Cardinal Turkson on Business Vocation

by Michael Sean Winters

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Cardinal Peter Turkson gave a major address at the University of the Andes Wednesday at a conference entitled The Future of the Corporation: From Best in the World to Best for the World. The change of a single preposition, from “in” to “for” highlights the essential moral challenge of economic life in this century.

When a company calls itself, or when an industry press selects a company as, “best in the world,” chances are the criteria for the designation are entirely economic and defined by the world of business. There is something to this, of course, but by changing the preposition to “for” the criteria expand, and it is not only the business elites who get to create the criteria and assess a company’s achievement of those criteria. The focus is outward, not inward, mirroring what Pope Francis is trying to achieve in the Church.

Cardinal Turkson identified what I think is a key issue in his opening sentences. He said,

Let me begin by making a rather basic point: the world needs leadership in all its fields of endeavour, and the various fields need to work together in pursuit of the common good of humanity. Everyone must play a role, and Pope Francis speaks to everyone. He exhorts those in high station in politics, business and science, and he encourages those who live and work in very humble circumstances—all must commit to meeting the needs of all who live on this planet and of the planet itself. We are all in this together, each of us responsible for the other.

Last autumn, I participated in a panel at the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank founded and funded by the Koch Brothers. One of the best questions came from a gentleman in the audience who said that in the middle of the 20th century, America had a “stakeholder” economy in which labor and management, capital and community, all had a stake in a given business and all had a say in the direction a given company would take. But, in the last two decades of the last century, the world of business shifted from the stakeholder model to the shareholder model, in which the return on investment became the sole measure of success, and consequently, the driving force in all economic decision making. This has produced what I have called a “financialized economy” in which the power is no longer even exercised by the management of a company, but by the investor class and the Wall Street mavens who do their bidding. Rewards and punishments are based solely on how a company rewards its shareholders. Cardinal Turkson confronts this, echoing Pope Francis: “We are all in this together, each of us responsible for the other.” That is not a sentiment that will be carved over the doors at the Cato Institute.

Later in his speech, Cardinal Turkson has this to say, drawing on the Council of Justice and Peace’s text “The Vocation of the Business Leader”:

[T]he real needs of the poor and the vulnerable, including people with special needs, are often overlooked by business. A positive approach is to seek opportunities to serve neglected populations, not only as a proper social responsibility but also as a great business option. At the huge “bottom of the pyramid”, new products and services—such as microenterprises, microcredit, social enterprises and impact investment—have played an important role insofar as they help the poor to address their own needs. These innovations will not only help people to lift themselves from extreme poverty but also spark their creativity and entrepreneurship and help launch a dynamic of inclusive development. (§43) In this spirit, the Pope urged the social movements to be creative: “You are social poets: creators of work, builders of housing, producers of food, above all for people left behind by the world market.”

I confess that I used to think that the only bumper sticker “Think Globally. Act Locally” was cute but essentially meaningless. I changed when I visited a friend in Chiapas who was organizing coffee growers into a cooperative through the Mennonite ministry “Ten Thousand Villages” and, later, when he was establishing a microcredit operation for poor women in a city in the central part of Mexico. Both of these efforts were empowering poor people and integrating them into the economy in meaningful ways. Cardinal Turkson mentions both “microenterprises” and “microcredit” in his talk, as means to a “dynamic of inclusive development.” As the Holy Father indicated in his talk to the World Congress of Social Movements in Bolivia last summer, a text from which +Turkson quotes liberally, the poor and the marginalized can, with some basic assistance, place the future in their own hands, provided they work together and the game is not rigged against them by large multinational corporations and politicians willing to do their bidding. Local enterprises, that respond to the needs of all stakeholders, not shareholders, may be the way to humanize globalization.

If you look through the fare offered by the Napa Institute or Legatus, you see a different approach. There, business is business and provided you are not making your money selling drugs or porn, you have nothing ethically to worry about. You will not see much about respecting the rights of workers to organize and speak for themselves. Virtue is viewed as a personal matter, not something that should effect economic decision making. And, of course, charity once you have received your management fee or your dividends is a good thing, but justice in the conduct of business is not a central focus. I admit this is a bit of a caricature, but only a bit. The whole thing is very Protestant, which is kind of funny, because these same groups complain that “liberals” are trying to “Protestantize” the Church in other areas.

Later in his talk, Cardinal Turkson addresses the need for business to provide good work, and he stated:

We should think seriously about the consequences of ever more reliance on machines and robots to make work more ‘efficient’, and about the trend to ‘rationalize’ production and distribution. Clearly, the benefit is profit, but at the cost of less and less decent work. Do individuals thrive from being unemployed or precariously hired? Of course not. Does society benefit from unemployment? Of course not. In fact, we now witnesses far too many people who cannot find worthwhile and fulfilling work. We should not be surprised when unscrupulous people with demented fantasies recruit such idle individuals into violence and criminality.

  I concur with the cardinal entirely, but I suspect that if a corporate officer comes to a board meeting with a proposal to introduce a more efficient, read lower labor cost, innovation, these concerns the cardinal raises will not be raised by the board. Again, the shift from a stakeholder to a shareholder mentality is evident.

I encourage readers to read the entire text by the cardinal. It is very fine. I encourage them also to think how different his approach, our Catholic approach, is from what you hear from either political party. Most of all, I hope we will all, as Catholics, start to think about how we get from here to there, from the economy we have to the economy that the Church’s teaching calls us to. What we have is so unjust, it can’t last forever. What we need is in many ways so obvious, but seemingly so unattainable. There is work to be done and kudos to Cardinal Turkson for undertaking the work. 

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