But two unexpected developments interfered with my plans. First, capitalism turned out to be more creative and effective than I expected. Second, politics turned out to be uglier and less effective as a vehicle for change.
My conservative friends might bristle at the notion that I owe a debt to society. They might argue I owe nothing more than the appropriate taxes I paid. But I disagree.
Though I do not owe a debt to the Internal Revenue Service, I am profoundly grateful to the United States and my local community of Bethesda for the opportunity to mobilize a diverse group of employees to create a successful enterprise. Our work would not have been possible had we not lived in a safe and peaceful nation, one that relies on the rule of law and protects intellectual and economic value. We also benefited from our nation’s technology and transportation infrastructure, which enabled us to communicate our ideas and manufacture and distribute our products. And we would not have been able to raise start-up capital without a tax system that incentivizes investors to place long-term bets.
I also recognize that by dint of where I was born, my skin color and my parents, who were both professors, I had access to education, capital and opportunities not available to most Americans. So some of my good fortune feels random, and I feel a duty to pay it back beyond what the IRS collects.
And yet there are enormous flaws in the U.S. economic system. It creates and rewards destructive short-term thinking that contributes to grotesque imbalances in economic opportunity. It enables, even facilitates, environmental damage that is destroying life as we know it on this planet.
The market is incapable of solving these shortcomings on its own. There aren’t enough trickle-down dollars in the world to reverse centuries of slavery and institutional racism. And the balance of life in our ecosystem is too fragile to give unchecked power to companies and industries that have the power to inflict irreversible damage.
Just as we can’t excuse the ills of capitalism, we shouldn’t ignore the remedies democratic capitalism can create and the potential of entrepreneurs to commercialize powerful and lasting solutions. It has been invigorating to see a large corporation such as Coca-Cola invest in, adopt and bring to scale the Honest Tea approach in a way that further democratizes the spread of organics and less-sweet products.
But it’s not hard to find the impact of innovations from centuries earlier. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was created in 1866 in part to protect workhorses. Yet it was the commercialization of the combustion engine that enhanced the quality of life for horses more powerfully than any animal-rights legislation and transferred the term “horsepower” from the animal to the car, tractor and bus.
Today, access to cellphones and the Internet empowers family farmers with pricing information that helps shift some market power back to the sellers.
By commercializing new technology, innovators help consumers shift to more climate-friendly behaviors, whether that means a shift away from ozone-depleting refrigerants, adoption of more plant-based diets or use of solar and geothermal power. Changes such as these are needed complements to any comprehensive government plan for combating climate change.
It’s ironic that politicians seem less concerned than corporate leaders with representing all of America. Politicians might be able to win reelection with 60 percent of voters, but most CEOs can’t afford to write off 40 percent of their markets. As a result, most Fortune 500 chief executives would not publicly deny climate change, or take a stand against same-sex marriage or gun control.
When a solution-driven enterprise takes hold in American culture, it inspires competitors. While that creates business challenges, from a societal perspective, it’s a good thing because it means we don’t have to worry about progress being undone in the next election cycle.
So rather than knocking on doors in the coming years, I’ll be handing out samples as I launch new enterprises to help consumers switch to diets that are more sustainable for humans and for the planet. There is an ongoing debate to define the character of our capitalism, and we need to demonstrate that when we apply the right mind-set, it can be the most effective tool for solving many of the challenges we face.