Category Archives: business

Are European Soccer Matches Won in Stadiums or in Boardrooms?

Wembley - Tor

Was it a goal or not? This question will forever cause a stir between English and German soccer fans. (Probably less of a stir for English fans since England were awarded the disputed goal in extra time of the 1966 World Cup final in Wembley Stadium: watch the disputed goal here, read about it here.) But this is not the only thing matter of debate between English and German soccer. Germans often complain that English football is just about money, finding a big sponsor, and less about sports and a fair competition.

Whenever we are talking about professional spectator sports there are always two overlapping competitions in play, so to speak. The one we are watching take place on the fields (court, ice, etc.) between the teams, and the one that goes on in the marketplace between rival businesses. The German complaint, in a nutshell, is that English football is driven too much by the pressures of the marketplace, and not enough by what the English fan’s themselves love to call “England’s game.”

In order to promote the sport over the marketplace, the German Bundesliga invented the “50+1 rule”. It says that clubs are allowed to compete in the Bundesliga only if they hold a majority of their own voting rights (50% + at least 1 additional vote; read more about the rule here.) By this rule the “on-field” sporting interests of a club should be protected from the “marketplace” economic interests of its investors. This way, financiers and businesses will be able to gain control over clubs and professional football teams. The Germans believe that this is exactly what has gone wrong with English football. For example, Manchester United is owned by the US-American business-family, Glazer. (You can read about the differences between English and German football policies in this BBC article from 2013.)

What does that mean for the sport? Is the competition in England and elsewhere unfairly manipulated by investors? Is it unfair that some clubs have wealthier or more generous investors than others? Does the German rule make it impossible for smaller teams to compete with the historic giants of the Bundesliga like Bayern Munich? Perhaps finding an investor is just part of the game if you really want to be able to compete on the field. Such are the dilemmas and paradoxes when two fundamentally different kinds of competitions – sports and markets – overlap so completely.

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Why Lance Armstrong isn’t the “Bernie Madoff of cycling”

On another blog, at the end of the summer, I spent far too much space trying to figure out what we should think about Lance Armstrong after his quasi-implicit-wink’n’nudge-pseudo-confession. That statement from Armstrong came as he announced his decision to, in essence, plead “no contest” to the US Anti-Doping Agency’s public hearing of his case. My colleague Chris MacDonald follows up on the case on his Business Ethics Blog — and does so much more concisely, and with special attention to the “adversarial ethics” angle.

On Wednesday (October 10), the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a small mountain’s worth of evidence against champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not surprisingly, comparisons to corruption in the world of business were not far behind. On Twitter, a number of wags referred to Armstrong as the “Bernie Madoff of cycling,” or variants on that.

The comparison with Madoff is to be expected. In both cases, you have wrongdoing of impressive scope. In both cases, the wrongdoing was truly brazen, going on right under the noses of regulators. In both cases, you can’t escape the feeling that someone should have been able to figure it all out sooner. And in both cases, you see the eventual fall of a man who was a hero to many.

But the comparison is also off target in important ways….

 

‘Utmost Good Faith’ Between Adversaries?

Not much has yet been written about the quasi-adversarial relationship that obtains between consumers and the companies from which they buy goods and services, at least not in those terms.

And it’s clear, I think, that the relationship is quasi-adversarial. In game-theoretic terms, it’s a ‘mixed motive’ game — one in which cooperation of some form is useful, but in which each party has some incentive to deviate from maximally cooperative behaviour. When Apple sells me a computer, they would ideally like to squeeze as much money out of me as possible, while giving me a product as cheap-to-produce as possible. And my own preferences are the exact opposite. We both benefit from doing business together, but our interests in the interaction are not quite aligned. In fact, in terms of pure dollars and cents, the transaction between Apple and me is a zero-sum game: every extra dollar they charge for their computer is a dollar out of my pocket and into their corporate coffers. It’s not a fully-adversarial relationship, but it’s still one that needs some rules to keep it civilized.

In this regard, it’s good to know about the legal concept of uberrima fides. This is a legal doctrine, relating specifically to insurance contracts, which says that “all parties to an insurance contract must deal in good faith, making a full declaration of all material facts in the insurance proposal.” The relationship between insurer and insured, in other words, is a game that must be played by very strict rules.

The concept of uberrima fides doesn’t mean the insurer and insured are on the same team, metaphorically speaking. So it implies a relationship quite different from, say, a fiduciary one. A fiduciary relationship, as a famous legal judgment once put it, requires “the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.” In a fiduciary relationship (e.g., the relationship between lawyer and client), the commercial aspect of the relationship takes a back seat, and one party (e.g., the lawyer) is expected to put the other party’s interests ahead of their own. In a relationship subject to the uberrima fides standard, the relationship is still at least partly adversarial, but the adversaries in question are expected to play very strictly according to the rules. This makes particular sense for the relationship between insurer and insured, presumably, because both parties are so highly vulnerable to gamesmanship and dissimulation on the part of the other.

This suggests, I think, that we think of various kinds of buyer/seller relationships as existing along a spectrum, from the aggressively adversarial to the utterly fiduciary. The question, then, is not which rules should apply to buyer/seller relationships in general. The question, rather, is which rules should apply to what kinds of buyer/seller relationships, and why.

Bi-Partisan Markets

Milton Friedman purports in Capitalism and Freedom that the free market allows the individual to express her individual desires, while the democratic system forces conformity.

“From this standpoint, the role of the market, as already noted, is that it permits unanimity without conformity; that it is a system of effectively proportional representation. On the other hand, the characteristic feature of action through explicitly political channels is that it tends to require or to enforce substantial conformity. The typical issue must be decides “yes” or “no”; at most, provision can be made for a fairly limited number of alternatives. Even the use of proportional representation in its explicitly political form does not alter this conclusion. The number of separate groups that can in fact be represented is narrowly limited, enormously so by comparison with the proportional representation of the market.”

Although Friedman argues for the benefits of proportional representation in the market, the economic system can potentially arrive at a similar conclusion as the political system. Consider the situation of the carbonated soda market, where advertising similarly enforces substantial conformity by raising the barriers to entry. Coke and Pepsi hold over 70% of the market share.[1] This sounds dangerously similar to the current political landscape in the United States, with Republicans and Democrats holding over 60% of the “voter market share.” 36% of registered voters are Democrats and 27% are registered Republicans.[2] The competitive landscape is actually slanted more in favor of Coke and Pepsi than our often-criticized bi-partisan political system.

The point that Friedman is trying to make is that 49.9% of the country may be forced to conform to a political situation to which they are opposed. Obviously, if Coke has a majority market share, you are not forced to consume only Coke. However, Friedman argues that the free market constitutes a system of proportional representation, but that is not consistent in the Coke/Pepsi situation. Due to wide awareness of Coke as a result of advertising expenditure, the consumer has a higher subconscious disposition to purchase Coke. It is not the result of actual product preference, but rather brand preference. Even if a company launches a cola competitor to Coke that is a healthier alternative with the exact taste, it will likely fail due to consumer’s requisite knowledge of the Coke brand. Essentially, a consumer purchasing RC Cola has the same effect of a citizen voting for the green party. The consumer is forced to conform to an economic situation in which they potentially are opposed, but is unable to view or obtain alternatives due to Coke’s stranglehold on the market.

One could argue that the consumer is not truly forced to consume Coke; she could simply purchase RC Cola in the supermarket. However, what about the situations in stadiums, theaters, or restaurants where there is only one option? These venue providers will rationally select the most prominent brand in order to appease the most consumers, and thus select Coke. But this leaves the consumer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice in those certain environments; the exact situation in which Friedman condemns. Thus, while liberal economists criticize the conformity in politics and espouse the virtues of the competitive marketplace, both systems are equally susceptible to the concentration of power.


[1]Esterl, Mike. “Pepsi Thirsty for a Comeback.” Wall Street Journal, 18 Mar. 2011. Web. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703818204576206653259805970.html&gt;

[2] “Fewer Voters Identify as Republicans.” Pew Research Center. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 04 Apr. 2012. <http://pewresearch.org/pubs/773/fewer-voters-identify-as-republicans&gt;.

Football, Business, and the Rules of the Game

The scandal currently engulfing Football’s New Orleans Saints illustrates some important points about adversarial ethics, and in particular holds lessons for business ethics.

The scandal concerns the fact that over a number of years, members of the team (and at least one assistant coach) maintained a “bounty pool,” which paid out money to players who succeeded in inflicting serious injuries on players from opposing teams. Football is a tough sport; so what’s the problem?

The problem, of course, is that even tough games need rules, including rules designed to keep the game worth playing.

Drawing on Joseph Heath’s work on adversarial ethics in business, I argue that the limits on adversarial behaviour in business can be defined as those limits that keep the ‘game’ beneficial from a social point of view. Free, competitive markets are enormously beneficial, and behaviour that threatens the benefits of markets robs them of their moral justification.

For the fuller version of my argument, see my blog posting for Canadian Business magazine: New Orleans Saints football scandal highlights limits of competition.

Can Adversarial Contexts Be Socially Integrating?

Recently, Michael Gillespie wrote an article on March Madness and the unifying character of sports in American culture.  What is it about sports, and March Madness in particular, that it is able to organize and direct a group of otherwise — to borrow a term from John Rawls — “mutually disinterested” individuals towards impassioned support of a common goal?  How can a mere game transform a diverse group of individuals into an almost singular consciousness, where personal identities dissolve into a shared communal existence?

Gillespie answers similar questions in terms of Nietzsche’s view of Greek tragedy, which is, at its core, a merging of both the individual and communal elements of life (or the Apollinian and Dionysian).  Nietzsche’s conclusion is ultimately that life is redeemed only as an aesthetic phenomenon, and a sense of meaning is derived from a sense of struggle in which the individual sacrifices his happiness for something greater.

College basketball, and indeed sports generally, might play this redemptive role in American culture, as it is through sports that we experience life in all its peaks and valleys — from the ecstasy of an unexpected win by a buzzer-beating three-pointer, to the despair over an impossible upset in a tournament’s first round.  Insofar as basketball is representative of the unifying character of adversarial institutions, how else might this dynamic play out towards a goal of social integration?  That is, how might conflict help transform a Gesellschaft (society) into a Gemeinschaft (community), to use Max Weber’s terminology.

A similar situation might be seen in the United States during World War II, where civilian support was widespread.  It is well documented that the U.S. contribution to the war effort increased U.S. GDP, through increased productivity and the better mobilization of the workforce.  This had a taxing effect on the U.S. population, but this struggle was tolerated because of, among other factors, some sense of unification expressed as patriotism.

Indeed, this point about economies and markets as an expression of social integration is interesting.  It has been argued* that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, when interpreted in conjunction with his Theory of Moral SentimentsLectures on Jurisprudence, and Letters on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, forms a comprehensive theory whereby markets are not exclusively constituted by interactions of “competitive and strategic individuals to secure their material preferences,” (553), but rather as a central mechanism for social order derived from the “inexorable struggle by human agents for moral approbation and social recognition” (ibid).  This reading, furthermore, goes on to state how Smith perceived markets as an analogue to the classical Greek polis, as the site where people seek mutual recognition.

Before we commit what Alfred North Whitehead termed the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” we would do well to recognize that this represents an idealization, which might be quite undersupported, especially in the context of contemporary market transactions.  While Smith’s Wealth of Nations argues for lack of government manipulation and intervention in markets, the events of recent years has made some people skeptical of the efficacy of this kind of unrestrained free-market capitalism.

Part of the problem is that there is rarely the sense of a common goal among actors within American corporations.  Some economists such as Paul Krugman claim that the U.S. economy has become dominated by the financial sector, and one criticism against financial institutions is that employee’s have no personal investment in the firm beyond their limited tenure.  Performance is usually assessed in terms of a very short time-horizon, and significantly long-term strategies to increase market capitalization might not be implemented if they sacrifice short-term performance.

Obviously, I have no resolution for these difficulties.  Perhaps adversarial contexts could be socially integrating, and the main issue is how might the unifying character of sports, for example, be applied to other adversarial contexts, like markets.  Smith’s model might have been descriptive for its time, but it’s a real question as to whether our contemporary economic climate is one that can ever be socially integrating in this way.  It might be that our attitudes towards the firm is unsupportive of individual responsibility towards the long-term financial health of corporations, insofar as this comes at the expense of short-term personal compensation.

* Kalyvas, A. and Katznelson, I.  “The Rhetoric of the Market: Adam Smith on Recognition, Speech, and Exchange,” The Review of Politics, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Summer, 2001), pp. 549-579.

David Brooks on Linsanity and the difference between the morality of religion and sports

Posted by Wayne

David Brooks, the New York Times‘s supposedly conservative columnist, regularly looks to sports as a way of making sense of our political and popular culture. This week he used the Jeremy Lin phenomenon as a pretext for some reflections on the gap between the ethos of sport and the ethos of religion (because Lin, like Tim Tebow, is a devote Christian). For Brooks the gap is a chasm that can probably not be fully or safely bridged.

The discussion is relevant for this blog because Brooks claims that the “sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.” Our ethical thinking in certain adversarial contexts or institutions will — and ought to — differ from the way we think ethically in other parts of our lives, even if we are deeply religious.

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.

This is what we go to sporting events to see

Brooks identifies this ethos with “modern sports,” but take away the inclusion of female athletes and ESPN, and the description of the virtues, goals, motivations, and glories of the athletic hero (or warrior) would not have looked out of place in Ancient Greece or Rome.

Of course, it is easy to see why these qualities are troubling for adherents of many traditional and religious moral traditions in the West and East. A “moral hero” in these traditions would not be described in any of the ways I have emphasized in bold font in long quotation from Brooks. (Although he or she would, presumably, be just as courageous as the sporting hero, even if this was not his or her primary virtue.) Brooks himself goes on to paint a similar broad-brush portrait of the religious life, and explains why he thinks the sporting and religious characters can never be fully reconciled. Following the Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, Brooks believes

that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Note that Brooks is focusing almost entirely on one component of a moral or ethical perspective — the part that concerns virtues or characters traits. But we also care about what rights, freedoms, and duties people have; and with the how to design just institutions (which will, in turn, assign various rights and duties to individuals occupying particular roles). So we might also ask whether the rights and duties of “players” in deliberately adversarial institutions will necessarily conflict with the dictates of a religious follower’s conscience.

Here too the answer seems to be Yes, but for very different reasons than the ones Brooks has highlighted. The best summary I know of for this case comes from Joseph Heath‘s important paper in the Journal of Business Ethics, “An Adversarial Ethics for Business: or When Sun-Tzu Met the Stakeholder” (2006). Here is how Heath sums up an argument explained over several pages:

Much of everyday morality has as its goal the prevention of a collective action problem. It is possible to secure certain advantages by lying, but if everyone did it, no one would believe what anyone said, and everyone would be worse off… This is why the… Golden Rule capture[s] much of the spirit of everyday morality. But because the central mechanism in a competition is an unresolved collective action problem, there are bound to be numerous prima facie conflicts between competitive imperatives and those imposed by everyday morality. This is reflected in the fact that a naïve or mechanical application of the Golden Rule in a competitive situation is likely to generate the wrong results. Before kicking the winning field goal, we do not want football players to be thinking, “How would I like it if the other team did that to me?” Similarly, before lowering prices, we do not want the gas-station owners to be thinking “How would I like it if the station across the street did that to me?”

The bolded phrase is the key to understanding the reason we actively encourage a different kind of ethical thinking or ethos in what we are calling deliberately adversarial institutions (like sports, markets, and democratic politics). These institutions regulate a competition in order to create benefits for “non players” outside the competition — what economists call “positive externalities.” So in all of these institutions we deliberately prevent the competitors from cooperating in ways that will be to their advantage but not to the advantage of outsiders.

Traditional morality is about cooperating and mutual assistance: adversarial ethics is about how to generate social benefits by preventing certain forms of cooperation; but also about how to make sure that the players use only appropriate tactics in their attempt to succeed. Heath’s article is as good a place as any to see the outlines of, and tensions between, these two features of adversarial ethics. But you should also find these tensions in almost every case study we highlight on this blog.

Incidentally, Heath’s article could be of some service to pious, but ferociously competitive athletes like Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin. They can play hard to beat their opponents, but show self-restraint in doing so by embracing the “spirit of the rules” and by treating their opponents with respect. And of course, they can and should be as cooperative and humble as possible with their own team mates. Within the team itself, there is still no “I” in Golden Rule.