September 18, 2020 - 8:00am

The full extent of corporate failure at Boeing over the 737 Max has been revealed this week. The congressional investigation into the crashes is damning, findingcost-cutting… that jeopardised the safety of the flying public”, “regulatory capture” and a “culture of concealment” leading to the deaths of 346 people in two separate crashes. 

The dry procedural language used in the report stood out to me, in part because I have been reading an economics classic by E.F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful. While official documents condemn “troubling mismanagement misjudgements”, and Boeing admits “mistakes were made”, it is left to the bereaved families to use words which for most of us come closest to an accurate summation: “I lost my dad to greed, corruption and lack of human decency.”

Schumacher, an eminent German-British statistician and economist, is similarly hard-hitting in his use of moral language. Coming to his 1973 classic, knowing its long legacy in economic thinking, but not the text itself, this is startling. Most of us are more used to conversations about business, economics and the right ordering of society being conducted in that familiar, distanced legalese. Proposals are rationalised and systematised, carefully avoiding any whiff of emotion or judgement.

Not so Schumacher: 

I suggest that the foundations of peace cannot be laid by universal prosperity, in the modern sense, because such prosperity, if attainable at all, is attainable only by cultivating such drives of human nature as greed and envy… There can be growth towards a limited objective but there cannot be unlimited generalised growth [based on] a predatory attitude which rejoices in the fact that ‘what were luxuries for our fathers have become necessities for us. 
- E.F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

He continues:

The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom… of freedom and peace… Economically, our wrong living consists primarily in systematically cultivating greed and envy and thus building up a vast array of totally unwarrantable wants.
- E.F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

I cannot remember the last time I heard an economist or business theorist use the words wisdom, greed or envy. Why are they so nervous about using moral rather than technical language to condemn actions that so clearly violate moral codes? Clearly perceived “moralising” attracts accusations of hypocrisy, and finger-pointing at individuals is rarely edifying. 

I think it goes deeper though. “Profit-maximisation” (another thing Boeing is accused of) is so baked into our assumptions of good business in an economy premised on eternal growth that we never stop to ask if it has become another way of saying greed, a deadly sin dressed up in a pin-stripe suit. 

Schumacher was not anti-business, in fact arguing that right-sized, local businesses could help build a better world. Developments such as the B Corp movement and interest in Environmental Social Corporate Governance (ESG) investing are arguably part of his legacy. But he wasn’t afraid, and neither should we be, of calling greed by its name when he saw it.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield