January 27, 2016 // Uncategorized

Of sharks and saints

By Lance Richey

Lately, my family has formed the habit of watching the television show “Shark Tank.” On this show, self-made millionaires (the “sharks”) meet with aspiring inventors and entrepreneurs, analyze their products and decide whether or not to invest in their companies — giving them a major publicity boost in the process. As the father of several teenagers, I hope that the program will teach them about how new businesses are created, as well as the necessity of hard work and risk taking for success in life.

Some of the products featured are truly impressive and deserving of success. An improved Sippy cup design I wish I could have purchased for my children 15 years ago. 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 were products pitched on the show. It truly amazes me that anyone ever thought these were good ideas.

What amazes me even more, though, 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 on the show ever asks whether these products will actually improve people’s lives. (One successful product was lip balm in complementary flavors to enhance kissing. Do young people really need products that incentivize kissing?) Instead, the only question asked is whether or not there is a market for them.

Some ideas seem to thrive off the gullibility and impulsiveness of consumers, 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 provided by the show, almost 19,000 customers made orders. Other than the owners and investors, I cannot for the life of me think of 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 the willingness of investors to fund them seems almost limitless.

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? Jesus tells us that even the 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 American 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, and not the other way around. Instead, the show treats customers not as persons to be served but as consumers to be exploited, and considers the best product to be one that maximizes the seller’s profit rather than improving a customer’s life. It is hard to imagine the carpenter Jesus feeling that way, yet we accept it as a fact of 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, as a whole is hardly better. Indeed, as Pope Francis reminds us, in God’s eyes the two are not very different.

Contestants on “Shark Tank” 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.

On Tuesday, Feb. 9, from 7-9 a.m.
the University of Saint Francis will host the 2016 Servus Omnium Lecture at its North Campus, 2702 Spring St., Fort Wayne. Sister Helen Alford, OP, of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, will speak on “Have You Been Served? Human Dignity, the Common Good, and the Purpose of Business.” Tickets, which include a Mardi Gras breakfast, are $10 each and can be purchased at http://servusomnium2016.eventbrite.com.

For more information, contact Dr. Lance Richey at 260-399-8112.



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