A Christmas Carol, Still True

IMG_9738“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again, “Mankind is my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Only a few words in the first chapter of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but weighty words, probing and perennial as they are, reaching across years and generations into the hearts of Everyman and Everywoman.

What is a life? and a good life? How do we know? What do we measure?

Is it enough to say that “science is science” and “art is art” and “politics is politics” and yes, that “business is business”? Or is there something more to a good life? Are there other questions than merely, “have you played by the rules” in science, in art, in politics, in business? What does success mean, at the end of the day, and the end of a life? These are the questions for everyone everywhere, and the answers are not cheap.

Almost ten years ago I was drawn into a conversation with senior executives from the Mars Corporation, makers of M&Ms and much more, who set this startling statement on our table: “We are asking the question, ‘How much money should we make this year?’” And I wondered “why?” of course. Where did the question come from? Why wouldn’t you simply “do business as business” and make the most money possible? Isn’t that really and truly the only “bottom line”?

That breakfast conversation began years of work, trying very hard to understand the reality of economics in the modern world, the very globalizing political economy of the 21st-century. To put it starkly: if you are committed to not screwing someone somewhere, what should business be? how might it be? how ought it to be? We named the project the Economics of Mutuality, and began the serious work of developing the metrics for a more complex bottom line— in many ways, a redefinition of the very meaning of business.

Never a new way to give away money or M&Ms, as that cannot be and will not be, but instead a determination to create the conditions for long-term profitability. For a company like Mars that is almost a hundred years old, and one that is still privately-held for serious, principled reasons that have to do with performance and profitability, understanding what questions matter, and even why they matter, is critical. Almost $40 billion in annual sales is at stake, so this is not an ivory-tower conversation.

I have spent hours with them over the years, even traveling to Paris to give a lecture on “vocation, ethics and meaning in a globalizing economy” to Mars’ think tank, the Catalyst group, which I serve as a fellow. This fall I have met many times, talking through the deepening reality of the vision, now that it has become public. Much more could be said, but one of the most intriguing faces of its life now is that this year a formal relationship has been established between the Mars Corporation and the Said School of Business at Oxford University; as “the Friedman school” has been academically housed at the University of Chicago, the Economics of Mutuality will have its academic home at Oxford. Further up and further in.

Over time we have developed the on-the-ground metrics required to make a sophisticated argument for a more complex bottom line too, one with enough traction to begin making serious business decisions into the future. The question of that morning ten years ago is being answered in and through the way business is being done, which must be if this is to be a conversation with consequences.

Several years ago I took these executives to meet Wendell Berry, sure that he would have something to say to us as we wrestled with the ideas of mutuality and responsibility in the marketplace. We spent a day on his farm, sitting in his living room, eating with him and his wife in the kitchen, walking in the meadows and pastures, all the while thinking aloud and together about “the economics of mutuality.” At the end of the day he put it like this, “If you want to make money for a year, you will ask certain questions. But if you want to make money for a hundred years, you will have to ask other questions.”

It is those other questions we have been asking, and answering. Strange as it is, and yet not surprisingly, those are the very questions that Marley asked Scrooge on that cold, winter night so long ago, sure that his very soul was at stake— because of course, it was.

This entry was posted in Garber Collection, Visions of Vocation *New. Bookmark the permalink.
  • It’s hard to articulate but just the phrase “economics of mutuality” stirs something deep in my spirit.

    There is a misty potential answer to one of lives “isn’t there more than this?” problems to learn that this question will be taken up seriously at a school like Oxford…I’m giddy. 🙂

  • John Lankford

    Thank you for this Steve. “but a drop of water” as Marley put it when talking about his trade. You are calling us to the ocean to see all that can be done with a new vision for who we are and how expansive our boundaries are if we imagine a full life of loving work that loves the world