I had a bad dream last month. In the dream I had not only dramatically overscheduled myself, I’d also decided to make my all assets liquid – literally – storing them as something like ambergris in that it was some naturally occurring substance used to make perfume, the idea being that in a world that’s gone two-dimensional, humans would value the scents of a time gone by. Can’t say for sure, but I wonder if my mind wasn’t trying to make some sense of measuring everything in dollar terms.
When I worked in Senegal as a small-business consultant, I suggested to a cotton farmer who was in charge of selling his village’s cotton harvest that he consolidate his crop with those of surrounding villages, as the scale would give collectively better bargaining power and bring in more money. As his wasn’t the largest crop, doing so would mean he would no longer be the negotiator, a role he was proud of and that earned him respect in his village. Why would he lose that for a few extra dollars?
My suggestion was a mistake Westerners have been making all along as we exercise what has proven to be the best socioeconomic system (capitalism) in other parts of the world. We have over-indexed on the financial – the monetary – piece of capital and under-indexed on the other two key ingredients in building a successful company, which are people and materials. This is understandable: dollars are easy to measure, and useful for assigning values to things that can then be compared. But not only does this grossly oversimplify reality, it tricks us into thinking these other pieces are wholly substitutable when they’re not. The consequence has been that these two key ingredients have suffered as a result, in terms of availability and quality. Workforce training is not keeping pace with the skills today’s economy requires and the scale of environmental degradation today is unprecedented. Can we really stick a dollar value on a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere? On a person’s identity as a coal miner? On the stuff of everyday life? To put it simply, think about the very best things in your wardrobe, or in your home, and why they're your favourite. You'll be surprised by uncorrelated those things are with any objective dollar value.
About 10 years ago, a department store that had been in the downtown district of a smaller Ohio city closed. This was impactful in dollars for sure, as it meant the loss of a major driver of downtown traffic, as well as about 75 jobs. But it also meant the loss of the great pleasure of walking downtown and shopping, of interacting with other humans in real life in the pursuit of life’s little pleasures. This was viewed as small collateral damage, a simple inconvenience, but it hits squarely at the quality of life. Replace that short walk with a longer drive down a highway to a big box store with associates who are hired to stock not talk, and the transaction becomes a completely different experience with a very different value exchange. The need for that personal exchange, however, did not go away, and may be why that same town center today enjoys a thriving weekend farmer’s market.
Today we have incredible technological tools, and a far greater variety of perspectives weighing in on social and business planning. Armed with this progress, we can begin building about a go-forward that puts our people and our environment first, and uses money not as something that gets printed freely, or as a value to be amassed and stocked away in the billions, but that uses money as it should be used: as a way to mobilize people and our earth in a way that improves the lot of everyone. After all, it’s not a zero-sum game.