In the Long Run, Ethics Pay Off


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The real reason Wells Fargo’s CEO had to go. Why did Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf lose his job while so many other banking bosses never paid a price for their company’s malfeasances during the financial meltdown? In Slate, Helaine Olen argues that the Wells scandal, unlike the mortgage-finance fiasco, involved easily comprehensible bad behavior. Derivatives and credit-default swaps are tough to understand. Opening fake accounts without people’s permission? Easier. Stumpf’s old-school blame-throwing and responsibility-ducking didn’t help him. The Wells story gives us one more reminder that if your desk is where the buck stops, don’t try to duck.

What we can learn from Zenefits vs. Gusto. Zenefits was a hard-driving startup that provided software for human-resources management and that was growing like crazy until it smashed into a wall. The revelation that Zenefits had created a tool for salespeople to cut corners on insurance-licensing requirements toppled the firm’s founder and left the company in crisis. Now it’s seeking a comeback (Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times), promising more transparency and a revamped product. But while Zenefits was doing its move-fast-and-break-things act, a smaller competitor named Gusto that provided similar services took a slower, less flashy route, emphasizing trust over meteoric growth. Now Zenefits is desperately trying to persuade the marketplace to give it a second chance — while Gusto snaps up some of its customers. This story is as close as we may ever get to a controlled lab experiment in the long-term value of business ethics. The findings are exactly what you’d expect: Playing fast and loose just doesn’t pay.

Does the White House want to be a startup incubator? Not quite, but the Obama administration has been on a tech tear lately, from hosting a South by South Lawn conference to chatting with Wired. Now it’s introducing a series of new grants (PC World, Tech Republic) — including $65 million to smart-cities initiatives, and $50 million for small satellite programs aimed at providing broadband coverage. As Obama told Wired, keeping government’s hand in the newly emerging industries of municipal sensors and ride-sharing tech isn’t about competing with private industry; instead, it’s intended to make sure that public values shape how these new technologies are deployed. In other White House tech news, the government now has an executive order detailing a national preparedness plan for “space weather events.” If solar flares mess with our grid, the feds say they’re on it.

Why economic growth kills. Pretty much everything that happens in our global economy aims to boost growth. But there’s one weird thing: When economies are in growth mode, the death rate actually goes up a little. As we get richer, we die faster — but why? An economist discovered this phenomenon two decades ago, but now a new study thinks it has the answer: factories and the pollution they spew (The Washington Post/Wonkblog). Stress and injuries associated with hard physical labor play a role, but the harms caused by pollution, particularly on the young, are the most likely culprit. One more reason to fast-track a greener economy: cleaner, safer factories save lives.

Why Siri gives us stage fright. 98 percent of iPhone users use Siri, but only 2 percent use it in public. Talking to a virtual assistant in front of other human beings turns out to be…awkward, writes David Banks (Cyborgology). We don’t seem to have any problem chattering at high volume on our phones in public when we’re talking to other people. But when we try to address an AI, we clam up. Person-to-device communication is different because conversational devices are only aware of a single interlocutor; they can’t grok a group. We tend to address Siri and her ilk with impolite imperatives because that’s how their software works. But Banks suggests we fear that someone overhearing such talk might think we’re being boorish with a fellow human. Well, maybe it’s good that we’re embarrassed to talk to our tech like an ill-mannered boss. After all, that might give us the wrong idea about how to talk to other people.

Featured in NewCo Shift: The Six Thriving Categories of Middlemen in the New Economy. The internet didn’t kill off the middleman; a new book explains which kinds actually ended up thriving in the new economy.

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