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Nelson Davis

Nelson Davis

Posted: October 6, 2009 08:04 PM

Capitalism: What Love Story?

What's Your Reaction?

Being a capitalist at heart, I simply couldn't resist going to see Michael Moore's latest film production, Capitalism: A Love Story. My lady loved it so much that before sunset she was sending e-mails to everyone on her list recommending they go see it right away. For me, it was something a bit less than a love story and not very representative of what I feel that capitalism truly represents in America.

Mr. Moore has been a compelling media figure since his 1989 documentary, Roger and Me, which poked exorbitant fun at Roger Smith, then Chairman of General Motors. That film did foretell some of the marketplace plague that would settle over what was then America's largest corporation. Like any good documentarian, Michael Moore brings a clear point of view to his work and holds to at least a modicum of truth in its execution. For example, I agree with him that it was unfettered greed that drove us to the brink of economic disaster. Every parent knows that the difference between a good child and a monster is some form of discipline and there just wasn't enough of that along Wall Street.

We are living in truly interesting times. Many Americans are confused and angry yet don't seem to be sure who or what truly deserves their ire, so the more rapacious forms of capitalism make a convenient target. It is easy to forget that the capitalist drive was behind the creation of some of the country's most revered mechanisms, protocols, institutions, and freedoms. In that regard, the Moore film is preachy without being "teachy." It ignores the kind of capitalist community contributions made by people such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry J. Kaiser, Bill Gates, Ewing Marion Kauffman, and even Michael Bloomberg.

One of Moore's voiceovers in his movie says, "Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil. You have to eliminate it and replace it with something that's good for all people, and that something is called democracy." I've known too many people who started with next to nothing and built substantial enterprises to believe that the entrepreneurial spirit is anything other than positive and democratic. My family history includes a grandfather who was the child of slaves but became a merchant in southern Alabama at the dawn of the 20th Century. He probably didn't even know the words entrepreneur or capitalist but simply wanted self sufficiency and independence for his family.

I do, however, believe that there is one facet of business today in America that I think promotes the "evil" perception. When you look at the entrepreneur capitalists that I mentioned above, you'll quickly notice that they were the founders of the businesses that made them wealthy and known to the public. They weren't hired hands with newly minted MBA degrees who just wanted a job to make their mark and a pile of loot in ten years or less. My theory is that founders largely cared about their communities and employees in ways that that a hired gun, who is focused primarily on getting the best stock price, could never do. If it is just about the money, there will be acts that support the perception of evil. Sam Walton had to be a heck of a hard nosed businessman to build Wal-Mart, but he was also a strong and caring patriarch figure to his thousands of employees.

The current phase of American business that we are living is amazingly transitional. Some legendary enterprises that helped create America are disappearing and the crop of men and women that will become the titans of the 21st Century aren't yet fully visible. Though we talk endlessly about the Googles, Facebooks, and Twitters at the moment, only time will tell if their founders have the smart sense of their predecessors and the drive it takes to go the distance.

Let me tell you the story of Ewing Marion Kauffman to illustrate what I mean about persistence, durability, and a consciousness of greater good.

Philanthropist Ewing Marion Kauffman was born in 1916 and died in 1993. He was an American pharmaceutical mogul and Major League baseball team owner. Kauffman grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and was bedridden for a year at age 11 with a heart ailment, during which he read as many as 40 books a month. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Kauffman worked as a pharmaceutical salesman until 1950 when he formed Marion Laboratories with a $5,000 investment, operating it initially out of the basement of his home. The story goes that he chose to use his middle name rather than his last name in order to not appear to be a one-man operation.

Marion Laboratories had revenues of $930 million the year before it merged with Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals back in1989. The sale of the company created more than 300 millionaires, and Mr. Kauffman continued on with what I consider his greatest achievement.

He had established the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in the mid-1960s with the same set of convictions and sense of opportunity he brought to his business enterprises. Kauffman wanted his foundation to be innovative -- to dig deep and get at the roots of issues to fundamentally change people's lives. Today, it is often referred to as the "foundation of entrepreneurship." He wanted to help young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, get a quality education that would enable them to reach their full potential. He felt that building business enterprises is one of the most effective ways to realize individual promise and spur the economy. I've spent time at their headquarters in Kansas City and seen some of what a multi-billion dollar endowment can do if managed well. It is the result of what I call "conscious capitalism."

Michael Moore needs to know more about the great capitalists whose names grace libraries, concert halls, and universities across the country. He should remember that democracy can only work if the business climate is healthy. Moore must acknowledge that he is now in an entrepreneurial business making a product for sale and that he couldn't do it without the capitalism that he rails about. I just want him to give them some well earned love.

For more small business resources and to view past blogs, visit www.MakingItTV.com.