Friday, February 11, 2011

Nothing Personal, It’s Just Business: On the Amorality of Business

Out of many memorable exchanges of dialog from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather this is probably the one that has had the most impact on society at large:  

Tom Hagen: Your father wouldn't want to hear this, Sonny. This is business not personal.
Sonny: They shoot my father and it's business, my ass!
Tom Hagen: Even shooting your father was business not personal, Sonny!

It's an exchange that has been condensed down to this handy, easy to spout statement: “Nothing personal, it’s just business.” 

A fellow traveler, so to speak, is this famous line from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: “Greed is good.”  

I don’t know this for a fact, but I can guess that both Stone and Coppola meant their dialog to be condemnations, not celebrations of these attitudes. It is painfully ironic then that far too many members of the corporate business community seem to have taken these dialogs and turned them into mantras of Mammon’s own truth, which they are only too happy to chant -- although probably not while sitting cross-legged in simple robes. It is a “truth” that sets them free to do exactly as they like no matter the harm or consequences to others or to society.   

My fictional hero, the Fixxer, have given this matter some thought and reveals his thinking in my latest Fixxer Adventure, Hollywood is an All-Volunteer Army, which has just been published as an e-Book by Crossroad Press.  

Let me set the scene for you. The Fixxer has just been tortured by Pye, a London banker -- and I do not mean by going over arcane accounting procedures. A thug, at the order of the banker, has punched and slugged the Fixxer, and snapped his finger into his un-lidded eyeball, not to mention thrown his head into a blazing fireplace. The Fixxer has been rescued by Roee, his “Watson,” in the nick of time, and 

they are now back in the Fixxer’s room at the Hyde Park Hotel in the Kightsbridge section of London.
Roee has tended to Fixxer's wounds and put him to bed after forcing him to take a hot bath and, despite vodka tonic being the Fixxer’s normal drink, giving him three large slugs of Dewars. 


The intoxicating warmth was just beginning to spread out from my stomach, making me feel as if I could defy gravity. Must have been Roee’s intention. He wanted me to float off into dreamland. I was just beginning to like the idea, even the sense of vulnerability that came with it, when, in the middle of closing the drapes, Roee was stopped by a thought.

"I’m also wondering if there are not other things to learn here," he said.

"Such as?"

"Pye. If he’s this tough on competitors, what must he be like if you’re late on your credit card bill?"

"You think there’s something more there?"

 "I wouldn’t be surprised, but I can’t figure out what. The cover seems to have held. He was going to murder Elsworth Henderson, not the Fixxer. That much seems clear, but a banker murdering? After all, it’s just business."

I seemed to have been tethered to the ground. For suddenly, although still floating, I was yanked back, couldn’t go any higher. I was still high, but.... "He said that too."

"Who? Said what?

"'It’s just business.’" Pye said that when he was requesting our sources of financing. He said something about it not being like he was asking me to reveal something important, like, ‘state secrets.’ It was, ‘just business.’ You know, it occurs to me, Roee, that that’s probably the most pernicious phrase in the English language. It’s used to excuse so much, isn’t it?"

"Is it?"

"Of course it is. Roee, what binds society together?"

"Fixx, you need your sleep."

"Answer my question. What binds society together? What has always bound society together? At least for the last ten to twelve thousand years or so?"

"I don’t know. Common beliefs. Religion, on occasion."

"Roee, no disrespect to your own, but religion only binds the like-minded together. I mean all of society, all of society in the mundane, the real. Nothing exulted."

"A sense of community, then."

"But where does the sense of community come from?"

Roee shrugged. "Common needs. Common aspirations. Common desires."

"Well, as most individual needs, aspirations and desires often clash with one another, the most common one, I suppose, is the need to live well, to prosper, maybe something as basic as feeding yourself, and your family, if you have one. Hard to do that all by yourself unless you’re lucky enough to be the sole occupant of an island with plenty of exploitable flora and fauna."

"How about political systems?"

"Same problem as religion, Roee. If anybody ought to know that, it’s you and me."

"I’m at a loss, then. Why don’t I give this some thought while you get some sleep."

"It’s Business, Roee! Business binds society together, Trade and Commerce. It binds us together because I cannot, or do not choose to make my own—" I looked for an inspiration. I found I was lying under it. "Blanket, for example. So I pay somebody to provide this blanket to me, and he paid somebody to ship the blanket to him, and he paid someone to weave the blanket, and he paid someone for the wool from which to weave it."

"Your narration reminds me of those wonderful 16mm films we used to watch in school on the kibbutz—although we did try to be fairly self-sufficient."

"You obviously didn’t pay attention."

"No. I think I was passing mash notes to Teddy. He was cute."

"Business, Roee. The good old profit motive. Individual, selfish needs that, paradoxically, bind everybody together in a society. Not family, not a sense of community, not religion, not political systems, not kingdoms, not nations, nothing like that at all, but, 'just business.' The simple day-to-day trading of basic needs for civilized existence. That is what separates us from anarchy. It is the core, the essence of human society. Yet we have talked ourselves into believing that business is somehow exempt from the natural human considerations of fair play. We demand that our children learn the—what?—the rules of the road. We demand values in our families, morality among our religions, and ethics among our politicians, but when it comes to business, everything’s fair game instead of fair play. It’s competition, it’s not personal, it’s just business. And yet if business is the binding element of society, then nowhere else should basic morality be in evidence in sentiment—and in evidence in fact. Especially nowadays."

"Fixxer, haven’t you always told me, much to my protest, that the universe is amoral."

"Yes, the universe is amoral, Roee, but that doesn’t mean we have to be."

"Maybe you should stick to vodka," Roee said.

"So, this takes us back to the original question. Could a banker, in the heat of spirited competition, murder to further his goals? I can’t find an argument hat would deny all possibility of such an occurrence. Can you?"

"Sad to say—no."

That settled, my body demanded its due. "Damn, I’m tired."

"Mental exertion, Fixx. It’s the most exhausting kind," Roee said as he finished closing the drapes, tucked me in, and turned out the lights. 

If we accept the Fixxer’s premise, that business should be the most moral of all endeavors because it is -- or should be -- the most personal of all endeavors, and yet business wants to very much consider its endeavors happily amoral and impersonal, then what follows? The world we have today, with bankers and other financial wizards who may not be having heads thrown into fireplaces, but have tortured in so many in other ways. What can be done about it? We all know that it is impossible to legislate morality, but you can sanction amorality, therefore governments, created by society to protect the common well-being, should regulate business. Capitalism is good, capitalism can be that profitable weave that makes a comfortable whole cloth of society, but unfettered, unregulated capitalism, which is often portrayed as the essence of liberty, is just a smoke and mirrors con job on society, allowing for the opposite of the fair play, level playing ground, cream-will-rise-to-the-top attributes that the proponents of laissez-faire capitalism so often trumpet.

Yet government regulation should not have too heavy of a hand. The discussion we should be having, then, is not regulation or deregulation, but weights and measurements: the weight a regulation should apply and the measurement of its capacity to do what it set out to do, and nothing more.

That is not an easy discussion, but then what truly important discussion is?