In 1953 President Eisenhower nominated Charles Wilson, the President of General Motors, to be his Secretary of Defense. He retained a huge stock position in GM and during his confirmation hearings was asked if he could make a decision that was bad for GM. His response is still remembered forever as the classic example of business arrogance – “What’s good for GM is good for America.”
Except he never said that. Wilson – who had overseen GM’s war production during World War II – said something very different: that he hadn’t imagined the possibility, “because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” Wilson was saying exactly the opposite – that the best thing he could do for General Motors would be to faithfully serve his country, so there was no conflict. Wilson understood that business can only flourish when the country does.
In his excellent The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, Ross School of Business Professor Mark Mizruchi describes how for the first few decades after the Second World War, the American business community was united around centrist policies that were in the broad national interest. This behavior was certainly self-interested and often pushed policies that were far more favorable to the elite than they were to the working class, but at base business leaders recognized that their interests and the country’s went hand in hand.
In the 1970s, however, this elite fractured and began focusing on narrow self-interest instead of broad national ones. Mizruchi identifies a variety of reasons, ranging from victory in their battles against unions to the decline of the large commercial banks which had coordinated their activities. I’d add as particularly important the dominance of the American economy by the financial sector, leading business leaders to focus on short-term gains, and the realization by business leaders that their personal wealth benefited far more from tax cuts focused on high earners than by public investments that boosted the entire economy. The interests of the American business elite and the rest of America got divorced, and it wasn’t an amicable one. This has never been more brutally symbolized than by the last few weeks, with the market soaring while the country suffers blow after devastating blow.
The political power of American business remains formidable, however, even if it’s been misused for generations. And with great power – as Spiderman reminds us – comes great responsibility. Right now, what is that responsibility? What’s yours?
One of the most important parts of understanding moral responsibility is to speak in plain language. These protests were triggered by the murder – captured on video – of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 49 seconds. At the end he asked for his mother while bystanders begged Chauvin to stop.
If you haven’t seen the video yet, do something very simple. Set a timer for 8 minutes and 49 seconds and do nothing while it counts down. Fully experience just how long that is.
It’s true that the mass protests that have broken out across the country have been accompanied, in some cases, by looting, although almost all of it seems to be opportunistic and unrelated to the protestors. But that simply cannot begin to mitigate or excuse the murder of innocent people by agents of the government.
Police across the nation have responded to the protests with extraordinary violence. The video evidence is overwhelming (there are more than 160 examples in the linked Twitter thread) – ranging from using pepper spray and tear gas on peaceful demonstrators to driving into a crowd. Here, for example, is a video of a 75-year old man in Buffalo peacefully walking who was knocked down so forcefully that he bled from his ear while dozens of officers walked by, not one of whom stopped to help. Buffalo police initially reported this as someone who “tripped & fell.” This happens when police know that they are on camera. If you’re lucky, only your imagination can tell you what happens when the cameras are off.
The single most important lesson of leadership is that talk is cheap.
Brands across America are posting messages of support. That’s a start, but perhaps the single most important lesson of leadership is that talk is cheap. Actions are what count. The strongest political constituency in the United States is American business. Nothing else comes close. Either directly, through campaign donations and PACs, or indirectly via organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the voice of business is listened to at every level of the American government. You can – and should – use that power in this moment of crisis.
One way to do that would be to pressure elected officials in your community to protect the rights of all citizens. The First Amendment guarantees “the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The rights exercised by the protesters are, literally, among the first ones in the Bill of Rights. The Declaration of Independence states that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” Guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly is, quite literally, why the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution – the Founding Fathers of the United States – created this country.
But you can, and should, go further. You can use your political power to support “8 Can’t Wait” – eight research-backed policies which, together, can reduce police violence by up to 72% without any increase in the danger to police officers. Your tax dollars pay for the police. You can make a difference.
I could tell you that there is an elaborate business case for this – and there is. As Mark Zuckerberg is learning, if you don’t do the right thing, your employees expect you to do the right thing. More fundamentally, American business cannot prosper if American’s don’t. If you are willing to push for favorable tax treatment or beneficial regulation, then you can, and should, use your power to defend the rights of your fellow citizens. Your business will benefit, but don’t do it for that reason. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. If you believe that you are a leader, well, it’s time to lead. Your country needs you.