by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 26, 2003
THE HUMAN SIDE OF ECONOMICS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Writing about socially responsible businesses last week made me wonder what has gone wrong with our economic system in the first place. Shouldn't all businesses be socially responsible? Aren't we all living on the same planet? Aren't we all interconnected? Isn't it true that no man is an island?
The problem, I've decided, is that the human factor has been almost completely eliminated from economic thinking. People have been stripped of their complicated humanity in the name of free-market efficiency.
To change that, the first thing we must throw out is the word "marketing."
Marketing allows businesses to think of the world as a place to sell things instead of what it really is, a complex organization of people with different languages, customs, cultures and religions, needs, wants, desires, joys and hates. Also, it ignores the fact that the best thing about real markets - from food markets in developing countries to flea markets and crafts fairs here - is the behavioral diversity of the people and products you find there.
To marketers, people are not people. They are customers. Members of a demographic. Dollar signs. Opportunities. Potential scores. Marks.
That is why we get those dreadful canned phone messages, "Hi, I'm Joe Schmo from Western Reserve Sales, and you've just won a free trip to...," and those telemarketers reading from scripts, and so much junk mail that I recently threw away my new credit card because I didn't open its unmarked envelope, and that endless supply of e-mail spam. No thank you, I do need to enlarge my penis so desperately that I welcome six e-mails a day on the subject.
The next thing we need to throw out is our emphasis on the so-called "bottom line," because it forces business to focus on money to the exclusion of the welfare of its employees, its relationships with its environment, community, competition and, today, even its stockholders. And aren't these the very factors that contribute to the health and profitability of every business?
If the world is only a market and the only thing that counts is the dollar-and-cents bottom line, then you can expect to see a lot of disconnected behavior. We have that now with Martha Stewart, Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing and the rest of the people and companies that confirmed our sneaking suspicious that the only difference between Wall Street and a casino is that you get free food and a show at a casino.
What has happened to the social contract? Remember? You worked at a job for 40 years, retired, and got a pension at the end of it. Your company didn't pick up and move to China at a whim. Your employer didn't decide to underfund your pension or undercut your health insurance. You were paid a decent wage so you could afford a modest, middle-class lifestyle.
It took a lot of struggle to get the eight-hour day, the 40-hour work week and time-and-a-half for overtime, not to mention things like Social Security and Medicare which are so threatened by our government today.
Hardworking Americans are now spending a large part of their lives cowering in economic terror. We're afraid of losing our jobs, or else we've already lost them, or else we're working far too hard and still not earning enough to live on. The American dream we were promised, the one where working hard leads us to success, has turned to vinegar in our mouths.
One hopeful sign is that the movement for social responsibility in business, while still small, is growing. For example, later this year, FedEx will introduce 20 hybrid electric vehicles into its delivery fleet, while UPS, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and DaimlerChrysler is looking to develop zero-emission, fuel cell-powered vehicles. And Nike, along with Liz Claiborne, Phillips-Van Heusen, Reebok and other companies, has joined the Fair Labor Association, which does independent monitoring of labor practices in supplier manufacturing plants throughout the world.
These socially responsible businesses recognize that there are always human and environmental costs that need to be factored into every successful business equation.
Another hopeful sign is the movement against globalization. In this country and across the world, more and more people are refusing to be used and exploited. They do not want to be slave laborers, and they do not want to see their local culture destroyed by the branding of large corporations.
We, as individuals, must speak up now against this kind of dehumanizing, all-marketing-all-the-time economic thinking. If we fail to insist that our humanity be treasured as an important factor in our nation's economic health, it will be as Harris Collinwood wrote in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine: "Americans have always taken for granted that better days are coming. Is our present angst the first flicker of suspicion that the better days have already been and gone?"
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.