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A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 194

John Mackey on Conscious Capitalism & Conscious Leadership

Conscious Capitalism (book cover) Conscious Leadership (book cover)

We all know the old narrative: Capitalists are a bunch of cigar chomping, money-grubbing, profit-seeking, quarterly report-watching, “you’re fired” growling, Gordon Gekko greed-is-good gloating, coldhearted, ruthless, Machiavellian psychopaths.

Despite the fact that some capitalists do fit this narrative (the Gordon Gekko character in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street was partly modeled after junk-bond king Michael Milken, who was indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and fraud), Mackey claims (in his book Conscious Capitalism): “With few exceptions, entrepreneurs who start successful businesses don’t do so to maximize profits. Of course they want to make money, but that is not what drives most of them. They are inspired to do something that they believe needs doing.”

In spite of his hippie image and vegan diet (he lives what he preaches), Mackey is no naïf when he rails against what he calls the “cancer of crony capitalism,” in which crony capitalists cannot compete in the market so they turn to government to implore bureaucrats to impose regulations and duties on competitors.

The treatment for the cancer of crony capitalism is conscious capitalism, grounded “in an ethical system based on value creation for all stakeholders,” which includes not just owners, but employees, customers, the community, the environment, and even competitors, activists, critics, unions, and the media. Mackey cites Google and Southwest Airlines as role models, and pharmaceutical companies and financial corporations as anti-role models.

In a surprise pivot, Mackey lays the blame for the myth of the profit motive as the only measure of value at the feet of capitalists themselves because “they accepted as fact a narrow conceptualization of business and then proceeded to practice it in that way, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Mackey’s goal is to write a new narrative for capitalism that asks us to care about customers and human beings instead of data points on a spreadsheet.

Mackey asks us to “Imagine a business that views its competitors not as enemies to be crushed but as teachers to learn from and fellow travelers on a journey toward excellence,” one that “genuinely cares about the planet and all the sentient beings that live on it, that celebrates the glories of nature, that thinks beyond carbon and neutrality to become a healing force that nurses the ecosphere back to sustained vitality.”

Although Mackey provides numerous examples of businesses that practice conscious capitalism — including and especially his own Whole Foods Market in which everyone knows what everyone else makes and top compensation is capped at 19 times the average (compared to the average of 100 times in other firms )— he seems to be telling his fellow capitalists that if they don’t voluntarily initiate programs that benefit all stakeholders, the government will force them to and thereby remove the moral element of conscious choice.

Shermer and Mackey also discuss:

  • how wealth is created,
  • what it’s like to build a big company from scratch,
  • what it’s like to deal with boards of directors and investors,
  • income inequality,
  • What’s wrong with free market capitalism?
  • modern monetary theory,
  • Universal Basic Income (UBI) & automation,
  • why we need a social safety net … but not more than that,
  • post-scarcity/post-poverty world,
  • rights of future generations to have a sustainably livable planet,
  • how innovation works,
  • animal welfare,
  • universal healthcare,
  • consciousness and panpsychism,
  • God and love.

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This episode is sponsored by Wondrium and Brilliant:

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