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Solving homelessness, poverty, health care costs all at once

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

How do you solve homelessness, poverty, and the spiraling costs of healthcare in the United States with just one solution?

RELATED: Frustration over homeless crisis surfaces during forum

Impossible, you might say.

Not so says Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus, whom I had the honor of hosting in conversation at Seattle University recently.

In part, we discussed his new book, “A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions.”

So yes, tack on unemployment and carbon to Dr. Yunus’ solutions to what ails the world he can solve.

At the core of Yunus’ vision is the concept of social businesses — ventures that operate not just for a profit, but for the benefit of the entire community. Included in that vision are banks and lending structures that allow the poorest of the poor access to financial capital to pursue any business they wish; whether it be a cow to sell milk to their neighbors or to employ the best developers to build a mobile app.

But I asked him why should someone get involved in business if there is no profit involved?

Yunus is considered the godfather of micro-lending and the founder of the Grameen Bank, which provides loans to the poorest citizens of his native Bangladesh. He has also started successful hospitals and has won so many international prizes they’re impossible to count. And his businesses make money without profit motive being front and center.

Professor Yunus believes there is a fundamentally flawed way that we have been taught to think about economics, capitalism, and their intersection with basic human behavior. For example, how would a capitalist business model explain charity?

“The basic theory of economics right now, what we call capitalist theory, the interpretation of the human being that is given there … is that all human beings are driven by self-interest. That’s what drives the whole world, whole economy, and so on and so forth. I said that’s a very narrow interpretation of a human being. A human being is not about all self-interest — all selfishness — a human being is much broader than that. They have selfishness as well as selflessness. That’s where the charity came from. But in the business world, you don’t want to include that selflessness. You’re always driven by one thing. All I’m saying is why don’t you bring the selflessness into the business world too.”

Professor Yunus explains that social businesses — the types of businesses he’s built successfully — follow a different model than what we accept in America as the only way to do business, passing profits strictly to the owner and to shareholders.

“It’s not charity. It’s not money-making. It’s a hospital that runs on the basic principle that you get the money that covers the cost, but even if there’s a surplus, the surplus will not come to the owner, it will come back to the business.

“If you turn a health care system into a social business, cost will come down.”

The concept is pretty simple: provide loans and capital to people who are left out of the larger banking and finance model system. Teach business models that don’t revolve around shareholder profit, but allow for growth of a business, enough to pay the salaries, and plug the rest into growing the business.

When it comes to raising the finance for these social businesses, Yunus says the money is already there. Just look at what our local businesses, the philanthropic community, and private organizations funnel billions in cash into today.

Yunus also believes he can solve our broken social welfare system with his social business model — including homelessness.

“All you have to do is create opportunities.”

If that isn’t enough, Professor Yunus is setting his sights on equity between workers of all nations. There is no current universal workers’ bill of rights — and certainly no international minimum wage.

“We should have an international minimum wage for all international businesses.”

He argues that people in the U.S. already pay $50 for a T-shirt, so why not increase the price by an additional $1 so the people making them can earn a better wage.

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