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A Reader Writes by Brian McNeece: Two world world forums: one dilemma

April 08, 2002

Recently we saw the staging of two forums discussing our global economy.

In New York City, the World Economic Forum brought 3000 of the world's business and political leaders together — most paying $25,000 for the privilege.

In Porto Alegre, Brazil, 50,000 leftist-minded folks gathered at the World Social Forum.

On the agenda at both events were many discussions of the question of social responsibility for the leaders of multi-national companies whose interests and business goals now span the globe.

While the World Economic Forum has traditionally been the place for the elite to happily schmooze about their good fortunes, times have changed. Now, characters like Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, and Bono, socially-active lead singer of the rock group U2, share the same podium, collectively shaking their fingers at the rich and powerful who — according to them — should care more about the 2 billion folks who are dirt poor.

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The WEF began in 1971 and is normally held in Davos, Switzerland, a tony ski resort away from the hoi polloi, away from protesters and nosy reporters and their liberal bias. This year, in deference to last year's tragedy, the event was moved to New York City.

Usually discussions tend to market share, mergers and takeovers and fresh territories for expansion. But over the years, with protesters at other economic events clamoring outside the halls for higher wages for workers, more concern over the environment, and respect for local cultures, those inside have become more introspective.

Meanwhile, the World Social Forum, held only for the second time this year, sprung up as a protest event. Last year, most of the WSF sessions spelled out what was wrong with the other guys, what evil the selfish, greedy CEOs had wreaked upon mother earth Gaia and its meek inhabitants.

In times past, the left-wingers who fall in at such demonstrations were a motley, untailored group who bore little clout. This year, the WSF gained legitimacy by the attendance of a European prime minister, World Bank

directors, even corporate executives.

However, the surprising thing about this year was not the new legitimacy of the WSF, but the fact that the wealthy players at the WEF had brought a new dimension to its social conscience into the halls. Conservative commentators from Ayn Rand to Adam Smith have lifted their voices to the need for pure self-interest in all things economical. According to these thinkers, because resources are limited, those with brains and power should get to the feeding trough with whatever cleverness and whatever force they can muster. Otherwise they will be left out.

That, according to this "realistic" voice, is what has happened to the 2 billion on the planet who currently don't know when or how their next meal will show up. According to the conservative voice, it's their own fault.

Despite this, doing good deeds repeatedly came up among the CEOs at the WEF. Not that doing good is an idea foreign to corporations. What's new about the debate is that the biggest players on the planet are not discussing doing good once the money is counted and the profit is in the bank. They're discussing the question of whether they should act for the common good of their employees and customers at all stages of the business cycle.

This is where Ayn Rand rises up out of her grave in horror, where Adam Smith stomps away in disgust. Why burden business with the added complexity of ethics? In their day, they would have said that the free market is a tough enough arena to survive in.

Today, however, the world is different. Today's industrialists control vast global networks whose thousands of products each carry a market share and millions of customers in the habit of buying. The task of these enormous giants is not to sprint ahead of the pack but simply to maintain the pace, for their infrastructures are so vast that they need every bit of modern computing power and communication expertise to keep the whole armada afloat.

Look at Kmart, one of the pioneers in the mega-discount stores. It's a corporate culture that has run out of gas, a giant that could no longer maintain its vitality enough to keep the stores neatly stocked and the employees animated enough to draw in the customers.

Meanwhile, the arcane, labyrinthine language of modern accounting tempts the CEOs with off-balance sheet partnerships, off-shore banking and all manner of financial wizardry. Using these tools to keep their shareholders at bay, Enron executives pursued their own self-interest so thoroughly that they neglected to manage even the collective good of their own company.

It turns out "self-interest" always includes a few more people than one's own little self; as technology shrinks the planet, it's becoming more and more apparent that we all belong to and are part of each other.

The debates in New York and Porto Alegre were about how wide to draw the circle of the self.

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