Editor's Note: It's that time of the year again and we're ready to wrap up 2012. Like last year, we've assembled an impressive lineup of thought leaders and experts who will examine the year that was, guide us on what might be ahead and offer their advice on how our business, social and environmental consciousness continues to converge. They will spotlight achievements, highlight trends and activate the change makers among us in our end of the year CSR & Sustainability 2012 series. Consider this series a call to action.
Today's editorial is by Mal Warwick, a principal in two B Corporations (Mal Warwick Associates and the One World Futbol Project) and the author of 20 books.
The pundits haven’t talked about it. Nor have the pollsters or the politicians. But 2012 was the year when the American public’s fundamental economic attitudes began to shift.
For many years, public discourse about the economy had been overshadowed, effectively unchallenged, by the massive messaging and public relations efforts underway since the early 1970s on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and their allies on the Republican Right. Their script was lifted nearly whole from the pages of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged—the modern myth that the nation’s economic progress is due exclusively to “job creators” acting alone in the face of hostility by government bureaucrats and the undeserving masses.
This persistent myth holds that those of us who form and manage businesses are solely responsible for creating the nation’s wealth—a view that is antithetical to the principles of CSR, which requires business leaders to recognize the contributions of all a company’s stakeholders and to reward them appropriately.
Well, Ayn Rand’s work was bunk, of course.
But she along with later apologists for what has come to be termed the “one percent” had their way for years. Now at last the public mood is changing.
Bridging the Gap Between 1 and 99…
First came Occupy Wall Street a little more than a year ago. All of a sudden, a virtual handful of activists managed to draw the public’s attention to the yawning gap between rich and poor in America and the plight of the “99 percent” by reframing the economic debate. They brilliantly resisted calls to propose specific legislative remedies, focusing instead on the overarching themes of economic inequality and the canopy of special interest laws sheltering the nation’s financial elite.
The actions of the Occupy movement were followed by a flurry of books about its origins and meaning as well as by more substantive works that analyzed the divide between haves and have-nots and the policies that fostered it. These books included works by activists such as Chuck Collins’ 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do about It, and The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed by Bryan Miller and Mike Lapham.
From the academic world came analyses by a former U.S. Secretary of Labor and two Nobel Laureates in Economics: Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it by Robert Reich, End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman, and The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph Stiglitz. Every one of these authors went on a book tour, collectively gaining the attention of millions of Americans through radio, TV, and public appearances.
…With an Intellectual Platform
Now, I don’t pretend for a minute that these books themselves were read by millions and turned the tide in the public debate. Their contribution was to supply the intellectual platform for more in-depth discussion within the frame introduced by the Occupy movement, supplying new talking points for activists, commentators, and politicians—and, soon enough, those talking points began to surface in the campaigns of progressive candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Tammy Baldwin as well as President Obama.
Meanwhile, as the 2012 presidential campaign unfolded, the leading Republican primary contenders zealously competed with one another to demonstrate which of them could advocate economic policies to drive American society the farthest back into the 19th century. And as the President’s reelection effort gathered steam, it became clear that he was moving away from the “centrist” position that had induced him to concede economic policy debates before they’d begun.
As observers widely noted, he began taking an increasingly populist stance on tax and fiscal issues, far from what progressive economists such as Stiglitz and Krugman have advised but sharply contrasting with conservative orthodoxy. It helped, of course, that his opponent was ham-fisted and couldn’t seem to decide what he really believed about anything.
The 2012 Elections: Turning Back
The election results confirmed that the public mood had shifted. President Obama was reelected by a sizable popular majority and swamped the Electoral College vote. Democrats gained substantially in the Senate, and they failed to regain the majority in the House of Representatives largely because Republicans (who control most of the statehouses and legislatures) had gerrymandered large numbers of safe districts for themselves.
Once the election was past and the attention of the political class was drawn toward the debate over the ill-named “fiscal cliff,” the shift in the President’s position, and the relative weakness of his opposition, became even clearer. In fact, it seems to me that Tea Party leader Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) announcement of his departure from the Senate was due as much to the prospect of having to swallow a compromise on taxes as it was the huge salary and perks of his new job at the Heritage Foundation.
As I write, the outcome of the fiscal cliff negotiations is unclear.
However, it is clear that the broad popular support the President enjoys for raising taxes on the wealthy is playing a major role in the debate—and it appears as though the pendulum may finally be shifting back in the direction of economic justice. Let’s hope so.