For decades, the leading business schools and their graduates, places like Harvard (George W. Bush), Wharton (Donald Trump), and other such schools, as well as major titans of finance and industry, have told us, “don’t worry, we’ve got this.” We don’t want too much of that pesky government looking over our shoulders, they lectured. Regulation is a four-letter word, they preached. We are lean, mean, money-making machines, they boasted.
It’s a great story until something goes wrong. And even before the coronavirus hit, a lot has been going wrong: income inequality, environmental degradation, and so forth. But now we see a challenge that upsets the order of everything. For decades, we’ve let our infrastructure crumble and drastically underfunded our public needs. Suddenly our decision to maximize profit in our hospitals and healthcare system has led to unpreparedness and under capacity. Our supply lines from Asia for essential goods are strained. Our 401k’s are plummeting.
We have lived in a world where the mantra “Maximize Shareholder Value” was treated almost as if it was handed down on Mt. Sinai. Now it seems more like a siren song that has led us astray. For those of us who remember the grim realities of the Great Depression, the lessons learned and then increasingly forgotten, for those of us who felt we didn’t have an adequate reckoning after the financial collapse of 2007-08, we must find a better way forward.
Business will have a role to play, of course. But it must be honest and compassionate capitalism that will balance the interests of the financial bottom line with the bottom line of the health, safety, and wellbeing of our society.