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What I Learned at the Aspen Ideas RE$ET Festival Sponsored by Mastercard, PayPal, and Prudential in Partnership with Bloomberg

• February 25, 2021 5:00 am

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Aspen Ideas: RE$ET, a virtual symposium of experts and thought leaders designed to "give voice to the bold ideas" for "building an equitable economy," took place earlier this week. If you're in the target demographic—people who enjoy giving and receiving PowerPoint presentations—the entire 10-hour program is available online for your enjoyment.

On the other hand, don't bother. Three hours is more than enough to make the average viewer wish they were rewatching the Democratic primary debates instead, which were interesting and informative by comparison. At least the candidates disagreed on some issues. The Aspen-approved experts rarely did, while deploying many of the same talking points.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a "challenge" but also an "opportunity" for progress, just like World War II and the race to put a man on the moon. Those challenges-turned-opportunities epitomized the greatness that America should endeavor to achieve again by building back better using "mutualistic public-private partnerships."

As the economist Mariana Mazzucato explained during an afternoon breakout session, re-actualizing American greatness will require "a mission-oriented approach to stakeholder capitalism." What does that mean, exactly? Better to let the expert explain it herself: "We must seize the moment to set a direction for change, catalyze innovation across the economy aimed at societal challenges." Now you know.

Like any worthwhile gathering of experts, the virtual conference consisted of plenary sessions and breakouts. Panel discussions were interspersed with short videos highlighting "changemakers," as well as interviews with non-experts to give viewers a sense of what "Main Street" is thinking.

Martin Muoto, for example, is making change via his role as founder, managing partner, and CEO of "a family of social impact real estate funds" called SoLa Impact. In the short video clip, Muoto demonstrated his talent for cramming an obscene amount of woke corporate jargon into a single sentence. "We really are resetting the framework for how we execute compassionate capitalism with intention, with inclusion, and with sustainability," he said, expertly.

The man-on-the-street interviews were equally compelling. Uncredentialed commoners were asked to weigh in on a variety of topics, such as structural inequality, sustainability, and trade. In most cases, their thoughts, suggestions, and admissions of white privilege were no less insightful than those of the credentialed experts.

In one interview, a self-described "white girl who has always grown up in the suburbs" expressed a desire to help the environment by "cutting down on fast fashion," but acknowledged the difficulty of doing so, given that "everything that's worse for the environment is cheaper." In another, a man wearing an Under Armour hooded sweatshirt, a Nike hat, and Oakley sunglasses expressed his preference for American-made products, or at the very least products made in countries with "favorable working conditions."

Like the Democratic primary, Aspen Ideas: RE$ET was "generously underwritten" by a number of multinational corporations—MasterCard, PayPal, and Prudential. Bloomberg was involved as well. Journalists who survived the recent layoffs at billionaire Michael Bloomberg's media empire moderated a number of panel discussions. Not surprisingly, many of the panelists were financial patrons of the Democratic Party.

The first plenary session—"Resetting for Equity and Inclusion"—featured an appearance from Netflix cofounder and CEO Reed Hastings, who donated more than $5 million to Democratic candidates, committees, and PACs during the 2020 election cycle. (He gave $0 to GOP candidates and groups.) Hastings discussed the role that major corporations can and must play in the effort to eradicate racial injustice.

Democratic politicians participated as well, to an extent. Sen. Tina Smith (D., Minn.), for example, appeared to lose her connection after Bloomberg editor Aaron Rutkoff asked if Democrats should eliminate the filibuster to pass climate change legislation. The video feed cut abruptly to the senator refusing to answer the question, just as she (and Joe Biden) had repeatedly done during the 2020 election.

One breakout session—"Reset the Net for American Workers"—featured a Bloomberg-moderated discussion between Jamie Kalamarides, president of Prudential Group Insurance, and Karan Chopra, cofounder and senior adviser of Opportunity@Work, an independent 501(c)(3) that uses algorithms to help firms sort existing employees and potential hires according to skill level. Kalamarides (MBA, Dartmouth) and Chopra (MBA, Harvard) agreed that firms should hire "based on skills, not based on credentials."

The Aspen Institute is dedicated to "asking big questions and offering big solutions." Questions like: Should the government be "competent" or "visionary"? Or why not both? That's an easy answer. For the most part, however, the big solutions were hard to come by. What exactly were they trying to achieve, in terms a non-expert might be able to understand?

During a breakout session that promised virtual attendees the opportunity to "interact with experts" who are working toward "a national agenda for financial inclusion," Bloomberg editor Stephanie Flanders asked the panelists to articulate a concrete goal, in the vein of putting men on the moon, by which to measure the success of their various corporate initiatives.

Mike Froman, a former Citigroup executive who served eight years in the Obama administration before becoming the head of strategic growth for Mastercard, weighed in first: "A sustainable, inclusive, digital economy that works for everyone, everywhere." To her credit, Flanders pointed out that Froman hadn't answered the question at all; he'd simply regurgitated some corporate-speak gibberish.

Adrienne Harris, a finance guru who also served in the Obama White House, stepped up to the plate. "It's such a multifaceted problem," she said, but "Mike is right, sort of, 100 percent, sort of, digital, sustainable, inclusion." Indeed, that was a good note on which to conclude, Flanders replied. Or rather, it would have to be. The panel had run out of time.