Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

25 May, 2011

From Starbucks' Dwarfs to the NBA's Asians

By Aaron
25 May, 2011

Note: in response to my previous post, a friend on Facebook engaged me in a discussion of anti-discrimination laws, and specifically the question of whether individuals, acting on behalf of a company, should be held to different standards where discrimination is concerned. That is, this friend did not object to my freedom to choose my wife, my house guests, my accountant, or my music collection, but he maintained that, when hiring people to staff my company, I should be subject to a different set of rules. Yet, as the following piece illustrates, simply creating a special class of legislation for companies does little more than create additional briar patches.

My beloved Portland Trailblazers, Oregon’s contribution to the National Basketball Association, unexpectedly – some would say unceremoniously – fired their General Manager, Rich Cho this week a mere ten months after hiring him. In explaining the firing, team owner Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft and archetype for all future Bond villains) and President Larry Miller cited “chemistry” issues between Allen and Cho, refusing to elaborate but noting that, in terms of performance, Cho had done nothing wrong. He simply wasn’t the right fit.

Rich Cho, by the way, was born in Burma and came to the United States at the age of three. Now suppose he was bitter about this untimely loss of employment (he had, after all, just sold his house in Oklahoma City and bought a new home in Portland) and, deciding to seek retribution, accused the Trailblazers and Paul Allen of racial discrimination. How would Allen & Co. prove that Cho was not fired due to his Asian background? How would Allen prove that certain thoughts did not cross his mind when deciding Cho's fate?

Cho, by all accounts, is one of the nicest, most decent guys you’ll ever meet. His colleagues all appear to have loved working with him. The roster moves he made (such as acquiring uber-badass Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline) were successful. And, most importantly, his bosses have already said that he was not fired for performance reasons. Might one be forgiven for suspecting that Cho’s race played a role in his dismissal?

Herein lies the trouble with anti-discrimination laws relating to private businesses: unless we have the powers of a mind-reader, allegations of discrimination are impossible to prove or disprove. Are you capable of tapping into Paul Allen’s thoughts and proving conclusively that he dumped Cho for reasons unrelated to race? If not, would you nonetheless be willing to penalize Allen by forcing him to employ Cho, or by forcing Allen to pay compensation to Cho beyond what Cho’s contract stipulates? Thus, in addition to the numerous other reasons to oppose anti-discrimination laws (unintended consequences, restriction of the freedom of association, etc.), we can add the difficulty of simply proving that discrimination had any role whatsoever in a particular personnel move.

For the record, I have no reason to believe Rich Cho’s heritage had anything to do with his firing. Rather, the Trailblazers organization belongs to Paul Allen, who covets an NBA championship and strives to employ the people most likely to achieve this goal, regardless of their race (or gender, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, etc.). And given that Paul Allen stands to gain or lose more than anyone else – both financially and, arguably, personally – if the Blazers win games or lose money, why should Allen not be free to staff the offices at One Center Court with the individuals of his own choosing? His team, his fortunes, his choice.

See Also: "Beware the Rising Tide of Good Intentions"

19 May, 2011

Dwarfs, Starbucks, and the Freedom of Association

By Aaron
19 May, 2011

Imagine for a moment that all laws regarding discrimination have been wiped from the books of your home country. Now, further imagine that you're a court judge presiding over the following cases. What would be your ruling?

Case #1
Kenji, who is Japanese, is dating a nice young Canadian girl named Daphne and he is very happy with her. Unfortunately, Daphne is not happy with Kenji. She thinks he’s too traditional and jealous, so Daphne breaks up with Kenji and begins to date George, who is French and very open-minded. Kenji then goes to court and sues Daphne for discrimination, claiming that she broke up with him because he is Japanese and, therefore, Daphne is clearly a racist. If Kenji wins his lawsuit, Daphne will be required to return to her relationship with Kenji and forget about George. As the judge,what’s your ruling?

Case #2
One day, Britney Spears is looking through Aaron’s iPod and notices that more than 70% of the music artists are male. Britney is angry about this: Aaron is clearly discriminating against women by not “hiring” more female singers for his entertainment. Britney takes Aaron to court and sues him for gender discrimination. If she wins her lawsuit, Aaron will be required to balance his music collection with a perfect 50:50 ratio of male:female musicians. As the judge, what’s your ruling?

I'm going to climb out on a limb here and guess that you rolled your eyes and labeled as absurd the cases of both Kenji and Britney Spears. Daphne naturally has the right to choose her boyfriend, and Aaron is perfectly within his rights when he chooses not to equally balance his music collection between male and female musicians. As free individuals, we have the liberty to decide which music we enjoy and with whom we listen to that music. These cases are both simple instances of free association: no law dictates to me the company I should keep, either in my personal life or on my iPod.

And yet, Starbucks has now found itself in court because it fired an employee, who happened to be a dwarf, a move which prompted the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Employment Commission to sue the coffee chain, claiming Starbucks failed to provide "reasonable accomodation for an employee." That is, some manager, acting on behalf of Starbucks, decided that the company would no longer associate with this worker. Why should Starbucks be compelled to justify that decision any more than I am required to justify my decision to not "hire" Britney Spears for my entertainment? By what right is this employee entitled to work at Starbucks, even after Starbucks decides that the relationship is no longer mutually beneficial?

15 May, 2011

The Virtues of the Marketplace

By Aaron
15 May, 2011

This weekend’s breakfast reading was Manuel Ayau’s Not a Zero Sum Game, a concise, 2007 monograph in which the author lays out the case for free trade and the virtues of the market. It’s a finely-argued and (to my laissez-faire mind, at least) persuasive piece of writing, but I’m not certain that its logical precision will sway those who are suspicious of free markets. After all, one of the most common sources of skepticism regarding the power of markets is some variant a not-too-well-reasoned conspiracy theory which sees a shadowy cabal behind any and all economic success, typically orchestrated by some combination of the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, the Koch Brothers, or some generic, cartoon form of Multinational Big Business. And as with all conspiracy theories, this one is equally immune to evidence, and so, as fine a thinker as Ayau was, I doubt he’ll win many converts with this piece.

Some critics of free markets, however, do manage to take their criticisms beyond the realm of incoherent conspiracies. These folks - whom Peter Leeson might call “two cheers for capitalism” crowd – admit that, yes, free markets might deliver the goods, and may indeed be the least worst economic system, but that these same markets have an inherent tendency to corrupt the human spirit and to turn us into selfish creatures of material calculation.

“We like the goodies,” say these folks, “but we sure feel terrible about how we came by them.”

Such critiques, at one point or another, generally come around to citing Adam Smith’s legendary butcher-brewer-baker line from The Wealth of Nations:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self–love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” [WN Book I, Chapter ii]

And indeed, on first reading, you could be forgiven for thinking that by “self-interest” or “self-love” Smith means something like “selfishness,” that we’re all just grabbing as much as we can get, while giving as little as possible in return, thinking only about our side of the bargain and never bothering – unless compelled by the state - to attend to the needs or desires of anyone else. So, yes, we got our bread, beer and bratwurst, but wouldn't it be so much nicer if we could have gotten them without sullying ourselves in commercial exchange?

As Ayau argues, however, there is a deeper, more noble - and ennobling - current running thorough these transactions:

In a free society, by definition, one cannot make a fortune by imposing one's own will or preferences on others. In fact, when we compete to make others less poor- wealthier - it is their priorities we must successfully anticipate, not our own.

If we want to make money, we might have to make garments we wouldn't wear or produce food we wouldn't eat. And we have to tailor quality to other people's budget, not our own. (44)

While reading Ayau, I was reminded of Sam Fleischacker’s brief 2004 essay on Smith (one of my favorite bits of writing on Smith), in which the author makes much the same point:

The point of these famous lines is not that my butcher and baker are self-interested but that I know how to "address" that self-interest, that I know how to "shew them that it is for their own advantage" to do something that will help me. But my ability to address their interests takes me beyond myself, whatever it does to them; I must go beyond my own self-love in order to enlist theirs in my aid. And it is that ability to restrain our own self-love, and understand and further the interests of others, Smith says, that distinguishes human beings from other animals. So participation in the market fosters human character, helps us develop a trait crucial to our ability to be courageous, kind, or in any other way virtuous.

And so, here’s three cheers for the virtues of the marketplace.

11 May, 2011

You Can't Legislate Appetites

By Aaron
11 May, 2011

The Korea Times yesterday published the latest bit of hand-wringing over the prevalence of prostitution in South Korea, full of the usual tales of abuse and exploitation and, of course, the requisite calls for "someone" to do "something." At various points, Korea's thriving sex industry is blamed on everything from the male-dominated culture to authoritarian governments to porn movies, though never on the fact that humans are wired for sex and will on occasion pay for it if necessary.

The Times piece took as its impetus the latest in a series of recent suicides by local "hostesses," which the writer maintains were caused in part by the abuse suffered by these women at the hands of customers and pimps, as well as by lives of indentured servitude. Yet, these sordid, tragic instances have little to do with the intrinsic career of prostitution. Indeed, as dangerous careers go, commercial fishing ought to be more objectionable, as the work in that industry is inherently dangerous. The actual job functions of a prostitute, by contrast, need not pose any substantial risk. And provided the fisherman or the prostitute choose their field voluntarily, the rest of us - who have neither stake nor standing in the matter - can keep our mouths closed about their choice of occupation.

Unfortunately, many of the dangers and problems faced by prostitutes likely stem, as much as anything, from the legal netherworld in which such transactions take place. Prostitutes are obviously reluctant to report abuse or extortion to the police for fear that they will be locked up or further mistreated by the police themselves, and abusive pimps and customers know this. No wonder the industry, in its current state, is rotten.

According to the Times article, local "experts" are recommending that the government try to reduce demand for prostitution, rather than simply trying to stifle supply. Well, best of luck in that endeavor. Governments have seldom succeeded in legislating appetites, and additional attempts to reduce the incidence of prostitution in Korea (at an acceptable cost, that is) aren't likely to break any new ground in this regard. Given that prostitution is with us for the duration (and given that it really ought to be a private transaction between buyer and seller), then, the focus needs to be on how to make the industry safer for the women involved. I fail to see how this goal is achieved by driving the industry further underground.

01 May, 2011

A May Day Buffet of Goodness

By Aaron
01 May, 2011