I do not say that a gentleman may not thrust himself into politics under democracy; I simply say that it is almost impossible for him to stay there and remain a gentleman … If he retains his rectitude he loses his office, and if he retains his office he has to dilute his rectitude with the cologne spirits of the trade … the man of native integrity is either barred from the public service altogether or subjected to almost irresistible temptations after he gets in.
H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926.
December 16, 2014
November 26, 2014
No shit, this really exists:
Ethically, it’s been a rough couple of years for the military.
In July 2013, an Air Force major general went on an epic five-day bender while on a diplomatic mission in Russia. That November, Navy officials launched an investigation into misconduct involving top officers and a Malaysian contractor named Fat Leonard.
Individually, the cases are all bad news. The good news is that authorities often catch and punish government cheats, thieves and frauds. Penalties for ripping off the American taxpayer range from huge fines to hard time in prison.
And when the trial ends and punishment begins, many military ethics cases wind up in the Pentagon’s Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.
That’s right, the military maintains a database of the federal government’s worst ethics violators. Unlike many government documents, the encyclopedia is clear, easy to read … and actually quite funny. Many of the stories are as amusing as they are aggravating.
It might be the most light-hearted official report anyone’s ever written about criminals.
H/T to John Turner for the link.
It is [a politician’s] business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out he will try to hold it by embracing new truths.
H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, 1926.
June 24, 2014
Following up on an article from earlier this month on Fairtrade’s business and ethical problems, Rossa Minogue talks to Professor Christopher Cramer who lead the investigation on which the report was based:
I ask Cramer if he was surprised by the study’s findings. ‘Yes and no’, he says. ‘[Fairtrade] perpetuated this fantasy of rural Africa being full of small, family farmers with roughly the same amount of land as each other. Unless there was an extraordinarily benign trickle-down effect, you wouldn’t really expect things to be much better [on Fairtrade farms]. But to find that the wages were worse and that most of the working conditions were worse, that did surprise me — and it’s a puzzle.’
The study’s findings were certainly disconcerting for Fairtrade’s supporters. They showed that farm labourers often make less on Fairtrade farms than non-Fairtrade farms, while many smallholders live in abject poverty. So, does Fairtrade benefit anyone in Third World agriculture? Cramer tells me that, during his four years of field research, his team realised that what Fairtrade defined as ‘smallholders’ covered everything from owners of farms of half a hectare to 130 hectares. The owners of bigger farms, he tells me, ‘are the ones who capture most of the direct benefits. They also tend to control the leadership of the cooperatives.’ So it seems that the larger farms, the ones that would presumably be doing alright anyway, are the only ones that reap the rewards of Fairtrade — a programme allegedly aimed at helping the poorest of the poor.
Cramer’s report is definitely a damning indictment of Fairtrade, which is why Fairtrade is doing all it can to smear its findings. When I wrote about Cramer’s findings a few weeks ago, I was informed that people who had tweeted my piece received direct tweets from Fairtrade UK, dismissing the article as sensationalist and untrue. Naturally, Cramer has borne the brunt of this hostility: ‘There was a legal threat made against us when [Fairtrade officials] saw the first draft of our press release’, he says. ‘They’ve also sent me hostile letters.’
In the West, people are often puzzled as to why rural Africans give up what is sometimes perceived to be a poor but idyllic existence in the countryside to live in the slums on the outskirts of cities. However, this puzzlement ignores the harsh realities of rural poverty. For many, moving to the city, where they can at least eke out a living, is the only rational choice. So what is the best path out of poverty for the farmhands of Africa?
‘That’s a big question. The focus must be on increasing agricultural productivity and that involves a lot of things, including infrastructure and investment. I don’t buy into the small-is-beautiful paradigm. My research shows that if you’re interested in driving up quality and enhancing productivity, as well as the lives and prospects of the poorest people, large-scale production has its advantages. Betting on the strong can also be betting on the weak.’
June 3, 2014
Rossa Minogue on the image and reality of Fairtrade:
The world’s ethical shoppers are still reeling this week after a report revealed that Fairtrade programmes are of little benefit to those working on farms in the developing world.
The government-funded study published by SOAS, a part of the University of London, was conducted over a four-year period in Uganda and Ethiopia. It showed that labourers on farms that are part of Fairtrade programmes are usually paid less and are subject to worse working conditions than their peers on large commercial farms, and even other small farms that are not part of Fairtrade programmes. Professor Christopher Cramer, the study’s main author, said: ‘Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people.’
The study also found that the ‘social premium’ incorporated into the price of Fairtrade products, which is meant to be used to improve infrastructure in poor communities, is often misspent. In one instance, researchers found that modern toilets built with this premium were in fact for the use of senior farm managers only. The report also documented examples of health clinics and schools set up with social-premium funds that charged fees that were too high for the labourers they were intended to benefit.
Of course, nobody needed the clever people at SOAS to tell us all this. From its very inception, the concept of Fairtrade was rooted in maintaining low ‘sustainable’ horizons for the poor by those who consider people in Africa and other parts of the Third World to be intrinsically different to the rest of us. The movement did not originate with the poor farmers of the developing world, but with Western NGOs and their army of gap-year do-gooders intent on imposing their reactionary ‘small is beautiful’ values on an Africa desperate for change.
April 20, 2014
Tim Harford found a recent assertion by a clergyman to be troubling:
‘Some research on students suggests economics either attracts or creates sociopaths’
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently bemoaned the way that “we are all reduced to being Homo financiarius or Homo economicus, mere economic units … for whom any gain is someone else’s loss in a zero-sum world.”
The remarks were reported on the 1st of April, but I checked, and the Archbishop seems serious. He set out two ways to see the world: the way a Christian sees it, full of abundance and grace; and the way he claims Milton Friedman saw it, as a zero-sum game.
Whatever the faults one might find in Friedman’s thinking, seeing the world as a zero-sum game was not one of them. So what do we learn from this, other than that the Archbishop of Canterbury was careless in his choice of straw man? The Archbishop does raise a troubling idea. Perhaps studying economics is morally corrosive and may simply make you a meaner, narrower human being.
However, the Archbishop appears to have been misinformed:
Economists did actually give more to charity in Frank’s survey. They were richer, and while they gave less as a percentage of their income they did give more in cash terms.
What about those hypothetical questions about envelopes full of cash? Were economics students selfish or merely truthful? Anthony Yezer and Robert Goldfarb (economists) and Paul Poppen (a psychologist) conducted an experiment to find out, surreptitiously dropping addressed envelopes with cash in classrooms to see if economics students really were less likely to return the money. Yezer and colleagues found quite the opposite: the economics students were substantially more likely to return the cash. Not quite so selfish after all.
Most importantly, classroom experiments with collective goods or the prisoner’s dilemma don’t capture much of economic life. The prisoner’s dilemma is a special case, and a counter-intuitive one. It is not surprising that economics students behave differently, nor does it tell us much about how they behave in reality. If there is a single foundational principle in economics it is that when you give people the chance to trade with each other, both of them tend to become better off. Maybe that’s naive but it’s all about “abundance” and is the precise opposite of a zero-sum mentality.
In fact, some of the more persuasive criticisms of economics are that it is too optimistic about abundance and peaceful gains from trade. From this perspective, economists should give more attention to the risks of crime and violence and to the prospect of inviolable environmental limits to economic growth. Perhaps economists don’t realise that some situations really are zero-sum games.
April 8, 2014
Colby Cosh discusses the latest Swiss innovation to come to the tabloid newspapers’ attention:
Five or six times I must have read the story about the relatively healthy little old English lady who killed herself rather than struggle on through the “digital age”, and I still cannot quite think what to make of it. Surely there is something noble about leaving life on what are as nearly as possible one’s own terms, with some strength left, after a full, long, largely happy existence.
Unlike a lot of self-described “environmentalists”, she clearly believed the Malthusian script and took the recommended action: “The environmentalist was also worried about the damage being wrought on the planet by overcrowding and pollution.” If she was that worried about poor old Mother Earth, one might wonder why she took so long to take her leave of it.
I suppose Dignitas does its best to make sure oldies aren’t being urged to suicide by impatient heirs, but surely there is only so much the staff can do, and it is in their interest to do as little as possible. It is certainly easy to imagine ethically dubious ways of encouraging the irritability of a cranky, inconvenient old person. Oo, hardly worth the trouble of gettin’ out of bed in the morning, is it, gran? Oh, dear, are your lungs givin’ you a hard time again? Tsk, must make you want to chuck it all in sometimes. If you are a person of British descent, you take in a certain amount of this glum, boggy attitude with every meal anyway. It comes naturally.
And there is my only real concern about institutionalizing the right to die … that it will encourage a certain haste: not among the elderly or afflicted, but among their caregivers, descendents, and prospective legatees. I think you should have the right to decide when to die, but it is a situation that offers the unscrupulous and unprincipled a quicker route to impose their desires on others.
But who is ready to have the government issue packets of Nembutal every five years with Canada Pension Plan cheques? Whatever solution we decide on for the convenience of the legitimately ailing or hopeless, I want the doctors — who, after all, belong to a profession that cannot seem to stop prescribing useless antibiotics for upper respiratory infections — to have as little to do with it as possible. Physicians are not saints, and they will follow the “easier for me” heuristic, like other primates, if non-negotiable aspects of their duty are thrown open to fiddling. “Do no harm” has been at the top of the list for 2,400 years, and, please, keep in mind, it took them 2,200 of those to give up therapeutic bloodletting.
January 23, 2014
At Techdirt, Timothy Geigner recounts the potential PR disaster facing Machinima after they attempted to buy positive coverage from their own contributors for the Xbox One:
It began with a thread on NeoGAF that included text from an email Machinima was sending out to their partners which offered bonus CPM (cost per thousand views, the standard way advertising is priced) payments on videos covering Microsoft’s new console. Their requirements for this “promotion” in the email were already problematic, including gameplay footage from an Xbox One game, a mention of playing the game on the Xbox One console in the video, and a vague reference to following the “guidelines listed in the assignment.” Just in those lines, most journalists would find deal-killers. While the line on whether or not YouTube video makers covering games like this being journalists may be a bit blurry, there’s little doubt that thousands of YouTubers look to these folks for help on their purchasing decisions. In other words, they’re fame rests squarely on their reputations for honest reviews. Minus those reputations, these people have no following.
Which is what makes the details in those “guidelines” mentioned above so misguided.
Now here’s where we enter really sketchy territory: Ars Technica tracked down a copy of Machinima‘s contract for the promotion, and there’s one line that stands out: “You may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One or any of its Games in your Campaign Video.” What’s more, these YouTubers can’t even be transparent about this arrangement, according to the contract:
“You agree to keep confidential at all times all matters relating to this Agreement, including, without limitation, the Promotional Requirements, and the CPM Compensation, listed above. You understand that You may not post a copy of this Agreement or any terms thereof online or share them with any third party (other than a legal or financial representative). You agree that You have read the Nondisclosure Agreement (attached hereto and marked as Exhibit “A”) and You understand and agree to all of terms of the Nondisclosure Agreement, which is incorporated as part of this Agreement.”
Hear that sound? That’s the sound of this entire promotion exploding with enough payload-force to also take out both the guilty and innocent Machinima video-producers. What this does is put everyone under suspicion. Given what we said about the importance of reputations above, this could be the meteor that destroys Machinima‘s world.
Yes, if you’re following along a home, the post title is a Blackadder reference.
January 19, 2014
I came across a very fine quote from a retired Marine COL Doug R., “In the perverse environment that is Washington the degrees of unethical behavior make the mere liar the most honorable man in the room. Some of the whores think they are nuns.”
Allen B. West, “Robert Gates and ‘whores who think they are nuns'”, AllenBWest.com, 2014-01-18
November 15, 2013
In this week’s Goldberg File email, Jonah Goldberg talks about the notion that corporations should operate with an eye to “social responsibility”:
Milton Friedman was famously opposed to the whole idea of “corporate social responsibility.” His argument was that corporations have a single obligation: to maximize profits for shareholders. When CEOs spend money on gitchy-goo feel-good projects, they are exceeding their authority and wandering outside the lines of their job description. I’ve always been very sympathetic to this view. If you asked me to invest $10,000 dollars in your startup company and then I found out you spent $5,000 of it to sponsor a program to teach prison-gang members to settle their disagreements by acting out scenes from Little Women, I’d be pretty pissed. That’s not why I gave you the money. And it’s pretty shabby of you to buy fame and praise for your generosity while spending someone else’s money. Indeed, it’s not much less selfish than blowing it on a three-day bender with the mayor of Toronto.
There are lots of different takes on this argument and, because this is my “news”letter, I choose not to deal with most of them. My problem with the profit-maximizing-über-alles creed for Big Business is that it offers no principled or moral reason for Big Business to stay out of Uncle Sam’s bed. If the federal government can make it rain Benjamins for any business willing to twerk for its amusement, why should GE or Big Pharma or the insurance companies demur?
Of course, some businessmen understand the risks of getting in bed with the government. But, since there’s lots of money to be made, there will always be other businessmen perfectly happy to put on the French-maid uniform and bark like a dog.
Even Adam Smith said, “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” That’s true. What’s even more true is that when government officials and business leaders sit down to talk, the inevitable result is a new “public-private partnership” that uses government force to limit competition from non-whorish corporations. Railroad magnates lobbied for the Interstate Commerce Commission. AT&T asked the government to make them a monopoly in the name of “efficiency” so they could clear the field of competition. Andrew Carnegie wanted government control of the steel industry so he could rely on Uncle Sam to guarantee his profit margins. GE loves Obama’s green-energy stuff, because without the inherent subsidies and regulations, it couldn’t make money off of its green tech.
I have no problem with contractors doing work for the government. It’s better that the guys building roads and bridges work for the private sector. But when big businesses agree to make the country less free, the market less competitive, Americans less prosperous, and the state more powerful just to make a few more bucks for their shareholders, it makes me think that Milton Friedman was wrong. We need a free-market version of corporate social responsibility. We need to equip businessmen with an ethical code that tells them there’s a principled reason not to get in bed with the government. They’d still be free to violate that principle, of course, but if they did, I hope they’d have the good sense not to come running to us to complain that the government has asked them to eat a bowl of dogsh**t.
July 3, 2013
… because we’re morally and ethically superior to you unwashed plebs:
Last Thursday was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day. If you missed it, that’s probably because every week there are awareness days. We’re swamped by them. There are literally thousands of organisations whose mission is to raise our awareness. There is also a vast number of politicians, policymakers, experts, professionals, academics and earnest volunteers who are all devoted to the cause of raising awareness.
Those who set themselves up to raise the public’s awareness are not just providing information; they’re also making a statement about themselves, about who they are. They, unlike those who require their support, are aware. Awareness is presented as a state of being all of us should aspire to attain. In its common usage today, the term awareness resists any clear definitions. It is not simply about knowing or understanding. [. . .]
Campaigns designed to raise awareness are as much about advertising the status of the campaigners as they are about changing the outlook of a target audience. For example, advocates of breastfeeding produce literature that affirms the virtuous nature of their own lifestyles while also inviting those who have not seen the light to become aware. The very term ‘raising awareness’ involves drawing a distinction between those who are enlightened, who are aware of something, and those who are not. It draws attention to the fundamental contrast between those who know and those who are ignorant, between the morally superior and the morally inferior. So someone who allows his children to eat junk food is not only unaware and ignorant; he’s also morally questionable.
Awareness-raising campaigns impute to their advocates the values of intelligence, sensitivity, broadmindedness, sophistication and enlightenment. For that reason, the mission of raising awareness has become a key cultural resource for those who want to distinguish themselves from others. Awareness-raisers are invariably drawn towards inflating the behavioural and cultural distinctions between themselves and the rest of society; they are preoccupied with constructing a lifestyle that contrasts as sharply as possible to the lifestyles of their moral inferiors. What is really important about their lifestyles is not so much the values they exhort, but that they are different, in every detail, from the lives led by obese, junk-food eating, gas-guzzling, xenophobic and fundamentalist consumers of the tabloid press and junk culture.
Sociologically speaking, the act of raising awareness is really a claim for moral respect, and more importantly moral authority. The possession of awareness is a marker of superiority — and the absence of awareness is taken as a sign of inferiority. Those who refuse to ‘be aware’ are frequently morally condemned
May 19, 2013
Maclean’s covers the morning’s breaking news from Ottawa:
The prime minister’s chief of staff announced his resignation early Sunday, saying he left his post in light of the controversy around his personal handling of Sen. Mike Duffy’s expense payments.
Nigel Wright stepped down after a phone conversation with Stephen Harper, signalling a recognition that he — and not Duffy’s improper expense claims — had become the story.
Ray Novak, who has been by Harper’s side since 2001, will be the prime minister’s new chief of staff. Novak is thought to represent stability and is well known by all the federal ministers.
The Prime Minister’s Office said earlier this week that Wright personally paid off $90,000 in inappropriately claimed housing expenses for Duffy, prompting critics to complain that the bailout violated ethics rules that prohibit senators from accepting gifts.
I’m surprised it took this long for Wright to resign … I’d expected him to fall on his sword the day after it was revealed that he’d paid Duffy’s expenses with a personal cheque.
April 14, 2013
Sheldon Richman suggests that some people’s objections to free trade and free markets isn’t so much ethical as aesthetic:
Market advocates tend to respect the intellect of their fellow human beings. You can tell by their reliance on philosophical, moral, economic, and historical arguments when trying to persuade others. But what if most people’s aversion to the market isn’t founded in philosophy, morality, economics, or history? What if their objection is aesthetic?
More and more I’ve come to think this is the case, and I believe I witnessed an example recently at a lecture I gave at St. Lawrence University. During the Q&A a woman asked, in all sincerity, why society couldn’t do without money, since so many bad things are associated with it. She also suggested that cooperation is better than market competition. I replied that since money facilitates exchange and exchange is cooperation, it follows that money facilitates cooperation — a lovely thing, indeed. Government, I added, corrupts money.
I also said that competition is what happens when we are free to decide with whom we will cooperate. I don’t know if my response prompted her to rethink her objections to the market, but I am confident her objection was aesthetic. For her, money and competition are ugly. Perhaps I didn’t respond on an aesthetic level; it’s something I have to work on. But I tried, and so must we all when we encounter these sorts of objections.
Like that nice woman, many decent people dislike markets because they find them unattractive. And they associate markets with other things they find unattractive besides money and competition: (rugged, atomistic) individualism, selfishness, and profit. F.A. Hayek noticed this, writing in “Individualism: True and False”, “the belief that individualism approves and encourages human selfishness is one of the main reasons why so many people dislike it.” If that’s the case, philosophical, moral, economic, and historical arguments may fall on deaf ears. The objections must be met on an aesthetic level.
March 13, 2013
In the Huffington Post, Steven Greenhut discusses the old conservative hobby horse of “media bias” and suggests the problem isn’t bias at all:
In my talks to conservative bloggers and activists who want to understand and influence the media, I downplay the “liberal bias” meme. Sure, most reporters I’ve encountered in my years working for newspapers have a liberal worldview that influences their story selection and coverage. But most are reasonably fair and professional, so I encourage conservatives to try engagement before vilification as they pitch their story lines to reporters.
But my recent experience on the receiving end of a series of supposed exposes has left me rethinking my tendency to cut fellow journalists some slack. I’ve been appalled by the shoddy reporting techniques used to try to embarrass the organization where I work — frustrated by reporters who don’t get the other side of the story and who seem uninterested in investigating anything, but merely want to play a game of “gotcha.”
I’ve been saddened to watch notable publications — the Guardian and Columbia Journalism Review, in particular — republish the hyperbolic reports of left-wing activist groups without bothering to interview the subject of the investigation before publication or doing basic fact-checking or even allowing a rebuttal.
My beef isn’t with these publications’ ideology or biases — bias is an inescapable part of being human — but with their lack of standards and ethics.
March 2, 2013
Matt Ridley on the soon-to-be-possible reversal of species extinction:
The founders of Revive and Restore aren’t mainstream scientists, but they’re not people to be taken lightly, either. Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan are a husband-and-wife team with a track record of starting unusual but successful organizations — in his case, the Whole Earth Catalog and the Global Business Network; in hers, the consumer-focused startups Direct Medical Knowledge and DNA Direct. They’ve attracted the interest of the pioneering Harvard University DNA sequencing and synthesis expert George Church.
Their argument is that it’s time to start tentatively trying de-extinction and thinking through its ethical and ecological implications. There are already projects under way to revive extinct subspecies like the European aurochs (a type of wild cattle) and the Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo. In the latter case, when the last female (Celia) was killed by a falling tree in 2000, her tissue was cloned. At least one fetus survived to term in a surrogate mother goat, but it died soon after birth.
A full species that’s been extinct for decades like the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) or the passenger pigeon — the last one of which, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 99 years ago — will be a taller order, since the DNA from long dead specimens is fragmented. Yet Ben Novak, a young researcher working with the ancient-DNA expert Beth Shapiro at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has extracted passenger pigeon DNA from the toe pad of a museum specimen and sequenced it. Dr. Church hopes to use one of the newly invented letter-by-letter gene-replacement techniques, such as Talens or Crispr, to transform the genome of a related species called the band-tailed pigeon into that of a passenger pigeon.