Archive for the ‘economics’ Category

Post-Hurricane-Irene Business Ethics Roundup

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.

Ethics & Economics 3: Efficiency

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.

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.

Workers vs Machines

A recent item in the NY Times dealt with the fact that many companies these days seem relatively reluctant to invest in new employees, but comparatively willing to invest in new machinery. The evidence for that is mostly anecdotal, but interesting none the less.

Here’s the story, by Catherine Rampell: Companies Spend on Equipment, Not Workers

Companies that are looking for a good deal aren’t seeing one in new workers.

Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people….

The story gives the distinct impression that the issue here is not just an issue of machines or people; it’s about machines versus people, and machines are clearly winning the hearts and minds of employers these days. On the face of it, that sounds bad. Workers — people — matter, from a moral point of view, and machines don’t. So, other things being equal, it is better to spend money on doing something good for people (e.g., providing someone with a job) than it is to spend money on mere machines.

But two perhaps-not-obvious points need to be made, here.

The first point is that even when employers choose to purchase machines instead of hiring employees, that needn’t be a bad thing socially, nor bad for labour as a group. Machinery tends to boost productivity, and boosting productivity boosts wealth, so from a social point of view (including from the point of view of blue-collar workers) it is good when companies invest in machinery. Even if machines displace workers in a given industry, that needn’t spell trouble for workers as a class. In the early 19th Century, Luddites destroyed mechanized looms in a vain attempt to forestall the effect of the industrial revolution on employment patterns in the textile industry. And yet, in the long run, the industrial revolution did nothing to worsen the lot of labourers. Indeed, it ushered in an era of prosperity that made the lot of labourers as a whole vastly better. To be sure, changes in technology result in unemployment in the particular sectors in which new technologies are introduced. But that tends to be a temporary problem. The standard Econ 101 example is transportation. The advent of the automobile surely resulted in some unemployment among those who had formerly worked in the horse-and-buggy industry. But, in the long run, those workers eventually found jobs in the auto industry, and were no worse off. And so on.

The second point is that, even if we focus on the employees of a particular organization, labour and machines are not always (and maybe not even often) in competition. Machines and tools can make employees’ lives better, and in those cases, certainly, spending money on machines and tools is a good thing. The most obvious case is when the equipment purchased is, say, safety equipment, or when the machines purchased are ones with additional safety features or features that make work less back-breaking.

But purchase of equipment can also be good in another way. Machines and tools of various kinds can make labour more productive, and more productive labour is more valuable. Not everyone realizes that the productivity of labour — the amount of goods that can be turned out per hour of a worker’s time — varies vastly across the globe. An hour of an American worker’s labour, for example, produces far more output than an hour of a Chinese worker’s labour. And the reason has little to nothing to do differences in work ethic or intelligence or talent. The difference lies in national differences in access to tools, and to differences in organizational and managerial strategies. So investing in better equipment can be a way of investing in the productivity of your workers.

Of course, past some threshold, when labour is more productive, employers may decide they need less of it. The most famous example of this is in farming, where one man with a big tractor now often does the work that a dozen men might have done in years gone by. But the devil is in the details. We should at least recognize that investment in machinery is not automatically contrary to the interests of labour.

Ethics & Economics, Part 1

This is the first of an occasional series on the relationship between ethics and economics.

Although I’m not an economist, I do find economics both important and interesting. It is far from its reputation as “the dismal science.” Its reputation as dismal likely comes from the fact that the stuff it studies is often dismal, for it studies things like scarcity and competition, things that are most often experienced as negatives. But those things are unavoidable facts of the human condition. In this regard, economics is no more ‘dismal’ than physics. It’s a bummer that I cannot fly unaided or teleport or be in two places at one time, but those facts don’t make the study of physics particularly dismal.

So we shouldn’t avoid economics. And understanding at least a bit of economics is crucial to a deep understanding of many issues in business ethics. You can’t effectively critique the market, or the institutions that populate it, without understanding at least a bit of the theory behind how they’re supposed to work. That’s why I often start my own Business Ethics course by having students read a bit of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, as well as commentaries on Smith by Nobel Prize-winning economists Ronald Coase and Amartya Sen. A bit of economic literacy goes a long way.

The definition of “Economics” that I typically use in my own teaching is this one, cobbled together from various sources, is this:

Economics is the social science that deals with the production and distribution and consumption of goods and services and their management.

In particular, I usually add, economics tends to involve the study the ways in which behaviour within systems of production, distribution, and consumption is driven by incentives. The other things that I take to be typical of the work of economists, if not part of the definition of the discipline:

  • Economists tend to be particularly interested in the way people respond to incentives of various kinds;
  • Economists care a lot about actual data. They care in particular about the actual consequences of various policy decisions, rather than just the intentions behind them.
  • While economics is nominally a descriptive discipline, its descriptive theories (about, e.g., the conditions under which markets operate efficiently) tend pretty quickly to generate policy prescriptions (for what governments can & should do to foster such efficient operation).

Here is another definition of economics, which Thomas Sowell, in his textbook Basic Economics, attributes to the late British economist Lionel Robbins:

“Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses.”

I like that definition quite a lot, since it highlights the intersection with ethics: justice, one of the central topics within ethics, is primarily about the fair distribution of scarce resources.

I’ll end there for now. But watch here for other entries in this series, on how ethics and economics overlap and/or conflict.

In the interest of promoting economic literacy, here are a few books about economics that I recommend. All of them are aimed at non-economist audiences.

Corruption and Ethics in the Russian Economy

Back in February I blogged about Russian Business Ethics, and about the way that watching a developing economy helps us see the significance of ethics in the functioning of any economy. If you want to understand the role of honesty, trust, and transparency in a market, you just need to look at a society experiencing a severe deficit of those things.

Here’s more in a similar vein, by Sergei L. Loiko, for the LA Times: Taking on Russian corruption

Moscow lawyer and blogger Alexei Navalny has been singlehandedly taking on Russia’s state-controlled energy giants, accusing them of large-scale embezzlement and corruption….

(See also this piece on fighting corruption in India: Wake-up call on anti-graft laws, from The Hindu Business Line. I also blogged last year about Business Ethics in China.)

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that there really is no ethical debate over corruption: there is no pro-corruption case to be made. No one is in favour of corruption, generally — though of course the corrupt are in favour of those instances of corruption that help them. There just is no systemic upside to bribery, embezzlement, and unremediated conflict of interest. But this fact sometimes go unnoticed when people lump bribery, for example, in with various other dubious practices that North American companies might engage in overseas. I recently had a senior academic suggest to me, in the context of a discussion of labour standards, that third-world sweatshops are just another money-grubbing technique that corporations use whenever they can get away with it — just like, you know, bribery. But there is an important distinction to be made there: sweatshops may sometimes play the role of unfortunate-but-necessary engine of economic growth. Bribery is just a drag on an economy. As seen by competing businesses, it’s a zero-sum game: either my bribe works or yours does. From a social point of view, it results in misallocation of resources: contracts go not to the most efficient producer, but to the producer that excels at the bribery game. This is another example of why it’s so important, in our normative evaluation of business practices, to maintain a mental distinction between things that are unfortunate, and things that are wrong.

Gas Prices, Criticism, and Ethics

There’s more than a little unseemly about the pervasiveness of complaints about the high price of gas. Of course, you can’t really expect anybody really to like high gas prices, at least from a consumer perspective. But disliking something is not the same thing as getting irate and pointing fingers.

Here in Toronto, gasoline prices hit an all-time high this past week. Talk radio jocks and editorialists were all over it. In the US, politicians are railing against oil companies. Of course, this is not the first time that high gas prices have spurred a populist pile-on. It’s a predictable phenomenon in response to perceived price-gouging. (And lets not forget the not-unrelated but misguided calls to boycott BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout last year.)

But whining about the price of gas just might be unethical — or at least unseemly — in a couple of circumstances.

One such circumstance is if you really, really ought to know better. And lots of people, including most people editorializing for major newspapers, ought to know better. In fact, most of us ought to know better. We all ought to understand, as citizens, voters, and consumers, the basic interrelationship between supply and demand, and the factors that make price-gouging likely or unlikely, as well as something about how hard it is to anticipate the effects of the price controls some people favour. But I realize that that’s asking for a quantum leap in economic and financial literacy. (Ever notice that no one ever compliments gas companies or stations when their prices happen to be relatively low? This suggests that people think the low price is the right price, a the notion of a “right” price for a commodity is utterly at odds with any reasonably sophisticated view of economics.)

Another problem is when the gas-price complaints are aimed at gas stations themselves. Most of those are actually independently-owned small businesses, with precious little control over the price of gas. And as James Cowan recently wrote for Canadian Business, high gas prices don’t mean big profits for station owners. Picking on small businesses to express displeasure at the effects of fluctuations in worldwide commodity prices is thoroughly shameful.

Finally, I’ve heard surprisingly few people, in all this, bother to challenge the notion that high gas prices are a bad thing in the first place. What happened to everyone’s zeal for going green? Economics 101 says that when prices go up, demand goes down. And we all want demand for gas (i.e., consumption of gas) to go down, right? Now demand for gas, in particular, doesn’t change much when prices go up, but it does go down a bit. So if we want gas consumption to go down (as most of us agree would generally be a good thing) then we should be happy, in our less-selfish moments, to see gas prices going up. Now, admittedly, high gas prices don’t affect everyone equally. But nor do the high price of anything else. One of the few sane voices in all this is The Economist. A recent editorial there pointed out that the most effective thing that governments can do to take the sting out of high gas prices isn’t to do anything directly about those prices, but rather to insist on higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars. This suggests that the bad guys in this story, if you need to point fingers, are more likely to be found among the big auto makers than among the big oil companies. But even that is pretty lame. Car companies only make the cars that people show a preference for buying. Like it or not, not every unhappy story has a villain.

Who Else is Too Big to Fail?

The notion that some companies are “too big to fail” — too large and too interconnected with the rest of the economy for their failure to be permitted by government — is lamentably familiar to most of us in the wake of the 2007-2010 financial crisis. The term has most famously been applied to the biggest American banks (e.g., Bank of America) and insurance companies (e.g., AIG), and it motivated the multi-multi-billion-dollar government bailouts of 2008/2009. In some ways, it’s a radical notion: for most of modern economic history, the assumption has been that the economy could operate according to something like survival of the fittest. If a company is so mismanaged that it fails, so be it. That’s life in a competitive market. Of course, governments have from time to time propped up companies seen as particularly important employers, but such moves are always divisive. There has seldom been such widespread agreement that certain companies really are so big, and so important, that they cannot be allowed to fail.

But outside of the financial industry, what companies might reasonably be thought of as “too big to fail?” Are there companies the failure of which would be truly catastrophic? What companies are there such that, if they suddenly ceased operations, the result would be disastrous not just for individual customers, employees, and shareholders, but for society as a whole?

I’ll mention a few possibilities, and then open the floor for discussion:

BP, Chevron, and the other very large oil companies. As unpopular as they are, it’s hard to deny that their product is utterly essential, at least for the time being. Any one of the biggest companies going out of business would, I suspect, have a terrible impact on the reliability of supplies of gasoline and heating fuel, and would most certainly result in increased prices. On the other hand, most of the world’s oil supply flows through the big state-owned oil companies of the middle east, rather than through private companies like Exxon and Shell the others, the ones that come most readily to mind for North American and European consumers.

Big pharma. Again, not a popular industry. And much of what they produce — treatments for baldness, erectile dysfunction, etc. — is far from essential. But some of their more important products, including things like antibiotics and vaccines, truly are essential and an interruption in their supply could have catastrophic consequences, from a public health point of view. But then, that industry has enough players in it, with overlapping product lines, that it’s unlikely the collapse of any one company would have a huge impact. But really, I’m guessing here. Perhaps the collapse of the maker of whatever the single most antibiotic is would be catastrophic. (Does anyone know?)

What about UPS? That one may surprise you, but the company handles something over 5 million packages per day, which I’ve heard adds up to a non-trivial percentage of American GDP. If UPS disappeared tomorrow, of course, Fedex and the USPS would take up some of the slack, but the short-term effect on American business (and hence consumers) would be significant.

Locally, surely, there are lots of companies that might be considered essential. Companies involved in ensuring the quality of municipal water supplies might count (including the ones that provide the chemicals needed for water purification). And in places where fire departments are privately-run, those would obviously count. But really, I’m looking for examples of companies the failure or disappearance of which would have widespread effects from a social point of view.

Of course, the phrase “too big to fail” isn’t just descriptive. In the world of finance, it is seem as having immediate policy implications. In 2009, Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve (and no fan of government intervention in the economy), said “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.” Are there companies outside of finance where such an argument could be made?

Financial Speculation & Ethics

Friday I gave a talk as part of a terrific workshop on the ethics and law of financial speculation, held at the University of Montreal. (The event was co-sponsored by U of M’s Centre for Business Law and the Centre for Research in Ethics.)

As I mentioned in a posting last week, financial speculation is the subject of some controversy. Indeed, there has been plenty of discussion of regulating various forms of speculation, though whether that is possible and how best to do so is also subject to controversy.

Very roughly, “speculation” can be thought of as involving any of a range of forms of relatively high-risk investment. In a way, it is the exact opposite of a slow, safe investment such as buying government savings bonds. But it’s also different from pure gambling: in most forms of gambling, you have no reasonable expectation of making money. You might well win big, and it’s nice if you do, but really all you can expect is to have fun playing the game. Speculation on the other hand involves taking what are hopefully well-informed risks, in the hopes of exceptional returns.

Here are 3 stereotypical examples of speculation:

  • Imagine that a wheat farmer is considering whether to plant wheat an additional, previously-unplanted, field. Imagine that the farmer’s total cost for doing so would be $5/bushel of wheat. If the current price of wheat is hovering right around the $5 mark, that turns planting into a risky proposition. The risk of a loss might make planting just too unattractive. Now imagine a speculator comes along and is willing to take that risk, so she offers the farmer $5.25/bushel for the wheat that has not even been planted yet. With the promise of a modest-but-guaranteed profit in hand, the farmer plants the crop. If, at harvest time, the price of wheat has gone up to $6/bushel, the speculator stands to make a tidy profit. If the price has gone down to $4/bushel, the speculator suffers a loss — but she’s in the business of speculating precisely because she has the resources to absorb such losses, and will just hope that her next investment pays off better.
  • Imagine someone whose job is to invest in futures contracts on commodities such as oil or gold. A futures contract is basically a commitment to buy a specified quantity of something, at a specified price, at some date in the future. The example above involved a kind of futures contract, except in that example the investor actually did intend to buy and take possession of the farmer’s wheat once harvested. But in the vast majority of futures trading, nothing but paper ever changes hands. If a trader finds that other traders have been paying above-market prices for oil futures, she might decide that it’s worth buying some herself, in the hope that the price of oil will continue to go up because of this demand. Other traders are likely to notice, and imitate, her behaviour, with a net effect of pushing oil prices up. None of this needs to reflect any underlying change in consumer demand for oil, or any change in oil’s supply. It can all happen as the result of a combination of hunches about the future of oil and a dose of herd behaviour.
  • Imagine I have a dim view of the future prospects of a company, say BP, so I decide to “short” (sell short) shares in BP. What I do is I borrow some shares in BP, say an amount that would be worth $1,000 at today’s prices. I then sell those borrowed shares. If all goes as I expect it will, the price of BP shares may drop — let’s imagine it drops 25%. I can then buy enough shares in BP, at the reduced price ($750 total), to “return” the shares to the person I originally borrowed them from. And I get to pocket the $250 difference (minus any expenses). Basically, this form of speculation — short selling — is unlike standard investments in that it involves betting that a company’s shares will go down, rather than up, in value.

There is disagreement among experts regarding just what the net effect of speculation (or indeed of particular kinds of speculation) is likely to be. Some think that speculation, as a kind of artificial demand, has the tendency to increase prices and perhaps even to result in “bubbles” that eventually burst, with tragic results. But the evidence is unclear. In particular cases, it can be very difficult to tell whether a) speculation caused the inflationary bubble, or whether b) some underlying inflationary trend spurred speculation, or whether c) it was a bit of both. And even if it’s clear that some forms of speculation sometimes have such effects, it’s not clear a) that speculation has negative effects often enough to warrant intrusive regulations, or b) that regulators will be able to single out and regulate the most worrisome forms of speculation without stomping out the useful forms.

And defenders of speculation do point out that at least some forms of speculation have beneficial effects. Speculators of the sort described in my first example above take on risk that others are unable to bear, and hence allow productive activity to take place that otherwise might not. They also add “liquidity” to markets by increasing the number of willing buyers and sellers. Speculators, through their investments, can also bring information into the market and thus render it more efficient. When one or more speculators takes a special interest in a given commodity, it is likely to be on account of some special insight or analysis that suggests that there will be an increased need for that commodity in the future. In other words, in the best cases at least, expert financial speculation isn’t idle speculation — it is well-informed, and informative.

Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that pretty much any technology or technique can be used for good or for evil. The techniques of financial speculation can be used to attempt to manipulate markets or to defraud consumers. Whether the dangers of such uses outweigh other considerations is up for debate.

But from the point of view of ethics, it’s worth at least considering exercising caution in some areas. Perhaps speculators with a conscience, for example, should be particularly risk-averse when it comes to commodities that have a very direct impact on people’s wellbeing, such as food. Recently Andrew Oxlade, writing for the financial website “ThisIsMoney”, asked Is it ethical to invest in food prices? As Oxlade notes, at least some critics believe that recent surges in food commodity prices have at least something to do with the activities of traders engaging in speculative trades.

Oxlade offers this advice to investors:

To sleep easier at night and still get exposure to this area, you may want to consider investing in farming rather than in food prices via derivatives. In fact, your money may even do some good.

p.s. thanks once again to the organizers of the workshop mentioned above, namely professors Peter Dietsch and Stéphane Rousseau.
Note also: If you’re interested in this topic from a professional or academic point of view, then this book should be on your bookshelf: Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice, edited by John Boatright.

Ethics of Profit, Part 1: Excessive Profits

This is the first of a 3-part series on the ethics of profit.

Is making a profit ethically good, or bad, or neutral? Or, better still, are there situations in which making a profit is either good, or bad, or neutral?

Profit is often the subject of criticism. The film, “The Corporation”, has as its main target not corporations per se, but the profit motive in particular. Michael Moore appears in the film, saying that while some corporations do good things, “The problem comes in, in the profit motivation here, because these people, there’s no such thing as enough.”

Now, the idea of profit is often tied up with money, with ‘filthy lucre.’ After all, everyone knows that saying about money being the root of all evil. But in the abstract, profit needn’t be defined in terms of cash. In the abstract, profit is just the “cooperative surplus” that results from a mutually-beneficial exchange. When I buy an apple (for, let’s say, $1) at my local market, both the owner of the market and I end up better off. We both “profit.” My own “profit” is the amount by which I value the apple over the $1 that I paid for it. And the market owner’s profit is the amount by which the sale price of $1 exceeds her own costs (apple + labour + overhead, etc.). And the fact that we both profit from the exchange is precisely what makes the exchange good for both of us.

Now, I think we need to distinguish between our ethical evaluation of profit, and our ethical evaluation of the profit motive. Because even if we agree that profit is generally OK, we can still worry about the things that people (or companies) will do in the pursuit of profit.

I’ll focus another day on the profit motive. Today I want to focus on profit itself. It seems to me that there are 2 kinds of circumstances in which profit itself is subjected (rightly or wrongly) to ethical criticism. One is when profits are excessively large; the other is when profit is gained unjustly. Today I’ll focus solely on the idea of excessive profit.

Several industries are commonly singled out as having unjustly large profits. One is the banking industry. Another is the pharmaceutical industry. Likewise, if we expand the category of “profit” to include individual profit in the form of salaries, then Wall Street is regularly singled out as a place where excessive profits are to be had. The fundamental ethical question with regard to large profits is what philosophers would call a question of “distributive justice.” Basically, is it fair that some people have so much money, while others in the world have so little?

A few points are worth making about big profits:

1) It’s worth remembering that very large corporate profits don’t necessarily translate into large amounts of personal wealth for anybody. Consider the fact that a company that has several billion dollars in profits — a lot of money, by anyone’s accounting — might have hundreds of millions of shares outstanding, spread across thousands (or even millions) of shareholders, and might pay out only a tiny dividend (say, a dollar per share). So a massive profit doesn’t necessarily translate into massive personal wealth for anyone.

2) Although many of us have intuitions that say that large disparities in wealth are unjust, it has proven incredibly difficult to translate those intuitions into anything like a coherent ethical theory. Despite our best efforts, we simply have no sound explanation of a) why it is that differences in wealth (fairly acquired) ought to be considered unfair, or b) just how large a difference has to be in order to be considered unfair. The lack of such a theory doesn’t negate our intuitions, but it should give us pause before we assert that particular disparities are “obviously” or “grossly” unethical.

3) It’s worth noting that what I referred to above as our “intuition” about injustice might also be referred to as a form of envy. And envy is far from admirable. As philosopher Anthony Flew once pointed out*, “this envy which resents that others too should gain, and maybe gain more than us, must be accounted much nastier than any supposed ‘intrinsic selfishness’ of straight self-interest.”

*Anthony Flew, “The Profit Motive,” Ethics, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Jul., 1976), pp. 312-322
Update: Part 2 of this series is here and Part 3 is here.

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