“What can I do to fix a broken global economy? Me personally.” It’s a question I’ve heard a lot these past few months as I’ve crisscrossed the US speaking at TED venues, music concerts, the World Affairs Council, bookstores, on radio and TV shows, and at a variety of other forums.
During this election year it is important to recognize that corporations pretty much run the world. Despite the outcome of the elections, they will continue to do so – at least for a while. Whether that is good or bad depends on the questions we ask ourselves – and the answers.
We all support corporations. We buy from them, work for them, manage them, invest in them, and help them with our tax dollars. We have to ask ourselves:
Question 1: Do we want to support companies that maximize short term profits if that means causing the oceans to rise, destroying rainforests and other vital resources – in essence destroying the resources that support our economy?
Answer 1: No.
But that is exactly what’s happening today. We’ve created an economy that is consuming itself – and us – into extinction. We must change.
Question 2: Change what?
We can learn from the American Revolution. In 1773 most colonists believed the British were invincible. But George Washington recalled the Battle of the Monongahela during the French and Indian war, about 20 years earlier, when he’d seen a huge British army badly defeated by a handful of Indians. “No, they are not invincible,” he said. “We just need to hide behind trees.” We must change the story and the rules.
We are at such a time now.
Answer 2: We need to change the story and the rules.
When Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize in Economics, he promoted the current story: “the only responsibility of business is to maximize profits, regardless of the social and environmental costs.” The rules governing business ever since reflect that story. That was in 1976, a time when capital was considered in short supply and nature abundant. No one was talking about peak oil or climate change. But that is no longer true. The situation has changed. The story and the rules must also change.
Question 3: What is the new story?
I was taught in pre-1976 business school that corporations should be good citizens, should serve a public interest, in addition to paying a decent rate of return to investors. They should give employees health care insurance, retirement pensions, job security, pay taxes, and support public service institutions, like schools and recreational facilities.
Answer 3: Create a new story, one that states that the responsibility of business is to serve us, the public – to be good citizens.
Question 4: What sort of rules should drive this new story?
It is essential to recognize that the old story and rules have resulted in a dysfunctional system. A global failure. We need to build an economic system that is itself a renewable resource, instead of one that is consuming itself into extinction.
Answer 4: Establish rules that encourage corporations to pay a decent rate of return to investors who support an economic system that renews itself, a Life Economy to replace the current Death Economy. We need rules, regulations and laws that support ideas and processes that clean up pollution, regenerate destroyed environments, and that develop technologies for new, more efficient energy, communications, transportation and other systems.
Question 5: What can YOU do?
The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man provides extensive answers to this question. Here I offer three basic ideas.
Answer 5A: Look for and shine a light on the story behind the story. One thing my EHM story highlights is that there are almost always stories behind the “official” story.
Recent document leaks, like Wikileaks and the Snowden papers, and great reporting, like that of the Pulitzer Prize wining Propublica and the committee of journalists who published the Panama Papers, have exposed corrupt politicians and tax-evading billionaires.
Democracy depends on spreading information, on transparency and a healthy dose of skepticism. It demands that we question our leaders and government polices.
Always look for the story behind the story – whether it is about floods, wars, police brutality, politics... Spread it.
Answer 5B: Use local, individual, and collective power to demand political change. Most change gets implemented on local levels – and it all starts with an individual or group of individuals. Social media has increased the power of each and every one of us exponentially.
Recently a small group of activists and bloggers in Vermont, a state with less than 0.2% of US pop, got a law passed forcing corps to label GMOs. As a result, some of the biggest food producers in the country – Kellogg's, General Mills, Campbell Soup, Mars, and ConAgra – committed to the national labeling of GMOs.
Organized people ended apartheid, gave women and African Americans voting and civil rights, got corps to clean up polluted rivers. The list of success stories is almost endless.
Know that you have the power. Join or start a political movement. Support it any way you can – financially, through social media, by volunteering to go door-to-door, whatever feels right to you. Take action. Inspire government to pass laws that will create an economy that is itself a renewable resource.
Answer 5C: Convince a corporation to serve a public interest. Corporations run the world and they depend on you. CEO’s receive monthly summaries about email, Face Book and Twitter messages that come to their offices. They know they have to listen to their customers.
Pick a corporation you want to change. Start a social networking campaign. “I love your products but I won’t buy them any more until you pay your workers a living wage, clean up the pollution you caused ...” Send it to all your social networking circles and ask them to send it to theirs.
You are living at a watershed moment in history. This presidential campaign has, above all else, shown that you understand that the system is broken. We understand that. We are dissatisfied. Now is the time to take the next step. You – we – must fix it.