Of sharks and saints
My family is hooked on Shark Tank. On this show, self-made millionaires (“sharks”) meet aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs, analyze their products and business models, and decide whether or not to invest in their companies.
As the father of several teenagers, I hope the program teaches them about how new businesses are created — as well as the necessity of hard work and risk-taking for success in life. (Added bonus: It’s also addictively fun to watch.)
Some of the products featured are truly impressive and deserving of success: A radically improved sippy cup, a smartphone-operated lock that could revolutionize home and business security, a long-lasting and hygienic household sponge that cleans effectively without scratching surfaces. Products like these provide value and improve the quality of life for customers, showing the dynamic creativity of the free market at its best.
Other products? Well … not so much. A bacon-cooking alarm clock? Wooden bowties? A bicycle-powered smoothie blender? An automated sunscreen application booth? Edible tableware? Sadly, all these products were pitched on the show. I’m amazed that anyone thought these were good ideas. Even more amazing is that there seems to be little or no correlation between the usefulness of the products being pitched and their appeal to the sharks. No one asks whether these products will actually improve people’s lives. Instead, the only question asked is whether or not there is a market for them.
Some ideas seem to thrive off customers’ gullibility and impulsiveness, such as the Internet business offering customized (and poorly done) drawings of cats for anyone willing to pay $9.95. Yet one investor paid $25,000 for part-ownership of the company. Eventually, thanks to the publicity generated by the show, almost 19,000 customers made orders. Other than the owners and investors, who could have benefitted from this service?
Examples of such worthless products are legion. Plastic cups with built-in shot glasses on the bottom? (The perfect gift for the fledgling college dropout in your life.) Energy bars made from crickets? No thanks. Beer-flavored ice cream? I’d rather eat the cricket bars. But investors’ willingness to fund them seems almost limitless. Almost. (The beer-flavored ice cream failed to find any takers.)
Designer dog apparel? All-natural organic dog treats? Colored hairspray to brighten your pets? The closet capitalist in me feels a grudging respect for people clever enough to sell such ridiculous items. But the theologian in me has to ask: Are any of these things really necessary? Do they improve the quality of our lives (or, for that matter, those of our pets)? Jesus tells us that even dogs get the scraps from the master’s table, but he never said anything about a line of cake mixes for your pooch. In a world where untold millions go hungry, are such items even morally defensible?
Notably missing from Shark Tank and from our consumeristic culture in general, is the Catholic understanding of “the common good” — that is, the idea that ultimately products and services exist for the good of people, not the other way around. Instead, the show treats customers not as persons to be served but as consumers to be exploited, and the show considers the best product to be one that maximizes the seller’s profit rather than improving a customer’s life.
The free market can be a wonderful thing, allowing individuals with creativity and initiative to improve their own lives and those of others. But, as the Catholic tradition has always held, true freedom is freedom for the good, not just freedom from external control. Unless we are willing to subordinate the forces of the marketplace to a true vision of human flourishing, we will end up enslaving ourselves.
The failure of communism shows that totalitarian governments are incapable of replacing the marketplace in producing or distributing wealth. However, a mindless consumerism based solely on generating and satisfying material wants without reference to the dignity of individuals and the needs of society is hardly better. Indeed, as Pope Francis reminds us, in God’s eyes the two are not very different.
Shark Tank contestants always end their sales pitches with: “Who wants to make a deal?” As Catholics, we should instead ask: “What does it profit a man to gain the entire world if he loses his soul?” Perhaps there is a reason sharks are never mentioned in the Bible.
LANCE RICHEY is dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind