"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Thursday, May 9, 2019

General Electric: Tax Avoidance with Former IRS Employees In-House

The name of the game in all too many corporate tax departments is to minimize the tax due as much as possible. No countervailing notion of “corporate citizenship” or even “fair share” exists in that economic world of single-minded minimization of what is to be paid out. Put another way, responsibility does not compute in the business calculus. Advocates of corporate social responsibility got this wrong for decades by naively assuming that people who work in management roles cannot compartmentalize. Whether due to the strictures of a job description or financial pressures on a company, managers themselves may regret having to compartmentalize in order to keep their respective jobs. Sadly, all too often, a manager faces internal and external pressure to sign off on something that is admittedly unfair or too greedy. That the playing field itself may be slanted in the financial interests of large businesses goes beyond a manager's pay-grade, and even that of a corporation itself. For one to speak out in order to make the tilt explicit in society would deny the operative role of compartmentalization. Managers, even CEO's, may personally want a level playing field wherein corporations cannot yield an undue amount of wealth at the expense of other entities or persons, such a desire is outside of the business calculus. 
One manifestation of the tilted field is the ability of companies to bring IRS agents in-house as employees. In the debate on whether to end the George W. Bush Tax Cuts, the nominal (or statue) tax rates were salient. Much less was said of the effective rates, which are calculated by dividing the actual tax paid by total income (individuals) or net income (corporations). The New York Times reported in 2011: Although “the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less.”[1] Although perfectly legal, the undue advantage means that the U.S. Government has had to look for other sources of revenue to make up for the lost revenue or do without the revenue, using debt to compensate. The "perfectly legal" aspect points back to the tax laws, and, more particularly, at the undue or even improper influence of the business sector in Congress. In fact, lest it be concluded that the business calculus is the reason for the tax avoidance (which is legal, unlike tax evasion), the financial power of business tilts the field not only by having too much influence in the crafting of tax legislation, but also in being able to hire ex-IRS employees to get "the inside scoop" on avoidance tactics. I now turn to the case of General Electric (GE) in 2010. 
General Electric reported global profits that year of $14.2 billion, $5.1 billion of which came from operations in the United States. Rather than owing any federal income tax on the $5.1 billion, however, the company claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion. Behind the “fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enable[d] [the company] to concentrate its profits offshore,” the company’s tax department was led at the time by a former U.S. Treasury official, John Samuels.[2] Moreover, the department included “formal officials not just from the Treasury, but also from the I.R.S. and virtually all the tax-writing committees in Congress.”[3] G.E. had essentially brought the tax-writing and enforcement skill of the U.S. Government “in house.” As paid employees of G.E., the former government expertise was put under the aims of the private company, an organizational machine solely oriented to maximizing profit, whether short term or long.
Generally speaking, companies of such enormous financial wherewithal that annual profits are in billions of dollars can appropriate and harness governmental machinery for the sake of private gain. The issue here is not simply the existence of too much tax avoidance, hence at the expense of fairness; rather, the underlying problem is whether the existence of such large and powerful private enterprises is compatible with a democratic form of government. It is certainly not in the interest of the business sector that this question be interjected into public discourse. So the vested powerful interests, working through political stand-ins and the media, which itself is largely corporate, preoccupied with secondary issues, such as nominal individual tax rates, off-shore factories, and NAFTA. NBC, for instance, was owned by G.E. before being bought by Comcast. 
To be sure, the mantra well-known to many Americans in the 1950s, What is good for GM (or GE) is good for America, was supported by the notion that economic prosperity benefits everyone and a profitable company hires more employees than does an unprofitable company. What if the societal absorption of the value of this ideology made it possible for the business sector to have so much influence in Congress that the corporate taxpayers have practically been able to write their own tax laws? What if a pro-business society is too vulnerable to the rule by wealth (i.e., a plutocracy) that this underbelly can even keep itself hidden from view? Flaws exist in the assumption that what is good for GM or GE is good for America. Abstractly speaking, the good of a part is not necessarily the good of the whole. Private gain is more limited than is public gain. So if some of the parts come to dominate the whole and even define it in their own terms or image, the other parts and even the whole can be taken advantage of on the tilted board.

1. David Kocieniewski, “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether,” The New York Times, March 24, 2011.
2. Bonnie Kavoussi, “General Electric Avoids Taxes By Keeping $108 Billion Overseas,” The Huffington Post, March 11, 2013.
3. David Kocieniewski, “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

McDonald’s Over-Reach: Blending a Restaurant and a Coffee Shop

In spite of essentially flat sales in the U.S. in February 2013 from the same month in 2012, McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson, said he was confident that the people at the company had sufficient experience to “grow the business for the long term.” Even assuming that a business can be grown as if it were a geranium plant, the claim can be critiqued both in regard to the underlying assumption regarding “growth” and that of long-term viability. Fusing a restaurant with a coffee shop can be said to be an over-reach that had blended the company too much, at least at the store level.
In regard to the company’s long-term viability, changes in the business environment were important. The fast-food industry had obviously changed from 1970 to 2010, as did American society. As restaurant chains like McDonald's gained substantial economies of scale with the proliferation of restaurants, the increasing popularity of healthy meals gradually undercut the prospects for continued growth.
From "Americana" to "Enjoy Getting Fat": A change in the business environment in the last quarter of the twentieth century in the U.S. that impacted McDonalds at its core.    source: McDonalds.com
The management at McDonald's did relatively well in introducing healthy alternatives to its menu by 2010. The strategy also included blending the restaurant with a coffee shop experience, the enjoyment of which had also expanded due to Starbucks. To cut into that market, McDonald's introduced new drinks, such as smoothies, mochas and lattes, and added wireless internet service. As a result of having adjusted to the health-conscious and coffee shop mini-cultures in the business environment, McDonald’s U.S. sales rose 11.1% in February 2012 from the year before.[1] By 2013, Burger King was renovating its restaurants and adding "coffee shop" drinks too. Even so, the flat McDonald's sales figure in February 2013 was a bit of a surprise. Although the problem could have been the newly introduced fish product, I suspect that the market may have been questioning McDonald’s expansion into the coffee shop business as being an over-reach even it did enjoy certain synergies.
McDonald's was admittedly poised to give Starbucks a "run for its money" concerning that the giant coffeeshop chain had gotten away with mass-producing drinks to sell as premium prices. That coffee chain was essentially charging a premium price for non-premium products, given the manner of production. Even though McDonald's could undercut Starbucks on price and thus potentially gain market share, a McDonald's facility looked and functioned more like a restaurant than a coffeeshop where people would feel comfortable hanging out and getting work done or socializing. 
Adding to the discordance was the decision of McDonald's management to continue to stress the “dollar menu” for the “budget conscious” customer. Put somewhat delicately, the business strategy assumed that two very different market segments would co-exist in the same room. Starbucks had the same problem because of its "third place" policy, wherein people could hang out without purchasing anything. I know of at least one Starbucks' store in which the number of homeless "customers" has driven out otherwise paying customers. McDonald's management, through at least the 2010's, was essentially blurring the company's identity by seeking continued sales growth by trying to combine a restaurant with a coffee shop.
In general terms, a company’s senior management (or board of directors) should not get so caught up with important changes in the business environment that the resulting strategic change involves trying to remake the company into something the company is not. A fast-food restaurant is not a coffee shop. Although some people in the fast-food crowd would relish mocha, blending the social distance between the two cultures could result in a bitter drink that satisfies nobody. Had McDonald's management concentrated simply on adding new healthy fast-food (i.e., restaurant) products, sales would probably have improved without risking an identity crisis at the restaurant level. Alternatively, McDonald's could have built real coffee shops, with suitable furniture and decor, and synergies could still have existed. Perhaps fusing different lines of business, in cases in which each has a distinct culture and customer base, is not wise. To keep up with societal shifts and profit from them while not blurring the business’s identity is the sort of balance that a corporate management should attempt to reach and sustain in formulating strategy over the long-term.

For a critique of Starbucks, see Bucking Starbucks' Star, available at Amazon. 
1. Candice Choi, “McDonald’s Sales Drop Despite New Fish McBites,” The Huffington Post, March 8, 2013.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Lack of Good Will at Goodwill

Redefining words to suit a business’s financial interest is misleading, even if the herd animals who serve as customers look the other way, or, even worse, do not notice the fact that the words have been redefined! At a Goodwill store in Phoenix, Arizona,  I bought a black suit for singing in a choir. Before I paid, I asked a manager whether I could return the suit as long as I do so within a week. “Yes, you can get a refund,” he replied. Three days later, I returned to the store to return the suit. I approached an available cashier, but she told me that I had to go to the other cashier if I had a return. That cashier was not even at his register, and even when he returned I had to wait at least five minutes for one customer. Only the head cashier can process refunds, whereas any cashier can accept money—an interesting, meaning convenient, asymmetry. Money comes in easier than it goes out.
When the head cashier processed my refund, he handed me an in-store credit card. I asked the assistant store manager why a return was instead being treated as an exchange. “In the Goodwill network,” he replied, “returns are exchanges.” I was stunned. “But the two are not the same thing; returns result in refunds, which are not store credits,” I retorted. “Not at Goodwill,” the manager said in a definitive tone.
Having essentially redefined a return for a refund contrary to the word’s meaning and common usage, the ploy can be said to be misleading. Given customers’ legitimate assumption that a return results in a refund, which is not a store credit, the redefinition effectively involves false pretenses. No good will comes with such a nefarious, deliberate misuse of language. Indeed, the very name of the organization, Goodwill, connotes a lie if the good will under the roofs is lacking. 

See "It's Only Fair."

Thursday, March 7, 2019

“No Loans” on Gun Sales: G.E. as Socially Responsible or Financially Savvy?

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Connecticut in late 2012, General Electric announced that the company would no longer finance consumers’ gun purchases. Russell Wilkerson, a G.E. spokesman, wrote in an email that the new policy was being adopted “in light of industry changes, new legislation and tragic events that have caused widespread re-examination of policies on fire-arms.” In other words, the policy shift was not simply a reaction to Sandy Hook. Rather, the company’s executives were adapting to changes in the organization’s environment, including the industry itself. This opens up the question of whether the new policy can be classified under the rubric of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Perhaps the adaptation was simply good business, with the appearance of “CSR” adding some reputational capital through a good public-relations campaign.
Do business principles mandate treating this product like any other?  Source: NBC News
Well-meaning moralists in particular may have a tendency to project their own strident sense of obligation onto other people, and even organizations as if they too could be moral agents. Yet an organization, like a biological organism, must adapt to its changing environment, or risk being replaced by a competitor that has achieved a better fit to the new environment. Does such adaptation, which renders a company more fit by means of a sort of competitive natural-selection process, involve obligation manifested as responsibility to that environment, or is the adapting simply a matter of survival and even accruing surplus? To do one’s duty is not typically said of what a person wants to do anyway in line with self-interest. A person would quickly see through my claim that it is my duty to eat the remaining chocolate sundae so not to waste food. People do not typically fall over themselves to do something out of a feeling of duty or felt responsibility. For the sense of obligation or responsibility to be the primary motivator, the person (or persons, in the case of a company) must not otherwise be inclined, as from the anticipation of a benefit, to act. When stimulated, self-interest tends to eclipse the feeling of duty of responsibility. This thesis can be applied to GE’s policy on financing firearm purchases. 
First, though, can the policy be said to fall under the rubric of corporate social responsibility? What if marketing the policy was simply good business? The societal benefit in making it more difficult for people to buy guns may simply have been intended as a byproduct. Surely the societal good of a byproduct has worth even without having been motivated when the policy was chosen. Even so, the primacy of self-interest--the profit motive--irrationally taints the resulting societal good. Such a company's societal reputation would be enhanced by the good of the byproduct and decreased by the primary motivation of self-interest.  
How salient was the profit-motive in GE's decision to stop lending on gun sales, and how great was the impact in terms of the benefit to society, beyond the company? GE Capital Finance had already stopped providing consumer financing for new gun-shop customers in 2008. The policy change in 2013 merely extended the ban to existing customers. So it is not as though potentially new customers would be discouraged from buying a gun on impulse for nefarious purposes. The impact on the bottom line from lost sales could not have been assumed to be great; even if new and existing gun customers had been eligible for financing before the policy change in 2013, we would still be talking about a small fraction of GE’s revenue. Additionally, according to USA Today in 2013, GE’s “decision affects fewer than 75 retailers, which GE says is about 0.001% of all gun retailers.” This is because the policy “affects only retailers that sell firearms exclusively.” General merchandise stores, such as Walmart, were excluded from the company’s lending ban. 
However, Wells Fargo had stopped financing gun purchases in 2004 “for business reasons,” according to company spokeswoman Lisa Westermann. Perhaps it was good business at GE too, but not directly. 
Indeed, the "corporate social responsibility" policy as promotion could have been expected to boost sales companywide without much cost in foregone gun sales on credit to new customers in gun stores only. In fact, the policy as promoted could even be misleading, as in the article's title in USA Today, “GE Won’t Make Loans to Buy Guns” even though GE would still be financing guns—just not through stores that sell only guns. The gap itself between the publicized and actual policy could mean that the managers' intent had been to use “marketed CSR” to boost the company's reputational capital with as little cost as possible. In other words, the profit-motive was likely the motive. If most of GE’s lending on gun purchases was through multi-merchandise retail stores, GE could capitalize financially on sympathy from the school shooting without having to give up much financially. Interestingly, the shooter’s father, Peter Lanza, was a GE executive at the time—the company being based in Fairfield, Connecticut. Had other GE executives felt obligated, also being at such close range to the tragedy, to protect the kids, we would not have seen the sort of motivation that led to the exceptions and allowing the misleading storyline to go uncorrected. Were the primary intent that of protecting kids at schools from getting shot, the loopholes would not have been allowed to exist even if GE had to wait for contract renewals with general-purpose retailers such as Walmart.  
Often corporate social responsibility and business ethics are conflated. The distinction in this case is clear. The fitness of a policy to societal norms is a descriptive matter of whether organizational values are in sync with societal ones, whereas the misleading claim to have have ended loans on gun sales is a normative matter. Whether the norm in GE is consistent with the societal norm on the role of guns in the tragedies does not require justification by ethical reasoning and principles or theories. In contrast, whether a company should be misleading or even fail to stop it in the press necessarily includes resort to ethical principles, for only they can justify the claim that the motive or consequence is unethical. 
Still another lesson to take from this case involves the choice to wade into a controversial societal issue. As in the case of gun control, which is really about access to guns, entering a controversial debate puts a company at risk for being negatively viewed by the “other side.” This could significantly reduce the good  to the company obtained from the use of corporate social responsibility. 
A USA Today poll taken at the time of the policy change in 2013 found public support for new gun-control legislation “slipping below” 50 percent. GE risked many people agreeing with John Meek, the owner of a gun store in Illinois, who called GE’s policy “an injustice” because the instrument rather than the user is being blamed. Howard Schultz of Starbucks, in contrast, correctly judged the changing American attitude toward gay marriage in using the company to promote the cause, even if a CEO using a company for a personal political agenda is unethical. A dramatically changing shift in societal mores, norms, or attitudes is like a wave that managers strategizing corporate social responsibility programs and policies can ride, whether the motive is financial gain only or includes improving the social good. What might seem like an easy way to enhance a company's societal reputation can easily backfire if not done with attention to a changing business environment. 


Paul Davidson, “GE Won’t Make Loans to Buy Guns,” USA Today, April 25, 2013.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Bankers or the Bank: Which Is Responsible?

Along with paying $2.6 billion to settle criminal and civil charges for having “failed, and failed miserably” to notify the SEC of warning signs that could have short-circuited Bernie Madoff’s $17 billion Ponzi operation, J.P. Morgan Chase only had to acknowledge that its actions were improper.[1] No criminal prosecution ensued. The electronic evidence against Madoff's operation was too damning for JP Morgan Chase to have missed it. Indeed, according to USA Today, “JPMorgan had suspicions about Madoff’s operation as early as December 1998, when a bank fund manager warned the investment returns were ‘possibly too good to be true.’”[2] Without submitting any “suspicious activity reports” to the U.S. Government as required by law, the bank had pulled $275 million of its own “feeder funds” from Madoff’s fund two months before Madoff’s financial services firm collapsed.[3] In other words, the bankers connected the dots well enough for the bank's financial interest and perhaps even their own, yet strangely  enough no one at the bank could manage to let the outside world  know, even though federal law mandated reporting the suspicions to the SEC.  and responsibility urged it.
Does being strenuously pressured into making a public acknowledgement of impropriety accomplishes any internal improvement in a bank's corporate culture, including the pervasive attitude toward responsibility relative to profits? JPMorgan Chase had to acknowledge the impropriety of the bank's failure to keep the SEC informed, but this admission does not, in itself, mean that the bankers came to realize a sense of responsibility to the other investors (and potential ones) so they would not continue in Madoff's scheme. A formal acknowledgement is external, and all to amenable to business, whereas a sense of responsibility is internal; it is either there or its not. It is not something that a person can get by attending a training class. I'm always amazed, by the way, when a supervisor tells a customer that an employee's attitude can be "retrained," as if all the values and beliefs that a person has acquired even from upbringing can suddenly be changed by attending a workshop on proper employee attitude. 
In fact, it is not clear to me whether a corporate acknowledgement of guilt or failure even makes sense. Stated in terms of organizational theory, I want to challenge the popular presupposition that an organization itself can admit to criminal or improper actions. If so, must we assume that a firm is more than the sum of its parts and that this more has human attributes? Just because human beings are members of organizations does not mean the organizations are themselves human in some respect, such as in having a sense of responsibility.
Anthropomorphism, the projection of human characteristics or attributes onto non-human animals or things including collectives such as a company, government, or religious organization, is the underlying problem behind the justice in this case being insufficient. Did JPMorgan acknowledge that its actions were improper? Can it even be said that a bank has actions, since only people can act. You might retort that a bank has people who act for the bank, but this is not the same as the bank having acted. Did JPMorgan have suspicions? Human minds have suspicions. An organization does not have a mind (and thus not a memory). In spite of the legal fiction of “personhood,” a company made up of people and things such as money and buildings has neither a consciousness nor mind. 

J.P. Morgan hitting a man. Was he demonstrating that criminal law applies to human beings in organizations?  Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dennis Kelleher (of Better Markets) answered the JPMorgan settlement by observing, “Banks do not commit crimes; bankers do.”[4] Kelleher made the dogmatic statement in support of his criticism of the lack of charges against the bank managers who decided to, and went along with, keeping their suspicions from the SEC and thus the outside world. Who decided to pull the money in the bank’s feeder funds from Madoff’s fund two months before Madoff himself informed government officials? Were those JPMorgan employees aware of the refusal to inform the SEC? If so, they, not "the bank," had some explaining to do, and from that perhaps some external accountability was needed. Ironically, five former Madoff employees charged with aiding that fraud were on trial at the time. 
To be sure, it could also be asked whether the SEC should have needed to depend on reports from suspicious institutional investors such as JPMorgan to discover Madoff's scheme? It was so big that the SEC came off looking rather badly. If that regulatory agency has suffered from inadequate staffing (or experience, do to the higher compensation on Wall Street), part of the larger problem is that political contributions and lobbying from financial institutions convince elected and appointed officials of the federal government to keep the SEC too lean to do any damage to those particular institutions. Of course, damage to the financial system itself, or even the wider economy, as occurred in the financial crisis of 2008, is apparently not within the purview of responsibility. Again, the outsiders be damned, or, insiders at the expense of others. The lack of sense of responsibility in the bank thus mirrored that of the politicians and their paymasters. It is an inner circle of power and money that forsakes the public good.  

1. This was according to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.Tim Mullaney and Kevin McCoy, “JPMorgan to Pay $2.6 billion in Madoff Case Settlements,” USA Today, January 8, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Western Banks Lending to Asia's Expanding Middle Class: Profit vs. Planet

In April 2013, debt levels in Asia were reaching record levels as international lenders were extending short-term loans to a growing middle class. Non-mortgage consumer credit in Asia outside of Japan had increased 67% from 2007 to reach $1.66 trillion by the end of 2012. This credit included credit cards and loans for cars, electronic products, and appliances. Outside of Japan, Asian car and motorcycle loans nearly doubled from 2007 to 2012, to reach a record $219.7 billion. Appliance and electronics loans also more than doubled, reaching a high of $10.9 billion. Meanwhile, credit-card loans grew by 90% to reach a record $234.1 billion, according to Euromonitor. The incentive for the banks is not difficult to fathom. At the time, more than half of the world’s middle class was expected to be in Asia by the end of the decade. That translates yearly into more than 100 million additional people per year. For the banks, this was an opportunity since at least the beginning of the decade because growth was not possible in the European Union and the United States on account of the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing European debt-crisis that extended well into 2013. The European Commission of the E.U. was also working on regulatory proposals that would limit the incentives of mortgage servicers to produce too many “bubble-creating” mortgages. 
So Western banks had an incentive to look east for fruitful markets. Interesting, government regulators in China, Malaysia, and Indonesia had began reining in mortgage, credit-card and auto/motorcycle lending, perhaps in fear of an Asian financial crisis. Had Western bankers learned their lesson, or were they unwittingly bringing their reckless mentality to Asia? Two levels of concerns can be extracted from this case. I contend that the more immediate concerns were crowding out attention that ought to have been paid to the larger, but longer-term, problems.
One sort of concern suggests that the international banks may have been providing too much credit to people entering the middle class. Such borrowers, similar to the sub-prime mortgage borrowers in California, Arizona and Florida, may not be able to handle their new debt-loads. At the beginning of 2013, debt levels relative to individual income in many Asian economies, including Malaysia, China, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and India, were already up to 30% higher than in the United States. This would suggest that the Western bankers were again poised to be reckless. Citigroup’s claim that it was expanding its lending to the middle class in Asia in a “disciplined manner” can thus be challenged. More particularly, the financial-growth incentives facing the bank, given the continued weak economies in Europe and North America, can be critically analyzed. Did Citigroup's bankers accurately anticipate whether another debt melt-down might have resulted from the trend in debt-loads, or was this low-probability, high-risk scenario too long-term oriented to be factored in sufficiently? I don't know the answer to this, but I submit that baleful consequences that are larger and presumably further off tend to get pushed aside by the human mind, given the preoccupation with today, hard-wired by natural selection.
Even if we take Citigroup at its word that it was lending in Asia in a “disciplined manner” in spite of the rather unique opportunity for bank profit there, we can ask whether international banks have a responsibility to society, and even the species itself by resisting the temptation to immediately extend the rising middle class higher in spite of "growth pains" that could be anticipated. To a banker, this might have seemed like muzzling the golden goose, particularly given the soft economies in North America and Europe at the time.  What if his or her competitors would have stepped in anyway? Responsibility involves some voluntary restriction on a company’s financial self-interest that may require industry-wide commitment.  What are the chances that no one would cheat? Very low, I submit. Nevertheless, duty, a word mostly lost to today's short-sighted narcissism, is not meant to be convenient; otherwise, it would not operate as a tug on a banker’s conscience.
The upsurge in auto loans in Asia is a case in point. That is, is is responsible to facilitate an expansive auto market especially in China's major cities, which had already been known to be notable polluters. After 2000, the number of cars in use in China was doubling every year. Meanwhile, the Chinese were building an “interstate" highway-system that would dwarf the network of highways in the contiguous United States. Loans enabling an exploding middle class to buy cars increased the global demand for oil, resulting, other things equal, in a higher price at the gas pump. Would the magnitude of the surge in projected fossil-fuel use in China drain the Earth’s oil reserves before alternative sources of energy could pick up the slack, or should the Chinese too be able to enjoy a car economy like those in the West? It would be too easy for the Western bankers to resound with the latter at the expense of the former due to the allure of greater profits over duty to the species.
More people=More cars=More pollution    source: Businessweek
The viability of the species enters the equation of course because of the scientifically-proven link between carbon emissions by humans and climate change in which both the atmosphere and oceans of the planet have been warming since well before 2013. To be sure, it could indeed have been argued that the Asian middle-class deserved the same freedom and ease provided by owning a car in the twenty-first century that the American and European middle-classes enjoyed in the twentieth century. Fair is fair, right? However, the global climatic threat to the species had not been pressing during the industrial revolution and through the ensuing shizogenic (i.e., a maximizing variable) consumerism of the twentieth century. By  analogy, even though a person starting to smoke at 50 can point to a person starting at 20 and say, “I should be able to have my years of smoking too,” the person who smokes at an older age faces more health risks than the person who smokes when young. Is it worth a heart attack to a 50 year-old to insist on having years of smoking too?  Similarly, the question of the additional oil for more cars, as well as more coal-sourced electricity powering electronics and appliances—all being facilitated by the upsurge in loans—can legitimately be answered differently when it is accurately (and thus justly) feared that unless the carbon-use trends reversed themselves everywhere, the species would likely face dramatic negative effects all too soon, with the very survival of the species itself perhaps hanging in the balance further out.

As these diverging patterns demonstrate, the threat of over-population is not uniform across the globe.   source: fashionzombie.net
In terms of public policy, if corporate social responsibility is not strong enough given the addictive allure of profit-seeking to ward off even current use that could result in a very different climate, perhaps resulting in a new equilibrium beyond the bounds of human habitation, then government regulation may be humanity's only option to pick up the slack. Because the problem is global in nature, this option is also problematic. 
Because the interests of the government of China and other countries do not take kindly to economic costs inflicted on their respective peoples for fear of political unrest and economic recession,  the absolutist interpretation of national sovereignty might finally have to be compromised in order, ultimately, for the species to survive or at least not be inundated even in the twenty-first century with climatic havoc. To the extent that the explosion of the human population is the root cause of the increase in carbon (and methane) in the atmosphere and oceans, even government regulation enforced at the global level would be difficult, even ethically, especially as countries fear an older demographic in a declining base. It would be a lot to ask bankers to take this on. Nevertheless, societies and governments can legitimately ask banks not to exacerbate global warming by acting so as to dramatically increase human consumption too much given the business environment. As the managerial role is profit-seeking by design and incentive, however, it is not likely that bankers would agree. Hence I have viewed corporate social responsibility as a creature more of marketing than duty, especially in societies in which the honor of duty is not valued. 
Kathy Chu, “Consumer Loans Surge Across Asia,” The Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2013. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What is the basis of Business & Society?

Scholars and practitioners alike in the field of business & society tend view it as being synonymous with corporate social responsibility. It is easy to do. Another error concerns the conflation of CSR and business ethics. In fact, the very name of the topic, corporate social responsibility, is problematic. Straightening all this out could result in more topics in business & society even as the field ceases to overstep into business ethics and the nature of CSR becomes more transparent in business as well as society. 
First, corporate social responsibility is a topic in business & society; CSR is not a field in itself. Business & society contains several topics, one of which being CSR. The study or practice of how business and societal norms converge or diverge does not reduce to how to design and implement a CSR program even though such programs are typically marketed as helping society in some way under the veneer of business-altruism. The managers of a business are aware that even just projecting this patina of a warm glow into the business environment can help even the bottom-line, not to mention reputational capital, a long-term intangible asset. Not that the managers of most companies believe that the business actually has a responsibility beyond making or selling a good product.
Stepping away from CSR within business & society, much material can be studied as well as be used by companies. For example, the field extends to the macro (i.e., above the firm-level) level. CSR folks typically miss this point completely. The business sector itself being within a culture or society is also a matter of study in the field from the standpoint of values and basic beliefs. 
Business culture in a given society may stress, for instance, getting as much as possible out of external stakeholders, whereas in society people may look disparagingly on self-seeking, manipulative people. In the business sector of course, a focus on the firm's interest is not viewed as selfish, and interactions with people outside the firm are not characterized as manipulative. Yet from the standpoint of societal norms, those people outside the firm may perceive the business mentality as such. 
Another area of study in business & society concerns whether the business sector dominates such that even societal norms have been swayed in that direction. In contrasting the E.U. and U.S., for example, American values are arguably more pro-business. The Americans have even made a de-facto holiday out of first shopping day after Thanksgiving! 
Also, industrial titans in the late 19th century believed that they owned America. What then of democratic values, it was asked, if the Congress was indeed bought and paid for? The U.S. Presidential election of 1896 showed that the barons could sway, likely by payoffs, their workers into voting for the pro-business party rather than that whose platform for a more economically egalitarian distribution was more in the workers' economic interests. In terms of business & society, the issue here is the hegemony of business values and norms over those of society such that its own reflect those of business. The question of whether the hegemony is right, or ethical, is exogenous to business and society, as ethical reasoning is instead in the field of business ethics, which draws on two other fields: management and philosophy. 
Should is an ethical term, so answering the question of whether businesses should be socially responsible is properly done in the business-ethics field, whereas business & society is descriptive, being about norms and values. What are the respective values/norms in business and society, and what are the costs to both businesses and societies of divergence and the benefits for both of congruence? Asking furthermore whether business values and norms are hegemonic in American society is different than asking whether they should be. The latter requires justification by reasoning and ethical principles, whereas description does not. The European philosopher, David Hume, claimed in the eighteenth century that we cannot get from a descriptive statement to a normative statement. To say, for example, that I am hungry is not to say that I should be hungry (or not be hungry). That the respective values (and consequent norms) of business and society differ, this is not in itself enough to claim that they should differ. The should statement requires rational justification by ethical principles or theories
It follows that the third theoretical movement of corporate social responsibility, "CSR3," is an oxymoron in that it conflates CSR with ethical justification. The latter is the method of ethics in philosophy, which, with management, is an underlying discipline of business ethics but not of business & society, which deals with extant rather than ethically justifiable values and norms in capitalism as well as the societies in which markets and businesses operate. 
I contend that the term, responsibility, in CSR is inherently ethical and thus properly exogenous to both CSR and moreover business & society. In other words, corporate social responsibility suffers from the inherently-moral term, responsibility. The misnomer represents a category mistake (confusing business ethics and business & society). CSR takes it as a given, at least in its label, that businesses are responsible for societal problems and thus are obligated to take part in solving them. In other words, the question of whether businesses should be held to be responsible for societal ills has essentially already been answered in the label of CSR. In other words, the title begs the question and answers it before a person enters into the topic. Debating the question within the topic and even the title itself, such as I did in William C. Frederick's doctoral seminar at the University of Pittsburgh, is an uphill battle from the start, for the playing field is severely slanted from the start (i.e., the label, CSR). 
Interesting, Bill and I were both sickened by the marketing exploitation of CSR by corporations (although, admittedly, some social good results even if as a by-product). I turned to the field of business ethics while Bill, whose doctorate had been in anthropology and economics at Texas, took up the study of applying genetics, evolution, thermodynamics and other natural sciences to business organization. My first two years in college had been in a biology/botany major, and from those classes in science I took quite well to Bill's work. Finally Bill and I were on the same page academically, years after I had graduated. We had both rejected CSR as it had evolved and went to basic theory as a foundation. I went on to ethics in philosophy and religious studies, yet while picking up Bill's approach to business & society. He was more my professor then than when I had been his doctoral student. The arguments I had made against CSR are in this essay, yet the arguments I believe have matured (as have I). 
Going beyond my criticism of the incorporation (and basis) of the term, responsibility, I can now go on to proffer a basis for the field of business & society. CSR is not this basis; as a topic in the field, CSR is further out--a middle planet in the solar system rather than the sun.
Rather than being based on ethical justification, the basis of the field of business & society can be said to be how people working at a company and external actors relate with each other. At the interpersonal level, finding common ground in how we relate is the core chore of the field. Business and non-business people alike, and even managers/employees and their external stakeholders, unwittingly or intentionally clutch at their respective roles. These can belie the common humanity that naturally exists as a common denominator between people as we interact. Business & society is essentially about transcending these roles to relate on a human level interpersonally. Simply calling into a company's customer-service call-center can illustrate how a rigid role can snuff out human interaction, which is ultimately in a business's best interest because  more can be accomplished with mutual understanding and flexibility that with talking at the other person. From a business's standpoint, more can be accomplished with a customer who is not shouting at the employee. Business & society is ultimately about the persons on both sides getting past their respective roles (and stereotypes of the other) so common ground on an operative value and norm can be realized in a way that business can be done in society. Borrowing from Bill Frederick's application of natural science, I submit that we are all of the same species, homo sapiens, so common ground in terms of values and norms, or at least being able to transcend clashing values and norms, must be possible. In fact, given our common DNA (as well as basic socialization, such as being raised by adults), the common ground is more natural than are the differing values (and related norms). 
From the business end, employees (including managers) can let go of the jargon-crutch and rigidity that come from a policy-oriented, top-down management system, while people outside a given company or the business sector itself can compromise too in attempting to interact rationally rather than emotionally--meeting business halfway. Those people can also realize that employees are being paid to economize their time rather than listen to stories about relatives or pets. The interpersonal dynamic that is typical between call-center employees and customers is in great need of this fundamental task in business & society. Like Buddha's "middle way" and Aristotle's doctrine of the golden mean, the people in both business and society can (here, not should!) go halfway to relate as humans. 
Corporate programs in social responsibility not only do not adopt a middle standpoint, but also can keep a business's management from attending to where business & society can really change how a business interacts with people including customers. Even in assuming that people in society self-identify mainly as customers or even consumers has too much of the business-perspective in it. People in society may view the ways of business, and especially its self-oriented profit- or advancement-mentality as different and even strange. 
In short, norms of business and society can be aligned at a basic, human level, meaning in how people relate to each other. Employees can say hello in having even brief contact with people outside the company who are of no use to it--that is, not being so purpose-driven--while the people can put any anti-business fervor aside and relate as individuals.  The relating itself is fundamental to business and society. It should be done at the middle between the extremes of business-culture and society so both business and societal norms/values can be invoked and related. Studying Mars from the Earth does not do Mars justice; hence, NASA has sent craft to the red planet. I take this to be the basis of the field, with matters of institutional programs such as CSR being relatively artificial and thus not human enough to be central to the nature of business & society. 
A program with policies and functionalities (i.e., offices) is an extension of how businesses are organized and function. People in our daily lives do not organize as such, and thus recognize CSR programs as being on the business rather than society side of the field. It might be interesting to imagine how CSR could be established and done from the middle standpoint. 
In short, a CSR program reflects the ways of business, and is thus not far enough out on the business plank to fundamentally touch the societal end. Whereas the field is by definition business and society, CSR is mostly on the business side. It is no wonder that many businesses use CSR as "window-dressing" designed to make the company look good so more people will buy goods or services there. Of course, CSR programs do benefit societies, and this point can be argued to justify the central marketing use by business. Nevertheless, meeting societal norms means going half-way even in the approach that a business uses.