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The Business of Business . . . Now

By James A. F. Stoner –

Six decades ago, an early editorial in the fledgling MIT Industrial Management Review—which later became the MIT Sloan Management Review—focused on the disconcerting and even shocking scandal of that time: a set of business actions that became widely known as the “GE price-fixing scandal” (MIT Industrial Management Review, 1961). A set of coordinated and illegal actions among upper-level managers at General Electric and other companies turned out to be so egregious and widespread that high-level executives at participating firms were convicted and actually handed down prison terms for their collusion. It was a rare and ever-so-unusual event in the United States business scene at that time … and ever since, as noted in general by Jennifer Taub in Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime (2020).


It was rare and unusual, indeed, when one reflects on what appears not to have happened in a much greater scandal (Krugman, 2006; Hall, 2015) that began a decade later, when researchers and then top-level executives at Exxon — now ExxonMobil — developed, buried, and denied clear and definitive research showing that continuing to burn fossil fuels would do exactly what it has done: put the very existence of our own and other species at the imminent risk of extinction.

The Review at the time of that 1961 editorial was a wholly student-run publication, modeled on law school journals, and edited by the “academically best and brightest.” The editors concluded their essay by turning President Calvin Coolidge’s famous quote—that “the business of America is business”—on its head with the suggestion that “the business of business is America.” Not bad for a handful of graduate business students, and yet now, six decades and 100 more CO2 parts per million (ppm)—from 316 ppm to 416 ppm (Keeling et al., 2001)—later, the phrase might be rewritten better as “the business of business is the world,” or better yet, as “the business of business is the world’s well-being,” or maybe even as “the business of business is future generations and the planet itself.”


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