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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

If The “Only Moral CEO” Is an Abusive Narcissist, What Does That Say About Capitalism?

Dan Price was hailed for his commitment to paying his employees generously, showing how capitalism can “have a heart.” Now that he has been exposed as a fraud and abuser, we should reevaluate the idea of moral CEOs.

Dan Price showed that “capitalism can have a heart,” in the words of the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. Robert Reich called Price the “only moral CEO,” while Inc. magazine suggested Price was “the best boss in America.” 

Price made the news in 2015, when he announced that his Seattle-based payment processing company would begin paying all employees a minimum of $70,000 a year, and that he himself would take a pay cut in order for the company to afford the raises. With his “rockstar charisma” and visual resemblance to Jesus Christ, Price landed himself all kinds of media appearances, where he condemned inequality and argued that bosses needed to give their employees a fair deal. Rush Limbaugh condemned Price as a socialist, and some business owners were quoted in the press saying that Price was making them look bad. Price received a $500,000 book deal and was signed to a high-profile talent agency, who began to book $20,000 speaking engagements for him. His “story rocketed around the world, a capitalist fairy tale to counter growing inequality.”

But the feel-good Price story quickly developed some holes. A Bloomberg Businessweek article reported that Price had been accused of serious physical abuse by his ex-wife, including—horrifyingly—waterboarding. The company finances were complicated, too. Price was being sued by his brother, who co-owned the company, which Price suggested was because his brother didn’t like the generous minimum salaries. In fact, it turned out that prior to the experiment, Price had been paying himself far more than was standard for similar-sized companies, earning $1.1 million a year, and the lawsuit had been initiated before the raises. This raised the possibility that Price’s company-wide raises were a way of deflecting attention from his own exorbitant salary (which he admitted he only intended to reduce temporarily).

After Bloomberg’s report, Price faded from the news. He lost his book deal and self-published his memoir instead. A 2016 Esquire profile exposed many cracks in Price’s story and painted him as a self-aggrandizer. But then, as such men so often do, Price bounced back. He began to use Twitter extremely effectively, and built a huge following (775,000 people). His tweets denouncing the unfairness of the American economy were often “liked” hundreds of thousands of times. Price made the news again when his company’s $70,000 salary experiment seemed to have paid off after a few years, or at least not brought the company down. 

But this week, Price resigned from his company, and a new report in the New York Times shows us why. In addition to the allegations of physical violence by his ex-wife, Price has now been accused of rape by multiple women, accused of choking two other women, and in total accused of predatory behavior by more than a dozen women. The Times report contains deeply disturbing testimony about Price using his social media success to prey on women, and filming women during sex without their consent. Price even used high-tech gaslighting methods, with one ex reporting that during arguments, Price would “grab her hand and put a pulse monitor on her finger tip. His heart rate was never elevated, so he could make good decisions, he would say. Her pulse would race, so he said she was irrational.” 

Price also appears to have been a pretty horrible boss, with ex-staffers recalling instances of “Price calling meetings just so he could ridicule an underperforming employee.” He reportedly staged a stunt in which his employees bought him a Tesla (supposedly as a thank-you for the raises). He kept a dossier of dirt on his critics and had one of his deputies threaten to accuse the University of Kentucky of defamation if it posted the video of Price’s ex-wife’s talk at the university in which she spoke about the abuse allegations. (The video was not posted.) 

There had been red flags about Price from the very start. I, for one, have to suppress a guffaw every time I hear someone praised as a “moral CEO,” because the possession of enormous wealth and power is itself immoral. Price was not a socialist, and in fact told the papers that “a reason he urges other business owners to follow his lead on pay is to avoid more government regulation.” He was inspired not by Marx but by 19th century Baptist preacher Russell Conwell, who “fused Christianisty and capitalism” and said the pursuit of riches was a “godly duty” and “to make money honestly is to preach the Gospel.” 

So the “capitalist fairy tale” about the wonderful boss was all a lie. The elusive search for the one wealthy person who isn’t narcissistic has once again come up short. Dan Price was narcissistic and abusive just like so many others. He didn’t even write most of his own tweets, having hired a disgraced former reporter to produce them for him. What conclusions should we draw from this story?

First, it shouldn’t be surprising that Dan Price’s public image was a fraud. We should be wary of those who perform their moral excellence for television cameras. We can also see why capitalism is unlikely to produce genuinely benevolent CEOs. If they were committed egalitarians, they probably wouldn’t have amassed so much wealth and power in the first place.

It’s also the case that power corrupts. When you are in charge of a multi-million dollar company, people are less likely to tell you “no” and have no real way to hold you accountable. Price had the power to call a meeting to “ridicule an underperforming employee.” The employee did not have the power to call a meeting to ridicule Dan Price. One of the ways that human beings’ worst instincts can be kept in check is by making sure they do not have the power to abuse others without consequence. We maintain a pattern of moral conduct in part by being called out by others when we act like assholes. If nobody is able to tell the guy at the top that he’s acting like an asshole, he will probably continue to think of himself as kind and benevolent. The same dynamics occur in dictatorships—people who may have begun life as normal or idealistic are simply given too much unaccountable power and are never contradicted. 

This is one reason why capitalism is not going to “have a heart.” One problem with a system in which workers sell their labor to capitalists is that the capitalists have too much power over the workers. They might bump wages up, but ultimately the world needs not to be ruled by men who can get away with anything. According to the accusations detailed in the Times, based on dozens of interviews as well as police reports, Dan Price’s fame allowed him to get away for years with acts of physical assault. It is a familiar story. The idea of capitalism with a heart is indeed a fairy tale. It won’t happen, because capitalism is predicated on a division between a class of owners and a class of workers, and the difference in power allows abuse to flourish. We do not need generous and caring rich people who maintain their decision-making power. We need to redistribute that decision-making power. The Dan Price story provided the illusion that all we need are better bosses. While it is true, and important, to note that the rich could redistribute their wealth if they chose, and their high status is a choice rather than a product of the laws of economics, it is also the case that “more Dan Prices” will not make the world better. As we have seen, such people are often simply self-aggrandizing and even abusive in private. The only solution is to expropriate them.

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