Posts tagged with: business

The other day I was tracking down a quotation I heard repeated at a local gathering and came across an interesting book published in 1834. On the title page of the “Googled” Oaths; Their Origin, Nature and History someone had scribbled “full of information… a superior work.” The introductory paragraph reads:

It is well observed by an ancient writer [Hilarius of Arles] that would men allow Christianity to carry its own designs into full effect; were all the world Christians, and were every Christian habitually under the influence of his Religion in principle and in conduct, no place on earth would be found for Oaths; every person would on all occasions, speak the very truth, and would be believed merely for his word’s sake; every promise would be made in good faith and no additional obligation would be required to ensure its performance.”

A few years ago I was asked to help organize a “business ethics conference” for a Catholic diocese. At the end of the day it was in fact a fundraising event, but the cause was good — supporting urban Catholic schools — and everybody knew what we were doing. Former Gonzaga University President Fr. Robert Spitzer was one of the speakers and I’ll never forget his “utility based ethics versus principle based ethics” talk. Enron was the whipping boy of those times and the example made by Fr. Spitzer was rather easy to understand. Enron’s accountants had spent too much time wondering how much they could hide rather than questioning whether hiding was the right thing to do. Lately, we’ve had Barney Frank and his famous “roll the dice” strategy with low income housing loans take Enron’s place, but the Massachusetts Congressman doesn’t seem to be reaching for a scourge. Not for that sin at least.

Speaking of Massachusetts, Harvard University’s Safra Foundation Center for Ethics had an interesting speaker on November 12th. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer [no relation -- you can be sure] spoke on the topic ”What Should Be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market?” Since his resignation brought about by a prostitution scandal in March 2008, Mr. Spitzer has been teaching classes in Political Science to the kids at City College in New York and working at his daddy’s real estate firm. Kristin Davis, the former madam who supplied Spitzer’s needs and a reported Harvard alumnus wrote the Center’s Professor Lessig protesting the Spitzer apperance in which she described her former client as “a man without ethics.” The Spitzer appearance at Safra was characterized by some as the start of a “comeback.” We’ll see.

To sort this invitation out it’s probably worthwhile to read Safra Foundation Center’s mission statement:

Widespread ethical lapses of leaders in government, business and other professions prompt demands for more and better moral education. More fundamentally, the increasing complexity of public life – the scale and range of problems and the variety of knowledge required to deal with them – make ethical issues more difficult, even for men and women of good moral character.

But wait there’s more. Under the banner of one of the Center’s niches — Practical Ethics — we find the following:

“The diversity of the various methods and disciplines on which we draw and the range of the social and intellectual purposes we serve are too great to permit an orthodoxy to develop.”

For me, that leads to a version of I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s okay.

On the heels of Spitzer’s Harvard appearance The Wall Street Journal ran a story titled “Networking for Social Responsibility” in which they report on other business ethic efforts at some of the nation’s colleges. Creating an ecumenical balance to Harvard’s Safra Center is Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship organized because ”a growing number of companies are turning to business schools these days for help in redefining what it means to be socially responsible.” In North Carolina at yet another college, Gil McWilliam, an executive director at Duke Corporate Education says, “One reason for the heightened interest in social responsibility is that companies seeking to expand globally need to first understand what social issues matter most in their target countries.”

Speaking about expanding globally, several years ago some guys I knew in the real estate business got introduced to some rich Chinese from the mainland. They were looking for investors and opportunities but ran into this cultural roadblock everyone called Guanxi. That doesn’t sound like our word for it, but Guanxi translates as a payoff or bribe. “Everybody does it.” they told me.

Most of these ethics centers have “green” and “eco-friendly” in their brochures and promotional materials. Synonyns in the Thesaurus of social responsibility. But those words sound empty when one hears them from Maureen Kelly, founder of Tart Cosmetics who, during a video interview for The Wall Street Journal tossed them out unsparingly while touting her start up cosmetic company — she uses recycled products because her customers care about global warming — but was unashamed to tell us that her big break came when she lied to a potential customer about an order she had from one of their competitors in order to seal a deal. Maybe she can sign up with the folks at Harvard, or BC or Duke for some remedial work. Or not.

Because that brings us back to where we started — with oaths? How about “the truth and nothing but.”

Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, reflects on business ethics in his recent commentary.  Gregg explores the presence of business ethics courses in business schools; however, with the large presence of business ethics courses we still have a lack of ethics present in business.  The lack of ethics in business became a major factor in our current financial crisis.  Gregg further explains that business is not just about management or the business ethics that are taught, but businessmen and women need to also learn stewardship:

Business, however, is about more than management. It also involves stewardship (inasmuch as managers have moral and fiduciary responsibilities to their clients and investors) and entrepreneurship – the actual creation of wealth. Many business leaders would be shocked to discover that studying entrepreneurship remains optional in many business schools today.

This underlines another problem for some business schools. It’s not clear that all business professors are convinced of the morality of economies based on free enterprise, limited government, and rule of law. This ambivalence cannot help but be communicated to their students, which they take with them into the marketplace. It is very difficult for business schools to teach the moral habits associated with successful business when many business professors regard private enterprise and markets as, at best, useful but morally-insignificant phenomena.

Gregg also makes references it Pope Benedict XVI’s new social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, to demonstrate the need for morality in business:

Hence, though Benedict speaks approvingly of the rise in ethics-consciousness in the worlds of finance and business, he cautions that simply attaching the label “ethical” to a given enterprise tells us nothing about the actual morality of its practices. What ultimately matters, the Pope affirms, is the precise vision of morality – and therefore the understanding of the human person – informing not simply a particular business, but the entire economy (CV 45).

This morning, the New York Times reported that a broad bipartisan effort of senators convinced Democratic leadership to drop provisions in the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that would have weakened the right of workers to hold secret ballot elections to determine whether or not they would unionize.

EFCA had become known by many of its opponents as the “card check bill” because of its central proposal: if over half of workers at a firm signed cards authorizing a union to represent them, then there would be no federally-supervised election. An election would only happen if over a third of the workers specifically requested it before the card check benchmark was reached.

It is important to look at the different themes of Catholic social teaching regarding labor unions in order to understand the immorality of this suggestion. Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclical Rerum Novarum asserted the rights of workers to form associations in the late 19th century, saying that “to enter into a ‘society’ of this kind is the natural right of man.” Centesimus Annus, a social encyclical from Pope John Paul II, reiterated that the right to unionize exists “because the right of association is a natural right of the human being, which therefore precedes his or her incorporation into political society.” It is the right of free association that gives workers the right to unionize.

Free association among workers cannot be respected under card check schemes. EFCA had the potential to force millions of workers into unions that they did not want. Unions may be correct to argue that some businesses intimidate their workers into opposing collective bargaining, but the unions are guilty of intimidation, too. Unions can also have a direct impact on politics, too, by donating member dues to campaigns and using staff as campaign volunteers. Unions are also exempt from anti-monopoly laws, which allow them to exert far greater influence on the market than any business can.

Actions like these put many labor unions out of touch with Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo XIII warned that unions could seek to abuse their civil power by using it to harm workers and gain excessive power: “There is a good deal of evidence in favor of the opinion that many of these societies are in the hands of secret leaders, and are managed on principles ill-according with Christianity and the public well-being; and that they do their utmost to get within their grasp the whole field of labor, and force working men either to join them or to starve.” It is not unions in and of themselves that Catholic social doctrine supports; it is the right to join one if a worker so desires that is natural and good.

Workers have the right to join labor unions, and many find that it is in their best interests to do so. Many others disagree. Opposition to unionization is not just found in corporate boardrooms. The majority of American workers do not want to unionize. Some do not want their dues going to interests that they oppose. Others want to negotiate with their bosses directly over the compensation they receive. Still others do not want unions to hamper the competitiveness of their employers, as has happened in Detroit in recent years. Only secret ballot elections can determine whether or not workers find unions to be a worthwhile endeavor, no matter how much unions may protest that they do not get exclusive access to workers in order to make their points.

Preserving the right to secret ballot elections is the best way to ensure that all workers have the right to associate according to their own desires. Senators Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Tom Harkin, and their colleagues should be commended for honoring what Pope Benedict XVI, writing in the social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, calls the “valid distinction between the respective roles and functions of trade unions and politics” that “allows unions to identify civil society as the proper setting for their necessary activity of defending and promoting labor.”

President Obama took time out over the weekend to respond to this week’s PBR question: “Let me assure you in the days ahead my administration intends to do to every industry in this country exactly what we are doing to the automakers.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, April 3, 2009

Sports are still able to foster human virtues, especially classical virtues like courage and fortitude. Like any good thing, sport all too often risks becoming an idol, not because of any fault within the institution itself so much as the fault lying within each human participant.

If there’s anything that distinguishes modern sports from classical antecedents, I suppose it would be the wealth that is often attached to high-profile sports today. You might call it the professionalization of sport. Yesterday’s cover story in USA Today examined the extent to which nominally non-professional sports, like college basketball, have become major industries. This is even more the case with overtly professional sports. It seems to me that in the ancient world, there was a great deal of glory or prestige that was associated with victory. But in addition to that aspect of sporting endeavors, we have the added prospect of great wealth for those who excel at golf, tennis, basketball, or football.

Glory may have been an appropriate motivation for pursuing sports in the ancient world, although there’s no doubt that this kind of fame-seeking can become idolatry in its own way. But I’m sympathetic to the view that sports’ ability to foster human virtue is at least potentially compromised by the additional motivation of wealth-seeking. For every athlete that excels today from a deep “love of the game,” there are a dozen others who are in it just for the paycheck.

The third week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The third leg of the journey took the bikers from Boise to Salt Lake City, a total distance of 444 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional focuses especially on the theme of discipleship, of following Jesus in this third week. One way in which we follow Jesus is in the community of disciples. And as the day 16 devotional reads, “You can share everything and take turns doing the heavy work, but without forgiveness the fellowship will never last.” This gets at what differentiates what has been called the “communitarianism” of the early church from the secular visions of a socialist utopia. Only the church can rightly understand the realities of sin and forgiveness and their consequences for social life.

Day 17 quotes 2 Corinthians 2:17, “We do not peddle the word of God for profit.” This is an important verse, because it reminds us of the primacy of spiritual realities to the gospel message. The devotional puts this contrast starkly: “We are not like the giants of the cosmetic industry, pushing chemicals for profit. Rather, we peddle an ancient formula, ‘fragrance of life,’ simply as a celebration of God’s grace.” I appreciate the rhetorical power of this kind of juxtaposition, but I fear that it misses the point. Paul isn’t deriding business and the pursuit of profit in its own proper sphere. Instead, he’s warning against allowing the principles suited for one sphere (business) to invade another (church).

To the extent that it is the successful business leaders who are implicitly understood to embody religious and spiritual discernment and leadership, this text is a much more powerful witness against the church being run as a business than it is against business as a profit-driven venture. Even so, the devotional speaks rightly when it says, “Paul’s point is that we don’t speak of faith to gain our own advantage.”

The week concludes with a trip from Idaho to Utah. The prayer for day 20 notes that “Utah ranks first among all states in proportion of income given to charity by the wealthy. Today thank God for their generosity, and pray that the money will be used wisely and effectively by these charities.”

To get involved in giving to effective charities, visit the Samaritan Guide, and take a look at the charities that are working in Idaho and Utah, including Boise’s SAFE Center and Salt Lake City’s Spiritual Training Program, both rated “excellent” for their Samaritan Guide entries in 2005.

Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century Puritan identified by Max Weber as embodying the Protestant ethic of “worldly asceticism,” once called for chaplains to be sent into places of work for the conversion of sinners.

In a 1682 treatise titled, How to Do Good to Many, Baxter pleads with “Merchants and Rich men” to provide for “some able zealous Chaplains to those Factories” situated in lands where the Gospel had not yet taken root. He urges chaplains “such as thirst for the Conversion of sinners, and the enlargment of the Church of Christ, and would labour skilfully and diligently therein.”

Our local paper, the Grand Rapids Press, had feature story on the rising demand for workplace chaplains recently, “Chaplains come calling in the workplace.” Today’s workplace chaplain isn’t so much a missionary as a pastoral care counselor (they’re called “care partners” by Gordon Food Service), but I think Baxter would approve.

After all, providing such pastoral care can be a kind of mission field, too, even in a Christianity-rich context like West Michigan. Greg Duvall of Marketplace Chaplains USA says, “You can get this sense that there’s this Christian ‘bubble,’ by the number of churches or the region’s history, but if you just look around, there are a number of people who are not connected through church or don’t have a growing faith.” For folks who don’t worship regularly or aren’t connected to a church, a workplace chaplain can provide a connection to a faith in a time of need or trouble that can help rekindle the spark.

I would expect seminaries and schools offering ministerial training to increasingly focus on workplace chaplaincy as a calling, not just for retired pastors or temporary workers, but for full time pastors too. Presumably those pastors should receive specialized training, part of which would be education in how business works. And that could be a very fruitful place for dialogue between the oft-divided worlds of church and business.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, January 31, 2008

What do you look for when you are searching for a job? A growth industry? A healthy bottom-line? A positive corporate culture? Some combination of the above?

Fortune magazine recently rated the “Top 100 Places to Work.” Not surprisingly, at the top of the list is Google, which not only is dubbed the “millionaire factory” because of its generous stock option packages and a matching top tier share price, but because of the innovation associated with its workplace. Employees are encouraged to spend a good chunk of their time focusing on their own “pet” projects.

But second on the list is a Michigan-based company, Quicken Loans. What makes Quicken a great place to work? “Ethically driven” is what one employee calls the online mortgage lender: “It avoided the subprime crisis by sticking with plain-vanilla loans.” You don’t need to be a “social entrepreneur” in the latest sense of the term to be “ethically driven.”

So what connection is there between the top two companies on Fortune‘s list? Google’s well-known motto is: “Don’t be evil.” You might call that the “silver rule” of business ethics. (The “golden rule” would be a positive statement like, “Do be good.”)

To the extent that Google and Quicken embody a way of doing business that emphasizes both profits and ethics, we can see how in the long run ethical business makes the most economic sense.

Also check out Christianity Today‘s annual feature, “Best Christian Places to Work.”

Pat Sangimino wrote an article for the Wichita Business Journal titled, “Documentary seeks to dispel negative images of entrepreneurs ” (subscription required). A premiere of The Call of the Entrepreneur took place in Wichita, Kan., on November 14th. Sangimino noted in his piece:

Some consider Wichita to be the Midwest’s cradle of entrepreneurship. Evidence of that is the original Pizza Hut building, which was moved to the Wichita State University campus in 1984 to serve as a reminder of what can happen to those who dare to dream and are willing to take a chance.

The screening was sponsored locally by the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. The Center is a think tank dedicated to the constitutional principles of limited government, open markets, and individual freedom and responsibility.

Another noteworthy quote from the article:

The documentary’s three examples of business success could easily be compared with those of Dan and Frank Carney and Pizza Hut, Tom Devlin and Rent-A-Center or Jack DeBoer and his hotels, among others — tales that have become part of Wichita’s enterprise lore.

In my three and a half years as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, I encountered more anti-capitalist rhetoric than I may have experienced in my entire life up to that point. Before Asbury, I attended a state and secular university, Ole Miss, where socialist propaganda was largely out of fashion.

Acton President Rev. Robert Sirico is quoted in a new piece titled, “The Religious Left, Reborn” by Steven Malanga. The article appears in the autumn issue of City Journal. Rev. Sirico notes the influence of unions and left wing clergy on young seminary students:

Younger seminarians may be particularly receptive to such experiences, Seminarians are preaching all the time, and if they don’t have an economic background, it’s easy for them to fall into the fallacy of the Left that our economy is a zero-sum game that demands conflict between business owners and workers.

This influence was especially evident at Asbury, which is an evangelical seminary and originally founded to combat the rise of liberal theology. Some new students at the school began to associate justice with wealth redistribution. This transformation in thinking often occurred after students were required to take a required class Kingdom, Church, and World. In this class, business, profit, entrepreneurs, and chief executive officers were often used as examples of anti-Christian behavior.

The free market was also seen as a system that subjugated labor, and especially third world nations. On occasion in Kingdom, Church, and World, I tried to defend the free market and was rebuked by my professor who told me, “Ray … capitalism is an enlightenment construct and not a Christian value.” Fortunately, this rebuke did not convince me that a command economy or a socialist-Marxist construct was better than the free market.

Another issue raised in the City Journal piece is the use of clergy by labor to advance its agenda. Many people who attend a mainline protestant church in America are very aware of this tactic, especially if they hold a differing opinion. Malanga declares:

The Wayne State University Labor Studies Center’s “activist handbook” advises living-wage campaigns always to put religious leaders out front. “As soon as you have clergy arguing for something called a ‘living wage,’ you’ve lost the battle if you’re representing businesses.

Malanga does an exceptional job at pinpointing the real reason why poverty plagues many people in the U.S. Quoting Michael Novak, he notes:

By contrast, observes Catholic neoconservative writer Michael Novak, research demonstrates that the way out of poverty for most Americans is to make a few simple life choices. “Some 97 percent of those who complete high school, stay married (even if not on the first try), and work full-time year-round (even at the minimum wage) are not poor,” Novak points out. “Nearly all poverty in the United States is associated with the absence of one or more of these three basic accomplishments”—not with insufficient social spending or a lack of economic opportunity.

Family stability, education, and a sound moral fabric can never be overestimated as elements necessary to escape poverty and create economic opportunities. What was so perplexing about the economic views of some students and professors in seminary was that they did not necessarily regard socialism as a negative. The Church would be wise to do its best at helping and encouraging those in need, instead of rallying to the aid of class warfare tactics already deeply entrenched in partisan politics.