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Sunday, September 6, 2009

“Naked Lunch” Economics: Our Everyday Micro-Vignettes of Money, Morality, and Evil

I once knew an entrepreneur who insisted that, in a free enterprise system, a for-profit entity should have no heart. In this person’s view, every business issue should be described, evaluated, and decided upon solely in black-and-white, financial, profit-or-loss terms.

I am 100 percent convinced that this person sincerely believed that, because it showed. This mindset was reflected in this person’s relationship to every aspect of business--products, employees, customers, vendors, competitors, and so on. And although the final outcome remains to be seen, I believe this mindset will have a profound impact in shaping the ultimate destiny, for better or worse, of the enterprises in question.

It would almost be stating the obvious to say that there is plenty of evidence in our society that this kind of mindset is not at all uncommon. And although I am by no means an uncritical proponent of the new-agey economic ideas of David Korten, I believe that this mindset is perhaps the most compelling reason why Korten’s concept of “The Evil Corporation” is something that we cannot entirely dismiss and must to some extent reckon with.

Evil is not a very popular word in an age of political correctness and relativism, but the examples, small and large, that each day show us the reality of evil are legion, if we only care to look just below the surface. And one of the deepest mistakes we can make as human beings is to try to hide from the moral, good-and-evil dimensions of money and how we use it to mediate our relationships with one another.

Like a Faustus selling his soul for 20 years of unfettered pleasure, we can hide for a time from the reality that there is a moral dimension to money. But sooner or later, one way or another, the party will end, and the thing from which we have been hiding will come back to haunt us. And when it does, the intensity with which that thing tries to reach out and grab us by the throat, or perhaps some other part of the anatomy, may be proportional to the extent to which we have been hiding from it.

I have felt for some time that the evils that each of us, on an individual basis, really need to worry about are not the glaring atrocities of history, but the deceptively small moral decisions that each of us deal with every day. What did you do with money today? Did you make some sort of compromise at work that made you feel just a teensy weensy bit uncomfortable inside? Did you buy something, large or small, that you don’t want your spouse to know about?

Like any of the tools and resources that we homo sapiens create to help us manage, navigate, and negotiate our physical and sociocultural environments, money is in itself neutral. Like the knowledge of how to split the atom or to link up computers in a vast, global network, it creates the capacity for good, both great and small, every bit as much as it does for evil, great and small.

If you want to get a good learning experience about the potential for money to be used for good or ill in our relationships to one another, try going through an estate settlement. There are few experiences in this life that more effectively bring to the surface, for all to see, those aspects of our personalities that we normally try to keep safely closeted away, in the dark. There are few experiences that reveal more about our strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears, goals, dreams, anger, anxieties, hangups, unresolved early conflicts, petty resentments, seething hatreds… and so on. There are few occasions in life that create a more intense opportunity to evaluate, at an existential level, just what it is that we really are.

It all makes me think of the concept of the “Naked Lunch” from the late novelist William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch moments are those occasions in life that, suddenly and unexpectedly, yet undeniably, confront us with the sheer, barefaced reality of some abomination that has, all along, been staring at us, in plain sight, from the end of our fork, even in the midst of our previously half-conscious motion to raise it to our lips. Sphere: Related Content

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