2020 Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais fancies himself as a comedian, and maybe even a good one, given how much of a fool that he made of himself on this awards show.
The saddest thing about British comedian Ricky Gervais taking potshots at companies like Apple, Amazon, and Disney is that this actually was pretty funny but is a joke that most people probably won’t get, including Gervais himself.
There are some bigger issues here aside from the comedy involved, and we can only hope that this will somehow inspire people to think a little more about their discontent with certain companies, and perhaps at least gain a little more understanding about it, although we’re not holding our breath for this.
Companies tread carefully when addressing issues such as their alleged exploitation of foreign labor, and in their efforts to manage the discontent out there among much of the public, their spin doctoring comes off as more apologetic than it should. Someone has to speak up about this though, instead of just looking to sidestep the issues and sustain the confusion that reigns.
Gervais’ rant ended up all over the place, including expressing anger against streaming services, for reasons left unexplained, although he did suggest that if ISIS had content out there, the streaming companies would be eager to showcase it. Why wouldn’t they, if there was enough interest out there so that they could make money off such a thing? We’re not sure why we are supposed to share Gervais’ disdain here, other than his presuming that companies are supposed to do business the way he wishes, and he is eager to share this grandiose notion with the world.
A reality show with ISIS might even be a big hit actually, and lots of people would probably enjoy the show. We love this sort of thing, for better or worse. He obviously doesn’t like the idea, but this should present an opportunity for him to step back and question why his personal opinion even matters, given that he has no stake in the matter other than with his own viewership.
People do have a right to complain about whatever they wish though, although if you want to convince others to join your side, you should provide more of a basis for it than just venting and hoping you will inspire others who also are prone to acting on raw emotion with the absence of real thought to join you. We are left with no choice to see his performance this way since no alternatives were provided.
His remarks about the “real world” are particularly amusing. He claims that he knows about the real world and these companies do not. Nothing is offered to back up this claim, and the target audience is obviously the uh huh crowd who already agree with him on his points, that Apple runs sweat shops, that streaming services aren’t so great for reasons left unexplained, and that none of these companies know anything about the real world, which is also left a mystery.
If this just was a celebrity sounding off, this wouldn’t be very remarkable, as they do that all the time, although this rant does touch on some important issues that do have something to do with the fields of business, economics, and investing, to the extent that we actually should be thinking more about them.
Gervais went on to say that Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, and presumably others unmentioned, are “in no position to lecture the public about anything.” No reasons are provided for his view, but they are needed to even make this comprehensible. No, no, no is all we hear, and we don’t even get to why. We must though, to even make sense of the thing, and just hearing someone moan doesn’t get us there.
If You Have a Bone to Pick, It Should Have Meat on It
We can’t really comment on his disdain for streaming services because he hasn’t given us even a clue what the issue might be, but we can speak to his accusing Apple of running sweatshops, with the insinuation that they should not. He doesn’t say that but this can be confidently inferred by his using such a derogatory phrase to describe paying people in other countries according to local labor markets and not what they would be paid in the United States, or anything close.
This is a big deal these days and there are a lot of people who dislike these deals and seem to infer that the world would be a better place without these arrangements, which requires us to visit the worlds of economics and philosophy to understand the issues involved. People are surely entitled to hold whatever opinions they choose here, but we need to at least be willing to look at the issues enough to even have a modest degree of understanding of what we are complaining about.
In order to decide what is ethical and what is not, we need to start by asking ourselves what the nature of a business is and what obligations they can be reasonably held to, but we need to start on existential level, what a business actually does and what they are.
From a business structure perspective, we might want to describe the goal of for-profit businesses as to maximize profit, and that’s what we’re taught in business school at least. Gervais would certainly want to add that businesses should do so ethically, but we’re going to have to give that some meaning beyond he doesn’t like this or that.
The world of western philosophy, which is actually what Gervais has his degree in, interestingly enough, studies things from a structural perspective, at least good philosophy does, which is what we really need with this. We can view the relationship between economics and philosophy like we view the law, with its substantive side, the laws themselves, as well as the procedural side, how they are to be applied.
Economics provide the substantive side, the economic facts we could call them, while philosophy determines how we are to structure this data in the pursuit of the truths that we are asking them to point us to.
Ethics basically involve positions that seek to impose rights and duties upon entities, whether a person or a legal fiction like a corporation. Philosophy has us study the structure of the arguments that arise over issues such as obligations, and to even make sense of these, we need to understand first and foremost what is meant by these claims. We can use the example of the claim that Apple should not source products that are made in factories with very low wages compared to the United States.
The only thing that we can reasonably conclude when this view is left to stand by itself is that the person with the opinion simply disagrees with the practice. This in itself isn’t that meaningful, other than to suggest that they may boycott the company, although this often isn’t even the case. This would require that we stay away from a huge assortment of things since so many of the things we buy are made in other countries whose wage levels are far below ours.
People may still prefer one company over another on this basis, where they may even compete with each other on the basis of more or less sweat generated so to speak. Companies do care about this and need to be sometimes in their pursuit of profit, to the extent that may be seen to matter.
We do need to be willing to accept the idea that companies do confine themselves to the motive of profit, and whether we think that this is appropriate or not is of no consequence, as this is a factual matter that is central to what they are. We may restrain them with laws and regulations, but outside of that, we need to at least speak their language or the message we want to send them will not even be comprehensible.
Examining the Evidence Should Not be Optional
The key to understanding the role of ethics is to seek out where our claims may lead, in other words to look to what conclusions emerge. Gervais doesn’t like the fact that Apple sources a lot of its products from China. While our claims may be normative, the facts can’t be as well, or else you will just end up with the complaints and nothing else. This is why we need to seek to substantiate our claims, otherwise they can just be discarded as trivia. Gervais doesn’t like this, but Apple may not care, and we may not either, and this is far from even noteworthy.
However, if enough people share this contempt, regardless of how wrong or ridiculous the claims behind it may be, this ends up yielding factual outcomes when this affects the demand of things. This is where economics steps in, to shed light on the actual role of companies, which is to maximize profits by supplying demand efficiently. This alone is their task and wholly determines their success or failure. The people get to decide all this.
Perhaps XYZ will make their cell phones in the United States and pay their people 10 times more in wages and this will become so important to people that they are willing to pay the huge difference and drive business away from XYZ’s competitors. At this point, it may become in the enlightened self-interest of the competitors to pay their workers more, at least to the point where they can wrestle some of their advantage back and present higher total value to their potential customers.
This is how these things are decided in the real world, and this is never a matter of should, it is actually based upon reality, as the real world should be. In order to successfully influence, there must be reasons for someone to do it. If we have a good reason, it may be accepted, but if we fail to show this, lacking both the power to change and the consensus from others to, we cannot expect to succeed no matter how angry we allow ourselves to become.
We do have minimum wage laws in the U.S. that use the power of law to shape behavior, but in other jurisdictions, we may find the rate of pay deplorable and lament the fact that they do not have laws that correspond with our wishes. We don’t have standing in China or in the other countries that we complain about though, and there are several countries that have wages far less than China does, not that this even matters as far as our ability to change foreign laws goes.
There are only two possibilities here, to accept, or not to accept. When what we are asked to accept is the truth. Trying to deny it is senseless and will only have the effect of our voluntarily deciding to become more upset and see our lives diminished as a result. The key to enlightenment is acceptance, with non-acceptance casting us into darkness.
We therefore have nowhere else to turn but to seek to shape the behavior of companies by voting with our wallets. If we continue to happily buy our iPhones even though the people that make them may earn less in a day than we do in an hour, and enough others do the same such that the issue doesn’t matter, then our collective lack of favor over working conditions doesn’t carry the vote and just loses. That is the end of the matter, and a factual end.
Businesses are, in a real sense, democracies, with their customers or clients representing the electorate, who cast their votes with their money. The shareholders don’t cast votes, they are just the custodians, much like politicians have their staff and their party behind them. It all gets settled in the market.
It turns out that all this hollering gets drowned out by the sheer benefits of economic trade and all the votes that this gets, not only here but over there as well. This is what is so ironic about complaints of low wages elsewhere, because what they are asking for is for everyone to be worse off.
This not only does not promote more ethical behavior, it seeks to take us in the complete opposite direction unless your definition of ethical means wanting everyone to be harmed. This all starts with how this would affect the workers in question. They may not be all that content, but they willingly vote to do it because their fate is improved by it over alternatives.
China’s economy has grown so much because they have managed to leverage their big advantage in labor costs, and while doing it, many of their people may make little but this little is more than they had and would have if western companies just pulled out or even cut back. This is the part that so many do not understand, and if they just thought a little about this, the truth would readily become clear.
This represents an even bigger advantage to us, as consumers of these goods, where we get to buy a lot more for our money. We vote as well for this, and we’re voting to not have to pay much higher prices for a lot of things. Sure, we could make these things in the U.S., but the price differential would be huge, and we therefore choose to advantage ourselves of the greater efficiency of production in China and other countries by continuing to vote for it.
This is why countries trade, so that we can specialize in what we do well and import what another country does better. With these arrangements, both countries and their people are made better off, a worthy goal indeed.
We can claim that Apple should compel its sources in China to pay their workers more, but if we think that we can just call them up and ask and hope that they will say yes, we are fooling ourselves. It is possible in theory to draw companies away from China by popular ascent, but in the real world, this is the stuff of pure fantasy. People do often fool themselves though, but if they would just consider how working themselves up over things may matter, some light may get through, but only if they open their eyes at least a little.
People complain about life in China all the time, but the only practical outcome is their upsetting themselves, which should be something we should want to avoid and not seem to covet so much. Rabble rousing just doesn’t take us in the right direction here.
We benefit from better price efficiency and the people who accept less in wages also benefit from the arrangement, and in the real world, this actually leads to a win-win situation. We need to be careful when we choose lose-lose ones, and at least be aware of what we are actually seeking and refrain from blinding ourselves with our sheer contempt.
This is how it all works in the real world at least, although it may or may not correspond to our fantasies. It’s simply better to choose the real world though, if we can manage it that is.