Cost of A Life – Part One
November 21st, 2008 by Sonja

When I was in high school it was a huge big deal to gather friends and go to Burlington for the day.  I lived in a tiny town in central Vermont.  There were about 4 stores in the local larger town, so going to Burlington represented shopping, eating and metropolitan nirvana for us backwoods hayseeds.  Once one or two of us reached driving age, and had parents who would release an automobile into our possession, we were free.

I had my first experience of ordering Chinese food on my own and using chop sticks in Burlington.  We’d wander up and down Church Street together.  Church Street has since been blocked to auto traffic and is an open air mall.  Back then, it was an ordinary street filled with adventure for teenagers in from the back country.  Some distance away from Church Street, a new experience opened up in the later years.  Two funny guys from New York City bought an old gas station and turned it into an ice cream store.  Man.  They made the best ice cream anywhere.  And it should have been … it was made with real ingredients.  Whole milk, whole cream.  Real fruit.  Dark chocolate.  Ice cream to die for.

But … ice cream in a gas station?  Who would buy it, the old-timers in the state ridiculed the idea.  And the lines in the summer were around the block.

Pretty soon, the ice cream was being cartoned and sold in small containers throughout the state.  But one could only get it in Vermont.  There were now also a couple of other scoop shops … I forget where the earlier ones were placed.  But I know that I had my first anniversary dinner in one ten years later.  I had a hot fudge sundae in a waffle cone and LightHusband went next door for a slice of pizza.  We sat outside on a swing to eat.

You know the name of the company; it’s become ubiquitous with ice cream now.  Ben & Jerry’s.  Their pints stock freezers nation-wide.  For all I know, you can get them in Canada too.  The company sold out to Hershey or Nestle or some large conglomerate several years back and the ice cream isn’t nearly as good anymore.  What was once innovative is now just silliness and twaddle.  One might say they jumped the shark.

If you asked me what the most innovative thing about Ben & Jerrys was, the answer might surprise you.  For their ice cream was divine.  They were locovores before it became trendy or even had a name, using only small family dairies for their milk, cream and eggs.  No, the most innovative thing about Ben & Jerrys was this … their executive compensation structure.

I remember reading in Inc. Magazine back in the late 1980’s that they had structured the company in such a way so that neither Ben nor Jerry were compensated greater than 7 times the salary of the lowest paid employee of the company.  Think about that.  No matter how much Ben or Jerry made, it could never be greater than 7 times the salary of the lowest paid person in the company.

This has been on my mind recently as I read about the financial crisis on Wall Street and in Detroit.  I read about the “necessity” of golden parachutes in the tens of millions of dollars and executive compensation packages that look like lottery ticket loot.  There are some companies which have made an attempt to restrain executive compensation.  Whole Foods limits compensation of its executives to lowest employees in the ratio of 19:1 according to this Fast Company article written in Feb. 2007.  It’s the reprint of a letter written from CEO, John Mackay to his leadership team in which he raises the compensation ratio from 14:1 to 19:1 and reduces his salary to $1.00.  Apparently, what is left out of all company press is that Mr. Mackay also has an impressive stock option from Whole Foods.  Of course.  Cynics point to this as evidence of malfeasance.  Make of it what you will.  He’s still only taking $1 in salary and donating the rest to charity.  He’s a rarity in the business world.

I have to wonder though.  In yet another grocery store albeit tiny, independent and Mennonite, I saw this on the wall last spring:  “The cost of something is that amount of life which must be exchanged for it.”  I’ve been meditating on that for months now.  Especially in light of our nation’s current financial woes.

The cost of something is that amount of life which must be exchanged for it.

What will our greed cost us?  What amount of our lives will we be exchanging in order to pay for these few at the top?

When we begin to understand that we, or rather our representatives in Congress, have done that for us, then perhaps we will begin to actually change things.

5 Responses  
  • barb writes:
    November 21st, 20081:00 pmat

    Well written Sonja!

  • Christine Sine writes:
    November 21st, 20081:56 pmat

    The cost of something is that amount of life which must be exchanged for it – I love this quote. You never know where it will appear next

  • brad writes:
    November 21st, 20089:09 pmat

    That amazing “cost of something” quote puts me in mind of waaay back when I took economics courses in college. If I remember right, when we decide among competing investments, the monetary difference between the option we pick and the next best alternative is called the “opportunity cost” or the “alternative cost.”

    Could I suggest that this “cost of something” quote represents one of those spiritual switcheroo’s that God seems so fond of. In following Jesus, it’s not about the alternative cost, but the cost of being alternative …

    … and worth every denarius, eh?

  • Sue writes:
    November 21st, 200811:42 pmat

    Hey Sonya, surfed over from Erin’s place. Great stuff. I didn’t now the story of Ben & Jerry’s being from Australia, but what an amazing thing 7:1. Awesome (even though, depressingly, they seem to have been unable to resist selling out to a giant multi. That’s very sad).

    I echo Erin’s sentiments on her post: when are we going to stand up to this kind of thing? I suppose when we start to realise that we can make a difference. That’s a step of faith, really, isn’t it.

  • Janet writes:
    November 29th, 20084:31 pmat

    Wow… that quote is brilliant… it covers short-sighted environmental destruction, and the exploitation of poor workers in other countries… but also the human cost in the West of excessive greed and speculation that is leading to unemployment in a number of industries. This extracts a high “human cost” too.

    One of the WORST things about the way executives are renumerated in many companies is that it becomes based only on the profits of the past year. Never mind what was sacrificed in terms of long-term good for the short term profit (such as losing good staff, selling off assets, giving out “risky” loans to people who can’t afford them long-term etc.) Surely health, sustainability, and ethics have to come into the equation.

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