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Compassionate Capitalism: America's Easy Button?

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In the recent Republican debates as well as across the airwaves, in blogs and in print, questions have been raised about Mitt Romney's record of job creation, job elimination and the rightful balance between both. Some conservatives have debated the wisdom behind Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum questioning Romney's record because they say raising such questions is an attack on the free market system. They worry that, politically, it plays into the hand of Democrats and their stance on wealth creation, economic balance and government regulation.

It seems to me that these kinds of questions about presidential candidates are not only appropriate, but necessary. Neither red nor blue, they are legitimate questions that rightly examine how business practices conform to America's values and the expectations most Americans have of business. In fact, I wonder how we can have a useful and legitimate debate about the future of our nation without addressing such questions? Let's not forget that before the economic meltdown of 2008-09 there was first a values meltdown in our government and in our banking and financial industries.

What do I mean by a values meltdown? In my conversations with CEOs across America, many have observed that prior to the financial collapse there was, in many industries, an arrogant and immediate self-interest -- an "I'm-in-it-for-myself" attitude -- that trumped concern for consequences to others and to the greater good, whether it was the future good of the company or the nation, of customers or co-workers.

I believe as much in freedom of markets as I do in freedom of speech, but how can we address the financial meltdown and re-imagine a better America without addressing both the greed that is essential to free markets and its potential to corrupt? Is the greed allowable by "anything goes" capitalism any more acceptable or sustainable than other addictions or damaging behaviors, say firing guns in the air or yelling fire in a crowded theatre? Certainly, we condemn and restrain that kind of reckless behavior.

I see this debate in the same light, not as an attack on capitalism or on the character of any candidate, but as part of the ongoing national conversation about what's important to us as Americans. History shows us that, when the behavior of individuals or businesses doesn't conform to America's values, it will be regulated. That's because, while America has strong economic values and motivations, it is a nation comprised of individuals who also have strong social values and commitments. Freedom and equality are enshrined side-by-side in our Declaration of Independence, compelling us to continually engage in a national discussion about how to balance these values.

The best way, then, to foster free markets is for American business to voluntarily conform to America's social values, making the case for regulation moot. Many companies do that today - perhaps even the vast majority. And for some, it is a part of their American tradition.

Six decades ago, Dave Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, established his company's core values, declaring that, "The real reason HP exists is to make a contribution, to improve the welfare of humanity." Today, the J.M. Smucker Company's co-CEO Richard Smucker believes that his company's purpose in business is to help families, neighbors, and the community -- in short, to do the right thing. In fact, he believes that profit comes as a result of doing the right thing. He calls this philosophy "purpose before profits."

In order to have a useful debate about America's economy and a presidential candidate's history and position, we need to be able to freely discuss these issues without being branded as unpatriotic or disloyal to our nation or any political party. The discussion needs to be characterized as what it is: not an attack on capitalism but on ruthlessness that does not conform to our country's values.

At the same time, we also need the media covering these events, and all of those commenting on them, to show us a complete picture, not a skewed one. While Bain Capital closed plants and laid-off workers at some companies, didn't it also expand jobs at others and help to improve communities? Aren't many of its other companies -- take Staples, Inc., for example -- flourishing and serving as good examples of compassionate capitalism? We need everyone involved in the American conversation, including media, to accurately portray the entire picture.

When they don't, the end result is that a significant portion of Americans do not believe that many or most businesses and CEOs mirror good values, lift up their employees and help to deliver on our hopes and dreams. The end result is what we are seeing today -- a polarized nation undergoing a kind of class warfare, where groups such as Occupy Wall Street gain traction by pitting "the 99%" against "the 1%."

The antidote is readily available. If we occupied our values, we wouldn't have to Occupy Wall Street. No matter where we look, we can't get away from it: freedom requires responsibility. Personal freedom requires personal responsibility, and free markets require responsible capitalists, including responsible, profit-making mega-media enterprises, journalists and commentators. It isn't always easy, but it is just that simple.

Much easier would be to slip back into the narcissistic and myopic practices that caused the Great Recession, but America's values can show us a better way. That way starts with individuals and leaders having the ethical framework and character to balance freedom with responsibility and economic growth with goodness.

To see a list of America's shared values, as determined by almost 1,000 on the street interviews, go to www.Purpleamerica.us