When I was little, the word ‘coincidence’ used to make me both smile and frown. Smile because I loved to pronounce the first four letters as ‘coin’ to make the whole word jangle almost like the ‘ping’ of a dropped coin hitting the floor. Frown because I could not fathom how seemingly unrelated events happen at the same time. ‘Seemingly’ is the key word.
Growing into my teens, the incomprehension did not get any better. By then ‘fluke’ had entered my vocabulary and its monosyllabic, in-your-face thrust would hit me with the underlying caprice it suggested. Matters got more complex when my Sixth Form years led to my discovery of Thomas Hardy’s novels, especially Tess of the d’Urbervilles. This is a novel that unfolds on a series of ‘coincidences’ which ultimately posit Hardy as the champion/judge/executioner of his mesmerising protagonist.
Coincidentally, I would end up teaching this very novel many years later and as bad as it sounds, I sometimes wished somebody would have done the same to the author. More so, when I read about how vile he was to both of his wives. Yet I love Hardy’s poetry which does not exonerate me from my momentary itching for his blood. He is also an intriguing novelist because he is unbearably tedious in his lengthy authorial intrusions and gloriously poetic in his descriptions – often occurring on the same page.
So, Hardy’s Calvin’s God inevitably comes to my mind whenever I experience or encounter the word ‘coincidence’. I must also say that I have feasted on many happy coincidences in my life. And my latest happy coincidence is what I would like to share.
Yesterday I finally caught up with reading two LinkedIn posts that I had earmarked to join the club of my ever-growing ‘read later’ pile. The first was a brief clip from an Attest survey about how 60% of millennials are taking ethics and sustainability into consideration when doing their shopping.
I can imagine many cynics scoffing at the marketing hype of fad coverage and the unreliability of statistics. My answer to them is that even if the percentage is wide off the mark, or the story merely filling in content space, there is a moral awakening in the air despite this ‘age of radical evil’ as Immanuel Kant would have stated. Consequently, no matter how small the scale may be, it is good reason to celebrate and join in. In Maltese, we have a saying that touts how an amphora fills up drop by drop. That’s the cumulative power of apparently small and inconsequential gestures.
From this news bite I moved on to a piece of reportage in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera outlining Stefano Zamagni’s address to the Consulentia 19 Bologna Giornate di Bertinoro convention which brought together 250 representatives of the services industry under the theme of ‘inclusive prosperity’ in the town of Forli’ during the second week of October. Within seconds I searched Google to listen and relisten and relisten to the whole speech of this colossal economist who teaches political economy at the University of Bologna and the Johns Hopkins University.
To describe Zamagni’s words as distilled wisdom is an understatement which is why I believe that what he said at this convention needs to be shared far and wide.
Though the agenda focused on ethics, competence, and redistribution of wealth in the business world, Zamagni was asked to share his insights on ethical behavior in the world of finance. This was only to be expected since his latest book ‘Behaving Responsibly: How to Civilise the Market’ hit the shelves a few weeks ago. Here Zamagni homes in on the importance of stakeholders being responsible in terms of accountability and caring, especially in a hyperconnected and globalised world dominated by big data and characterized by growing inequalities, unemployment, poverty, and climate disasters.
Significantly, Zamagni took the back-to-the-roots path and started off with a brief but telling reference to the history of finance in the modern world. Far from a pedantic overview, he reminded his audience of how the Franciscans invented the market economy back in the 15th century to address rampant poverty and solve what the Cistercian monks had failed to do by not redistributing the immense wealth they had created within their monasteries, ironically located metres away from utterly destitute villages and towns.
In contrast, the visionary Saint Francis of Assisi gave rise to the market economy in which the common good is driven by love, virtue, and money rendering economics as part of ethics. This was a big bang given that at the time the feudal system held sway all over Europe and beyond. Despite the social injustices that marked century after century, the market economy increasingly showed that people live and thrive in social settings built on honesty and trust.
Initially, this sounds odd given that poverty is the core Franciscan charisma. Yet Saint Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy merchant who embraced poverty, realized that reaching out to genuinely help people was the answer. That he would relentlessly knock at the doors of the rich to collect food for the poor is a well-known fact. In contrast, the corporate world reaches out to our wallets to line its already larded pockets. And its appetite is insatiable. My take, not Zamagni’s.
We have been caught in this whirlpool of greed long enough mostly because we go with the flow.
We refuse to see through the artificiality of contemporary media culture that shapes what we have to believe is real, the evil of spin, the glitz clad disconnection of urbanization desensitizing us to the rhythms of nature, the multinational capitalism that has given rise to a 21st century communism and above all the acceptance of defining everything and everyone as a price tag. Is it surprising that the Financial Times wraparound on September 18 spelt out ‘Capitalism: Time for a Reset’?
Although Zamagni did not make any reference to Baudrillard’s insight into postmodernism as the ‘age of simulacra’ the link is impossible to miss. What Zamagni rightly pointed out was how the 2007-8 credit crunch totally annihilated people’s faith in the world of finance. Rather than a diatribe against government failures, Zamagni dwelt on the corrosive impact of:
- Albert Z. Carr’s championing of unethical bluffing poker-style to pile on the profits in his landmark paper entitled ‘Is business bluffing ethical? (1968);
- John Ladd’s trashing of moral integrity to conduct business in his equally famous paper entitled Morality and the Ideal of Rationality in Formal Organisations’ (1970).
It would be foolhardy to believe that business driven by a dearth of sound morals began in the late 1960s. Imperial Britain which at its 19th-century peak ruled over a quarter of the globe enshrined wealth in the hands of a few. A few decades later the newly elected American President, Calvin Coolidge, trumpeted that ‘the business of America is business’ in his 1925 inaugural speech. These are just two examples in a long list of socio-political and economic injustices.
So why did Zamagni home in on Carr and Ladd? I think it is because by the late 60s and early 70s the American mantra of Milton Friedman’s ‘profit at all costs’ took a firm hold and subsequently became an unquestioned business bible despite divergent political ideologies.
Significantly, Zamagni used historical spotlights to shed light on the way forward and voice how change is in the air. First came his reference to the UNCTAD Global Green New Deal launched a few weeks ago to issue green bonds to finance ethical solutions to our dire economic environmental crises. Zamagni noted that this is the way to regain trust in the financial world without glossing over the importance of competence and performance.
He also cited how 130 international banks worth 47 trillion dollars have recently signed a Principles for Responsible Banking climate pact. (Signatories from the world’s largest banks are conspicuous by their absence. Nevertheless, it is a start.) Notaries too are waking up to the need to go back to a fundamental ethical code while Holland has introduced an obligatory banker’s oath based on the Franciscan ethos in order to win back people’s trust.
At this point, Zamagni’s eloquence and clarity took on a poetic touch as he explained the root meaning of trust as a taut cord that coalesces ‘security’,’ confidence’ and ‘truth’ and which does not weaken even when it is shortened since it easily knots with another cord. So, he invited his listeners to be cords of responsibility rather than chains of conmen passing the buck. Tellingly, he explained the etymology of responsibility with conjoins’ responding to ‘and ‘carrying the weight of’ to underline the need to have an ethical basis and empathy for clients. Here the convergence of the twain is no coincidence. Furthermore, he stated how errors of omission are far worse than errors of commission.
I need hardly add that Zamagni is acutely aware of the long road ahead. Yet his concluding remarks provided such an uplifting message to take heart when he quoted Tagore’s advice to avoid ‘crying when the sun sets because tears will hinder you from seeing the stars’.
lt would be more than crass to hound Zamagni for taking pride in his ancestors’ achievements, especially when he is the kind of man to say it how it is – and say it with impressive dignity and deep conviction as well as with respect for people who do not share his views.
It would be far more meaningful to mull over his belief that honesty should be a precondition of any activity … and make it happen.
His words are a shout-out to the business world and to each and every one of us.
#stefano Zamagni #Inclusive prosperity #Redistribution of wealth #Ethical code