My building is an old house converted into three apartments. Ordinarily, one neighbor lives across the hall from me, and the other lives upstairs. But my landlord has recently been struggling to keep the other two apartments occupied.
I think he’s been trying to give people a break by renting to folks who are financially insecure. Such as the couple and their kid who just moved out yesterday. The lady had a job, the gentleman didn’t, and the family fell short of making the rent. My landlord must surely have known only one of the adults in that family had a job, but he leased to them anyway. That may be kind, compassionate and generous, but it is not a formula for keeping rental units occupied.
I’ve known my landlord now for between 12 and 15 years. Before I rented from him, I worked for him doing odd jobs — mainly house and apartment painting. He’s a very honest man, a very hardworking man, and, like everyone, he’s got his eccentricities. One of his eccentricities is that he likes to treat his tenants to some large extent as if they were family. He’s more comfortable thinking of you as a distant cousin than he is thinking of you as a profit center.
In terms of properties, he’s not a big landlord, nor a tiny one. He owns about 30 rental units — most of them houses. I wonder about his tendency to treat his tenants as family. For the most part, that tendency shows up in his willingness to take a chance on the folks he rents to. He doesn’t need a perfect credit score nor a perfect rental history. My guess is he takes about the same chance with folks off the street as he would with a cousin or even sometimes a nephew.
That’s good for people. And it’s good for the community. But it’s not good business practice. In business terms, my landlord’s tendency to treat people as family and take a chance on them results in reduced occupancy, reduced income, and less profit. If he were in a highly competitive business environment, he might be out of business by now, weeded out by more profitable competitors.
I don’t have enough information to do a real analysis of my landlord’s business. I don’t, for instance, know how his occupancy rate compares with the average occupancy rate in this market. Nor do I know what any of his financial margins are. But I really don’t need to know all that stuff to know that my landlord is bucking the system by treating people the way he treats them. He’s bucking capitalism. At least, as we know it.
Capitalism is a beneficial system in several respects, but it comes with a huge flaw. It is obsessed with profit.
Now, there is nothing wrong with profit in and of itself. But there is certainly something wrong with an obsession with profit.
Anytime you maximize one and only one value, you create a system that denies other values. And capitalism, by maximizing profits, creates a system that denies other values — in fact, it denies all values that are in any way at odds with maximizing profit. So, for instance, capitalism becomes the enemy of sane ecological policies in so far as those policies interfere with maximizing profit. Or, it becomes the enemy of treating people as more than mere sources of income in so far as treating them as more than mere sources of income interferes with maximizing profit.
That’s one of the reasons — a rather small reason, however — that I think capitalism as we know it is a system destined for transition. I can think of other, more important reasons, capitalism will change. But at the moment, its obsession with profit has my attention.
If we could look 100 or 200 years into the future (and perhaps not even that far into the future), my guess is we would find a “capitalism” that is remarkably different from what’s practiced today. Indeed, we will either do something to radically curb and regulate the obsession capitalism has with profit, or we will most likely live in something akin to fascist/feudal societies that have a relatively low standard of living and quality of life for most of their members. That’s my hunch. I could be wrong. But I’m probably accurate enough to be annoying about this one.