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Posts Tagged ‘Industry Specific Issues’

Corporate Ethos from the Top-Down

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick issued an apology and stepped down from his position as Chief Executive Officer after a video surfaced of him getting in an argument with his personal Uber driver and then shortly telling the man that some people don’t like to take individual responsibility.

This incident represented yet another stain on the company in a trail of sexual harrassment, discrimination, and pushing the envelope in legal and ethical boundaries. It also raises the question of how much the individual morality or personal ethics of a leader affects the corporate ethos or environment of the business culture. The ethos, or corporate climate, also winded up having an impact on the entire tech start-up industry itself, as evidenced by the avalanche of sexual harrassment revelations this week. Uber has also been found in violation of intellectual property laws and local/international driving regulations. My college mentor always mentioned that it’s naturally much easier to bring people down (e.g. from a chair) than to hoist them up. So it is with individual morality in an environment of corporate depravity.

 

XLIX Ethics

With all this hoopla and outcry over the last few moments of the Superbowl, a casual observer could be led to believe that something (even of moral or ethical import) went seriously wrong.  Talk radio was abuzz assigning blame and finger pointing to the now-infamous “call” ( the Seattle Seahawks’ final offensive play was overanalyzed myriad ways. As a lifelong Hawks fan, it’s easy to look at the wrong end of a 28-24 Superbowl result, and cry “foul.” We wish to blame officials, coaches, coordinators, and/or other players or appeal to the zebra suits or a higher power for assistance in overturning the results. But the decision wasn’t a moral move, and definitely not an ethical one–even though it seems as if something went drastically awry.   The play could be described at best as unwise, and at worst foolish. Even the coaches and players ultimately assumed personal responsibility (see Russell Wilson’s and Kam Chancellor’s response in particular: http://www.fieldgulls.com/…/seahawks-players-react-to-super…

I’m sad (and probably tasted a small portion of what it felt to be a Green Bay Packers devotee a couple weeks ag0 in the NFC Championship; but the Seattle Seahawks will be back in the big game again. Or at least they ought to be . . .  See y’all in San Francisco next year. But when the emotions die down, we will realize that we failed to capitalize on a good play call against a goal line defense (designed to stuff the run (Marshawn), and Malcolm Butler made a mad play (deserving the MVP keys of that truck).  Congratulations to the New England Patriots for winning one of the greatest championships in recent memory. It was a classic battle  truly deserving of the term Super Bowl.

“Up” in the Air with Nail Houses

After a beautiful life and marriage cut short by his wife’s premature passing, Up (2009) depicts an elderly gentleman’s quest to fulfill his childhood “cross-my-heart” sweetheart promise to move to Paradise Falls in South America. Enter Russell: a young boy who is one “Be kind to the elderly” act away from earning his final badge toward becoming a Wilderness Explorer. Karl Frederickson has to continually choose between fulfilling personal desires and including Russell on his quest. Frederickson winds up discovering that the adventure doesn’t lie in the destination but in the journey. Frederickson’s nail house, which was so important to him at the beginning of the movie primarily because of its memories, gets appropriately left behind in his finding that life is never too late for new experiences. The fifth amendment of the United States Constitution generally protects private property from governmental seizure without “just compensation.” However, eminent domain (compulsory seizure for civil use, public safety, or economic development) allows the transfer of private property for the public interest in exchange for fair market value. Eminent domain represents a skirmish between individual property rights, public property, the common good, and private economic development.

The Constitution has traditionally been quite clear about public use, just compensation, and due process as prerequisites for eminent domain. But during contemporary times, Costco is a “public use”; just compensation is getting pennies on the dollar., and cities have offered owners nothing for their land, doing them “favors” to take it off their hands. So this is the world that we have come to. And how just did we get UP there?

Structurally Unlucky

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-zczJXSxnw]

 

During a lecture hosted by our university’s engineering department, I was introduced to the Paradox of Design:

The lessons learned—from historically massive engineering failures such as steamships (Titanic) and suspensions bridges (Tacoma Narrows Bridge)—lead to success in future innovations; however, successful designs can evolve into eventual failures.

Dr. Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University

If the Titanic had not struck an iceberg, bigger ships with fewer lifeboats would have been built. If the Narrows Bridge’s retrofitted cables had not snapped, thinner and lighter bridges without trusses and stays would have spanned the world’s waters. According to Petroski, “When something just works, we may not know how close we stand next to failure.”

I see clear parallels between these engineering disasters and the collapse of the financial sector. Economic institutions incrementally moved from investing in sound traditional strategies toward speculations in creative derivatives; initial success invited additional risk exposure. Philosopher Bernard Williams coined a notion of ‘Moral Luck,’ where the same act can produce wildly different outcomes, and praise and blame are assigned for partially uncontrolled circumstances. In this lucky or unlucky world, the Titanic does not hit the iceberg; Tacoma still has their bridge; the housing bubble has not burst . . . disaster is momentarily delayed for a much larger breakdown.

Yet while continued success can pave the way for larger failures, I’m not a Luddite who opposes progress. Engineers and economists need to take creative and innovative steps in design and application. Of course, ethical foundations are often found lacking. Increased regulation always follows tragedy and failure, resulting in a better artifact, community, or corporate structure for the short term. Ultimately, a well-established prior corporate ethos (structure/character) frames the proper boundaries and appropriate risks in future decision making—especially in times of success.

Thanks to Professor Petroski for connecting the history of suspension arches to design theory; and to my father for showing his son the buildings and bridge(s) he helped design as a structural engineer.

The ‘Customer’-Physician Relationship

Medicine is subtly shifting from an emphasis on what is ideally best for the patient to an environment where hospitals are marketed from survey results and physicians are instructed on how to encourage customers to check the ‘Excellent’ box when rating their care. The danger in primarily viewing a patient as a consumer is that well known adages like ‘the customer knows best’ can gravitate toward motivations based primarily on the profit motive rather than the apparent benefits of collaboration, patient voice, and better service.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant reminds us to ask whether we are treating persons (customers) as a means to some end (profits) or as ends themselves (patients). When push comes to shove at medicine’s financial margins, decisions tend to lean toward monetary gain. Efficiency and profits are needed components of every venture (even Kant says not to use people as a means only but as a means as well as an end). Yet this move from taking care of patients to customers—while promoting friendlier hospital environments—may be damaging to the health care system in the long run.

The Hippocratic Oath has been condemned for promoting a ‘guild-like’ environment and its ancient author set aside in the hope of adopting the examples of other tightly managed industries (ironically, some business academics call for managers to take on the guild-like professionalism of the medical field). While some combination of treating patients as a means and as an end is probably acceptable, it seems that the customer/consumer metaphor is being adopted wholesale.

To Hippocrates, a physician’s first consideration was to use his/her art for the patient’s well-being—a re-emphasis that can benefit all stakeholders. Otherwise, this move to make the medical environment more patient-friendly has the potential to make it ultimately more vulnerable.

Written in conversation with Cory Wilson, M.D.

“Show Me the Marijuana!”

Californians recently decided against legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Indeed, proposition 19 was on its financial deathbed until billionaire investor/philanthropist George Solos revived the proponents’ efforts with his $1,000,000 gift shortly before the election. In the meantime, opportunists snatched up domain names and bought up cannabis-related stocks. Since last spring, local unions had been organizing marijuana “bud tenders,” greenhouse workers, packagers and laboratory technicians just in case.

It was interesting to note how various constituencies lined up on California’s largest cash crop. The teacher’s union supported the recreational use of marijuana anticipating the ensuing taxes pouring into public schools. Beer distillers and small pot growers were worrisome over the ‘Wal-Marting of weed,’ and sought to wipe out the prospective competition. Law enforcement was mixed: some officers backed the initiative as they desired to diminish the cartel influence and decrease the prison population to focus on more violent offenders. Some were primarily opposed to the recreational use of marijuana on moral grounds. Still other departments were against the proposition because of the prospective loss of a profitable source of income (sales from the seized pot derived from their raids represent a substantial source of the budget particularly in difficult economic times).

The limits of government constraint on individual autonomy (cf. John Stuart Mill) may actually comprise the core issue in Proposition 19. However, there was relatively little evidence of this concern in current political discourse while following the greenbacks. Yet the business ethics question does not rest in simply dividing self-interest from ethics (pace Adam Smith) but in considering the economic benefits as part of a nuanced, principled plan to control a trade in need of regulation. One thing is for certain in that like war and politics−especially in this economic climate−weed makes for strange bedfellows.

The Karate Brand trumps Kung Fu Reality

After seeing The Karate Kid (2010), a martial arts remake of the 1984 original, my daughter asked me why the movie wasn’t called the Kung Fu Kid. She was not alone in her query. The blockbuster is actually entitled The Kung Fu Kid in China, and known as Best Kid in South Korea and Japan.

A mini uproar from minority communities and film source devotees has emerged as allegations of cultural ignorance, potential racism, and deindividuation have resulted from the film keeping its original title. Critics cite this lack of distinction between accurate depictions of Japanese (Karate) and Chinese (Kung Fu) culture as a misrepresentation of truth and reality.

Producer Jerry Weintraub defends retaining the name (see 3:03 in his interview) as a brand issue. To Weintraub’s defense, a good explanation of how the protagonist (Smith) believes his Karate will help him defeat the Chinese bullies would represent a defensible starting point. However, the ‘film devotee rant’ and Weintraub interview explicitly and implicitly declare that movie studios inherently have a right to make money by whatever means necessary.

The marketing industry often walks a thin line between exaggeration and falsehood. Products and services are considered ‘must haves,’ and peripheral desires become necessities for human flourishing. Some defend advertising’s role in promoting economic growth and portray it as a cultural mirror of existing consumer values/visions of the good life. Others see the industry as representative of everything wrong with the free market. The critical question for the brand is when and where to draw the line between full disclosure and a desirable profit share, artistic license, and perpetuating a lingering stereotype.

Should Shopping Carts Stay or Should They Go?

Is it wrong to take shopping carts from parking lots?

These neighborhood eyesores elicit either the typical exasperated brush off or disappointed shoulder shrug. They inspire the creation of local field guides to identify strays and blogs preventing their abuse. Yet what is at stake in this particular transfer? Is the act illegal, or does taking a shopping cart away from its natural premises represent a moral violation? Are we going too far with calling the act unethical as it simply is an unaesthetic eyesore? Does it rather only represent a frustrating financial and time-consuming clean-up venture for the ownership and/or municipality?

What kind of individual or joint transgression if any is committed by this action? Moral and legal boundaries or aesthetic and pragmatic ideals aside, nobody connects that tomorrow’s grocery and electronic prices are higher because of the current massive cart movement on city streets−costs that are invariably passed onto other consumers (cf. litter as a classic example of what economists term a ‘negative externality.’)

Some cities have chosen to lay the burden on the victims and fine the store owners for the return of their carts. However, most municipalities combine punishment of the presumed thief/litterbug (often a fine) and encourage some type of responsibility from the store owner (e.g., walking customers out to their cars and bringing back the carts, anti-theft devices which lock the wheels, and charging security deposits on carts).

While empathizing with those without the financial means of transporting their goods and identifying with the plight of the homeless, a person’s financial status cannot decide the morality of an act.Some stores try to hire cart retrievers to take care of the immediate problem. But the long-term prospective moral concern affecting our groceries and outdoor strip malls remains.