The Business Model of Life

The Future of Capitalism:  that was the focus of our Peace and Justice lecture series a year ago.  I’ve been pondering – and noticing – the advance of business-model capitalist approaches in many domains of life.  It is replacing the efficiency-oriented bureaucratic organization of life – McDonaldization – with profit-oriented calculations (or at least cost-benefit analysis) of even the most intimate details of life.

Capitalism and Private Relationships

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...
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I’ve heard, for example, a fellow faculty member muse out loud about the benefits of having an affair versus an assessment of the risk of losing a spouse and breaking up a home, complete with a second evaluation of the likelihood of being able to repair the marriage if (when) the affair is uncovered.  The monologue was surprising in two ways: not only did it lack any consideration of right and wrong, it also lacked any sense of empathy for the impact on the children or the spouse.  It was a calculation of benefit to the self and cost to the self.  The other persons involved – both the potential lover and the existing family – were more like units of potential enjoyment than partners in a relationship. It was chilling.

Capitalism in Higher Education

I’ve noticed a similar narrative style in reports that circulate in academe.  Admissions reports actually use the language of “yield” – the incoming students have been harvested from a field of prospects that was sown and plowed (yes, all those terms have appeared in reports over the last year or so).  Indices of retention (the proportion of students who choose to continue at this school) are frequently reported; faculty know the refrain: it’s less expensive to retain a student than to recruit one.  We also care about the average length of time to graduation, and the amount of debt students carry when they leave.  While these have not pushed aside the desire to see students who can read with deep understanding, write complex ideas with clarity, and develop a depth of mastery in their major field of study, the quick-and-easy numeric measures draw more attention.

“Are you better off now than you were …”

In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan asked voters, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  In the midst of a recession and stagflation, the question hit home – and Reagan won.  Even at the time – only the second presidential election in which I could vote – I thought:  that’s the wrong question.  Adam Smith’s capitalism holds that an invisible hand guides the economy so that each person, acting in her or his own interest, will achieve the greatest good for all.  We’ve known for decades that this is not so.  But Regan’s question revved up the logic and rhetoric of that most basic form of capitalism.

Listen …

If you pay attention to the conversations around you, the arguments of talk show hosts, the headlines of newspapers and magazines, you’ll find that this form of thought is everywhere – not associated with one political or social view, but used in different ways by all of them.  When you hear it, ask yourself:  how else could we talk about these concepts? What would this conversation have sounded like 50 years ago?  What would it sound like if the abstract concepts were replaced with the names and identities of real people?



  1. It was interesting to read about the way conversations go in the admissions committee and I’m sure other institutions are no different. I agree with your point of view, Sister Edith.

    • Thank you for your comment. I feel for the admissions folks – the budget (and people’s livelihoods and the future ability of the college to do its work) all depend on them to bring in enough students. The budget process and the number of enrollments it requires is usually not in their control. The business model is permeating the whole endeavor.

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