Is capitalism moral?
That question was posed Friday by The Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein, the keynote speaker at the Radford University College of Business and Economics (COBE) Global Capitalism Distinguished Speaker Series luncheon in the COBE Building. The annual event was sponsored by BB&T.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, who also is a Robinson Professor of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, opened his lecture by asking the many students in attendance, what is greed? Numerous students responded with thoughtful answers to the complex question. None channeled an inner Gordon Gekko with a claim that greed is good.
"This is actually a more difficult question than it appears," admitted Pearlstein, who earlier that day had talked about the morality of capitalism in an open forum with a group of RU students and faculty in a classroom setting.
"It's pretty hard to know where to draw the line between a legitimate and healthy pursuit of self-interest and the excessive pursuit of self-interest.
Pearlstein later said "capitalism is moral because it allows people to keep the fruits of their own talents and hard work. Capitalism is moral because, over time, it is the system that has proven to have lifted more people out of poverty and into the middle class and created more material well-being for more people than any other system."
However, it's a "little more complicated than that," Pearlstein said.
"In a rich and industrial country, our moral obligation is to provide everyone with a good shot at earning economic success within a system that ensures everyone a measure of both economic responsibility and economic security," Pearlstein said. "And in figuring out how to do that we have to climb out of the intellectual rut of debating whether government is too big or too small, is doing too much or too little, and focus much more on whether it is doing the right thing."
Pearlstein was awarded the Gerald R. Loeb Award for commentary in 2007 and the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2008 for columns the previous year anticipating and explaining the recent financial crisis and global economic downturn.
In 2011 Pearlstein won the Gerald R. Loeb Award for lifetime achievement in business and financial journalism. His work has also been cited by the Society of Business Editors and Writers.
Pearlstein has appeared frequently as a commentator on national television and radio programs. He continues to write a bi-weekly column for the Post's Sunday Business section and oversees the Post's leadership website, On Leadership.
Pearlstein joined a distinguished group of previous speakers who have participated in the BB&T-COBE series: Christopher Coyne, director of graduate studies of the Department of Economics at George Mason University; Hamid Ghanadan, founder and president of the Linus Group; Mary Rose Carosia and Theresa Werner of S&P Capital IQ; Kevin Daley, a past vice president at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and founder of Communispond; former BB&T Chair and Chief Executive Officer John Allison; Jason Bingham, vice president, Central Territory of North America, for Ingersoll Rand; and Keith Shields, senior statistician and analytic development lead for Marketing Associates in Detroit.
"One of the treats of working in an academic community is to hear different points of view on complex and important issues of the day," said COBE interim Dean Dennis Grady. "This year we had two speakers, Dr. Chris Coyne and Mr. Steven Pearlstein, approach the subject of capitalism from very different but academically sound perspectives. We hope that these speakers provide our students, as well as, faculty and community members something to think about in ways that might be novel to them. I hope that we accomplished that objective with our BB&T Global Capitalism Lecture Series this year."