greeted with the tedious cliche that "We must make profit to stay in business".

Economics is a tool which was invented by human beings to serve human needs.

In case you missed that, or have difficulty grasping such a novel idea, let me say it again - economics is a tool which was invented by human beings to serve human needs.

Economics is not a set of objective laws created by God or Nature, it is a set of ideas which arose from the way humanity chose to manage the mass manufacture and exchange of commodities.

The whole purpose of economics has been subverted; the servant has become the master and now human beings exist to serve the needs of economics.

When profit can only be made by providing shoddy, broken, overpriced, malfunctioning, inferior products made by overworked, stressed, dissatisfied, underpaid employees, then there is something fundamentally and desperately wrong with our economic system.

When people are homeless or living in substandard housing while building workers are living on unemployment benefits because having them build houses won't make enough profit, then there is something fundamentally and desperately wrong with our economic system.

And when an economic system regards the loss of human life as an acceptable inevitable consequence of the service of economics then, whatever "objective" language is used to divorce consequence from action, the only truthful name for that is "murder for financial gain" and it is time to tear down the economic system which causes it and replace it with a better one, one which does actually serve the needs of human beings and which works without murdering people.

Our current economic system is neither permanent nor is it carved in stone. It was invented by human beings. And what some human beings have invented, other human beings can change.

A start towards that would be for those human beings who make economic decisions which result in the deaths and suffering of other human beings to be held responsible for the consequences of those decisions rather than bleating about "objective economic factors beyond our control", "the need to maintain profitability" and "cost-effectiveness".

Yes, it's "business" -- and I do take it personally.

Celtic knotwork

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