Sunday, September 11, 2011

Has 9/11 changed business ethics?

I can’t believe I just wrote this headline. Looking at today’s punch lines in North American papers or on TV, you can get the impression that 9/11 was the all defining event of the new millennium. And that pretty much nothing in the world has remained the same ever since.
There is a lot of hyperbole out there these days. As shocking as 9/11 appeared at the time the last decade has seen – in terms of loss of life or any other criteria we want to apply – much worse tragedies, injustices and atrocities. This includes a number of ways in which America and its allies have responded to 9/11 (8,500 American soldiers and contractors killed, 103.000 Iraqi civilians killed, according to today’s New York Times).
World politics aside – and there are more gifted minds and eloquent writers out there to address those issues – it’s still worth just engaging in this little thought experiment. So let’s play around with this thought for a second: if 9/11 is the day ‘that changed everything’ – what has its effect been on the niche of the world we are commenting on in this blog? Here are some thoughts off the cuff.

Blurring lines between the public and the private. 9/11 has given many governments new legitimacy in redefing the public and the private in their relation to their citizens. Email, phone conversations, financial records, tax statements are just prominent examples where governments have attempted to intrude the privacy of citizens – all of course in the name of fighting ‘the war on terror’. Conspicuously, many of this information is administered by private companies. Unsurprisingly, we then see that electronic privacy, identity protection and a host of other privacy issues have turned in ethical dilemmas for private business. Arguably, many of the ethical issues here would be on the agenda without 9/11 though, as the main driver of ethical contestation is the mere fact that advances in information technology have made those new ways of information gathering possible in the first place.

New business opportunities. Looking at how America and its allies have approached the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it is evident that we have seen a surge in business opportunities for private military contractors, mercenary companies and security providers. As the Wall Street Journal investigation ‘Top Secret America’ has highlighted this also pertains to intelligence gathering, counterterrorism or homeland security. This all has propelled private business in a sphere traditionally occupied by governments and other – at least on paper – publicly and democratically accountable societal actors. Again, we can legitimately ask in how far this is really triggered by 9/11. As Naomi Klein has pointed out (‘The Shock Doctrine, Chapter 14), it was exactly on September 10, 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld held a Town Hall Meeting in the Pentagon announcing far flung privatization of military operations leading CNN to the headline on the very eve of 9/11: ‘Defence Secretary Declares War on the Pentagon’s Bureaucracy’! In this sense then 9/11 might have accelerated these developments and provided some much needed legitimacy – but the underlying ideas and intentions were hardly new.

Soaring government deficits. The current debate on government deficits in the US, UK and elsewhere is often directly linked to the so-called financial crisis of 2008/9. This however overlooks the fact that due to the ‘response’ to 9/11 certainly the US and the UK, had already heavily overstretched their budgets. The New York Times today cites a figure of $1.6trillion in costs for just the wars post-9/11. In some ways one could even argue that due to the constant distraction of two wars the looming financial disaster could grow largely unnoticed by governmental scrutiny. And the need to finance those wars made it all too tempting to keep interest rates low - with the widely known effects on cheap credit in America. As a result we now see more or less in all Western democracies an increase slashing of classic welfare state provision. As many commentators have pointed out retreating governmental provision of health, education or other public services has been a key driver in a shifting expectation towards business in engaging in these arenas – the UK probably being the best laboratory to substantiate that thesis.

New issues in diversity and discrimination. Certainly in the US, 9/11 has heightened scepticism towards all things Muslim. This is certainly reflected in tightened immigration laws and the general perception of the public. Conspicuously, there is relatively little case evidence that this has also played out in business. While gender or sexual orientation have been well documented there is only scant evidence of actual discrimination on the basis of being of Muslim faith. This may, however, be more credited to the fairly palpable ‘Teflon’ of political correctness with which those topics have been touched since then in business.

A multipolar world and the rise of China and India. One of the most interesting developments in the US has been its heightened restrictions on immigration of highly educated young people including those graduating from American universities. This has had a number of implications for business both in the US and the rest of the world. Most obvious are changes in those industries where America is still quite advanced, most notably IT, electronics and software. All these industries have in the past and still at present do rely heavily on an influx of foreign-born professionals. While it has become more difficult to hire this talent at home, places such as India have immensely benefited from this. Much of the software development and business process outsourcing of leading US companies is now done in Bangalore, Hyderabad or Mumbai. In this sense, with the US becoming less open to a free movement of people we see that this has benefited other parts of the global economy. This has also been visible in University education. Countries such as the UK, Canada or Australia have seen a surge in international students who found their ambition to study in the US rendered impossible after 9/11.
For business ethics this move towards a world where the US in many fields has lost a pole position is quite interesting. With growing business interests in emerging economies we see, at the same time, an interest in business responsibilities and ethics growing in these parts of the globe. We can certainly argue that the last decade has seen much stronger influence and relevance of other areas of the globe. Business ethics, 30 years ago, was by and large an American subject. This is no longer the case today.

Arguably, much of the changes we discuss here have a fairly tenuous link to 9/11 as such. The events had their most severe impacts on ethics in government, warfare, international relations and how governments have (dis-)respected basic human rights since then. Some of it, as we think, has had a trickle-down effect on business. But maybe the gist of it is still best summarized by commodity trader Carlton Brown in the movie The Corporation: ‘In devastation, there is opportunity!’

Photo by JessyeAnne, reproduced under the Creative Commons licence.

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