Responsible business owners support regulations

Jun 27 JDN 2459373

In last week’s post I explained why business owners so consistently overestimate the harms of regulations: In short, they ignore the difference between imposing a rule on a single competitor and imposing that same rule on all competitors equally. The former would be disastrous; the latter is often inconsequential.

In this follow-up post I’m going to explain why ethical, responsible business owners should want many types of regulation—and that in fact if they were already trying to behave ethically and responsibly, regulations can make them more profitable in doing so.

Let’s use an extreme example just to make things clear. Suppose you are running a factory building widgets, you are competing with several other factories, and you find out that some of the other factories are using slave labor in their production.

What would be the best thing for you to do? In terms of maximizing profit, you’ve really got two possible approaches: You could start using slaves yourself, or you could find a way to stop the other factories from using slaves. If you are even remotely a decent human being, you will choose the latter. How can you do that? By supporting regulations.

By lobbying your government to ban slavery—or, if it’s already banned, to enforce those laws more effectively—you can free the workers enslaved by the other factories while also increasing your own profits. This is a very big win-win. (I guess it’s not a Pareto improvement, because the factory owners who were using slaves are probably worse off—but it’s hard to feel bad for them.)

Slavery is an extreme example (but sadly not an unrealistic one), but a similar principle applies to many other cases. If you are a business owner who wants to be environmentally responsible, you should support regulations on pollution—because you’re already trying to comply with them, so imposing them on your competitors who aren’t will give you an advantage. If you are a business owner who wants to pay high wages, you should support increasing minimum wage. Whatever socially responsible activities you already do, you have an economic incentive to make them mandatory for other companies.

Voluntary social responsibility sounds nice in theory, but in a highly competitive market it’s actually very difficult to sustain. I don’t doubt that many owners of sweatshops would like to pay their workers better, but they know they’d have to raise their prices a bit in order to afford it, and then they would get outcompeted and might even have to shut down. So any individual sweatshop owner really doesn’t have much choice: Either you meet the prevailing market price, or you go out of business. (The multinationals who buy from them, however, have plenty of market power and massive profits. They absolutely could afford to change their supply chain practices to support factories that pay their workers better.) Thus the best thing for them to do would be to support a higher minimum wage that would apply to their competitors as well.

Consumer pressure can provide some space for voluntary social responsibility, if customers are willing to pay more for products made by socially responsible companies. But people often don’t seem willing to pay all that much, and even when they are, it can be very difficult for consumers to really know which companies are being responsible (this is particular true for environmental sustainability: hence the widespread practice of greenwashing). In order for consumer pressure to work, you need a critical mass of a large number of consumers who are all sufficiently committed and well-informed. Regulation can often accomplish the same goals much more reliably.

In fact, there’s some risk that businesses could lobby for too many regulations, because they are more interested in undermining their competition than they are about being socially responsible. If you have lots of idiosyncratic business practices, it could be in your best interest to make those practices mandatory even if they have no particular benefits—simply because you were already doing them, and so the cost of transitioning to them will fall entirely on your competitors.

Regarding publicly-traded corporations in particular, there’s another reason why socially responsible CEOs would want regulations: Shareholders. If you’re trying to be socially responsible but it’s cutting into your profits, your shareholders may retaliate by devaluing your stock, firing you, or even suing you—as Dodge sued Ford in 1919 for the “crime” of making wages too high and prices too low. But if there are regulations that require you to be socially responsible, your shareholders can’t really complain; you’re simply complying with the law. In this case you wouldn’t want to be too vocal about supporting the regulations (since your shareholders might object to that); but you would, in fact, support them.

Market competition is a very cutthroat game, and both the prizes for winning and the penalties for losing are substantial. Regulations are what decides the rules of that game. If there’s a particular way that you want to play—either because it has benefits for the rest of society, or simply because it’s your preference—it is advantageous for you to get that written into the rules that everyone needs to follow.

Why do so many people equate “natural” with “good”?

Dec 3, JDN 2458091

Try searching sometime for “all-natural” products. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for dog food, skin cream, clothing, or even furniture polish; you will find some out there that proudly declare themselves “all-natural”. There is a clear sense that there is something good about being natural, some kind of purity that comes from being unsullied by industrial technology. (Of course, when you buy something online that is shipped to you in a box carried on a truck because it’s “all-natural”….)

Food is the most extreme case, where it is by now almost universally agreed that processed food is inherently harmful and the source of all of our dietary problems if not all our social ills.

This is a very strange state of affairs, as there is no particular reason for “natural” and “good” to be in any way related.

First of all, I can clearly come up with examples of all four possible cases: Motherhood is natural and good, but gamma ray bursts are natural and bad. Vaccination is artificial and good, but nuclear weapons are artificial and bad.

Natural Artificial
Good Motherhood Vaccination
Bad Gamma ray bursts Nuclear weapons

But even more than that, it’s difficult to even find a correlation between being natural and being good. If anything, I would expect the correlation to run the other way: Artificial things were created by humans to serve some human purpose, while natural things are simply whatever happens to exist. Most of the harmful artificial things are the result of mistakes, or unintended consequences of otherwise beneficial things—while plenty of harmful natural things are simply inherently harmful and never benefited anyone in any way. Nuclear weapons helped end World War 2. Gamma ray bursts will either hardly affect us at all, or instantly and completely annihilate our entire civilization. I guess they might also lead to some valuable discoveries in astrophysics, but if I were asked to fund a research project with the same risk-reward profile as a gamma ray burst, I would tear up the application and make sure no one else ever saw it again. The kind of irrational panic people had about the possibility of LHC black holes would be a rational panic if applied to a research project with some risk of causing gamma ray bursts.

The current obsession with “natural” products (which is really an oxymoron, if you think about it; it can’t be natural if it’s a product) seems to have arisen as its own unintended consequence of something good, namely the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The very real problems of pollution, natural resource depletion, extinction, global warming, desertification, and ocean acidification led people to rightly ask how the very same industrial processes that brought us our high standard of living could ultimately destroy it if we left them unchecked.

But the best solutions to these problems are themselves artificial: Solar power, nuclear energy, carbon taxes. Trying to go back to some ancient way of life where we didn’t destroy the environment is simply not a viable option at this point; even if such a way of life once existed, there’s no way it could sustain our current population, much less our current standard of living. And given the strong correlation between human migrations and extinction events of large mammals, I’m not convinced that such a way of life ever existed.

So-called “processed food” is really just industrially processed food—which is to say, food processed by the most efficient and productive technologies available. Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, and with very good reason; much of what we eat would be toxic if it weren’t threshed or boiled or fermented. The fact that there are people who complain about “processed food” but eat tofu and cheese is truly quite remarkable—think for a moment about how little resemblance Cheddar bears to the cow from whence it came, or what ingenuity it must have taken people in ancient China to go all the way from soybean to silken tofu. Similarly, anyone who is frightened by “genetically modified organisms” should give some serious thought to what is involved in creating their seedless bananas.

There may be some kernel of truth in the opposition to industrially processed food, however. The problem is not that we process food, nor that we do so by industrial machines. The problem is who processes the food, and why.

Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, yes; but only for the last few hundred have corporations been doing that processing. For most of human history, you processed food to feed your family, or your village, or perhaps to trade with a few neighboring villages or sell to the nearest city. What makes tofu different from, say, Fruit Loops isn’t that the former is less processed; it’s that the latter was designed and manufactured for profit.

Don’t get me wrong; corporations have made many valuable contributions to our society, including our food production, and it is largely their doing that food is now so cheap and plentiful that we could easily feed the entire world’s population. It’s just that, well, it’s also largely their doing that we don’t feed the entire world’s population, because they see no profit in doing so.

The incentives that a peasant village faces in producing its food are pretty well optimized for making the most nutritious food available with the least cost in labor and resources. When your own children and those of your friends and neighbors are going to be eating what you make, you work pretty hard to make sure that the food you make is good for them. And you don’t want to pollute the surrounding water or destroy the forest, because your village depends upon those things too.

The incentives that a corporation faces in producing food are wildly different. Nobody you know is going to be eating this stuff, most likely, and certainly not as their primary diet. You aren’t concerned about nutrition unless you think your customers are; more likely, you expect them to care about taste, so you optimize your designs to make things taste as good as possible regardless of their nutrition. You care about minimizing labor inputs only insofar as they cost you wages—from your perspective, cutting wages is as good as actually saving labor. You want to conserve only the resources that are expensive; resources that are cheap, like water and (with subsidies) corn syrup, you may as well use as much as you like. And above all, you couldn’t care less about the environmental damage you’re causing by your production, because those costs will be borne entirely by someone else, most likely the government or the citizens of whatever country you’re producing in.

Responsible consumers could reduce these effects, but only somewhat, because there is a fundamental asymmetry of information. The corporation “knows” (in that each of the administrators in each of the components that needs to know, knows) what production processes they are using and what subcontractors they are hiring, and could easily figure out how much they are exploiting workers and damaging the environment; but the consumers who care about these things can find out that information with great difficulty, if at all. Consumers who want to be responsible, but don’t have very good information, create incentives for so-called “greenwashing”: Corporations have many good profit-making reasons to say they are environmentally responsible, but far fewer reasons to actually be environmentally responsible.

And that is why you should be skeptical of “all-natural” products, especially if you are skeptical of the role of corporations in our society and our food system. “All-natural” is an adjective that has no legal meaning. The word “organic” can have a legally-defined meaning, if coupled with a certification like the USDA Organic standard. The word “non-toxic” has a legally-defined meaning—there is a long list of toxic compounds it can’t contain in more than trace amounts. There are now certifications for “carbon-neutral”. But “all-natural” offers no such protection. Basically anything can call itself “all-natural”, and if corporations expect you to be willing to pay more for such products, they have no reason not to slap it on everything. This is a problem that I think can only be solved by stringent regulation. Consumer pressure can’t work if there is no transparency in the production chain.

Even taken as something like its common meaning, “not synthetic or artificial”, there’s no reason to think that simply because something is natural, that means it is better, or even more ecologically sustainable. The ecological benefits of ancient methods of production come from the incentives of small-scale local production, not from something inherently more destructive about high-tech industry. (Indeed, water pollution was considerably worse from Medieval peasant villages—especially on a per-capita basis—than it is from modern water treatment systems.)