The Yertles of Capitalism

The Yertles of Capitalism

Capitalism is superior to other economic systems mainly because it provides equality of opportunity. In contrast, socialism strives for an impossible goal—equality of outcome—and in the process suppresses liberty. Yet, like every other human invention, Capitalism is far from perfect, and that is a fact its conservative cheerleaders would do well to remember.

One of Capitalism’s chief imperfections is that it attracts Yertles. I am borrowing the name from Dr. Seuss’ cautionary tale, Yertle the Turtle.

You may recall that Yertle was the ruler of a little pond who hit upon a plan for expanding his kingdom—stacking the other turtles atop one another and then climbing to the top of the stack.

Excited by how far he could see, Yertle persuaded himself that everything he saw was part of his kingdom! Of course, seeing far only made him want to see farther, and so he demanded that more turtles join in and lift his throne still higher.

As the stack grew, the turtles toward the bottom complained louder about the weight they were bearing. In response, Yertle shouted for them to be silent. And silent they were until one turtle burped, the whole stack collapsed, and Yertle toppled into the mud, his exalted reign over.

Like their misguided namesake, the Yertles of capitalism fixate on personal gain to the point where respect for employees and service to customers are ignored. Believing, perhaps, that their MBA degrees stand for “Master of Bottomline Administration,” these Yertles are preoccupied with financial profit. For example, they say, “Last year we made a nine percent profit. That’s just not good enough. We need new ways to cut costs.” And their thoughts proceed as follows:

“Our entry-level employees start at a dollar above the minimum wage. We could save a lot of money by cutting that to fifty cents above, or better yet, to the minimum wage.”

“We pay time and a half for working on weekends. We can save a bundle by discontinuing that practice. After all, one day is really no different from another.”

“We now give numerous $100 awards for outstanding performance every month. We could save a lot of money by just giving the winners a tee-shirt with the company logo and ‘Outstanding Performance” written on the back.”

And so on. Once this train of thought has begun, it tends to roll on, gaining momentum as it goes.

The problem is, capitalist Yertles tend to confuse cost-cutting with efficiency and quality management. But genuine efficiency does not economize indiscriminately at the expense of employees and customers. It eliminates waste and duplication of effort to the benefit of employees and customers as well as to management. And authentic quality management, as Edwards Deming designed it, does not alienate employees and customers—it enlists them in the pursuit of excellence and thus gains their respect and loyalty.

As they apply their business model and increase their profits, capitalist Yertles do a great injustice to their employees and customers. This is especially the case in industries such as health care, in which the “customers” are often too old or infirm to change their providers.

Every source of human wisdom warns against treating others badly, in particular those in need. The Bible, for example, informs us that we reap what we sow. And Eastern religion and philosophy remind us of the principle of Karma—that over time life rewards good actions and punishes bad ones. Dr. Seuss’ cautionary tale applies not just to turtles, but to human Yertles, as well.

Copyright © 2014 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero