Business morality good for public morality

Commentator Robert Reich says ethics in the boardroom can help save the economy.

Tess Vigeland: Today Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz addressed the company's annual shareholders' meeting. Along with plans for boosting revenue, he discussed how business can be a force for social good.

Commentator Robert Reich says it's a discussion that's long overdue.


Robert Reich: The biggest moral crisis in America isn't about the private decisions Americans make about who to marry or when to have children; it's about the violations of public trust at the highest reaches of our economy.

Last week's broadside by a former Goldman Sachs executive charging the firm with putting profits before clients was seen as sour grapes by some. But it came on the heels of Goldman's admission that one of its bankers acted as a merger adviser while holding stock in one of the two merging companies being merged -- a blatant conflict of interest.

After gutting the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, Wall Street has returned to many of the sleazy practices that brought on the 2008 crash.

All this comes at a time when executive pay continues to soar, and both Wall Street and big corporations are pouring record amounts of money into political campaigns.

Some conservatives call private moral decisions they disagree with "shameful."

But the abuses of public trust on Wall Street and in the executive suites of our largest corporations are breaches of public morality, and they are shameful. They undermine the integrity of our economy and our democracy.

Twice before reformers have saved capitalism from its excesses by appealing to public morality. First in the early 1900s when the captains of industry dominated the economy with giant monopolies and presided over sweatshops. Then again in 1930s after the stock market collapsed and one out of every four Americans was left without a job.

It's time for a new era of reform based on public morality. To crack down on conflicts of interest. Rein in exhorbitant pay. Stop banks from gambliing with their customers' money. And reverse the Supreme Court's decision that allows corporations and the well-heeled to buy elections through unlimited political spending.

Today, Howard Shultz plans to stand up for the importance of morality in business. It's something all of us should get behind. After all, public morality depends on what happens in America's boardrooms, not its bedrooms.


Vigeland: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." Tell us what you think -- write to us.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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