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Capitalism Delivered Promise, and Faced a Reckoning, in 2020

6 minute read

On Dec. 13, the Detroit Free Press posted a video on its Twitter feed. I didn’t expect to get emotional watching it. The shaky clip, shot by someone holding a smartphone, showed UPS and FedEx semitrailer trucks carrying the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, pulling out of the parking lot of Pfizer’s Kalamazoo, Mich., plant, turning on to Portage Road. There, a handful of onlookers cheered the small caravan and waved. The FedEx driver waved back.

As this YLNO (Year Like No Other) comes to a close, it is hard to recall a period when the business world played such an prominent role in the life of the nation, particularly in contrast to the failure of the federal government to mobilize a crucial coordinated national response to the pandemic. While many governors, mayors and local health officials performed admirably, and initially Congress and the Federal Reserve did provide emergency relief in a series of moves credited with blunting the worst of the economic toll, the corporate world stood out, bringing the scale, technology, logistical expertise and rapid innovation that allowed the economy to keep functioning. The pharmaceutical industry, which began the year saddled with the pejorative Big Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis and aggressive drug pricing, has given the world a chance to emerge from this dark tunnel with the stunningly fast development of COVID-19 vaccines. To be sure, both federal grants and research conducted by government scientists and others helped pave the way for the vaccines; the Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed provided funding and research support. But the ​testing and manufacturing are largely a private-sector endeavor. If the early indications of efficacy and safety hold true, the rapid development of vaccines will be one of the great triumphs of private industry.

Certainly, not every corporation rose to the occasion. The meatpacking industry had COVID outbreaks in 564 plants, resulting in more than 51,000 cases and at least 347 deaths, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Facebook has become public enemy No. 1 for its role as a platform for disinformation and conspiracy theories, despite the company’s efforts to combat the harmful spread of lies. Even its ad agency has reservations about continuing to gild the social network’s image. Facebook is now facing an attempt, albeit unlikely, by the FTC and most state AGs to break it up, citing its anticompetitive moves to crush the competition.

But at the height of the pandemic, in April, when Gallup found that more than 50% of workers were working exclusively from home, it was the private sector that facilitated this remarkably seamless shift and the overall acceleration of the economy’s digitization. Cloud-computing companies like Amazon and Microsoft helped businesses quickly beef up the platforms that allowed many white collar workers to log in from home, conducting meetings via Microsoft Teams platform or on rival Zoom. Streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ kept the nation distracted, adding millions of subscribers. (That digital transformation that enabled so many to stay home also required millions of essential workers to risk facing the virus on a daily basis. When I interviewed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in June, he said that Doug McMillon at Walmart told him: “Look, when you say ‘work from home,’ remember, ‘We’re sending millions of people to work each day so that your people can work from home.’”) Amazon, the company that everyone loves to hate for its impact on smaller retailers and treatment of its workers, became an essential lifeline for millions of Americans. Those packages were delivered by the same brown UPS and white FedEx trucks now transporting vaccines. Waste Management, the nation’s largest garbage collector and recycler, said the amount of trash it was picking up from the nation’s homes increased by nearly 25% during the height of the pandemic.

This year has also witnessed a growing acknowledgment, even among ardent capitalists, that the system is deeply flawed. While capitalism is great at creating wealth, it’s not so good at equitably allocating it and protecting those at the bottom end of the economic ladder. The market economy creates unsustainable income inequality and a wealth gap that has widened sharply during the pandemic. According to a report by Inequality.org, on Nov. 24, the wealth of 650 U.S. billionaires approached a total of $4 trillion, with more than $1 trillion in growth since March 2020. And there’s the awkward reality that many of the biggest companies in the U.S. were profitable and laid people off at the same time. In the richest country on earth, as many as 50 million people could experience food insecurity before the end of the year—including 1 in 4 children. And 11.7% of our fellow citizens live below the poverty line. There is a growing consensus that higher corporate and individual taxes are needed to fund a government that can provide basics like good education, health care, and a social safety net for its citizens.

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There has also been another reckoning, an acknowledgment that an economic system so good at creating billionaires provides structural opportunities for white people and barriers for women and people of color. Big corporations have made many pledges and commitments this year to make access to jobs, promotions and capital more equitable. But it will take years to know if these efforts amount to more than performative public relations. (Perhaps 2021’s year-end column should track the quantifiable results of all that promised hiring and investment.)

Still, in a year so filled with loss and pain, when norms were shattered and the foundation of our democracy has been shaken, companies still delivered the food, clothing, telecommunications, medical innovations and entertainment that helped so many muddle through 2020. The reason my heart raced seeing those UPS and FedEx trucks shipping Pfizer vaccines: the clip signaled hope for a more promising 2021.

A quick programming note. The Leadership Brief is taking the next two weeks off, and I hope many of you are as well. Thank you for your readership and your emails throughout this first year. Since launching in May, we have interviewed more than two dozen executives and CEOs. They lead companies like Accenture, Microsoft, Delta, Netflix and Bank of America. My most vivid memories were when two CEOs, Dave Steward of World Wide Technology and Ed Bastian of Delta, choked up during their interviews recalling the influence of their mothers, both who had died recently. Tears in his eyes, Bastian described how difficult it had been to steer Delta through the pandemic without being able to rely on his mother’s wisdom.

Please continue to share your thoughts and suggestions with me at leadership@time.com. I love hearing from you. See you on Jan. 10.

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(Miss this week’s The Leadership Brief? This interview above was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, Dec. 20; to receive emails of conversations with the world’s top CEO’s and business decision makers, click here.)

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