The Value of Davos

Every morning of the World Economic Forum, CNN interviewed a bundled-up CEO with the dramatic, snowy “Magic Mountain” of Davos, Swit­zerland, in the background. The question was always the same: “When will this crisis be over?” They had a whiteboard where each CEO would write an answer: 2009 … 2010 … 2011 … later.

But on an unusual plenary panel at Davos, titled “The Values Behind Market Capitalism,” I suggested CNN had the wrong question. Of course we all want to know the answer to that one, but a much more important question is, “How will this crisis change us?” How will it change the way we think, act, and decide things, how we live and how we do business? Yes, this is a structural crisis that clearly calls for new social regulation. But it is also a spiritual crisis that calls for new self-regulation. We seem to have lost some things and forgotten some things—like our oldest and best values.

We have trusted in “the invisible hand” to make everything turn out all right and believed that it wasn’t necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven’t turned out all right and “the invisible hand” let go of some things, such as “the common good.” The common good hasn’t been very common in our economic decision-making for some time now. And the situation has spun out of control.

If we learn nothing from this crisis, then all the pain and suffering it is causing will be in vain. But if we can learn new habits of the heart, perhaps that suffering can be redemptive. If we can regain our moral compass and find new metrics by which to evaluate our success, this crisis could become our opportunity to change.

There were other sessions at Davos on these subjects, as there always are. Social entrepreneurs and innovative philanthropists discussed new patterns of social enterprise—where capitalism is in service of big ideas and big solutions, not just making money. In the past, the session was held in a small room, not the big Congress Hall, and it wasn’t full. As in the global economy, social conscience was a sidebar to business. This year the sidebar hit the main hall of discussion and was at the center of how participants talked about the way we do business.

TONY BLAIR, who was also on the “values panel,” told me afterward that were it not for this deep crisis, Davos wouldn’t be having such a discussion and wouldn’t have included somebody like me (a religious leader). But the “spiritual” conversations (sometimes quite pastoral and almost confessional) that followed over the course of the next few days were, for me, a real sign of hope.

The economic tide going out has not only shown us who was swimming naked, as Warren Buffett put it, but it has also revealed that no “invisible hand” is b­e­hind the curtain guiding our economy to inevitable success if we look out only for our own self-interest. It is a sobering moment in our lives when we can see our own thoughtlessness, greed, and impatience writ large.

With some of the world’s brightest minds, boldest leaders, and most innovative entrepreneurs gathered in one Swiss retreat, it seemed like a good place to find some new answers.

SO WHAT ARE some of the moral lessons to be learned now?

First, relationships matter. The relationship between employer and employee has collapsed from one of mutual benefit to “whatever you can get away with.” It wasn’t so long ago that people knew their bankers and bankers knew the community they were in. Those relationships collapsed completely with the rise of mortgage-backed securities that make it virtually impossible to figure out who is tied to whom and how.

Second, “social sins” also matter. The excess and opulence of the 1920s that preceded the Great Depression had not been seen again until the excess and opulence that immediately preceded our current depression. This is not a coincidence. When wealth comes to those who fail to add value to our economy, that “social sin” will soon find the sinners out. When we create a cultural habit of spending money we don’t have for things that we don’t need, a disaster isn’t far away. And history shows that an increasing gap between the rich and the poor is a prime indicator of imminent collapse.

Third, our own good is tied up in the common good. When the only business concern is the bottom line, then business quickly becomes a race to the bottom. When we recognize that the common good is our own good and that civil society, business, and government can work in concert and not in competition, then we can create business that is not only just but sustainable. Some have accused Jesus of sounding like he was igniting class warfare by his call for us to care for “the least of these.” In our present context I hope we can learn that caring for the poor is not just a moral duty but a part of our own “enlightened self-interest.”

For example, almost half of the world’s population, 3 billion people, lives on less than $2 a day—virtually outside of the global economy. Maybe this crisis will help us decide it’s time to bring them in.

The last century has seen the creation and distribution of goods, services, and ideas with unprecedented efficiency and volume. But with these great advances, the moral weight of our decisions becomes greater than ever before. We need to determine whether the purpose of business is only to turn a profit or if it could encompass something more. We face great challenges that need even greater ideas to overcome them. We have big obstacles that need even bigger vision to see past them. Will our business community transform itself to meet those challenges, or are they just waiting to get back to business as usual? The key will be whether the right questions are asked and if the common good is part of the answer.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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