Murphy: Capitalism’s Constraints

February 1, 2018 01:00 PM
 
The elevation of commerce, and its business leaders, has been unrelenting over these last 40-plus years. But a deep dive into business reporting raises real questions about such veneration.

I recently had the privilege of serving as a judge for the journalism entries submitted by magazine staffs whose publishers are members of the American Society of Business Press Editors, or ASBPE.

The task was to review more than three dozen features stories from publications covering numerous business sectors, ranging from insurance to lodging and hospitality to travel and tourism and including such key industries as healthcare, telecom, foodservice and farming.

The fun part was reading through all these well-sourced, well-written stories that explored issues I rarely get to research, given the fairly narrow focus on animal agriculture on which this journalistic enterprise concentrates.

The less-than-thrilling part, however, was culling fully half of those top-flight articles, identifying the ones that didn’t make the cut for final judging and eligibility to earn recognition as prize winners in various categories at the ASBPE awards banquet.

Basically, a choice between really great and really good — but not good enough.

I came away from this week-long exercise with three insights: one that probably appears self-serving, but as a journalist, was nevertheless uplifting; one that will likely generate some empathy among those engaged in livestock production; and one that may well come across as controversial, but one that needs to be said.

Here goes.

Encouraging, But Still Sobering
First, despite all the negativity and mudslinging aimed at reporters over the past few years, the challenge for any good journalist is to dig into a story, research the facts, sift through a lot of data, talk to numerous sources, and put together a story that offers not just information, but perspective that puts the facts into context so readers understand why developments in their industries occur, and what options are available to respond to those trends.

On that score, business journalism is alive and well. In fact, I would argue that the quality of many of the articles I reviewed surpassed much, if not most, of the reporting published in big-time newspapers and presented on major cable news outlets.

That ought to be encouraging, not just for those of us who serve as writers, reporters and editors in the business press, but for the millions of folks who comprise the audiences to whom those professionals deliver their stories.

Second, it became quite evident that every business sector is beset by barriers, problems and challenges: detailing them is the bread and butter of the magazines covering those sectors, of course. But it sometimes takes the kind of comprehensive review demanded by reading dozens of different stories about dozens of different industries to appreciate that the problems and challenges facing ranchers, feeders and producers in every segment of animal agriculture are in many ways virtually identical to those confronted by every other business operator.

I don’t know if that’s comforting, or discouraging, but it’s reality. And for every problem/challenge/obstacle there are creative, resourceful entrepreneurial types out there who are turning them into opportunities for growth and profitability.

Which brings me to my last observation: The very success that business owners and executives fashion has become integral to the mythology of capitalism. By that I mean, the belief that “business,” broadly defined as any commercial enterprise, can solve any problem, overcome any obstacle or forge progress and profits no matter what the competitive landscape looks like.

There’s some truth in that, but it’s an unwarranted exaggeration of the role of commerce in society, especially in terms of how we understand the function of government in a democratic society.

Now, I understand many people believe capitalism to be sacred, an entity to be worshipped as intently as any religion. Don’t get me wrong: on balance, it’s a good thing that capitalism allows businesses and investors to make money, in many cases, enormous sums of money.

But it’s obvious from reading about the issues and concerns of so many industries that businesses cannot — and should not — be tasked to solve the pressing social problems ours and every other developed nation faces in the 21st century.

Even the most talented businesspeople – the entrepreneurs, the exceptional, visionary executives profiled in every story I reviewed – by themselves cannot effectively deal with the challenges of providing, and paying for, healthcare for all Americans. They cannot provide, and pay for, educating the current and future generations of young people for the jobs of the future; and they cannot provide, and pay for, the massive investments in infrastructure needed to ensure U.S. competitiveness in a global economy.

Businesses and business leaders can be partners in that effort, but because each industry is narrowly, and properly, focused on its own interests to the exclusion of other, equally compelling interests, only “we the people” in the form of our democratic government can address the challenges noted above.

’Til the day I die, I’ll be a defender of the many men and women who have dedicated their lives and careers to the business of animal agriculture. It’s a vital industry providing a key component of the mission-critical priorities of ensuring food security and environmental stewardship.

But in the end, government, however imperfect and inefficient, must be accorded a status and authority above that of commerce, if we as a nation are to deal with the challenges noted above.

Along with the drumbeat of fake news leveled at so many skilled journalists, the narrative that capitalism, rather than governance, is our savior needs to change.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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