Economic Efficiency vs. People?

Two recent articles, read side-by-side, capture a common but growing tension between the need for economic efficiency and the needs of human beings. 

The first, in the MIT Technology Review (July/August 2017), is based on an interview with Melonee Wise, who runs a robotics startup called Fetch. The company’s robots specialize in repetitive warehouse and factory work, thereby reducing the need for workers. 

In response to a question about robots replacing humans at work, Wise responded this way: “There will be displacement. All technology does it. . . . Technology is going to continue to advance, and technology always creates jobs. . . . The question is, will the people whose jobs are displaced be retrained to do the new jobs that are available?”

Wise is also among the growing number who believe that the U.S. should move toward a “basic universal income,” a government-supplied low-level income that allows people to meet basic living needs. This, many believe, could be funded through taxes on companies. It is assumed that businesses will be able to increase productivity and profits by using robotics and artificial intelligence rather than people. 

Wise sees these questions as a “socio-political discussion,” at least based on what she shared in her interview with MIT. But what about the human dimensions of this matter? For a perspective on this, we turn to an article in the March 2017 issue of First Things, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City. 

Max Torres, a professor of business and economics at the Catholic University of America, asks this question: “What if the primary importance of keeping a job in the U.S. concerns human flourishing rather than economic efficiency?” 

That’s a fair question. Torres notes that companies and politicians “assume that market efficiency is the final end purpose of a nation’s economy . . .” and that “most of us adopt the false view that the most important feature of having a job is the income it provides.”

Torres argues that work is about much more than income. Citing Pope John Paul II, he says that humans were created by a God who works, and who gave us work as a fundamental aspect of human nature. Work is an avenue for spiritual and character growth, and it enables us to fulfill our calling to be co-creators with God (“to be fruitful and multiply”). In other words, work is central to what it means to be human. 

Torres inserts a theological element in the growing discussion about artificial intelligence, robotics, and the future work. Although Wise and many others see the issue only through a socio-political and “bottom-line” lens, Torres argues that such a perspective is valid, but too narrow. The socio-political lens tends to eclipse the deepest questions about human nature. It avoids the possibility that humans are created in the image of God and therefore need work, not just for an income, but to be fully human.

These are difficult, but fascinating tensions. It would be wrong to frame the question as an either-or debate. Economic efficiency—even when accomplished by artificial intelligence or robotics—can create an employment boom and help people flourish. We’ll have to see. But as the economy changes in response to technology, our business and economic discussions need theological inspiration. If we really care about people, we should take into account that human nature is wired for more than an income.  

Post-Truth Technology

The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth.” According to the OED, this means, “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, says this about the OED’s choice for selecting this term as the 2016 word of the year: “Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.” 

So, in a post-truth society filled with uncertainty and confusion, you would think that companies and entrepreneurs would be working to help us separate the wheat from the chaff. Right?

Not so fast. An article in the MIT Technology Review for July/August 2017 (p. 26) reports that a Russian company has developed artificial intelligence technology capable of changing the appearance of faces—even to the point of changing a person’s gender—on your smartphone. The same article also cites a Canadian company’s technology that can impersonate someone’s voice. Even Stanford University recently released technology that can manipulate video of an on-camera person’s expressions based on the expressions of someone off-camera. 

Some of these technologies use what computer scientists call “deep generative convolutional networks.” They use algorithms (artificial intelligence) that mine data networks to generate new data—that is, images, sounds, etc.—autonomously. This artificial intelligence can produce its own data without much human intervention. Thus, in the case of images, it can tap into a network of data to generate photographs by itself. Who needs a camera when you can have an algorithm? 

So, this means you could open your Facebook account and see a photo in a “news story” about a president’s visit to Paris. Said president might be shown standing at the Eifel Tower with an entourage of other political figures. But the photo could have been produced entirely by a computer. 

Or you might be listening to the radio and hear what you believe is a famous person talking, when in fact the voice is merely fabricated by software. The Canadian company that developed this voice impersonation technology used computer-generated voices of Donald Trump, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to “endorse” its product, writes Will Knight for MIT Technology Review. 

All this begs a question: What motivates these companies to innovate such post-truth technologies? What human or social benefit do these technologies provide? We’d have to talk to company leaders to know for sure. But perhaps these technologies are a mere reflection of our post-truth (or postmodern) mindset, a way of living beyond reality. 

The OED found that one of the earliest uses of “post-truth” occurred in a 1992 article in The Nation magazine. The author of the article, Steve Tesich, said that “we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.”

Well, now we have more and more technology that enables us to live in that post-truth world. In other words, we prefer to invent our own little “realities” more than we care to embrace Reality. The downside of that choice, in any society or economy, is that no one knows who or what to trust.

The Human Toll of Corruption

Statistical portraits of commerce and economics are important, but big numbers gloss over the impact of economic trends and policies on individual lives and families.

The same occurs when talking about corruption, perhaps because it is so widespread. We talk about the global problem in abstract terms—about the amount of money siphoned away from economies—rather than in human terms.

Unemployed in Recife, Brazil. Photo by Tom McMahan

Unemployed in Recife, Brazil. Photo by Tom McMahan

So, here’s a human story. During a recent trip to Brazil, where corruption is creating social chaos and taking down high-level business and political leaders, I stopped in the northeastern coastal city of Recife. There I spoke with an executive of a private bus company that provides public transportation in this city of about four million people.

He told me that four years ago his company had close to 400 buses circulating through the city. Today, he said, the company is down to 80 buses. This number shocked me, because Brazilians are so dependent on public transportation. I asked him what accounted for the reduction.

“Corruption,” he said. “The federal corruption scandals have caused tens of thousands of people in this region to lose their jobs. With those job losses, there was a domino effect in other industries and even in small businesses. Fewer people are riding buses because they don’t have anywhere to work.”

No newspapers are paying attention to what’s happening in one bus company. But 300 idle buses sitting in a hot parking lot are tangible symbols of corruption's impact: people without jobs, families with no income, children who can’t get to school, a rise in emotional depression, and increased crime.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, we read that Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, has been formally charged with corruption. He could end up being the second Brazilian president forced out of office in 18 months. It’s estimated that 60 percent of Brazil’s lawmakers are either under suspicion of, being investigated for, or formally charged for corruption. The money lost from the economy is in the billions of dollars.

But it is in the homes of Brazilian families, in the lives of children, and in the stress of unemployed men and women that we see the full brunt of corruption.

At the core, corruption is a lack of love for fellow human beings. Without love in commerce, people suffer. Corruption dehumanizes economics. The Scriptures forcefully condemn corruption because of the suffering it imposes on people. 

For more on this topic, we encourage you to work through a book by Tom Petersen called The Economy of God, which can be purchased on Amazon in print or digital formats. 

A Simple Man's Success

My great-grandfather, whose nickname was Woody, spent the early part of his working life as a tenant cotton farmer in rural Texas. There he and his stalwart wife raised three children and served their small-town community. Farming was all Woody knew, and he did it well.

Woody McMahan at Pueblo Reservoir

Woody McMahan at Pueblo Reservoir

Then one of Woody’s daughters contracted tuberculosis. In order to confirm a diagnosis, the whole family traveled to Dallas and camped on the hospital lawn while Woody waited for test results. The doctor told Woody that his daughter’s chances of survival would increase if they moved to a higher altitude, perhaps in Colorado. 

Woody decided to uproot the family from everything and everyone they knew, including his work. The family settled in Pueblo, Colorado where Woody started working in a steel factory. Fortunately, Woody’s daughter overcame the illness. But my grandfather remembers not seeing his dad very often, and when he did see his father, his dad was always tired. 

After a number of years, Woody was no longer able to handle the working conditions in the steel factory. So, to support his family he worked all kinds of odd jobs. At one point, he worked as the man responsible for opening and closing the water gates of the city’s reservoir (see photo). Woody and his wife lived in a small house, sparsely decorated, and lived paycheck to paycheck. But they managed to get my grandfather through college at the University of Denver.

Reflecting on Woody’s life, I wonder how people might perceive him today. Would he be considered a “successful man”? Probably not, given that he had no formal education or even a consistent career. My guess is that many people today might see him as a “loser,” someone who just couldn’t get his act together.

Therein lies a problem. By today’s standards, “success” is measured by one’s education level, degree, and by which college one attended. And we define success by the type of work one does; for example, we typically value engineers over trash collectors and doctors over janitors.

But are these cultural standards true measures of success? The Scriptures define success in a much more profound way, one that transcends the superficial definitions common today. Micah 6:8 summarizes a new (old) way of thinking about success. This scripture says: “. . . And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here we see three elements to God’s definition of success: integrity (do justice), love, and humility. Notice how each element is about character, not job descriptions and degrees. Defining success according to a person’s character is weighty, authentic, real. Diplomas and resumes, while important, don’t tell us the whole picture. They are external measures compared to matters of a person’s character.

Based on this scriptural perspective, we can conclude that if a Harvard graduate earning six figures works without integrity, without love, and in arrogance, God would say the man is a failure in life. By contrast, a man like Woody—who worked honestly to provide for his family, sacrificed himself in love to save his daughter from tuberculosis, and humbly put the interests of others over his own—would be deemed by God as a stellar success.

Obviously, Stanford graduates who earn high incomes can be people of integrity, humility and love. We know many wealthy and highly educated men and women who have good character. But if our culture removes the vital factors of integrity, love and humility from our notions of success, we could find ourselves climbing the wrong ladder.

And to those who work in jobs that don’t meet this culture’s standards of success, take heart! If you live with integrity, love and humility, you are a true success. The world needs more people like you.

Radical Transparency in Brazil

Trust is the foundation of all commerce, just as trust is the bedrock of all healthy personal relationships. And there is no trust without integrity—in commerce or in personal relationships. Erode integrity and you erode trust. That’s the way the world works—at home, at work, among nations.

In Brazil, rampant corruption has degraded trust levels to such a degree that Brian Winter, writing in the May/June 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, claims that “Brazilian democracy is now at its most vulnerable point since the return of civilian rule three decades ago, and it risks lapsing into long-term dysfunction of the ‘soft authoritarianism’ currently sweeping the globe” (p. 88).

Brazil is not unique among nations in its struggle against corruption, but a widespread scheme that emerged in 2013, in which business leaders and politicians siphoned billions of dollars from the state-run oil company Petrobras and other large corporations, has severely destabilized the government. Numerous senators and congresspersons are under investigation for graft, and many top-level business leaders have been arrested.

This destabilization has also played a role in debilitating the nation’s economy in recent years. According to Foreign Affairs, the Brazilian economy has contracted by almost 10 percent per capita since 2014 (p. 93).

The question becomes, how does Brazil restore trust in commerce and politics?

Some are calling for what’s been termed “radical transparency,” or what the Scriptures call “walking in the light” (1 John 1:7). This is an idea based on the view that bad stuff happens in the dark. So, if you want to build a trusting relationship, everyone should agree to put everything on out in the open, thereby making us accountable to one another.

In Brazilian politics, this means taking at least five major steps, according to Winter, who is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly.

First, he says the next Brazilian president (to be elected in 2018) should install cabinet members who have zero connection to the current scandals. There should be no conflicts of interest, period.

Second, the government should publicly reveal the assets and recent income of all the ministers.

Third, Winter calls for repealing a nineteenth-century law that gives certain levels of legal immunity to government officials, including the president. Foreign Affairs says that about 22,000 people currently have some protection under this law (p. 92).

Fourth, Brazil should increase funding for auditing and investigative agencies—the state organs that enforce the laws, track corruption in commerce, and prosecute offenders. Currently, many laws aren’t enforced and many crimes aren't discovered because these government agencies are anemic.

Fifth, Winter calls for publishing “all terms, bids, and results for procurement and infrastructure projects,” that is, anything related to “places where the private and public sectors intersect” (p. 93).

These are positive ideas. However, whether Brazil’s political leaders will respond to calls for radical transparency is still an open question. If they don’t, the only other option is the continued erosion of trust between the government and the people. Is that really what leaders want?

Eventually, when there is no trust left to uphold this relationship, there will be a divorce of some type. According to a recently survey, only 32 percent of Brazilians agree that democracy is the best form of government. Those numbers do not bode well for any future administration--unless they implement measures to restore trust.

All nations would do well to practice radical transparency, just as we do well to “walk in the light” in our personal relationships.

Empowering the Disgruntled

In recent months, a profitable Colorado-based company has been getting some poor reviews from former employees on the workplace website known as Glassdoor. These reviews, according to one middle manager within the company, have prodded company leaders to initiate investigations and implement changes in “corporate culture.” At least one person has received a pink slip, which has the ripple effect of making everyone terrified of being laid off.

Welcome to employer-employee relations in the Internet age.

If you haven’t heard of Glassdoor, the website promotes and requires anonymous reviews. Thus, any employee who happens to disagree with the coffee selections, or thinks a supervisor is too grumpy can now post a tirade for the world to see. Any disgruntled employee who thinks he has been treated “unfairly,” or any frustrated slacker, can post a negative (and detailed) review about a company and bear zero responsibility for those comments.

Glassdoor’s guidelines for posting reviews state:

. . . You can name individuals in your complaint if they “have broad influence over the work environment.” Such people include: C-Suite, Executive Director, President, Owner, Founder, etc. Therefore, you can name the boss in a complaint, but Glassdoor does not allow reviewers to identify themselves. Why? “To safeguard privacy.” (Whose privacy?)

. . . Glassdoor says they “believe in the principle of anonymity and free speech — everyone has a right to voice his or her opinion and be heard without fear of retribution, censorship or other unwanted attention.” (There is no mention of taking responsibility for one’s speech.)

. . . How does a company defend itself? According to Glassdoor, “We believe each employer has the right to respond to a review left by a member for free, and that the employer be given the last word on a review.” (What a relief! Your defense is free!)

Although Glassdoor encourages reviewers to write fair reviews, including the pros and cons of the workplace, there are numerous problems with this approach to employee-employer relations. Here’s a few of our thoughts (feel free to add your own).

First, anonymous speech with no accountability for what one is saying is prone to become cowardly gossip. Reviewers should be brave enough to take off the mask while throwing Molotov cocktails at corporate HQ. When the founding fathers complained against Britain’s unfair taxes, they signed their names on documents and thereby risked their lives for the right to free speech.  

Second, an online griping arrangement opens the door to false accusations (injustice). In a court of law, people who accuse someone of a crime must provide evidence. But in the online “court,” you might cost a person his or her job without offering any proof whatsoever. In Deuteronomy, it says that accusers must present at least two or three witnesses before a neutral judge. That is a founding principle in civilized justice systems. But some websites aren't worried about justice and civility, are they?

Finally, online workplace complaints erode meaningful relationships and rarely resolve the conflicts. Spouting off criticism about your boss does nothing to promote peace and productivity. Jesus established a courageous, face-to-face, relational approach. In Matthew 18:15–17, he said: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” If that doesn’t work, Jesus said, then take the matter up the ladder to leaders. And if that doesn’t work, use the courts.

Anonymous website accusations enable people to bypass face-to-face, courageous interaction. Because it’s all anonymous, it can seriously damage relationships and spread distrust and suspicion.

No doubt there are some good outcomes from websites like Glassdoor, but at what cost?

Leadership Advice from Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus

There is a tendency in modern commerce to value “disruption,” which implies doing away with the past in favor of the new. Although innovation motivated by love for neighbor is to be encouraged, disregarding the lessons of the past can lead to foolishness. C.S. Lewis often warned against what he called “chronological snobbery,” the view that only new trends are valuable, that somehow the new is always better than the old.

In business leadership, old principles remain as valid today as they did centuries ago—but they are often forgotten, leading to foolishness.

And so, this week in Work Matters, we look at a book written in the early 1500s, titled The Education of a Christian Prince, written by Desiderius Erasmus (1466­–1536).

Erasmus, a Dutch theologian, wrote the book to help the young Holy Roman emperor Charles V learn how to lead. In the following quote, Erasmus gives some advice about humble leadership from the Scriptures that applies (or should) to business leaders today. He wrote:

If it is the part of pagan princes to dominate, domination is not the way for a Christian to rule. For what can he mean by ‘it shall not be so among you’ [Matthew 20:25-26], except that a different practice must obtain among Christians, among whom the office of prince means orderly control, not imperial power, and kingship means helpful supervision, not tyranny?         
Nor should the prince soothe himself with the thought, ‘These things apply to bishops, not to me.’ They do indeed apply to you; if, that is, you are a Christian! If you are not a Christian, they do not apply to you at all. Nor should you be indignant if you have perhaps seen a number of bishops who fall far short of this ideal. Let them look to what they are doing, and do you concentrate on what is right for you. Do not regard yourself as a good prince if, in comparison to others, you appear to be less bad.

Notice especially the lines, “kingship means helpful supervision, not tyranny” and “domination is not the way.” The humble business leader, then, will admonish and correct employees so as to build them up, not tear them down. The humble leader will listen and learn from employees. The humble leader will create a workplace that sets high standards, is productive, orderly and efficient; but also one that encourages employees to contribute and be creative.

Dictators and tyrants never lead with authentic authority. They only have positional authority. They wield power, but gain no respect. Thus, they are weakened in their ability to influence others. As a result, employee loyalty and passion for work declines. Turnover rates increase, adding costs to the company. The long-term survival of businesses led by tyrants is greatly diminished.

In many corporate environments today, quality advice like this from the 1500s might be considered "disruptive" . . .

Meritocracy or Mercy?

By Ethan Rummel, GCN Guest Writer

Of all the antiquated twentieth-century economic theories, perhaps none has remained as pervasive as Ayn Rand’s. Her philosophy was best expressed in her iconic book Atlas Shrugged.           

This philosophy, objectivism, is based on a realist view of the world, which means that reality exists independent of our consciousness. In our postmodern age, when people often think there is no truth outside of what the mind invents, Rand’s realism is a refreshing and perhaps comforting notion.

Rand also espoused a simple view of justice: that people ought to be rewarded for their ability and accomplishments and punished for ineptitude and failures. She blatantly opposes granting anything to anyone who has not earned it.

This view is explained as intuitively obvious as it flows logically from a realist perception of the world. However, it creates a deep moral conflict. It means that charity is morally wrong and love is only granted if it has been earned

It is simple to see the potential conflict between well-founded theology and Rand’s objectivism. After all, are we not supposed to give our cloak to our neighbor, or even our tunic, as stated in Matthew 5:38?

As the Scriptures show, God wants us to pursue justice. Individual wrongdoing harms other people and society, which requires justice. But Rand reduces the concept of justice to a meritocracy. She simplifies morality and forgets a key element: that of mercy and forgiveness.

A key example in Atlas Shrugged comes when a minor character is asked to love her husband despite his faults. In this part of the story, Rand implies that love has to be earned and that the granting of love and forgiveness without ample reason is not only wrong but evil. Thus, Rand’s views are the antithesis of God's forgiveness, which is not only unearned but impossibly so.

It is worrying that some leaders in the United States still hold Ayn Rand in such high regard. Many of our nation's leaders have expressed admiration for Rand’s works and adhere to her ideas and her laissez-faire economics. Her views have had a deep influence in sectors of our economy.

The often-forgotten fact is that every political action stems from a real moral perspective and worldview. Some political and economic leaders who follow Rand have also claimed religious ties to Christianity. But if they are such great admirers of Ayn Rand, where do their policies really stem from?

Of course, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is just one worldview that continues to shape the American economy and our commerce, but it’s pervasive presence alerts us to the need to fully consider the worldview, the ultimate cause, of any economic or political policy.

Ethan Rummel is studying classics and history at the University of Edinburgh.

Wandering in the Words of Commerce

Recently, over beer with friends, I had a long conversation about populism. Only at the end of the conversation did we realize that none of us understood the true meaning of the word populism. The beer and friendship were good, but the conversation floundered.

Like currency in a time of hyperinflation, words today mean little, and they often don’t mean what they originally meant. And so it is in commerce. We debate and bicker, but we don’t know what the words used in relation to commerce mean.

Take, for example, the notion of being “fiscally conservative.” To conserve something is to “keep it as it is,” which is why our grandparents canned strawberries and rhubarb. If, at the present time, that’s what we mean by being fiscally conservative, then we are attempting to conserve the fiscal status quo; that is, rampant federal debt and quantitative easing. The term "fiscal conservative" no longer describes the mindset of fiscal conservatives, who would love nothing more than to change the status quo, to reduce debt and limit spending. So why use the term?

The word “progressive” is another word many use and few understand. “Progress” as an idea is full of wonder and beauty. But to make progress, one must have two things in place: 1) a fixed starting point, and 2) a specified destination. A young man without a destination can embark on a journey, but he would never make “progress”; he would be wandering. Therein lies the problem. Kindly ask a progressive economist to identify her starting point and her final destination. You will likely encounter silence. Moreover, if by chance this progressive person has clearly identified her destination, and if she managed to one day arrive at that destination, she would quickly become a conservative. As Hannah Arendt stated in 1970: "The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution."

And then there’s the term “free market.” The word “free” is loved by everyone, and therefore manipulated by everyone to suit their own purposes. So, it's healthy to contemplate the original meaning of the word.

In Greek, the word for free is eleutheros. Its definition is simple: to not be a slave. In this, freedom is about not being forcefully controlled by a master. Therefore, when a financial market is referred to as eleutheros it is understood as being autonomous (answering to no one). This is a tempting idea, to be autonomous. But the simple definition says nothing about what one should do with one’s freedom. For what purpose is the market free? The first human, Adam, for example, followed the siren song of autonomous freedom all the way to what theologians call “the Fall of Man.” Everyone talks about a free market (more deregulation!), but when was the last time you heard someone talking about designing moral, virtuous purposes for a free market?

In Latin, the word for free is liber. It’s almost identical to eleutheros in Greek, but it also conveys the idea of being unconfined, or unopposed. Intellectual freedom, as in liberal arts, in this sense means to not be confined by previous ideas, to embrace new thoughts, to have “an open mind.” This is Star Trek: to boldly go where no man has gone before. It promotes disdain for tradition and encourages people to climb Mount Everest or go to Mars. Liber also conveys a license to change things, to disrupt the status quo. Thus, when today’s political “conservatives” seek to disrupt the “liberal” status quo, the conservatives are being liberal and the liberals and being conservative. And we haven't even talked about the libertarians!

And now we get to the English word “free.” As with Greek and Latin, the word originally had a simple meaning referring to a person’s legal status: to not be a slave. More recently, the term has been used to describe the political condition of not being ruled by a tyrannical despot. And in the case of an economic market, it means that commerce is not a slave to government.

But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the word free came to mean “do whatever I want.” Poet Walt Whitman wrote his epic poem titled Song to Myself. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his essay Self-Reliance. In this case, to be free is “radical individualism,” to be boldly selfish and unconcerned about community. Free means that God is Me. As Aristotle wrote in Metaphysics, “We call a man free whose life is lived for his own sake not for that of others.” In this sense, a nation or a free market is completely free only when it is unencumbered by concerns other than self-interest. Taken at face value, this conceptualization of freedom is the antithesis love.

Confusion about the meaning of words adds fuel to the fires of incivility and hostile discourse. So perhaps we should come to a place of humility. The Latin root of the word humility is humilis, meaning “close to the earth.” The root of humilis is humus, meaning “earth” or “ground,” from which the words human and humanity are derived.

When we are humble, we acknowledge that we are not God, that we are not autonomous, that we are accountable to one another. Humility leads us to use our freedom in commerce for moral purposes of love. Humility leads us to listen. When people use these words in your daily conversations, gently ask them a question: “What do you mean?” Then be humble and listen.

Serious Robots

In last week's article, we took a light-hearted look at the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. But there is a serious side to these technologies.

A story in the May/June 2016 issue of MIT Technology Review sums up the profound questions that we should be asking about new technology. The call-out for the article says: “Can China reboot its manufacturing industry—and the global economy—by replacing millions of workers with machines?”

Stop for a minute and think carefully about that question. Embedded in it are difficult questions about our beliefs and values, our worldview. Is our ultimate goal material wealth? China can reboot it's economy by using more machines, but should this be done? Is it moral to embark on a path of “. . . replacing millions of workers with machines”?

Thankfully, many thought leaders today are addressing the human and ethical questions that surround these technological trends. But such discussions tend to be drowned out by more pragmatic concerns. The pressure for businesses to use AI and robots, or else die, is intense.

One representative example is worth looking at. Cambridge Industries Group (CIG), which operates factories in China, hopes to replace two-thirds of its 3,000 workers with machines by mid-2017. A primary reason for this change, says CEO Gerald Wong, is because manufacturing in Germany, Japan, and the United States is already becoming cheaper than in China because of robotics, artificial intelligence, and automation. This means that, regardless of who is in the Oval Office, jobs are not likely to come back to the US; that's because these jobs will vanish from the world.

“It’s very clear in China: people will either go into automation or they will go out of the manufacturing business,” Wong says. “We’re going to use standard robots at first. But then we’re going to use more advanced ones. More and more, we need to get into more advanced robotics. That can help make a dark factory.”

A dark factory, in case you’re wondering, is the widely used term for a factory without people.

The thought leaders in this arena are, thankfully, taking questions about the human and social impact of these technological changes seriously. Among those people is David Rotman, editor of MIT Technology Review. In the most recent issue of the magazine (March/April 2017), Rotman concludes an excellent article by saying, “if AI is going to achieve its full economic potential, we’ll need to pay as much attention to the social and employment challenges as we do to the technical ones.”

Rotman’s essay addresses questions about what happens to human beings when they can no longer work. He cites Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, who acknowledges that the removal of work from people would be personally and socially devastating. “There is no question that in the modern capitalist system your occupation is your identity,” Mokyr says. He knows there will be “pain and humiliation” when robots take jobs from people.

Rotman also addresses the tendency for AI and robotics to erode the middle class, increasing the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Government can help ease this pain, but downward pressure on the middle class will continue regardless of who is in the Oval Office.

Missing from this vital discussion about technology, work and economics is a serious theological perspective. Underlying all the science, innovation, and compassion for workers, are deeper questions about human nature and God’s designs for economies. A theological compass, if given an opportunity, could help guide technological development to meaningful destinations.

How we develop technology and use it is a choice; it doesn’t just happen accidentally. AI and robotics are expressions of a worldview and a set of deeply held values. A materialistic worldview will produce a materialistic world with technology serving materialistic ends. Is that what we really want?

Author Andrew Schmookler is asking that question: “Our economy, with its focus on the material and the mechanical, embodies an approach to human life with the spirit drained out of it.”

The Scriptures speak profoundly about these tensions. They affirm science, universities, discovery, and technological innovation. They give value to business, profit, and wealth. But they reject the idea that these things are the ultimate goals in life. As dark factories open around the world, we hope the Scriptures will be heard.

Silly Robots

Wonder what the robots are up to? We plowed through a year’s worth of articles in the MIT Technology Review to get a big picture of what’s happening in robotics and artificial intelligence research. Here’s a summary.

Robots are not creative, nor is artificial intelligence (AI):

“Computers have written ‘novels’ but the prose is horrifically bland. And computer-generated soap opera plots (which can ignore verbal and grammatical elegance) will win no Tonys. We still need people for that.” (Margaret Boden, University of Sussex; 118:6, p. 13.)

Robots could spawn more philosophers:

“We’ll live off the production of robots, free to be the next Aristotle or Plato or Newton.” (Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who believes that less than 10 percent of people on earth will be doing paid work in 500 years; 118:6, p. 66.)

Then again, robots could spawn more insanity:

“[As a result of robots and AI taking over jobs] our resultant neurotic, unemployed masses will resort to chemical and virtual-reality diversions to distract them—to the benefit of pharma and tech providers.” (Letter to the editor, 119:4, p. 9.)

Apologize for being human:

“Fetch Robotics is going after one promising area: warehouses and e-commerce fulfillment centers, which are plagued with high turnover, injuries, employee theft, and chronic shortage of workers, who, of course, have a biological need to sleep.” (Robert Hof, 118:5, p. 44.)

You’ll still have to blame your dog for your failures:

“[Saying] ‘my robot did it’ is not an excuse. We have to take responsibility for our AI.” (Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence; 119:4, p. 26.)

Robots are persnickety:

“Most industrial robots have to be extensively programmed, and they will perform a job properly only if everything is positioned just so. . . . A task that is proving especially hard to automate: attaching a flexible wire to a circuit board. ‘It’s always curled differently,’ says [factory CEO Gerald Wong] with annoyance.” (119:3, p. 46.)

Robots are stupid:

“If you want to get a robot to learn to walk, or an autonomous vehicle to learn to drive, you can’t present it with a data set of a million examples of it falling over and breaking or having accidents—that just doesn’t work.” (Will Knight, 119:1, p. 58.)

Would you teach your robot car to drive?:

“An algorithm trained to spot cars on the road, for instance, needs to ingest many thousands of examples to work reliably in a driverless car. Gathering so much data is often impractical." Perhaps "deadly" would be a better word. (Will Knight; 120:1, p. 22.)

Robots might be stupid, but they will soon teach each other (about fruit):

“The goal [of a robotics researcher's ‘Million Object Challenge’] is for research robots around the world to learn how to spot and handle simple items from bowls to bananas, upload their data to the cloud, and allow other robots to analyze and use the information.” (Amanda Schaffer, 119:2, p. 50.)

Robots might be stupid, but they make great animal spies:

A company called Animatronic has created robotic animals with cameras in their heads. These are being deployed into nature to photograph unsuspecting real animals (without consent or compensation). “The animal communities are, it turns out, often remarkably accepting of the strange robotic creature with a camera in its eyes . . .” (Dorothy Rabinowitz, Wall St. Journal). However, the reporter notes that the spy job has its dangers. One robot spy was swallowed by a crocodile. Is the CIA taking notice?

Something to look forward to on your death bed:

“Many of the jobs humans would like robots to perform, such as packing items in warehouses, assisting bedridden patients, or aiding soldiers on the front lines, aren’t yet possible because robots still don’t recognize and easily handle common objects.” (Amanda Schaffer, 119:2, p. 48.)

Where are your financial priorities?:

“People are clearly willing to pay more for sustainable products in the interest of preserving the environment. How much will they be willing to expend in the interest of preserving themselves [from robot domination]?” (Letter to the editor, 118:5, p. 8.)

GCN Business Increases Health-Care Access in Ghana

At the Global Commerce Network, we believe that entrepreneurs can and should innovate products and services that serve people. Primary Mobile Med International, a business promoted by GCN, is on the front lines of doing just that. This Topeka, Kansas business is opening health-care access to Africa where, in places like Liberia, there is only one doctor for every 75,000 people.

PMMI will be using its mobile medical clinics (MMCs) in Ghana to provide standardized health screenings in coordination with the Ghana Health Service. This is a game-changer, not only for thousands of patients who will now have access to preventative health care, but also for Ghanaian and international health-care researchers.

PMMI has developed a proprietary electronic medical records system (EMR) that is simple to use, even in places like Africa. The EMR is installed in each medical container, which opens the doors to multiple possibilities for patient care and health-care research.

The Ghana Health Service has officially requested 6000 PMMI medical clinics in the coming years. They will be distributed in urban and rural areas.

Patients will be registered into the system and receive an ID card with their unique patient identifier. Once registered into the system, they will be screened for hypertension, diabetes, general vision wellness, hepatitis B & C, neurological identifiers, TB, and environmental risks. Medical professionals will be able to communicate electronically with patients—to send appropriate reminders and manage follow-up care.

PMMI is also coordinating the screening programs with distinguished professors, physicians, and charitable organizations across the globe. A list is below:

  • Hypertension screenings and research (Dr. Michael Alderman, Albert Einstein College of Medicine)
  • Diabetes (Ghana Health Service): Our MMCs will enable health-care workers to provide a simple blood test to patients over subsequent visits that will help determine the existence of diabetes or pre-diabetes.
  • Eye Exams (Vision Spring): Vision Spring provides six prescription eyeglass models. Patients can be screened at our clinics. Based on exam results from an eye chart, the glasses can be distributed to those in need of corrective care.  Also, Dr. James Clarke, Ghanaian Ophthalmologist of the Crystal Eye Clinic in Accra, Ghana will be expanding his outreach program to identify and treat those with cataracts.
  • Hepatitis B & C (Theobald Owusu-Ansah – President of Hepatitis Foundation of Ghana and Hepatitis Coalition of Ghana): The Hepatitis Foundation will have increased screening locations through our MMCs.
  • Neurological Screening (Dr. Teddy Totimeh, Ghanaian Neurosurgeon, and Eisenhower Fellowship Program recipient): Dr. Totimeh has advised on a screening program for children that can identify neurological symptoms, allowing for immediate referral to the appropriate care.
  • Ultrasound Capabilities (Dr. Edward Fynn of Namibia): With the availability of ultrasound at each location, increased screenings can aid in the identification of treatable diseases that would otherwise go undetected. Ultrasound availability also has tremendous benefits to women during pregnancy, enabling health-care workers to better monitor fetal wellness.
  • Public Health and Environment (Dr. Edith Clarke of Ghana): Screening and Education that includes topics such as sanitation and waste disposal, sewage, storm drainage, clean water, and air quality can be delivered through our MMCs.

With the implementation of the screening program in Ghana, PMMI will help deliver the necessary preventative care, resulting in measurable outcomes that in turn can be shared with medical research facilities, global health reporting agencies, and government health officials.

For more information, please contact Kevin Mapes, at kevin.mapes@globalcommercenetwork.com or visit the PMMI website at www.primarymobilemed.com

 

 

Social Media Fatigue

There are signs that social media fatigue is on the rise. Could it be that social media businesses have developed technology that is poorly aligned with human nature?

A growing number of articles and books, often by Millennials, express deep frustration with social media. For example, Cal Newport, a Millennial professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, wrote in the New York Times that social media leads to “cultural shallowness” and hinders our ability to engage in meaningful work. He writes:

The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom. . . . The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you’re serious about creating things that matter.

In addition, Andrew Sullivan (a prominent Millennial writer) wrote a feature article in New York Magazine titled "I Used to Be a Human Being" (September 19-October 2, 2016). He describes how he became so absorbed in social media that his physical health and mental sanity collapsed. He calls our times an "era of mass distraction" and documents how we are losing our ability to think and relate as human beings.

This new epidemic of distraction is our civilization's specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds . . . The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

There is also statistical evidence that people are becoming fatigued by social media. USA Today reported in February 2016 that the percentage of Monthly Active Users (MAUs), which is defined as those who log on only once a month to a social media account, was only 17 percent. In addition, the growth rate of new users signing up each year has dropped from 22 percent in January 2015 to 3 percent in February 2016.

The American Press Institute recently released a survey showing that 26 percent of Millennials have stopped using some or all of their social media networks in 2016.

In a November 11, 2016 report by Pew Research Center showed that fewer than 40 percent of Facebook users post something at least once a month. This shows that while many people still have accounts, the majority don’t use the technology very often.

The relational dynamic within social media environments also doesn't align with human nature? The Scriptures affirm that people are created for authentic, intimate relationships built on trust, love, and service. But, as reported by Harvard Business Review, in 2016, higher numbers of people are leaving social media because it is "plagued by harassment, abuse, bullying, intimidation, threats — a ceaseless flickering hum of low-level emotional violence."

Relationships can only thrive in a context of integrity and trust. But more than 60 percent of Millennials say that they never know what is true on social media. And an even higher percentage say that they long for authentic relationships, not a thousand fake friends.

The Harvard Business Review concludes its report with a challenge to build businesses that reflect the Imago Dei in human nature:

We must put people’s well-being before our own institutional performance — because the former drives the latter . . . High quality interactions expand human potential. Low-quality interactions reduce, diminish, and shrink it. Thus, learning to produce high quality interactions is one of the great challenges of competence for institutions today . . . If they don’t do it now, most of them are probably going to end up like Twitter: not just devalued by the stock market, . . . but dwindling slowly into social, economic, and cultural insignificance . . . without a clue as to why.

Checks and Balances

The relationship between businesses and government can be a bit like the relationship between children and parents. When children are small, parents must regulate just about everything—when to sleep and eat, what to wear, when to get up for school, etc. Parents hope that the kids will self-regulate as they grow up, that they will do the right thing, stay out of trouble, and make a contribution to the world.

And if they don’t? Well, a good parent will increase regulation—impose a curfew, take away the car keys, etc.

After the 2008 global financial crisis, which was caused, in part, by corruption (selling sketchy investments classified by ratings agencies as safe, for example), the government responded by restricting freedoms. The restrictions came in the form of Dodd-Frank and a slew of other regulations.  

It wasn’t the first time that this pattern occurred. In 2002, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, otherwise known as the “Corporate and Auditing Accountability and Responsibility Act.” (Doesn’t that sound like a parent imposing curfew on a kid?) This law was passed in response to major corporate and accounting scandals, including Enron and WorldCom. Investors lost millions of dollars and distrust rippled through the finance sector.

We could also talk about the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 80s and 90s. An entire government bureaucracy called the Resolution Trust Corporation was born to clean up the mess created, in part, by S&Ls investing in highly speculative investment strategies without much accountability.

We are not saying that the businesses are always the bad guys. Government often creates huge messes. Just look at the newspaper every day. But our point here is that business leaders need to do what is right, to be ethical leaders. As the U.S. government backs away from Dodd-Frank and other fiduciary regulations, as the parent gives the kid more freedom, the question is, what will business leaders do with this freedom?

This discussion about regulation and deregulation is rooted in the theology of human nature. The founding fathers of the United States knew this. They had, for the most part, a cautious and skeptical view of human nature. Having read the Scriptures, they understood that humans were made in God’s image, and were therefore capable of generosity and love. But they also saw that humans were selfish, greedy, and power-hungry.

Based on this theological perspective, they knew that a president, or a federal agency, or a free market with too much power would unleash the corrupt aspects of human nature on society. Therefore, they set up a government and an economy with checks and balances. They dispersed power.

Healthy checks and balances are essential. If government is overly restrictive, businesses won’t flourish. If businesses don’t self-regulate within ethical boundaries, the economy will erode and decay.

Therein lies the responsibility each of us bears every day.

What U.S. Businesses Leaders Can Learn from Brazilians

What can U.S. business leaders learn from their Brazilian colleagues? A lot.

It appears that the new U.S. executive branch and Congress plan to reduce government regulations over businesses. If that occurs, it becomes even more important for American business leaders to self-regulate. Increasing freedoms for businesses can unleash economic growth, but it must be accompanied with a strong commitment from business leaders to be honest, to do what is right for the nation; in short, to love one's neighbor.

If we don't self-regulate, we will find ourselves in the same situation that Brazilians live with daily: a wrenching struggle with endemic corruption, one that would leave most Americans reeling.

How bad is it in Brazil? Here's a few examples.

We know a businessman who endured death threats for three months after he reported an internal corruption scheme to his company’s president. They also threatened his wife and children. Imagine going to work each day wondering if you could be shot.

Another business executive we know lost his job after 15 years in the company when he wouldn’t participate with a top-level bookkeeping scam that hid profits from the parent company.

Still another business leader once had to decide if he should pay a huge bribe (we’re talking six figures) to government port authorities who refused to release a large supply of imported prime materials if he didn’t pay. Without these supplies, his company would not have been able to manufacture its product and would lose millions of dollars. Put yourself in that man's shoes.

If you are a corporate lawyer in Brazil who needs to move your clients’ lawsuits through the justice system, you can bet that even low-level bureaucrats will politely ask you to make a “contribution” at each step of the process. If you refuse, the lawsuit lands at the bottom of the pile. And that means your case won’t move forward for months, if ever.

Behind the corruption is the common attitude that self-interest takes precedent over all regulations, social considerations, and laws. Brazilians even have a name for this attitude. It’s called “Gérson’s Law,” named after the great soccer player, Gérson de Oliveira Nunes, who played on Brazil’s 1966 and 1970 World Cup teams with Pelé.

Gérson was hired in the 1970s to do a nationally televised commercial for the Vila Rica cigarette company. The company wanted to promote its product as being better and cheaper than other cigarettes. At the end of the commercial, Gérson says: “You like to take advantage in everything, too, right?”

Brazilians knew what the tag line meant. “You know you like to dodge all the rules in order to get your way, right?”

Poor Gérson. After that commercial, his name has been used for nearly 50 years by the general population to describe the cultural ethos of taking advantage of others for selfish gain. (Gérson later said doing the commercial was a mistake.)

Underlying this daily struggle with corruption is a widespread feeling among honest Brazilian business professionals that changing the business environment and economy is impossible. They feel impotent and deeply frustrated.

Brazil is caught in a vicious cycle, one that could be the American reality if we're not careful. Corruption breeds distrust, which creates an "every man for himself" economic climate. Distrust leaves people more disconnected and impotent. And that opens the door for more corruption by those in power.

If business leaders in the U.S. adopt Gérson's mentality, using freedom as a means for corruption and greed, then they should be prepared to experience what Brazilians face every day. We reap what we sow.

Innovation's Collective Spirit

MIT Press recently published an excellent book titled Handbook of Collective Intelligence. The concept of collective intelligence is to bring together researchers from a wide array of disciplines so that they can learn from each other. The book’s goal is to foster cross-disciplinary interaction and collaboration.

Thomas Malone, one of the book’s two editors and the director of MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence, says there is a “huge potential to fostering intellectual trade between these areas, not just for academic interests but also with significant practical considerations.” And, he added, “We hope that researchers realize that they have more in common with other research disciplines than they realized.”

It is surprising, however, that this important book is needed today. Afterall, one reason universities first emerged in Europe was to enable interdisciplinary collaboration. “Collective intelligence” was a primary reason for universities to exist! So, have we become so isolated in our niche specialties that we have forgotten about collaboration?

The first universities (as opposed to academies and schools) emerged in the 1100s, in Paris and Bologna. Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the 1200s. Eventually, there were universities all over Europe, enrolling upwards of 1500 students each.

Interdisciplinary collaboration was a core element of these universities. Thomas Woods, a New York Times best-selling author, documents how the first universities were founded on the idea of “encouraging the dissemination of knowledge and fostering the idea of an international scholarly community.” Protected by popes over the centuries, he says, the universities “built an international academic community . . .” (Woods, p. 49).

The pursuit of innovation was another primary goal of early inter-institutional collaboration. Historian and Baylor University professor Rodney Stark, in his 2005 book The Victory of Reason, says: “When founded by the church early in the twelfth century . . . the new universities were not primarily concerned with imparting the received wisdom. Rather, just as is the case today, faculty gained fame through innovation. Consequently, medieval university professors gave their primary attention to the pursuit of knowledge” (Stark, p. 52).

Moreover, the entire medieval system of European universities was specifically designed to promote cross-pollination. Faculty moved frequently from one university to another, enabling them to share knowledge as they buzzed from one institution to the next. Even more important, all universities operated in Latin, making it possible for scholars to share research without language barriers. And, equally important, a university degree in one part of Europe was universally accepted at all the other universities.

“Indeed, it was a time when all the leading scholars knew of one another—many had actually met and all had many mutual acquaintances,” writes stark in his 2003 book For the Glory of God (University of Princeton Press). “And one gained fame and invitations to join faculties elsewhere by innovation” (p. 142).

Even the word “university” conveys the original concept of interdisciplinary collaboration in the early universities. The word means "unity and diversity," to bring diverse schools of research together in unity, and to inspire them to work together around the common pursuit of knowledge and innovation.

Also remember that the word "corporation" is rooted in the idea of collective intelligence. Corpo, Latin for "body," conveys the idea of people working together as a body, in unity and diversity. It is a highly relational word, that if taken seriously, transforms our notion of commerce.

It’s good to know that MIT is keeping the collective spirit alive today.

Avoiding Business Myopia

GCN business professionals have long advocated for leaders to promote a long-term view of business strategy. The pursuit of short-term gains, while immediately gratifying and not always harmful, can funnel businesses into narrow cul-de-sacs that reduce future opportunities and limit a company’s ability to benefit society.

This view was affirmed in a recent Wall St. Journal article by reporter John Simons. He reports on a study of 808 shareholder proposals and executive compensation between 1997 and 2012. The study titled “Does a Long-Term Orientation Create Value?” was authored by Caroline Flammer of Boston University and Pratima Bansal of the University of Western Ontario.

According to the study, companies that changed compensation packages for CEOs to stimulate long-term vision and investment did a better job of pursuing more robust innovation and “riskier forward-looking projects.”

“More specifically, businesses increased their research and development spending, which led to surges in the number of patents they garnered,” Simons reports. In other words, long-term vision eventually resulted in increased capital and business strength.

The Wall St. Journal article highlights PepsiCo Inc. CEO Indra Nooyi as one example of a business leader who emphasizes long-term investing. “She has boosted R & D spending and vowed to turn the maker of sugary soft drinks into a company where sales growth of healthy products outpaces the rest of the portfolio by 2025,” writes Simons.

The study found that companies with long-term executive incentive packages saw share prices jump 1.14 percent on the day the boards of directors passed the measures, indicating that investors are eager to see companies pursuing long-term innovation, not just short-term status quo.

A long-term approach to business investment is often affirmed in the Scriptures. Developing and preserving capital is emphasized as a way of providing long-term gains. Proverbs, for example, expresses the idea in agrarian terms, saying, “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for [temporary] riches do not endure forever . . .”

Paul, writing in the New Testament, expresses the need for long-term vision: “A man reaps what he sows. . . . Let us not become weary of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

By contrast, a company or an entire economy that only focuses on short-term gains might be fostering its own demise. As Herb Schlossberg writes, “An economy living on capital rather than income resembles a body deprived of nourishment, living off its own tissues and wasting away.”

And speaking of long-term vision, the Scriptures also say we would be wise to think about commerce in the context of eternity. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . .” (Matthew 6:19-20). How might an eternal perspective shape your business decisions today?

To deepen your understanding of this topic, we encourage you to study the GCN book titled The Economy of God, which can be purchased on Amazon in print and digital formats.

Work Does Not Set You Free

Replica of Auschwitz Portal: "Work Will Set You Free"

Replica of Auschwitz Portal: "Work Will Set You Free"

At a recent, overwhelming visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I saw a replica of the portal to Auschwitz, a famous Nazi death camp during World War II.

Prisoners arrived at the camp and walked under a forged metal sign that said, “Work Will Set You Free.” The sign deceived Jewish prisoners into working harder. Of course that was a lie. Those who worked hard were annihilated like everyone else.

Working men and women today are not often forced into death camps, but how many of us believe the Nazi mantra that “work will set you free?”

There’s a philosophy called Existentialism that claims there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe. According to this view, life is absurd and pointless. However, although the universe is meaningless, we should not resign. We should not, as poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “go gently into that good night.”
The heroic option is to fabricate for your own meaning through action. Your work will set you free!

On a personal level, this means that your identity and your value is entirely dependent on what you do, your work. If your profession is valued by your culture (think Beyoncé), then your personal value index increases and you are free. But if your profession is janitorial (or journalistic) in nature, well, your self-worth tanks.

It’s not hard to see that this viewpoint is widespread. Think about what people ask you at a cocktail party. There you are, sipping your martini, and a gentleman asks, “So, what do you do?” Or think about what happens to a person’s sense of self-worth when they get a pink slip; the result is not just financial fear, it’s existential fear.

Because we’ve bought into Existentialism, we believe that work will set us free. This premise, which props up modern life, is just as false in Silicon Valley as it was in Auschwitz.

The scriptural perspective give us more hope. It starts by rejecting the Existentialist premise that the world is meaningless. By contrast, the Scriptures proclaim that a rational, personal, purposeful Creator infused the world with meaning and value. Moreover, God declares that each human being has infinite worth independently of what we do.

This changes everything. If the world is intrinsically meaningful, and if every person is intrinsically valuable, then we are not forced into the Existentialist’s labor camp. We are not required to fabricate our own self-worth and purpose through work. The world is not absurd and we are much more than what we do.

If work doesn’t set me free, what is work for? For what purpose should we use our freedom? Here the apostle Paul, writing a letter to his friends in Galatia, shares a profound answer: “Use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.”

There you have it, clear and simple. Work for love. Serve people. Make freedom grow.

 

GCN Entrepreneur Expands Health Care in Ghana

Tom Petersen, a Topeka business entrepreneur and Global Commerce Network board member, grew up hunting birds in the frigid boundary waters of Minnesota. He tells the story of standing all day in waist-deep snow and below-freezing temperatures with his father, hoping that some ducks would show up. When the birds didn’t appear, they just kept waiting. When they still didn’t show up, they kept waiting.

“I would look at my Dad—both of us shivering—and ask myself, ‘Why are we doing this?’” he said.

Ducks or no ducks, those formative experiences in Petersen’s teen years certainly had an influence on forming his entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps those long days by a frozen lake enabled him to persevere through years of hard work and financial risk to bring mobile health clinics to Ghana.

As founder and CEO of Primary Mobile Med International (PMMI), Petersen has just signed a contract with the Ghana Health Service to provide up to 6000 fully equipped mobile medical clinics to the nation’s under-served population. The Ghana Health Service estimates that this initiative will eventually provide expanded health-care access to about 10 million people.

PMMI’s clinics employ 20-foot shipping containers, which makes them durable, water-tight, easily transported worldwide, and highly mobile on the ground. The PMMI clinics come equipped with blood testing and sonogram technology, a unique medical records software program, and other equipment needed for primary health care services.

The concept originated with Laurie Garrett, a Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. In collaboration with Garrett, Petersen turned the initial idea into a cost-effective, practical solution for offering basic health care services without the high cost and time required to build brick-and-mortar clinics.

Working with Dr. Edith Clarke, a leading physician in Ghana, as well as other African doctors at Mayo Clinic and in Africa, Petersen last year set up a “compound” in the heart of Ghana’s bustling capital, Accra. Immediately, the five mobile clinics positioned together gave health-care access to about 75,000 men and women, right in the industrial complex where they work.

Seeing those clinics functioning so well, along with the trusting relationships Petersen built with Ghana’s health leaders, encouraged the Ghana Health Service to sign the contract with PMMI. The government developed a long-term strategy, which will now be implemented by the Ghana Health Service. PMMI will support government health officials by providing the clinics, and by raising a percentage of the venture capital needed to cover the cost of each clinic. (The total need now is about $2.5 to $3 million.)

Petersen admits that the past four years have sometimes felt like duck hunting in Minnesota. But he has been motivated by a scriptural worldview, the idea that business and commerce can and should focus on loving our neighbors. He believes that we should follow the model of a generous God, giving of ourselves so that others might flourish.

This profound and simple motivation turns the common, greed-motivated economy on its head. And in the “economy of God,” investing in people is what makes life and work worthwhile.

Signs of Our Time

Time is a strange resource. You can't touch it. You can't save it. All you can do is choose how to use it.

Increasingly, professionals are feeling as if they are losing control of how they use time. There is this abstract sense that technology, work demands, and media distractions are forcing them to use time in ways that don't fit with their true desires for life.

In the October 4, 2016 issue of The Washington Post, journalist Caitlin Dewey reports on a survey of 1,000 business professionals about how much time they spend dealing with email. The result was 20.5 hours per week, or 47,000 hours over an entire career. Most business professionals, experiencing this reality, feel they are enslaved to email, even though it doesn't seem to increase productivity.

In 2013, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., surveyed 1400 senior executives from the public and private sector about time management. Only 9 percent said they were “highly satisfied” with the way they were using their time at work. And, according to a 2011 report by the American Psychological Association, about half of all American professionals say they don’t have a healthy work-life balance.

Many time-management books aim to help business professionals regain control over time use, mainly by helping identify their true values and then organizing their weekly agendas around those values. They tend to provide theoretical and even philosophical advice about defining your life's mission.

Other books, such as the new book titled Own Your Time by Stephanie Wachman, a Fortune 500 executive coach, helps professionals survive in practical ways: how to manage email, how to avoid Internet distractions, how to reduce the number of meetings, and how to avoid multitasking. Wachman's book is not about theory, it's about surviving in the trenches of today's workplace war zone.

Regardless of the approach to time management, just about everyone is trying to regain control of time. At the core, these noble efforts are about regaining freedom, self-determination, and reduced stress. These profound pursuits are rooted in deeply spiritual longings--the need for meaning, purpose, and inner rest. But when it comes to managing our time, what should be our ultimate goal? Is the goal self-centered, or tied to our call to love and serve others in all that we do?

That old patriarch, Moses, wrote something provocative about that question in Psalm 90. We offer it as food for thought: "The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength, eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. . . . So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."