Understanding Capitalism Means Studying History: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Future of Capitalism Panel at SXSW

By Laura Lorek
Publisher of Silicon Hills News

Business as a force for good, capitalism as the roots of inequity in our society stemming from slavery, the wealth gap and intentionally helping underserved communities.

Those are just a few of the hot-button topics discussed during the panel on the meta-topic “The Future of Capitalism and Everything Else.”

At the end of the first day of South by Southwest, when a lot of people start looking for a bar or a party, a packed house turned out Friday at the Hilton Downtown for the panel which featured Jay Coen Gilbert, founder of the B Corp movement, as the moderator and panelists: John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods, Brett Hurt, founder of data.world, and Kesha Cash, founder of Impact America, a $10 million venture capital fund with a focus on diversity.

Mackey, a Houston native, had a typical “Leave it to Beaver” upbringing and went to the same high school as Michael Dell, only a few years earlier. Hurt, an Austin native, taught himself to code at an early age and grew up in a supportive environment. Cash, grew up in poverty in Orange County, California, and lived in publicly assisted housing and relied on food stamps.

Mackey founded Whole Foods 40 years ago and last year it sold to Amazon. The company had $16 billion in sales in 2017.

“Whatever you read in the papers, I will state right now for the official record, the merger is going fantastically well,” Mackey said. “Whole Food sales are way up from pre-merger. We love Amazon, very smart, very creative, we’re going to do lots of cool things together.”

Mackey has written a few books: Conscious Capitalism and The Whole Foods Diet. And he’s working on a third book called Conscious America. He’s a vegan and believes in animal protection.

“I’m very much into doing good,” Mackey said. And he’s a staunch supporter of capitalism.

“I’ll be the first one to argue today that capitalism has already been a great source of good, but we just can make it even better,” Mackey said.

In a recent poll of 20,000 people worldwide, 77 percent thought that capitalism needed some significant reform or regulation, Gilbert said. He asked the panelists that if the majority of people think capitalism needs some major reforms what that says about the system of capitalism and their roles as business leaders.

“People need to study more history,” Mackey said. “Because people don’t understand where humanity was 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 150 year ago, 200 years ago. Two hundred years ago 94 percent of the people on the planet lived on less than $2 a day, 85 percent lived on less than $1 a day, the average lifespan was 30, the illiteracy rate was over 90 percent.”

“Capitalism has literally lifted humanity out of the dirt,” Mackey said. “Is it perfect, no. We can make it better.”

“But compared to all of the alternatives that came before it, it’s simply amazing,” Mackey said. “So, people don’t know that. Just pick your period of history, I’ll give you any other period of history, from the whole history of humanity and I will tell you it is not as good as right now today. Name it. There isn’t any period in comparison to this one.”

However, people don’t compare it to history, they compare it to the model in their mind of how there is inequality, how there is racism and how there are environmental challenges, Mackey said.

“They focus on the things that are not yet fixed and then they conclude this is bad.”

Poverty will be eradicated on the planet in the next 50 years and that’s a result of capitalism, Mackey said. It isn’t perfect, it has serious problems, but it has done a whole lot of good for people, he said.

“We should never be complacent,” Mackey said. “But realistically it’s a fricken amazing time to be alive.”

The globe is an evolutional journey toward increasing consciousness, said Hurt.

“That’s really hard to believe sometimes because we’ve had some really dark moments in history,” he said.

For example, Hurt said he’s Jewish and there’s been the Holocaust.

“But it’s better than it’s ever been for the Jews right now,” Hurt said.

Overall, people are getting more conscious about the meaning of their work and that’s evident in the Millennial generation, Hurt said.

“That’s a really, really good thing,” he said. “We all spend more time working than we do anything else.”

It’s a real shame if people are living a life like in the movie Office Space, which depicts workers dissatisfied with their jobs, which was made in Austin, Hurt said.

“We have one life to live, I believe, and the more you lean into meaning, the better life is,” Hurt said.

Things overall are getting better, although at times it is hard to see that and it is easy to focus on really depressing news, Hurt said.

Business is a mechanism for change, but it is important to step on the gas and accelerate some of the change, Cash said.

“What keeps me up at night is that this country is facing a serious bridge the wealth gap,” Cash said. “By the year 2040 it is projected to be a majority, minority country and today blacks and latinos have six to seven cents on the dollar for every dollar of white wealth.”

“What does that mean when you have a majority-minority population but no assets?” Cash asked.

Historically, in this country, there were trillions of dollars that were not paid to African American slaves, Cash said. And this country, exported cotton harvested by free labor and people can’t forget about that, she said. And minorities were not allowed to own homes, she said.

“There has been a system that has been built that in a way is not fair to everyone and doesn’t provide equal opportunity to access,” Cash said.

Businesses need to build in the DNA of their companies a focus on looking out for their stakeholders and paying a fair wage, being thoughtful of about the diversity of supply chains and not use slave labor in supply chains, Cash said.

“I do think business overall can be a driver for change but I don’t think we can be naïve to these other forces that have really created an unjust system,” Cash said.

Don’t make capitalism the “boogeyman” for everything that is wrong in society, Mackey said. Slavery, racism, homophobia, suppression of women, are ubiquitous throughout time, he said. It’s not capitalism’s fault, it’s human beings fault, he said.

If the modern form of capitalism began a couple of hundred years ago, it’s not coincidental that happened at the same time with some of the greatest land appropriation and slavery in history, said Gilbert.

“The American economy was built on free land and free labor,” Gilbert said.

And least 65 years of modern American capitalism did not operate under the free exchange of goods and services and it’s important to sit with that and acknowledge that as part of this country’s history, Gilbert said.

That “jump start” to the American economy bestowed burdens and benefits to certain parts of the U.S. population, Gilbert said.
Businesses need to practice intentionality in hiring and promoting diverse workers and they have to have a level of consciousness about their impact on society, Hurt said.

“That’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “You have a great burden as a leader to set that kind of tone and put those types of practices in place.”

Conscious capitalism and B-Corporations just help entrepreneurs on that journey, he said.

“They are increasing in prominence,” he said.

Impact America is focused on investing in companies helping under-served communities, Cash said. It has invested in a software company bringing transparency to the supply chain vendors for companies and in a startup providing transparency in the pawn shop industry, which serves 30 million people in the U.S., she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of wealth blacks and latinos have in assets compared to whites. They have six to seven cents on the dollar for every dollar of white wealth.

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