The Committee on Global Thought, a Columbia organization, hosted a conference called “Sovereign Wealth Funds and Other Long-Term Investors: A New Form of Capitalism?” yesterday and today. If you didn’t hear about it, you just must not be cool or something. Today the University hosted talks from former Vice President Al Gore and billionaire George Soros which were both oddly double-billed as being part of both the conference and the World Leaders Forum. Both stayed fairly close to the somewhat esoteric topic of SWFs, which made for some interesting, technical lectures. Bwog Lock Box Expert David Hu reports from the Inconvenient Man’s talk. Stay tuned for Soros coverage tomorrow.
At 8 this morning, a line of undergraduates snaked around Low, each one of them eager to catch a first-hand glimpse of the man that was going to be our next president. Even so, there were many people dressed up in suits, and before the talk started, Bwog noticed a man who even brought his own crumpets and tea platter to the event.
However, soon after 9, PrezBo and Al Gore walked out together, a hush fell over the crowd, and Mr. Bo took to the podium to introduce the speaker. He talked about the context of the address and personally thanked Joseph Stiglitz as well as other sponsors of the event. He wasn’t short on his lauds for the former Vice President either, mentioning his Nobel Prize and previous stints lecturing at Columbia. However, Bollinger’s introduction was brief compared to others he’s given at World Leaders Forum events, and he quickly bolted off stage after handing over the podium to Gore, leaving behind the iconic blue chair and a sad, lonely pitcher of water all by themselves for most of the lecture. Perhaps something else needed his attention.
The title of Mr. Gore’s speech was “Enacting Sustainable Capitalism,” and these words alone sum up the talk pretty well; his talk could be seen as an economic lecture with an inconvenient truth as the impetus. He began his talk by discussing the recent rise of sovereign wealth funds (SWFs). He expressed his disappointment in how these increasingly powerful organizations do not pay enough attention to environmental concerns. Gore lamented how SWFs often ask themselves if they can make money while still being actively socially responsible but often say “no” because their sole focus is on maximizing returns on investments; they could not sacrifice profit for things he called “long-term values,” which include sustainability initiatives, combating poverty, and promoting education. This often leads to an internal conflict within the institution: they want to do these things, yet they can’t because they are so intensely focused the numerical statistics of profits and quarterly returns that generally dissuade this sort of virtuous behavior.
Gore proposed two paths for a solution to this problem. First, after giving a defense of capitalism and democracy in the modern world, he discussed how incentive drives firms to do what they do. He recommended that SWFs “adopt internal incentives” that encourage the pursuit of long-term goals, essentially eliminating any internal conflict. Interspersed with this was the idea that economic transactions nowadays happen at too fast a pace, which is partially why firms are so focused on numbers. For his second potential solution, Gore said that SWFs need to stop focusing on such a narrow view and consider the “real valuation” of other factors, such as the potential for climate change.
The question and answer session that followed was mainly composed of specific questions on economic topics, but two did stick out. When asked about the Obama administration’s environmental policies, Mr. Gore responded, “I think we’re out of time…” However, he give general praise for the administration and reminded everyone that Obama still has two years left in his term. Secondly, an undergraduate asked about how the world could move towards sustainable capitalism if there are already deep elements in the market set against this, to which Gore responded with a passioned response criticizing the oil industry for playing a major role in this problem, showing off once again the environmentalist core of the speech.
Throughout the talk, the one thing impossible to ignore was the sheer intelligence of the speaker. Al Gore is one smart dude. A few minutes into his speech, Gore left the podium and hardly returned, giving the impression that he was speaking from his mind rather than from a script, and this gave the talk a distinctively lecture-like feeling. To his credit too, actually watching Gore speak isn’t as boring and monotonous as the SNL skits of yesteryear would have one believe. He was humorous at times and gave personal anecdotes about his life (he once bought his kids a puppy!). However, what ultimately really shined through and what Mr. Gore excelled at, even amidst the political and technical language of a speech about the economy and capitalism, was expressing his passion for environmentalism and the need for the world to just come together and combat climate change.