Every few decades, America’s business leaders change their minds about what obligations corporations and the wealthy have to society. This happened 100 years ago, when ex-robber barons like Andrew Carnegie invented modern philanthropy to address social ills, and in the mid-20th century, when leading executives stopped fighting unions and backed more generous wages and benefits. It also happened in the 1970s, when big business rejected that compact with labor, leading to the harsher free-market ethos of the 1980s and 1990s.
Now, corporate leaders are shifting their thinking once more, calling for a gentler form of capitalism.
The latest evidence came last week from two titans of business, H. Lee Scott Jr., chief executive of Wal-Mart, and Bill Gates, the retiring chairman of Microsoft. At an annual meeting of thousands of Wal-Mart employees and suppliers on Jan. 23, Scott pledged that the company — long one of the most ruthless firms in America — would promote energy-efficient products and improve labor conditions in its supply chain. Scott even said that Wal-Mart stores might one day generate electricity with windmills and solar panels. The very next day, Gates, whose company is still under court supervision stemming from an antitrust settlement in 2002, used a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to call for a new “creative capitalism” in which “more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world’s inequities.