For a moment there at the Aspen Institute event on Capitalism and the Future, it sounded like there was a corporate CEO ready to speak out publicly in defense of capitalism. Said the chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi, "Most of capitalism…we've done a pretty good job." She asked, "Without capitalism, where is the job creation? Without capitalism, where is the innovation." She closed with a reference to a certain movie about Wall Street and said, "greed is not so bad, you know." Later, she said, "I don't think we can create jobs and have thriving economies without thriving capitalism."
But it was just a moment. Then she started talking about "partnerships" between business and government.
When Nassim Nicholas Talib challenged that – he called it "my worst nightmare," said, "It's government policies and regulations that got us here," and asked, "Which companies are going to cooperate with government? The big companies, not the barbers" – Ms. Nooyi starting talking about how her company had small, minority and woman-owned businesses as vendors, and spoke of a "multiplier effect when large companies thrive."
The Laurence Tisch professor of history at Harvard, Niall Ferguson, also gave Ms. Nooyi a hard time about her idea of a "partnership" with government. Mr. Ferguson said the government already has a cozy partnership with one business, Goldman Sachs, and that the relationship "increasingly makes me feel like a Marxist-Leninist."
Ms. Nooyi went on to characterize the notion that a company is responsible only to its shareholders as an "old definition," expressing support for a new definition of responsibility to "multiple stakeholders."
Google's chairman and chief executive officer, Eric Schmidt, sounded like something of capitalist, too, ruing what he described as a "base case" of federal budget "deficits as far as the eye can see," "large increases in government spending," and a "weak dollar."
"The problem before us will be solved not by what government does," he said, but by private-sector growth. "I'm interested in making the pie bigger," he said.
The moderator, the Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson (who has a new book coming out later this month, and who has always been extraordinarily gracious to me) did his best to press Mr. Schmidt about his support for the Obama campaign and his involvement with the Obama administration, whose public statements about the stimulus bill and the financial regulatory overhaul and health care haven't always expressed the idea that our problems won't be solved by government action. But there wasn't much resolution on that point.
It's great to see Aspen's resources brought to bear on the question of the Future of Capitalism, which is the subject of this Web site, and to see a group of panelists at the New York Public Library, where the event was held, that for the most part seemed favorably disposed toward capitalism and skeptical of government intervention in markets. And it's nice to hear that Aspen, too, though it is a non-profit, is taking a page from the capitalist idea of competition and will be stepping up its activities in New York at the newly renovated Roosevelt House of Hunter College, on Manhattan's Upper East Side just two blocks away from Harold Pratt House.