Can Cultivating the Mind Tame Global Capitalism?

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ASPEN, Colorado -- The Aspen Ideas Festival opens today here in the beautiful Roaring Fork Valley. This conference is jointly sponsored by The Atlantic and The Aspen Institute, on whose gorgeous, riverside campus the whole thing is held. Hundreds of speakers will deliver talks to thousands of people who paid as much for a ticket as one might for spend on half a year of rent in most parts of the country.

Last year, I looked back at the history of "the Aspen idea," which began when Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke, a Chicago businessman and his powerful wife, decided that this post-mining town should be the site of American humanism. The Paepcke's wanted to transform the American salaryman into a more cultivated person, someone who liked Goethe and design and thought about more than just money.

"It's been said that the average American businessman is so busy with the urgent that he never has time for the important," Walter Paepcke told CBS in 1955. "He runs a good business, but he has a little bit of trouble deciding what are the important things in life, what he believes in, and why he believes it."

I've come to see the Paepckes as a forerunner of today's believers in the triple bottom line, business types that see profit as only one of their motives. Many of the sessions deal with issues of how to build more moral thought into people's enterprises and lives.

Then, as now, it's an easy to see corporate social responsibility, sustainability initiatives, and fair trade branding as just fig leafs to draw attention away from the fact that corporate profits are up while wages are stagnant even as every employee is pushed into The Great Speedup.

And they may sometimes be fig leafs.

But on balance, I'll take leaders who at least feel the desire to create a better world and a more moral business practice, even if they won't always succeed in living up to their own principles. Paepcke's call to focus on the important still rings true, especially at a time when a sputtering US economy makes it difficult to focus on much beyond the next quarter.

What's your big idea? I'm wandering around Aspen looking for the most interesting ideas. Feel free to stop or tweet your ideas to @alexismadrigal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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