Top stories of 2011

December 20th, 2011

With the end of 2011 just a few days away, Professor Voices asked several of our experts to tell us what they thought were the top stories of 2011. We’ll be posting more lists over the next few days.

James Post, School of Management

2011 was a tumultuous year for business and society, at home and abroad. Here are the top broad developments in the year gone by:

The passing of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs represented some of the very best things about business: a passion for elegant design, great improvements in the functionality of new “tools,” and endless lessons in technological innovation.

Fukushima – A failure of crisis managment

The 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster showed the world the fragility of human systems. It also disclosed the terrible dangers that inadequate government regulation, weak media oversight, and how a “too cozy” relationship between electric company officials and regulators can harm the public by producing inadequate oversight and crisis preparation.

Global economic crisis – no place to hide

(a) In the U.S., the jobs crisis worsened. Unemployment stayed near or above 9%, chronic unemployment worsened, and, when coupled with underemployment, nearly 25% of the American workforce was unable to find a job.

(b) In Europe, the debt problems of Greece, Italy, and Spain created a series of “rolling monetary crises” that toppled governments, raised unemployment, and cut public spending in all three countries during 2011.

Corrupt corruption – a never-ending story

2011 was the 10th anniversary of Enron’s collapse. The year had its own serious cases of corporate misdeeds. Three examples stand out:

(a) Olympus, the Japanese camera manufacturer, fired its American CEO because he disclosed massive fraud and false reporting.

(b) In Great Britain, NewsCorp and the Murdoch family were forced to testify before a  parliamentary inquiry about hacking and invasion of privacy incidents that forced the company to close its legendary paper, News of the World. At last report, at least 18 ex-reporters and officials have been arrested in the scheme.

(c) In the largest insider trading scandal, Raj Rajaratnam, founder of Galleon hedge fund, was sentenced to 11 years in jail for insider trading. Other convictions included executives from companies such as IBM, a former McKinsey consultant and a director of Goldman Sachs who shared confidential information with Rajaratnam.

(d) The year ended with the bankruptcy of MF Global, headed by CEO and former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine. Worse, more than $1 billion of customer funds have disappeared.

Climate talks make small progress

While the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluters (U.S., China, India) still refuse to commit to a binding agreement to limit their GHG emissions, a two week meeting of 1,991 nations in Durban, South Africa produced more voluntary commitments and a wider consensus that carbon emissions threaten Planet Earth.

Poverty and inequality rise

Reports from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, Bureau of the Census, and the United Nations Development Programme document growing poverty and economic inequality in the U.S. and abroad. Meanwhile, many companies are trying to understand how to serve potential customers at the “bottom of the pyramid.”

These facts set the stage for the biggest development of the year: OCCUPY WALL STREET. Finally, a “voice” to challenge excessive executive compensation, inequality (the 99%), and political corruption fostered through corporate money.

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