Archive for the ‘activism’ Category

SodaStream in the West Bank

Controversy continues to bubble over the SodaStream countertop carbonator. The popular home gadget — used to turn regular tap water into a variety of fizzy drinks — has generated controversy due to the fact that SodaStream operates a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank. For some, raging against the SodaStream is just part of a larger effort to boycott Israeli products, or at least products made in the occupied territories. They point out that Israeli settlement in those territories is illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.

None the less, it is probably tempting for many to shrug their shoulders at the whole thing. Many North Americans without a partisan tie to the issue may just think of the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one of “those” conflicts, “over there.” Consider: for the average middle-aged North American, it’s a conflict that has been making headlines for literally our entire lives, with both sides apparently taking turns at acting badly and no end in sight. It’s understandable if a few of us consider it a wash, declining to take sides and staring blankly when the topic comes up.

SodaStream’s spokesperson, incidentally, is none other than Scarlett Johansson. The Jewish Daily Forward referred to Johansson’s affiliation with the company as an unhelpful ‘normalizing’ of the Israeli occupation. After all, what could be more normal and peaceful than opening up a factory and offering people employment? There’s a sense in which that might be an understatement: building factories on occupied land — any occupied land — could easily be thought of as an act of war.

On the other hand, as defenders of the company point out, the factory is giving jobs to a few hundred Palestinians, and giving someone a job is hardly an act of aggression. For that matter, in most parts of the world it is acknowledged that commerce is generally conducive to peace. The more prosperous people are — roughly, the more they have to lose — the less likely they are to engage in warfare.

Does it matter, either way? From the point of view of outcomes, it’s hard to see much value in avoiding buying a SodaStream, even given a principled objection to operating factories in occupied territory. Your purchase (roughly $80 – $120) isn’t buying guns, or barbed wire. And the fraction-of-a-fraction of the purchase price that ends up contributing to the company’s bottom line isn’t going to either keep SodaStream in business or put them out of it. Your purchase, in other words, is trivial.

But isn’t refusal to buy a SodaStream another example of the growing, and generally positive, trend toward conscious consumerism? It arguably is, but in fact the benefits of conscious consumerism are not as obvious as many would have you think. As my friend, Professor Alexei Marcoux, argues, refusing to do business with someone because you disagree with their values is a dangerous road to go down. Given the huge number of moral disagreements in the world, we should think twice about becoming the sort of people who let such disagreements get in the way of engaging in mutually beneficial trade. That’s not a knock-down argument against any and all principled refusals to do business, but it’s a point worth making.

Now, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is no garden-variety disagreement. But that might just be the point. It’s not at all clear that we should want a controversy so bitter, and so protracted, to occupy our purchasing decisions.

The Occupy ‘Movement,’ 2 Years Later

Tuesday (2 days ago) was the nominal anniversary of the Occupy Movement. Or maybe that should be the Occupy ‘Movement,’ with scare-quotes softening any suggestion that an actual social movement of any scope has arisen and persisted.

September 17 of 2011, protestors flowed into New York’s Zuccotti Park, a small private park just two blocks from Wall Street in the city’s financial district. Months of periodic mayhem in isolated pockets ensued, with Occupy sit-ins and marches happening in cities all over the US and to a lesser extent around the world. In theory, Occupy was a protest against economic inequality, a reaction not just to the gap between “the 1%” and “the 99%,” but to the widening of that gap in the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

In practice, Occupy became a rallying cry for complaints of all kinds. One Occupy rally I stumbled across here in Toronto featured speakers from a big trade union, members of which enjoy jobs that pay relatively well, and a representative of one of Canada’s aboriginal groups, whose complaints are legitimate but have little to do with having been left behind by capitalism. This dilution of the main Occupy message was unfortunate, since it virtually guaranteed that the movement would suffer additional criticism while at the same time raising the probability that such criticism would be avoid the real issue.

Two years later, it’s hard to see Occupy as having achieved much of anything, other than a lot of overtime for police and a few weeks’ fodder for the nightly news. Certainly its economic impact has been negligible. A year ago, on the 1-year anniversary, I suggested that the main lasting effect of Occupy was more cultural than economic, and that’s still true. Politicians now must now acknowledge income inequality in speeches, for example, but action has been scarce.

So inequality is now ‘on the table,’ but it’s not clear yet that putting it on the table means much in practice. I wrote two years ago that “Wall Street needs to be fixed, not occupied. Even a die-hard capitalist has to admit that there are problems with the way Wall Street runs, but those problems won’t be fixed by sit-ins. They need to come from an understanding, on the part of Wall Street and its supporters, that there are changes that should be made because those changes stand to make capitalism work better. Any changes that can’t be made on that basis — changes for example that simply redistribute money — will have to be made through legislation, if and when there is political will to do so.

Of course, Occupy doesn’t necessarily need to have brought lasting change in order to have been significant. It may be enough for that word to mark a moment in time. It reminds us that there was a day when people rose up in peaceful opposition to fight for an ideal. Even those who think the movement misguided should in principle be happy about its idealism. But then, it’s much harder to inspire idealism about the painfully slow, methodical route to institutional change, even when the slow and methodical route is the more plausible one.

The Paradoxical Anti-Keystone Billionaire

The role of wealth in politics, and in particular wealth derived from corporate sources, has reared its head again. It was recently reported that a US billionare is throwing a $5,000 per person fundraiser for President Obama. And it’s no secret that said billionaire, Tom Steyer, is an opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, and is likely to use the opportunity to press Obama not to approve Keystone.

This story is noteworthy for a couple of reasons, beyond the mere fact that some pretty heavy hitters are weighing in on the Keystone issue.

The first of course is that Steyer himself made much of his money in oil. In particular, he was founder of Farallon Capital Management, and reportedly left the fund — “which had invested in a range of oil and pipeline companies, including BP, Nexen and Kinder Morgan, as well as an oil-carrying railway” — because those investments were at odds with his new-found environmental commitments.

It’s also interesting to wonder what psychological and moral tension created for the American left by the involvement of Steyer — a billionaire — in trying to influence policy. Not that there’s anything unusual about the rich trying to flex their muscles. But Steyer embodies something of a value conflict for the American left. Opposition to Keystone, after all, has come primarily from the left. But so has opposition to what is seen as the growing influence of wealth in American politics.

So it’s tempting to poke fun, here. What must be going through the minds of those who are both opposed to Keystone and opposed to the wealthy having disproportionate influence in politics? Can someone who went ballistic over the Citizens United decision really be happy to see a rich guy like Steyer using his wealth (and his wealthy friends) to try to influence the president? Of course it helps that Steyer is associated only with companies most Americans have never heard of. So when Americans hear that a rich guy is hosting a fundraiser for the president, at least it’s not a rich guy from General Motors, or from Walmart, or from Goldman Sachs. That would raise worries not just about the role of wealth in politics, but of specifically corporate wealth. But of course, Steyer’s wealth didn’t exactly come from running a successful paper route after school, or selling organic apples at the local farmer’s market. But for opponents of Keystone, at least he’s on the right side. So in effect what you have is a sort of Bruce Wayne figure, the billionaire businessman with a heart (not to mention wallet) of gold.

But the important lesson, here, isn’t about the role of wealth in politics. It’s about ideology. It is attractive — but a mistake — to believe that all points of view that are in any way ‘anti-business’ have to hang together. It is entirely consistent to want environmentalists to win over industrialists in matters of pipeline approval, and yet share a widely-held ambivalence about the pronounced role that the wealthy will inevitably play in shaping that debate. And it is dangerously polarizing to assume otherwise.

Kinder Morgan and the Ethics of Public Consultation

Energy company Kinder Morgan ran head-first into the complex ethics of public consultation last week. The company shut down an information session in Victoria, British Columbia, in response to what the company is calling “vandalism” of some of its on-site signs. The so-called “vandals” tell a slightly different story: they say all they did was peacefully replace the company’s signs with their own placards.

Public consultation is a regular part of business for many companies these days, especially those in the energy and extractive industries. In some cases, public consultation is required by legislation; in other cases, it’s just good business sense. But none of that means that all companies are going to be at ease with the process. To say that public consultation is common is not to say it is easy. For starters, the word “public” is too broad to provide clarity about what the process even amounts to. You’re not really going to consult the entire public. So who should you consult? The activist public? The educated public? The elected or appointed representatives of the public?

For that matter, how do you even label the process? Without harping too much on words, consider the difference in attitude implied by the terms “public consultation,” “public information,” and “public engagement.” The public’s perception of the process is liable to vary considerably depending on the way the process is labeled, never mind what it implies about the role the thing is going to play in a business’s operations.

From an ethical point of view, public consultation has two distinct objectives. First, consultation is a sign of respect, a way of saying to concerned individuals and groups, “We think you matter.” The other ethically-significant reason for public consultation is to gather input that might actually affect decision-making. Unanticipated concerns can easily come to light; asking people what they care about can be much more effective than guessing. These twin objectives — expressing respect and seeking information — provide hints as to how the process needs to go.

Of course, the information gathering goal is the easy part. Give people a microphone and they’ll talk. A company still needs to make an effort to get the right people in front of the mic, but that’s not rocket science.

The harder part is how to show respect, especially when the project at hand is a controversial one over which tempers are likely to flare. Like, say, a pipeline. And that’s where Kinder Morgan ran aground, in a mutual failure of respect. It’s not nice to mess with someone’s signs, but it behooves a company to respond to such things by taking the high road. After all, a company in the energy sector needs to not just show up; it needs to be good at this stuff. In public consultation, the kind of sophistication that befits a first-rate company means more than glossy handouts. It means being able to roll with the punches, because sometimes that’s what respectful dialogue requires.

GMO Labelling and Consumer Rights

Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, regarding the mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. Because it’s about food, and because it’s taking place in California — a place where they take their food and their plebiscites seriously — the effort has been highly-publicized and highly politicized. California is both an important agricultural state and the state with perhaps the highest concentration of believers in the “Natural is Good” mantra. So it’s not surprising that the fight over Prop 37 is raising some dust.

One of the favourite slogans of the pro-Prop37 forces is the claim that consumers have a right to know what they’re eating. This is a strong claim. Using the language of rights is a way of making the strongest possible kind of ethical claim, a way to draw a line in the topsoil, as it were. To say that someone has a right to something is quite different from saying merely that “it would be good if we did this” or “good people and good companies do this sort of thing.” It expresses a kind of moral absolute.

Indeed, if it were true that consumers really have a strong right to know what they’re eating — including, presumably, a right to know the genetic makeup of their food — then Prop 37 ought to be redundant. Any corporate citizen worth its salt makes every effort to respect its customers’ rights. When there is a right to some piece of information, institutions and methods of production need to be designed and implemented to respect and promote such rights.

But the idea that we have a right to know what we’re eating can’t stand up to scrutiny, at least not if we define “what we’re eating” to include every aspect of the food’s makeup and indeed its history. Counter examples are easy. If you’re sipping a Coke, do you have a right to know the exact proportion of various ingredients? No, that’s a secret. If you’re eating in a restaurant, do you have the right to know the Chef’s method for searing your tuna steak so perfectly? Of course not — though you of course have the right to eat elsewhere.

Or consider this example: do you have the right to know whether the banana you’re eating was picked on a Thursday? (Imagine that Thursday is a holy day in your religion.) No, because recording and tracking day-of-harvest for boatloads of bananas would be difficult and expensive. Yes, the fact might matter to you a lot, but there are other ways of accommodating your interest in that information, short of attributing a morally weighty (let alone legally binding) right to it. Taken seriously, the right to know your food’s history even implies that the racist or sexist or homophobe has a right to personal information about the people who handled their food along the supply chain. And yet surely there is no such right to information that let’s someone act out their prejudices.

The point is that people might want to know all sorts of information about the food their eating. And that’s fine. But saying they have a right to it is a different thing altogether. Rights protect important interests. And there simply is no compelling evidence that anyone needs to know that genetic makeup of their food, or that a right to such information would protect any important consumer interest.

Addendum:
For more, see my previous entry on the “Right to Know What I’m Eating” over at my Food Ethics Blog.

Occupy, One Year Later

Today is the nominal anniversary of the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On September 17 of last year protestors took control of Zuccotti Park, a private park not far from Wall Street in New York. The undercurrents and indeed the planning can be traced farther back, but September 17 was the day the world took notice. The protestors stayed at the park, their numbers ebbing and flowing, until finally forced out on November 15, 2011. The movement did of course spread well beyond Zuccotti Park; indeed the protest was mirrored in towns and cities across the US, and indeed across the world. But Zuccotti, a stone’s throw from Wall Street, remains the spiritual home base for the Occupy movement.

The aims of the movement were diffuse, though not as vague as critics sometimes claimed they were. The protestors were concerned most specifically with income inequality, with the sense that those who hold the reins of the various great steam horses of capitalism were hoarding for themselves a wildly disproportionate share of the world’s wealth. This led naturally to a concern with capitalism itself, with the tendency of major corporations to behave badly, and with the government’s tendency (according to protestors) to let corporations get away with it. As a result, the movement’s name came to be used as a virtual synonym for concern with corporate ethics.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the goals of the movement, or at least with the passion of those most centrally involved. We can question the precision of their targeting, and the efficacy of the sit-in as method of producing social change, but only the shallow and the oblivious could fail to see that there was something to the protestors’ complaints. The financial collapse of 2008-2009 did enormous damage to millions of lives, and left a great many people with a deep sadness, a feeling of alienation, a deep and persistent sense of injustice and that the system is somehow rigged.

But motives aside, a year later, the question on every commentator’s mind is “What did they accomplish? Certainly Occupy succeeded in putting income inequality on the map, so to speak. As others have pointed out, Occupy is the central reason that presidential candidates this time around must comment on inequality. Not that that hasn’t been a topic of discussion in previous elections, but this time it’s utterly unavoidable. Consciousness of the topic has been raised, though it remains to be seen whether that consciousness will matter at the polling booth.

But really, the movement’s impact has been more cultural than economic. It spawned a number of memes — occupy-this-or-that, and the 99%-vs-1% thing. As a meme, “occupy” has been a victim of its own success. Had it been slightly less catchy, it might actually have been a useful rallying cry. But no sooner had the slogan been uttered in earnest than a thousand copycats, earnest or mocking or simply silly, sprouted on Facebook and Twitter. Occupy the dean’s office! Occupy the Death Star! Occupy my couch! Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also a good way to devalue a currency.

Alas, concrete examples of change that could plausibly be traced to the Occupy movement are hard to come by. No new grassroots movement doing anything beyond sit-ins and marches. No significant new activist organization with the organizational capacity to take effective action toward promote real change according to a clear agenda. Nor has Occupy made any noticeable moves in the realm of electoral politics; and however cynical you want to be about that system, it is still a crucial part of getting things done. The point is not to occupy Wall Street, but to change it.

In retrospect, perhaps all we can say at this point is that while the Occupy movement struck a nerve, and perhaps fostered conversation, what it has failed to do is inspire change. Whether real change is in the offing, and whether important change will ever be attributable to the sparks that originated in Zuccotti park remains to be seen.

Twitter, Occupy, and the Rule of Law

As the 1-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street approaches, it looks as if Twitter is finally on the verge of handing some key protestor tweets over to a New York judge. The tweets have to do with the timing and planning of a march across a New York bridge, a march that ended in mass arrests.

And, even setting aside the legal consequences of failing to do so, it’s the right thing to do. Companies have a general obligation — a part of good corporate citizenship in the most literal sense — to obey the law. There are of course exceptions, for instance in situations approximating some form of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is best thought of as a situation in which an individual, or perhaps a company, openly defies what it takes to be a bad law or an unjust legal ruling. In classic cases, the party engaging in the disobedience does so in an attempt to effect legal change, and shows its commitment by being willing to suffer the consequences of standing on principle.

Now, tech companies like Twitter do have a principled stance to take, here. They are rightly concerned about protecting users’ data. But tweets are decidedly and emphatically public, so the present case is quite unlike the case of a company being asked to turn over customers’ emails or other private communications.

Twitter is in a sense duty-bound, of course, to put up some resistance. Being overly cooperative with law enforcement tends to look bad on a tech company, even if it’s only because people fail to distinguish between private and non-private information, or fail to distinguish between New York and Beijing. But a year’s worth of resisting is likely sufficient for Twitter to show that it takes privacy seriously. It’s time for Twitter to do its duty as a good corporate citizen in a society governed by the rule of law.

Executive Compensation at a Regulated Monopoly

Protests broke out last week at the first annual shareholders’ meeting of Canadian energy company, Emera. Emera is a private company, traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. But one of its wholly-owned subsidiaries, Nova Scotia Power, is the regulated company that supplies Nova Scotia with virtually all of its electricity.

The protest concerned the fact that several Emera and Nova Scotia Power executives had received substantial raises, despite the fact that Nova Scotia Power had just recently had to go to the province’s Utility and Review Board to get approval to raise the price it charges Nova Scotians for electricity. According to the utility, the rate hike was needed to add new renewable energy capacity to Nova Scotia’s grid. But protestors wondered if the extra cash wasn’t going straight into the pockets of wealthy executives.

The first thing worth pointing out for anyone not already aware is that practically no one thinks that anyone is doing executive compensation particularly well. Sure, most boards have Compensation Committees now, and many big companies engage compensation consultants to do the relevant benchmarking and to make recommendations. But no one is particularly confident in either the process or the results. So Emera’s board is far from alone in facing this kind of critique.

The second point worth making is that there are two very different kinds of stakeholders concerned in a case like this, but in this particular case they happen to overlap substantially. On one hand, there are Emera’s shareholders. They have an interest in making sure the company’s Comp Committee does its job, and sets executive compensation in a way that attracts, retains, and motivates top talent in order to produce good results. On the other hand, there are customers of Nova Scotia Power, ratepayers who want a cheap, stable supply of electricity. Now, as it happens, many of the vocal protestors at Emera’s annual meeting are members of both groups: they are shareholders in Emera and customers of Nova Scotia Power. But it is crucial to see that these are two separate groups, with very different sets of concerns. When this story is portrayed as a story about angry shareholders, this crucial distinction gets blurred. What’s good for shareholders per se is obviously not the same as what is good for paying customers. And, importantly, a company’s board of directors aren’t accountable to customers in the same way that they are to shareholders.

The final point to make about this is that, to observers of corporate governance, this is actually a “good news” story. As noted above, no one thinks executive compensation is handled very well. But despite that fact, corporate boards still face relatively little pushback from shareholders, and are relatively seldom held to account in this regard. There are of course exceptions (including a number of failed “say on pay” votes) but those exceptions prove the rule. And that’s unfortunate. In any ostensibly democratic system, it is a good thing when the voters take the time to show up and to ask hard questions. Even if no one is sure that such participation improves outcomes, it is an invaluable part of the process.

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(I was on CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon show to talk about this controversy. The interview is here.)
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Should Americans Buy American?

One of the most amazing — and perhaps depressing — facts of current American politics is that the Occupy Wall Street folks and the American political right are apparently unified in their support for a “buy American” policy. The need to appease the political right is reportedly the entire reason for the “buy American” provision in Obama’s new jobs bill. The very same sentiment is embodied in the recent 99 Percent Declaration. (See Point #14: “End Outsourcing.”)

The “buy American” thing is just a special case of the more general plea we often hear to “support your local economy.” But maybe even less well-justified. And more cynical.

There are plenty of reasons to worry about the “buy American” slogan. For a start, it’s the slogan for the kind of protectionism that is generally understood to reduce economic efficiency (and hence to reduce human well-being). Bigger markets are generally better, and the right solution to the negative side-effects of globalization isn’t to build walls around your economy. Plus, protectionism tends to result in arms races, in which Country A erects trade barriers, to which Country B responds, and so on and so on. And in some cases, “buy American” (or “buy Canadian” or “buy UK” or whatever) is a thin disguise for xenophobia, and perhaps racism. As in, “Buy American rather than from…you know…foreigners.

But the flip-side of the consumer-oriented question posed in the title of this entry is the question faced by businesses (and this is, after all, a blog about business ethics.) Should businesses play into the protectionism implied by the “Buy American” slogan? As I’ve pointed out before, one of the most general obligations businesses have is not to reduce the efficiency of markets, for it is that very market efficiency that provides the moral underpinning for their general pattern of aggressively competitive behaviour. So businesses generally have a responsibility not to play upon consumers’ lack of economic sophistication, or their xenophobia. So, on the lips of a captain of industry, “buy American” betrays either a lack of understanding, or a cynical willingness to damage the public good in order to turn a profit. What it betokens on the lips of politicians or protestors, I leave for others to speculate.

A High-Tech Replacement for Sweatshop Labour! Um…yay?

When new technology puts sweatshop labourers out of work, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

Here’s the story, from Fast Company: Nike’s New Thermo-Molded Sneakers Are Like Sculptures For Your Feet

The classic Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90 Nike shoes get the Vac Tech treatment–a thermo-molding technique that produces one-piece, stitch-free sneakers.

As a centerpiece for the holiday season, Nike Sportswear has released three of its most venerable brands–the Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90–constructed using a thermo-molding technique, a kind of vacuum compression method that allows the shoe to be held together without any noticeable seams or stitching. The Nike Dunk VT, above, basically recreates the familiar silhouette of the original design as sculpture around your feet.

Now presumably — though details are sketchy — the lack of stitching will mean these babies will be cranked out by machines, rather than assembled by hand by underpaid people in underdeveloped nations. Critics who think there’s no such thing as a good sweatshop should rejoice. But will sweatshop workers be so happy?

I hasten to add that the word “sweatshop” in its most pejorative sense doesn’t really apply to Nike. Nike, once villainized for having its shoes made by poorly-paid workers working under appalling conditions, is now widely recognized as a garment-industry leader in terms of labour standards. But that’s not to say that a job in a factory that makes Nike shoes is peachy. It’s still a hard life, by western standards. So is it good, or bad, for such labourers if a machine is developed that makes their services redundant?

As I’ve pointed out before, the workers vs machines conflict is, in the grand scheme of things, a false one. Machines can make workers more efficient (and hence valuable), can save humans from dangerous tasks, and can improve net social productivity in a way that stands to benefit literally everyone, in the long run.

But such generalizations don’t obviate the fact that there are some cases in which a new technology comes along and puts you out of work.

Unemployment is bad. Sweatshop jobs are bad. So do we celebrate or mourn when someone with a sweatshop job is put out of work? And is this a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils? Or the greater of two goods? And what does our answer to that question imply about the ethics of buying products made in the sweatshop jobs that remain?

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