8 MBAs Solve World Hunger. In Theory.

Back in October 2006 I started this blog, Trust Matters, by looking back from the vantage point of my 30th MBA reunion, in a post called Harvard Business School 30 Years Later: Bring Back Joe. That was five years ago.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining a golf outing with 7 classmates. For three days, we enjoyed some much-needed Arizona sun, golfed, dined—and talked. One night we decided to compare solutions to the Major Problems facing the United States. We were all surprised at what we heard. See what you think.

Look Who Came to Dinner

Among the 8 of us were 6 present or former CEOs, and 6 former or present management consultants. Industries represented included communications, manufacturing, restaurants, airlines, banking, healthcare services and forest products.

We’re all male, ages about 60-63. Most had children; some have kids still in their teens; some are on the cusp of grandparenthood.

If You Were Emperor of the US

We posed the question to each other, “If you were the emperor of the US, whatever that means, what policy steps would you put in place?”

Here is the list, together with the number of us who agreed (note there were some abstentions on a few questions):

  • Change the presidency to one six-year term, no renewals (7/8)
  • Imprison about 250 financial industry executives (3/6)
  • Shift House of Representatives terms to four years (8/8)
  • Reinstate some form of Glass Steagall (8/8)
  • Embark on major public works investments (6/8)
  • Adopt means-testing for social services programs (8/8)
  • Break up big banks (5/8)
  • Institute electoral campaign finance reform (8/8)
  • Increase immigration of high-education high wealth-creating people (7/8)
  • Cut the defense budget (8/8)
  • Some form of single-payer system for health care (5/6)
  • MBA programs take leadership role in creating an ethos of service in business (8/8)
  • More consumer responsibility for health care payments (7/8)
  • Cut back on scope of public sector benefits programs (6/8)
  • Increase age of social security (8/8)

(There were several substantive side comments, e.g. solve banking issues by shifting regulatory authority from the Fed to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency; move public pension plans to 401ks; index social security).

I know of no reason why these 8 MBAs would differ from another group of similar vintage. And we were all quite serious in our recommendations.

Why Those Ideas Are So Not Happening

Lots of people think that the US is run by 60-ish ex-CEO’s from ‘top’ MBA programs. (Picture our two foursomes as the opening scene of a Wall Street-like movie about ‘who really pulls the strings in this country.’) But those ideas don’t seem to represent policy of either of the two major political parties. In fact, the odds are very low that most of them will be implemented.

There are many explanations for the discrepancy but two big ones are:

1. Our group of 8 was not representative
2. The world is indeed run by a small number of people, but MBAs are not at the center of it.

I vote for number 2. If we’re the ones pulling strings, apparently the strings we’re pulling aren’t attached to much.

Trust and Policies

One classmate (not in attendance) who did find his way to public office said it’s easy to explain why politicians don’t express those views: “You’d never get elected saying those things.”

Which leaves us all in a bit of a trust dilemma (assuming you think our ideas are not crazy–perhaps a big assumption):

• Are voters really that ignorant? (We all agreed that ‘yes’ is not an implausible answer).
• Is it reasonable to expect politicians to commit career suicide-by-truth-telling? (Probably not).
• Is our system broke? (We think so: that’s why we had such unanimity around social responsibility for business, and campaign finance).

In one respect, I imagine that we eight are like the majority of US citizens—we hold a set of beliefs about how things ought to be that is not mainly reflected in policy.

When most people feel their views are in the minority, social trust issues lurk. When it’s not one minority but many different ones, those issues are even tougher.

As one of our wiser golfers said, “Occasionally some of our global friends are inclined to over-simplify when looking at the US–this is one ungodly-complicated country to run.”