Betterness

I’ve been reading Betterness: Economics for Humans by Umair Haque.

The thesis is a simple idea:  That we have reached a point of stagnation in business (it follows on from Tyler Cowen’s ‘The Great Stagnation’ idea – which unfortunately I’ve still not got around to reading… though as a regular Marginal revolutin reader, I suspect I have a fair grasp on a lot of the concepts behind it) and that something new is needed to make any real improvements.

What Haque suggests is Betterness.

Betterness is to Business (or economics… its unclear – Haque talks about economics, but seems to be talking purely about the parts businesses play in the economic system, and a Betterness is meant to be a replacement for Businesses as usual) what positive psychology is to psychology – the recognition that we have spent so much time figuring out wat goes wrong in businesses (or economic systems?) that we haven’t really looked at what makes business’s (or economic systems?) work realy well.

I wonder how good this is as a starting point – certainly, a vast number of business books seem to be about making businesses really good – the book “Good To Great” springs to mind.  Maybe this is less studies in academia, but then this book isn’t an academic text either.

Betterness then follows the popular psychology approach of saying “We don’t just want to be happy, or surviving, we want to experience Eudaimonia – and businesses shouldn’t just be profitable, they should have the business equivalent of Eudaimonia”.  It is a short (an philosophically conservative) step from here to virtue ethics – or in this case, I guess Virtue Economics.

Betterness doesn’t make it clear what it considers virtues to be for businesses – their certainly seems to be a concept of ‘greater good’ at the heart of it, but specific virtues are not elaborated on.  There is nothing so well developed as the VIA inventory which positive psychology has used.  Nevertheless, this list seems to exist somewhere, as some concept of measuring the virtuousness of companies is talked about later on in the book, albeit frustratingly lacking in detail.

For much of the book, I felt one thing lacking was a description of “How do we make our company better?”  The answer is finally elaborated on near the end – apparently, its by having a mission statement.  Though not just any mission statement – careful picking and choosing of mission statements is used to make a point – good businesses has a mission statement which says how they benefit the customer and the world, rather than how they benefit their shareholders.  Unfortunately, its always easy to find meaningless mission statements when looking at companies – because mission statements don’t actually always impact the company’s core values.  Moreover, they manage to make two mistakes:

As a bad mission statement, they pick Microsoft’s “A computer in every household running Microsoft Windows”.  Except this (or its previous “A computer on every desktop” statement) was, at the time it was created, a powerful statement about they way they expected the future to be – and was exactly the sort of future Microsoft helped bring about.  It would be meaningful to say that this mission statement has passed its prime – and that this might be why Microsoft has seemed to lose its way, but to class it as a bad statement shows a forgetfulness about where the world was only a few years ago.

As a good mission statement they choose Google’s “Be really good at one thing”.  Again, this is a statement which may have worked for the first few years of Google (when they were trying to be really good at search), but these days, it doesn’t describe the Google I know.  Google now is trying to be everything to everyone – sure, looking after the worlds data may be a core value, but in order to do that, google is being a hardware manufacturer, a operating system developer, a search engine, an office suite, oh yes, and an advertising space retailer.  A common criticism of modern Google is that it is spreading itself too thin.

Betterness never goes into the legal changes that would be needed for Betternesses to take off.  How are they funded?  would people put money into companies which cared about the world before shareholders?  what about public company’s legal obligation to do the best for their shareholders?  There is suggestion that companies which are already thinking about the world first are more profitable – but is this a general trend, or do large companies spend more PR money on making themselves look good?  I’m left unconvinced.

Which is a shame.  Because, at heart, it is a good idea.  it would be a better place if our businesses were able to consider money only as something they need in order to flourish, not as a single goal.  If this book as a key value, its about suggesting that there is another way, that we ought to consider another way, rather than going down the same path as countless businesses.  It is a fine aspiration.  Now all we need is a roadmap, and some good data to show that the road actually exists.

 

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