Business Leaders as our Missing Middle?

Last week, when I woke up to the news about the shutting down of the federal government, I began searching for answers. Like many, I feared that the pundits who predicted the shutdown would last only a couple days would be proven wrong. After all, the coalition of tea party congressmen who are libertarian to the core have little to lose by playing hard ball.

In this respect, the hard right has a lot in common with the far left. "Occupiers" look different, and may value different things, but the most dedicated have little to lose. Their generation is chronically under employed and disenfranchised by the yawning gap in the job market for their education or skills. For members of the Occupy movement, like their tea party counterparts, disrupting the status quo has little personal consequence. If Bloomberg hadn't commanded the NYPD to step it up, there would still be a lot of sleeping bags in Zuccotti Park.

In essence, one side's anger is directed at government, the other's at business. Each side passionately believes that reigning in one or the other is the avenue toward what almost all of us want -- a more prosperous economy, and a thriving middle class to support both our economy and democracy. (And to consider the common roots of these disparate movements, look no further than Robert Reich's analysis of the decline of the middle class, brought to life in a remarkable new documentary: "Inequality for All.")

What has become of our center? If history is any guide, business leaders themselves have a critical role to play. At inflection points like this one, for purely commercial reasons, business has been an important moderating, and even progressive, force. In business, common sense trumps ideology. But much more business "civitas" is needed now and in the years to come.

Last week, the Aspen Institute honored five pioneering business faculty and brought them together with 40 faculty and administrators from top business schools. The gathering was designed as an exchange of ideas about exemplary teaching that mines the tensions between private incentives and the public welfare, and that helps students consider real time issues with both economic and social implications.

The crowd was decidedly pro-market. But there was a surprisingly broad consensus about the need for business schools to better prepare students to navigate the interplay between business and government. Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, observed that "on the one hand [we] celebrate markets - but divorce them from the [structures] that make them possible - i.e., our legal and regulatory environments." She believes a key lesson from the 2008 economic crisis is the need for the public and private sectors to work together.

And front-line business school faculty are moving quickly beyond good intentions.

• Clayton Rose at the Harvard Business School is teaching a case study of the LIBOR scandal through the lens of Barclays - exploring the decisions of everyone from traders on the Money Market desk, to then-CEO Bob Diamond, to British regulators. At the heart of the case are questions about the responsibilities to the system - a system that even the NY Fed had pointed out, pre-scandal, was antiquated and in need of revamping.

• Mauro Guillén at Wharton, one of Aspen's 2013 award-winning faculty, teaches "International Political Economy of Business Environments" - in which he prompts students to consider how firms interact with government and the law around the globe. Through comparative study, students gain insights into how different legal and regulatory contexts shape our most fundamental ideas about business - including the nature of competition, innovation, and even profit.

• David Besanko, one of Aspen's 2013 Faculty Pioneer finalists, teaches "Public Economics for Business Leaders." Professor Besanko leads Kellogg MBA students to examine value creation more deeply, including the comparative advantages of both government and the private sector, given the limitations of each. When are market-based solutions fair and efficient and when does government deliver a better solution?

It is unlikely these teaching innovations in our nation's business schools will have much of an impact on the world views of either the tea party or the Occupiers any time soon. But it can, in time, build the common ground for more common sense and less rancor at both government and business, regardless of political stripes. Business education, given its scale and reach, has the potential rebuild trust between the two, and to ask, instead, under what circumstances can each work at its best?