Soup kitchen crisis exemplifies our best and worst traits

Only days after the Terrace Standard told the story about City Council denying a property tax exemption to the Bread of Life Soup Kitchen a few local citizens and business people had taken care of the soup kitchen’s tax bill. What does that tell us about the value of a community newspaper? What does it tell us about our community’s ethics?

This story is an example of the conflict between two forces deeply embedded in all of us: selfishness and selflessness. The economic theory of capitalism (business is business) is built on the assumption that selfishness is the dominant human trait. For the past 30 years the belief that humanity is best served by relying on our selfish nature has dominated our politics. That belief has been actualized by calls for deregulation, privatization, and laissez-faire economics.

The glorification of selfishness rewards corporate CEOs with million dollar bonuses for their decisions to lay off thousands of workers to cut costs and generate greater profits. The dividends gained from greater productivity could be returned to communities to pay for health and education services that benefit citizens, or to invest in research to safeguard our natural environment. Instead, productivity dividends go to the proverbial one percent standing at the top of capitalism’s pyramid.

In the 18th century Scottish philosopher Adam Smith deemed selfishness to be the most endurable human quality. He asserted that allowing governments to watch over the economy of private people would be impertinent. In the 19th century, witnessing the misery capitalism imposed on the working class, German philosopher Karl Marx reasoned that the salvation for the working class lay in selflessness. He suggested that society would best be served if all businesses were owned and controlled by governments. Marx’s theory was discredited with the collapse of the Soviet Union; Smith’s capitalism won. The contrast between soaring stock markets fueling billion dollar corporate profits and food banks, soup kitchens, and homeless people with their shopping carts raises questions about the merits of Smith’s theory.

In the 20th century Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, witnessing human misery in one of the world’s poorest countries, developed an economic theory seeking to balance the human traits of selfishness and selflessness. Yunus’s first project was a bank, the Grameen Bank, designed not to maximize profits, but to enable poor people to activate their entrepreneurial spirits. His social business approach to banking has succeeded not only in regions of extreme poverty in the developing world, but also in poverty-stricken urban regions of Europe and North America. After decades of work to develop social business and banking systems that enable people to escape from capitalism’s poverty treadmill, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. A Nobel Peace Prize to an economist for having developed a new bank!

Attempts to establish Grameen-style banking in Canada have failed due to our banking regulations. However, the Grameen family of social businesses and organizations is extensive and has roots in a wide range of business activities around the world, thus helping people break away from chronic poverty.

City Council, the Kitselas Band Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the College could set up a joint committee to explore the feasibility of inviting a speaker from the Grameen Foundation, or perhaps from the HEC Business School in Montreal where the social business concepts are taught, to come to Terrace. A Terrace workshop sponsored and organized in a cooperative effort by progressive local government and business leaders to introduce the principles and workings of social business may prove to be of value to community members who depend on food banks and soup kitchen for survival.

We can dream of multinational corporations showering billion dollar investments on Terrace with promises for jobs by the thousands, but reality demands that we do more than dream!

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