True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!”
The New Yorker, May 16th, 2005 (1)
I heard that poem last week listening to an audio book on my drive home from the Pennsylvania mountains. How liberating, I thought, to have a sense of enough. There is freedom in being content.
The quote knocked on my mind’s door once again this morning. I’ve begun a book by Muhammad Yunnus, the nobel laureate founder of Grameen Bank and self-labeled “banker to the poor.” He describes microcredit – the practice he pioneered, offering collateral-free loans as little as 30 or 40 bucks a piece – as a force for lifting people out of poverty; for giving them the means to sustain themselves with a livelihood. This brief line stuck with me:
“Access to capital, even on a tiny scale, can have transforming effect on human lives.” (2)
How are these concepts linked? What connects the contentment of “enough is enough” with Yunus’ promise that access to capital can have a transforming effect?
My mind asks: what can happen when the sources of capital – the lenders or investors – have that sense that they have enough?
I imagine the transforming possibilities if lenders and investors see themselves as people (not dehumanized “sources of capital”) providing means for creation and sustenance to other entrepreneurial people (not dehumanized vessels for “returns on invested capital”).
I imagine the possibilities when the people providing capital say, if I can get enough return I’m content with the rest being invested in fair wages for workers, in the development of creative new products or services, in giving back to the communities that provide patronage to the business. I don’t have to eke out every last nickel because I have the knowledge that I’ve got enough.
And I imagine all of this being possible under the guise of a fully voluntary, fully competitive, fully capitalistic system where profits are required to sustain any business.
Is there a place for this mindset?
What if my community, Raleigh, North Carolina, developed a new class of investor willing to provide capital for aspiring entrepreneurs and growing businesses on the most reasonable terms? Is it possible that investors might be willing to offer up their capital for reasonable (even modest) returns if what they’re putting that money in provides some sort of benefit to the community? If so, what could this do to foster a creative, humanistic, energetic ecosystem of conscious capitalism in which decent people would be proud to participate?
A lot of questions here. Many more than answers. Perhaps the very concept is nothing but doe-eyed naivete. John Lennon-like imagineering. That’s a fair possibility.
But perhaps not.
Forty years ago, who would have thought this crazy idea of making $30 loans to poor people could be sustainable? And yet Muhammad Yunus and those who emulate his mircocredit model have transformed many lives with their brand of “enough is enough” capitalism.
Perhaps there’s a place to embrace this conscious, constructive, and mindful capitalism.
(1) Here I use the transitive properties of copyright permissions, borrowing the quote from Bob Sutton who received permission to use it from Kurt Vonnegut. There is no legal basis for this, I know, but perhaps an essayist earns a scintilla of mercy by providing attribution and a link for reference: http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/11/kurt_vonnegut_a.html
(2) You can find more about the microcredit concept and Yunus’ 2007 book, Creating a World Without Poverty, at the Grameen Bank website here: http://www.grameen-info.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=461&Itemid=549