Friday, May 24, 2024

Ready for the Roaring Twenties?

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Hello and good year.

My friend John Barry, who wrote the 1918 flu book, says he laid the groundwork for the Roaring Twenties. He and others have raised the question of whether something similar could happen again.

Let’s put aside the fact that the stock market jumped the gun on this issue –go straight to 1929 in its foam. There are some interesting parallels to consider. As Frederick Lewis Allen points out in Only yesterday, the best popular story of the time, new technologies drove the prosperity of Coolidge. Cars on the road have tripled over the decade; radio sales increased by over 1,000%; and rayon and refrigerators saw comparable action. Today’s economy also appears to be balanced. Virtually all technological trends have accelerated during the pandemic, and most business leaders seem to believe the curves will continue to bend upwards.

But the most interesting aspect of the 1920s, as Allen puts it, was that “the public spirit was at its lowest.” Exhausted by war and disease, most people were “in the mood for vacation.” President Wilson’s idealism, a brief explosion of radicalism, and a craze for prohibition quickly gave way to a desire to party for a decade. Gin and short dresses overcame our worry about the world’s problems.

Well, count me among those who are ready for a good party. But I guess this time the public spirit won’t be so easily sidelined. The pandemic has exacerbated the fault lines in our society in terms of race, gender and education. The climate crisis has become more apparent, both in business and in life (see Katherine Dunn’s story on the prospects for action here.) And geopolitics have become precarious – whether it’s the Russian cyberattack that has infiltrated much of US government and business, or the growing tension with China raising fundamental questions about the future world order. I predict that business leaders will find themselves increasingly and inevitably involved in all three issues over the decade.

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One big business and corporate story that erupted after CEO Daily was shut down last year was the Justice Department accusation that Walmart helped fuel the opioid crisis, ignoring the warnings of its own pharmacists. The reported evidence is pretty damning, and it’s a black eye for a company that has spent the past two decades trying to improve its public image.

Does this mean that Walmart’s adoption of stakeholder capitalism is an act of hypocrisy or a preventative exercise in public relations? Well, not necessarily. Large corporations are complex organizations and, like people, capable of doing good and bad, sometimes at the same time. But it is a reminder to all companies that adopt new measures to help society that they must start from the principle attributed to Hippocrates: First of all, do no harm.

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Alan murray


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