How the Hippie Became a Capitalist
I feel like over and over society tells me, “You can go after money and power, or you can try to change the world and serve your society and be a good person.” I have received this cultural message from friends, parents, teachers, coworkers, and the media.
Similarly, when I was a little girl who loved writing poems and stories, my parents told me, “You can be a great novelist and light up the world, or you can become a miserable marketing hack and write evil advertisements to eek out a profitable yet meaningless existence.”
In my twenties I have come to love marketing, even identify as a marketing and publicity nerd. I avidly follow other marketing and publicity nerds on Twitter. I burst with nerdy excitement when Google changes their algorithms, when I get an email with a particularly clever subject line, when a brand’s square graphic manages to go viral on Facebook.
I recently heard about something called “cause marketing,” telling the story of a nonprofit or a cause so effectively the fundraising numbers just shoot through the roof. And every day we hear stories of philanthropists donating huge sums to charity– so why exactly, is it always framed as a choice BETWEEN money and goodness? BETWEEN marketing and storytelling? Can’t I live in a space where marketing and storytelling are the same thing?
Speaking of money. When I studied abroad in Senegal (that’s West Africa, to save you the trouble of googling it) people were always approaching our little group of white students and asking for money. I remember one man in particular, with hungry, burning eyes, who stood outside the window watching us as we ate dinner. He finally screwed up the courage to dart into the restaurant and asked us if we would give us money to fund his small business venture that he dreamed of starting.
We were very annoyed and harassed by this, because things like this happened so often and we didn’t really have much money. We’d all taken out huge loans to afford the trip, pretty much. However, the intensity of this man’s desperation, the quality of his dreaming, had something memorable about it. I remember thinking, “Such a small amount of money would have made such a big difference to him.”
Similarly, I used the money my Grandma Marjorie had given me for souvenir and clothes shopping, to buy about fifty books for a rural village library. I got the books at a discount rate, since I wanted them for a charitable project. But still, such a small amount of money went such a very long way. It was amazing.
My Senegalese study abroad program was this incredibly hippie program, called “Study Abroad at an Ecovillage” accredited through the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, you can read more about their programs here: http://livingroutes.org/, (although Senegal is no longer one of the countries they offer.) They had this project where they followed up with people after their study abroad experience to see if we had been adequately brainwashed by their ecological values, or whatever.
I carefully filled out the survey (I’m a great believer in filling out the surveys of the organizations I want to support) and I came to this question about money. “Do you care more or less about money now you have studied abroad in a ecovillage?” the question read, and then there were the usual five buttons going from “Much More,” to “Much Less.” I paused a moment, and let the question wash over me and fill me with pure rage. The survey clearly had the bias that caring about money was bad and something that should be drilled out of us by our right-thinking curriculum.
“I care much much more about money now I’ve done this program,” I thought, and it was true. Before my study abroad, money was something vaguely annoying I occasionally worried about, like laundry. But living in Africa had opened my eyes to it., I had seen the light. Money was the lifeblood running through everything. Without it, things shriveled and died. It was one of the world’s most important forces, to be harnessed for good or evil. Living among people closer to the brink of survival had acutely opened my eyes to that. I think it was a change in me for the better.
So if money is necessary to accomplish any good purpose in the world, why is career always outlined as a choice BETWEEN money and meaning? I’ve had so many Berrett-Koehler Publishers authors and customers, “conscious capitalists,” “social entrepreneurs,” and the like, come up to me with the same story. “I spent the first half of my life desperately grubbing for money, and then my eyes opened to a ‘higher purpose.’ I realized I should focus on other things than money and my life became magical.” Blah blah blah.
If I REALLY cared about changing the world more than anything else, I’d tell you what I’d do. I’d apply for the Stanford MBA program, get hired as a business executive for some tech company, and get a pile of money that would make Scrooge McDuck turn green with envy. And invest it for good. Why don’t I do this? Because I value my quality of life, and I think business people have high blood pressure and ulcers.
If I did have my pile of money, I’d invest it in some business in the ‘hood that hired only local people, or something like that. But the business would have to be profitable, because most charity is fairly degrading for the recipients. And I don’t know if I could get used to the uncomfortable feeling of having someone be indebted to me.
When I was a kid, we used to visit the Omaha Zoo, and my favorite part was feeding the carp. You’d buy this handful of fish food for a quarter, and you’d throw it into the pool where the carp were scattered fairly widely. As soon as the food splashed in, all the carp would converge around that spot in a feeding frenzy. They got so thick in the water they were climbing on one another’s backs, trying to get to the food. I even saw a big carp accidentally swallow a small carp, trying to get at the food.
Now, as a child, I found this hilariously entertaining. I liked having such god-like power over the carp. It was similar to the cliched evil villain puppeteer, who says, “Daaaance for me, my pretties, dance.” I loved that I could force the carp to FIGHT to get to any spot in the pool, at my whim and pleasure. And I’m sorry to say, I think a lot of charity is exactly like feeding that carp. The donors and philanthropists set up these worlds where they are in total control and they set all the conditions. They have some resources that a bunch of people desperately need, and then all the grant-seekers have to desperately jostle to get there first.
Where does this idea come from, that money is the root of all evil? Why does our culture and media tell us, that the evil people will go after the money, and the good people will pursue the “noble,” low-paying professions? It’s a scam, that’s what it is. The “bad guys” get all this money and invest it in giant foundations and the good people are left to fight for the bits and scraps of it for their noble projects, like bottom-feeding carp.
YOU WANT THE REVOLUTION TO COME? I will tell you, a no-nonsense, workable, simple recipe for revolution. All those good people, who are currently joining Americorps, or doing nursing for Doctors Without Borders, or teaching children in the hood. They need to quit their jobs right now and focus on making MONEY. Piles and piles of money. If they really put their minds to it, I think they can outcompete and outwit the Gordon Gekkos of the world. You see, I think the good people are actually smarter than the greedy people, have a more comprehensive and complex worldview. They’ll do all right at making money.
When this proposed Revolution is complete, not just a few but nearly all of the 1% will be building schools and libraries and fixing the world’s problems, instead of frittering their money away on yachts and diamond collars for their small annoying yappy dogs. Ralph Nader has a ridiculous 736 page Warren Buffet fanfic about this, called “Only the Super Rich Can Save Us,” http://www.amazon.com/Only-Super-Rich-Can-Save-Us/dp/B003JTHSOU check it out on Amazon. (I actually made my way through 60% of it before I became wearied by Nader’s rantiness.)
I now have a theory about where this ridiculous, “Money is the root of all evil,” came from. The bad guys made that up, to frighten the good guys away from money and make them think it was icky. That way the bad guys could keep all the money for themselves. But money isn’t either good or evil. It’s a tool, like any other human technology, and it’s moral value depends on the hand that wields it.