“Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” – Shakespeare

In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated in a political maneuver to remove him from power on the Ides of March – March 15.

Caesar was punished for fear that he would abuse power, become a tyrant, a king.  Shakespeare wrote a play about it.  As Shakespeare had Brutus explain: “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”

Shakespeare, thus, conjoined morality with governance and law, just as the Caux Round Table proposes in its Principles for Government.

Government is law.  Government works through law and regulation.  Law is what government tells us to do.  Government calls the tune and we are to dance, with punishment hanging over our heads as the cost of possible disobedience, negligent or not.

But as John Locke put it, government is a trust, not a tyranny.  Not every law is necessarily just and legitimate; not every government proceeding is necessarily just and fair.

Government disciplined by the rule of law, which respects the moral agency of the people, their rights, is good government; bad government cages and disciplines the people through rule by law – again from Shakespeare: “When Caesar says do this, it is performed.”

Where is our world going?

In a recent Zoom meeting with some of our fellows, several commented in line with many opinion leaders that the post-World War II global order is fragmenting.

A parallel can be drawn between our times and the 1930s, which saw the desuetude of the League of Nations and a world becoming hostile to constitutionalism and just democracy.

Now, as then, we see the “hard” men rising and more gentle folk slip-sliding away in their capacity for leadership.

This is true in the U.S., as we lose our psycho-social moorings and, more and more, float on currents of intolerance, anti-racism racism, fear and reliance on compulsion instead of persuasion.

As I was taught by my grandfather, a lawyer and in the Harvard Law School of yesteryear, the barrier we erect against prejudice, intolerance, dictatorship, arbitrary and capricious use of state authority is the moral concept of the rule of law, a normative standard of justice by which to measure lawfulness.

I attach here a short essay on the abuses of “greatness,” which we now face, more and more, and why, therefore, we all need the rule of law – morning, noon and night.

When You Walk in Cicero’s Footsteps, You Can’t Be All Wrong

I was recently re-reading Cicero’s De Officiis (On Moral Responsibility) and in a pleasant surprise, found that Cicero had embraced an important Caux Round Table Principle for Government.

The principles rest on a premise of responsibility, using the concept of office as a trust.

I was reading Walter Miller’s translation from the Latin and was quite surprised to see, for the first time, that Cicero had advocated the same moral vision for those in government as does the Caux Round Table.

Cicero wrote:

For the administration of the government, like the office of a trustee, must be conducted for the benefit of those entrusted to one’s care, not of those to whom it is entrusted.  Now, those who care for the interests of a part of the citizens and neglect another part, introduce into the civil service a dangerous element – dissension and party strife. (Book I, XXV, 85)

The Caux Round Table Principles for Government start with this standard of conduct:

Fundamental principle: Public power is held in trust for the community.

Power brings responsibility.  Power is a necessary moral circumstance in that it binds the actions of one to the welfare of others.

Therefore, the power given by public office is held in trust for the benefit of the community and its citizens.  Officials are custodians only of the powers they hold.  They have no personal entitlement to office or the prerogatives thereof.

Holders of public office are accountable for their conduct while in office.  They are subject to removal for malfeasance, misfeasance or abuse of office.  The burden of proof that no malfeasance, misfeasance or abuse of office has occurred lies with the officeholder.

The state is the servant and agent of higher ends.  It is subordinate to society.  Public power is to be exercised within a framework of moral responsibility for the welfare of others.  Governments that abuse their trust shall lose their authority and may be removed from office.

It is reassuring to discover that our approach has an excellent precedent.

How many problems do we face in country after country caused by governments that do not live up to their responsibilities of serving the common good as faithful stewards of life-giving moral capitals?

The Last Act: Age Can Be a Problem

Age can be a problem.

As Shakespeare wrote in “As You Like It”:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The premise that justifies faith in the efficacy of morality holds that individuals 1) have a moral sense and 2) can use it to inspire and to discipline their actions and so serve a good greater than individual willfulness and personal advantage.  The moral sense, as understood by Confucius, Mencius, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus and more prosaically, Adam Smith, is made possible by biology and psycho-social prowess.

Now, as we don’t expect robust activation of the moral sense without cultivation, we demand more from adults than from children.  But what of old age?  Does the moral sense weaken as our other corporal powers decline as the years pass and experience takes its toll on our happiness and optimism?

Recently, I saw a study that correlated age with less efficacious leadership in the current Harvard Business Review as depicted in this chart:

My first thought after accepting the accuracy of the correlation was of American politics – Joe Biden is 81 and Donald Trump is 77 – and each, in his own way, are stubborn, irascible and insistently self-promoting.

If our minds tend to close down as we age, then what should be our highest and best use of our mature moral sense and accumulated wisdom?

More Short Videos on Relevant and Timely Topics

We recently posted more short videos on relevant and timely topics.  They include:

AI is Not Quite There Yet

Doers and Thinkers

How is the Daily Bread?

The Ups and Downs of Markets

On 20 Years of Facebook

All our videos can be found on our YouTube page here.  We recently put them into 9 playlists, which you can find here.

If you aren’t following us on Twitter or haven’t liked us on Facebook, please do so.  We update both platforms frequently.

Capitalism and Technology: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I have, for several years, been at pains to point out what, to me, is pretty obvious: 1) capitalism excels all economic and public governance systems in bringing technology to humanity, while technology brings along both public goods and at times, public bads and 2) if there is too much CO2 in our atmosphere causing global warming, let’s take CO2 out of the air.

There is a technology, which I have noted, that was recently written up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal’s business and finance section – a hybrid material of cement made with carbon which can reduce the carbon footprint of cement making and store carbon out of the atmosphere.

President Biden’s 2022 legislation provides tax credits for carbon capture, using taxpayer money to reduce a public bad and so create a public good.

To make “green” concrete, CO2 is sprayed inside the mixing drums on concrete trucks.  There it reacts with calcium ions in the cement to form calcium carbonate, a mineral embedded in the construction material.  The calcium carbonate reduces the amount of cement that is needed in the construction project, cutting the amount of cement produced and so cutting carbon emissions.  Secondly, the CO2 sprayed in the mixing drums is sequestered away from our atmosphere.

This chart projects how much CO2 could be captured by industry sector:

It’s Valentine’s Day: I Love You America for Better, for Worse, for Richer, for Poorer, in Sickness and in Health

More and more Americans are saying to themselves – and even openly – “the country is not ok; the kids are not ok; I am not ok.”

A dysphoria seems to have taken over our culture and politics, crowding out older optimism, resilience, wisdom and self-confidence, which replacement does not bode well for the country’s future.

Actually, though many have forgotten, in July 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter spoke to the American people about their dysphoria, as he perceived it:

“I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.  The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways.  It is a crisis of confidence.  It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.  We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.  The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”

In the February 5 issue of the New Yorker, I found a cartoon, where the cartoonist tries to capture, in a wry fashion, the dysphoria being experienced by so many Americans:

This special issue of Pegasus, “The De-Enlightening of America: The Onset of Systemic National Dysphoria”, provides readers with data on the state of the American people and their culture, politics and economy – lots of data, none of which can cheer the heart, validate old understandings of who we are as a people or provide a basis for optimism.

The issue does not attempt to provide any explanations for what the data reveals.  Nor does it speculate about the future.  Such insights are left for the reader to propose.

However, historical perspectives relevant to what the data might be revealing can be found in the thinking of two very serious students of history – Sir John Glubb (1897-1986) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406).

Sir John Bagot Glubb, British lieutenant general, estimated that the average length of greatness for a regime, people or nation is 250 years. America is 248 years old.

For Glubb, socially created polities rise and fall in these stages.  First, an age of pioneers.  Then an age of conquests.  Then commercial success.  Then affluence.  Then an age of intellect and finally, an age of decadence.

Decadence is marked by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, a welfare state and weakening of religion.  Decadence results from too long a period of wealth and power, selfishness, love of money and loss of a sense of duty.

Ibn Khaldun suggested those stages.  In the first stage, founders of an umran (dynasties) are very energetic, vigorous, aggressive, but very kind, patient and accommodative, tolerant and creative. In the second stage, rulers show less enthusiasm for those qualities, but the economy grows faster than in the first stage.  In the third stage, the ruling elite becomes complacent in satisfaction with the status quo, sitting back and enjoying their privileges.  Wealth is still created, but there are now bumps in the road.  In the fourth stage, leaders begin to increase the extractions of rent from the people, while failing to take responsibility for the common good.  The elite, more and more, depends on a few self-seeking opportunists – grifters – and the economy suffers.  In the last stage of sumptuous luxury for the elite, resources – natural, human and social capitals – are squandered, while a challenger arises from the margins of society to subjugate the kingdom.

Depressing data on America – befitting the last phase of Glubb’s and Khaldun’s theories of national destiny – just keeps on coming.  On January 31, after this special issue was written, there were three additional reports in the press.

One report was that total cases of syphilis in the U.S. in 2022 were over 207,000, a 17% increase and the highest number of cases since 1950.  Cases of chlamydia had not increased and cases of gonorrhea had declined.

Secondly, a children’s advocacy group, Common Sense Media, released polling results.  Two- thirds of youth ages 12 to 17 said things are not going well for children and teenagers.  Less than half reported optimism that they would become better off than their parents.  Among those polled between the ages of 18 and 26, only 15% reported being in excellent mental health.  More than half the teenagers believed that public schools were doing only a poor to fair job in providing education.  Only 8% believed that public schools were “excellent.”

Thirdly, America’s New Majority Project reported that Americans’ trust in various professions, from professors to members of Congress, has dropped recently.

Gallup’s 2023 Honesty and Ethics poll asked 800 respondents from Dec. 1 to Dec. 20, 2023, to rate the honesty and ethical standards of 23 listed professions.  Nearly all answered negatively compared to previous years, following a downward trend in ratings since 2019:

-56% rate doctors highly, down from 65% in 2019.
-45% rate police officers highly, down from 54% in 2019.
-42% rate college teachers highly, down from 49% in 2019.
-32% rate clergy highly, down from 40% in 2019.
-19% rate journalists highly, down from 28% in 2019.
-12% rate business leaders highly, down from 20% in 2019.

Members of Congress have the lowest honesty and ethical standards, according to those surveyed:

-Only 6% rate members of Congress highly.
-Congress members were rated worse than car dealers, stockbrokers and insurance salespersons.

Where America goes from here is an open question.  Let us hope for the best.

Is Capitalism Always the Road to Riches?

Two recent, small stories should give us pause when thinking of capitalism as a system of wealth creation.  There are conditions that go along with success and different conditions that lead to failure.  How well do we discern conditions and adjust to them?  No guarantees at all that we will be astute and properly adaptive.

A once celebrated company that invested in providing flexible office spaces has gone bankrupt. WeWork was once valued at $47 billion.  On November 6, 2023, WeWork filed for bankruptcy.

In August, three members of the WeWork board resigned in disagreement over governance and strategic direction.  On October 2, the company did not make interest payments to its bondholders.  The company has $10 billion in lease obligations due from last year through the end of 2027.  The company used $530 million in cash during the first six months of 2023 and had only $205 million on hand, as of last June.

In a September call with its landlords, WeWork’s CEO asked for adjustments to its rent commitments because “the office real estate market has fundamentally changed.”

Then, the emergence of new drugs to reduce obesity has triggered enticing speculation among investors – assumptions are being made about companies which have profited from selling to obese Americans and other companies which may pivot from selling junk food to more healthy products, such as carrot sticks.  Share prices for Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk have risen more than 50% this year.  Share prices for Dexcom, Zimmer Biomet and Insulet have, to the contrary, dropped from 20% to 60%.

But again, there are no guarantees in capitalism.  Manias and asset bubbles have ridden the back of free investment markets since the tulip mania broke out and then collapsed in Holland 400 years ago.

When is an asset bubble based on disinformation or misinformation or just wishful thinking?  When is a bubble not a bubble, but a reflection of well-considered valuation of a company’s prospects?

Caveat emptor – “Let the buyer beware” – and “trust but verify” are still sound advice when dealing with other people in open societies.

More Short Videos on Relevant and Timely Topics

We recently posted more short videos on relevant and timely topics.  They include:

Morality is an Intangible Asset

The Value of Values

Reflections on 2023

All our videos can be found on our YouTube page here.  We recently put them into 9 playlists, which you can find here.

If you aren’t following us on Twitter or haven’t liked us on Facebook, please do so.  We update both platforms frequently.

Did Anything Happen at the World Economic Forum?

The 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos ended back on January 19th.  My take on the results of some 400 sessions is bleak and disdainful.  My thoughts are as follows:

The 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland, was a bust.  Its results reminded me of Shakespeare’s take on the supposed great and glorious (and all of us as well):

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The meeting was convened to provide leadership in solving the trust deficit dragging humanity down into war, beggar-thy-neighbor economics and despair.  Its theme was “Rebuilding Trust.”

The Forum promised that it would “provide a crucial space to focus on the fundamental principles driving trust, including transparency, consistency and accountability.”  That privileged “space” was to be occupied by over 100 governments, all major international organizations, 1,000 Forum partners, as well as civil society leaders, experts, youth representatives, social entrepreneurs and news outlets.

“We must rebuild trust – trust in our future, trust in our capacity to overcome challenges and most importantly, trust in each other,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.  “Trust is not just a feeling; trust is a commitment to action, to belief, to hope.”

And what had happened by the end of the meeting: nothing of note.

The consulting firm McKinsey wrote a report listing the 10 key takeaways from Davos 2024:

“Despite seemingly endless geopolitical and economic uncertainty, global business leaders are coming away from Davos cautiously optimistic about 2024.  While challenges and surprises remain inevitable, opportunities abound.  This was a common theme at the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, where delegates from global business, government, civil society, media and academia convened to focus on the fundamental principles driving trust.”

The key takeaways, as proposed by the McKinsey observers, were:

1.    Speed is crucial to outperformance.
2.    Cooperation is multifaceted and can coexist with competition.
3.    The generative AI revolution is only just beginning.
4.    Sustainability is a business imperative.
5.    Better women’s health is correlated with economic prosperity.
6.    A comprehensive approach to transformation is most effective.
7.    Business leaders need to focus on matching top talent to the highest-value roles.
8.    The best CEOs leave organizations in a better place than they found them.
9.    Performance and diversity are not mutually exclusive.
10.  Don’t overlook India’s potential.

What does all this have to do with building trust or preventing the meltdown of trust?  Nothing.

The World Economic Forum’s press office provided this “uplifting” summary of the meeting:

  • At a moment of growing fragmentation and polarization, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting 2024 served as a platform for advancing dialogue, cooperation and action-oriented partnership.
  • Nearly 3,000 leaders from government, business and civil society from more than 125 countries, including 350 heads of state and government and ministers, participated in the meeting and connected across diverse viewpoints on key issues.
  • Participants advanced new ideas and initiatives to increase resilience and security, revive economic growth, protect the climate and nature, balance innovation and guardrails for technology and invest in jobs, skills and health.

What does any of that do to build the intangible social capital of trust or prevent the erosion of that asset?


On building trust, “world leaders” at the Forum offered the following platitudes:

“Geopolitical divides are preventing us from coming together around global solutions for global challenges,” said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

“It is essential that we discard prejudice, bridge differences and work as one to tackle the trust deficit,” said Li Qiang, Premier of the People’s Republic of China.

“The world is not at a single inflection point; it is at multi-inflection points,” warned Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.  She urged countries to “deepen global collaboration more than ever before.”

Ajay S. Banga, President of the World Bank Group, emphasized the interconnectedness of crises. “We cannot think about eradicating poverty without caring about climate.  We cannot think about eradicating poverty without thinking about healthcare.  We cannot think about eradicating poverty without thinking about food insecurity and fragility.”

“We have a responsibility to be stewards of our beautiful, small planet’s future,” said Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.  “There is something that leaders need to embrace,” she added, “and it is the responsibility to act, even if it’s not popular.”

French President Emmanuel Macron called for world leaders to “be realistic, but be optimistic” about addressing the complex challenges of peace and security, jobs and decarbonization.  “I truly believe that the decisions that can change things are within our hands,” he said.

“I can’t think of a time when there’s been both a greater multiplicity and greater complexity of the challenges that we’re dealing with, “said Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State.

On the role of the meeting in providing a space for diplomacy and diverse viewpoints, Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, said: “The annual meeting serves as a vital platform for inclusive dialogue, bringing together parties to identify pathways toward achieving shared priorities.”

This collective “wisdom” should bring to our minds T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men”:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.

So, where are our effective global leaders?  Might you, reader, be one?