What’s up with NPR? I know the organization doesn’t necessarily endorse the viewpoints expressed on its shows, but twice recently the airwaves brought me compelling stories about the positive power of . . . capitalism.
On Saturday E-Town introduced me to Bradford Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development Corp. in Wayne, West Virginia. His “road-to-Damascus” moment came when he was working on a do-gooder project rehabilitating a house. Two men wearing tool belts walked up and asked if there was any work. They were turned away: this was a volunteer project, no tradesmen wanted.
Well, that struck him as wrong and he was right. Those ready, willing, and able to work for hire should not be denied. Now Dennison is the head of an organization that has created more than 200 paying jobs in a diverse set of businesses in his native Appalachia. He’s capitalizing on local traditions of thrift and ingenuity where coal mining had largely exhausted both the land and the people.
Coalfield conjoins work with education and three hours of coaching each week to teach the cultural and life-skills that author J.D. Vance noted in Hillbilly Elegy were lacking. Dennison’s modesty is refreshing. He doesn’t claim to have invented anything. The Coalfield businesses do construction, carpentry, agriculture, and light manufacturing. They have won prizes from philanthropic organizations with big-dollar names like Rockefeller, Zuckerberg, and Heinz. It doesn’t turn up its nose at private donations. But you get the sense that Dennison would rather just get on with business so people can make money in commerce, not just “depend on the kindness of strangers.”
Sunday morning On Being introduced me to Jaqueline Novogratz, CEO of Acumen, a “human-centered” investment group that funds business-building projects in the poorest regions of the world. She began her career as a regular investment banker and moved into “impact-investing,” focused on micro-financing. She’s a product of Stanford Business School and the Roman Catholic Church’s charitable traditions.
Words like “business,” “entrepreneur,” and “success” catch in radio host Krista Tippett’s throat: she’s not totally comfortable with these concepts, you can tell. But she has to acknowledge her guest’s point. Capitalism isn’t just about consumerism and short-term return-on-investment. Capitalism can play a long game if it’s so inclined, and the moral as well as monetary returns can be great. Capital can afford to be patient.
Novogratz eschews euphemisms like “low income:” she isn’t afraid to say “poor” or “poverty.” Nor is she afraid of market forces. She recognizes the perfidious power of politics, especially in the poorest countries, to distort markets. One imagines a whiff of incense and sound of tiny cymbals in the background but, on the whole, she’s a pragmatist, not a mystic and she’s in favor of giving agency to people. And she does not flinch at affluence because if you don’t have more than you need, you have nothing to share. Adam Smith would approve.
Adam Smith taught that sovereignty over one’s own labor is the keystone of capitalism that builds the wealth of nations. You want to talk about controlling the means of production? Look between your shoulders and at the ends of your arms. That’s where Dennison and Novogratz looked and saw and acted. We are hard-wired as a species to try to better our lot, and work using skill and tools is the very essence of capitalism. And, as it happens, it has been proven not to be perfect but merely consistently the best way to economic security. And dignity.
Novogratz has written a book called Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World. Must be the season for manifestos! Check out also The Capitalist Manifesto: The End of Class Warfare, Toward Universal Affluence, by Ralph Benko and William R. Collier, Jr. rehabilitating capitalism for the philosophy of generosity that it really is. And Benko is finishing up a companion volume, currently being serialized at Newsmax, on the Ten Commandments of Capitalism, embellishing on that section of The Capitalist Manifesto by digging deeper into the armature of prosperity.
Different approaches by different authors. All of them recognize that capital, human and material, paves the path to prosperity.
The ideal and reality of universal opulence through capitalism has been with us since before “capitalism” was a word. Adam Smith declared “universal opulence” to be the objective of free markets, an objective attained in practice. So if people like Dennison and Novogratz are doing it and NPR is willing to publicize it, then, folks, capitalism may be on the verge of getting the elite recognition, and respect, it deserves.