In a recent front-page article in The Wall Street Journal, Jacob Schlesinger wondered: "Why has the ‘90s so far eluded the ‘Decade of Greed’ label that hung over the ‘80s?" The news was certainly full of stories of young millionaires bursting forth in record numbers due to the boon in technology stock prices. And you couldn’t turn a page without seeing any number of CEO compensation packages tip in at millions of dollars in salaries and perks.
There were no cries of moral outrage, Schlesinger suggests, because in this new economy everybody’s income is rising. Not only those at the top are sharing in the spoils of business, whether in the form of better returns on a 401(k) plan invested in aggressive mutual funds, or just more cash in each paycheck. But the point that people are missing, he wrote, is that even when almost everyone’s income is rising, a "growing disparity in 10ple the national average because young Silicon Valley millionaires have bid up the prices of homes, it’s only a matter of time before someone cries foul.
I was taken aback not so much by the article’s sentiment as by its source. Here was The Wall Street Journal—the archconservative voice of capitalism—drawing attention to the problems endemic to outrageous income disparities at a time when that particular cause hadn’t the news cachet it held during the greed-drenched ‘80s.
"Business ethics," a topic that for years has been relegated to the deep interior of business publications or the fringes of business school curriculum, suddenly has status. Where the word "ethics" might once have been anathema to any corporate devotee, discussion of it is increasingly seen as not only important but also as critical to a company’s success.
A Shift in Thinking