In a widely cited column last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks put capitalism as the first cause of the lack of dignity in modern American society. He wrote:
First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents.
There's something to that. The problem is that Brooks somehow links that, in one big smish smosh, with politicians cheating on their wives. But the two are at opposite poles. Think about what it means to manage your own brand. You make irreversible investments in a brand name whose value you can drive to zero with a few mistakes. To the extent we invest in our own brand, we have a higher incentive to avoid those mistakes.
Moreover, Brooks misses the day to day ways that our investment in our own brand promotes our dignity, ways that everyone understands and, for that reason, we tend to take for granted. I think about the first full-time summer job I had, at age 16 and at minimum wage, at a summer resort in Minaki, Ontario. I ran the dish-washing machine and was supposed to show up at 8:00 a.m. every day. For the first three days, I showed up at sometime between 8:15 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. On that third day, the chef, Rudy, seeing a pattern, confronted me.
Rudy: You need to set your alarm.
David: I do.
Rudy: For what time?
David: 7:40 a.m.
Rudy: That gives you enough time to make it here. What do you do when the alarm goes off?
David: I turn it it off and roll over and go back to sleep.
Rudy: You need to get up when it goes off. If you're late tomorrow, you're fired.
I was on time from then on. I learned punctuality, a tremendous market virtue, and, I think, I became more dignified.