Fulfilling America’s Promise: Build Equity, Bridge the Gap

The TakeAway: As we celebrate Independence Day, it’s time to rededicate ourselves to those very ideals on which our nation was founded: liberty, opportunity, and justice for all. That means bridging the equity gap that undermines the American dream and invites degradation, despair, and despotism. How to do it? Leverage billions of tax-exempt investment dollars in our communities toward environmental, social, economic, and governance prosperity.

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Mesh Networks, Leadership, and Democracy’s Promise

 

The TakeAway: This election season and Veterans Day provide a great time to reflect on the state of our democracy, which is ailing badly. It’s also time to think about ways of healing it, while achieving sustainable peace and prosperity. Here are two pathways to strengthen democracy’s promise:  (1) use interactive digital tools to strengthen the power of social and technological “mesh networks” to foster better citizen involvement and governance, and (2) develop the kind of leadership—both central and distributed—that knows how to cultivate community, especially when to step forward, and when to step back. Three recent examples for your consideration: the Belfast gathering of the Forum for Cities in Transition, the brainchild of Padraig O’Malley and a project of the John J. Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation at UMass Boston; the launch of a new book on civic engagement and “data-smart governance” called The Responsive City by Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith; and the passing of Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Thomas M. Menino, often called “Mayor for Life” and the “urban mechanic”.


Hunger, poverty, environmental degradation, economic instability, unemployment, chronic disease, drug addiction, and war, for example, persist in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance that have been directed toward eradicating them. No one deliberately creates those problems, no one wants them to persist, but they persist nonetheless. That is because they are intrinsically systems problems—undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.
Obvious. Yet subversive.  An old way of seeing. Yet somehow new. Comforting, in that the solutions are in our hands. Disturbing, because we must do things, or at least see things and think about things, in a different way.
—Donella H. Meadows
Thinking in Systems: A Primer, 1993[1]

My father, who served in World War II but also was a businessman as well as elected and appointed official, was proudest of his military service. “I’m a Marine!” he’d declare, after solving some particularly difficult problem. I think that’s because being a Marine (or a member of any branch of the armed services, but Dad thought Marines were superior) is more about selflessness, whereas politics—especially these days—is more about self. As popular as he was, Dad was not a limelight-seeker. He was a congenial, good man, one who cared deeply about honor and duty. His pride did not get in the way of his humility. Both he and my Mom served our country well, until a still-unresolved family tragedy caused them to withdraw from public life. Continue reading

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Smart Cities and Sustainable Development: Where Hope and History Meet

The Question: “How can cities contribute to the advancement of sustainable development and address issues including water, energy and waste?”

The task of the coming city is not essentially different:  its mission is to put the highest concerns of man at the center of all his activities:  to unite the scattered fragments of the human personality, turning artificially dismembered men-bureaucrats, specialists, ‘experts’, depersonalized agents—into complete human beings, repairing the damage that has been done by vocational separation, by social segregation, by the over-cultivation of a favored function, by tribalisms and nationalisms, by the absence of organic partnerships and ideal purposes.

Before modern man can gain control over the forces that now threaten his very existence, he must resume possession of himself.  This sets the chief mission for the city of the future:  that of creating a visible regional and civic structure, designed to make man at home with his deeper self and his larger world, attached to images of human nurture and love.

—Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961

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God picks up the reed-flute world and blows. Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing-pain. Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated, and let your note be clear. Don’t try to end it. Be your note. I’ll show you how it’s enough. Go up on the roof at night in this city of the soul. Let everyone climb on their roofs and sing their notes! Sing loud!

—Jelaluddin Rumi, The Essential Rumi, 1993

The Promise

Some people view cities as congeries of people, noise, transit, commerce, and buildings. Others see a cut-glass mirror, reflecting the intersection of history and hope. The idea of the City is as important as its bricks and mortar, perhaps even more so. Cities draw people in, offering promise and protection in the cloak of anonymity, a place to make dreams come true. Be it Jerusalem or Detroit, the City is a living thing, in constant transformation. It has a soul. It has a history. The old and the new live alongside each other, as do growth and decline.

On top of this, the City faces never-ending challenges to maintain unfettered flows of people (both immigrant and indigenous), commerce, energy, information, and ideas. If it’s inhospitable to these flows, the City shrivels and dies.

Masdar City’s current emphasis on “Smart Cities and Sustainable Development” is, at its core, about supporting and strengthening the stock and flow of what we now call “multiple capitals”: human, social, financial, natural, and built environment. It’s also about the stock and flow of intellect and spirit. Without them, the other flows become impoverished.

Masdar City’s current emphasis also draws on a rich heritage of urbanism, with many lessons and insights. Chief among them: You cannot focus on one piece—for example, architectural design, environmental stewardship, social welfare, economic development, crime reduction—to the exclusion of others. They all interact, like notes in a symphony.

Nor can you ignore the importance of executing sensitively and at scale. Key here is a “polycentric” approach, advocated by the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and her husband, Vincent Ostrom. That means a mix of multiple activities on multiple fronts (public, private, civic) and levels (national, regional, local). As the eminent urbanist Paul Ylvisaker once said, “That scale may not always be massive, but it can never be mean.”[i]

The Problems

Narrow vision and “meanness” are among many ghosts on the urban landscape, haunting our efforts to thrive. The dark shadow of the slum continues to thwart the dreams of countless youth. In divided societies, sectarian violence claims land and lives. Extreme weather events wipe out neighborhoods and clans. Corruption corrodes even the best-laid plans, sucking the air out of prosperity, resilience, and growth. Financial pressures and deteriorating revenue bases continue to block progress. Short-sightedness and narrow thinking serve as reminders that human fallibility continues to plague even the best of intentions, where implementation falls victim to petty behaviors, and “winning” becomes more important than performance in the public interest.

These are modern problems, but the themes are familiar, part of a melody that spans centuries. The music may have faded, but the rhythm remains and the beat goes on.

Masdar City’s grand experiment echoes efforts in America and Brazil in the 1970s, before “sustainability”, “ESG” or “corporate responsibility” were taglines. Back then the goal was to create a place of self-conscious beauty, offering hope and opportunity. The means for tackling the multifaceted urban challenge: Build “New Towns” or “New Towns In-Town”. These were noble policy aspirations that ultimately ran afoul of implementation, due to intergroup antagonisms and local politics, as well as racism and classism.[ii] No matter how promising the innovation, the temptation always exists for one group to improve its situation at another’s expense. That destroys faith upon which the City is built, faith in the promise that those who enter can lay claim to more in life than “the raw Darwinian war of survival.”

Now, the rest of the world can learn from Masdar City. But Masdar City can learn a few things, too.

The Legacy and Lessons Learned

From the American perspective, three major 20th century initiatives stand out, reflected now in Masdar’s “Smart Cities / Sustainable Development” approach. Despite their Yankee provenance, they hold relevance to other urban experiments, now occurring under the rubric of “sustainability”.

Beginning after World War II and later supported and broadened by the Ford Foundation, many of the pioneering urban initiatives of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s featured elements similar to what Masdar City embodies today: A systems approach. Design thinking. Innovation and a willingness to fail. Application of new materials and technology. Excellence. Research-based evidence.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, Cambridge-based The Architects Collaborative (TAC) was invited to Abu Dhabi, to bring its Bauhaus-inspired design integrity of function and form to desert development. Change was in the air, and the UAE wanted to take lead, drawing on American professionals and academics for inspiration.

These various projects yield valuable lessons of what worked, what didn’t (and why) that are relevant in 2014: Rebuilding community is the core ethos. Don’t focus excessively on structure, technology, and efficiency. Metrics aren’t the answer. Beware of generalizations and single solutions.  Sustainable development—especially in divided societies—is a broad umbrella, not just about water, energy, and waste.[iii]

Here are some of the characteristics and lessons learned as policymakers, professionals, academics, and practitioners confronted an assortment of puzzles posed by rapid urbanization and increased stress on resources.

1. A holistic, systemic, and collaborative approach: The mid-20th century push for metropolitan planning and government was premised on how a deliberate approach to city planning could address economic, social, and governance needs. It eventually dissipated due to intense opposition by the defenders of grassroots democracy and localism. More recently, a resurgence in “metro” revives interest in collaborative solutions to region-wide problems, where limits on resources can drive innovation. That’s a hallmark of sustainability: it can foster creative thinking and action.[iv] But it needs to have allies, which is why wider community awareness, engagement, and support are so crucial.

2. Address economic, human, and social needs via participation and representation: Long before the term “stakeholder engagement” was coined, the Gray Areas Program set the stage. Launched in the early 1960s by the Ford Foundation, its purpose was “to mount a coordinated attack on all aspects of deprivation, including jobs, education, housing, planning, and recreation.” According to Paul Ylvisaker, its founder and overseer, this neighborhood orientation was part of a movement toward making grants “within range of the municipal firing line” to “help correct the basic conditions which have led to the protest, and to develop the latent potential of the human beings now being crowded and often crushed at the bottom of the community’s totem pole.” [v] The Gray Areas Program served as the template for the subsequent War on Poverty, and growth of Community Development Corporations (CDCs).[vi]

Unfortunately, the Gray Areas Program, along with other urban social innovations, became politicized, both by local officials and citizens groups that were unprepared for their leadership role. But as Ylvisaker once said, “We shouldn’t curse the bridge that took us across the raging torrent.”

3. Innovation and entrepreneurship: Similarly, the Model Cities program, the brainchild of Robert C. Wood,[vii] sought to provide an alternative to  incremental progress and “desperate, self-help urban renewal”. Essentially a series of urban laboratories, Model Cities sought to unleash human energies and spirit by creating partnerships between the Federal government and mayors. Yet Model Cities, too, ran afoul of short-termism and “quick fix” expectations. Open-ended measures could not be sustained politically, and risked demise or backlash. Although it began as a selective program, it soon lost this quality and became more universal. Every Congressman wanted to get into the act. Rather than focused on rebuilding communities, it evolved into a cash-infusion program governed by political favoritism more than local need. On the plus side, activists were given tools and became more sophisticated; rather than operating as “outsiders”, they were brought into the system to help make it work.

Smart Cities and Sustainable Development: What Future?

The City is a reflection of our deepest yearnings and aspirations. As such, it’s governed far more by a moral imperative than by adherence to good governance and management practices, or sustainability standards and metrics.

This moral imperative liberates the spirit and, as Rumi said, enables us to go up on the roof at night and sing our note loud, not only in the city of the soul, but the City of our earthly presence.

If this dimension is not recognized, where hope and history meet, then whatever the energy innovations and architectural wonders, the City will be just another pretty place, devoid of soul and substance.

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Editors Note: A shorter version of this post was submitted to the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week  2014 (#ADSW) blogging contest.[viii] Until January 7th, you can view and vote on this and other submissions here.


[i] Paul Ylvisaker, “New Towns, Old Cities”, Speech to the Institute of Urban America, Columbia University, 23 January 1968.

[ii] For insight into why these urban experiments failed, see Martha Derthick’s classic essay, New Towns In-Town: Why a Federal program failed (Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 1972).

[iii] Sustainable development must occur on a relatively stable foundation of peace, which is the focus of the Forum for Cities in Transition. The premise of the Forum is that cities in transition in societies divided by conflict are in the best position to help other cities experiencing the same thing. They have common problems and flashpoints. Through sharing and collaboration, they can reinforce constructive change. Over the past 4 years, the Forum and one of its member cities have hosted an annual conference involving cities such as Belfast, Baghdad, Kaduna, Kirkuk, Jerusalem, Derry / Londonderry, Haifa, Berlin, Ramallah, and Mitrovica. The Forum for Cities in Transition is the brainchild of Padraig O’Malley, Moakley Chair for Peace and Reconciliation, University of Massachusetts, Boston.

[iv] See especially the work of Bruce Katz, whose book, co-authored by Jennifer Bradley, is The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2013). Katz currently is vice president and founding director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, and helped launch the Global Cities Initiative, a joint effort with JPMorgan Chase. He also leads the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation. Katz was influenced by the scholarship and work of Robert C. Wood and Paul Ylvisaker, and is well-aware of how the legacy of earlier urbanists now finds expression in American cities.

[v] American Community Development: Preliminary Reports by Directors of Projects Assisted by the Ford Foundation in Four Cities and a State (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1 October 1963).

[vi] So-named to avoid using the term “ghetto” during a time of grantmaker aversion to the problem of race relations, the Gray Areas Program focused on those parts of the city where “neither mice nor men dared to tread,” Ylvisaker used to say years later. For more, see Karen Mossberger, “From Gray Areas to New Communities: Lessons and Issues from Comprehensive U.S. Neighborhood Initiatives,” Working Paper (Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago, 2010).

[vii] Wood, like Ylvisaker, was one of that vanishing breed of academic practitioners with numerous luminary accomplishments. Both became friends during their doctoral studies at Harvard. From 1965 to 1969, Wood served as Undersecretary and then Secretary of the newly-formed U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A prolific author and public administrator, he’s the author of Surburbia: Its People and Their Politics (Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1958).

[viii] Hosted by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW) is a global platform that addresses the interconnected challenges that affect the widespread acceleration and adoption of sustainable development and renewable energy. To seriously address the global energy challenge, the relationships between economic development, poverty eradication, energy security, water scarcity and climate change cannot be overlooked. The largest gathering on sustainability in the history of the Middle East, ADSW encourages actionable outcomes to carve a pathway toward sustainability worldwide. For more information, please visit www.abudhabisustainabilityweek.com

 

 

 

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2013 Memorable Moments and Values

Part 1 of 3

The TakeAway: It was a year of breakthroughs, tempered by loss. But as we look back on 2013, four memorable moments stand out. I’ve a personal connection to each, but they embody universal values worth amplifying in 2014: Empathy and Resilience. Liberty and Justice. Humor and Hope. My reflections on what we can learn from the Boston Marathon bombings, and the lives of Nelson Mandela, Gary David Goldberg, and Seamus Heaney.

I love end-of-year reviews, and marvel at how easily one can forget that twelve months can hold so much. Grace and grief lived alongside each other, as our fragile sense of community continued to be challenged by forces both human and scientific.

We all celebrated birthdays and holidays, and mourned the loss of loved ones. Continue reading

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Walter White and LBJ: Personality Plus, To What End?

The TakeAway: Two drama, Breaking Bad and All the Way, provide insights into complex characters, and lessons for our times.

Time collapsed earlier this week, as volcanoes from the past and present erupted and converged in a manner that only great art can produce. On Sunday, I watched the highly acclaimed AMC series Breaking Bad air its penultimate, gut-punching episode, “Ozymandias”, the third to last episode that ranks as the highest in TV history.

(For those like me who didn’t know, “Ozymandias” is a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1818, and portrays the fleeting absurdity of great power. Go read it. Now.)

On Tuesday, I watched the now sold-out play called All the Way, at the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (I saw the fourth stage presentation, while it was still in previews; Opening Night is tonight, and the play runs through October 13th.)

Breaking Bad chronicles roughly one year in the life of a fictional character named Walter White, who morphs from being a brow-beaten, cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher (whose moment of glory was eclipsed by family responsibilities and a competitive partner), only to become an accidental drug kingpin, mixing high-grade quantities of crystal blue methamphetamine.

All the Way chronicles one year in the life of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who morphs from being a Southern political kingpin (whose moment of glory was eclipsed by his allegiance to Southern opposition to racial equity and a charismatic competitor named John F. Kennedy), only to become an “accidental president” mixing high grade quantities of political persuasion, high ambition, and social responsibility.

In Breaking Bad, last week’s episode featured a gruesome knife fight between the main characters, all of whom we’ve come to love and the last thing we’d come to expect.

In All the Way, LBJ bellows, “There’s no place for ‘nice’ in a knife fight”—referring to Washington’s main characters, very few of whom we’ve come to love and the first thing we’ve come to expect.

(LBJ was referring to Washington’s hardball politics and the limited clout of his running mate, Hubert H. Humphrey—or anyone else unwilling to pull out all stops to get a bill passed. My longtime mentor Bob Wood, who worked for LBJ, among other things, as Undersecretary and Secretary of HUD, used to refer to Washington, D.C. as “the land of long knives“.) Continue reading

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To Bomb or Not to Bomb—Which Rationality? Whose Debate?

The TakeAway: The swirl of action surrounding whether or not to intervene militarily in Syria tends to overlook opportunities, beyond polling, for average people to weigh in. That’s bad for deliberative democracy—especially when military power is involved. As a “prismatic case”—e.g., one both immediate (“To bomb or not to bomb?”) and long-term (“What is our moral obligation in the world?”) such questions demand broader citizen engagement rather than remain dominated by pols, pundits, and policy wonks.

In nooks and crannies, some of that is happening via social media platforms such as Facebook, or the “comments” sections of digital media outlets. Our challenge, as citizens, is to use them more, to listen to and learn from each other, and help restore deliberative democracy to its proper place. Here’s a glimpse into three citizens who refuse to let others do all the talking, and crowd out the rest of us.

President Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday night about intervening in Syria answered some questions, but raised more. While most Americans are weary of yet another war and oppose intervention, there are compelling moral, political, economic, and environmental issues embedded in this “wicked problem”—“wicked” both literally (the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the atrocities inflicted) and figuratively (a highly complex tangle of multiple issues, involving life and death). Looming over it all: the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), adopted unanimously at the U.N. World Summit in 2005.

Most of the debate has occurred behind closed doors until, on August 31st, the President said that even though he believed he had the authority to carry out military action without specific congressional authorization, he was going to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress…I  know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.  We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”

That was a welcome move by many who believe that Congress should play a role in these things, even though technically the President doesn’t need to. What’s at stake is an international commitment forged in the aftermath of World War II with the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You don’t need Congress to ratify what’s already been endorsed. Throughout, the President seems to be “thinking out loud”—a laudable stance in this era of “world disorders“, given multiple actors, possible outcomes, and high stakes. Continue reading

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The Power of Two, Plus You! OpenLetter2013

The Takeaway: Two friends from Boston, increasingly alarmed by the dearth of meaningful action on climate change, decided to take matters into their own hands. The pair are crowdfunding a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal calling out the world’s most influential people for their non-action on climate change. The ad is an open letter, the main theme of which is the slow-moving tragedy of one generation handing the next an increasingly damaged planet.

Editor’s Note: Sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I often get requests for this or that, and usually turn them down. But this one is irresistible, and so good, so good.

The other day my friend, tech guru, and MurnPost technical strategy adviser Joshua Gay had an idea. Josh suggested to his friend Deb Nicholson that I might be interested in helping her promote a climate change awareness/justice campaign through indiegogo, an independent worldwide funding platform.  The effort, undertaken by Jordyn Bonds and Mike Gintz, began as an Open Letter that Jordyn intended to post to her blog, Skybondsor.

Jordyn wrote it “during a particularly despairing moment” but after showing it to her friend Mike, decided to place it in a major newspaper as a full-page ad, because that was the best way of making it stand out. Mike also suggested tapping crowd-funding resources, so that like-minded people might have a chance to get involved, too.

As Mike wrote me a little while ago, they’re both “superpals. Jordyn lives with her husband in Brighton and I and my girlfriend live in Somerville. Jordyn and I both lived in the area for over a decade, and met via playing music in the local rock scene. She’s originally from Arkansas; I’m originally from New Hampshire. We both work in the web industry – she’s freelance and I work at an agency in Davis Square, Somerville.”

I think they’re adorable because they represent the power of two people who burn to make a difference. They don’t have an organization behind them, or big funders, or a flashy event. They’re simply trying to send a message, and spending a heckuva lot of energy devoted to doing so.

I hope you consider helping their campaign to make powerful people understand, as Willy Loman said, that “attention must be paid”. Theirs is a compelling argument, and I figured, What better way than to show the multiplier effect of the Power of Two than to get You involved, as well?

Please consider making a contribution, and spreading the word to your friends and colleagues.

Climate countsand so do the efforts of each and every one of us, to do what we can, when we can, how best we can. If you go to Jordyn and Mike’s website, you also can suggest powerful people you think need to see this letter, too.

Let’s make some noise, people!! Jordyn and Mike have a little over 3 weeks to meet their funding goal, and they’re off to a good start: they’ve already raised more than $26,000 toward their $161,000 goal. You can read more about Jordyn and Mike’s ambitious plan at http://www.openletter2013.org/campaign/ Watch their video here: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-open-letter

Here’s a piece of what they wrote, followed by some Qs and As:

This letter is addressed to you because you are influential, you have children, and you are not taking sufficient action on climate change.

Climate change has presented all of us with an enormous moral challenge, but the level of our personal responsibility is commensurate with the sphere of our influence. You have the resources to make a huge impact, and nothing less than a huge impact will be able to change the course we’re on. The rest of us can only hope to use our meager influence to influence you.

This letter is not going to make the case for the reality of climate change. Whatever you might say in public, you clearly accept its reality; your governments, organizations, and companies are already strategizing around how to cope with it. The purpose of this letter is to express moral outrage… Continue reading

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Let’s Bend the Arc of Money and Power Toward Justice

Sixth in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provides the opportunity to reflect on what truths we hold to be self evident, what falsehoods we reject, and to discern how best to advance liberty, equality, and justice for all. Two friends, one black and one white, reflect on their efforts to promote racial justice 49 years ago when they were young girls, and what they’d like to do now to make the Dream come alive. With help from Baby Boomers who have time and energy to give, that happens through bending the arc of money and power toward justice—and building multiracial, diverse citizen involvement in the sustainability movement, which is far too homogenous for its own good. My proposal: a Civic Stewardship League, which helps assure that fiduciary power is directed toward to the public interest and involves concerned citizens in the process.

On Wednesday I called my lifetime friend Linda Hunter Williams shortly before the Presidents spoke at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I wanted to talk with Linda so we could reflect on the last 5 decades and the fact that, 49 years ago at the age of 14, she and I joined so many thousands working for racial justice across the land—“to lay claim to the promise made at our founding”, as President Barack Obama later put it in his speech.

I also wanted to enlist her in a cause I’m starting, one that I hope helps reboot our local economies and make The Dream come alive, once again. And—this is very important—adds some color and diversity to a 21st century sustainability movement that’s way too male and pale for its own good, and has “crowded out” behaviors and sentiments of average people. Continue reading

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Trustees Are Not Thermometers

Fifth in a  Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: In the United States, key to our political form of representative self-governance is the idea of good trusteeship, of stewardship, of wise statecraft. The same holds for corporate governance. Being a director means the ability to think big and long-term, as well as focus on the here-and-now, to balance multiple and competing interests with good judgment and an ethical outlook. The fiduciary challenge, then, for trustees and directors (similar to that confronting judges, because “judgement” is core) is to make public decisions that fulfill both the immediate obligations contained in a charter or mission statement, and the broader public interest obligations attendant to human health and well-being.

The primary assumptions governing the role of trusteeship and directorship became neutered within the past 100 years as a result of the rise of the modern bureaucratic state and the corporate form, the ascension of scientific management and neoclassical economic theory, and the professionalization and technological transformation of financial services.

Yet being a trustee carries with it representative responsibilities to “the other” or “others,” so the threshold question becomes: Which “others” are we talking about, and whose interests are being protected and advanced?1

Continue reading

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Civic Virtue as the Animating Ideal


Fourth in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: Despite the great strides made toward incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations into economic decision making, these ideas are untethered from a moral paradigm or ethos or set of big ideas that can help us internalize a vision to help inspire, guide, and assess our actions.  For centuries—especially with the civil rights movement (as we near the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington)—religious, theological, and ethical convictions served as the primary driving spirit, which continue to this day.  Time for broadening and deepening those convictions in more inclusive ways, in the name of civic virtue and the democratic ideal.

Previously, in “Time to Talk About the Public Interest”: Notions of justice, liberty and fairness; of pluralism and diversity; of equity, “standing” and trust; of independence, vision and innovation; of freedom, self-governance and self-determination; of political stability, safety and security, were embedded in our social, cultural and political life. These virtues helped define integrity—meaning, both literally and figuratively, their integration into the fabric of community, institutional and individual life. They served as building blocks for our constitutional system of representative governance, enlivened by participation and public accountability. They were predicates, too, for our economic arrangements, because business was essentially about community.

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In the latter part of the 20th century, the echoes of these beliefs animated early shareholder activists, whether they knew it or not. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Saul Alinsky and FIGHT Kodak,1 Campaign GM,2 Dow Chemical’s production of Agent Orange3 and the Episcopal Church,4 there were enormous social pressures on companies and institutional investors to eliminate discriminatory practices and promote equal opportunity for all. In 1971, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) was formed, now comprising 275 faith-based institutional investors.5

Borrowing from the civil rights movement, the public actions taken during this 1970s and 1980s were accompanied by appeals to a civic moral consciousness that radiated Judeo-Christian religious themes, but were not restricted to them. They included beliefs that: Continue reading

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Back to the Future: Apocalypse Now

Image made by Mary Naber King

Third in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: In a society saturated with market values, we need to recoup the idea of civic virtue, and the civic moral obligations of wealth. This has philosophical and practical significance for any discussion of sustainability, responsible investing, and the 21st century fiduciary—something well beyond the loose canons of Modern Portfolio Theory that have led us astray.

As Steve Lydenberg has argued [in his award-winning paper Reason, Rationality, and Fiduciary Duty], the corporate responsibility and ethical investing movements have much to contribute [in altering our idea of fiduciary duty]. So, too, does the dynamic field of corporate governance, and the relatively new field of Islamic finance, the basis of the important work of the Harvard Islamic Finance Project. These various efforts shed light on the civic moral purpose of capitalism, of values in public life, because they stem from a shared set of guiding concepts and vocabulary having civic moral meaning—even if these concepts and vocabulary remain veiled. Continue reading

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Loose Canons and Apocalypse Now: Unveiling the Ethics in the Fiduciary Ethic

Second in a Series: Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: This essay posits that the idea of fiduciary duty, with its legal and economic constructs, rests upon on a foundation spanning centuries of insights and wisdom about human behavior and civic virtue. There’s a higher “law” that serves as a beacon for peace and prosperity affecting our economic and political lives. That’s the fiduciary ethic, which is bounded in notions of trusteeship, of stewardship, of being a custodian or guardian.

A fiduciary ethic affects not just the manner in which financial assets are managed. It also speaks to the very core of what it means to be a trustee or director or steward. Unveiling and reformulating the ethics underlying the fiduciary ethic can help resurrect the civic moral dimension to economic and political life.

This can happen through reframing and re-visioning what capitalism and economic activity are supposed to achieve, to generate meaning and value in our lives. In addition to social history, principles emanating from political philosophy, world religions, theology, and humanist philosophy can aid theory-building and point the way toward changes in professional practice.

The word “apocalypse” has been given a bum rap. It conjures up images of end times, of the world turned upside down, of frightening images from the Book of Revelation.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “apocalypse” commonly is associated with ancient Jewish and Christian texts from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. that contain prophetic or symbolic visions. These images show the destruction of the world and the salvation of the righteous, the Rapture, and the “left behind”.

Through the centuries, the Book of Revelation and its apocalyptic motif became canonic, despite the fact that in those days there were all kinds of prophecies and visions throughout Asia Minor and the Holy Land. Some were buried and forgotten, but Revelations lived on.

Not many people know that Revelations might have been buried, too: it almost didn’t make the cut when the New Testament was assembled by a clerical committee three centuries after the death of Jesus.

Last year, in his New Yorker review of Elaine Pagels’ 2012 book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Adam Gopnik notes that the Book of Revelation was inserted in the New Testament by a church council convened in the three-sixties.[1]

Since then, Gopnik writes, its vision of cosmic war has remained a popular hit, with all the elements of a Michael Bay action movie. Continue reading

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Time to Talk About the Public Interest

The TakeAway: Current global activity about “materiality” and “multiple capitals” seek to embed environmental, social, and governance considerations within corporate and investor commitments to accountability and sustainability. But they’re the latest iteration of an ancient ethic waiting to be reborn. In addition to embracing these efforts, and addressing seriously the wider sustainability context in which they exist, our current challenge is to take the next leap: Engage in a serious and sustained conversation about “the public interest” capital markets profess to support, and unveil the civic moral ethic at the heart of the fiduciary ethic.

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, but I’ve been busy, writing up a storm for different clients. One piece, called Redefining Materiality II: Why It Matters, Who’s Involved, and What it Means for Corporate Leaders and Boards, finally was released last week by AccountAbility. It provides an overview of several current and overlapping global conversations about “materiality” and “multiple capitals”, and the ways in which environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues need to be part of the risk/reward equation for investors and corporate leaders.

On that front, there are at least 4 major activities underway, exhibited by (in no particular order) the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB), and the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR). The first 3—GRI, IIRC, and SASB—are about improving corporate disclosure; the GISR is ratings, not disclosure, and about discerning corporate leaders from laggards. I’ve had direct involvement with all of these initiatives in one way or another, have many friends and colleagues working there, and find it a lovely challenge to keep up with them. If you read my AccountAbility report, you’ll learn about others, too. They’re all superb, and worth engaging and following.

That’s because they’re contributing to a 21st century definition of capitalism, and providing frameworks that incorporate nonfinancial considerations into the valuation process.  In doing so, they’re making important contributions. (Although I think we’ve enough new “frameworks” to last awhile. What we really need is more  “execution”, “education”, “empowerment”, “experimentation”, and “engagement”. But I digress…)

However…  with the exception of GISR, in addition to falling short on situating corporate and market behavior within a sustainability context of thresholds and baselines (see Allen White’s superb piece in last week’s Guardian), they’re also relying on intellectual frameworks that, in my mind, are too narrow and tilted too far towards quantitative reasoning and market-based outcomes. Continue reading

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Fighting the Fury Once Again: 14 Actions We Can Take

Shawnee, Okla., tornado caught on tape - KOCOTV, http://youtu.be/1WoirMAj0SA

The TakeAway: Yet another deadly tornado has ripped through Oklahoma, killing at least 24, including 9 elementary school children. It came on the heels of severe weather yesterday, which generated at least two dozen tornadoes across Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois. We can’t continue to let this happen, so many innocent people dead or damaged by Mother Nature’s fury because of what we’ve wrought. Before yet another tragedy strikes, please consider a series of 14 concrete actions we can take to fight against the destruction created by these catastrophic weather events, and the human-made climate change that helps create them.

The images are horrifying as whole sections of the Midwest are destroyed by massive tornadoes that wreak fury on land, lives, and livelihood, leaving “pockets of fright” (as one newscaster put it) remaining in their path. This afternoon, a massive tornado estimated to be  two miles wide ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, shortly after an earlier round of storms the day before.  Strong atmospheric winds—meteorologists call it “wind shear”—fuel the intensity at levels unheard of in regions familiar with tornadic destruction. A “tornado emergency” was declared, which means, Run for cover underground, there’s no likelihood of survival.

Search and rescue operations under way at Plaza Towers Elementary. NBC News

Schools were hit, children are being pulled from an elementary school in a desperate rescue mission, and hospitals are evacuating patients to ready for the rush of injured.

Overturned cars are seen from destruction from a huge tornado near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma May 20, 2013 (Reuters / Richard Rowe)

At this writing the full scale of the carnage remains unclear, but 24 people have died, 8 of them children from the Plaza Towers Elementary School. Emergency workers and neighbors go from house to house to see who’s in the rubble.

A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers after Monday's tornado. Sue Ogrocki / AP

Those of us who grew up in the Midwest know that sickening feeling when a tornado “watch”, or “warning”, is issued. You don’t mess with these things, and everyone is taught from an early age where to seek shelter in the basement. Midwesterners, like most people, are a resilient bunch, and come together when emergency happens. We know that tornados are vicious and deceptive: when they touch the ground, they can leave unspeakable damage on one side of the street, while things are unchanged on the other side.

Having lived in New England for 42 years, I’ve never experienced this kind of fear—until a couple of years ago, when the first tornados in anyone’s memory landed in central and Western Massachusetts, killing four people and devastating 19 communities.

Those of us in the Boston area once again, just 5 weeks after the Marathon bombing, watch moving images as the tornado stories unfold, helpless in the face of sudden catastrophe, our hearts going out to those whose lives are changed forever. I live in Watertown, so have special knowledge of the ripple effect of the Marathon bombing, the bizarre chase for the bombers, their death and capture. (I swim where the kid brother used to work.)

But you don’t have to live in Boston to know that the Marathon bombings were caused by human hands and warped minds, and as people try to come to terms with cause—how do you prepare for the actions of a madman?—we know, deep down, that you can’t always prevent these kinds of terror.

But we can be more vigilant, more aware of the little things that add up to crazy, erupting with sudden force in ways that dwarf our petty self interests and apathetic “Whatevers”.

Natural disasters, it seems, are also caused by human hands and ignorant minds, as people refuse to come to terms with cause—how else do you explain the utter failure of our national leadership to pass comprehensive climate policy?—yet believe, deep down, that we’re not doing enough to prevent this kind of terror.

We need to be more vigilant, more aware of the little things that add up to crazy—our addiction to a carbon economy, our refusal to move our politics beyond gridlock, our apathetic, “It’s too big to address.

Well, hell, that’s just downright dumb. Continue reading

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Note to MurnPost Subscribers about “Environmentalism 2.0: Young People Lead the Way”

Note to MurnPost subscribers: Due to a technical problem, today’s Earth Day post by Tristanne Davis was published without subscriber notification. We’re sorry about that, but now have fixed it. Alas, we’re unable to resend the link without reposting it, which will wipe out comments and “likes”. So, here’s the link to the original: http://murninghanpost.com/2013/04/22/environmentalism-2-0-young-people-lead-the-way-2/

Please take a look at what Tristanne wrote. It’s part of our “Voices of Young People” series, and what she said is worth pondering. There’s a lot going on to build a better planet and political economy, and we hope you think about how you might get involved.

Thank you!

—Marcy.

 

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Environmentalism 2.0: Young People Lead the Way

by Tristanne Davis, Occasional Contributor

The Takeaway:Today is Earth Day, and the environmental movement needs young people more than ever. We can help reignite constructive activism by inspiring and engaging the public in bipartisan ways that promote sustainable development thinking and action directed to public policy, business, and individual lifestyle choices.

Forty-three years ago today, we celebrated Earth Day for the first time. On April 22, 1970, approximately 20 million young people in the United States participated in rallies across the country to praise the earth and protest environmental degradation. To this day, that first Earth Day demonstration remains one of the largest political actions in the nation’s history.

Four decades later, we struggle to reconcile the meaning and purpose of Earth Day with a new kind of environmentalism in the face of the extraordinarily daunting environmental challenges that confront us in 2013. Continue reading

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Rituals and Renewal: Politics as Our Civic Religion

Most of us watched yesterday’s inaugural ceremonies on TV if we weren’t lucky enough to attend in person. That is, if we’ve not become so cynical that we don’t care anymore. There are people like that, and I know they have good reason to feel that way. But I’m not one of them. I view these occasions as public expressions of our faith and hope, our belief in things bigger than our capacity to understand. We’re all a part of it, this majestic ritual of democracy’s unfolding journey, not strangers. Whether or not it’s the candidate I want (and Obama is), I love our civic rituals, with all the pageantry and symbolism.

So does my old friend and mentor Dr. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a pioneering advocate for women in theology (the first female president of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada [ATS] and so much more), who knows well the importance of ritual in public life. Zikmund, who has served as both a United Church of Christ seminary dean and chief (Pacific School of Religion, Hartford Seminary) as well as church historian, has an illustrious career spanning many decades – her papers are archived at the Union Theological Seminary library, now a part of Columbia University, her fans and accomplishments are legion – and continues to remain active, in spite of retirement.  I’ve known Barb – or “BBZ”, as most of her friends call her – and her husband Joe for 44 years, ever since I was an undergrad at Albion College in Michigan. They currently live in Washington, D.C. but will be moving back to Michigan sometime soon.

Anyway, Barb and I exchanged emails yesterday, working out plans for we three to get together here in the Boston area next month. I wrote in one that I figured they’d be watching the inaugural festivities from the comfort of their couch, rather than stand out in the bitter cold.

I should have known better. Continue reading

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Gift Xchange: Giving, Investing, and Grantmaking for Good

Part One of Two

The TakeAway: Charitable requests are a constant, but the end of the year brings a blizzard of appeals. In addition to our donor dollars, there’s a vast amount of untapped money power held by nonprofit institutions, particularly if they have endowments. Here’s a listing of some of my favorite organizations that are seeking to build more prosperous, sustainable, and just societies. The idea is to create a “virtuous circle” of exchange relationships, something as old as time itself. And not necessarily limited to end-of-year benevolence. Please consider making a gift, and becoming an Xchange agent for good.

We all know the drill: from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, our inboxes – virtual and analog – are stuffed with appeals—occurring now on an hourly basis, as charities seek last-minute tax-deductible contributions. Their messaging urgency makes it seem they’re on their own kind of “fiscal cliff”, that somehow at the stroke of midnight tonight they’ll disappear, like Cinderella’s bejeweled coach.

Most of us wish we had more to support them. We do what we can, but beyond a few dollars here and there, how might we use our limited charitable resources to help bring about a better world? How can we look at the entire twelve-month cycle of charitable activity, and view ourselves as “investors” in their good works? In fact, how do we even know if they’re fully using their power as change agents – after all, all nonprofits exist to advance the public interest, which is why they are tax-exempt in the first place.

How can we lengthen our leverage, so to speak, so that not only do our donations make a difference, they also join an arsenal comprising several money pots: a charity’s investments, if they have an endowment; their grantmaking, if they’re a foundation; and the formula for allocating operational funds, e.g., program and administrative costs. Continue reading

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Apocalypse Now: Sandy Hook, Gun Ownership, and Civic Moral Responsibility

The TakeAway: The world may not have ended for us today, but it did for 27 women and children who were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. That unspeakable tragedy reopens debates over gun ownership, violence, and mental health treatment. One dimension of “ownership”, however, involves not just the flow of guns but the flow of capital that makes gun manufacture possible. It’s time for investors to step up and make sure that their fiduciary role does not include investments in killing machines or other holdings that undermine human and planetary well-being. Rather than restricted to specific issues and certain portions of a portfolio – as was the case during the 1970s and 1980s’ debates over South Africa- and tobacco-related equity investments – the idea here is to view the fiduciary ethic as encompassing all asset classes and all issues. We need an Apocalypse Now, a positive approach that unveils the “ethics” of the “fiduciary ethic”, ethics that are nourished by civic moral roots that serve to inform and transform.

The world was supposed to come to an end today, according to apocalyptic interpretations of the Mayan calendar, but it didn’t.

But a week ago, for 26 innocent children and women, it did. That’s when their apocalyptic moment became burned into our consciousness. It wasn’t quite end times, but the world did feel turned upside down, and there were enough frightening images to keep you up at night, even if they weren’t from the Book of Revelation.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “apocalypse” commonly is associated with ancient Jewish and Christian texts from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. that contain prophetic or symbolic visions. These images show the destruction of the world and the salvation of the righteous, the Rapture, and the “left behind”. Through the centuries, the Book of Revelation and its apocalyptic motif became canonic, despite the fact that in those days there were all kinds of prophecies and visions throughout Asia Minor and the Holy Land. Some were buried and forgotten, but Revelations lived on.

Indeed, an alternative interpretation of “apocalypse” begins with its ancient Greek meaning: to reveal something that’s hidden, to uncover, to unveil. The etymology of “apocalypse” – the Greek word is ἀποκάλυψις – comes from ἀποκαλύπτω (apokalúptō, “I disclose, reveal”), from ἀπό (apó, “from”) and καλύπτω (kalúptō, “I cover”). As such, apocalypse can serve as a neutral term that opens up other applications to modern life, more constructive ones that belie the fiery destruction of the Armageddon motif.

Let us ponder that kind of Apocalypse, a “great unveiling” that shows us another way of organizing our lives together, not end times but new times, where we rededicate ourselves to doing what is right, as God gives us to understand the right.

Here are a few ideas about what that means to me. Continue reading

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Ready For Their Close-Up: Corporate Secretaries and “The Shape of Things to Come”

Part One of Three

The TakeAway: The recent annual conference of the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals focused on “The Shape of Things to Come”—that is, key issues and trends affecting corporate accountability and sustainable prosperity. In so doing, it provided further evidence of the importance of these underappreciated (and under-resourced) governance professionals, who are pivotal intermediaries in the restoration of trust in business enterprise and capital markets. Part One looks at how and why corporate secretaries matter. Part Two briefly summarizes what the conference covered. Part Three examines more closely the interrelated themes of psychology / behavioral science; education and learning; and moral reflection and judgment that undergirded conference proceedings—with ongoing implications for professional practice.

Okay, I know it’s vacation time, but here’s a pop quiz: Who’s the most underrated influence on promoting sustainable, accountable, and just business enterprise?

(A) Dissident shareholders;

(B) Prosecuting attorneys;

(C) Consumer activists;

(D) Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert;

(E) Corporate secretaries;

(F) Whistleblowers.

If you picked (E), you get to ring the bell. (The others, of course, are influential too, but they get far more attention.)

Bell ringing is what the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals[1] did yesterday at Nasdaq, where Society President and CEO Ken Bertsch rang the closing bell. Nine days earlier, the Society wrapped up its hugely informative, entertaining, and cutting-edge national conference, the 66th in its history. More than 800 paid attendees, sponsors, speakers, and guests descended upon Washington, D.C. (the first time in that city) to learn from presenters and each other about how best to address “The Shape of Things to Come”. They tackled an eclectic array of governance matters likely to occur over the next five years, affecting public, private, and nonprofit organizations of all shapes and sizes.

Why does this matter? Because corporate secretaries now play a significant but vastly underappreciated role in promoting corporate responsibility, sustainability, and good governance. They’re the link among owners, boards, and management, between internal and external stakeholders. As such, they’re pivotal intermediaries in reconciling complex and sometimes competing claims, and operate within a highly volatile environment featuring heightened public expectations about the right thing to do.

This is a far cry from days of old (that is, ten years ago, pre-Sarbanes-Oxley), when the corporate secretary’s job was far less dynamic, dominated by record-keeping more than anything else, within an adversarial operating environment.

The job has come a long way since 2002, a transformation on vivid display July 11 – 14, through both formal conference proceedings and offsite meetings and exchanges. “It’s the biggest conference we’ve had in a long time,” said conference chair Doug Chia, Assistant General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Johnson & Johnson. “We’ve managed to jam in a lot in just 2½ short days, with over 120 speakers.”

Jam in a lot, indeed. This Post, the first of three parts, touches upon key changes in the nature of the corporate secretary’s job. This is something CSR and sustainability professionals, mainstream media (both legacy and emerging), and the general public needs to understand.

Part Two summarizes briefly what the conference covered, in sessions devoted to key issues affecting shareholder engagement, board decision making, management operations, and professional skill building. Political and policy trends were on the agenda, too, including upcoming SEC rulemaking. (Ning Chiu of the law firm Davis Polk also provides an excellent overview.) Many of the sessions were recorded, presumably for access at some future point. Conference planners assembled an illustrious group: many were authors of recently published books on conference topics.

Part Three delves more deeply into three meta-themes I detected running throughout many of the presentations. They include the importance of psychological insights, educational pedagogy, and moral deliberation in making corporate enterprise more accountable and productive.

Chia, the planning committee, and the Society team received well-deserved praise for successfully organizing and running such a uniformly high-quality affair, which included separate tracks for spouses and families. While it was impossible to sample everything, they offered up tantalizing topics worth pursuing even after the proceedings ended.

Indeed, the Society might consider ways in which ongoing engagement and collaborative learning on conference topics might occur, offsite and online. That’s a juicy opportunity facing next year’s planners, chaired by Jim Brashear, Vice President, General Counsel, and Corporate Secretary at ZixCorp. The 2013 conference is slated for Seattle, from July 10 – 13.

“There are so many conference experiences you can have within this one conference. That’s what we intended to create from the beginning,” Chia said.

Nota bene: an overview of conference-related Tweets with the hashtag #Society12 can be seen at the Storify page curated by Fay Feeney, Founder and CEO of Risk4Good and a “digital whisperer” to boot. Continue reading

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Diamonds and Rust: The Need for Ethical Climate Change in Banking

The takeaway: The British  scandal over interest-rate rigging underscores the need for ethical climate change in banking. In addition to regulatory and policy changes, doing this involves the combined efforts of CEOs, boards of directors, investors, depositors, and other stakeholders to make banking better. To start, it means understanding and enhancing the moral shadow cast by every institutional and individual action. It also means cultivating a moral compass, along with a code of conduct or banker’s oath, so that principled business leadership and a fiduciary ethic can be revived. But this won’t work unless there’s also a firm commitment to embed ethical principles and sustainability commitments throughout the value chain.

The challenge to CEOs and governing boards is to foster a better climate in which the ethical beliefs and values of the firm can be embedded in business operations, relationships, and all forms of accountability. The challenge for rest of us – investors, depositors, employees, intermediaries, policymakers, regulators, the media and educational institutions – is to demand and enact a better climate in which the ethical beliefs and values of CEOs, governing boards, and capital investors can flourish.

“I’ve always tried to live my life by a moral code and things that I thought were right. And when I’ve been involved with institutions that I’ve been responsible for, I’ve tried to bring those standards of conduct into those organizations, and insist that those organizations live by that same kind of moral or ethical code…and that it conduct its business in a highly professional, responsible, ethical way.  I stressed that at Goldman Sachs in everything we did, and ultimately developed what we called Our Business Principles. It was a written statement of the special features of what we felt Goldman Sachs stood for, and there were fourteen of them. ‘The clients’ interests always come first, and if we serve our clients well, our success will follow.’ That was one of the principles. That was the kind of thing we talked about.”
John Whitehead, former Chairman of Goldman Sachs, author of Goldman’sBusiness Principles”, Interview with Marcy Murninghan, 1997

We need more John Whiteheads. Desperately.

We also need more ethical, engaged, and diligent boards, and investors that recognize their fiduciary obligation does not mean favoring short-term profits at the expense of other values, including longer-term sustainable prosperity.

At a bigger level, we need more conscientious capital markets, which recognize that the purpose of finance is to serve society, not screw it.

All of these come to mind as we witness yet another banking scandal, the latest in what feels like a conveyor belt of bad behavior where money, power, and politics are involved. Continue reading

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Rotten Culture: What Others Are Saying

Please note: this is a supplement to “Diamonds and Rust: The Need for Ethical Climate Change in Banking“, posted 9 July 2012

If you don’t understand what all the Libor fuss is about, here are some exemplary explainers and commentaries. The first batch comes from the U.K.; the second from American observers and experts.

  • The Economist is outraged: In “The Rotten Heart of Finance” it said the Libor scandal “corrodes further what little remains of public trust in banks and those who run them.” In “Banksters” the editors call for a clean-up, saying, “Popular fury and class-action suits are seldom a good starting point for new rules. Yet despite the risks of banker-bashing, a clean-up is in order, for the banking industry’s credibility is shot, and without trust neither the business nor the clients it serves can prosper.”
  • Up-to-the-minute coverage of the Libor scandal provided by the Financial Times and The Guardian give content and context to the fast-evolving story;
  • Perhaps my favorite: FT’s piece on “How traders trumped Quakers”, which describes the erosion of Quaker values of integrity and trust as Barclays banking culture moved from respectable (albeit elite) to something else. John Piender describes the battleground between retail and commercial bankers on the one side, and investment bankers on the other—and evokes Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker in the process.

As for what Americans are saying, take a look at:

  • Politico‘s backgrounder, with loads of hyperlinks, written by Cora Currier;
  • Dylan Matthewsexplainer in the Washington Post;
  • The elegant breakdown provided by Marketplace’s New York bureau chief Heidi Moore;
  • The insights provided by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who pointed out the reaction in the U.K. is far more intense than here, and that, “Once again, it leads one to believe that bankers feel neither the constraints of the law nor of morality”;
  • NYTimes business columnist Gretchen Morgenson’s call for American regulators to get cracking on similar reform. “It’s hard to believe, in the wake of the Libor mess, that Wall Street and its supporters in Congress would continue to battle against price transparency in any market. Then again, that’s precisely what they did after the credit crisis. With each new financial imbroglio, the gulf widens between Main Street’s opinion of Wall Street and the industry’s view of itself.” She should know: she’s an expert on how the Wall Street / Washington revolving door culture contributed to the  financial crisis

Most pungently, writing on GMI Ratings’ blog, governance expert Nell Minow justifiably dismisses broad-stroke spinning of the Libor story by calling it what it is. “The scandal is about price-fixing.  It is about a bank, or rather the executives and the board of directors of a bank.  It is about lying.  It is about crime.  It is about the ability of large, powerful private institutions to exploit the rules, undercut oversight, and avoid accountability.”

 

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“Just Keep Your Knees Together” – Democracy’s Disconnect

Guest Commentary by Rosalie Hudnut Wright, Occasional Contributor, The Murninghan Post

The Takeaway: To inaugurate MurnPost’s “Voices of Baby Boomers” section, Rosalie Hudnut Wright writes about the “disconnect” in our Presidential primary campaign between women’s well-being and social and economic sustainability. Recent rhetoric on birth control provides a cynical example of our impoverished politics, and reinforces power imbalances affecting the sexual and reproductive lives of women—which can lead to deepened inequality and even violence.

The other day I became aware of dangerous disconnects that seem to characterize the state of our contemporary politics these days, a reminder of how untrustworthy are those claiming to serve the public interest at a time when economic and environmental problems dwarf all others. I was watching Foster Friess, a major financial supporter of Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, say during an interview on MSNBC that in the good old days, a gal’s best and only necessary form of contraception was an aspirin held tightly between her legs.

The interviewer, Andrea Mitchell, experienced such a profound disconnect that she had to change the subject. Mr. Friess’s disconnect from women’s reality was painfully obvious—as was the conversation from what really matters these days.

The next day on CBS Morning News a furious Santorum slammed co-host Charlie Rose and the media for asking him for his thoughts on the matter. Continue reading

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A Valentine’s Bouquet: Twelve for 2012

The TakeAway: The blooms of sustainable prosperity and justice are fed by at least twelve currents that will get stronger throughout 2012. They involve the maturation of corporate social responsibility and corporate governance; rethinking the meaning of “fiduciary”; balancing internationalism and globalization with “local first” movements; social sustainability impact; the evolution of stakeholder engagement; the knowledge explosion and new tools / language; the importance of formal and informal education; serious action on climate, including disaster readiness and resilience; and the power of individual action.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and love is in the air—love lost, love gained, love just around the corner. A good time to open our hearts, not just to people who strike our fancy, but to larger questions of purpose and meaning, and the promise of a better life. So here’s a bouquet—not of roses, but another kind of bloom, the kind that remains fragrant as long as it’s watered and nourished.

Last month I said it was time to “get off the couch” and get moving. This post continues that theme by taking you outside and identifying twelve currents in 2012 that feed the blooms of sustainable prosperity and justice—and areas that need special care. No doubt there are many more, but these are the ones I keep thinking about. Over the coming weeks, I’ll go into each more in-depth. But first, a word about context.

The Purpose of Economic Arrangements

Before smelling the posies, let’s zoom out and look at the bigger garden of earthly delights, affecting our politics and polity. Within the U.S. and abroad, questions about the purpose of economic arrangements have risen, not just among sustainability “insiders” but in our political rhetoric, and not just in our Presidential primary campaign, but due to the efforts of Occupy Wall Street and other high-profile developments, such as a series of New York Times articles on the exploitation of workers in Apple’s supply chain. This is a good thing, if we can get beyond sloganeering and bromides. Continue reading

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Campus Curricula and the Common Good: Filling the Gap

Guest Commentary by Joe McCarty, Occasional Contributor, The Murninghan Post

The TakeAway: To inaugurate MurnPost’s “Voices of Young People” section, Joe McCarty writes about the failure of undergraduate business schools to equip students with the knowledge and competence necessary for building sustainable prosperity and justice. Students can organize to help fill gaps in the curriculum, and persuade colleges and universities to do a better job.

We are currently witnessing a turning point in the way individuals, corporations, and governments view their impacts on the world. In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement exposed the frustration and anger of its participants and supporters over the way many businesses are run. OWS was and continues to be a contributor to the growing collective perception that corporations need to do better – both socially and environmentally. Because corporations are run by people, it is the people affiliated with them who must change their views and behavior about the purpose and function of corporations in society. This includes board members, managers and other employees, suppliers—even customers and shareholders, and others in the stakeholder ecosystem.

But one demographic that’s overlooked in the rapidly-growing, overlapping fields of corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and responsible investing: the people who are currently being taught in our business schools about how corporations are and should be governed and run. On this front, there’s a lot of work to do. Continue reading

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Justice for All: Climate Change and the Energy Economy

The TakeAway: It’s time for us to reach across social and cultural divides to kickstart our economy and advance the cause of justice. One way of doing that is to address fear and mistrust head-on, and then work together to encourage more investment and follow-through in the energy economy—especially the job-generating Better Buildings Initiative.

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tireless efforts for simple justice—not just racial, but economic. So it’s a good occasion to celebrate continuing efforts to bring about economic justice, and contemplate what we, the people, can do to advance it. That’s why last week’s powerful speech by AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka continues to resonate, especially when he said: “The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the ‘green economy’ will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.”

Amidst the political gridlock and troubling gaps between the rich and everyone else, Trumka’s remarks snapped everyone to attention and hammered home a message that helps loosen the lock and build a bridge. He appeared before a gathering at the United Nations of roughly 500 global investors and financial players concerned about climate risk. (The speech, which was streamed live, can be viewed online[1]). His remarks drew a standing ovation from the assembly, who together control $20 trillion and hail from four continents. They were in New York for the 5th Investor Summit on Climate Risk and Energy Solutions, an annual affair co-hosted by Ceres, United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations Office for Partnerships (UNOP).

Trumka’s speech occurred near the end of a day packed with practical information on new ideas and financial products for scaling climate and energy solutions, how to make the clean energy transition in both the developed world and emerging economies, and how the financial community can influence social policy. The Investor Summit was capped by the release of the 2012 Investor Action Plan on Climate Change Risks and Opportunities, a 5-point manifesto for managing and integrating climate considerations into portfolio decision making—including the selection of investment managers, greater investment in low-carbon / energy efficiency solutions, and integration of water risk and opportunities.

But it was Trumka’s talk that dazzled, because he called upon investors, workers, environmentalists, and policy makers to remember the 99 percent and the need for shared respect in forging a new national commitment to economic recovery and sustainability. His words underscored the critical importance for those of us working in the corporate governance, social responsibility, and sustainability space to do a better job engaging and enlisting the general public in building a better world. Continue reading

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Getting Off the Couch

The TakeAway: Last year we became conscious of the breakdown in public trust and its civic moral and economic consequences—and what average people can do to make a difference. This year more of us will get off the couch and work to refuel the engines of democracy and capitalism, of liberty and prosperity, to promote community well being, for decades to come. Here’s the beginning of a series on how.

“2011 set the table.  2012 has the potential to accelerate the ‘revolution’ toward the new corporation agenda,” Allen White wrote to a group of us the day after New Year’s. “Growing wealth disparities between managers and workers, regressive taxes, privatizing gains while socializing losses, ‘too big to fail’, hyper-leveraged organizations linked to financial destabilization and dislocation—these are among the many, linked conditions that are bringing unprecedented scrutiny of the purpose and design of corporations,” he said.

White, who’s a Senior Fellow with Boston-based Tellus Institute for a Great Transition, was referring to the fact that, despite the “volatility and hardship” of 2011, it was a year that also provided hope—perhaps falling short of “urgently needed systemic change,” yet offering “glimpses of the possible.” He also drew upon remarks made at last year’s World Economic Forum by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, which underscored the importance of “revolutionary thinking and action” to bring about sustainable development in all aspects of modern life.  White was signaling to those of us affiliated with Tellus’ Corporation 20/20 project – now in its tenth year – that 2012 bodes well for redefining the purpose of business within a larger public interest context, in which questions about purpose and meaning – affecting economic, political, and civic life – are raised and, more importantly, addressed.

I couldn’t agree more. The signs are everywhere. Continue reading

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Song of Sorrow or Call to Arms? Four Stratagems to Improve Our Politics

The TakeAway: While extremist politics dominate Washington, financial markets continue to seize, and US credit-worthiness takes a beating, advocates of sustainability and good governance need to stop moping and get off the bench. Here are four stratagems to reverse the tide: educate and engage a broader public, hold political candidates accountable, and support Bob Massie for U.S. Senate.

What a week this was: in the face of a double-dip recession, the Dow exhibits bipolar behavior, its wild volatility (including the worst trading days since September 2008) an apparent reaction to last Friday’s unprecedented downgrade by Standard & Poor’s of the nation’s debt rating, from “AAA” to “AA.” President Obama hit the airwaves Monday afternoon, less than a week after signing a debt-ceiling bill that many believe is a complete capitulation to right-wing Republicans because it failed to include any tax increases while calling for massive cuts—which in the long run won’t make much of a difference. Adding insult to injury, Congress abdicated its authority to a 12-member “Super Congress” that supposedly will recommend at least $1.5 trillion of additional deficit measures, further concentrating public power in the hands of a few.

Meanwhile, despite last year’s passage of omnibus financial regulatory reform, its opponents have taken to the courts while seeking to castrate the SEC by defunding its ability to make and enforce rules based on the law’s provisions. Unemployment remains at historic levels (9.1 percent), with nearly 14 million Americans out of work and more than 6 million of them jobless for more than six months.  Income / wealth inequalities – exacerbated across racial and ethnicity lines – continue to rise, with most Americans unable to cope with a $1,000 emergency. This is a picture far removed from Washington’s political gamesmanship as politicians gear up for 2012 elections. Last night’s Republican debate was the opening salvo in what promises to be a dreary, dirty campaign season.

No wonder the public is fed up. A Washington Post poll reveals that three-quarters of the American people have little or no confidence in Washington’s ability to repair the economy. The vast majority are dissatisfied by the way the way our political system is working, and believe Washington is focused on the “wrong things.” “The decline in confidence has potentially profound implications for coming elections,” reports the Post, “although the anger appears directed evenly between the two parties.”

We’re suffering from a “failure of leadership,” opines the New York Times, telling us what we already know: that our elected officials have no sense of what we need, no empathy for our plight, and no apparently ability to speak our language, define the problem and call upon us all to rise to the occasion and fix it.

You’d think that in the face of this mess that my colleagues, who’ve dedicated their lives to sustainable prosperity and social justice, would rally quickly and use their power as civic change agents as effectively as they’ve used their power as private sector change agents. You’d think that they would apply their recognition of the links between private prosperity and the public good and the overlapping interdependence of healthy ecosystems, and work to complete an incomplete picture of what’s wrong and what’s needed.

But you’d be wrong. Continue reading

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The Sustainability Ratings Industrial Complex: Breaking the Hold

The TakeAway: The recent launch of the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings seeks to bring some order, quality, and accountability to the diverse and booming growth industry of sustainability ratings and rankings—also a topic of the online “SustyChat3” among experts, occurring this week on the OpenEyeWorld platform.

Today we celebrate another “movement milestone”, one of several occurring during the month of June: the long-awaited launch of the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR), announced at a Washington, D.C. briefing held June 9th by the nonprofit groups Tellus Institute and Ceres.  GISR’s purpose, according to the press release, is to “create and bring to widespread adoption a single standard for rating the sustainability performance of companies.”  GISR will operate as an independent, non-commercial framework that “builds on the current system’s strengths and, corrects its shortcomings, thereby unleashing the full power of ratings to drive sustainability deep into capital, procurement and consumer markets.”

That announcement coincides with year-long efforts of SustainAbility, a think tank and strategic consultancy, to examine and improve the corporate social responsibility (CSR) / sustainability ratings space, and sustainability expert Bill Baue’s work to spark conversation among experts about the value, role, and improvements needed to link ratings to performance improvement and impact.  “Corporate sustainability ratings are trending as a hot issue in the CSR space, so they’re a perfect focal topic for the third Sustainability Chat on OpenEyeWorld,” said Baue.  Baue, a MurnPost Co-Founder and ad hoc Editor, is curator of the two-day “SustyChat3” on Sustainability Ratings.  It’s happening today and tomorrow at OpenEyeWorld, a commercial platform for online sustainability expert engagement.  Representatives of both SustainAbility and GISR are moderating one of the three SustyChat3 dialogues. Continue reading

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Human Rights: A Moral and Material Business Concern

The TakeAway: Several sustainability milestones were reached in June, but the greatest of these was the UN Human Rights Council endorsement of the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, which established human rights as both a moral and material consideration for economic enterprise.

It’s the end of June, and time to break out the sunscreen and flip-flops. Before sipping those sangrias, we thought it worth reviewing the major milestones occurring this month, which advance sustainability and justice.  Among the markers are those involving human rights; sustainability impact; integrated / sustainability reporting; and sustainability ratings. This progress signals the maturation of a movement that has ancient roots, yet continues to be challenged by those with parochial beliefs in unlimited growth and the supremacy of coins and paper over people and planet.  And, they point to new frontiers in need of civilization, particularly regarding stronger integration of sustainability and justice into socio-political systems and an emerging world economy. Today and tomorrow, we’ll provide a recap before commencing flag-waving and fireworks.

Human Rights: A Moral and Material Business Concern

First up: the landmark June 16th UN Human Rights Council (HRC) endorsement of the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework. The HRC action further establishes human rights as both a moral and material part of economic enterprise, extending a principle that’s been around (but not widely accepted) for decades.  (Reminder: South African apartheid and the Sullivan Principles, or Northern Ireland discrimination and the MacBride Principles.)  The Guiding Principles were proposed by Harvard Kennedy School professor John Ruggie, the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on human rights and transnational corporations.  We think it’s among the most important milestones in the recent era of corporate responsibility and sustainability, particularly given its emphasis on stakeholder engagement and collaboration among government, business, and civil society. Continue reading

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