Archive for the ‘competition’ Category

Are they Competing, or Just Trying to Sell You Something?

Peaceful coexistence isn’t always a good thing. In the marketplace, competition is what drives different producers of a good to improve their wares, and having one producer explain the superiority of his or her product is — embellishment and puffery aside — how consumers learn to differentiate among products. When different suppliers fail to engage in competition, the consumer is left in the dark. Let me give you two examples.

Here’s the first example. One of the problems — or rather, one of the warning signs — about so-called “alternative” medicine is that there are dozens of different kinds of alt-med, all making different and presumably conflicting assumptions about how the human body works, and yet they all get along cozily together. Nowhere do you find homeopaths, for example, explaining why their methods are superior to those of acupuncturists. Nor do you find Reiki therapists dissing Ayurveda. Crystal therapy gurus are unlikely to tell you about the problems with Traditional Chinese Medicine. And so on. As Robert Park wrote with reference to alt-med, in his book, Voodoo Science (p. 65), “there is no internal dissent in a community that feels itself besieged from the outside.” Of course, the existence of different alt-med treatments isn’t in itself surprising or problematic. Mainstream medicine too uses different treatments for different illnesses. But the different treatments offered by mainstream medicine are all, without exception, underpinned by a single coherent body of theory: the heart circulates blood, germs cause infection, physiological effect varies according to drug dosage, and so on.

So the fact that various systems of alternative therapy, underpinned by very different understandings of the human body (and indeed of metaphysics), can get along so chummily is a huge red flag. It suggests that purveyors of alt-med either a) aren’t thinking critically, or b) are more interested in sales than in healing.

Roughly the same concern arises with regard to different perspectives on how businesses should behave. Some will tell you that the obligations of business are all rooted in the notion of sustainability, with its indelible environmental overtones. Others will say no, it’s a matter of CSR — Corporate Social Responsibility. Still others say it’s all about values. Or leadership. Or citizenship. Or the (ug!) Triple Bottom Line. And each of those seems, at least, to be underpinned by a different understanding of the nature of the firm, its role in society, and what it is that makes an action right or wrong. And yet all kinds of folks seem to want to cleave to all of the above, or to glom onto one of them seemingly at random, as if it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

Again, this should be a big red flag.

I’m sure I’m going to be told that these different schools of thought don’t need to compete with each other — what’s really important, they’ll say, is that, you know, we focus on fixing the way business is done. But again, as with the case of alternative medicines, if someone tries to sell you some and isn’t willing to even try to explain why theirs is better than the other stuff, you should at least wonder whether they aren’t thinking critically, or are merely trying to sell you something.

Pepsi Under Pressure

It’s not easy selling carbonated sugar-water. Or rather, the selling part is all too easy. The hard part is steering a course between the conflicting desires of shareholders and activists. Shareholders want profits. That means selling more of high-profit-margin products like Pepsi and Doritos. Activists want companies to stop pushing unhealthy products like Pepsi and Doritos, and to focus on healthier — but less profitable — products.

See this story, by Mike Esterl and Valerie Bauerlein, for the WSJ: PepsiCo Wakes Up and Smells the Cola

…The snack-food and beverage giant is launching the first new advertising campaign for its flagship Pepsi-Cola in three years—offering one of the most visible signs PepsiCo is throwing new weight behind its biggest brand after it sank to No. 3 in U.S. soda sales last year, trailing not only Coke but Diet Coke….

When industry market share numbers came out in March, showing Pepsi-Cola slipped to No. 3, analysts quickly accused PepsiCo—and Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi—of taking their eyes off the company’s biggest brand….

There’s a lesson here for activists who think that reforming corporate behaviour is a simple matter of willpower, that companies can shift to healthier foods (or to less-violent video games) if only they had the guts to try it. Shifting your business practices in a way not endorsed by consumers is, well, a recipe for disaster.

Then again, maybe that’s a pretty decent outcome, from an activist’s point of view.

What’s the long-term prognosis? An ebb and flow of corporate strategy, in response to a range of pressures. Activists will win a few battles, as well as surely losing a few. Forcing companies to do what you want means forcing consumers to consume what you want. Because as everyone in business knows, while it’s simply not true that “the customer is always right,” it surely is true that the customer is always the customer.

Ethics & Economics, Part 2: The Market

This is the second in an occasional series on the relationship between ethics and economics.

Today’s topic is the market. ‘The market’ isn’t anything magical. It’s just the term we use for the abstract entity that is the aggregate of all actual markets for particular goods — the sum total of the market for cars plus the market for poetry plus the market for pedicures and so on. Seen another way, the market is just a whole bunch of people (and organizations) buying and selling stuff from and to each other.

The market is ethically significant. And in general, that significance is positive: markets are generally morally good. There is an ethical justification for markets, such that, with some exceptions for particular goods, where markets do not exist we wish they did.

Reasonably-free markets have three basic moral virtues. One is freedom. In a free market, each of us is free to buy whatever we want, within the limits of our ability to pay. That’s not the only kind of freedom anyone could hope for. The sense in which everyone is “free” to buy whatever model of car they want is not very compelling for those who cannot afford a car at all. But scarcity is a basic fact about the world, and the freedom to make one’s own choices within the confines of such scarcity is hardly trivial.

The second virtue of free markets is efficiency. For very many goods, reasonably-free markets are not just one way to provide those goods: a reasonably-free market is the most efficient way to provide those goods. I’ll have more to say about efficiency in a later instalment in this series. But very briefly, we can begin to understand efficiency as a moral value if we consider its opposite, namely inefficiency. Inefficiency means wastefulness, or getting fewer outputs from more inputs. Almost no one is in favour of inefficiency. And in a world where many people see their basic needs go unmet, inefficiency is a great evil.

The third great virtue of the market is its ability, famously described by Adam Smith, to turn self-interested behaviour on the part of one person into (reasonably) good outcomes for others. Smith’s point wasn’t that people are selfish, nor that they should be. His point was that everything you own, everything around you, exists because someone made it. And chances are that — hand-made gifts aside — they made it for you not because they love you, but because they needed to make a living. The market turns my needs into a way of satisfying yours, and vice versa. And it generally happens without someone putting a gun to our heads to make it happen.

But markets also have moral failings. One is the very lack of coordination that I referred to as “freedom” above. That lack of coordination means that markets are notoriously bad at providing for the production of genuinely useful public goods, like highways and lighthouses and police forces and so on. For such goods, it’s much more effective to have some central authority, preferably with coercive powers, collect taxes in order to build them.

Markets are also much better at providing what people want than it is at providing what they genuinely need. So markets produce junk food and video games and porn in abundance, but relatively little delicious health-food and educational games and poetry. Of course, in casting the former as “bad” products and the latter as “good” ones, I’m merely appealing to popular stereotypes. In reality, there’s very little rationale for thinking video games are better than poetry. That’s just an elitist bias. But still, it probably is fair to say that there are products that are out-and-out socially bad: it’s no great bragging point for the market that it has brought us so many brands of cigarettes, for example. So if — and this is a very big if — we were much more certain, and much more unanimous, than we are about what things are genuinely good in life, then it might make a lot more sense just to have governments direct the making and provision of those things.

One of the key starting points for any sane consideration of issues in business ethics is the realization that the market serves a moral purpose. It’s an imperfect mechanism, to be sure, but its value for promoting human freedom and wellbeing is such that what we ought to think in terms of balancing various market virtues and vices against each other, rather than thinking in terms of the market as an alternative to important human values.

Business, Football, and Incentives

I’m fond of sports analogies in helping to explain key issues in business ethics. In both business and sport, a useful competitive endeavour is constrained by a set of rules for the benefit of both players and spectators.

According to Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management (where I’m currently a Visiting Scholar) the comparison is not just explanatory, it is prescriptive. According to Martin, for example, CEOs Should Be More Like Quarterbacks. In particular, he says, CEOs should be more like quarterbacks in the way quarterbacks stay focused on the real goal of the game — winning — rather than on meeting the expectations of those who speculate on the outcome of the game from the outside. QBs focus on real performance, measured in yards and touchdowns, rather than on performing well relative to the expectations of bookmakers. Likewise, Martin says, CEOs should focus on their companies’ real performance, rather than on how they perform relative to the expectations of stock analysts.

It’s tempting to run wild with sports metaphors, as the comments under Martin’s blog demonstrate. But we should not be tempted, just because we see one useful comparison, into thinking that CEOs should be like quarterbacks in all ways. You need to make the argument, on a point-by-point basis. Indeed the power of the comparison lies in abstracting away the ways in which CEOs and quarterbacks are not, and should not, be alike.

It’s also worth noting that Martin doesn’t think that the change in CEO behaviour that he advocates is going to happen magically, or even as a result of his own advice and efforts at persuasion. No, Martin is clear that CEO behaviour is only going to change in response to changes in incentives — in other words, changes in how they are paid:

…compensation is largely based in the expectations market in business and is strictly based in the real market in football. CEOs have a large portion of their compensation based on the performance of their company in the stock market, so CEOs spend their time shaping and responding to expectations. Quarterbacks have no part of their compensation based on the performance of their team against the point spread, so they focus completely on winning games.

Of course, that simple analogy needs to be fleshed out. Just what counts as “winning” in business, for example? And why are the opinions of external analysts such a bad way of measuring corporate performance? And finally, what would it look like to reward CEO’s for something other than improved stock performance, and would that lead reliably to better CEO performance on all dimensions, or just some?

(The ideas in Martin’s blog entry are drawn from his new book, Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL. Watch here for more comments on the ideas in that book in the coming weeks.)

Ethics of Profit, Part 3: The Profit Motive

3 coinsThis is the third in a 3-part series on the ethics of profit. (See also Part 1 and Part 2.) As mentioned in previous postings, we should distinguish between our ethical evaluation of profit per se (which, after all, just means financial “gain”), and our ethical evaluation of the profit motive. After all, I don’t worry at all that Big Pharma makes big profits — that just means that they make products that lots of people think are worth paying for — but I do have serious worries about what people inside the pharmaceutical industry are willing to do to maintain those profits.

But we should be cautious about jumping too quickly to criticize the profit motive, either in particular cases or as a force in the economy as a whole. Here are just a few points:

1) People often suspect the profit motive — or at least, excessive focus on the profit motive, in the form of greed — of being responsible for a lot of corporate wrong-doing. But, anecdotes aside, that intuitive hypothesis isn’t necessarily well-supported by the facts. I’ve mentioned previously a paper by philosopher Joseph Heath* that points out that there are problems with the theory that greed is the root cause of a lot of wrongdoing. Corporate crime is actually more often aimed at loss-avoidance than at profit-making. And it’s also worth noting that we see lots of white-collar crime occurring at the top of organizations, committed by people who are already rich and who hence have relatively little to gain in financial terms. As Joe points out, the criminological literature has long since discarded the notion that greed is the root of all (or even most) evil.

2) Despite the fact that the traditional corporate (and anti-corporate) rhetoric has focused on the significance of profits, it’s probably much more likely that corporations and the key decision-makers within them are moved by a much broader range of motives, including things like:

  • A desire to increase market share;
  • The desire to innovate;
  • The desire to create cool products;
  • Basic competitive drives to be (and prove yourself to be) bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, etc.;
  • The CEO’s desire to build his or her personal legacy;
  • etc.

Of course, each of those motives can almost certainly result in wrongdoing too. But that just reinforces the point that even if the profit motive causes trouble, it isn’t unique in that regard.

3) The profit motive, whatever else it may do, plays 2 absolutely essential roles in any modern economy. Economist Steven Horwitz points this out in his “Profit: Not Just a Motive”. One role (as Adam Smith pointed out) is the basic one of motivating productive activity. Now, Smith never said that the profit motive is the only thing that motivates people to engage in production and trade. But what he did say is that even someone who doesn’t happen to have much love for his or her fellow human being is liable to end up doing something productive, even if only because he or she wants to earn a living. The other role for the profit motive is more subtle, and has to do with information. As Horowitz puts it:

What critics of the profit motive almost never ask is how, in the absence of prices, profits, and other market institutions, producers will be able to know what to produce and how to produce it. The profit motive is a crucial part of a broader system that enables producers and consumers to share knowledge in ways that other systems do not.

4) The profit motive also plays an essential role in modern corporate governance. Most large corporations are “owned” (in a very loose sense) by shareholders, to whom corporate managers and directors owe a fiduciary duty. In particular, managers and directors are obligated to try to make a profit. (Note that, contrary to what many seem to think, there is no obligation to actually make a profit, and the need to make a profit is not, in fact, legally binding or overriding. Shareholders only ever get a profit after a number of other, legally-binding, obligations — such as the obligation to pay workers, to pay suppliers, to provide refunds for consumers who bought faulty products, etc. — are met.) The strong obligation to try to make a profit for shareholders provides focus for managers. Rather than being pulled in 20 different directions by 20 different stakeholders, corporate managers have in mind that, yes, they need to keep in mind various stakeholder obligations, but all of that has to be part of an overall plan aimed at shareholder profits. Many people believe that this imposes a kind of discipline on corporate executives, without which those executives would be free to feather their own beds, throw lavish parties for their favourite charities (not necessarily the most needy ones), hire under-qualified siblings for key roles, etc.

5) Getting rid of the profit motive would essentially mean abolishing private ownership. When we talk about “profit”, we’re typically talking about the money that flows from owning something. It might be the landlord’s profit (i.e., whatever’s left after costs are subtracted from rent) or the shareholder’s profit (i.e., the dividend that might be paid out on the shares he or she owns, if the corporation happens to make a profit). Abolishing the profit motive basically means and end to permitting individuals to own things. So why do critics of the profit motive so seldom (in the last, say, 4 decades) propose ending private ownership? Hmmm. As Joseph Heath put it in “Learning to love the Psychopath” [PDF] (a review of the movie, The Corporation), “If public ownership is not the solution, then private ownership cannot be the problem.”

6) Even if we could keep our attachment to private ownership and wish into existence more “positive” motives than the profit motive, it’s not clear that we would be better off. Even if large numbers of executives (and shareholders) could be convinced not to aim at profit, but instead to aim at things like charitable deeds or the public good or world peace, it’s not clear that that would solve the problems we are most worried about. Does anyone really think that fraud couldn’t be, or indeed hasn’t been, committed in the name of charity? Does anyone believe that lies haven’t been told and thefts committed in the name of the public good?

None of this is intended as a blanket endorsement of profit-seeking. It’s just a reminder that in our haste to criticize the profit motive, we ought not ignore important questions about just what role the profit motive plays, what current institutions do to transform a range of motives into a range of outcomes, and what alternative motives and institutions are available to us.

*Joseph Heath, “Business Ethics & Moral Motivation: a Criminological Perspective,” Journal of Business Ethics 83:4, 2008. Here’s the abstract.

Regulating Wall Street Bonuses

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has just announced its intention to exercise oversight over levels of pay on Wall Street. Is this an example of overreaching regulation, or of justified intervention in the public interest?

Here are the details, from Ben Protess and Susanne Craig, on the NYT‘s DealBook blog: S.E.C. Proposes Crackdown on Wall Street Bonuses:

Lavish Wall Street bonuses, long the scorn of lawmakers and shareholders, have met a new foe: the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The agency on Wednesday proposed a crackdown on hefty compensation awarded at big banks, brokerage firms and hedge funds — a move intended to rein in pay packages that encouraged excessive risk-taking before the financial crisis.

The proposal would for the first time require Wall Street firms to file detailed accounts of their bonuses with the S.E.C., which could then ban any awards it deemed excessive. The rules would be aimed at top executives and hundreds of rank-and-file employees who receive incentive-based pay….

In general, we should probably have as our starting point a healthy skepticism about government attempts to regulate pay in particular industries. Remuneration for high-level jobs is typically based on some combination of rewarding past performance and incentivizing future performance, in addition to sensitivity to things like skill, experience, and the scarcity of the particular talents the job requires. And it’s highly unlikely, again speaking in generalities, that government agencies are going to have the right information and motives to allow them to determine with any degree of precision and efficiency just what a private company’s pay structure should be. Now of course governments aren’t the only ones who could err in setting up compensation schemes; private companies are perfectly capable of screwing that up pretty badly themselves. But for the most part, if private companies screw up in that regard, it’s their shareholders that should hold them accountable, just as it is shareholders who ought to hold them accountable for any other foolish spending.

But there are likely to be justified exceptions to the general presumption in favour of the government taking hands-off approach to compensation. If it is the case — and this seems to be the S.E.C.’s conclusion, here — that compensation schemes in a particular industry are seriously and chronically causing harm beyond the walls of the organization, that seems to be a pretty good argument in favour of government action. This is especially true when the damage being done is not “merely” damage to particular individuals or groups, but to the stability of the economy as a whole. And as Protess and Craig point out, “The move by regulators to have more say on Wall Street pay highlights the huge role financial institutions play in the economy.” That is what arguably makes the harm done by Wall Street compensation not just a matter of private wrongs, but of public ones.

But of course, this argument doesn’t mean the S.E.C. should rush in like a bull in a china shop. All of the concerns mentioned above still apply — there are reasons why Wall Street firms have the compensation policies they have, and it’s pretty likely that at least some of those reasons are pretty good ones related to the necessities of the industry. Indeed, the S.E.C.’s chairwoman, Mary L. Schapiro, says that “This is an area where we want to be very attuned to unintended consequences.” The S.E.C.’s objectives here, seem to be good ones; the question will be whether the quality of the agency’s methods live up to the nobility of its goals.

Walmart & Free Shipping: Who Will Suffer?

Once again, Walmart is making headlines with a business practice that will be good for its customers, and bad for its competitors. Here’s the story, by Stephanie Clifford for the NYT: Wal-Mart Says ‘Try This On’: Free Shipping

For years, Wal-Mart has used its clout as the nation’s largest retailer to squeeze competitors with rock-bottom prices in its stores. Now it is trying to throw a holiday knockout punch online.

Starting Thursday, Wal-Mart Stores plans to offer free shipping on its Web site, with no minimum purchase, on almost 60,000 gift items, including many toys and electronics. The offer will run through Dec. 20, when Wal-Mart said it might consider other free-shipping deals….

Not surprisingly, Walmart’s competitors are alarmed. Smaller on-line businesses don’t get the kinds of sweet shipping rates that Walmart gets from UPS and FedEx, and they don’t have the regional distribution centres that allow Walmart to keep its shipping costs low. It’s pretty clear that this move by Walmart is going to put serious pressure — maybe even fatal pressure — on some of its competitors.

Just 2 quick points to make:

1) It’s worth noting (for the benefit of those who don’t know) that Walmart’s profit margins are already razor-thin. Yes, the make big profits overall, but that’s due to their mind-bogglingly huge volume of sales. On a per-sale basis, their profit is very small. So the money for shipping a given product (for free) isn’t coming out of the profits on sales of that product — the profits just aren’t there. Something has to give. One possibility is that it really is a short-term gimmick, perhaps intended precisely to drive competitors out of business. That would potentially count as an instance of predatory pricing, which would be at least arguably unethical and potentially illegal — in spite of the short-term benefits to consumers.

2) Normally when we think about Walmart’s effect on competitors, we think about its effect on its very small competitors, the ‘mom & pop’ operations. But I wonder whether that’s the case here. I’m no expert on the structure of the industry, but it seems that the companies most likely to be hurt are Walmart’s large and mid-sized competitors, i.e., companies that occupy roughly the same strategy space as Walmart. It seems to me (and it’s just a hypothesis) that most small retailers will have significantly different business strategies than Walmart, and hence won’t be competing directly with Walmart in ways that would let them fall victim to this latest maneuver. If I’m right, then if Walmart really can sustain this free shipping policy (and they haven’t claimed they’ll even try to) it would be very bad for its medium-sized and large competitors. If that’s the case, will people have the same kinds objections as they tend to have when Walmart’s consumer-friendly strategies are instead bad for small businesses?

Wall Street (1987) — “Greed is Good”

I just re-watched the original 1987 film, Wall Street. (The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is in theatres now, and apparently doing very well.)

In the original Wall Street, Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, is a corporate raider — essentially, he buys up underperforming companies, breaks them up and sells their parts at a healthy profit. What drives him? Greed, pure and simple. In one scene, Gekko appears at the annual shareholders’ meeting being held by Teldar Paper. Gekko owns shares, but wants more. He wants control of the company, though his motives for doing so are hidden. It is there that he delivers the speech that includes the movie’s most famous line. “Greed,” he tells the shareholders of Teldar, “is good.”

That line is the only thing a lot of people alive in the 80’s remember about Wall Street. And that’s a shame.

Here’s Gordon Gekko’s famous “Greed is good” speech, in its entirety:

Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

The first thing to note about this speech is how little of it is actually about greed — roughly the last third of the speech. The first two thirds is a critique (disingenuous, as it happens, but not therefore off-target) of the complacency of overpaid corporate executives. Gekko is advising Teldar’s shareholders that the people responsible for protecting their interests — Teldar’s executives and Board — have been doing a bad job.

How does that first part relate to the final third of the speech, the part about greed being good? Well, it’s worth noting that when Gekko first uses the word “greed,” he does so “for lack of a better word.” And Gekko, one-dimensional character that he is, probably does lack a better word for it. For him, it really is greed — the unseemly and excessive love of money. But Teldar’s shareholders don’t need personally to embrace greed in the Gordon Gekko sense. All they need to do is to see that their interests are not being served well, and to understand that Gekko’s own greed is likely to serve them better: he wants to make a killing on the Teldar deal, and if they let him do so, they’ll all make a little money themselves, along the way. His greed is good for them.

Is Gekko’s greed a good thing over all? Well, Gekko says nothing, in his speech, about the interests of other stakeholders in Teldar Paper, stakeholders such as the company’s employees for example. If Gekko breaks up the company, shareholders may benefit but employees will lose jobs. That’s a bad thing, but it’s also sometimes inevitable. Not all companies should stay in business.

No, greed is not good. But the point — the grain of truth in Gordon Gekko’s Machiavellian speech — is that if shareholders allow executives and Boards to operate inefficiently, rather than using what little power they have to improve their lot, then they are suckers, being taken for a ride. And there’s no particular virtue in that.

California’s Marijuana Industry: Ethical Issues

I’ve blogged about the insurance industry, the mining industry, the auto industry, even the donut industry. But the pot industry? Yes, it’s time.

From the Sacramento Bee: Growth of California’s Pot Industry is Good News for Unions

As Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would expand legalization to recreational pot use, labor groups see the potential for perhaps tens of thousands of unionized jobs.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, which has 32,000 members in California working in trades including the grocery and food processing industries, began organizing marijuana “bud tenders,” greenhouse workers, packagers and laboratory technicians last spring….

So, here a budding industry, built around a controversial product that is illegal in most jurisdictions. There’s plenty of grass-root support for broader legalization (both for medicinal and recreational use). But there may be enough opposition to blunt the enthusiasm of law-makers about sudden moves. The support of politically-powerful unions is another ethically-significant factor — as is the potential capture of this new industry by unions.

This is such a rich and interesting story that there’s too much in it for me to try to hash it out by myself without resorting to quick, potted answers. So here are a handful of questions to seed the discussion. I’ll let you weed the good from the bad.

  • Ryan Grim reports that “The teachers union, citing the revenue that could be raised for the state, is also backing the initiative.” Is that sufficient reason? You don’t have to be an anti-pot puritan to worry about anything that might (inadvertently) encourage use of pot by school-age kids.
  • What business ethics issues are faced by producers and sellers of pot in the illegitimate parts of the drug industry? What new issues will the newly-legitimized industry face?
  • What CSR-type responsibilities does the (expanding) legal marijuana industry have?
  • Why are California Beer & Beverage Distributors lobbying against the proposed change? (See useful discussion over at Marginal Revolution).
  • What sorts of regulations should the industry seek? What motives will be foremost in industry’s mind in his regard — protecting revenues? protecting its image? protecting consumers?
  • Will the other drug industry — the pharmaceutical industry — move into this line of business? Why or why not?
  • Is the unionization of this industry generally a good or bad thing? Unionization improves the lot of workers, but also tends to raise prices. Since unionization itself is controversial, let’s ask it this way: is the case for unionization stronger or weaker, with regards to the marijuana industry?

I’ll open the floor for discussion.

Ethics and the SME

Here’s a very nice short article on business ethics, with a particular focus on SMEs (small and medium enterprises).

By Hendri Pelser, writing for Times Live (South Africa), Play fair and you will win:

With the effects of the global credit crunch still with us, it is pertinent to consider business ethics – the lack thereof helped create the recession.

But how does one approach business ethics? In the academic world, it is a philosophical discipline. For companies, it’s often a large volume of rules and regulations.

In the arena of small and medium enterprises, however, it simply comes down to the way you and your business behave – and decision makers face a myriad ethical challenges every day. These range from the way the tea lady is treated to the non-payment of suppliers or even bribes and kickbacks….

This piece is nice in a number of ways. Too little has been written, generally, about ethical challenges faced by SMEs, and this article says a lot of smart things about that. But the article really is a good brief primer on business ethics, and an interesting read throughout.

My one quibble is with the title of the article, which is misleading (but which probably wasn’t chosen by Pelser, so it’s not his fault). Nothing in the article actually implies that if you play fair, you’ll win. Certainly there’s a suggestion that good ethics leads to a good reputation, which in turn can help a business achieve success. But the relationship between ethics and business success is clearly complicated. In some cases, success is what gives a business a bit of leeway to engage in the kind of overt ethical behaviour that will build its reputation. In such cases, the truth is closer to “win, and you can afford to play fair.” Also, it just cannot be denied that in at least some cases, you’ll play fair and lose. Or, more generally, there are situations in which you’ll lose no matter how you play — perhaps because other companies have better products, better staff, better marketing, economies of scale, whatever. That complexity, of course, is precisely what makes ethics in business a challenge. If acting ethically were a straightforward recipe for business success (and if it were uncontroversial just what counted as acting ethically), we’d see a lot less unethical stuff going on in the world of commerce.

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