Tag Archives: Posted by Chris MacDonald

Politicians and Professors

Some professors go into politics. Some politicians later become professors. But is there any reason to think the rules of the two “games” should be the same?

See this article by David D. Perlmutter, in the Chronicle of Higher Education: Why Politicians Should Be More Like Professors. Perlmutter points out that President Barack Obama has sometimes been accused of being “too professorial.” But just what, asks (Professor!) Perlmutter, is wrong with that? He suggests several ways in which it might actually be good if politicians adopted a more professorial demeanor. His final suggestion is that politicians need to be more like professors in their willingness to work together to solve shared problems. “More than in any other trade, professors will sit down, work together with people with whom they hold deep ideological differences, and get the job done.” As for politicians: “It’s fine to be partisan about ideas,” he says, “but governing must be collaborative.”

By way of prescient rebuttal, see this piece by our friend (and sometime professor) Andrew Potter, writing in the Ottawa Citizen: Gangster Politics.

In a philosophical debate, what everyone involved is trying to get at is the truth. As a result, each party has a vested interest in the discussion remaining as rational and free of bias as possible. Even better, the truth is what economists call a “non-rival good” – many people can partake in the truth at the same time without anyone’s share being diminished.

In contrast, what is at stake in the political realm is not truth but power, and power (unlike truth) is a “rival good” – one person or group can wield power only at the expense of another.

Unfortunately, the very essence of politics makes partisanship inevitable….

In general, if you’re going to propose new norms for a game, it’s good to have a clear understanding of what is really at stake in that particular game, first.

Farmers, Organics, & the Ethics of Industry Organizations

Over at my Food-Ethics blog, I just posted a short piece called “Caution on ‘Green’ Claims for Organics”. It’s about a suggestion, from the head of a UK farming organization, for organic farmers to be cautious about claims that their produce is, categorically, more environmentally-friendly than non-organic foods.

The interesting thing from the point of view of adversarial ethics has to do with the role of industry associations. Industry associations are a mechanism by which businesses that would normally compete against each other engage in certain forms of cooperation. The catch is that some forms of in-group cooperation are socially beneficial (or at least innocuous) while others are pernicious. For example, when companies cooperate on standard-setting (so that, e.g., competing models of computers can all use the same peripherals), that’s a good thing. When they cooperate on prices, that’s called price-fixing, and it’s bad for consumers (and is illegal in most places). In the case cited above, the organization is calling for a stop to in-fighting over the virtues (in the strong, moralized sense of that word) of various products. Whether that’s socially beneficial depends, in part, on the significance of the moral debate that the organization is hoping to stifle.

Competitive Ethics in the Dairy Industry

Over at my Food Ethics Blog, I’ve just posted a short entry on regulating competitive behaviour in the dairy industry: Using, Regulating and Testing for Antibiotics in Milk. The key point, there, from the perspective of ethics for adversaries, lies in looking at the obligations that competitors have to those they server (consumers of milk, in this case) compared to the obligations they have to other members of society. In sports terms, it’s the comparison between what a baseball team owes its fans, versus what it owes to people whose windows might be smashed by a stray ball.

Bankers Bonuses and Multi-Level Structured Competition

Here’s an interesting story about structured competition within an organization. By Michael Flaherty and Sarah White, as appearing in the Globe and Mail: Gap in bankers’ bonuses spurs discontent

Annual bonuses at top global banks are causing friction that could drive an outsized round of defections as weaker profits and tougher rules widen the pay discrepancy between star performers and everybody else.

That growing difference between a small number of top-fee earning investment bankers and the bulk of their colleagues may see an exodus from big European and Wall Street banks to smaller upstarts or different industries in the weeks and months ahead….

Actually, what we see here are several nested levels of structured competition:

  • Competition between bankers, structured by the banks that employ them, in order to incentivize them for maximum productivity;
  • Competition between banks (structured by the legal and regulatory environment) to see who can offer an incentive structure that attracts (and retains) the best talent;
  • Competition between industries to see which industry can attract (and retain) the best talent, at least to the extent that such talent is mobile and involves transferrable skills.

Did I miss any layers?

Each of those competitive structures of course implies its own set of ethical norms, both for those who design the institution and for those who are subject to it. The intersection between, and conflict between, those alternative sets of competition-specific ethical regimes, seems a fertile ground for investigation.

Is Business (Like) War?

This Bnet blog entry by Margaret Heffernan is right up our alley: Debunking the Myth that Business is “War”

Much of what Heffernan says about the differences between business and war is true. But some of the disanalogies are more important than others. She notes, for example, that one important difference is that “It is possible for societies to flourish without war — but they won’t do so without business”. Others are weaker. She points out for example that “In business, your adversary will never be defeated.” That’s not always true (sometimes competitors are driven into bankruptcy). And sometimes adversaries are not defeated in war: sometimes one or both sides opts to limp off the field. Who won the Korean war in the 1950s or the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, for instance? Neither side was really “defeated”, though though both suffered serious losses.

There are significant similarities between war and business, and not just in the simplistic sense that is often appealed to as a way of justifying the most brutal of business behaviours.

Both war and business are, in the sense in which this blog is interested, structured competitions. In both cases, competitors seek to win, but they generally do so in a way that observes at least some rules. Focusing on the differences obscures the fact that both war and the market represent structured competitions with social benefits. Now, of course, the idea that war as an institution has benefits may be hard to swallow — at least until we make some qualifications.

First, I’m talking about the kind of limited war that we saw most frequently during the 20th century, wars fought by professional armies on battlefields, constrained (at least to some extent) by the laws of war, including most significantly the Geneva Conventions. Second, we need to think of the costs and benefits of that kind of war in comparison to other ways of doing things. To see the social benefit of that way of solving international disagreements, you only need to look at what the alternatives are: wars of population-against-population, wars fought using chemical and biological weapons, etc. So while war of a certain kind isn’t — unlike the market — a competition designed to produce a net benefit, it is a competition designed to produce less bad outcomes than might otherwise be obtained.