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Amazon and the “Catholic Experience”

Amazon.com

Daniel McInerny - published on 12/04/13 - updated on 06/08/17

On every conceivable level, the difference between Amazon.com and Healthcare.gov is that between, well, an Amazon and a pygmy. But is the “Amazon experience” the perfect exemplar of what business culture should be?

The “Amazon experience.” We’re all pretty well familiar with it. Perhaps you will be one of the millions of Americans who will order something from the online retail giant this Advent Season. Perhaps even today you’re waiting for that brown box with the familiar Amazon logo to arrive on your doorstep. And who knows? If Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has his way, in 2015 your Amazon packages will arrive on your front lawn via unmanned drone.

The Orwellian specter of unmanned drones hovering over suburban neighborhoods aside, there is much to admire in the way that Amazon goes about its business. Back in October, former Obama health advisor Ezekiel Emanuel registered his admiration for the company when he insisted that the sputtering Healthcare.gov website must be an Amazon-like shopping experience." But in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens drew a stark contrast between Amazon’s way of doing business and the Obama administration’s rollout of Healthcare.gov. On every conceivable level, the difference between Amazon.com and Healthcare.gov is total. As Stephens observes, it’s not just that Amazon.com provides unparalleled online customer service, handling, for example, 26.5 million purchases on November 26, 2012 (a company record), and at its peak serving over 300 customers per second, as compared to the 50,000 customers that Healthcare.gov. can currently handle at any one time. More fundamentally, what Stephens finds at Amazon is a culture whose virtues put to shame the blinkered and blundering efforts of a government which is “Amazon” only in its disproportionate size. 

One of Stephens’ contentions is that Amazon’s Bezos embraces the truth in a way the Obama administration refuses to. Stephens refers to a quotation from Rick Dalzell, a retired top manager at Amazon, found in Brad Stone’s book, The Everything Store, in which Dalzell lauds Bezos’s clear-eyed manner: “A lot of people talk about the truth, but they don’t engage their decision-making [as does Bezos] around the best truth at this time.” 

Meanwhile, in the past two months the Obama administration has been scrambling to put a spin on the facts, from which Stephens condenses the following dispiriting narrative:

“On Oct. 1, the first day of Healthcare.gov’s rollout, Mr. Obama said: ‘We’re going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all of this demand.’ On Oct. 25, Jeff Zients, Healthcare.gov czar said: ‘By the end of November, Healthcare.gov will work smoothly for the vast majority of users.’ On Dec. 1, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote in USA Today: ‘For those who prefer to shop online, you may want to visit Healthcare.gov in off-peak hours.’”

The Wall Street Journal was not the only news outlet singing Amazon’s praises on TuesdayPoliticoran a story on the paucity of tech talent willing to work in the public sector in Washington, as opposed to the scads of those who flock to Silicon Valley or to companies such as Amazon. What is the cause of this phenomenon? Politico’s Paige Winfield Cunningham focuses on the cultures of many of the successful technology companies, which emphasize creativity and risk-taking. Making a similar point about Amazon’s culture of creativity, Bret Stephens quotes development expert James Easterly’s distinction between “searching” and “planning.” The method of “searching” is when an organization finds the right solution to a problem by trial-and-error. The method of “planning” takes a preconceived notion about how things should work and looks to apply it to a situation. You can decide which method applies to Amazon, and which to the federal government.

An understanding of business and the economy formed by Catholic social teaching would to a certain degree also admire the culture of Amazon. In his recent book, Tea Party Catholic, Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute and member of the Aleteia board of experts, sets forth an impressive array of papal pronouncements, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, extolling the virtues of the free economy and of the centrality to it of creative enterprise. Of course, the Church has never favored a purely laissez-fairecapitalism. And as Gregg points out, the Church has taught, and with great definition by John Paul II, that business has virtues intrinsic to it, virtues such as “diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability and fidelity in interpersonal relationships, as well as courage in carrying out decisions that are difficult and painful” (Bl. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, no. 32). 

The virtue of prudence, in particular, is one that Gregg sees as absolutely central to the Catholic understanding of business excellence. Indeed, the kind of creativity so admirable in Amazon’s culture is a distinguishing feature of prudence exercised in a business context. This indicates that the virtue of prudence is not the skill of being narrowly “careful” in pursuing one’s interests, as we often use the word in common speech. Depending on the circumstances, a prudent act can be quite daring. Appealing to the analysis of St. Thomas Aquinas, Gregg discusses three intellectual elements of prudence:

“The first is “counsel.” This involves reflection and consultation as we study and identify the various means appropriate for realizing the end in mind. The second is the “practical judgment”: the formation of the actual choice to be made. The third is called imperium [the Latin word for “command”]: directing the execution of the act. Aquinas specifies that living out all three aspects of prudence also requires people to learn and benefit from others’ knowledge, to reflect with objectivity and without self-delusion upon their past choices, and to develop the ability to deal with unanticipated factors and situations–while simultaneously avoiding the temptations of being intemperate, timid, or unjust.”

All of these three qualities of prudence can be picked out of Bret Stephens’ account of Steve Bezos’ approach to the running of Amazon. This doesn’t mean, however, that Bezos and Amazon are the perfect exemplars of Catholic teaching on business and economics. The in many ways justly famous “Amazon experience” is not quite the same as the “Catholic experience.” Aquinas further describes prudence as an extension of the “theoretical” or “speculative” intellect, which means that our practical intelligence, the intelligence by which we make things happen in the world, is only as good as our mind’s grasp of the way things really are. Now, Jeff Bezos’ decision-making shows a good degree of prudence when he relies on the “best truth” available at the moment of his decision. Yet, Bezos’ prudence is not, at least not in any apparent way, governed by knowledge of the full reality of the human person and human flourishing that characterizes prudence as Aquinas–and the Church–understand the virtue. A business person inspired by thisunderstanding of prudence would never shirk the philosophical questions: “What is the overall good of the human person, and does this product or service contribute to it, or detract from it?”

In What’s Wrong with the World, G.K. Chesterton reflects that in a deep practical difficulty, the last thing we need is a practical man. What we need is a theoretical man, meaning someone with the wise apprehension of first principles. This theoretical man is what the “Catholic experience” of business and economic freedom demands. Such a person would be able to help us, for example, think through the problem of whether unmanned drones–which may turn out to be more efficient than trucks for delivering packages for Amazon–are really conducive to the safety and relative peace that human beings require for their households and neighborhoods.
Such a person, in other words, would combine the searching creativity of a Bezos, and the wisdom of an Aquinas. 

Daniel McInerny is the English language editor of Aleteia. You are invited to contact him atdaniel.mcinerny@aleteia.org, and to follow him on Twitter @danielmcinerny.

Tags:
CatholicismHealth and WellnessPolitics
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