(Image Credit: Hachette Book Group)
On the 3rd of December 2016, the crème de la crème of the corporate world assembled at the Clementine Hall in the Vatican for a private audience with Pope Francis. These torch bearers of twentieth century capitalism committed to a Social Compact in the presence of one of the holiest of men, vowing to make the world that bit better. This meeting was organised by two of the biggest beacons of capitalism in the world of media, Fortune, and Time magazines. Tomorrow’s Capitalist is Fortune CEO Alan Murray’s Panglossian trust in capitalism and its practioners. Corporate chieftains about whose societal and social exploits Murray waxes lyrical in the book comprise not just those who made the hallowed papal visit but also includes in their ranks, those lending their unvarnished approval to the content of the book in both the back cover and the initial few pages.
A substantial portion of Tomorrow’s Capitalist is based on learnings gleaned from the podcast Leadership Next. At one point in time sponsored by the audit, accounting and consulting services giant, Deloitte, Leadership Next is jointly hosted by Murray and Ellen McGirt, a senior correspondent at Fortune magazine. McGirt also helpfully writes a stirring foreword for the book. So, in many ways than one, this is a book, by, of and for Fortune!
Interviews with who’s who of the business world, lauded academics and Ivy League professors punctuate Murray’s Panglossian work. Significant emphasis is placed on rhetoric more than actual deeds. Murray is of an unshakeable conviction that the age of stakeholder capitalism is in for the long haul. The bastion of the acolytes of Milton Friedman, ‘shareholder value’ is being surely although slowly eroded as millennials, Gen Zs, and everyone in between are suddenly becoming overtly conscious about the environment, social and governance (ESG) aspects.
Expectedly, tremendous emphasis is placed on the 2019 Business Roundtable open letter titled “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation”. 181 signatories to this letter 181 signatures unanimously published a one-page declaration whose conclusion was straight out of a book of moral aphorisms: “Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities, and our country.” The fact that some of the signatories such as Apple continue to engage in tax evasion with impunity and others such as Amazon have made a habit out of egregious worker mistreatments, is a totally different story altogether.
The book is divided into small and well readable chapters. Every Chapter described either a person, process or a particularity that has worked stunningly well in dragging back society from the quicksand of chicanery and deceit. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are eulogized for being at the vanguard of vaccine development during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc across the world. Sworn competitors became seraphic collaborators in a bid to dramatically reduce the otherwise prolonged time taken in developing a vaccine. Murray takes especial delight in quoting Alexander Hardy, the CEO of Genentech: “…but we decided to give over a large proportion of our manufacturing and our largest biologic site to manufacturing one of our biggest competitors, monoclonal antibodies. And this is a competitor whom we compete very very fiercely against”.
Excellent! But Murray also could have devoted a few pages to the reprehensible vaccine apartheid practiced by these very angels of hope. According to the famed medical journal Lancet, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) promised equitable vaccine supplies for all countries. However, far from achieving such proclaimed equity, COVAX failed to meet even half of its 2021 target of delivering 2 billion doses. In fact, an open letter to G20 leaders in October 2021 illustrated how 133 doses per 100 people were administered to recipients in High Income Countries compared with an appalling four doses per 100 people in Low Income Countries. The WHO Director-General termed this disparity a “vaccine apartheid and making explicit comparisons to the South African system of institutionalised racial segregation. But Murray prefers to give a wide berth and safe passage to this inequity.
Similarly, when it comes to the menace of climate change, Murray is nothing but gung-ho! Asserting, or at least attempting to in a wholehearted manner, that even the usually intransigent CEOs heading the fossil fuel industry are forced to amend their entrenched ways, Murray lays out a plethora of real-life examples to corroborate his claim. Activist shareholders dismantling climate-hostile board members at Exxon, shareholders at Chevron, voting to recommend potential emissions in reductions etc are all alluded to by Murray to prove his point with panache. But at the time of this review, one of the world’s largest Oil & Gas producers, BP, publicly announced a “pivot” back to its core business of Oil & Gas after having boldly declared an ambitious foray into achieving some audacious climate targets. The reason – a fall in BP’s Price Earnings Ratio. The irony of stakeholder capitalism died a thousand deaths. Murray could not have predicted this volte face however, since BP’s latest announcement followed much after Murray’s book was published.
There are many key and indispensable spheres which are totally neglected by Murray. An absolute reluctance on the part of the CEOs to revive or rather resuscitate the lost clout of unions, the blind eye turned to the wreckage that is being left in the wake of the reprehensible practices of Private Equity – acclaimed author Gretchen Morgenson terms PE firms, ‘plunderers’ in her trenchant polemic These are the Plunderers – and a tech cabal that has polarized the world by preying and feeding on the gullible susceptibilities of a vulnerable social media obsessed population, all find absolutely no mention in Murray’s book.
While stakeholder capitalism is no doubt a reason to be optimistic and a cause to look forward to, it is still a long way away from acting as a panacea for ameliorating some of the woes birthed by its more egregious version.
A rising tide does not lift all boats uniformly.