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Is compassion something we can ever expect in the economy?

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Corporate scandals make greed seem an inevitable outcome of the economy. Can compassion take root in such a hard-nosed system?

As corporate scandals go, there certainly isn’t a lack of competition – from Enron to the lies of tobacco companies, from Shell’s human rights abuses in Nigeria to Wetherspoon’s alleged abandonment of staff during Covid, there’s a rogue’s gallery that offers plenty of fuel for claims that ‘spivs and gamblers’ run free in the corporate world.

This year, in Australia, one of the world’s biggest accounting and management consulting firms – Pricewaterhousecoopers (PwC) – has been the subject of investigations revealing senior staff used tax policy information they had been privy to on a confidential basis to help some of their clients avoid those taxes. Federal police are investigating the PwC international tax expert, Peter-John Collins,  seen to have been at the heart of the action, and the Tax Practitioners Board has suspended his licence. The Australian Government’s pause on using the services of PwC will hit it hard – in the last two years PwC charged the Government $537 million. Reputational damage will exacerbate this loss of income.

Reputation matters

The reputational implications stem in part from people’s outrage that people working in PwC thought it not just OK, but desirable to support companies avoid paying tax and to do so with the aid of insights they gained helping design the very laws they went on to assist large companies avoid. Doing so breached confidentiality agreements, but also surely breached the very essence of common decency and notions of doing the right thing. As one of the Australian Senators investigating PwC said: ‘[This is a] deception of the Australian parliament, the Australian people, and a betrayal of the ethical and professional standards they should be upholding’.

It would be easy to take this – or any number of the other examples of corporate greed, putting profits before principle, and nudging the letter and spirit of the law – and write off the entire economy as a realm of selfishness, ego, and narrow pursuit of individual gain.

But for every Peter-John Collins there is a nurse or teacher or emergency services employee who turns up at work every day to help others.

For each of Collins’ now-suspended nine colleagues who seem to have been part of the efforts to help multinationals avoid tax, there are enterprise leaders who are in business not to extract a short term profit, but to deliver benefits to their members (cooperatives such as Greencity Wholefoods in Glasgow or Evergreen Cooperative in Cleveland), to society (social enterprises such as HeyGirls) or to the planet (circular economy businesses such as UpCircle).

For every PwC there is the NHS, universal free education, and the welfare system. Yes, these services have gaps and flaws and often do not deliver enough vis-à-vis people’s needs, but they are examples of collective institutions which embody society taking care of each other. They are compassion made real at scale.

corporate office meeting room

Household management

The original meaning of the word ‘economy’ is ‘household management’: if we take the world as our household, then can we perhaps think of the economy as a mechanism to take care of it and everyone in it?

Yet, too often, the way the economy is designed and delivered overwhelms the very best of human nature. Caring jobs are paid less than those which tend to do more harm to society. Paying tax is framed as a ‘burden’ which needs ‘relief’ rather than celebrated as the price of citizenship and investment in society. At school, students are encouraged to equip themselves for the ‘global race’. Firms listed on the stock market are pressured to grow and focus on financial returns to those who own shares, setting up a trade-off between the interests of shareholders and others such employees, suppliers, local communities, and nature. When such a trade-off is confronted, it is often the interest of stakeholders which is subordinated to the apparent interest of shareholders.

Companies like PwC are now exploring how to make money from new markets such as ecosystem services and regenerative agriculture. Perhaps for good intentions: after all, we need finance to flow to the sort of activities most aligned with what people  and the planet need to flourish. But they do so with the same tools, same goals, same agendas, same power imbalances, and same measures of success that have caused so much damage in the first place.

These tools have shaped (and are shaped by) how the media, academia and politicians think about the economy. This has a knock on effect in how we, the general population, consider it too.

This economic worldview has a few defining features. For example, it tends to divide people from each other and from nature by claiming humans are selfish and greedy; by not attending to the inequalities of wealth and resources; and by ignoring the wisdom of First Nations communities who inherently recognise the importance of belonging to each other and to the land.

It dismisses our living planet, the very basis of all societies and economic activity, as an externality which is not relevant to business decisions. This means it is all-too-often ignored in accounting for costs, and seen as something which can be taken from, and dumped into. This is a mindset which frames action to address environmental breakdown as optional so long as it ‘doesn’t damage the economy.

The apparent success of this worldview also ignores many of the aspects of life most crucial to our wellbeing. The starkest example of this is the proxy most used for national success and apparent development – Gross Domestic Product – is blind to distribution, consumption and production orientated, does not celebrate when communities are safe and healthy, and clocks up as apparent progress spending to repair and fix after damage has been done.

business people putting hands together

So, what can be done? Can compassion be something we can expect – and even nurture – in the economy?

These are the questions I am exploring in my role at the University’s Edinburgh Futures Institute. Working closely with Professor Liz Grant and her Global Compassion Initiative I am looking at the potential for compassion and the economy to come together. How can the economy be shaped in a more compassionate way? What does the science of compassion have to say about how to go about making these changes happen?

As part of this programme we will be publishing thought pieces on the Institute’s, developing a research project on how to harness compassionate approaches in the work of system change, and preparing for a Masters Course in the Wellbeing Economy.

Images all via Getty: hand reaching out: Mladen Zivkovic, Sydney: ImagePatch, meeting room: Shannon Fagan, group of people hands together: John M Lund Photography Inc

Read more of Dr Katherine Trebeck’s work