Reimagining Capitalism: Business and Big Problems

Reimagining Capitalism: Business and Big Problems

Course Number 1524

Assistant Professor Ethan Rouen
Professor George Serafeim
Spring; Q3Q4; 3 credits

Free market capitalism is one of the great achievements of mankind, bringing prosperity and economic freedom to billions of people and contributing to a flowering of individual freedom and possibility that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. Today, however, increasing global crises are posing the greatest threat this economic system has faced.

Growing income inequality, poor or declining educational systems, unequal access to affordable health care, and the fear of continuing economic distress are putting stress on political systems worldwide and challenging the credibility of business. At the same time, environmental and ecosystem degradation are increasing due, in part, to unchecked greenhouse gas emissions, leading to sea level rise, climate destabilization, and a mass extinction of plant and animal life. Robust political responses based on strong social support are crucial to meeting these challenges, but action by the private sector will also be critically important.

This course is designed for students who want to explore the idea that business has a role to play in dealing with these big environmental and social challenges. We will examine how private firms can play a major role in solving them in today’s world. We will also explore the ways in which accomplishing this monumental goal may require changes in how firms and leaders consider their obligations and engage with the issues, as well as rethinking the “rules of the game” by which capitalism is structured.

The course seeks to make students reimagine the role of the corporation and capital in society. We will focus on the institutions that support capitalism in order to hone our ability to collaborate in designing a new generation of institutions to address the existential crises that require immediate attention. Moreover, several classes will provide students with an opportunity to think not just about large institutions but also about their own choices, such as becoming an entrepreneur versus joining an established organization, and how these choices can empower them to affect their individual impact on the world.

The course differs from a number of excellent offerings that explore related issues in at least three respects. First, we explicitly challenge the boundaries of the current system, asking whether there is a different way to run firms and shape the institutions in which they are embedded (e.g., the notion that shareholder value comes at the expense of stakeholder satisfaction). Second, we explore the degree to which “purpose driven” leaders that root their actions in their most deeply held values can act as change agents within the larger system, and we examine how and why your own career might help to accelerate change. Finally, we will rely both on cases and readings drawing from literatures in management, law, psychology, sociology, and economics.