Archive for the ‘economics’ Category
Product labels are important, both practically and ethically. Reading the label is a key way to make sure the thing you’re buying meets your needs. Labels on products can help inform consumers about what they’re buying, reducing what economists call information asymmetries between buyer and seller. Where substantial information asymmetries exist, voluntary exchanges can fail to live up to the promise of mutual benefit, and society as a whole suffers from the resulting reduction in market efficiency.
Of course, not everything that could be said about a product could possibly be crammed onto a product’s label, so generally the information provided consists of what the maker of the product really wants to brag about, what consumers insist on knowing, and anything beyond that that regulators have seen fit to insist upon.
So precisely what gets labeled, and what form the labelling takes, matters a lot. Now while the moral significance of labels in general is not disputed, just what should be included on labels is hotly debated.
Take, for instance, the question of whether a food product has been genetically modified (GM). Or, more precisely, whether the ancestor of the organism from which a food product was derived was genetically modified by means of a particular set of laboratory procedures. It’s important to be precise, here, because there is virtually nothing that we eat today that hasn’t been ‘genetically modified’ by humans in some loose sense.
If you thought the question of GM labelling had gone away with the demise of California’s Proposition 37 this past November, think again. Washington State is apparently about to hold a vote on the issue, and there are reports that the anti-GM faction has been energized by the battle in California, and perhaps even galvanized by the massive sums of money that ‘big food’ and ‘big ag’ apparently spent to help defeat Prop 37. But as I’ve argued before, the demand for mandatory labelling of GM foods is misguided: the broad scientific consensus is that there’s no reason to worry about GM foods. Making such labelling mandatory, just because some people want to know if their food’s genes have been tweaked in certain ways, would be unjust.
Contrast this with the stunning report recently released by the ocean conservation group, Oceana. Nevermind subtle genetic modifications. Oceana found that a very high proportion of the fish sold in American retail outlets isn’t even from the species indicated on the label. So consumers are buying “snapper” that isn’t really snapper, and “tuna” that isn’t really tuna. Here, consumers are being lied to. Information isn’t just being omitted; the information being given is actually a lie, and so consumers are being cheated.
If the food companies of the world are going to expend money and effort to provide consumers with information, it’s pretty clear which kind of issue they should expend it on.
The development goals of many underdeveloped nations are seriously hampered by illicit flows of money. The money sent into those countries in the form of aid and foreign direct investment is, in many cases, dwarfed by the money that flows out as a result of money laundering, bribery, and dodgy transfer pricing. Some estimates put that outflow as high as a trillion dollars. And a lot of that money flows through, between, or within corporations.
I recently took part in a panel discussion on this topic, part of a larger event put on by a group called Academics Standing Against Poverty (ASAP).
Here are a few of what I take to be the key points, not necessarily in order of presentation, from my discussion of the topic:
Corporations have two different categories of responsibilities when it comes to curbing illicit financial flows. First, they are of course responsible for their own behaviour. Under this heading, corporations have three key obligations. First is not to game the system to avoid taxes. Minimizing taxes — even going to significant lengths to avoid taxes — may seem to be part and parcel of a manager’s obligation to maximize profits. But there is no general obligation to maximize profits, and certainly no such obligation to do so ‘at all costs.’ Even the weaker duty to ‘put shareholders first’ is a vague enough concept to be consistent with a principled stance against aggressive tax avoidance, even where taxes can be avoided legally.
A second direct obligation has to do with transparency about transfer pricing. When goods or services are being sold between branches of a multinational, the prices charged should be fair and should be rooted in a clear methodology. And total taxes paid internationally should be reported in a company’s audited annual reports. Even when gaming the system is legal, it is dishonourable.
Third, companies should have zero tolerance for bribery. Besides being corrosive to local economies, bribery is often just a lousy competitive strategy: it involves payments that cannot be guaranteed to work, and when they don’t work there is of course no recourse to the courts. Businesses generally know this, but sometimes see bribery as a necessary evil; they need to work to make it less necessary.
In addition to these direct obligations regarding their own behaviour, big companies arguably have some responsibility for the indirect effects of their operations. Major corporations support entire ecosystems of smaller businesses — suppliers, subcontractors, agents, and so on. And activities within that ecosystem can be a major source of illicit transfers. Corporations should assume some responsibility for illegal and unethical activities in their shadow. This should at least mean setting clear standards for the behaviour of the companies with which they interact, and sharing best practices. Companies are starting to do this with regard to bribery, but they should consider extending that to other areas.
Next, a point with regard to how businesses interact with governments. The least controversial, over-arching norm for business is to play by the rules of the game. Normally, governments set rules and as long as businesses play within those rules, they are at least coming close to meeting their obligations. But not all governments are equally capable of setting and enforcing the requisite rules. And the absence of clear rules doesn’t imply an absence of obligations. So, for example, the fact that the government of a small developing nation hasn’t passed regulations (as Canada and the US have done) that set standards for fairness in transfer pricing doesn’t mean that a company can be complacent.
Finally — and this bit of advice is aimed at development advocates — it is important to avoid thinking of transnational corporations as the enemy. My sense is that a significant subset of folks who are concerned with development are focused on the negative side-effects of corporate involvement in developing nations. What we need to do, though, is to harness the power of corporations rather than regretting it. Business corporations, in addition to being potent organizations, have a vested interest in reducing poverty worldwide. Anyone living on $1.25 a day makes a lousy customer and a lousy employee. Of course, corporations face a collective action problem when considering how to reduce poverty. No one corporation can do much on its own, and it’s a challenge to find ways to get long-term interests in poverty reduction to override short-term interests in profits. But still, the development community needs to see corporations as important partners. We can’t let a culture war over capitalism get in the way of helping the world’s poor.
The video of our panel discussion is now available, here:
Business is, in many ways, all about risk. It’s about investing in R&D and in productive processes that may or may not result in products that customers want to buy. It’s about hiring people and then putting your company’s reputation into their hands. It’s about trying and doing new things, always aware of the chance of failure. Society flourishes because businesses are willing to take risks. Of course, some risks should not be taken, and others should be taken only subject to suitable safeguards. Risk, in other words, needs to be managed.
Modern risk management, as that term is used in corporate contexts, has its roots in finance and refers primarily to the management of financial risks. It relies heavily on mathematical models used for asset pricing and portfolio assessment. Banks use risk management techniques to determine how many loans and mortgages of what kinds to hand out, and on what terms, and to figure out (within regulated limits) how much capital they need to keep on hand in case depositors come calling to reclaim their deposits. This all requires careful calculations. Take too little risk, and you’ve got money sitting idle. Take too many risks and, well, you end up with what we saw back in 2008.
Last week I had the pleasure of hosting Professor John Boatright, as part of the Business Ethics Speakers Series that I run at the Ted Rogers School of Management. John is the guy who literally wrote the book on ethics in finance. He’s author of Ethics in Finance and editor of Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice. There simply is no one better on issues of ethics in finance. And his topic last week was an important one: “The Ethics of Risk Management: A Post-Crisis Perspective.”
As John’s talk pointed out, the advent of modern risk management strategies is, somewhat ironically, implicated in the financial crisis of ’08-’09, from which we are still recovering. The mathematical models risk managers use made possible the popularization of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs). And the fact that there were actual hard-core equations behind these instruments — which Warren Buffett “financial weapons of mass destruction” — made them seem far safer than they were. This illusion of safety encouraged very high levels of leveraging, with what we now know to be disastrous consequences.
One of the other things that John’s talk clarified for me was that there’s a kind of ambiguity in the very term “risk management.” To the public, the idea of “managing” risks sounds very much like the idea of “reducing” risks. And that, of course, sounds like a very good thing. But risk management absolutely is not the same as risk reduction. Indeed, it can be quite the opposite. Risk management is the art of finding the right level and mix of risks, the right ‘risk profile.’ What matters ethically, as John pointed out is which risks are managed, by whom, by what means, for whose benefit.
The other point from John’s talk that I want to highlight here has to do with the ‘corporatization’ of risk management. As John pointed out, business firms both encounter and create risk, and risks are encountered by both firms and by individuals in society. If, as seems to be the case, risks to individuals are increasingly being managed by corporations, we as a society need to be acutely aware of the way corporations think about risk. John quoted author Michael Power as saying that “Risk is the basis for corporations to process morality.” In other words, risk is the lens through which corporations consider and act upon their obligations.
The problem here is clear: risk is an inherently outcomes-based construct, and not everything we care about ethically is a matter of outcomes. We also care about rights and duties, and about justice in the way good and bad outcomes are distributed. If risk becomes the lens through which obligations are examined, something important is being left out. Corporate risk management, in other words, is itself a mechanism that brings risks that need to be managed.
Like it or not, we are in the middle of a social networking revolution. And of course, that’s hardly news. Endless ink, digital and otherwise, has been spent on worrying over whether Facebook, Twitter, and their rapidly-multiplying ilk are the best or the worst thing that has ever happened to humankind.
A recent story about car-pooling apps highlights the fact modern technology, including social media, has a role to play in making markets more efficient. And since efficient markets are generally a good thing, this counts as a big checkmark in the “plus” column of our calculations concerning the net benefit of social media.
Carpooling is a great example, because the relative lack of carpooling today is a clear instance of what economists call “market failure” — a situation in which markets fail efficiently to provide a mutually-beneficial outcome. Think of it this way. There are lots of people in need of a ride. And there are lots of people with rides to offer. The problem is a lack of information (who is going my way, at what time?) and lack of trust (is that guy a potential serial killer?) Social networking promises to resolve both of those problems, first by helping people coordinate and second by using various mechanisms to make sure that everyone participating is more or less trustworthy.
With regard to car-pooling, the obvious benefits are environmental. But the positive effect here is quite general: just about any time we find a way to foster mutually-advantageous market exchanges, we’ve done something unambiguously good. This is one example of the ethical power of social media.
Another big enemy of efficient markets is monopoly power, or more generally any situation in which a buyer or seller is able to exert “market power,” essentially a situation in which some market actor enjoys a relative lack of competition and hence has the ability to throw its weight around. Social media promises improvements here, too. Sites like Groupon.com allow individuals to aggregate in ways that give them substantial bargaining power.
The general lesson here is that markets thrive on information. Indeed, economists’ formal models for efficient markets assume that all participants have full knowledge — that is, they assume that lack of information will never be an issue. Social networks are providing increasingly sophisticated mechanisms for aggregating, sharing, and filtering information, including important information about what consumers want, about what companies have to offer, and so on. So while a lot of attention has been paid to the sense in which social media are “bringing us together,” the real payoff may lie in the way social media render markets more efficient.
Just like a defence lawyer in a criminal trial, a CEO has a specific goal to achieve. The CEO’s goal is to turn a profit, and it’s a goal rooted as much a duty to society as it is a duty to shareholders. And, importantly, when it comes to both defence lawyers and CEOs, you don’t have to agree with their goals in order to value the role they play in the larger system.
The trial of former football coach Jerry Sandusky illustrates what I’m talking about.
Jerry Sandusky’s lawyer has an unenviable job. His job is to defend—vigorously and wholeheartedly—a man that pretty much everyone else has already assumed is guilty.
Joseph Amendola, lead defence lawyer for Sandusky, has taken on the task of defending the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach against 52 charges of child sexual abuse. In the minds of many, this makes Amendola only slightly less worthy of scorn than his client. After all, how can anyone seriously defend a man against whom there is so much compelling evidence?
The catch here is that we cannot evaluate the ethics of a defence lawyer without looking at the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is the adversarial system within which the defence lawyer operates. Amendola isn’t just some guy defending a child molester; he’s a defence attorney playing his part in a system that places very specific ethical obligations on defence attorneys.
The point here isn’t really about the legal system. The point is that the people who play a role in a system don’t necessarily have to pursue the goals of the system directly. In fact, in some cases that would be downright counter-productive. Let’s assume, for example, that the goal of the criminal justice system is precisely what the name implies: justice. The fact that justice is the goal of the system absolutely doesn’t imply that every participant in the system has to pursue justice. Compare: a football team’s objective is to get the football into the opponent’s end-zone. But that doesn’t mean that every member of the team is trying to get the ball across that line. An Offensive Guard who focused on moving the ball would be failing at his job: his job is, pure and simple, to protect the quarterback.
What’s important in any complex institution—football team, system of justice, or a market — is that every ‘player’ do his part. Then if the institution is designed reasonably well, the sum total of the actions of various ‘players’ will result in the system that performs well as a whole. If all the players on a football team do their jobs well, the ball moves forward toward the end zone. If all the lawyers in a system of criminal justice do their jobs well, then more often than not the guilty will be punished and the innocent will go free.
So, Amendola is duty-bound to make Sandusky’s interests his first priority. But the reason is not that Sandusky deserves it. The reason is that the system as a whole requires it. The adversarial legal system can only have any hope of rendering justice if the parts of the system diligently play their roles.
The exact same principle applies to the profit-seeking behaviour of CEOs. As Joseph Heath points out in his scholarly work on this topic, the profit-seeking behaviour of companies is an essential element of the pricing function of the Market. When companies pursue profits in a competitive environment, it helps drive prices toward market-clearing levels. This helps ensure that supply of and demand for a given product settle at the socially-optimal level. So it is important, not just to shareholders but to society as a whole, that companies pursue profits. That is how companies and their CEOs play their role in producing the social benefits that flow from the market.
Of course, in the case of both defence lawyers and corporate executives, the obligation to pursue partisan goals is not unlimited. There are certain things you cannot do as a defence lawyer—suborning perjury, for example, or tampering with evidence. Such behaviour would reliably subvert the goals of the system. Similarly, there are things that an executive must not do in pursuit of profits. Figuring out which things those are—what the limits are on competitive behaviour in an adversarial market—is the very heart of business ethics.
What’s the best thing to do with a hundred billion dollars? Apple — the world’s richest company — gave its answer to just that question, when it announced yesterday how it will spend some of the massive cash reserve the company has accumulated.
Of course, spending the whole $100 billion was never on the agenda. The company needs to keep a good chunk of that money on-hand, for various purposes. Then there’s the fact that a big chunk of it is currently held by foreign subsidiaries, and bringing it back to the US to spend it would require Apple to pay hefty repatriation taxes. But any way you slice it, Apple has a big chunk of cash to spend, and so its Board faces some choices.
In the abstract, there are lots of things one could do with that much money. Financial analysts had rightly predicted that Apple company would decide to pay out a dividend (for the first time since 1995). Some were predicting bolder moves, like buying Twitter (which would use up a mere $12 billion). But what could Apple have done with that much money, aside from narrow strategic moves?
The money could have, in principle, been spent on various charitable projects. That amount of money could also do a lot towards helping developing countries combat and adapt to climate change. Or it could revolutionize the American education system. Closer to home, the company could spend a bunch on improving working conditions at its factories in China, conditions for which the company has been widely criticized. All of these, and many more, are (or rather were) among the possibilities.
But business ethics isn’t abstract; Apple’s Board faced a concrete question. And the Board has ethical and legal obligations to shareholders. Those aren’t its only obligations, but once workers are paid, warranties are honoured, expenses are covered, and relevant regulations are adhered to, the main remaining obligation is to shareholders.
Now, there’s a significant strain of thought that says that a company’s managers (and its Board) are not there just to serve the interests of shareholders, but also to carry out shareholders’ obligations. So, if you believe that Apple shareholders have an obligation to fight climate change or to promote education or to improve conditions for workers, then maybe it makes sense to think that the company ought to help shareholders to act on that obligation. But keep in mind that Apple’s shareholders are a rather amorphous group. Shares in corporations change hands incredibly frequently, and the interests and obligations of shareholders vary significantly, so a Board ‘represents’ shareholders (or acts as their agent) only in a rather abstract sense.
The alternative, of course, is for Apple’s Board to give itself some leeway, forget about what shareholders’ collective obligations might be, and go back to thinking abstractly about what to do with that big pile of cash. They can simply decide whether the shareholders’ financial interests outweigh their collective obligation to do some good with that money, and simply decide which of the various worthy causes it should go to. But of course, lots of people are rightly uncomfortable with the idea of well-heeled corporate boards arrogating to themselves that kind of power. The question for discussion, then, is this. Which is the greater evil? For corporations not to step up to the plate and contribute to social objectives, or for corporate leaders to presume to spend vast sums of money as if it were their own?
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.
It’s a perennial question, but one that still merits examination, given that one of the big complaints of the Occupy Wall Street movement has to do with the increasing wage disparity between the income-and-or-wealth of the top 1% vs the rest of us.
Economist Mike Moffat offered some new perspective on this yesterday, when he pointed out on twitter that “More NHLers earn 6 million+ a year than Canadian CEOs do.” And while sports commentators and fans sometimes roll their eyes at the astronomical salaries top athletes currently command, they’re not exactly taking to the streets in protest.
So why are people so outraged by executive compensation, but not by the salaries of sports figures?
There are two different questions to ask the question of “are CEOs paid too much.”
One is to ask whether CEO salaries are too high given what they contribute to the firms they manage. That’s a question that primarily concerns the shareholders and employees of a firm, who need to know whether their multi-million-dollar CEO is worth the money. Does hiring “Mr. A,” who insists on $6 million in pay, rather than hiring “Mr. B.”, who would work for a mere $3 million, bring more than an extra $3 million in offsetting revenue to the company? If so, then Mr. A is worth the money. If not, then he’s not. And my non-expert impression of the economic literature on this count is that evidence is mixed. Lots of CEOs aren’t worth the money. Lots are. The correlation, overall, is unclear.
The problem of how much to pay CEOs from this point of view, and what combination of kinds of payment to offer (cash, stock options, etc.), is hotly debated by top business scholars and economists. But it’s worth remembering that the money isn’t just all sitting there in a big pot, waiting to be distributed among the CEO, other workers, and shareholders. Each of those contribute some value to business. The hard question is how much.
The second way to look at CEO compensation is to ask whether CEO salaries are, in some sense, too high from a social point of view. That is, is it simply unconscionable that some people are paid that much? It is in this regard that Mike Moffat’s question about CEOs vs NHL players becomes interesting. Philosopher Robert Nozick famously raised this question of sports figures’ salaries over 30 years ago, as a way of investigating fundamental questions of justice. Modernizing Nozick’s example, we could look at a star player like the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, who was paid $9 million for the 2010-11 season. That’s a lot of money, in anyone’s eyes. But consider the process that results in that sum. Imagine how many fans Crosby has, and how many of them would each be willing to pay a dollar to see him play. It’s not hard to imagine 9 million fans, each happy — indeed, eager! — to hand over a dollar to see Crosby play. The net result is $9 million (taxable) in Crosby’s pocket, and no one else involved feels bad about it.
It’s not hard to translate Nozick’s example into business terms. Imagine a CEO who gets $9 million in total compensation. We’ll simplify and assume that’s all cash, which it never is. We’ll further simplify by looking only at the interests of employees (leaving out customers and shareholders). If the company is a fairly big one, and has 30,000 employees, then the Nozickean question is this: can we imagine each of those 30,000 employees voluntarily transferring $300 to their CEO for the value he adds to their lives? If that CEO leads the company to flourish — or, in tough economic times, even just to survive — then it’s at least plausible. And if so, then (says Nozick) there’s little grounds for complaint by employees, and even less grounds for complaint by anyone else. People might question the end result, but none can fault the fairness of the process that would have (or could have) resulted in it.
Now none of this amounts to saying that all is right in the world of CEO compensation. Many, many people inside the world of business will tell you that the situation is out of hand. And I agree. There have been outrageous abuses. The point here is just this: the fact that someone is highly paid isn’t automatically unfair. Sometimes it is unfair, and sometimes it isn’t. We need to look carefully, on a case-by-case basis, at what that individual contributes to the business they manage, and what that firm contributes to society.
Natural disasters put all kinds of pressures on the behaviour of otherwise-civilized people, and they almost always raise business ethics issues. Here are a few little issues that popped up over the weekend, while hurricane Irene was wreaking havoc on the east coast of North America.
First, a bit of price gouging: Brooklyn’s posh Hotel Le Bleu squeezed Irene shelter seekers for $999 per room
A trendy Brooklyn hotel generated a flood of cash from Irene, jacking up the price of a room to $999 a night on Saturday as the powerful storm zeroed in on New York, employees said….
As I’ve written before, raising prices during a disaster isn’t always unethical — sometimes higher prices provide an incentive for others to rush to send resources to disaster-stricken areas, and sometimes higher prices give citizens an incentive to avoid overusing scarce resources. I’m pretty sure neither of those rationales applies here. [Update: see the hotel's reaction, in the Comments section below.]
The flip-side of the price-gouging story is this one: “Generators, batteries big sellers ahead of Irene”. You can learn a lot about the ethics of pricing by contemplating why hardwares stores generally didn’t jack up their prices. (Yeah, there are anti-price-gouging laws in many jurisdictions, but that’s likely not enough to explain why prices stay stable.) Note that this story mentions that “…an Ace Hardware in Nags Head, N.C., the store sold out of portable generators.” The fact that the store sold out pretty certainly means that some customers went away disappointed. And it’s entirely possible that some of the disappointed needed the generators a lot more than the people who actually got them. Should Ace have found some way of asking customers how badly they needed a generator, or should they have raised the price a bit to make sure that people who bought one really needed one?
Next, from Katy Burne, blogging for the WSJ (just before the storm), “Hurricane Irene Whips Up Trading In ‘Catastrophe Bonds’”. Here’s the technical bit:
Catastrophe bonds, known in the insurance industry as “cat” bonds, are structured securities that allow reinsurers to transfer their own risks to capital-market investors. Investors in cat bonds earn regular payments in exchange for providing coverage on a predetermined range of natural disasters for a set period of time.
Note the similarity here to the controversial practice of short-selling stocks. In shorting stocks in a particular company, a trader is betting that the value of that stock is going to go down — that is, betting that the company will do poorly. Many people find that distasteful. Some have even called it unpatriotic. In buying (or in shorting) ‘cat bonds,’ an investor is wagering on human misery. But note that that’s what insurance companies do, too, and none of us wants to be without those.
Next, there have been a few stories about companies helping out by either donating goods or by fundraising for disaster relief (see here and here, for small examples). Many more such stories have no doubt gone unreported. It’s also been noted that some companies are going to benefit from the storm, especially if (like Home Depot) they sell goods that will be needed for reconstruction. Is there anything wrong with that? (See here for a previous blog entry on profiting from disaster relief.)
Finally, the key business-ethics stories to watch, over the next few days, are about insurance claims. Insurance firms are happy that losses look to be lower than expected. But stories will inevitably pop up about consumers having difficulty getting insurers to pay up. This will, again inevitably, be portrayed as heartless. And in some cases it may well be heartless. In other cases, we’ll simply see that people generally fail to understand the economics — and the ethics — of insurance.
This is the third in an occasional series on the relationship between ethics and economics.
The topic of this posting is efficiency. As it happens, efficiency has been in the news this week. Michigan lawmakers are currently debating changes in fuel-efficiency standards for cars. (The White House wants to raise efficiency standards, something that is of clear concern to auto-makers in Detroit.) Secondly, the Washington Post reports today that the World Trade Organization is expressing concern that a recent wave of trade accords may hamper the efficiency of international trade.
In its generic sense, efficiency is just a measure of how good some system is at turning out maximum outputs given minimum inputs. Efficiency is arguably the only virtue contemplated by economics. Economics texts have relatively little to say, for example, about justice or about rights. Economists are proficient at explaining the conditions under which markets function efficiently, but they tend to back away (or to plump for their own intuitions or ideologies) when asked whether particular market outcomes are fair.
But what about efficiency as a moral value? In general, efficiency is morally good, and so it is a mistake to think of efficiency as merely an economic value. Certainly few people would argue in favour of inefficiency. Inefficiency means waste. Inefficient use of resources typically implies unnecessary environmental damage. And inefficient production typically means fewer people benefiting than might have been under more efficient production methods.
But efficiency is not always good; it depends on the outputs being sought. Recall that Hitler’s death camps were designed to be a highly efficient means of genocide. More generally, efficiency in the production of something bad is a bad thing. For example, GreenPeace is sure to see the efficiency of modern logging machines or deep-sea trawlers as a bad thing.
Much more remains to be said about efficiency. The key point to make, however, is that efficiency is not “merely” an economic value. We all need to care about efficiency. And even when other important values are at stake — as is almost always the case — we do well to begin by understanding which of the available solutions is most efficient, and what loss or gain in efficiency is going to accompany any proposal to change things in pursuit of other values.