There are many things we can do with our careers. Some work can make the world better. These are socially good businesses. At the other end of the spectrum are socially destructive businesses that, regardless of profitability, bring net negative benefit to the world. In the middle, are socially useless businesses that are basically just a waste of human brainpower and effort. These are often zero sum games where someone only benefits from another’s loss. While it’s not always easy to clearly identify where a business lies on the continuum, I think it’s pretty safe to say that very little business currently falls on the social good side of the spectrum. Is your work making a difference?
The Problem of Progress
Almost everything we do is evaluated by profits and growth.
Oil spill – Great, that’s billions of dollars in clean up costs.
Plane crash – Fantastic! That means the sale of a new plane, as well as search and rescue costs which is a net benefit to the economy.
Natural disaster – Jackpot! Economic growth will be great this year.
Everything that doesn’t have an immediate economic benefit is grossly undervalued by our economic system. What’s the value of clean air, unpolluted food supplies, friendships, good parenting, safe communities and early childhood education? Unfortunately, not much in modern societies.
As John F. Kennedy said,
“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Socially Useless Endeavours
One of the clearest examples of a socially useless way to spend your time is gambling. It’s only possible to win if someone else loses. Spending hours a day in a casino or playing online poker doesn’t bring anything of value to the world. It’s a complete waste of human effort.
There are many other activities of similar dubious value. Creating niche websites, spamming Amazon with low quality ebooks, a lot of SEO, even marketing in general can often be considered socially useless.
Most of these types of activities are designed to “game the system” to get a temporary win against the competition. None of this is bringing something new and valuable to the world. It’s just about diverting traffic for the purpose of making money. Often, these entrepreneurs don’t care what they are selling, as long as they make money.
Socially Destructive Businesses
At the ugly end of the spectrum, there are entire industries that bring massive negative value to the world. The tobacco industry is one of the obvious examples. They’ve spent decades and billions of dollars to make smoking look glamorous and cool.
Back when it was still called propaganda, early marketers linked the suffragette movement to smoking to encourage women to smoke. They’ve marketed to children with cartoon-like logos and have deliberately made their products more addictive to increase sales. When I was born, mothers were smoking while breast feeding their children in hospitals.
It wasn’t so long ago when doctors were hired to advertise cigarettes. While that seems unbelievable now, I don’t think it’s much different than all the harmful drugs the pharmaceutical industry is pushing on us now.
The global tobacco industry creates many billions of dollars of negative value in terms of early deaths and medical costs. I believe that it’s inevitable that other industries like fast food, soft drinks, children’s breakfast cereals and even the US interests promoting high fructose corn syrup derivatives will ultimately face similar lawsuits and condemnation as the US tobacco industry has.
Even more frightening is the institutionalized corruption at executive levels in corporations.
The Forbes Wall Street Fine Tracker, which curiously stopped in 2004, tallied $4.5 billion in fines after just four years. That pales in comparison to the charges levied against financial firms in recent years.
While billions sound like lots of money, it’s important to remember that these fines typically equate to just a few of weeks of profits for large firms.
The HSBC $1.9b settlement for laundering Mexican drug cartel money, occurred in a year when they made $16.8 billion in profits. Of course, no criminal charges were laid against executives.
Here are some more examples:
- The largest pharmaceutical settlements
- Libor Scandal
- Tax avoidance by companies like Google and Apple
We are All Guilty
I want to be clear that this is not some type of corporate or government conspiracy. These are just individuals acting in their own self interest. We all make similar decisions. We all want to minimize the taxes we pay and maximize our own income and comfort. Look at how many entrepreneurs in the startup and digital nomad communities are focusing on largely socially useless businesses.
Social Good Business
It’s not all bad. There is a growing movement of social entrepreneurs, non-profits and activists that actually care about making the world a better place.
While a thousand varieties of craft beer, gourmet hamburgers and bow ties might make us feel more sophisticated, I’m glad that we are starting to see a more productive form of innovation take hold.
Imagine what the world could accomplish towards water shortages, hunger, poverty, education, and environmental destruction if we could shift even 1% of our socially useless entrepreneurs to do something productive with their skills.
The shift is happening. The change is slow, but it’s accelerating. It just takes a maturity and awareness that most of the world doesn’t have yet.
We can criticize government, corporations and the 1% for their corruption and excess, however, I think it’s more constructive to start with ourselves. What are the total effects your actions are having on the planet? Is your career, your consumption and your contribution leaving a net positive or negative effect on the world?
It’s easy to justify any business or job, when profits are good. The real test is if you can do what’s right, even if it means less material possessions.
Is a great life measured by maximizing our bank accounts, consumption and waste? Unfortunately, judging by the way most of us live, we think the answer is yes. It usually takes death bed reflections to realize how much of our lives were wasted, and by then it’s too late.