What is the business of business?

Let me begin by saying I am not an expert on business. I’ve never owned a business. I have managed one, and worked for several, and even been a business analyst – but none of that makes me an expert. I’m also not an economist or a political scientist. So, take the following with as large a grain of salt as you feel appropriate. (My apologies if you already suffer from hypertension.)

When most of us think of the purpose of businesses – to the extent that we think of such things at all – I expect we imagine that said purpose is to produce goods or provide services. These goods and services are priced so that the business owners can recover their costs, and hopefully make some money over and above that. That additional money – a.k.a., profit – provides the business owner with an income, and perhaps allows them to expand their business, and so produce or provide more goods and services. This expansion may require them to employ helpers. This is a pretty simple, perhaps overly simple, description of what the business of businesses is. It’s likely an apt enough description of the business of many very small businesses. Piano tuners, bobcat operators, bakers, and so forth.

Of course, not all businesses are small, and the business of many businesses has become the generation of profit pure and simple, and any production or provision of goods and services is really incidental to that. When you think of very large companies, they tend to have many diverse ‘lines of business’. These may include everything from breakfast cereals to herbicides to life insurance, or the transportation or sale of such. The ownership of such large enterprises tends to be very diverse, such that some of the owners are also companies – hedge funds, pensions, etc.

Neither of these types of business has any necessary relationship to or dependence on political or economic systems, such as democracy or capitalism. Businesses existed before either of those were formalized. They can exist in fascist or communist countries just as easily as democratic or capitalist ones. Democracy and capitalism may or may not be good things, but they have little bearing on the success or failure of businesses.

Even profit does not have much to do with politics or economics. People made a profit centuries before capitalism or democracy, or any of their modern alternatives, existed. I’m fairly certain they will continue to make money, or whatever signifies wealth, in whatever systems come afterwards. I’m not even sure that profit for profit’s sake is really all that new. There have always been frauds, conmen, forgers and hucksters – and others – whose motives had more to do with greed than anything else.

 

There is nothing necessarily right wing, conservative, reactionary – or whatever term you prefer – about business and profit. They are not incompatible with progressive, left wing, or even socialist regimes. (The same thing goes for taxation and government spending, but I’ll leave that for another time.) You can be right wing and an enemy of business, for example, by implementing immigration policies that make it difficult for companies to hire workers, or by taxing necessary imports. In the same way, you can be left wing and supportive of universal health care or child care programs that may contribute to increased productivity. There is nothing necessarily progressive about making it difficult for businesses to succeed, just as there is nothing necessarily conservative about keeping wages low.

But all of this begs the question, what is the business of businesses? Is it just about profit, and the maximization of profit? Or is it about producing goods – bread, say, or books – or providing services – music lessons, or project management? My personal preference, of course, is for the latter. For true entrepreneurialism – or what I like to think of as the real deal – and enterprises with a human scale, and a human purpose. Am I wrong? Is bigger really better?

If there are any experts who read this, maybe you can let me know.

This is the end

There is no surer sign that we are indeed in the end times than seeing how my neighbours approach recycling. Living in a condo, you cannot help but see these things. Those of you who live in detached homes would have to wander your neighbourhood, and most likely would not find anything amiss, since it would be plain for all to see who could and could not tell the difference between glass, plastic, paper, cardboard… and everything else. In the anonymity of a strata, though, people can, and do, take a devil-may-care approach to such things. After all, who will know who it was that put a plastic bag full of light bulbs or broken wine glasses in the mixed paper bin? Or styrofoam egg cartons in the glass only?

Of course, recycling is a sham, so I probably shouldn’t get so worked up about it. I’m fairly certain that the only reason Metro insists that materials be separated is that they don’t want to add cardboard to that state-sized island of plastic containers floating in the Pacific Ocean.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not all that fussed if this really is the end.  There are far too many people doing their utmost to make life a misery, if not for their fellow humans, then for the other species on the planet. I won’t be sad to see lion poachers, shark finners and whalers all perish, ideally in a manner appropriate to the harm they’ve caused. Same goes for the owners of coal mines, the makers of nuclear weapons, and politicians who hem and haw about how much really clean air might hurt the economy. And of course, I’m looking forward to the Rapture.

A few years ago, there was a whacked out preacher somewhere who proclaimed not only that the end was nigh, but that he’d calculated it to the minute. The rapture, he assured the media, would soon whisk all the righteous home to the Almighty. Those of us who would be left behind would have to deal with the Antichrist.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m an atheist, and so I have no expectation of being whisked anywhere, least of all to the Almighty. I did consider, though, putting on my best suit and going door to door in my neighbourhood to determine who might soon be departing.

‘Have you been saved?’ I would ask. If they answered yes, I would ask them if they’d mind signing over any worldly belongings they wouldn’t be needing, as of the given date. Alas,  I procrastinated, the date passed, the preacher, who also was not whisked anywhere, determined he had miscalculated. (Forgot to carry a 2 or something, I suppose.) It was an opportunity lost.

But perhaps my neighbours are telling me it’s not too late. Perhaps, with their coded message of recycled apocalypse, it is time.

Then again, maybe they’re just idiots.

The Content of Their Character

I would have thought that by now it would be clear to pretty well everyone that racism and bigotry are not positive character traits, certainly not something you’d want to put out on public display. And it seems I would have been wrong about that. A ridiculous number of people – not yet a majority, mind you, but many too many nonetheless – seem more than willing to attend public meetings and demonstrations decrying the threat to their ‘culture’ posed by refugees, immigrants, or just people who look or pray differently than they do. They fill the comment sections of online news services with anger and hate, not to mention Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and talk radio phone-in shows.

I used to feel pride, when I saw this happening in the U.S., Britain and Europe, that my own country, Canada, seemed largely to be immune. Sure, we had our share of racist idiots, but they mostly didn’t make such a public display of their backwards attitudes. People blamed the housing bubbles in Vancouver and Toronto on Chinese investors, for example, when in fact it likely has as much to do with money laundering closer to home. Still, I thought, Canadians are, if nothing else, polite. We hesitate to put our hate on public display, understanding that, leaving aside everything else that’s wrong with it, it’s rude. Well, no more. This past week in Toronto, one of the most ethnically diverse cities on the planet, two events showed that even we have little to be proud of in this regard. 

First there was the anti-Islamic ‘meeting’ held by the loathsome alt-reich Rebel Media and attended by several hundred prime examples of the failure of public education. Included among the attendees and speakers at this event were four contenders to lead the once-proud Conservative Party of Canada. That the party has not officially condemned the event, and the participation in it of four candidates for its leadership – two of whom are former cabinet ministers – says much about the party’s moral and intellectual decline.

The second event, coming hard on the heels of the first, had a group of white Torontonians picketing a downtown mosque, holding signs demanding an end to Islam and shouting through megaphones that Islam is hate. 

When you argue against such people, they try to hide behind noble ideals like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. The irony that they would like to deny these freedoms to others is lost on them. An Ontario MP recently introduced a motion in parliament asking its members to condemn all forms of racial and religious discrimination, including Islamaphobia – and that word has set off a fire storm of ugliness, of which the two Toronto events are merely examples. Ironically, these people who feel their heritage threatened by the word ‘islamaphobia’ are the same ones who find it objectionable when others don’t preface ‘terrorist’ with ‘Islamic’ or ‘jihadist’ – why can’t you say that? they insist. Why indeed.

No doubt the people who attended these events – and those who parade their small mindedness in other forums – have been inspired by the mainstreaming of the alt-reich movement in America and Europe. That the movement represents ideals so loathsome we fought a major war over them in the mid-20th century seems a not to matter to these people. They feel their dermic pallor to be threatened, and so want everyone who does not share their affliction to leave.

I will never understand what makes such people feel so threatened. That one person believes in a different version of ‘god’ than you; that they dress differently; that their skin is a different hue – how does this affect you? Does it invalidate your belief in your version of a god that someone else doesn’t share it? Do you feel self-conscious in your ball cap just because someone else wears a hijab? And what the serious fuck is up with caring what colour anyone’s skin is? If white is so damned good, why do so many people go to tanning salons (including that walking Cheeto the Americans elected president)?

Maybe I’m naive. Maybe my conservative father brought me up wrong, when he taught it was wrong to judge people on the basis of their skin colour, or being an immigrant, or believing something different from me; that the important thing was their character. (My father, who ran for office with Diefenbaker, was a great admirer of Martin Luther King, as you may have guessed.) Maybe I am wrong about Canada, and about the importance of diversity. Maybe. But I don’t think so.

Ideas for possible future blog posts

50 Shades of Beige (or, life in a corporate veal pen)

Two Wheels, or Not Two Wheels? (Definitely the former)

Back to bass-ics 

Strung out (or misadventures of a middle-aged guitar novice)

Today in Not-politics: 500ish words that have nothing to do with Trump

Who needs love songs?

Once upon a time – longer ago than is comfortable to enumerate – I was a head banger. Long hair, faded jeans, jacket covered in band-logo patches, ghetto blaster annoying old ladies on the Stephen Ave Mall. One of my favourite bands back then – who unfortunately never had much success outside Britain – was a trio called Tank. On their debut album Filth Hounds of Hades there was a song I remember called ‘Who Needs Love Songs?’ And the answer, both in the song, and in life, was and is: ‘Well, I do.’

I mention all this by way of introducing my theme, appropriate to today’s date: viz. love.

It’s fashionable among those who consider themselves ‘intellectuals’ to feign disdain of love, as if it were a bourgeois affectation, and thus beneath them. Poets, from Sappho to Shakespeare to E.E. Cummings have all known better. Singers, actors, playwrights, composers, sculptors and painters. Even you have known it, whether you admit it or not.

So, happy Valentine’s Day – or Tuesday, if you like. I’m going to turn my attention now to the love of my life.

Sunday morning

My cat, as I’ve stated previously, is an asshole. Case in point, she does not let me sleep in on Sunday mornings. She likes to think of our bed as being hers, and gets annoyed that I’m in her spot. So she wakes me, repeatedly, and eventually I get up – usually far earlier than I’d like – and she curls up and sleeps in my place.

The advantage of being up early on a Sunday, is that I can more or less do what I like (as long as it doesn’t make too much noise – after all, my wife is still sleeping). This is me time. I can listen to music (with headphones), read, or watch the news or something on Netflix. When the weather and road conditions are better, I can ride my motorcycle, and maybe meet friends for breakfast in Whistler or Hope. This morning, I am going to use this time to muse about one of the frequent arguments for the existence of a god, the argument from nature.

Many people, when they confront the beauty and complexity and enormity of the natural world, conclude that something so marvellous, something that works so well in so many unexpected and (in some cases) mysterious ways, can only be the expression of a divine intelligence. This is the gist of the intelligent design argument. Surely, they say, something of this vastness and intricacy, something that all fits together in such unexpected and yet seemingly logical ways, can’t have just happened by accident. If there are complex rules governing the universe, those rules must have had an origin.

I do not deny that the natural world is often awe-inspiring. I have watched the sun rise over the dunes in the Sahara. I have marvelled at the detail in the construction of everything from spider webs to the human body to forests and mountain ranges. I see the images of galaxies and nebulae from the Hubble telescope and I am amazed. But I think it sells nature short to assume there must be a mind behind its construction, and a purpose for everything.

We often make the mistake of thinking of a current state as if it were an end, and that everything that had occurred to bring that end about. You often see this fallacy played out in relation to evolution, when we say a certain physical feature or behaviour came about for a certain purpose. In the case of the spider mentioned earlier, spinning webs becomes the reason that certain physical attributes evolved.

This is an understandable fallacy. After all, when we build something we usually have a purpose for all that something’s components. If the universe is something made, the argument goes, then it stands to reason that all of its parts are processes have a purpose. And since some things, at least, seem to have purposes, then it stands to reason that nature was constructed. For nature to have been constructed, it must have a maker who is somehow outside of nature, but able to manipulate it.

So, what is wrong with this reasoning? What makes me say it is a fallacy?

First, the notion of something (or someone) outside of nature being able to manipulate its elements and forces in a way that would shape it violates one of the basic laws of physics, namely the conservation of energy/matter. This law states that the sum of all energy (of which matter is just one expression) remains constant. Energy and matter can only be acted upon by other energy and matter. This rule has been tested and proven innumerable times.

Second, it mistakes effects for purposes. Imagine you are driving your car and you encounter black ice on the road, which causes you slide off of the road and hit a tree. You would not likely say that the purpose of black ice was to damage cars, or trees, or to injure drivers. You would not likely say that the purpose of the tree was to stop your car, or that the purpose of your car was to knock down a tree. These are all causes and effects, but the effects are not seen as the purposes of their causes.

Third, we tend only to arrive at this feeling that the world must be the product of a divine mind when observing something beautiful – or at least benign. While it’s true that some people believe that diseases and natural disasters are evidence of divine retribution for supposed moral failings, the argument from nature is rarely advanced by arguing that cancer or tornadoes are evidence of the divine nature of creation.

This leaves aside the many other philosophical problems confronting the existence of gods, but I think that’s good for a Sunday morning. If you would like to disagree, I’ll be happy to hear (or read) and consider your counter-arguments.

I don’t have to always be right, but…

As my wife will tell anyone and everyone, I can be a little pig-headed when I believe I’m right about something. Not that I won’t given other points of view a fair hearing, but if their evidence doesn’t convince me, whose fault is that?

‘You always think you’re right,’ she says. Which is not true. There are times when I will readily admit that I don’t really know. I think it’s this way, but it could be that. But more often than not, I do think I’m right. That only makes sense. It would be foolish to maintain a position I didn’t think was correct. Once I know the facts support a different position, I adopt that one. What is the point in being gratuitously wrong? (Someone should put it that way to El Presidente Trump. It would at least make for good television. Better than the apprentice, anyway, no matter who the host is.)

It is particularly vexing to Adele when it turns out that I am, once again, correct about something. (I say ‘once again’, because it’s happened on numerous occasions, although admittedly not all occasions. Once or twice a month…) Usually this happens with respect to directions. We often disagree about which is the right/best/fastest way to get somewhere, and most of the time, I am right. I take no great pleasure in this, nor in my wife being wrong.

‘You always just have to be right,’ she says. 

‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘It just often works out that way. You can be right just as often as me by simply agreeing with me.’

Things tend to degenerate from there.

‘You just think you’re always right.’

‘No, actually, I don’t. You think I’m always right.’

And so on. Domestic felicity, as a friend of mine puts it. And actually, I think he’s right about that.

What could be happier than being able to disagree about nearly everything with someone – from the best way to load the dishwasher, to the existence (or not) of something called god or something called soul, to which voting system would be bet for Canada – without ever disliking the other person. (That last one is some form of proportional representation, by the way. The current system just alternates between the Liberal and Conservative parties coming out on top.)

In short, there is nothing better. And I know I’m right about that, because my wife agrees with me.

The aesthetics of ceremony

Yesterday I went to my niece’s christening. As an atheist, I have little to do with churches, and generally only for some time of ceremony: weddings, funerals, and now a baptism. While the ‘spiritual’ aspects of these events are lost on me, I find the aesthetics of them interesting.

I should point out that I wasn’t raised as an atheist. My brother and I were both raised as Christians, in the Anglican church (for American readers, that’s the same as Episcopalian). I have attended services in Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Mormon and other churches over the years. I moved from being a believer, through agnosticism to my current atheism gradually, over the span of a few years, in my 20s. My reasons were mostly philosophical, and I’m not going to deal with them here.

The best way to describe Anglicanism is more protestant than Catholicism, more Catholic than Protestantism. Similar to other most protestant churches, there is no requirement for personal confession, for example. On the other hand, as with Catholicism there are a number of  ritual sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage and funerary rites. Some of these, even to non-believers, can be quite beautiful. (The same can be said for many Catholic and Orthodox rituals, and for some very protestant ones, too. Think of High Mass, or a revivalist baptism in a river. The rituals and ceremonies of other religions, from what little I know of them, can be equally moving.)

In general, what I find impressive about any religion is its aesthetic. I remember attending a friend’s wedding, many years ago, in a Ukrainian Orthodox church. The beauty of the architecture, of the liturgy, the singing of the cantor, the dramatic symbolism used in the ceremony, were fascinating. They didn’t make me feel the presence of a supernatural being, but I can understand how they might reinforce someone’s belief.

To me, this is where Protestantism often takes a wrong turn. In their rush to democratize religion, protestants often remove much of the beauty that makes ritual work. You can see it in the utilitarian design of many of their churches, which can just as easily be a big box retail outlet in some cases, or a shotgun shack in others. Their ideological suspicion of the aesthetic has stripped their liturgy and many of their hymns of metaphor. Even those metaphors they retain, they prefer to understand as literal. Where Catholicism is rife with symbolism and metaphor, Protestantism does its best to strip them out.

I have to admit that in this respect, if not in all others, I find Catholicism preferable. It is, perhaps, a remnant of my Anglican upbringing. Although I despised the dour Victorian hymns, and often thought that aspects of the liturgy sound like their promoting cannibalism, the poetic rhythms of the mass, the creed, and some of the scripted prayers, especially when sung, have a quality that is rarely equaled in more plain-Jane services.

I am by no means an expert on religion, or religions. While the beauty of rituals doesn’t, for me, create a longing to be part of a church, or instill in me any suspicion that I’m wrong about the (non)existence of gods, your experience, and your interpretations, may be entirely different, and I respect that. Moreover, while the poetry, drama, music and architecture aren’t what create ex nihilo the belief that is the raison d’etre of any church, temple, cathedral, synagogue or mosque, it likely can, for many people, reinforce their belief, in part by instilling a sense of awe. Others may feel this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, necessary. To me, though, with my outsider’s view, religion without ritual and beauty, is a diminished thing.

And we’re back

A little over a month ago, I deactivated my Facebook account. I’d had enough of the reposted nonsense that seemed to litter my newsfeed, and which usually illicited a reaction of you can’t possibly really believe that from me. The constant battle with Facebook itself about what should appear in my feed, and in what order, was infuriating. I was also tired of ‘like’ anxiety, and felt I was spending far too much time on something that really didn’t matter to me.

And now I’m back.

I haven’t grown any fonder of fake news stories and bullshit memes. But there are things I’ve missed. Most of those things have to do with keeping in touch with people.

Best of intentions aside, I don’t often compose emails when I’m not at work. I’ve grown to hate email even more than social media. Every day I spend an inordinate amount of time deleting emails. My inbox tends to fill up with even more crap than my physical mailbox, in which a half-acre of rainforest finds a temporary resting place each week, before being consigned to the recycling bin.

I have never been one for phone calls. I worked for close to two years in a debt collection call centre, which will put anyone off the medium. I do my best always to answer when someone I know is calling, or at least to call them back in short order, but it rarely occurs to me to initiate calls.

And so connecting with some people, especially those who don’t live nearby, but even some who do, has been tricky. Adele has mostly kept me up to speed with the friends we have in common on Facebook, but that’s not everyone. I miss the rest of you. Well, mostly.

In order not to hurry myself into another bout of social media burnout, I’ve decided to set some rules for myself.

  1. Do not install the app on my phone. This will help enormously with not wasting so much time on Facebook. Exception made for Messenger, since it doesn’t waste as much of my time.
  2. Less sharing and liking of posts, and fewer comments on them. Don’t take this personally. I still like you. Really, I do. And I might even find what you posted to be clever or agreeable. But that will be between you & me. Facebook doesn’t need to know.
  3. Unfollow people who continually post things that make me wonder how they can possibly believe – whatever. That oregano cures cancer, that the weather is a global conspiracy, that vaccines cause bipolar disorder, or that Justin Trudeau is actually a progressive. I don’t care what it is, or whether or not it aligns with what I already believe. This will happen double quick if these things are posted in memes.
  4. Try not to look at it more than a couple of times a day. And don’t worry if no one ‘likes’ the few things I can be bothered to post.

So… there you are, and there you go. If you want to like or comment on anything, come do it on this blog.

…shall inherit the earth

I am a relatively lucky man. I don’t have a lot of material wealth, but I do have more than a lot of people. I have more people in my life who I love than I can count on both hands, to borrow a line from Pearl Jam. I’ve even managed to keep a number of those relationships alive for more than two decades. My health isn’t perfect, but my end date is an open question, not something I can see rushing toward me at a defined pace.

Not everyone can say these things, and despite the conventional wisdom that everything is about choices and attitudes, it’s often not their fault. For some people, none of the options available to them are good, and no amount of positive thinking will change that.

We don’t like to think about ‘the poor’ in our society, and when we do, we prefer to assume their fate was a result of their own character flaws or poor choices than the inevitable outcome of our social structures. We like to dismiss the homeless and the poor as lazy and/or stupid, because it absolves us of any responsibility.

This is a strange position to take for a society that likes to think of itself as Christian. When you consider how wealth and poverty are discussed in the Gospels – that the poor get to inherit the earth, that the rich have less chance of entering heaven than a camel does of passing the eye of a needle, and so on – it’s difficult to fathom how we can be so blasé about the misery of others. Of course, someone will point out that ‘the poor shall always be with you,’ but I don’t think that statement was meant to excuse the rest of us from trying to make their lot better.

Now, as I’ve stated before, I’m not a Christian (or an anything, for that matter), and further, I’d prefer our society – or at least our institutions – to be secular. But whatever your religious persuasion (or, if you’re like me, unpersuasion), it seems socially important that we try to do a better job of looking after each other.

Currently, our western societies seem to be moving in the opposite direction. (No eastern societies are doing any better in that regard, as far as I’m aware.) We retreat into looking after ourselves, and maybe the small cluster of people we surround ourselves with. The Ayn Rand Virtue of Selfishness crowd seems to have largely won the day, at least for now.

There are some, of course – of many religious and non-religious stripes – who do try to help those whose boats have been swamped by the ebb and flow of economic tides. They volunteer at food banks and soup kitchens. They collect and hand out blankets and socks. They do so much, but it is never enough. Can never be enough.

Poverty is the cancer caused not just by our economic systems, but the way we have structured our societies. It grows and spreads. Charity is like chemotherapy trying to keep some of the tumors at bay, at best, like an opioid to dull the pain at worst. Charity cannot prevent poverty, or make the pain of it slightly less intolerable.

Is there a way to change this? To prevent poverty, rather than ‘treating’ it? I don’t know. I like to think there is, even if I can’t describe it myself. I’m pretty certain, though, that it won’t come from more Randian selfishness, or from any amount of charity. Marx thought he’d found a solution, and I think he was right in assuming it required democratization of economics, but his method – at least as it’s been executed historically – hasn’t worked out any better than Christianity.

If anyone’s got some serious ideas how to go about this, please speak up.