While the election news cycles dedicated to Hillary’s emails and Donald’s ego sucked the oxygen out of our public sphere, here are some of the topics that barely got talked about during this campaign: Climate change. Life after fossil fuels. Automation and artificial intelligence.
Henry Ford famously made inexpensive cars and paid his workers enough so they could afford to buy those cars. Ford aimed for a sort of virtuous cycle, in which a growing business would support a prosperous customer base that could in turn help the business grow further.
In the century since Ford’s heyday American business leaders have largely abandoned this approach, but it’s beginning to creep back into the conversation. Writing in The Atlantic, law professor Michael Dorff argues that too often today’s mission-driven corporations wear their ideals on their sleeves — giving to charity, promoting sustainability initiatives — but fail to build their businesses around a fundamental commitment to the well-being of workers and the wider community, the way Ford at his best did. (He had some execrable traits, too.)
Did Yahoo sell out its users and its values? Last year, Yahoo complied with U.S. intelligence demands to scan all incoming emails for a search phrase, according to an investigation by Joe Menn at Reuters. The company has denied aspects of the report. If Yahoo did what Reuters describes, it not only went beyond what other tech giants that manage our mail (like Google and Microsoft) have been willing to do; it also violated the basic trust that customers of internet services place in their providers. The Reuters report comes on the heels of news that 500 million Yahoo user accounts had their information exposed by a massive break-in. That leaves Yahoo with a double black eye — right as it’s trying to sell itself to Verizon. Users expect and deserve privacy and security. The government wants to foil terrorist plots. It’s up to companies to carefully walk the narrow line between customer rights and law-enforcement needs; instead, it looks like Yahoo staggered drunkenly into a roadside ditch. If the company hopes to retain a shred of public trust, CEO Marissa Mayer should commission an impartial external investigation — but that’s unlikely in the middle of an acquisition.
No one is looking our carbon problem in the eye. Hey, now that the European Union has joined the U.S., China, India, and many other nations in embracing last year’s Paris climate agreement, it’s going to become binding (NPR). Good news, everybody! Or maybe not. The fuzzy goals the Paris agreement sets, and its lax system for letting countries adopt their own plans, means that we are almost certainly going to miss the Paris target of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. If we were actually serious about 2 degrees, writes David Roberts (Vox), it would mean “no more exploring for new fossil fuels. No new mines, wells, or fossil fuel infrastructure. And rapid, managed decline in existing fossil fuels.” Nobody’s proposing that. Even the best-case scenarios we’re playing under assume that, as the 21st century progresses, the human species is going to have to develop some extremely effective new technologies to recover carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the ground. This, according to Roberts, is “a huge and existentially risky bet” on the future of humanity and the planet. Maybe there should be a question or two on this at the next presidential debate. Maybe it should get an entire debate of its own.
A new comic tilt on climate numbers. Concerned experts and activists have been struggling for years now to find new ways to explain the urgent but elusive nature of the climate-change threat. Because the data is complex and the effects are measured in small degrees over long terms, this is not an easy problem. But Randall Munroe, the resident nerd-genius behind the XKCD web comic, has found one brilliant solution: A long scrolling chart, like a timeline doing a headstand, that tracks millennia of human history against trends of cooling and warming (XKCD). Munroe keeps you amused with historical tidbits and gags as you scroll down; then he wallops you when the graph reaches the present and takes off on a frightening tangent, illustrating just how far off the charts we’re headed. Come for the stick figure jokes and stay for the angst.
The fall of the house of Rothenberg. Rothenberg Ventures, with about $50 million in its portfolio, wasn’t a huge Silicon Valley venture fund. But it had great connections, threw extravagant parties, touted a “culture of awesome,” and led a high-profile charge into the virtual reality industry (Backchannel). So it was a mini-earthquake in venture-land when Mike Rothenberg laid off nearly all of his employees in August. Now his firm is operating under a new name and faces an uncertain future. The first lesson here shouldn’t be a surprise: The VC business is super risky — that’s its whole point! But Rothenberg’s downfall also involves some very specific failures of transparency and accountability that Backchannel lays out: Rothenberg was apparently funneling the fund’s cash into his own VR-content startup without keeping his limited-partner investors informed. The big trouble with Rothenberg might have been its initial strategic error in taking a fat upfront management fee rather than the more typical small annual percentage, giving the firm an initial cash boost but robbing it of recurring revenue. Or maybe it was that Rothenberg, as some complained, “went Hollywood” and lost his way. However you read it, the Rothenberg saga makes for an important cautionary tale for a VC industry that’s too often eager to win when it should be shrewd, and star-struck when it should be skeptical.
The European Union takes a tax bite of Apple. Apple owes about $14 billion in back taxes: So says the EU (Bloomberg). Apple says it evaded, er, arranged to avoid, those taxes fair and square via Ireland — so it doesn’t have to pay. Plentry of other multinationals have been basing operations and stowing profits in low-tax havens like Ireland for decades now. This latest fight is largely a jurisdictional squabble between Ireland, which defends its tax giveaways, and the EU, which wants to govern who pays and who doesn’t. The U.S. government is backing home team Apple. Even if it has to pay, the company’s got it covered, with a $232 billion cash hoard, mostly outside the U.S. How should global companies apportion their profits for tax purposes? There’s an army of accountants for that. But whatever the specific outcome here, there’s a clear message for Apple and other BigCos that slosh money around the globe, seeking maximum return through minimum tax rates: Profits are only possible in a society that supports its infrastructure, financial system, education, and healthcare. Taxes do that. Sooner or later, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you’re gonna have to pay somebody. The more voters around the world feel they’re not getting a fair deal, the less they’re going to support free-trade policies. However much companies hate paying taxes on profits, they’re going to hate tariffs even more.
We know where that planet-warming carbon comes from. Carbon emissions cause climate change, and 90 companies are responsible for most of those emissions, according to one scientist’s accounting (Science). Also: More than half of those emissions took place since 1988 — the year Congress heard testimony that warming was definitely for real. In other words: Neither Exxon nor any other corporation can say, “We didn’t know.” Richard Heede is the “carbon accountant” who did these numbers, which have, predictably galvanized environmental activists and alarmed the energy industry and its political defenders. Critics say Heede’s work just pins big “kick me” signs on the backs of specific companies, when it’s really those companies’ customers — all of us — who are to blame. On the other hand, as a Heede supporter argues, “if everyone is responsible then no one is responsible.” Figuring out where all the carbon has come from is surely a valid first step toward arresting the catastrophic advance of global warming. If that data threatens the fossil-fuel industry, don’t blame — or subpoena — the messenger.
Carbon accounting passes legal muster. If we’re going to fix the climate, we have to plug it into our numbers — the statistical models and accounting books that drive decision-making in business, government, and ultimately, our lives. The Obama administration has been trying to require its agencies to include the “social cost” of carbon in all their calculations, and opponents have pushed back in the courts. Those challenges got consolidated into one big appeal, and this week, a federal appeals court upheld the White House, maintaining the rules (Bloomberg). That’s good news as we try to imagine retooling the national and global economy so it doesn’t wreck the planet — by, for example, figuring out how to transform coal jobs into solar jobs (Grist). There’ll be plenty of argument about how to price each unit of climate havoc: for 2015, the feds calculate $36 for each ton of carbon emitted. Anything is better than pretending it costs nothing at all.
Old starts to become the new young. Graying boomers at the tail ends of their careers are facing discrimination, many for the first time (Washington Post). That means more bad blood in the inter-generational grudge match between millennials and their elders, and more lost opportunities for companies that snub veteran employees — and lose their expertise. If there’s an upside here, it’s that older workers may gain more empathy for the many other kinds of discrimination so many colleagues face, and embrace diversity wholeheartedly instead of resenting it, as some do. Even if your organization believes (as Mark Zuckerberg once said) that “young people are just smarter,” and isn’t deterred by the legal or moral case against ageism, it may have to get more comfortable with hiring olds: many countries’ workforces are graying rapidly (Bloomberg). When it comes to aging, no one’s exempt.
A More Inclusive Workplace. At a time when many Muslims are feeling increasingly unwelcome in the U.S., more businesses are seeking to maintain Muslim-friendly workplaces. As Bloomberg reports, “The motivations may be principled, but the moves are practical. Managers want to keep talented workers and avoid conflict, and litigation.” The practices companies are implementing are modest (such as making sure major events don’t conflict with Muslim holidays and eliminating pork and alcohol from events), yet they add up to a much more welcome environment. And companies battling for talent are smart to make these changes: by 2035, Muslims will be the second largest non-Christian group in the U.S.