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Ready for the Roaring ‘20s?

January 4, 2021, 11:04 AM UTC

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Good morning, and Happy New Year.

My friend John Barry, who wrote the book on the 1918 flu, says it laid the groundwork for the Roaring ‘20s. He and others have raised the question of whether something similar could happen again. 

Leave aside the fact that the stock market jumped the gun on this question—skipping straight to 1929 in its frothiness. There are some interesting parallels to consider. As Frederick Lewis Allen points out in Only Yesterday, the best popular history of the era, new technologies drove the Coolidge prosperity. Autos on the road tripled during the decade; radio sales grew more than 1000%; and rayon and refrigerators saw comparable action. Today’s economy seems similarly poised. Virtually every technology trend accelerated during the pandemic, and most business leaders seem to believe the curves will continue to bend upward. 

But the most interesting aspect of the 1920s, as Allen tells it, was that “public spirit was at low ebb.” Exhausted by war and illness, most people “were in a holiday mood.” President Wilson’s idealism, a brief outburst of radicalism, and an infatuation with prohibition quickly gave way to a decade-long desire to party. Gin and short dresses defeated dour concern with the world’s problems.

Well, count me among those ready for a good party. But I’m guessing this time, public spirit won’t be so easily put aside. The pandemic exacerbated fault lines in our society along lines of race, gender and education. The climate crisis became more apparent, in both business and life (See Katherine Dunn’s story on the outlook for action here.) And geopolitics has grown precarious—whether it’s the Russian cyberattack that infiltrated much of American government and business, or rising tension with China raising fundamental questions about the future world order. I predict business leaders are going to find themselves increasingly and inescapably tied up in all three issues as the decade unfolds.

* * *

One big business and society story that broke after CEO Daily shut down last year was the Justice Department’s charge that Walmart helped fuel the opioid crisis, overlooking warnings from its own pharmacists. The evidence as reported is pretty damning, and it’s a black eye for a company that has spent the last two decades trying to improve its public image.

Does that mean Walmart’s embrace of stakeholder capitalism is an act of hypocrisy, or a preemptive exercise in public relations? Well, not necessarily. Big companies are complex organisms, and like people, capable of doing both good and bad—sometimes at the same time. But it is a reminder to all companies embracing new measures to help society that they should start with the principle attributed to Hippocrates: First, do no harm.

More news below.

Alan Murray
@alansmurray

alan.murray@fortune.com

TOP NEWS

Good start

The first major trading day of the year is looking good, with a chipper start to trading in Asia (with the exception of Japan, where a Greater-Tokyo-area state of emergency is being considered) and Europe. U.S. futures look mildly positive. Wall Street Journal

Oxford-AstraZeneca rollout

The U.K.'s National Health Service has begun injecting people with the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine, which was approved by British medical regulators last week. This first deployment of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab is a promising development, as this particular vaccine is cheaper and easier to distribute than the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. CNBC

MGM and Entain

MGM Resorts International raised its bid for the British online-gambling company Entain to $11 billion, only to see it rebuffed as an undervaluation—despite representing a 22% premium to Entain's closing share price Thursday. Indeed, Entain's share price jumped by 28% at the start of trading Monday. Bloomberg

Bitcoin bubbles

The price of one bitcoin cleared $34,000 yesterday…then crashed below $30,000 this morning. So here's Fortune's David Z. Morris providing a timely rundown of the history of the cryptocurrency's historical bubbles, from 2011's Dollar Parity Day to 2017's The Widowmaker. Fortune  

AROUND THE WATER COOLER

Box office

Movie theaters are doing well in China, at least, with box-office revenue hitting a new New Year's Day record—by a huge margin, with a total of $92 million trouncing Jan. 1, 2018's $55 million. This is largely a testament to the fact that China suppressed the pandemic and reopened its economy earlier than most other countries. Fortune

Assange ruling

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange will likely not be extradited from the U.K. to the United States to face hacking and espionage charges. In a case that many see as being about press freedom, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser said this morning that what he had done—publishing unredacted cables that demonstrated abuses by the U.S. military—would also be a crime in the U.K., and the U.S. charges were not politically motivated. However, she said he posed a credible suicide risk if extradited, so he stays. The U.S. will appeal. Guardian

Quibi content

The failed short-form streaming service Quibi may sell its catalog to Roku, which would gain exclusive programming to add to its ad-supported Roku Channel app. So, lucky Roku users, you might soon be able to savor the delights of Murder House Flip. Wall Street Journal

Trump tape

President Trump begged Georgia's secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, to "find" enough votes to overturn Trump's defeat in the state. The Saturday conversation was recorded, and the tape released to the media. Sample Raffensperger quote: "Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong." Washington Post

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.