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The Virus

The latest virus forecast: The US has had an 11% decrease from two weeks earlier, averaging about 184,000 new cases per day. Infections have surged in California, climbing 21% from two weeks earlier, amid a shortage of hospital beds—and experts are concerned that holiday travel might boost cases around the US. The US has administered about 2 million vaccine doses, while recent polls show an increasing willingness to get the shot. 

The business impact: Stimulus legislation remains stalled with Trump, leading to the expiration of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans. Household spending fell in November for the first time in seven months, and US homes sales unexpectedly dropped. US gift card spending is projected to rise 19% this holiday season compared to last year. China’s economy will surpass the US to become the world’s largest in 2028, five years faster than estimated before the pandemic. More than half of big-company CFOs say their organizations are using automation to reduce labor needs. 

Focus on the Movement for Racial Equity

Is the momentum for racial equity that built over 2020 now in danger of flagging? I’ve heard concerns that business leaders ultimately won’t deliver meaningful change, as some struggle to translate into action their ambiguous statements about amplifying Black voices from the summer. To dig deeper into this, I spoke this week with Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, a research and advocacy institute seeking racial and economic equity. McAfee works with companies on their efforts in this area. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, what do you know now that you didn’t a year ago?

The thing I know that I didn’t want to accept is that corporate America is at, and must be at, the leading edge of the equity movement, whether we like it or not. And I say that because they have a $23 trillion market cap to our $1 trillion in civil society and $3 trillion in government. They have outsized power and influence. Outside of the people movement occurring, they’re essential if we’re going to realize the promise of equity. They don’t know it yet because too many are still in the charity mindset or the performative mindset. Now more than ever, if we’re going to honor the murders of George Floyd and others, corporate America must be at the leading edge of the equity movement.

I say that not just because of the things that I just said, but because they have a unique skill set that they use every day: They know how to bend the legal and regulatory framework of this nation to their will. That skill set is needed now because the problem of diversity, equity, inclusion is a design problem for this nation. It was designed to be oppressive and we’ve not fully moved beyond that. Who better than folks who have just structured the economy, made it hard for the citizenry to exercise their vote, than those very people to redesign, re-imagine a different way of being in relationship to each other? You’re not going to charity your way out of this.

You said that you didn’t want to accept this—why is that?

Because when I accept it, I have to realize how gradual this fight is going to be. There are one hundred million folks plus who are economically insecure in America. That number is growing. And because of this hierarchy of human value, that is like our operating system, that hierarchy of human value is our operating system in this nation. You could be pretty indifferent to it for a long period of time before you wake up. It seems like we’ve learned to only wake up when there’s a particular tragedy. If that’s the case, I’m like, man, I’ll never realize the promise of equity in my lifetime. 

I’ve been hearing concern that the momentum around racial equity from the summer might be flagging. What is your level of concern or optimism?

All movements have ebbs and flows, and this is a role for civil society. We’re not going anywhere. This is our life’s work. This is my vocation. So I need to have an organization that’s built to endure when you’re in season and when you’re not in season. And that’s the beauty of the movement, you know, poor people, poor whites, poor Blacks, poor Latin folks, poor Asian folks, all of us—they never stopped fighting. They were fighting long before the Black lives movement came along. They fight in the Black lives movement and they’ll fight long beyond it. 

Our job is to be able to seize these environmental jolts, seize upon them and move the work a little further. Yes, corporations are going to ebb and flow here, just like government does, quite frankly. But civil society is that anchor, we’re that consciousness. We’re going to continue to be pushing and pushing hard. That’s why I’m so glad that if there’s been one thing that I’ve seen come out of this movement, at least with wealthy donors, is that they’ve stabilized a lot of institutions to continue this fight in good ways, even my own. When you think about MacKenzie Scott Bezos’s investments, she’s positioned many of us to wage this fight for many more years, without having to worry about, can I do this work or do I have to try to fit it into a $25,000 bucket to get some money. These are amazing things that have happened in this moment where social justice equity organizations, civil rights organizations are a little stronger and can wage this fight over the long term.

I find it hard not to be skeptical of the proclamations by big businesses, such as the Business Roundtable statements on stakeholder capitalism and racial equity, because researchers have found those companies generally don’t treat their workers any better. How skeptical are you?

I’m going to remain skeptical and I’m going to continue to have the grace to work with folks and to prove me wrong. I have to be in that posture. Otherwise I become a part of the problem myself. I want to be what John Gardner would call “a loving critic,” a loving critic of my own institution and a loving critic of the colleagues that I get privileged to work with. This is a results-based journey. You don’t need to say anything. It’s all about what you do. You just nailed it on your head: You don’t need to put out statements, just start with how you treat your workers. What we’re trying to get people to think about is that we can actually save you money. You don’t have to have all these PR firms trying to help you get positioned in this movement.

You don’t have to have all this charity that you’re putting out there. If you just thought about treating your workers differently, you would make it so much easier in communities. And this is the disconnect. When you think about these major corporations—and I’m talking about the design challenges—there are working folks in these companies who still can’t make ends meet, who are still being harmed by institutions every day. So I’m skeptical but I’m going to stay a loving critic because I think the thing that people need to do most, I haven’t seen: To declare a result and be as fanatical about achieving that result as they are achieving their quarterly returns. That’s why I use the term learned helplessness, because they know how to do this.

What should the business agenda around racial equity be for 2021?

The first thing would be to free democracy from capitalism. The will of the people must be able to be expressed unencumbered at the ballot. The second is to see the systems that are harming their employees and to begin to speak out on them locally, align their local philanthropic investments with their leadership voice, to set a standard of how people will relate to their employees locally. Then the third is to get into the third rail of all of this, which is tax policy. 

We’ve got to design an economy that is more equitable. The free market has shown us it just can’t be that. So we’ve got to get to a place where those of us who have means are paying our fair share and we are designing a legal and regulatory environment that lifts up that hundred million. Plus it’s a prosperous environment. There are blueprints out there. Maybe no more than five years ago, the Children’s Defense Fund and the Urban Institute commissioned a report called “Ending Poverty Now.” It listed six to seven policies that will reduce poverty by 50%. Companies could take that off the shelf, dust that report off, and use it today. But it’s going to require new revenue.

You can read a transcript of our conversation, including additional thoughts on what business leaders, everyday employees, and small- and medium-sized businesses can do to advance racial equity.

Content from our partner McKinsey & Company

Mission critical. Corporate purpose is crucial to business today, but the magic goes far beyond a simple mission statement or ESG initiative. Focusing on these five elements can help your organization make purpose real.

What Else You Need to Know

MasterCard’s outgoing CEO argued that his company should be guided by legal rather than moral standards. “At the end of the day, I have to follow a legal standard,” said Ajay Banga, discussing his company’s relatively delayed decision to cut off Pornhub for distributing child pornography and other illegal content. “I’m not trying to follow a moral standard.” 

  • Banga told Kara Swisher of The New York Times in an interview that deciding what products consumers should be able to buy using credit cards—including things such as guns where there’s disagreement—was a “slippery slope” that he wouldn’t engage in. 
  • Swisher pointed out that American Express doesn’t allow its cards to be used to buy adult digital content, and PayPal cut off Pornhub last year. 
  • “There’s no right or wrong answer in this. There’s no black or white in this,” said Banga. “There is a way of trying to find your way through it.” 
  • Banga is just the latest CEO to run into questions of how proactive businesses should be about societal issues. Americans increasingly expect executives to engage with such issues—through their core businesses and not just through separate philanthropic or thought-leadership activities. 
  • The legalistic approach Banga expressed seems problematic if applied to the many areas where laws haven’t kept up with technology or don’t capture what’s needed for companies to make decisions that don’t negatively impact society. 
  • Susan Liautaud’s new book, The Power of Ethics, explains how to make principled decisions on matters “where the law no longer guides and protects us.” You can read my recent summary here.

Deeply discounted airfares’ days are numbered. Airlines slashed capacity this year, and now expect demand to pick up this coming summer as vaccinated Americans splurge on travel, leading to tighter availability and higher fares. 

  • Business travelers traditionally contribute an outsized percentage of airline revenue. They represent just 12% of passengers, but 75% of profits, according to one estimate. Many people predict a significant fraction of business travel will continue to be replaced by videoconferences post-pandemic, which could potentially pressure airlines to raise fares for leisure travelers.

Worker tracking is a booming business. Spurred on by pandemic-related public health considerations, companies are using technology to monitor where staff are in their facilities. A new report from Guidehouse forecasts the market for occupancy tracking will balloon from $488 million in 2020 to $8.2 billion annually by 2030.

  • The technology ranges from apps that workers run on their phones to small tracking tags or watch-like devices. PricewaterhouseCoopers is one company that since the pandemic has required workers to run a tracking app on their phones when in the office, to assist with contact tracing.
  • Any use of the technology beyond this crisis could prove controversial from a privacy standpoint. 

Clean energy ETFs have been the top-performing US equity funds of 2020. The Invesco solar exchange-traded fund was up 238% for the year as of this week, making it the top US equity ETF or mutual fund according to Morningstar. Solar-company shares soared this year amid declines in solar energy costs and interest in green investments. 

A CDC panel recommended which workers should be prioritized for the vaccine. As I’ve written, it’s up to each state to decide who gets vaccinated after health-care workers and long-term care residents, but many are expected to follow the guidelines approved by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee. 

  • Those recommended for Phase 1b include: first responders, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, postal service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, teachers, school support staff, and child-care workers. 
  • The recommendations leave off some of the categories businesses had lobbied for, such as Uber drivers and Amazon warehouse workers. Gun retailers, bankers, and lawyers—which qualify as economically essential workers under one CDC definition—also didn’t make the cut. 

More states joined the fray in the case over states’ taxation of remote-workers’ income. I wrote in October about New Hampshire’s taking Massachusetts to the Supreme Court for “attempting to pick the pocket of our citizens.” Fourteen other states have now weighed in supporting New Hampshire. Massachusetts is taxing nonresidents’ income as if they were commuting to work in the state, even if they’re now working remotely. 

Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:

  • Do exit interviews for employees who aren’t leaving. Someone who’s not their manager asks a staff member why they would consider quitting, what they’d tell friends who might apply to work at the company, and what work tasks they want to spend more or less time on. Such meetings help employees feel heard, and surface issues handicapping teams. 
  • Say goodbye to busy work. Companies are increasingly open to ditching reports done purely for internal tracking or review, as a way to ease workloads amid the pandemic. Some managers are paring back the number of people invited to meetings to avoid wasting colleagues’ time. If tasks are not essential, you can try making the case for not doing them, or putting them off until work normalizes again.


The handshake’s future is…shaky. Dr. Fauci last spring had said no one should ever shake hands again. Now he says he’s sure some people will resume shaking hands after the pandemic, though he doesn’t intend to. 

  • 54% of Americans polled recently said they would be happy to never shake anyone’s hand again.

Athletes played better when they practiced less. NFL players missed off-season workouts, preseason games, and numerous practices because of the virus—but they played as well as ever. Scoring is at a record high, as more rest seems to outweigh any disadvantages from not practicing as much. “A little less is more,” former NFL coach Rex Ryan told The Wall Street Journal.

A playwright is sharing his good fortune. Jeremy O. Harris, the author of “Slave Play,” earned nearly $1 million this year, after making almost no money for the past decade. The 31-year-old decided to use the proceeds to fund two $50,000 commissions and make 152 grants of $500 to playwrights. “It is more money than I ever imagined I would make, and it’s also more money than I need,” Harris told The New York Times. “And so it feels imperative for me to work and imagine new ways to take care of the people around me.”

People are literally getting away with murder because of the pandemic. Homicides were up about 40% through November in big US cities compared to last year. And the percentage of cases solved was down seven percentage points to 59%, as police struggle with the higher volume of murders and logistical challenges of the pandemic. Plus the widespread wearing of masks has made it harder to track down suspects

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email. Have a great week!