What is business about anyway? What is its point?

Most of ten years ago I was invited to a breakfast with two executives from the Mars Corp who wanted to talk about an idea. We began with what seemed a very unusual question: how much money should Mars make the next year? And as I asked questions about that question, the conversation moved to a criticism of Milton Friedman, the father of the modern marketplace whose paradigm has shaped a generation and world, arguing that the sole purpose of business is to maximize shareholder profit.

When I asked “Why are you asking questions about this?” I was drawn into a world that on the one hand seemed remarkably familiar to me, and yet altogether different too. From my earliest days of wrestling with what I believed and why, I was drawn to those who asked the deepest questions, to those who were willing to call the accepted norms into question. Never because I was a revolutionary— though I had dropped out of college, and lived for two years in communes which existed to think things through in a radical way (“radical” meaning “to the roots”) —but more because I was coming to believe that “the world” wasn’t always right, and that criticism and critique was critical if we were ever to find our way to something more real, more true, more right. But different too, because those asking the questions were doing so about the very nature and direction of the 21st-century global economy from within the context of one of the most iconic brands in the world.

Over the next years our conversation grew into a project called the Economics of Mutuality, which slowly, slowly, became accepted within the Mars business practice. I will only say here that it took a long time, as every number had to be checked, and checked again— because there is real money at stake in this, and a “nice idea” wasn’t going to change their ways in the world.

Along the way I took these same executives to a farm alongside the Kentucky River, home to Wendell Berry, where we talked for a day about all of this, explaining our vision, and hearing his questions and insights. When we left, he said this, “If you want to make money for a year, you will ask certain questions; if you want to make money for a hundred years, then you will have to ask other questions.”

From its beginning, the Economics of Mutuality has been asking those “other questions,” ones that the Friedman school, “the Chicago School” as it has been called, simply, tragically misses. For Mars, a privately-held company doing billions of dollars in business annually, their desire is to sustain profitability, to keep making money over the long-term— more one hundred years, than one year. So their questions have been different.

The longer I listened over the years, the more sure I was that the two executives, Bruno Roche and Jay Jakub, were actually committed to rethinking the way business works the world over. Much more could be said here, but it is worth noting that after several years of closely-held research and evaluation within Mars, their thinking was made public. What we would call “the best business schools” in America wanted to become the academic home to this, as the University of Chicago has been to Friedman, but the decision was to take the Economics of Mutuality to a more global setting, where the debate and discussion would necessarily be more international. For three years now the Said School of Business at Oxford University has made EOM a centerpiece of its MBA curriculum, and this next week, for the second year, there will be a “Responsible Business Forum” at Oxford, sponsored by the Said School and the Mars Corp, with hundreds of business leaders from throughout the world present.

And now there is a book too, just out this week, Completing Capitalism, which sets forth the vision and argument. With the subtitle, “Heal Business to Heal the World,” its argument is for a renewing of the marketplace by asking the questions that “make money for a hundred years,” the ones that get at the very reasons-for-being of business itself. Roche and Jakub are unusually rigorous and articulate,  but it is their moral intelligence that makes their work so rich. Deeply committed to “the Jubilee vision” of biblical faith, and therefore to a more complex bottom line, their vision for capitalism is for its “healing,” not for its destruction. Of course money must be made, sometimes billions and billions worth, but for everyone and everything to profit— not only the shareholders, but every stakeholder —then other questions matter too.

To put it simply, Roche and Jakub are asking about the telos of business. What is its point? Why do we do what we do? Their new book Completing Capitalism is a very important argument for everyone who cares about the marketplace, about what vocations in the business world can be and should be.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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