Channeling global capitalism.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
June 6 2002 1:15 PM

Channeling Global Capitalism

(Continued from Page 1)

Obviously, the 9/11 problem is a subtle mix of economics, culture, and technology. A tough Biological Weapons Convention—or BWC—plus another dozen transnational acronyms won't get us nearly all the way to a solution. My point is just that the considerable powers of capitalism have in the past embraced creative responses to forms of political instability that are bad for business. And blowing up world trade centers is bad for business.

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While in Germany, I saw my friend John Judis, who is doing a stint at the American Academy of Berlin. In his book The Paradox of American Democracy, he argues that American government has worked best when elites strongly influenced policy. Judis isn't thinking so much of business elites, whose influence he sees as a given, but rather about counterbalancing elites, such as those who started the Brookings Institution and the Ford Foundation. He calls these "disinterested elites" because they focus on the public good, not business interests (though someone to Judis' right might call them "liberal elites" who favor particular interest groups).

But when it comes to 9/11 policy, I'd argue, the distance between business elites and "disinterested" elites shrinks because the commercial good and the public good start to merge. For the public to be safe, terrorism must be subdued. For global capitalism to be safe, ditto. If it turns out that a bleeding-heart concern for the plight of poor and alienated Muslims around the world would help quell terrorism, global capitalism should in theory embrace that concern.

The big question is one of time horizons. The incentive structure in corporate America—including executive compensation packages—allegedly encourages myopia in the executive suite. And almost everyone I've talked to agrees that a successful war on terrorism will involve some very long-term strategy, such as figuring out how to benignly influence the evolution of politics and culture in faraway places and then sticking with the necessary policies.

In sum: The good news is that in order to save the world, we don't have to convince CEOs to think about something other than money. The bad news is that we have to get them to think very long-term—to think about earnings 10, even 20 or 30 years down the road.

I'm not sure how many of these executives in Berlin were thinking that long-term. But who knows? Maybe if they keep spending weekends locked up with evangelizing scholars and journalists (whose jobs don't depend on next week's stock price), their time horizons will grow. Of course, that might mean that people like me would have to spend more time in five-star hotels. But during wartime, I feel, we all have to do our part.