No, Robert Graves fans, I don’t mean to suggest that 2008 was as bad as trench warfare during WWI. But it was an undeniably dismal year in the world of business and sustainability. We had the financial crisis, the depressing recession, plummeting stock prices, shrinking 401-k’s, Wall Street shenanigans (to put it mildly), the train wreck known as Bernie Madoff, auto companies on the brink, the worst year ever for journalism, an average gasoline price of $1.61, and mass layoffs (including my own) that made “job security” into the newest oxymoron.
2009, bring it on!
Being a chronic optimistic, I’m going to bid 2008 goodbye by finding a few silver linings in the events of recent months, beginning with the obvious and moving on to the not-so:
1. Barack Obama. Still hard to believe that America elected an African-American president, who also happens to be really smart, thoughtful, a good listener and a problem solver. I’m really impressed by his enviro team and by the new education secretary, Arne Duncan. And did you know that Obama is an exercise nut? My favorite post-election Obama story is this one from the Washington Post, reporting that he has worked out for at least 90 minutes a day for 48 days in a row. Next time someone you know says he or she doesn’t have time for a workout, send them the link. At least when it comes to exercise, my plan for 2009 is to be like Barack.
2. The recession. Because it will lead to a stimulus package which, if we are smart as a country, will provide long-lasting and long-overdue benefits. If we spend money on energy efficiency (see my friend Matt Wald’s New York Times article on weatherization), renewable energy, rebuilding the electricity grid and mass transportation, we’ll be investing in a more sustainable future for America.
3. The Wall Street meltdown. But only if it leads to corporate governance reform, probably the single biggest problem that cries out for fixing in corporate America. One of the very big questions raised by the failures of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG, as well as the woes of Citi, Merrill Lynch and others is this: Where were the directors? The WSJ editorial page got this issue exactly right in an editorial on Citi:
“Citi never sleeps,” says the bank’s advertising slogan. But its directors apparently do. While CEO Vikram Pandit can argue that many of Citi’s problems were created before he arrived in 2007, most board members have no such excuse. Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has served on the Citi board for a decade. For much of that time he was chairman of the executive committee, collecting tens of millions to massage the Beltway crowd, though apparently not for asking tough questions about risk management….
Chairman Sir Win Bischoff has held senior positions at Citi since 2000. Six other directors have served for more than 10 years — including former CIA Director John Deutch, Time Warner Chairman Richard Parsons, foundation executive Franklin Thomas, former AT&T CEO C. Michael Armstrong, Alcoa Chairman Alain Belda, and former Chevron Chairman Kenneth Derr.
When taxpayers are being asked to provide the equivalent of $1,000 each in guarantees on Citi’s dubious investments, how can these men possibly say they deserve to remain on the board?
How, indeed? The single best thing the new SEC can do is allow shareholders to directly nominate directors of the companies they own. Until then, “shareholder democracy” will remain a joke.
4. Bernie Madoff. What on earth were people thinking when they entrusted this guy with their money? Here, too, there is a lesson that can be learned: It’s long past time for nonprofits and foundations (not to mention the rest of us) to align their investing with their mission. Here’s an interesting albeit lengthy report on the topic from the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, complete with case studies on how some foundations have pursued what the report calls “missing-related investing.”
5. Cheap gas. I fear this will lead to a resurgence in SUV sales but I hope it provides a political opening for one of the simplest and most effective responses to the problem of climate change and the quest for more energy security: a gasoline tax. The other day in The Times, Tom Friedman argued for a gas tax in a column headlined Win, Win, Win, Win, Win. So did Arthur Laffer, in an op-ed touting An Emissions Plan Conservatives Could Warm To. Laffer put it simply:
We need to impose a tax on the thing we want less of (carbon dioxide) and reduce taxes on the things we want more of (income and jobs).
Charles Krauthammer has a long, thoughtful piece, making the arguments in more detail, in The Weekly Standard.
On a personal note, I’ve learned in the four weeks since losing my job at FORTUNE that I have a lot of friends and even a few fans—and that as one door closes, others will open.
I’m genuinely excited about 2009. Happy new year, everyone!