February 25, 2016

“We Have to Walk Away From This Road Show”
These are among the words with which Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson concludes her book, “Mother Country.”  It was published in 1989.  She was writing about a somewhat different challenge then.  She described it as a “decline in national self-esteem.”  But in a way, it wasn’t different.  In a way, we are facing much the same challenge today.  I describe it as a “decline in confidence in our institutions.”  
Because of this, we are witnessing a campaign by a candidate for the presidency of the United States by Donald Trump unlike any other we have witnessed in my lifetime.  A campaign that relishes in sweeping, categorical defamation of other people, such as Muslims and immigrants.  A campaign that takes delight in pushing the boundaries of outrageous pronouncements, whether that be in vilifying an entire group of people or accusing a former president of the United States of “lying.”  We are perversely taken by Trump’s authenticity, his fearlessness and his complete and utter rejection of political correctness.
Trump is feeding off a space filled with the potent mixture of boredom, frustration, hopelessness and anger and the all-too-present human attraction to witness, and indeed even revel, in the bizarre.  His impact is fueled by a media frenzy producing unending coverage and the inability of even the most seasoned, tough-minded interviewer to overcome his steamrolling, self-guided verbosity.
Without articulating any policy much beyond “building a big wall, which we’ll have Mexico pay for” and “making America great again” in ways weakly defined, he emphatically says, “Trust me.  I’m great at making deals.”  
He has the insidious talent of demeaning, indeed trashing, “others,” while making those he is addressing feel special, valued, even “loved.”  He gets away with this in no small measure because he is so obviously delivering what he says with gay abandon.  He is really enjoying himself.  
All of what I’ve written here has been easy to write.  But what is not easy and has never been easy in times of challenge of the kind we face today is to find and support the leader who can bring us together, who can offer a vision for the future and plans to support it that realistically offer an improved life for all and to find a role for our country in the world which advances as far as possible the peace we need while avoiding nuclear disaster and the threat of terrorism.
Returning to Ms. Robinson, she closes her book with words I resonate to:  “My greatest hope is that we will at last find the courage to make ourselves rational and morally autonomous adults, secure enough in the faith that life is good and to be preserved, and to recognize the greatest forms of evil and name them and confront them.”  
Paraphrasing her conclusion, we have to walk away from this road show which Donald Trump’s campaign represents.  We need to “consult with our souls, and find the courage in ourselves, to see and perceive and hear and understand.”



February 17, 2016

The Moral Responsibility of Business

Some time ago, we were presented with a real drama in the States of Indiana and Arkansas, as legislation was adopted and then quickly reversed which proposed to give license to business organizations to refuse service based on their religious principles to gays and lesbians.  A broad array of business and business leaders objected to this, including the nine leading businesses in Indiana, WalMart, Apple, and many others.  New legislation was quickly introduced (and that in Arkansas modified) to explicitly indicate that this “religious freedom” legislation could not be used to discriminate against marriage preference. 

This is a very tricky area.  To what extent do businesses have the right and indeed the obligation to voice their position on moral or ethical grounds to sway public policy?  How does business strike the right balance between its values and abiding with an existing social policy, imbedded in law and perhaps embraced by a large percentage of the population, including its employees or customers?

Getting down to cases, as CEO in 1995, I reached the position that Procter & Gamble should provide equal benefits to individuals who are in a codified same-sex partnership.  We did this at a time when the majority of Ohioans opposed same-sex marriage.  We were not taking a position that these individuals were wrong in their belief.  We were taking the position that the same-sex partnership as it was codified made it right in the name of fairness to accord our employees in such a partnership the same benefits as a married couple.  It proved fairly controversial, but I believed it was right to do.  We were not making a moral pronouncement on same-sex marriage at this time.  We were saying that in the name of fairness there was no reason to deny individuals in this relationship same-sex benefits.

A related issue being discussed here relates to the “personhood” of a corporation.  Is a corporation a “person” or not? 

Many, perhaps most, would say, no, a corporation is not a “person.”  As one columnist said, a corporation won’t be a “person” until it is capable of being executed in the State of Texas. 

Where do I stand on this issue?  It depends on what you mean by “person.”

I would say that business has a “responsibility” as part of society to advance positions that are consistent with what as a corporate body (leaders, board of directors, best understanding of shareholders) represent correct and moral values.  I say this because I believe corporations have a major role to play in forming the cultural and value-based character of a society.  I do believe that corporations need to be humble and circumspect in taking on an issue.  They have to recognize the practical need to balance the interests of those it serves -- its consumers, employees, shareholders and the community. 

In other words, if a corporation took on a value-based position that would destroy its business, it would end up serving no one in the future.  Would there ever be occasions where it would have to go this far, to almost literally have to go out of business?  Yes, if its being in busine meant threatening the life of consumers or anyone else.

When I say a corporation must be circumspect and humble, I mean that it must avoid becoming sanctimonious or in any way believing that it has a role of being a priest or prophet in its times.  It must speak judicially, though sometimes bravely, and it must avoid failing to do the good it can do at a given point in time because it cannot achieve perfection. 

Take the situation of Procter & Gamble in Saudi Arabia many years ago.  There was a social mandate that men and women could not work together in the same office.  P&G might have, given its commitment to gender equality, said that it would not do business in Saudi Arabia at all.  Or, I guess it could have taken the position it would violate the laws, though that would not have lasted long.  What did we do?  We set up separate office locations where women would work and where men would work and they would communicate between the two offices.  We did this on market research work.  We also pushed to change the social norms and the laws.  We felt that was right to do, not only morally; we knew it would be better for the business to have people working together in that way.  We felt advancing gender equality was right for the business and right morally.  We kept advancing this goal.

This raises a question:  is the test for a company taking a position on a moral or social issue whether it is relevant to the success of the business itself in the long-term?  Put differently, should businesses only weigh in on social and moral issues that bear directly on having the right (and by “right” I include being morally correct) business and working environment long-term?  I think the answer is yes, but I’d underscore the importance of taking a long-term view.  For example, I believe the commitment to achieve a sustainable environment is one that businesses should advocate, even beyond the immediate benefit of that for the business itself.   Why?  Because I believe businesses should understand that having a world in which they or any other business could operate long-term requires a sustainable environment.

I believe that a business has social and moral obligations that go beyond simply making money in any short- or medium-term measurable sense.

At the same time, I believe its judgments and pronouncements must be measured and put in the context of a business’s doing what is right and fair for its employees, its shareholders and its consumers, recognizing there will always be different points of view on what is right and fair.  While always seeking to do the “right” thing.  It must avoid being self-righteous or over-extending its role in advocating for what it sees as the common good.


The Ultimate Gap Stemming From Income Inequality:  Life Itself

The article by Sabrina Tavernise in the Saturday, February 13, edition of The New York Times, “LIFE SPANS OF THE RICH AND POOR” demonstrates in a horrifyingly compelling way yet another dimension in which income inequality impacts people’s lives—the very length of their lives.

In the early 1970s, a 60-year-old man in the top half of the earnings ladder could expect to live 1.2 years longer than a man of the same age in the bottom half.  Fast-forward to 2001 and he could expect to live 5.8 years longer than his poorer counterpart. 

New research released this month contains even more jarring data.  Looking at the extreme ends of the income spectrum, economists at the Brookings Institution found that for men born in 1920 there was a six-year difference in life expectancy between the top 10% of earners and the bottom 10%.  For men born in 1950, that difference had more than doubled to 14 years.  For women, the gap grew to 13 years from 4.7 years.

Why?  The report sees different smoking habits accounting for perhaps a third of the gap.  Some of the difference could be attributed to somewhat higher obesity.  But an enormous part is attributed to the availability of health care support in all its dimensions.

Here is another data point.  For men born in 1950, life expectancy is about 73 years, for the poorest 10%.  For the highest 10%, it is about 87 years.  Women are somewhat higher; about age 76 for the poorest 10% and about age 88 for the highest 10%.

Think of that.  A decade more of life for the highest income versus the lowest.  It makes you think about what we can do to at least provide people with the opportunity to escape poverty.  Which inevitably brings you back to education and development and health, starting from the earliest years, 0-5, including quality Pre-K.


February 14, 2016

I finished reading one of the most mind-opening, emotionally moving books that I have ever read:  “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.  Kalanithi graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature.  He went on to earn a Master’s Degree in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine from the University of Cambridge and graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine.

He returned to Stanford to complete his residency training in neurological surgery.  At the age of 36, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.

This magnificent book tells the story of his practice as a doctor treating the dying which flowed to the story of him as a patient struggling to live.  He died in March 2015 while working on this book.  His wife completed it.

I have never read a book which brings to life in anything so graphic way the incredible intricacy of operating on the human brain and the miracle that the brain represents.

There are too many phrases and thoughts in this book to try to summarize it in any way that could be satisfactory.  Yet, there were many thoughts that I resonated to so closely based on my own experiences that I cannot fail to record them for future reference.

“Part of the cruelty of cancer, though, is not only that it limits your time; it also limits your energy, vastly reducing the amount you can squeeze into a day.  It is a tired hare who now races, and even if I had the energy, I’d prefer a more tortoise-like approach.  I plot.  I ponder.  Some days, I simply persist.  Languor settles in.  There is a feeling of openness.  Now the time of day means nothing, the day of the week scarcely more.”

“Doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss.  Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too.”

Kalanithi’s memoir leaves us staring starkly into the inevitability of death but equally indeed more so that life is precious and miraculous and needs to be lived in the moment.

Kalanithi’s perspectives on faith and religion mirror my own in many ways.  Like many of us, it is clear he had moments, many of them, of deep disbelief.  Moments when, like most scientific types, “(I) came to believe in the possibility of a material conception of reality, an ultimately scientific world view that would grant a complete metaphysics, minus out-moded concepts like souls, God, and bearded white men in robes.”  He acknowledged spending a lot of his 20s working to build a frame for such an endeavor but, as he eloquently writes, “the problem eventually became evident:  to make science the arbiter of metaphysics is to banish not only God from the world but also love, hate, meaning—to consider a world that is self-evidently not the world we live in.

Scientific methodology in the end is the product of human hands and thus cannot reach some permanent truth.”  This makes “scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjunctive and unpredictable.”  It is unable “to grasp the most central aspects of human life:  hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”

Like myself, Kalanithi returned to the “central values of Christianity—sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness—because I found them so compelling.”  The main message of Jesus, Kalanithi believed, as do I, is that “mercy trumps justice every time.”

Finally, I have resonated to Kalanithi’s rumination that “maybe the basic message of original sin is less an internal ‘feel guilty all the time'; maybe it is more along these lines:  ‘we all have a notion of what it means to be good and we can’t live up to it all the time.’”

So what is the aspiring metaphysician to do?, Kalanithi wonders, “give up?  Almost,” he replies.  But he goes on (we must) “struggle toward the Truth, but recognize that the task is impossible—or that if a correct answer is possible, verification certainly is impossible.  In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only part of the picture.  The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, etc., etc.  Human knowledge is never contained in one person.  It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still is never complete.  And Truth comes somewhere above all of them where, as at the end of that Sunday’s reading, ‘the sober and reaper can rejoice together.’  For here the saying is verified that ‘one sows and another reaps.  I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work and you are sharing the fruits of that work.’”